The Dark Side of Retiring Abroad

Monday Apr 24 | BY |
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Beautiful beach

For years, I’ve subscribed to a few ezines about retiring and living abroad, such as International Living and Live and Invest Overseas.

I’m only 41, but this topic has interested me for a long time, as I’ve always felt a strong draw to exploring and living in other countries.

And if you’re getting close to retirement age, you might also have considered the possibility of retiring abroad and even subscribed to some of those ezines, or their printed magazines.

The offer is tempting, but few expats are willing to discuss the negatives, because it’s bad for business. Keep in mind that International Living and other such publications paint a very positive picture of retiring abroad because that’s what they sell! They want you to attend their live events costing several thousand dollars.

Many people made a move without realizing what they were getting into. Many end up burned and disillusioned. In the best case, they end up moving back home after a few years. In the worst case, they face a financial disaster. Sometimes they end up staying in the country because they just cannot afford to go back home, even though they’d love to do so.

I’ve met many people who told me their experiences and the tales of other expats. It’s often not pretty. Alcoholism. Estrangement. Scams. Loneliness. Underreported crime statistics. Isolation.

It’s the dark side of moving to Paradise.

The Main Problem

The biggest problem with publications like International Living is that they convince many folks of the benefits of retiring overseas without being totally honest about the reality. It’s a postcard-perfect picture, and many people who have never traveled much in their lives or been adventurous are convinced to give it a try.

They end up making the moving without having previously lived abroad. They discover the truth the hard way, through personal experience. And when they realize that it’s not what they expected, they are too deeply invested in this project to retreat easily. Many purchase property without having spent more than a few weeks in the new country!

I once met a couple at a seminar about moving abroad in Panama who purchased a condo there on the spot… after having been there only a few times on vacation and without having spent more than a few weeks total there!

So let’s go through all the reasons why retiring abroad might not be the right choice for most people.

Language-Culture Barrier

Let’s be honest: you will probably not learn the local language. You say you will, but most likely it’s not going to happen.

I’ve rarely met someone who has successfully learned a foreign language to acceptable fluency past the age of 40 or 50. Even past the age of 30, it’s rare.

Sure, you will be able to learn enough to survive in the country, buy groceries, greet your neighbors and even converse a bit with taxi drivers, maids and other people with whom you’ll interact. But you will not learn enough to read the local papers, watch television, or participate in elaborate conversations with people. In other words, you’ll never fully feel part of society. You’ll be an expat living in your world.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s possible to learn a foreign language at any point in life. But it’s a major commitment the vast majority of people don’t have the determination to do it. I studied many foreign languages in my life to an intermediate or advanced level (German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese), but I did it before the age of 25 (and I was lucky enough to be more or less bilingual in French and English before that.) I’m not sure that I would be able to do it again in my 50s.

Better to be honest rather than optimistic. If you’ve never learned a foreign language before, it’s better to assume that the language barrier will be a problem.

Cultural Differences

Language barriers are one thing, but they’re nothing compared to cultural barriers. The subtle differences in attitudes and behavior in each culture are vast and take a lifetime to master. We don’t tend to see them when travel. It’s only after living for years in another country that these differences become apparent.

The impact of this is significant. Language and cultural barriers make us  feel like a foreigner in a strange land. For some people, this is exciting and positive. But for most, it’s tiresome and frustrating.

Island Time

You can call it “Island Time,” or “A Different Pace of Living,” but the fact of the matter is that a lot of things don’t won’t seem to get done very well in your new country.

From getting a decent Internet connection to daily errands such as banking, the bureaucracy and inefficiency can be frustrating.

Cost of Living

“Retiring abroad” publications emphasize that aspect, and in fact, it’s one of the primary motivations for most people to retire overseas.

For example, International Living estimates that living in Ecuador can cost as living as $1500 a month for a couple living a “very comfortable lifestyle,” including health insurance. In the United States, this amount is considered below the poverty line.

It is true that you can you can live for cheaper abroad, but it’s by giving up things that may be difficult to give up.

