There are many English-speaking countries in the world where the cost of living is relatively low. In some cases you may be able to live A Better Life for Half the Price even. This makes them great places to live for people who want to cut their expenses by moving abroad but are scared by the prospect of learning a foreign language.
Personally, I think this is a bad idea if you’re going to live somewhere with a commonly spoken language around the world such as Spanish, French, or Portuguese. You’ll miss out on a lot of what’s being said around you, what’s in printed materials, and what you need to know for any interactions with the majority of people who don’t speak English.
After all, if you live in Latin America, the number of English speakers is going to be quite low unless you’re in a full-on tourist town. A person speaking Spanish can travel from the top of Mexico to the bottom of Patagonia without using anything besides Spanish unless they stop off in Belize or Portuguese-speaking Brazil. So the need to learn English is rather low unless they want a tourism or international business job.
In a foreign country where the language is confined to that one country, it’s a different story. It’s commendable to learn Thai, Hungarian, or Bulgarian, and you’ll have a richer experience if you do, but you’ll be able to get by in English easier in those places if you don’t. You won’t encounter a language barrier very much if you’re speaking to the young, the educated, and those who interface with tourists a lot.
In general, you’ll find a high percentage of English speakers abroad if a country fits one of these categories:
1) The country is a former British or American colony.
2) The country uses English as the language of government and business, generally because of #1 or because there are multiple languages in the country.
3) The country’s language is only used in that country so anyone dealing with tourism, education, or international business can’t work without learning English.
4) Every child learns English in school to a point of fluency–often related to #3.
5) The country or city is so flooded with tourists that everyone learns English to run or work in any kind of local business.
Fortunately for you, if you want to move somewhere and keep speaking English only, you’ve got plenty of options, even among cheap countries. This is the language of tourism, of business, of science, and of higher education, so lucky you if you were born speaking it since childhood. You may not feel privileged, but you are in this sense.
I’m leaving out the English-speaking places that are obvious, so no United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland, or New Zealand. I’m also leaving out the ones that are as expensive or more so than the USA, so no Hong Kong, Singapore, Scandinavia, or Belize.
Here are some of the cheapest places to live that speak English.
The country that vies with China as the world’s most populated has more than a dozen recognized languages. India was a British colony for quite a while though before independence in the late 1940s and that history led to the government adopting English as the language of government. By default, it’s also the language of tech and business.
Since the people of India study English extensively in school and many take classes in English in university—in the country and abroad—there are very few situations where you can’t find someone around who speaks your language. Probably fluently. The sing-song accent can take some getting used to for sure, but you won’t have to learn Hindi or Tamal when moving to India unless you really want to.
You can apply for a five-year or ten-year multiple entry visa if you’re from one of the favored countries (like the USA, Canada, and UK) and the cost of living in India is very low. It’s not an easy place to live, for sure, but you can take learning a new language off the hassle list at least. Just remember that this is a big country with huge economic differences between regions. There are some affordable cities for sure, but also some that are surprisingly expensive, like Mumbai and Delhi.
Pick carefully and you could easily get by on less than $1,000 per month living comfortably. See this post on the cost of living in India as an expat.
English in Nepal
If you’re looking for a low cost of living, it doesn’t get much lower than Nepal. If you’re spending more than $1,200 per month here you’re upper-crust. There aren’t as many educated people in Nepal as in India, but you have the same advantages in terms of English being part of the schooling. Since most foreigners who live in Nepal are either in Kathmandu or Pokhara, the only times they could run into an issue is when they venture into some rural area for work or a trekking vacation.
Even on most trekking routes, the mountain people who deal with tourists will speak enough English to get by and the menus are in English at the hotels and teahouses. In Kathmandu, I’ve met some locals whose English was so good I thought they were born abroad. Nope, they’ve just used it so much with native speakers that they’ve lost any accent they had.
Nepal is one of the cheapest countries in the world for travelers, so it also is for anyone wanting to live there. The two main cities are polluted and not all that attractive though, plus it’s hard to stay long-term in Nepal unless you are working for a local company or NGO. Here’s a quick rundown of prices in Nepal from the last time I was there.
