Have you thought about moving to another country? Retiring or becoming an expat where safety, climate and cost of living are excellent? International Living has been rating countries for dozens of years, and this year's listings focus on the world's top 10 countries to move to. Jennifer Stevens, Executive editor, and Jessica Ramesch editor of the Panama edition, join Lea for a fascinating convo.
We begin by discussing just what makes a country desirable for expats, with qualities including safety, climate, "fitting in," language and cost of living, Jennifer and Jessica then present the Top 10 list of countries for 2022, and discuss what makes them so.
As usual, the episode ends with special memories.
Jennifer Stevens is editor of International Living, helping readers retire, move and invest overseas for over 40 years. The magazine is the #1 Trusted resource for moving overseas. Jessica Ramesch is editor of the Panama edition.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to many guidebooks.
Contact Lea @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.com.
New episodes drop every other week, on Tuesdays. Please tell your friends, family and colleagues about us, and follow, rate and review this award-winning travel podcast!
* Transcript edited for clarity.
Lea Lane 00:04
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truth, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.
Many travelers have thought about relocating to another country, or eventually retiring to another country, becoming expats. Which countries rate highest for the things we really want?
Our guests are Jennifer Stevens, executive editor at International Living, and Jessica Ramesch. International Livings Panama editor. Panama happens to be the winner of International Living's annual global retirement index for 2022.
Welcome to Places I Remember, Jennifer and Jessica. International Living offers many rating lists of interest to potential expats. So let's first talk generally about what makes a country desirable to move to. And at the end of the episode, we'll discuss the top 10 places to relocate, according to your annual global retirement index 2022 report. So what qualities would you say are the most important to consider when you plan to move to a country as opposed to when you just travel there?
Jennifer Stevens 01:21
Well, I would say the first thing that we consider and this really is true, whether you're traveling somewhere or going to live, there is safety. And we have on our index every year, we have to about 25 countries, typically, we don't put a country on the index, unless it's a place we feel you can live safely. So that's sort of the number one thing -- if a place is dangerous, we're not going to send people there. Right? Which is not to say that you will never get pickpocketed, it isn't to say that, you know, someone might not reach in through a window and grab your purse, if it's sitting on the windowsill. That can happen anywhere, right, and so, but feeling comfortable, you know, I think the number one thing someone has to consider if they're gonna move some place, are they going to be there to feel comfortable everyday, or they're going to be happy to wake up and walk down to the market and not worry about their personal safety. So that's the number one thing that we consider.
Lea Lane 02:09
I wrote a piece for my travel blog at forbes.com about the safest countries in the world. It was a study by the William Russell company. According to them, the five safest countries considering health care, infrastructure, personal safety, digital security, environmental security, are Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Japan, and Singapore. Is that on your list?
Jennifer Stevens 02:33
They are not on our list, in part, because the other category that we consider when we consider countries that should make our list of the best places to retire is cost of living. And all of those places, while extremely safe, are also places that are more expensive, arguably more expensive, even than the United States. And so those places don't make our list. They're wonderful countries, don't get me wrong. They're great places to visit. And if money's not an issue for you, by all means, put those on your list, but we're kind of looking at places where you can retire more affordably and watch your quality of life improve.
Jennifer Stevens 03:10
Those are not all great weather countries. And I think our top countries are always places where people are like, if I'm a little tired of the cold, or I want to snowbird somewhere, where am I going to be able to go to get better weather than what I have right now.
Lea Lane 03:22
I noticed your list of countries with the best climate are Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Portugal. And they're all temperate and lovely.
Jennifer Stevens 03:31
In the same variety, a variety of climates too. And that's something that, you know, some people just want beach. And so for them, they might not care if there's sort of a highland area where the weather is cooler. But when we were rating, when we're rating our countries for climate and weather, we're considering is there someplace here that kind of no matter what you're looking for, you'll find an option in this country. And that's true, even though Panama I think is not in that top five list. It is also true of Panama, right? Just because you've got some variability there too.
Jessica Ramesch 04:03
We do we have the highland areas that are a little bit cooler, a little bit more spring-like year round. And then of course, we have the very warm tropical areas at sea level. So you do have a choice when you come to Panama.
