Each year I do an updated rundown of the cheapest places to live in the world. If you move abroad from a country like Canada, USA, UK, or Australia to any of the destinations on this list, you should be able to cut your expenses in half at the very least. In many cases your expenses will be a third or less of what they used to be.
There’s much more detail than you’ll find here in my popular book, A Better Life for Half the Price, which is now in its second edition, but this article provides a good starting point for those thinking it might make sense to move abroad. If you’re dreaming of a move though, at least sign up for the cheap living abroad monthly e-mail update. I have interviewed more than 100 expats around the world and I live abroad myself, so it’s fair to say I’m an expert on this subject.
You won’t be alone if you decide to move overseas for a life upgrade. There are millions of people who have taken this step, saying goodbye to high living expenses by moving abroad to one destination or becoming a digital nomad, flitting between the cheapest places to live. There’s an assumption from people who haven’t traveled much that the most affordable countries to live in are not going to be as pleasant as where they are now, but that’s often a mistake. If nothing else, you can easily get better weather and a nicer apartment or house for the money. If you’re American, definitely cheaper health insurance–or you might not even need any.
By moving from where you are to where you could be, it’s easy to cut your monthly rent in half, cut your healthcare costs drastically, eat out more, and have more fun. You’ll probably discover some positive side effects like eating more fruit and vegetables (because they’re so cheap), getting more exercise (because many foreign cities are more suited to pedestrians), and dialing back your stress (because people aren’t in such a hurry all the time).
Living Abroad Changes in 2022
The year of 2o2o went down as one of the worst years in history, with a deadly pandemic spreading quickly around the globe. We thought that would be the end of it, but variants kept rearing their heads after the majority were vaccinated, so travel remained highly disrupted in 2021. While this will hopefully abate as 2022 goes on and fewer people will probably end up dying, we’re still going to be dealing with closed borders and complicated entry restrictions.
That makes the question of the cheapest places to live in the world kind of rhetorical instead of practical in some locations. Now we have to ask, “For a move in the near future or in the far future?” It still makes sense to plan for a move abroad to a closed country if you can’t pull the trigger until years down the road anyway because of a physical job you’d have to leave, a looming retirement, or a family situation. But if you were going to move soon—or become a digital nomad roaming the world—your options are probably going to remain somewhat limited until most of the world has multiple shots and cases go into steep decline.
As I did last year, I will periodically update this post on the cheapest places to live as the months go by and the open countries situation changes. I’m assuming that restrictions will ease up once inoculations catch up with variants and this list will get longer, just as it did last year. Countries that are highly dependent on tourism can’t stay closed forever without wrecking a big percentage of the national economy. Late last year we saw three countries in South America open back up, along with the USA. Until the whole world is open to visitors though, this guide to cheap living abroad and bargain retirement spots is limited to which countries will let you in.
As a result, you’ll see that this living abroad list is very heavy on Latin America and Europe. That’s not because I’m writing this as an American; it’s because more of those nations opened back up than the ones in Asia did. For now anyway, the best countries for Americans to move to because of flight prices and time zones also happen to be the best countries to move to that are open.
When I put in cost of living estimates here of $1,000 a month for one or $1,500 for two, as an example, assume that’s leading a reasonably comfortable life without making lots of sacrifices. Obviously if you’re willing to truly live like a local who is earning half that amount, you can get by for far less. You could find plenty of places in the world where your neighbors are literally earning a few dollars a day. It doesn’t take a lot to be upper middle class if you’re earning a few hundred dollars more a month than your average local. If you can live on their terms, you can get by on what they do. Most people who say, “I’m living in Mexico for just $500 a month” are doing that by living like a local would.
Since most people who grew up in a first-world environment aren’t willing to go that far, however, here are the most affordable places to live in the world that are reasonably comfortable, with what an average foreigner is spending. Here’s where you can live a half-price life and still have good infrastructure (including internet fast enough to run a business or work remotely), a decent house or apartment to live in, and a fair number of the conveniences you’re used to. You can enjoy the place you’re living and go out instead of staying home with a book every night eating rice and beans.
Visa and Entry Changes for Expatriates and Digital Nomads
If you’re interested in any of these specific countries mentioned in this section, keep reading because recent changes may mean that what you read elsewhere is out of date.
The rise of visas for digital nomads and remote workers has been one positive trend that’s come out of this pandemic and the picture keeps getting better. Cheap countries to live in that have either implemented or announced this option include Portugal, Spain, Greece, Malta, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Georgia, Ecuador, Panama, and Mexico (for Canadians).