You have to live more like locals. Buy local. Forgo many of the conveniences most Westerners take for granted. Again, it’s easy to say you will be able to do that, but if you’ve never done it your life, you can’t assume that you’ll start in retirement.

My friend Natasha St-Michael, who has been living in Bali for many years and now is raising a family there, tells me that it costs about the same to live there as an expat as it does in the US or Canada. Why? Because you’ll want additional comfort, conveniences, and indulge in some traveling to make the most of your move abroad.

For example, when I was spending my winters in Costa Rica, I rented an apartment that cost me $375 a month. But to pay that little, I was staying in a typical Costa Rican neighborhood in a non-touristic town. It was a great deal, and the apartment was even quite comfortable for local standards. But there was one thing I simply could not get used to: the level of noise that Costa Ricans take for granted and which doesn’t seem to bother them. I’m talking about dogs madly barking all night, roosters “announcing the day” at any time of the day or night, neighbors blasting their radio, cars with speakers advertising products on the street (this is common in Latin America). This noise was driving me crazy and even after years, I still could not get used to it.

Finally, when my ex-wife and I spent six months there, we moved to a quieter location, renting a larger house where we could more easily work from home. It cost us $1200 a month. Not bad, but this is comparable to prices in North America in many smaller towns for similar rentals.

Produce is usually a lot cheaper in developing countries, but many other products are difficult to find. You’ll often end up ordering many things online, paying a lot in shipping and import taxes. In the end, I wouldn’t count on saving too much by retiring abroad unless you’re willing to make some serious sacrifices.

Distance from Friends and Family

You’ll say that you’ll come back home once a year to visit friends and family, and you’ll invite them to visit you. Some of them will come. Most won’t. And those who visit you won’t do it very often. You’ll go back home to see everybody, but eventually, it will become too expensive to do so.

Skype is a great invention to stay in touch with family, but it doesn’t replace personal, in-person interaction. When you retire abroad, you have to assume that you’ll lose regular contact with your friends and family. If they this is important to you now, carefully think about how a radical move to another country might affect you. Don’t rationalize your way around this issue!


Publications on moving abroad overpromise about what individual countries have to offer. My experience and that of many others has been different.

Medical services — It’s true that medical costs are drastically lower overseas. But it doesn’t mean that the quality is the same. You have to carefully research the services offered at hospitals and clinics around the world. For most people, they will be sufficient. However, anyone facing complex medical issues will probably find that the level of medical services won’t be adequate in some countries, especially remote locations.

Safety — It’s better to talk to the locals about this issue, rather than questioning expats, who always downplay the problems because they refuse to see the reality. Granted, this isn’t a concern in every country where people retire overseas, but a huge issue in Latin America. When I lived in Costa Rica, I got an insider perspective on this. Crime stats are inaccurate because most events don’t get reported to the police, who rarely can do anything about it anyway. Home invasions are still very common, and criminals don’t take half-measures.

Local Corruption – One indicator of the wealth of a country is its level of corruption. Corruption erodes the foundation of democracy and prevents countries with high potential to get to the next level. The top ten countries with the lowest markers of corruption (Denmark is number one!) are among the richest countries with the best quality of life. The countries with the most corruption are the poorest. Corruption is rampant in much of Latin America. It will be difficult to get things done without getting ripped off. Buying real estate is problematic, and scams are common. Law enforcement is weak. If something happens, most likely you will never see your money again.

The Magic Fades With Time

When you first discover a new culture, everything is wonderful. You’re living the first stage of cultural shock called “the honeymoon.” But as time passes by, you will enter the second stage, which is the actual shock. You start realizing all the differences and the new things that bug you about the new cultures. You start realize the magnitude of the difficulties that you didn’t envision when you got started. You start feeling isolated. You miss home. You might even go through a depression. Many expats, as a result, develop a drinking problem.

Cultural shock can lead to a positive acceptance of the new culture. You become acclimatized, and you start loving your new life. Or, it can lead to bitterness, depression, and regret. That’s when you want to go home — if you can because you haven’t invested everything into this project as many have!