Lea Lane 04:15
I think elevation will help a lot. Even if it's obviously a warm country. If there's a country with mountains and so forth, you can get a little bit cooler. Right climate. So you talked about being comfortable and you have a survey for fitting in, you call it fitting in, and the top five countries that you put on that are Portugal, Panama, Malta, Costa Rica, and Mexico. What are the elements that make an expat feel like they fit in? And Jessica, you live in Panama. So tell us what do you feel?
Jennifer Stevens 04:43
You know, it's not just about finding a country where there will be some English speakers where you can have a soft landing. If you're still learning whatever language is spoken in that country. I think it's also about not every expat wants to be a pioneer and go where no one has gone before. Sometimes it's really nice. So if you're new to go somewhere that does have an established expat community so that there are people constantly coming in and constantly willing to pay it forward, they get help from expats, who had been there longer than them and then when the new expat comes along, they turn around and help you.
And you know, it sounds very romantic to want to go somewhere and live amongst the locals, which of course, you'll have a better experience if you learn the language and make local friends. Absolutely. But don't discount the benefits of having that expat community, that expat grapevine, and all of these countries, they do have some really strong communities where you can ask all of those questions and just maybe commiserate every once in a while about the differences.
Lea Lane 05:40
Now, do you speak Spanish, Jessica?
Jessica Ramesch 05:43
I do. I do. I did not speak Spanish the first time I came here. And I got teased and made fun of a lot because Panamanians love to tease and they love to laugh, I realized that if if you can laugh at yourself, you will do very, very well here because they don't care. Nobody's offended. Everybody just wants to have fun and poke a little fun. And that's how I learned.
Lea Lane 06:07
That's great with the technology today, you can translate very easily. Do you have one of those machines?
Jessica Ramesch 06:12
Well, Google Translate now, if you every once in a blue moon, there are still words that don't come to mind or that I just don't know yet, you have such a variety of vocabulary in your first language. And even if you become very, very fluent in your second language, there's still things like medical terms that whatever you grew up, like scientific terms, what you went to school with, you might not have as wide of a vocab, so you can pull up Google Translate.
Lea Lane 06:35
It makes a big difference. I think for a long time, people were afraid of that, they don't speak the language. And nowadays, you can speak out even if you have to go to a technology, it'll help you there. So it shouldn't be something that keeps you from doing it.
Jennifer Stevens 06:46
And so many more people speak English these days. I mean, I remember years ago, I was living in France, I was living in Africa, people didn't speak English, to the degree that they do. Now, kids have been studying English for the past 30 years. And now they're all grown up. And a lot of places expats have formed kind of conversation groups with locals. And so you'll spend maybe half an hour speaking English with the locals, and they're practicing their English, and then you switch. And you're going to speak in your local language. And that's a great way to kind of get integrated into the community, make friends, and just practice too. And that's something we've seen pop up in lots of different countries. That's wonderful.
Lea Lane 07:22
I love that idea. Now, in one of your reports, it says in all sorts of beautiful, welcoming culturally rich places around the world, you can live well from $2,000 a month, all in housing included. Tell me more about that.
Jennifer Stevens 07:37
Yeah, well, I think what people don't necessarily realize is how expensive the United States really is, you don't notice when you're here, because you're in the bubble, right things is just what things cost. But when you leave the bubble, you discover that housing and a lot of places a lot less expensive than it is in the United States as, as as healthcare and those are the two biggest expensive most people have in the US. So if you're reducing those two costs, by radical amounts by 80%, maybe or more, all of a sudden, you've got more money to play with. And in a lot of the countries that we write about, there are also culturally there are offerings for, you know, free movies that are shown all winter in little villages in Portugal, or you know, maybe they're not free, maybe there are $2, or concerts that are out in the park, that people kind of live in a way that allows you to enjoy yourself day to day without spending a lot of money.
And so the net result is that you can go to any of the places, certainly in the top contenders in our index and a couple can live for around $2,000 a month in any of them. If you have a little more to spend, you know, then you can live even better. But generally speaking, I think if you're living on a budget of $24,000, a year in the United States, you're skimping, being careful about how you spend your money. And the advantage to going to some of these places is that you can go and you can just relax because you can afford to go out to lunch anytime you want. You can go out to dinner, when you want to you can live in a lovely little place and walk down to the beach. If you want to walk to the beach, say in California you're gonna spend at least a million dollars for your house and and rents gonna be commensurate with that right? I mean, your rents, you're gonna spend 2000 more a month just on rent. And that's not the case in so many of the places on our index. So you just get more bang for your buck.