A few of these, like Greece and Malta, are not in my book because it would take some work to get a half-price life if you’re not coming from a very expensive place like London or San Francisco. It could be done though in the right location within the country, one not already mobbed with expats.
A few countries have tweaked their visa requirements along with the Covid changes and one positive that has come out of that is for Thailand. This country formerly full of nomads doing visa runs has, for now, announced plans to allow foreigners to stay longer before they have to renew their visa.
On the other hand, one place that many nomads flocked to—Mexico—is reportedly easing back on its practice of automatically giving tourists a visa on entry of 180 days upon arrival. At some entry points you need to ask for that many days specifically and you may need to show a return ticket and/or have a place to stay set up already. Panama has eliminated one of its long-stay visa options and Malaysia has made it financially unattractive to get residency there under its My Second Home program (a moot point for most now anyway since it’s still closed).
Currency fluctuations always impact the cost of living, of course, and for now, that is favoring those earning dollars or euros almost anywhere on the globe. Most currencies have dropped against the greenback over the past year, at least slightly, and some cheap destinations have gotten even cheaper for remote workers and online business owners.
The Absolute Cheapest Places to Live in the World
In general, the very cheapest places on the planet to travel are also the countries with the lowest cost of living if you’re willing to put up with a fair number of challenges. If you’re earning less than $1,000 per month and looking for a cheap country to live in, these are the open ones where you can relax on that amount and enjoy life to the fullest.
Living in Nepal
Nepal is probably the hands-down winner on this planet in terms of what you get for your money. In most categories, this would be the cheapest country to live in you could find. If two of you were set up with $1,500 a month there—the equivalent of one average U.S. Social Security check—you’d be part of the wealthy elite. One person could live on half that and still be eating well.
Getting residency in Nepal is quite tough though and you can’t really stay more than 150 days in a year if you don’t have it. So most people just do short nomad stints in Nepal unless they’ve got a work visa or they’ve set up some kind of charity. Oh, and the electricity and internet both go out on a daily basis.
Low Cost of Living in India
Parts of India are a great bargain for expats as well, though you wouldn’t know you’re in a bargain country if you get transferred to Mumbai or Bangalore for a job. There’s a lot of money and investment in those cities and plenty of millionaires milling about. Instead look to the smaller cities and Himalayan mountain towns where it’s not unusual to find a house to rent for a couple hundred dollars and restaurant meals for what you spend on a soda in your home country. There are thousands of expatriates and travelers taking a pause that are easily getting by for $600 or $700 a month total here, or spending twice that and living the high life. Here are some living in India costs that will provide more details.
The visa situation in India can be one of the best in the world for some nationalities. If you’re only planning to stay for six months, great. You get that long automatically if you want when applying and the process has gotten a tad faster in after it went digital. There is no such thing as a retirement visa here for people with no Indian blood. Americans can get a 10-year multiple entry visa now though, plus you can stay 180 days straight before you need to head out of the country for a bit. But now you can just do a border run and return immediately. Australians can get a multi-year tourist visa, UK citizens up to five years (but only 180 days in a stretch), Canadians generally get up to 180 days and have access to a long multi-entry one. With all of them, the clock starts ticking when the visa is issued, not when you arrive.
Waiting for a Real Opening in Cambodia and Vietnam
In most respects, Cambodia is the cheapest place to live in Asia outside the Indian subcontinent. Unfortunately the country threw up so many barriers to entry after Covid hit that you really have to want it badly to move there now. To get an idea though, see this post from normal times on the cost of living in Cambodia. Vietnam is one of the best values in the world for travelers and expats and they’ve done a far better job of keeping pandemic cases low than most countries. They’re trying to keep it that way though, so for now it’s off-limits.
The Balkans and Eastern Europe
In Europe, it’s a toss-up on the absolute cheapest country to live in between Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albania. Way off past Asian Turkey is Georgia, sort of in Europe. All could possibly win the designation of having the cheapest city to live in by way of their capitals Sofia, Sarajevo, Tirana, or Tlibisi.
The prices are so similarly low for your basic basket of living expenses that it’s hard to pick a clear winner. Bulgaria is one of the cheapest places to go out drinking or to ski. It also has some of the cheapest real estate in the world if you want to buy a house or condo for the price of a used car. For the moment though, it’s about the only country in Europe that’s closed, so it’s out of the running until that changes.