Cultural shock is a real thing, and the best way to manage it is to be aware of it and know it’s going to happen. Don’t deny it and prepare for it. What seems wonderful about a new country can quickly turn around into disgust.

A Better Way?

Please don’t misunderstand me: Retiring abroad is a fantastic option to have and can be a positive move for the right type of person. If you’ve been adventurous all your life and you’ve lived overseas for several years, then you might be better prepared for this change. However, it’s still a good idea to avoid committing to anything, never purchase real estate overseas unless you’ve been living in the country for at least five years (I feel strongly about that!), and spend at least one full year somewhere renting before you even decide to move. Until then, you’re better off trying it out without committing to anything and without going through the complicated process of visas and moving and selling any of your stuff abroad.

Choosing the right country is important, and try not to rationalize or downplay any issue that might bug you in the future.

A better option for most people is to stay where they are, but find a way to travel every winter for one or several months. The weather is a big reason why people choose to retire abroad, so if you can avoid the worst of your winter by traveling, you’ll get the best of both worlds. This is what I do anyway, and plan to continue doing in the future!

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.


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  1. Bruce says:

    Good frank article, Thanks.

  2. Leila says:

    As someone who grew up in Lebanon and currently lives in San Diego I can very much appreciate the points that you bring to this article. I go back to Lebanon often and I think I can handle a month maximum – and it’s my own culture! I consider myself pretty adventurous and have spent time in Latin America and Africa and I can attest to the fact that it can be a lot of fun to spend that honeymoon phase in a new culture but then the shock sets in! I experienced that moving to Canada originally – and there can be depression that follows. But now that I have spent time here and have grown accustomed to being able to have access to a lot of goods and services – especially as someone who uses a lot of herbs and natural products. I even order stuff for my family in Germany and bring it with me when I go visit because its too difficult or can’t be ordered there. We can literally get anything we want here in the US, which can be hard to go without. So all in all, thank you for shedding light on these issues Frederic!

  3. Manwel says:

    Excellent article. As a world traveler myself I couldn’t agree more, especially the first point about the noise, even in Asia lol.

  4. Wendy green says:

    What is the purpose of this negative article? I am a thriving expat since 2005. My life is immeasurably better outside of the states. Yes, no country is perfect, but the pros far out weigh the cons. I never got hooked into “internal living”..big scam in view. Do your research, travel, ask questions, follow your heart.

    • Hi Wendy. It’s good that you’ve been a successful expat. I’m not denying that they exist! The purpose of the article is to give the other side of the story so people can make better decisions. But your advice is excellent.

  5. Mr.Patenaude:
    First you move to a Beautiful Country and a City with Old and good culture, during my traveling to Canada from West to East, i found out that someday i will move to live, even Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto, but i will better stay in Texas, but you are right about moving some other county without speaking the Language which is the most thing to learn, then the culture comes after and other things than you said, you give great ideas to anybody.

  6. Lora Lee Goodson says:

    Ha-ha! I read about the “island time” aspect and the language-culture barrier, and I must say that simply moving from Florida to a small town in Eastern Kentucky has offered those challenges. It is really aggravating. Can’t wait to move back home!

    Read this article because I was looking at Greek Islands as a possible home in the near future… I do think that most of your downsides would apply mostly to places like Latin America and places like India, Thailand, etc… but I loved the article and found it very helpful. You’re so right about publications sugar-coating everything.

    • The Greek Isles are completely dead in the winter, from what I hear. In many cases the ferries service stops completely in November. Perhaps a good place to call home for a few months every summer?

  7. Morris says:

    Best place to retire is in USA. Many choices. Oregon & Arizona are my preferences. Even southern California(Palm desert, 29 palms , Apple valley, cherry valley …etc are very cheap).