Sri Lanka (Later)
Once known as Ceylon in the empire days, the Country of Sri Lanka is functionally bankrupt as I write this. The former president fled the country after citizens invaded the grounds in protest after the economy imploded under a series of bad financial decisions.
It’s going to be anarchy for a while until things sort themselves out. Eventually, this third country on the Indian Subcontinent may be welcoming again with its high percentage of English speakers and a reasonable cost of living.
Easy English in the Philippines
English isn’t the main language in the Philippines—that would be Tagalog—but you could travel here for weeks without running into anyone who doesn’t speak English fluently. It’s the language of government and business and the Philipinos are so fluent that there’s a good chance you talked to some of them working at call centers and thought they were American.
There’s a colonial historical element to all this, but in one oddity of the island nation, also a Spanish one. So the mostly Catholic country is full of people with Spanish-sounding names who speak English like a Yank. They learn it all the way through school, use it as much as their native language, and use it working around the world as expats.
The Philippines aren’t quite as cheap as some other spots in South America for living, but there are plenty of great islands and beautiful places to pick from. It’s one of the world’s greatest places for sailing, kayaking, and scuba diving and it’s easier to get long-term residency here than in most other Asian countries.
Three Peoples United in Malaysia
English is not the official language in Malaysia but it’s the one the three main ethnicities speak in when they want to communicate with each other. So the original Malays, those of Indian descent, and those of Chinese descent all learn English so they can function together in the country.
You get the benefit of all that if you move there, with the ability to buy train tickets, hop a bus, deal with the government, and talk to most shopkeepers without learning another language. Malaysia is not the cheapest country overall in the region—that would be Indonesia—but it is one of the best values in the world for market food and monthly rent. It’s easy to get from KL to other spots in Asia on a cheap flight. You can have a really high quality of life here in the urban areas and come home to a great place to stay each night. Nearly every expat raves about the great local food.
Check the current requirements for retirees because the rules are in flux, but this post will give you an idea on the cost of living in Malaysia otherwise.
Your Money in Malta
Among countries in Western Europe that speak English as their second language, there aren’t many that are a bargain among the most fluent. You aren’t going to save any money moving to the Netherlands, Iceland, or Denmark.
If you’re looking for a sure thing in Europe, the small island nation of Malta, west of Italy, might be the best bet. This is especially true if you’re looking for some kind of tax haven that comes with residency. If you sent up a company there, you could get residency as a non-EU citizen (not an easy thing to do most places in Europe) and you could get a corporate tax rate as low as 5%.
According to official sources, 89% of the population speaks English in Malta so there won’t be many times you are misunderstood. The fact that the nation depends so much on tourism makes it relatively secure on that front. This is probably the most expensive place on this list though, so only put this on your target list if your business or income is healthy. Average rents fall in the range of €700 to €1,500 per month and most food is imported. On the plus side, you get a low crime rate with your international living lifestyle in a historic location with interesting architecture.
Other English-speaking Countries
The countries above are the best options for foreigners looking to live abroad, but they’re not the only ones.
If you have a burning desire to live in Africa, there are more than a few spots to consider and the African Union uses English in its meetings. Check into Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Ghana for prices that aren’t too hefty and the ability to get by in English.
Nigeria, Liberia, Zambia, and Ethiopia are also English-speaking in general or in the government, but you won’t find many self-supporting expats or retirees living in those countries unless they have married a local. Botswana is English-speaking but the sole city feels like a small town: it’s mostly filled with wildlife areas.
There are some far-flung islands where more than half the population speaks English, such as Vanuatu and Mauritius. The islands of Fiji are much easier to get to, especially from Australia and New Zealand, and prices aren’t too bad once you get away from the resort areas. English is the language of government there and you can stay for four months on a tourist visa.
I mentioned at the top that a lot of Caribbean islands have a large percentage of English speakers, but most of them have living expenses that are higher than the United States. The exceptions to that, where you can find reasonable rents and reasonable real estate prices, are worth a trial run to check out. These would be Grenada, Jamaica, Dominica, and Trinidad & Tobago.
Countries Where It’s Easy at a Surface Level
If you don’t want to dive into the culture too much or have friends who don’t speak English, you can get by in a lot of countries that receive large numbers of tourists, at least where tourists gather and in major cities with a lot of international business going on. I remember the first time I went to Thailand I studied the language a bit and took a phrasebook. About 95% of the time I never needed anything besides English.