That leaves three other choices if you want that European feel with a monthly cost of living that’s a fraction of what you’re spending now. More details in the Europe section further down.
Cheapest Living Spots in Latin America
In Latin America, Nicaragua was the cheapest country to live in for many years, but the dicey political situation there (a dictator willing to kill protesting civilians and jail opponents to hold onto power) has driven away most tourists and foreign residents. So the next-best bet is Guatemala, especially outside Antigua. When you look at the cost of living in a beautiful place with a view, Lake Atitlan is surely one of the best values on the planet outside the Himalayas. Here’s some more detailed info on what travel costs on Lake Atitlan are like, to give you an idea. It’s even cheaper now, with fewer visitors to rent to.
In South America, Ecuador remains the cheapest place to live outside of Bolivia and the best value overall for expatriates. It’s an especially affordable place to live for retirees. They actually use the greenback as their currency in Ecuador, so inflation is very low and most price changes are due to government intervention rather than market forces. (The prime example is imported booze, which has a 100% tax). Nevertheless, it’s one of the cheapest places to buy a house in the world where the market is priced in dollars.
Where Else? Here are some of the other countries to consider around the world.
The Cheapest Places to Live in Latin America
For Americans, heading south to Latin America is the best bet if you’re looking for countries with low cost of living. It’s especially convenient for location independent laptop workers who want to stay on a similar time zone. No getting up at 3:00 a.m. to connect with a client on the other side of the globe.
You can get by learning just one useful language—Spanish—in any of the countries profiled below, plus apart from Argentina the round-trip flight prices are usually under $1,000. For Mexico down through Colombia, a few hundred bucks.
The Americas have plenty of cheap countries to live in and a lot of the warm places with a low cost of living are here.
Cheap Living in Mexico
My adopted home of Mexico is not the absolute cheapest country to live in, but it’s easy to get to for a good price and is a great value once you arrive. You can fly to Mexico from the USA or Canada for about the same price as you can fly across one of those countries much of the time, on the home team carriers or one of the Mexican budget airlines.
I have lived in central Mexico on and off for about a decade with my family, here full-time since late 2018. Because the Mexican currency has dropped so much against the dollar, it is cheaper here now than when I first visited in 2002. The peso generally trades between 18 and 21 to the dollar now. This makes our closest neighbor to the south a screaming bargain anytime you go to a restaurant, buy a beer, take a taxi, get a haircut, or hire a carpenter.
As a family of three we lived on $2,100 a month in Guanajuato when we were renting a four-bedroom apartment, before we bought a house. Now two of us probably average $1,500 to $1,800 a month in expenses and it got down to about $800 when we were locked down for a few months. In normal times, that’s with having a housekeeper come every week, having a handyman come to do improvements or repairs, going out for a meal or drinks when we want, and traveling regularly within the country. We aren’t very frugal at that level because we don’t need to be. We can eat out regularly, go to cultural events (when it’s safe to do so), and enjoy life to the fullest.
You can stay 180 days on a tourist visa in Mexico, then get another 180 just by leaving and coming back. Just be advised they’ve tightened up a bit on this lately depending on the mood of the immigration person when you enter, so you need to ask for 180 days and say why rather than just assuming you’ll get it. If you can show a good enough income, the residency process is straightforward if you want to stick around.
In colonial cities, it’s easy to get by without a car. Just understand that I’m talking about Mexico away from the tourist resorts. Los Cabos could cost you as much as your current home and it’s not such a bargain in Playa del Carmen or Puerto Vallarta either. You need to go inland or to a beach without a lot of moneyed tourists around.
Have Honduras to Yourself
Honduras doesn’t get much good press anymore because the two main cities are very dangerous places. It’s much more mellow on the islands of Roatan and Utila, famous for their diving and beaches, or other spots like Ceiba and Copan. If you’re willing to look past the news headlines, this is a cheap place to live in the tropics. Even on Roatan, one social security check would be enough to cover basic living expenses and then some. After all, the average salary for Hondurans is less than $500 per month.
Panama Living Outside the Capital
Like Ecuador and Portugal, Panama seems to show up on every list of desirable places to live abroad and historically this has been because of its perks and easy visa options for foreigners moving there. One of those visa options went away last year though, one that allowed you to easily gain residency if you set up a business that had employees. I asked Mikkel Thorup from the Expat Money podcast what this means since he lives there.
