Expat Communities vs. Living Like a Local (or Somewhere in Between)

On message boards when I see someone asking, “What’s the best place for American expats to live in?”, what they’re often really asking is, “Where can I move to that’s already full of people like me?” Or “Where are the expat communities?”

Moving abroad can be a scary proposition for some people, especially those Americans who haven’t traveled much internationally, so there’s some comfort in knowing they can move somewhere and find plenty of others who speak their language.

Expat community in San Miguel de Allende

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Immigrant communities have always bonded with their own, whether it was Irish or Italian ones coming to America or foreign ESL teachers clustering together in Dubai or Taipei. Especially in places where the local language is a one-off not used elsewhere and there aren’t many locals who speak English, the expats find each other and congregate.

I’ve written before in blog posts and in my living abroad book about the head, wallet, and heart factors you need to consider when deciding where to move abroad. One of the key “head” questions you can answer—things you write down on a piece of paper—is this: how many fellow native English speakers do you want around you? Or in more crass terms, do you want a gringo/farang town or a place where you are an oddity?

This is not a binary question, of course. There are some cities that are filled with expatriate foreigners and some that have zero, but there are plenty of options in between if you’re looking for a “Goldilocks” situation somewhere in the middle.

This situation can vary quite a bit according to the country’s size and how many cities there are. In some countries, there’s one major expat center (like Cuenca in Ecuador) and you’ll only find a smattering of people from abroad elsewhere. In a country like Mexico or Spain, however, the “best expat cities” may have you choosing from a dozen options.

Expat Communities Where Foreigners Dominate

If your desire is to be in a place where there are lots of people who look like you and talk like you, then you won’t have trouble finding one in any country highlighted in A Better Life for Half the Price. As I said, often there’s one city that nearly every foreigner gravitates to. If you move to the country of Georgia, you will likely live in Tbilisi. Nearly all the expats in Hungary are in Budapest and most of them in the Czech Republic settle in Prague. Bali gets the bulk of Indonesia’s expatriates and Roatan gets most of them settling in Honduras.

In other countries, there may be two main choices and often this is a climate choice. People moving to Guatemala, for example, including nomads coming for three months, tend to head to either colonial city Antigua or Lake Atitlan. In Nicaragua they choose colonial city Granada or the beaches of San Juan del Sur.

Many Nicaragua expats gravitate to San Juan del Sur

Most expats in Malaysia live in Kuala Lumpur or Penang. Most in Vietnam seem to settle in Ho Chi Minh City or Danang. These are some of the best Asian cities to live in if you want to be around plenty of other people who speak your language and understand where you’re coming from.

In other countries there may be three main areas with sizable expat communities. In Portugal, the main magnets are Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve beach region. In Colombia it’s Medellin, Cartagena, and the coffee region.

In all of these above, however, people like you are still in the minority unless the place gets a deluge of tourists for months at a time. Lisbon is a big city, so even if the number of foreigners moving there doubled, they still wouldn’t “take over the place.” Even though Cuenca in Ecuador has thousands of American and Canadian retirees living there, it’s a city of 300,000—double that if you count the whole metro area. Usually if there’s a place where expats dominate in a foreign country, it’s a specific neighborhood rather than a whole city.

Where it starts to feel like the foreign invaders have taken over is when you have a relatively small town or city filled with a relatively large number of foreigners. You can find more than a few of these in Mexico: Ajijic by Lake Chapala, Sayulita or Melaque on the Pacific Coast, or Tulum on the Caribbean coast. When the place is also a big tourist draw, like Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, or Playa del Carmen, it can start to feel like the foreigners are physically outnumbering the locals and you hear more English than Spanish.

living abroad in Mexico

Some more expensive examples are Jaco and Nosara in Costa Rica, Ambergris Caye and Placencia in Belize, and Mallorca in Spain. You can generally figure out if a place has passed this tipping point just by looking at the real estate prices compared to the rest of the country. It doesn’t take long for a few thousand foreign retirees to drive up the cost of housing in the prime areas.

San Miguel de Allende has higher-than-normal real estate prices, but it’s not as dominated by foreigners as it used to be when I first started going there and the locals would talk to me in English before I opened my mouth. In a turn of events that you don’t see very often, the percentage of foreigners has actually gone down there over the past six or eight years, at the same time the city was becoming even more popular in the glossy travel magazines. This isn’t because foreigners stopped moving there—they’re still coming in waves as I write this—but Mexicans have been coming in waves as well. As the overall population has grown, the mix of permanent residents and tourists has gotten more Mexican and there are as many Mexico City second-home buyers these days as there are American ones. (Some of them just as rich too.)