You find this to be true in a lot of countries and it gets easier every decade. With English being the language of commerce and tourism, even people who have no interest in science or tech are going to learn it so they can make more money. Add the fact that so many popular TV shows and movies come from the USA and UK and you’ve got a fertile environment for more people learning English all the time, especially in resort towns and major cities.
As mentioned in the beginning, the more useless a language is outside that country’s borders, the more likely locals–especially young people in tourist zones–will speak English. Few people abroad are lining up to learn Kymer/Cambodian, Romanian, or Turkish, for example, so a whole lot of people who speak those languages know a second one too. (Sometimes a third, fourth, and fifth also if they’re a tout or guide.) Just remember that it’s usually tougher outside the capital city, in rural areas and smaller towns where the English language is not used very much.
Part of the reason digital nomads can move so freely around the world and function wherever they land is that English is so widely spoken in a whole lot of affordable places. So you’ll have no trouble if you stick to big cities and places with lots of foreigners. From Chiang Mai to Tbilisi to Budapest to Sofia, in the places with one-off languages, you’ll find an affordable cost of living and a sometimes surprisingly high level of second language speakers. Loads of expats live in places such as Ho Chi Minh City and Danang in Vietnam or Prague and Brno in the Czech Republic and only speak a few words of the local language.
Southeast Asia is especially good in this regard since the region is filled with people speaking a language that doesn’t work beyond their borders, but your get a warm climate and plenty of cheap places to choose from. As long as you don’t go into the boondocks (a Filipino word by the way), you can usually function okay. Just bring along some cards to show if you have a food allergy or dietary restriction, just in case. Like these for celiacs.
This is not necessarily true in Latin America, however, as mentioned earlier. There are expat pockets such as Playa del Carmen, San Miguel de Allende (Mexico), Roatan (Honduras), Boquete (Panama), and Cuenca (Ecuador) where there’s been an adaptation to a large number of foreign residents. Costa Rica is fairly easy in a lot of places because foreign visitors sometimes outnumber locals on an annual basis.
Elsewhere though in Mexico, Central America, and South America, it’s difficult to get by, and frankly kind of insulting to most locals, if you make no effort to even learn the basics in the huge swaths of territory elsewhere that speak Spanish or Portuguese. Very few of the signs will be in English, shopkeepers, market vendors, and bus drivers won’t speak English, and any dealings with the government will be in their native language. Unless you go to sparsely populated Guyana or “priced for tourists” Belize.
The same is also true in China, where the local population seems to be amazed that the rest of the world doesn’t speak their language already. Again, there are pockets where you can get by fine if you don’t expand your social circle very much, but you might be leaning on a translation program on a daily basis to get around and read food labels.
Climate, Your Health, and Your Social Life
I have a lot of information in my living abroad book about easing into a more comfortable life abroad by finding your ideal climate. If you’re looking for a temperate climate or year-round heat, here is some info on finding cities with the best weather. You’ll have far more options if you don’t add “must speak English” to the list of course, so it may be worth it to take some language lessons rather than be grumpy about the weather every day. Some of the cheapest cities with the best weather are not on the list of having a high level of English speakers.
Another thing to consider is the health care situation. The older you are, the more you have to worry about the quality of care and how easy it is to communicate with a doctor. In general, a country’s capital is going to have good hospitals and at least a few English-speaking doctors, while most small towns will not. If you’re getting into your golden years, check the situation where you’re considering moving to and understand that there’s a trade-off between the lowest cost and the very best care. You probably want to pay a premium to have access to the best doctors and hospitals available. (It will still be half or less what you would pay in the USA).
Last, if you’re perfectly fine being in an “expat bubble” where you live, then seek out places already filled with loads of foreigners who look like you and talk like you. Otherwise, make an effort to go beyond that trap so you’ll have more insight into the country where you are residing as a guest and so you’ll hear a perspective that’s native instead of imported. You’ll likely have a much easier time navigating local norms, traditions, and bureaucracy if you do. Here are some other expat destinations that are a bargain to consider.
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