In August of 2021 the Panama Friendly Nations visa changed, with less favorable terms. The most popular option is now a $200k real estate investment. The company formation route is no longer available. Other updates now include needing to do a two-year temporary visa before receiving permanent residency. For an excellent podcast on lifestyle in Panama as an expat, check out this episode of The Expat Money Show.
Many people are surprised when they see a current photo of Panama City, with its sleek skyscrapers jammed together for miles. There’s a lot of money in that city from shipping, banking, and investment from Latinos living in shakier economies. It’s still a cheap place to eat at a restaurant, go out for drinks, and buy electronics thanks to Panama’s duty free, open market policies. To really reap the cost savings though, it’s better to head to Boquete, David, or one of the many small coastal towns along the Pacific or the Caribbean. This is not really one of the best low cost of living countries if you’re really on a strict budget. It’s better for those who are up a few rungs on the income ladder.
Panama has the world’s best pensionada program for retirees, but really you don’t have to be retired or even old. You just need to show $1,000 a month in income to get a long list of incentives and discounts with your residency. The government is relatively stable and Copa Airlines is based here, so flight connections are good in multiple directions. On the health care side, it’s not unusual to pay $20 to see a doctor, $35 to see the dentist and get a cleaning, or a shade over $10,000 for surgery at a hospital affiliated with Johns Hopkins.
Colombia Living Keeps Getting Cheaper
Medellin is one of the most affordable cities in the world that’s a real metropolis. It’s as close as you get to a digital nomad hotspot in Latin America, with Colombia attracting a lot of the location-independent crowd. People who move there are attracted to the nice climate, the nightlife, the fun people, and reasonable living costs. The fall in their currency against the dollar over the past few years has kept going, turning a good value into a terrific bargain.
There are plenty of cheaper places to live than Medellin around the country if you want something less hectic, but be advised that lovely Cartagena is no bargain. It’s a favorite of tourists and domestic investors buying vacation homes, so it’s an outlier.
The expats I interviewed for A Better Life for Half the Price were generally living on half what they did in the U.S., though that was when the peso was much stronger than it is now. Apartment rental prices are about a third cheaper than they are in Mexico, to give you an idea, with rents in prime areas of Medellin averaging $300 to $650 per month. Spend more than that and you’ll probably have a city view, a pool, and a gym included. A dollar here will get you a good cup of coffee, a beer in a basic bar, or at least a kilo of local fruit or vegetables.
Ecuador Living Is a Great Value
If you read any ranking of the best places to live abroad, Ecuador ranks near the top on a lot of counts. It has one of the lowest income requirements of any residency visa in the world, it’s relatively straightforward to get residency, you’ve got a lot of choices for the ideal climate, and the cost of living is low. They use U.S. dollars for their currency, so no money exchange expenses even.
Cuenca and Vilcabamba have been retiree havens for quite a while, especially for those who looked at their meager retirement savings and realized they were going to be in rough shape if they stayed in the U.S. or Canada. Most of them are paying between $300 and $650 a month for rent of a house or condo and nobody I’ve talked to living there is spending more than the equivalent of two social security checks for a couple. Health care costs about 1/5 to 1/10 of what it does in the United States, with good facilities in the cities.
There are a lot of perks for retirees living abroad here, including 50% off all national and international airfare, 50% off all cultural and recreational events, and 50% off some utility charges. You can stay 90 days on a tourist visa and can usually extend it within the country.
Argentina the Financial Yo-yo
When I visited this country in late 2017, it had gotten surprisingly expensive. Less than a year later, Argentina was cheap again. That’s the Argentina story through the ages. Now it’s an even better deal if you’re earning dollars or euros, but for all I know, by the time you read this it will be either bankrupt (again), be reeling from double-digit inflation (again), or will be inexplicably overpriced for reasons that nobody can explain. The country seems to prefer a natural state of crisis and is prone to shooting itself in the foot with fiscal policy, so wait long enough and you’ll find an opportunity to live a half-price life in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Salta, or Patagonia.
It may not last, but right now it’s an affordable place to live. When the timing is right, you get bargain-priced good wine, almost-free health care, and reasonable housing costs. You can find terrific deals through Airbnb or Vrbo without even bargaining for a better long-term rate.
In normal times, the ability to stay almost indefinitely on a tourist visa was a big plus too. You would just cross to Uruguay or Chile every three months and take a short vacation or return immediately. All three of those countries just opened up after being closed for 20 months though, so anyone who relied on this strategy was screwed.