Lea Lane 09:26
Well, the least expensive places on your index are Cambodia, Bolivia, Bali, and Vietnam. Yeah, those are lovely places. And I think that's good for people to know that they can live there for very, very little. Yeah, relative to the United States. Okay, let's talk right now about International Living's top 10 annual global retirement index 2020. You do this every year, how long has it been going on?
Jennifer Stevens 09:50
So this is our 31st annual index and I've been in International Living for 25 years now. Thank you. Yes, I've had my hand in putting this together for a long time. And over the years, we've changed criteria, we try to improve it every year, you know, the world changes and so do we. So we, we try to make it more useful each year and genuinely the ideas that I think everyone has in mind, if they had all the money in the world, how would they spend their days? Right? What would you do if money were absolutely no object? How would you would you live by the beach? Would you live in Paris? What would you do? And what we try to do is help people figure out take that ideal vision you have in your mind's eye, and we're going to show you places where you can find that. But you don't need all the money in the world. In fact, you need less than you're probably spending now to stay home. Okay,
Lea Lane 10:38
So you told us climate and cost and livability, fitting in, a comfortable feeling are those the major things?
Jennifer Stevens 10:47
Those are the main things, and also healthcare is important. Because I mean, especially people thinking to retire, you need to consider that even if you're in good shape, that doesn't mean you won't turn an ankle. So you need to have a plan for that. And also the accessibility to visas and residency because some places are great places to travel and spend time in. But we want to recommend places where you can legally stay for a length of time, right. And so some countries make that easier than others, I will say a lot of countries are quite happy to have you come as a retiree and spend your money there, they don't want you to take money out of the economy, right. So they don't want you they won't necessarily necessarily want to give you a work visa, but because if you're retired and you have some money, and often have quite a modest amount of money that you need to show that you have, they just want to make sure you're not going to be a drain on the economy, they're happy to invite you to come and stay as long as you want and spend your money. Their countries make it attractive for you to do that.
Lea Lane 11:47
And I think your list helps that the countries that make it difficult, that's very nice to know that all of these countries on the list don't have excessive problems in that regard. So let's start. Okay, we have the top 10. We'll start with 10. And then we'll go down from there. Uruguay is the 10th. Why Uruguay?
Jennifer Stevens 12:03
Uruguay is funny, it's a country that I think a lot of Americans barely know where it is, you know, it's sort of down near Argentina, right. And it's very sophisticated. It has a European feel about it. It things work there does not have a very big population. So there are wide open spaces. It's a place that is comfortable and easy for folks to fit into sod into their bowl there to fit in even just walking down the street. You know what I mean?
Lea Lane 12:30
It's a tolerant country, and there's a sculpture on the beach, to the Holocaust victims. I was surprised, you know, but yeah, it strikes, it was livable.
Jennifer Stevens 12:41
So it's not the cheapest place, not the lowest cost place on our index. But having said that, it's still gonna be less expensive than it would be to stay in the states and live at that same kind of level. But it's got beaches, it's got highland areas, colonial towns, colonial town, and it's got an educated population. And so it's a place that you can comfortably and it's also kind of in line with our time zones, which does worry some people you know, if you're in Europe, you got your five to seven, eight hour difference there. But if you are going south, you're kind of in a US timezone. And that makes that a little bit easier.
Lea Lane 13:17
Excellent. What about Spain? That's another one. You love Spain, we all love Spain. But what makes it as for as living? I mean, let's just focus on that, because we know Spain's great.
Jennifer Stevens 13:33
Yep, so Spain has wonderful health care. And once you are resident there, it is easy to access it. And you can get into the local system for very little money, you know, maybe just a little over $100 a month. And in some cases less than that. When you compare that to what most people are paying for health insurance here, you can see that it really can save you a lot of money. So the healthcare there is really good. And of course, the cost of living in Spain is remarkably low. Europe, I think we assume is very expensive. And if you're just getting on a group tour, or you're going to be in a very nice hotel in Paris, you know, we're in Madrid or something it can be it will it will be expensive, just the way New York will be expensive. However, if you are being careful about where you're going, you will find it's extremely affordable. The highest earners in Europe are earning a lot less than the highest earners in the United States. And so the average person expects there's a reverse social contract in Spain and in France and Italy as well, that expects a certain amount of comfort their taxes, buy them good health care, and it buys and things like public concerts in the park comforts that you can then access and an excellent standard of living for most people for sure. Yes, exactly.
