Who hasn’t dreamed of retiring to a place where the sun always shines, where their dollars would go a lot further than they would in the United States — maybe so much that they can take early retirement — and every day has the potential to be a new adventure? It’s little wonder US citizens are leaving the country in record numbers. Still, turning fantasy into reality isn’t always easy. There are immigration bureaucracies and tax systems to navigate, not to mention learning a new language later in life. (Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Spanish-speaking countries tend to make appealing destinations for second or third acts.) Culture shock is real, and assimilation can be hard — no matter where you choose, it’s important to be aware of it. That said, some destinations are more welcoming than others — with great weather, sunny beaches, a relatively low cost of living, a high quality of affordable health care, favorable tax structures, and ease of immigration.
A place that prided itself on sustainability well before sustainability became an international buzzword, Costa Rica is known for its natural beauty, outdoorsy active lifestyle, friendly locals, expat enclaves like Manuel Antonio and the Papagayo Peninsula, and a well-established health care system that offers high-quality care (especially preventive care) for a fraction of US prices. Overall, according to research from Numbeo, consumer prices including rent are 40.7% lower than the US average. Also, the IMF pointed out that Costa Rica ranked 16th on the 2021 World Happiness Report, making it one of just two emerging market economy countries in the top 20, which it called “a lot of happiness per GDP dollar.”
If you felt like everyone moved to Mexico during the pandemic, you were right. Already popular for vacations, Mexico became a haven for remote workers looking to escape lockdowns. For retirees, it still has much to offer, including its warm climate, charming old cities such as Todos Santos and San Miguel de Allende (which also happen to have large expat communities), and high-quality, affordable health system, not to mention excellent food throughout the country. Mexico also has a straightforward immigration process with relatively low savings or income requirements, and a tax system that’s favorable for foreign retirees. And of course, it’s easy to get back to visit family and friends in the US.
The southernmost country in North America checks all the boxes: Panama has warm weather, beautiful beaches, a low cost of living, and a well-established health care system. It’s also one of the safest countries in Central America. Panama offers a special residence status for retirees with a low bar to entry —a demonstrable pension or income of only $1,000 per month. Once you get that visa, you can apply for the Panama Pensionado Program, which includes things like exemptions on import taxes on household goods and cars, and discounts on things like utility bills, entertainment, and medical fees. Even without that, Numbeo found that consumer prices including rent are 42.1% lower than in the US.
For North Americans who’ve always dreamed of living in Europe, Spain is one of the easiest and most pleasant places to make the leap. From the beaches of the Costa del Sol and the Moorish-influenced cities of Andalusia to the coastal enclaves in Alicante and the nearly endless summer of the Canary Islands, Spain has something for everyone. According to International Living’s Global Retirement Index, Spain has the second lowest cost of living in Europe, along with a rich culture and international community. The country also has a special Non Lucrative Visa for retirees, which is relatively easy to get, and a favorable tax system for foreigners.
A little more under the radar, but home to beautiful historic cities like Quito and Portoviejo, a mild climate, and stunning natural scenery, Ecuador is increasingly becoming a top retirement destination. Health care is good quality and affordable. According to International Living, a person who would pay a $1,200 monthly insurance premium in the US might pay as little as $70. It also has a range of retirement visas and residency permits, particularly for Americans with a bit of money in the bank. If the requirement of a lifetime pension of $1,275 per month is too high, it’s also possible to secure an investment visa for as little as $42,500, which can be kept in a local bank account. That money can go a long way, as consumer prices including rent are 62.1% lower than in the US, according to Numbeo.
The shadow cast by Pablo Escobar has long faded, and Colombia has become far safer and more stable than it used to be. In fact, it has the third-largest economy in Latin America, a stable government, and world-class health care, according to International Living. It touches both the Pacific and the Caribbean and has high mountains and plateaus in between, making it a good fit for people who crave all kinds of environments, for living or just for weekends away. The requirement for a migrant pensionado visa is less than $1,000 in monthly social security payments, and the cost of living is low.
Belize has the advantage of being the only destination on this list where English is the official language, which makes it appealing for people who have trouble learning languages. In general, the country has a friendly and welcoming culture, as well as lovely beaches, beautiful rainforests, and barrier islands that offer a Caribbean lifestyle. Health care is of decent quality, and the country has a Qualified Retired Persons program that offers tax exemptions and other benefits. The minimum qualifying age to take advantage of it is only 45.
Although the cost of living can be somewhat high, Malta is appealing for its high-quality health care, relatively easy immigration process, and tax incentives for retirees. It also has the advantages of island living — warm climate, beautiful scenery — and the infrastructure of a modern European country. Establishing residence there also makes it easy to travel around or even live part time in other parts of Europe. According to Numbeo, consumer prices including rent are 26.5% lower than they would be in the US.
With its tropical climate, beautiful scenery, stunning beaches, delicious food, and low cost of living, Thailand is becoming an increasingly popular destination for North American retirees. Although the culture shock can be more profound than in the Americas or Europe, the people are welcoming, and the country lives up to its sales pitch as the Land of Smiles. Health care is affordable and good, and the cost of living is low, roughly half of what it would be in the US, according to Numbeo. A special retirement visa, which provides a path to residence, is available to people over the age of 50.
Even though the cost of living is higher than in other countries on this list, and the immigration process can be a bit more difficult, Italy makes the cut — who hasn’t fantasized about la dolce vita? While the Under the Tuscan Sun fantasy may be a bit far-fetched, there are areas of the country, such as Puglia — where the locals are said to be especially patient with people who are still learning Italian — and Abruzzo, where it’s possible to settle into a good life at affordable prices in a small city.