The expatriates I interviewed here for the second edition of A Better Life for Half the Price are living on far less than half of what they spent before, especially those who made a lateral move from New York City to Buenos Aires. Argentina has some of the cheapest cities to live in for this continent if you get out of the capital. For now, this is one of the best low cost of living countries in South America. But will it last? Your guess is as good as mine.
Living Abroad in Bolivia and Peru
I’m lumping these neighboring countries together because neither tends to get all that many expats putting down roots, more often they serve as temporary stopovers or travel spots. Neither makes it easy to get permanent residency. Peru was once an easy place to stick around casually without going through immigration. You could get six months on a tourist visa (with an extension from within the country) and then just do a border run to start over. In 2018 they started cracking down on this, however, and now you can only stay a maximum of 183 days in a 365-day period. That’s fine for a digital nomad who is willing to move on after six months, but it’s not a good place to be a long-term resident unless you’re planning to travel half the year.
If you can qualify as a retiree, that’s the best route. You just need to prove income of $1,000 per month and go through a lot of paperwork, including documents from your own country. Peru got hit hard by Covid, however, so do some research on the current situation before trying to move there.
For Bolivia, you need to really want to live there as even getting a one-year temporary residency will require a hefty stack of paperwork and many visits to immigration, with the initial application process started in your own country before arriving but still having a local address and utility bills to submit. This is also the only country in South America still making you pay more than $150 just for the pleasure of entering. If you make it through all this though, it’s probably the place with the cheapest cost of living in South America. You can live quite well on less than $1,000 per month in a chilled-out city like Sucre.
The Cheapest European Countries to Live In
Many people dream of living in Europe, then after they look at the prices in Ireland, France, or Italy, they say, “Ummm, never mind.”
It would probably surprise many people to know you can live in Europe for less than half what you’re spending now in the USA, England, or Australia if you go down a couple notches on the development scale. In many of the countries to follow, the average local wages are far below even the minimum wage in your own country, which impacts everything from taxi fares to restaurant prices to rents. Surprisingly, Europe actually has some of the cheapest cities to live in worldwide, ones where you can drink the water out of the tap!
As mentioned earlier in the section on the absolute cheapest countries, the cheapest places to live in Europe are clustered around the Balkans and the former Iron Curtain countries, with one exception that’s a Ryan Air flight away. If your monthly earnings are $3,000 or more, you have plenty more options to consider.
Live in Albania for a Year or More
Albania gets the edge on the weather in Europe–it’s above Greece and across the sea from Italy–and its visa situation is one of the most lenient in the world for Americans. U.S. passport holders can basically waltz in and rent an apartment for a year without applying for residency. This may be the cheapest place in Europe to live by a beach where you can go swimming in the summer. There’s a lot of coastline to enjoy. There are also rugged mountains with great hiking opportunities.
You can find a nice apartment with a view in the capital of Tirana for just 200 to 500 euros per month, the higher end of that being for two or three bedrooms in an elevator building. Naturally, when you get outside of the capital it’s even cheaper unless you are waterfront looking out at the sea. One expat I interviewed for my living abroad book was paying $90 per month in Pogradec and another had gotten a two-bedroom apartment for $180 per month in a beach town. You could easily get by for $1,000 per month here total (the average local wage is half that) or live the high life for less than two grand all-in. Pull out the equivalent of a dollar at a coffee shop and you’ll get two or three espressos.
See more on the cost of living in Albania here.
Bosnia and Montenegro for Cheap Europe Living
The nearby Balkan countries of Bosnia and Montenegro are roughly on par with Albania for prices, but you won’t get a one-year visa for hanging around so long. Bosnia has its own currency, Montenegro uses the euro, but both are cheaper than central and eastern Europe nations. A single person could get by fairly easily on $1,000 per month, with one-bedroom apartments in the range of $200 to $400 in both countries. After all, the average salary in both countries is under $600.
Bosnia is just all-around cheap because local wages and low rents keep prices down. That $400 rent could get you a 3-bedroom apartment in Sarajevo or a whole house in the countryside. A monthly transportation pass in the largest city will cost you around $30. You’ll eat hearty food on the cheap, get bargain bottles of wine, and enjoy a cup of coffee for a few coins.
Living in Romania as an Expat
This is not a place to move to year-round if you hate cold weather, but Romania has a lot going for it, including some of the fastest internet speeds in the world. You’ll probably get speeds of 100 mbps or more for half what you’re paying now for a slower connection. So this is one of the cheap places to live in Europe that’s actually a good remote working spot. Romania has also announced an offering of a digital nomad visa, so it’ll be one of the rare spots in Europe you can stay in for more than three months without getting residency.