Lea Lane 14:45
How about Malta? That's a surprise.
Jennifer Stevens 14:47
Yes, well, Malta, one of its biggest benefits is its English speaking. So there are some people who don't mind trying to learn another language and are happy enough to do it. And there are some people for whom their number one thing they have to figure out is a place where I didn't speak English. And so for that person, Malta makes very good sense.
Lea Lane 15:03
The sunshine and beautiful stone, old ancient places. It's an island, very close to Tunisia. I believe it's between Tunisia and Italy. And it was a crossroads of the world for many years. So that's why it's so interesting historically. But I'm, I'm surprised that it's a small place, and it's with the boys here. Yeah, that's very interesting. Yeah.
Jennifer Stevens 15:27
Okay, France has to offer, you know, France, it earns really high marks in the development category, the governance and healthcare if that's what sort of drives it to the top of the index. It's because France just works. Yes, there is. Bureaucracy in France as there is everywhere. But France, like once they decide they're going to do something like they've got it together. It's just a country that sort of the trains run, and they run on time, and they run everywhere. Right. And the healthcare is excellent. And the food is excellent. So you know, it's just a place where it's extremely easy to live comfortably. And it's not as expensive as you might think, you know, there are lots of touristy areas, those are going to be more expensive. But there are so many, you know, little villages, and not even that small towns that we would consider sort of second or third tier towns, maybe where you can live extremely well, you know, $30,000 a year, you'll live like a king. Wow. So yeah, so you would be surprised. Europe, I think surprises people. Once you're kind of past that tourist. You're not there with a tourist lens. It's extremely affordable.
Lea Lane 16:34
Interesting. Okay, Colombia in South America. Tell me about that.
Jennifer Stevens 16:39
Yeah. So Colombia has its strengths in cost of living and also in climate. We used to think everyone wanted to retire to the beach. But what we have discovered at International Living over all these years, is that a lot of people don't want to retire at the beach. They like to maybe visit the beach, but they really want to live somewhere where it's just sort of sweater weather year round, and they don't have to worry about snow, but they're not going to be sweating to beat all either. And so Columbia has some wonderful options in that regard among them Medellin, up at about 6000 feet. And so that means that there's no there are no bugs to speak of, you can have your windows wide open. People often don't have heating or air conditioning in their place. They might have a fireplace, or a fan ceiling fan, but it's just very temperate, you're quite comfortable. And that makes for easy living. If you're happy when the winter goes away. And spring comes, that's a place you might consider.
Lea Lane 17:35
There are beautiful beaches that I have to say and also Cartegena is one of the most beautiful colonial towns anywhere. And that's a nice place to visit and to get away from the beautiful mountains as well. So I agree on that one. How about Ecuador? Nearby Ecuador.
Jennifer Stevens 17:50
Yes, Ecuador made our index sort of it for a few years that had a run as what the best place in part because it is so affordable. Ecuador really gives you bang for your buck. And that means they're all over. There are beach areas but most particularly most American expats go to a city called Cuenca, which is sort of up in the mountains, temperate as I was saying, kind of like temperate climate. There's a big expat community there, but it is really affordable. And so there's the colonial town so it's beautiful. You're up in the mountains you can go hiking and biking. Yeah Cuenca is not too far from Quito. And it's so it's a beautiful country, but it gets up into the top five there because of its cost of living -- just almost can't spend money there.
Lea Lane 18:37
Good to know. Then we have Mexico. Now I know lots of lots of people who've retired, especially to one town, San Miguel de Allende, that is the favorite of so many. It's a beautiful colonial town in central Mexico. Why else besides the beauty and the nearness, I guess to the states.
Jennifer Stevens 18:57
Right? And that you've you've kind of hit on one of the things. It's just so easy to get there. It's, it's not expensive to fly in. There's flights all the time. But in addition, Mexico allows you as a tourist to stay up to six months. And I know they've been fiddling with their tourism rules. But generally speaking, you can stay there longer. So there are a lot of people who go to Mexico and just stay for the winter. Right? Snowbirds, or they're live in Arizona, and it's too hot and they go for the summer. And so Mexico just makes it easy to do that. Again. It's that idea that like, hey, what you're welcome to come and spend your money here. We'll take it, we're happy. And when you live in a place where the cost of living is so low, you can afford to have a housekeeper. You can afford to have somebody if you're in a house where there's a garden, the gardener can come and take care of your pole in your garden for you. These are perks that the average person doesn't get to benefit from but you know, you can live with that -- sort of a rich man's life and a lot of these places for us not much.
