The Best & Worst Places For Expats In 2021

Taiwan, Mexico, and Costa Rica are the best expat destinations worldwide in 2021 according to the Expat Insider survey.

Plane over water. Iryna_Rasko

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Global networking community InterNations conducts one of the biggest annual surveys of expat life, Expat Insider. This year, over 12,000 expats representing 174 nationalities participated. Covering key indices such as Quality of Life, Ease of Settling In, Working Abroad, Personal Finance, and Cost of Living, the findings are a must-read for anyone interested in living abroad.

This Year's Winners

Taiwan ranks 1st out of 59 destinations for the third year in a row in the survey, thanks in large part due to its first place in the Quality of Life and Working Abroad Indices. Expats stress their satisfaction with their job security (83% satisfied vs. 61% globally), the state of the local economy (85% vs. 62% globally), and the quality of medical care positively (96% vs. 71% globally). Taiwan is also the best-ranking destination worldwide in the Friendliness subcategory (1st), with 96% of expats describing the Taiwanese population as friendly towards foreign residents (vs. 67% globally).

Second-placed Mexico does even better when it comes to the ease of settling in (1st): 85% of respondents find it easy to settle down in Mexico (vs. 62% globally), and 78% say it is easy to make local friends (vs. 44% globally). Mexico also does well in the Personal Finance (2nd) and Cost of Living (4th) Indices. In fact, four in five expats (80%) are satisfied with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally), and 90% say their disposable household income is enough or more than enough to cover their living expenses (vs. 77% globally).

Costa Rica, which places 3rd overall, receives some of its best results in the Ease of Settling In Index (3rd). More than nine in ten expats (91%) describe the population as generally friendly (vs. 69% globally), and 70% find it easy to make local friends (vs. 44% globally). Costa Rica comes in second place worldwide for personal happiness — just behind Mexico (1st) —makes it into the top 10 of the Personal Finance Index (7th). Over four in five expats (84%) consider their disposable household income enough or more than enough to cover all expenses (vs. 77% globally).

The Worst-Ranked Destinations

For the seventh time in eight years, Kuwait comes in last place in the Expat Insider survey (59th out of 59 countries). The country ranks last in the Quality of Life (59th) and Ease of Settling In (59th) Indices, with 46% of expats not feeling at home in the local culture (vs. 20% globally) and 45% finding it difficult to settle down in this country (vs. 22% globally). Around a third are also dissatisfied with their job in general (31% vs. 16% globally) and their work-life balance specifically (34% vs. 17% globally).

Italy is the second-worst country for expats and even lands in last place worldwide in the Personal Finance Index (59th). It also performs poorly in the Working Abroad Index (58th): more than half the expats (56%) rate their local career opportunities negatively (vs. 33% globally), and 31% are dissatisfied with their job (vs. 16% globally). An Iranian expat shares: "Finding a job is not easy for foreigners."

Expats in South Africa (57th overall) are similarly dissatisfied with their working life (54th in the index) and their finances (55th): over one-third (34%) do not consider their disposable household income enough to cover all their expenses (vs. 24% globally). And only about three in ten (31%) are happy with the state of the local economy — exactly half the global average (62%). What's more, just about one in four respondents in South Africa (24%) feel safe there (vs. 84% globally), with the country coming in last worldwide in the Safety & Security subcategory (59th).

Find out more in the complete Expat Insider 2021 report.

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Latin America, The Next Mecca For Digital Nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend.

Working in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Natalia Vera Ramírez

LIMA — Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all.

Olson recently tweeted that the average freelancer based in New York City could lower standard monthly costs from $4,000 to $1,000 by setting up shop in Ecuador.

Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

To this end, he says, the government of President Guillermo Lasso is preparing a temporary residency visa for such workers. It "allows foreigners to work remotely for foreign firms in Ecuador. How does it benefit our country? By bringing foreign exchange into our economy and creating jobs," Olson stated.

Ecuador wants to be the first Latin American country to issue such visas, and the timing could not be better. While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050.

A remote worker on the beach in Mexico

A remote worker on the beach in Mexico — Photo: Wonderlijk Werken

Latin America wants to compete with Europe 

Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work.

It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.

Carlos Ricardo Benavides, the legislator promoting this law, says it will be a stimulus for Costa Rica's "economic reactivation. With this legislation, which is pioneering in its area, Costa Rica has a great tool to boost the country as a choice destination."

Neighboring Panama is also creating short-term residencies for remote workers and plans to extend tourist visas. The nation hopes to use the foreign cash spent on hospitality, retail and local services to revive an economy that shrank 17.9% in 2020.

Mexico offers temporary residencies to attract digital nomads

Mexico, meanwhile, offers no particular visa for digital nomads but remains one of their favored destinations, with 20 Mexican cities and towns currently hosting remote workers.. At the moment, the country simply offers temporary residencies for applicants able to show financial solvency (either $1,650 in monthly income or a bank balance with at least $27,000).

In Colombia, the government approved a Law of Enterprises that includes special migratory rules. It stipulates that the "Government, through the Ministry of Foreign Relations, shall expedite a special regimen for the entry, residence and work of digital nomads [...] with the purpose of promoting the country as a center for remote work."

When it comes to choosing a destination, taxes are often a decisive factor for digital nomads. Foreigners must consider facilities and infrastructure provided by host country, says Valeria Galindo, People Advisory Services Partner with the accounting firm EY Perú. But no less important in the choice of destination are " the tax consequences moving to a foreign country can have for themselves and their firm. Let's remember, many countries work on the basis of territoriality, which can generate taxes both in the destination country and in terms of the firm's settlement arrangements."

AirBnB partners with the city of Buenos Aires

Why are various Latin American countries courting digital nomads as residents? A study by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, called "Work and Wander: Meet Today's Digital Nomads," found that 87% of them earned around $4,500 a month, and spent around 36% of these earnings wherever they reside. Their work profiles were a mix of writing, sales and IT programming.

The website Nomadlist also finds these workers are generally young and more disposed to try different experiences and visit new places.

Their disposable income — and their willingness to spend it — makes digital nomads a boon to the continent's battered travel sector. The Mexican government found that a single person's stay for three months or longer translates to thousands of dollars poured into the local economy.

Victoria Bramati, Airbnb's communications chief for South America, says "the pandemic is changing the way we work, live and travel. People want to live anywhere," and technology is making this possible. This, she adds, is "happening in real time." In June 2021, the company came up with Live Anywhere on Airbnb, a pilot program where 12 people shared various Airbnb lodgings for 10 months. She said it was an opportunity for people to "make the world their home" for nearly a year, with most of the costs at Airbnb's expense. The firm recently signed an agreement with the Buenos Aires city government to jointly promote the Argentine capital as an international destination, particularly for remote workers.

Between its low costs, exotic destinations and colorful cultures, Latin America has a major potential to become the next digital nomad hotspot. And the moment is ripe to entice travelers who don't need — or want — to return home.

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