The food is plentiful and reasonably priced, the booze is cheap, and getting around is inexpensive. There are some beautiful towns in the Transylvania region especially with a strong cafe culture. Get more details here from a resident on living costs in Romania.
Living in Hungary on the Cheap
If you can put up with the authoritarian politics and the anti-immigration stance, Hungary is a real bargain place to live in Europe. It’s like a half-price Austria, with good food, good wine, fun nightlife, and a lot of beautiful countryside. It’s easy to get to the rest of Europe from here for vacation and within the country you can go from hopping capital city to a chilled-out house on Lake Balaton or the sunny southern vineyard lands in a few hours by bus or train.
When it comes to country capitals, Budapest is one of the cheapest cities to live in around the world. Expats living in Hungary that I interviewed were paying anywhere from €290 to €800 for rent, the latter a 2-bedroom place in a top central neighborhood. In smaller cities it’s easy to find something similar for €500 or less.
Hungary is part of the Schengen zone though, so it works better for digital nomads than those who want to stick around all year. You generally have to have a work permit or go through a lengthy residency process to live here permanently unless you’ve got proven Hungarian roots. Here’s a breakdown on the cost of living in Hungary, based on reports from expatriates living there.
Pumped Up by the Pandemic: the Country of Georgia
The word was already getting out about the appeal of living in Georgia before the pandemic hit, but this accelerated greatly when location independent workers started looking for a place they could hang their sun hat after they had to leave Southeast Asia or Europe when borders started closing. A fair number ended up in a country perched between the two, on the Black Sea near Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and eastern Turkey.
Why Georgia? Well they’ve got the most favorable visa entry program in the world, first of all, with the citizens of a whole lot of nations allowed to stay for a year on a tourist visa. Go away for vacation, come back, and you’ve got another year before you have to worry about your visa. The cost of living in Georgia is also quite low, with rent prices in the capital between $300 and $600, taxi rates of a few bucks, and local bus rides less than 20 cents. You have access to great hiking, winter skiing, and vineyards in one of the world’s original wine regions to explore. There’s even a bit of beach on the Black Sea coast.
Czech Republic and Slovakia Living
These two countries that were one a few decades ago offer similar appeal and prices. The Czech Republic tends to be a bit cheaper outside of Prague though, partly because they still use their own currency instead of the euro. Even in Prague you can find an apartment for rent outside of Old Town from $300 (studio) to $1,100 (2500 square feet in a historic building). Prices can drop by half or more outside the capital. In small towns two hours from Prague I saw houses listed for sale for under $40k.
In both countries, the average price of a pint of great beer is $1.50, groceries are cheap, and eating out won’t hit you too hard. Local public transportation will cost you a buck or two. For $3 to $15 you can get to anywhere in either country from the capital city, maybe $20 if you’re going for a sleeper train.
As with other euro zone countries, living long-term is much easier if you’re European than from outside the zone. The Czech Republic–sometimes now confusingly listed as “Chechia,” sounding like Chechnya–sometimes shows up on lists of countries with a digital nomad visa available, but it’s really a permit on top of a visa so you still have to go through the residency process.
Slovakia gets far fewer tourists but still has a lot to offer, especially if you’re the four-seasons type. The country has some of the cheapest places to ski in Europe, with long runs and challenging terrain.
The Cheapest Western Europe Living: Portugal
If you want first-world amenities and infrastructure, tap water you can drink, and pleasant sunny weather, it’s hard to top Portugal. This is the cheapest country in Western Europe at any time, a place that you could move to from the U.S. or Canada and actually spend half of what you’re spending now on living expenses. The secret is out, however, and costs have been rising each year as the economy recovers and more tourists flood in, especially in the Algarve region so popular with Brits. Lisbon is more expensive than the rest of Portugal of course, so the “half price” part only works there if you’re moving from a big city like New York, San Francisco, or London. But it’s still a terrific value once you get outside of the capital.
It’s more streamlined to move to Portugal as a EU citizen than from elsewhere, but each year it gets a bit easier, especially now that there’s a visa for remote workers and business owners. Also, although it’s part of the Schengen zone, Americans can get a six-month visa and then extend it while applying for residency if starting the process in their own country.