Lea Lane 19:50
There's so much to say about Mexico. The people are wonderful. The food is great the variation of the of the topography, it's a great country. Now we have our top two. Number two is very well known for expats, Costa Rica.
Jennifer Stevens 20:04
Absolutely. Costa Rica, it earns the highest score in health care category. The health care in Costa Rica is excellent. In fact, the New Yorker did an article just in the last last couple of months about health care in Costa Rica and talked about how they've got it figured out. They spend less than they've got a long life. They're long lived. And so healthcare is excellent. And Costa Rica, the fitting in is excellent that earns high marks in that category to what Jess was speaking about earlier that there are just groups of expats all over. Costa Rica has been marketing itself as a place for expats to come and retire for 50 years, and people have been coming. So as a result, you know, there's there lots of networks for expats there and it makes it easy. And it's I mean, also, it's just beautiful.
Lea Lane 20:45
Beautiful and ecologically wise, very, very fine.
Jennifer Stevens 20:49
Yeah. 99% of its energy is ecologically produced.
Lea Lane 20:54
Okay so Jessica, you live in the number one country on this list for expats, Panama. So tell us about it.
Jessica Ramesch 21:01
I know. And I think one of the reasons Panama has topped the index, not just this year, but consistently many, many times. It's the overall value very often when people are looking at these other countries, and many of these countries offer the same things: beaches, as you mentioned, a varied climate. But with Panama, it's just the kind of place where you can check so many boxes. And I think for those of us that end up staying here, in Panama, even though we've traveled to Ecuador, and Colombia and Costa Rica and checked all those out as well, it just sort of came back to well, but you know, I sort of get more bang for my buck here, I get higher value, I can check more boxes in Panama. And so it makes sense on paper. And then you come here and figure out whether or not you feel comfortable just with the people and the culture. And very often when people are between Costa Rica and Panama, which their two countries that border each other and have so much in common. A lot of times the visit both and it just comes down to how they felt on that visit of an intangible Panama City.
Lea Lane 22:03
It's like a big city. And that's a plus. For those who love cities.
Jessica Ramesch 22:08
It is, in San Jose is great. San Jose, Costa Rica, right? Panama City really is the only sort of big, cosmopolitan world capital in Central America. And I mean, what we have for restaurants and nightlife in the city is just people that come here and their jaw drops when they find out how much there is to do.
Lea Lane 22:32
Well, that's great. I'm so happy you're happy there. It's a great plus for us that you're actually living there and telling us about it from experience. So then, the podcast is Places I Remember. So Jessica, could you share a special memory showing us why you love Panama.
Jessica Ramesch 22:50
And for me, a lot of it boils down to the people. Sure the internet is great. And I can do my work as a writer from here, but it's the people and my dad was living here until he passed away in 2013. And, you know, I've been to countries where there's maybe a little bit more impatience with people as they get older rather than respect. Whereas here in Panama, what we encountered a lot of the time was just really respect or compassion. Supermarket cashiers would remember my dad and he was the last dinosaur insisting on paying for things with paper checks and taking forever in line and people waiting behind him and they remembered him and got to know him. And they would ask him how he was. And one day he was out, I wasn't with him. He was at a bank, and he got dizzy and passed out. You know, the people, they sat with him, they found my number in his phone, they called me, they stayed with him until the ambulance came to take him to the hospital. They went to the hospital waited until I got there. Before leaving, they kind of just left wouldn't take anything from me. Didn't want to accept anything, called me the next day to ask how is our Mr. Remasch? That's that's the kind of person that and of course not everyone's perfect, but that's just overwhelmingly what I've encountered here.
Lea Lane 24:14
Now, that's interesting, because so many times people remember the people. That's something I have found over and over 50 episodes so far, very often. It's the people that people will talk about as their memory. And that's heartwarming, and it's a good feeling. Yeah.
Thank you, Jessica Ramesch, for that lovely memory. And thanks also to Jennifer Stevens, for helping us understand what we should think about when and if we move to another country. You can find more details about becoming an expat. And the surveys we mentioned from international living in this episode shownotes and on my website placesirememberlealane.com
Thank you both.
Thanks for having us. Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book Places I Remember is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print and Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.