  8. Excellent article! I have been following you since 2000 and started by reading yourEat an Apple Magazine. I have also have most of your books. I spent 22 years in the Navy and have traveled all over the world. Most of the time when we would pull into a port I would grab my camera get a map and go wandering. Eating the local food and talking to the locals. I learned a lot from these experiences. I never went on tours because they were too restrictive. I retired in 1977 and since then have not traveled much except for a Carnival cruise in 2008 where I watched people get off the ship and on to a bus which took them to a private resort hotel and beach. I walked the street taking pictures and talking to the locals. In 2011 was fortunate enough to go to Tai Yuan China for a month and live with a friends family. It was a great experience. First of all we had to check in with the police because we were staying in a private home. I lived like a regular local eating the food. shopping their stores going to their hospitals.For the whole month I saw only five non Chinese. I went to places most tourist will never see. I was a 6′ white haired 71 year old American and got a lot of stares. My friend spoke Mandarin and was my only means of communicating, It was like when I was growing up not speaking French and trying to communicate with my French Canadian Grandmother. I love to travel but have no wish to live in another country not even New York City.

  9. Lynn Fraley says:

    Thanks for a terrific article, and a great contribution to the discussion. Good for the people for whom being an expat works .. you presented a very realistic view of what I suspected. Years ago, on vacation in Mazatlan, I met a family who had relocated there. I remember them having blank stares when discussing their experience, and I didn’t ask much. I think they were past the honeymoon phase. Yes, there are plenty of wonderful places in the US where I think people can happily retire, and probably better renting there first too!

  10. Hi Frederic,
    My wife and I (now in our middle 60’s) are very adventurous – married over 30 years, had both our kids at home with a midwife, have eaten a plant based diet for decades, travelled to Mexico, Costa Rica, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and quite a number of western US states with our “unschooled” children. We also lived in New Zealand foe 5 years (loved it, and yes actually experienced culture shock in an English speaking country). One thing we did as an aid to our unschooling was to downsize our lifestyle… we became property caretakers so rather than paying rent anywhere we were paid to live on beautiful properties ( our last gig was managing a 10 acre organic orchard in Takaka, Golden Bay, South Island Aotearoa, New Zealand growing avocados, citrus, apples, pears, figs, plums, almonds, macadamia nuts, cherimoya, persimmons, etc) this was with an ocean view multi-million dollar property overlooking Golden Bay…in other words MAGIC! We also were caretakers for a 28 acre private island (Coconut Island, or Moku o Loe off Kaneohe, Oahu) with a beautiful home and salary all of which complimented our unschooling lifestyle. All this to say that the considerations and cautions you have written about here are real and very important! That said, if a person (or family does realistically appraise the pitfalls and challenges) it is possible to have a wonderful lifestyle in a foreign Country AND many of the challenges you relate are things we’ve experienced living in New Mexico and Arizona (ie different cultures within the US that are every bit as different, to us, as Costa Rica (albeit CR had additional challenges with language). We now live on Oahu and work for our son’s design company (South Shore Design Concepts) and we’re loving it. It’s entirely possible that we could move again to another Country and learn another language and yes, it would be challenging!

  11. Dee says:

    Someone who says “do your research” does not understand that most people do not express everything. I moved around and no one said that this place is backwards, or full of rednecks and I did my research:) I tried to persuade my really good friend not to leave for USA, because she won’t be happy as she is at home (which was my experience). She moved and was happy. From that point on I do not give advice, because each individual is made differently and has their own path/destiny that is very unique. So while this compilation of facts is spot on in general for truly stupid naïve people, I’d give others who venture for whatever reason 50/50 chance to make it.

  12. Ed says:

    Life gets easier anyway when one retires, no work stress, no commuting, etc. with lots of free time to do things locally one didn’t have time to do, once I retire I would try enjoying life in sunny Arizona where I live now and enjoy all its conveniences and things it offers before ever thinking about moving to another country, but since summers are too hot in Arizona and as a vegan I’d really enjoy visiting Thailand with its prestine beaches, fruits, people, and low cost…… The USA offers best products and services you’ll not get anywhere, just might down to the warm Arizona to experience the best….

  13. Art says:

    Thank you Frederic,

    As someone who has lived decades outside of developed countries, what you say does apply to 95% of the people from the developed world. I cannot imagine how almost all expats can live in a country without learning the language, but they do. Just like you said.