I asked Susan Korthase, who does consulting for people relocating there, to give me a rundown on what has changed recently. Here’s what she had to say:
Portugal continues to have one of the easiest residency application systems in Europe, with 2021 setting another immigration record. Today, 600,000 immigrants blend into a country of 10 million. Against this backdrop, Portugal tightened the initial visa requirements for all long-term residency visa types to address issues with immigrants using Portugal as a doorway to the rest of Europe and an increase in financial dependency on the state. These changes included requiring a funded bank account in a Portuguese bank, in addition to other proof of financial means, and a full year rental accommodation or proof of home purchase. The bank account must be funded at the same rate as the proof of financial means, which is 8,460€ per adult applicant (a family applying together follows the rule of 4,230€ for the second adult and 2,538€ per child).
Portugal is attracting more families and entrepreneurs due to its focus on fast-tracking the independent worker and entrepreneur visa categories. As an example, the island of Madeira is attracting digital nomads with free co-working space in an area surrounded by cafes and shops.
See this post for more on the cost of living in Portugal.
The Cheapest Places to Live in Asia
Many of the cheapest places to live in the world are in Asia, but that’s irrelevant if you can’t get in. Unfortunately, most of these destinations with the lowest cost of living in the world have been closed to outsiders for close to two years now and there’s no sign that’s going to change. Earlier in this post I profiled India and Nepal, which are both open with restrictions, but Southeast Asia is almost completely closed up.
So for now you can forget about moving, even temporarily, to anywhere but Thailand in Southeast Asia. So let’s talk about that one, shall we?
Thailand, the Once and Future Digital Nomad Capital?
I said back in 2019, “If you want lots of like-minded expats around as you work on your online business, then do not pass Go, just head straight to Chiang Mai, Thailand. You’ll find cheap living, a zillion coffee shops with WiFi, and regular meet-ups that will be fun and educational. The street food is so good and cheap that many never bother to cook anything. This is one of the most affordable cities in the world: you can get by for less than $1,000 a month here without trying too hard. Chiang Mai may just hold the title as the cheapest city to live in worldwide for those expats who need to run a remote business or work remotely.”
Well, it’s a renter’s market in Chiang Mai these days because all those nomads doing visa runs got kicked out when the pandemic hit and only the retirees with long-term residency were allowed to stay. You can probably find a long-term rental anywhere in the country for a few hundreds bucks a month now. While the country has been cracking open its doors more than most in Asia, they’ve basically let us in the house but kept half the rooms locked up. At first, visitors could only fly to the “Phuket sandbox” and had to go into quarantine. That eased up to where you could visit a few more provinces after doing your time and eventually you could even fly into Bangkok or Chiang Mai and stay. The rules have changed almost weekly though and now it has gotten stricter again as this month’s variant pokes its ugly head up.
Once it fully opens again, Thailand will be popular again. As far a big cities go, it’s hard to top Bangkok for value. If you’re a big city person who loves great food and nightlife, it’s one of those low cities where you can have a Los Angeles kind of blast for 1/4 of the price.
Health care is great in Thailand and you’re always a bus ride away from the beaches. The main downside has always been the visa situation. If you are old enough to qualify as a retiree and you’ve got some money to put in one of their banks, it’s relatively easy. This is one of the least expensive places to retire in the world if you’re old enough and have some cash put away to meet the requirements. There are signs it’s going to get easier for nomads too though. If the new rules stick, you’ll easily be able to stay for three months without leaving, five or six in a row including renewals.
Can You Live Cheap in Africa?
As I’ve said every year in this revised post and in A Better Life for Half the Price, there’s not much middle ground in Africa for foreign living styles. You either live like an NGO worker, overspending on everything to get some semblance of home standards, or you live like a local, which requires a long list of sacrifices in terms of comfort and convenience.
While many countries in Africa should be very cheap if you just look at the per-capita GDP, wages, or a basket of goods and services, it’s hard to maintain anything close to the lifestyle you’re probably used to without living like one of the elites. On that level it’s going to cost you almost as much as you’re spending now probably. It’s just hard to find a cheap place to live here that’s also a desirable place to live comfortably long-term.
Old Africa hands who have spent a lot of time traveling around the region say there are pockets here and there where you will find some grizzled expats who have stuck around for a while, like in Togo, Madagascar, or Malawi. For every one of those who have moved to the country for lifestyle reasons though, there seem to be 100 aid workers and foreigners working in oil or mining. So there’s a “foreigner=rich person” bias. There’s just not much of an infrastructure for the middle ground, for living cheaply without turning to dirt floor houses in the countryside or challenging apartments in a polluted major city. Please tell me otherwise if you’re living there now and you’re not a Peace Corps worker, NGO staffer, or spouse of a local living with their family. I keep trying…
Living in Morocco as an Expat
The expats have not really gone back to Egypt and I could do a whole post on why. But then the government might throw me in jail when I land there next time and I don’t relish that environment.