Where to Find a Goldilocks Place to Move to

If you’re trying to find an immersion center, a place where you won’t be surrounded by foreigners like you all the time, you have lots of choices, fortunately. In any country, there will be more cities and towns devoid of foreigners than there will be ones teeming with them unless it’s a city-state like Singapore. If your Spanish is good, you could pick from 1,000 cities and towns from Argentina to Mexico. If you want to be a recluse, you can buy a house in a Bulgarian village on eBay for less than you spent on your last used car. You could find a $150-per-month rental house to call your own in Cambodia or rural India if you’re trying to avoid your own kind.

I think most people who don’t want a gringo/farang town also don’t want the opposite either though. They want a place where they still feel like they’re in an exotic, different country, but they don’t want to be the sole pioneer from abroad living there. They don’t want a town with 10,000 expats, but also don’t want one where the current number is zero.

Fortunately, these are actually more numerous than the ones making those “best cities for expats” lists. If you head to Bulgaria, for instance, it’s not a binary decision between the capital Sofia and some half-empty village. You could live in Bansko in the mountains, in Varna by the sea, or in the second-largest city of Plovdiv. If I moved there, I think I’d want to at least spend a couple of warm-weather months in Veliko Tarnovo, this gorgeous town in the north.

living abroad as an expat - Bulgaria

I live in a city like this in Mexico myself: Guanajuato. Nobody is sure how many foreigners live here, but it’s likely somewhere between 300 and 600 depending on the season. Some of those live on the outskirts with a garage so I never see them. That’s a more than large enough pool of people to socialize with in English, but also small enough that I rarely see more than a handful of people like me when I go for a walk through the historic center.

Since there are only a smattering of foreign tourists each week added to us, it would be tough to get by here speaking only English. There are plenty of other places with this kind of healthy (in my opinion) gringo/local ratio in Mexico, like Mazatlan, San Cristobal de las Casas, Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Merida for a start.

What About Learning a Second Language?

small expat community in Guanajuato MexicoLanguage plays a bigger part in the decision of where to live abroad in some places than others. Since Spanish is such a useful language in so many countries, I really wanted to learn enough to function when I moved to Mexico. So that was part of the appeal of where we settled: I’d actually need to practice every time I stepped out of my house.

When I lived in Korea teaching English, however, I didn’t feel guilty only hanging out with Koreans who spoke English. I learned enough Korean to read the alphabet and be able to get a taxi or order food, but only if I had wanted to move there permanently would it have made sense to study Korean seriously. Same thing when I lived in Turkey for a while. I learned what was in my phrasebook but nothing beyond that.

In many countries though, a rather substantial portion of the population speaks English so it’s pretty easy to break out of the expat bubble and strike up friendships with locals without getting fluent in a second language. People get by for years in Chiang Mai without learning Thai or in Ho Chi Minh City without learning much Vietnamese. Sure, you’ll want to pick up some basics, but in countries where their own language is useless outside their borders, English is usually part of the education system and then work training.

Luckily for us, English is the language of tourism and business. You do have to go where there is tourism and business though to get by in that language only. Roatan is fine, Prague will be no problem, and you could manage easily enough in Marrakech. Don’t expect it to be easy though in a small village in Honduras, the Czech Republic, or Morocco.

Where you’ll really have the best of both worlds is if you move to a country where English is already widely spoken. Most of the former British colonies fit the bill, so you’ll have no problem communicating in India, Nepal, or Malaysia. The Philippines were actually an American colony for a while and English fluency is at native speaker level there—with no odd accent to get used to. In the Americas though, only one expatriate country fits the bill. That would be Belize and it’s not a cheap one.

Find Your Own Sweet Spot

There’s no one right answer to your decision to live in an expat community, a place with no foreigners, or somewhere in between. But you do need to decide how you feel about those options before you pack up and move.

If, like me, you want something in between Gringoland and being the only foreigner for 100 miles, there are hundreds of these sweet spot locations scattered around the world. In these, you can get the benefit of far lower prices without completely giving up things you enjoy, like cultural activities and a good variety of food. Use the explorations as another excuse to travel in a slow manner, spending enough time in places to really get a full impression.

When you find your own sweet spot, you’ll probably know it’s the right one for you.

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