    But I cannot see myself living in 95% of the places in the so-called developed world. They are police states that are tottering on economic collapse. I can go to my local bank in Brazil or Jordan or Turkey and take out all of my savings in cash without anyone calling the police on me. The local crime in Brazil would make this foolish, once I walk out the door of the bank, as you have pointed out.

    I will take the open hearts and warmth of people any day. When I visit Anglophone countries I am shocked at the low level of politeness and general superficiality. Stuff always gets done eventually (I have to wait 1 month to get my residence visa renewed in Jordan), but there is TIME.

    Funny, I see the problem of people not adapting to the rest of the world as a sign of the narrowness of their culture (not being cosmopolitan) and not cultivating the personal qualities like patience and flexibility. If one has not done that, and most people have not, then they should re-read your article and take heed. Otherwise, go for it with the stipulations you have wisely stated.

    Thank you again.

  14. German Ciuba says:

    Thank-you, Frederic, for this article. I get information about retirement abroad almost every day in the e-mail. You are right – they almost always emphasise the positive aspects. Your message is a valuable corrective. I have thought of retiring outside the US, mainly because I have very limited financial resources and cannot afford the high cost of living here, but also because I seek a respite from the politics of my beloved country, with its constant drumbeat of war. I lived in Canada (Ottawa) for six years, and even that was an adjustment for this American – things were almost the same, but not quite. One thing that has held me back from pursuing a life abroad is my fear of flying, which I gave into completely once I moved from Canada back to the area where I now live (Pennsylvania,) which is close to family and friends. I don’t know what to do, but I do appreciate your take on the question, and would gladly read more.

    • Hi German. I don’t know you and I don’t have much information, but my intuition based on what you wrote solely is that it might be a bad move for you to try to move abroad mainly for the cost of living. The good thing about the USA, compared to Canada and other countries, is that there are plenty of lower-cost areas that you can call home. I would look into that first. But I may be wrong so make sure to do your research!

  15. Mary says:

    When I moved to Mexico 6 years ago, I had put the stuff I did not bring into storage since I was not sure if I would stay here. My Spanish is still pretty limited and I have picked up more and more words over time. I do care.

    I have moved several times, once to get closer to Guadalajara and the airport so my daughter would visit here.

    About 3.5 years ago, I moved to Puerto Vallarta. Summers can be challenging and winters are a treat to someone like me who does not like cold. There are several Timeshares available here and my daughter uses them and has come probably 3 years in a row in November.

    Yes, some things are not available here. As for crime, the US tends to post problems in Mexico in 4″ headlines. The US probably has more than we do.

    There are fewer vaccines given here and I like that. No one has tried to get me to do any vaccine at this point.

    If you do decide to move somewhere in Latin America, give yourself a few months at least before burning bridges. Then you could move back or try a different location instead.

    • Mary says:

      P.S. I forgot to mention that as a child thru age 14 or so, I had traveled to at least 30 states in the US, not willingly much of the time. So moving & being independent is second nature to me.

  16. Gene R. says:

    Great article as usual!!!

    Until now, I’ve never seen a good article that discusses BOTH the Pros and the Cons of leaving the American Homeland.

    Like many people, I was ready to move to Latin America. That is, until some of my friends told me about a neighbor of theirs who was falsely accused of murder. Fake evidence was used in court. To avoid leaving earth prematurely, he found several friends in the United States who were willing and able to pay a bribe of several hundred thousand dollars. He is back in the good ‘ole” USA. Needless to say, he never loved the bad aspects of the USA more.

    When you think about it, what recourse do you have with a corrupt government when you are living by yourself within a foreign culture?

    • Hi Gene! This is an extreme example of what I was talking about. I had in mind many real estate and banking issues I witnessed in Costa Rica , and in one case been a victim of, and stories I heard from other countries. This doesn’t completely surprise me. I wouldn’t trust the lawyers in those countries either. I honestly don’t know what recourse someone would have in that case! I would probably start with contacting the embassy of your government for advice.

  17. JAMES says:

    Is that Playas Del Coco?

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