That leaves us with Morocco to represent Africa. The infrastructure is good, you can find a comfortable apartment for a reasonable price, and for a Muslim country it’s fairly relaxed in its attitude toward foreigners of different faiths.
Morocco is the best value on the continent for travelers in most respects, including transportation, and there’s a wider variety of food than you’ll find in most countries on the continent. Seasonal fruit and vegetables are generally less than a dollar a kilo and you can get a basic restaurant meal for less than $4. Taxis and local buses are cheap and rents run $250 to $750, so a couple could easily live well here on two social security checks or a modest income from an online business.
Other Low-Cost Countries That Are Open
If you want to just quit your job and travel around the world indefinitely, that used to be quite easy. You could buy a round-the-world plane ticket and create a base in dozens of countries, spending half or less what you are spending now just to ride the treadmill. That was without even getting an apartment, just staying in guesthouses and cheap hotels. If you don’t spend more than a couple months in one place, you seldom have to worry about overstaying your visa.
Then we got hit by a worldwide pandemic and moving freely around the globe without a care became something to be nostalgic about. Now we have to ask, “Is that country even open right now?” If the answer is yes, then, “What are the entry requirements?” You probably need proof of multiple vaccines, you probably need a test taken before you board the plane. You may even need travel insurance just to enter.
So in wrapping this up, are there any other cheap places to live that I didn’t mention already?
Well, I’m writing a blog post here, not a book, but I’m also highlighting destinations where you won’t be the only foreigner within 200 miles. Some people want that, but most don’t, especially if they’re not fluent in the local language and they’re not running from the law. But if you want to dig deeper, here are some others to consider.
Past readers leaving comments have mentioned Armenia and Ukraine. Both have some beautiful areas and plenty of reasons to stay, but they’re just not on the radar of many travelers from Europe and North America. Up in the north of Europe, this guest post on the cost of living in Lithuania makes it sound great for a few months of the year at least.
Turkey is a pleasant place to live for cheap if the current dictator doesn’t scare you too much–and you’re not a journalist who could be locked up for saying the wrong thing. The Turkish lira has been dropping like a spilled tray of tea the past few years. In 2016 a dollar would get you 3 lira. Now it’ll get you at least 10. This may be the cheapest country in the world to travel around in by bus, train, or plane if you’re coming in with hard currency. I’m guessing you could get the deal of a lifetime on a long-term apartment rental.
In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan would be a pleasant place to live in the warm months, especially if you love hiking in majestic mountains. Living costs are quite low and the capital city may be the most mellow one I’ve ever set foot in.
In Europe, you’ll find low prices in North Macedonia and Moldova. Extra points to you if you can find either on a map. Hint, one of them is near Greece , which meets the half-priced-life threshold if you avoid the popular islands where residents are being priced out of their own homelands and head to places that don’t get so many tourists. As mentioned in the beginning, Greece has launched a digital nomad visa.
The urban/rural divide comes into play in other countries around the world. Even in the USA you could cut your expenses in half by moving from San Francisco to Omaha. You could find a half-price life in Spain if you choose your living abroad spot carefully, avoiding the major tourist zones and biggest cities.
If the idea of moving abroad and having twice as much to spend gets you excited, do it right by checking out the packages at my Cheap Living Abroad site and save yourself dozens of hours of research and dead-end paths. If you like to hold a real book in your hands, yes there’s a paperback available worldwide at Amazon. An audiobook on Audible too.
You may have a fear of change, a sense of complacency, or local roots that go to deep keeping you from making this kind of move. If you’re a good match though, let me save you lots of time and hassle in the planning and doing. After all, what’s your time worth? What’s the value of skipping months of mistakes before and after such a life-changing event?
Or if you’re still in the dreaming stage, get on the insider’s list and get a free report on where you can stay four months or more on a tourist visa. That’ll put you on the list to get a monthly e-mail update from me, without the heavy sales pressure you’ll get from some other living abroad publications.
Editor’s note – Border openings, closings, and entry rules are in a state of constant flux according to the current health situation, so use this list as a starting point for your own research and check the latest restrictions. Before you take off, you’ll probably want to make sure you have all the right documents. In many spots now, vaccines and test results are both required and in some destinations, travel insurance is mandatory.