Expat guide: cheapest places to live in the world
They say that travel broadens the mind, but it can deepen the pockets too. Choose one of the cheapest countries to live in and you can also see your income go further. In the era of globalisation, cross-border digital banking and e-commerce, the options for combining travel and work go beyond teaching English as a foreign language. There are now more than 35 million digital nomads living the expat lifestyle, carrying out their profession of choice at the home-market rate in a country that offers lower living costs.
But before swapping your cubicle and commute for a tropical workspace or far-flung coffee shop, find out which of the 195 countries in the world are the cheapest to live in. Here are our top 11 picks for countries with a lower cost of living where your money has greater purchasing power.
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The methodology behind our shortlist
For consistency and transparency, to find the cheapest places to live in the world we’re comparing expat expenses according to the most recent Numbeo cost of living index (the higher the number the better) and quality of life index (the lower the better), as well as the estimated monthly budget (in US dollars) according to the world population review. We are not ranking countries that are not feasible expat destinations, whether because of political unrest or insufficient infrastructure for expat working and banking.
Bear in mind too that in order to enjoy the fruits of living and working abroad in the world’s cheapest expat destinations, you will need to satisfy the travel and work visa requirements for each country.
Cost of living: 89th | Monthly Budget USD $639 | Quality of life: 79th
Vietnam has established itself as a popular destination for digital nomads, drawn to the winning combination of culture, cuisine and coast. Accommodation, dining and transport are all cheap, as is medical care, but prices are creeping up in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city. Local jobs in teaching are available, but the process for applying for visas and work permits can be complex. For early adopters in search of the “next Vietnam”, on the other hand, look to neighbouring Cambodia.
Cost 67th | Monthly Budget USD $852 | Quality 50th
More than 70,000 American expats, many of them retirees, now call Costa Rica home. The climate is balmy, land is cheap, and life is affordable. Most expats head to the Central Valley area around the capital San José, but there are also communities along the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea coasts. Apart from the lower living costs, the attraction of Costa Rica (and neighbouring Panama) is to put away the laptop for the weekend and head into lush National Park teeming with wildlife.
Cost 125th | Monthly Budget USD $538 | Quality 51st
Competition is stiff when it comes to top expat destinations in central and eastern Europe with a low cost of living. Lesser-known Georgia edges out Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, however, because it hits the sweet spot for cost and quality. Expat freelancers from 95 countries can stay for up to a year without a visa, compared to the maximum 90-day limit before requiring a work visa that is standard in the EU.
The Georgian government actively supports digital nomads through the Remotely from Georgia initiative. A year leaves you plenty of time to explore the Caucasus mountains, capital Tbilisi, and to savour the outstanding local food and wine.
Cost 64th | Monthly Budget USD $1,038 | Quality 20th
Western Europe is not traditionally a region where a euro stays long in the wallet, but Portugal offers the best value for expats as one of the cheapest countries to live in Europe. The climate, affordable food, cheap accommodation, and rich culture have drawn tourists for years. Now digital nomads and expats are joining sizeable English-speaking communities in Lisbon, Porto and Faro for long-term stays.
Cost 137th | Monthly Budget USD $423 | Quality 60th
India offers extraordinary value and an almost unrivalled culinary and cultural experience, but it’s important to pick your spot. Don’t expect your expat income to go far in modern Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore or any of the bigger cities. With 55% of India’s population now part of the urban, affluent and well-educated middle class, you will have to head to rural India to access the low accommodation and travel costs that backpackers recognise. With that comes a caveat. Expat women may find that the lingering threat of sexual harassment comes at too high a price and so-called “Eve teasing” remains a menace.
Cost 93rd | Monthly Budget USD$652 | Quality 53rd
It takes a special place to nudge perennial favourite Thailand from the list, but Malaysia offers everything cost-conscious expats are looking for. It always has, in fact. Since colonial times, elegant Georgetown has been a much-loved retreat, while cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur is a true melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European cultures. The cuisine is outstanding (especially the street food scene), the natural beauty enchanting, and the expat communities vibrant. Remarkably, Malaysia is somehow extremely affordable too, and the pace of life slightly less frenetic than in neighbouring countries.
Cost 97th | Monthly Budget USD $548 | Quality 78th
Although Indonesia covers 17,000 islands and has a population of over 270 million, most expats focus solely on the tropical paradise of Bali. The province has grown from a secret backpacker haven to a major destination for digital nomads and talk around the pool these days is more likely to be about dropshipping than surfing. Expats can secure astonishing levels of luxury in Bali at affordable prices, but expect to pay a full year’s rent in advance. Those who opt for Jakarta instead will find it a world away. It’s vast, bustling and humid, but in return expats can enjoy greater opportunities with international companies and a more intense energy level than in Bali.
Cost 136th | Monthly Budget USD $574 | Quality 69th
The value of local currency and the state of national politics can be volatile in Latin America, but several countries are seizing their moment in the expat spotlight. We’re choosing Colombia over highly rated Peru, Argentina and Ecuador because of its standout biodiversity, culture, and climate. Most expats pass straight through the efficient but uninspiring capital Bogota and settle in cosmopolitan Medellin, colonial-era Cartagena, or tropical Barranquilla. Wherever you choose, accommodation is cheap, entertainment options almost unlimited, and healthcare affordable if you do happen to overdo things.
Cost 79th | Monthly Budget USD $711 | Quality n/a
Whether a country of 10 million people can be a hidden gem is debatable, but the Dominican Republic still feels like an undiscovered secret. Ironically, the Spanish established the capital Santo Domingo as their base for conquering the New World in the 1500s. Their legacy today is preserved in a UNESCO World Heritage site and you as an expat can live a short walk away for just a few hundred dollars a month. Most expats head to the northern coast cities of Sosua and Puerto Plata, however. Few places in the Caribbean offer so much unspoilt beauty for so little. On the flip side, crime rates in the region as a whole are high and hurricanes are a seasonal threat.
Cost 78th | Monthly Budget USD $974 | Quality 40th
More than a million expats live in South Africa, typically around Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. Although rampant crime rates and wealth inequality tend to push expats into a somewhat gated lifestyle, there’s so much to enjoy if you do venture beyond the range of wifi. Look forward to fine dining at budget prices, a country obsessed with sport and some outstanding wildlife off the beaten track.
Cost 126th | Monthly Budget USD $513 |Quality n/a
Sitting on the Caspian Sea where Europe meets Asia, Azerbaijan has shaken off any drab former Soviet state tag and emerged as a vibrant, fashionable destination for both big global corporations and wandering digital nomads. Capital Baku is a beautiful paradox, with architecture dating back to the 12th century providing the backdrop to Formula 1 races and the Europa League final. Baku is the lowest-lying capital city in the world, and while accommodation, food and transport prices haven’t quite plumbed the same depths, it’s still an amazingly affordable expat destination in a lesser-explored region of the world.
Before packing a bag, handing in your notice, and tearing up your train season ticket, it’s important to factor in the cost of currency conversion when living and working overseas. High currency fees and low bank exchange rates can eat into your monthly income, taking the shine off your place in the sun. Find out how to manage the costs of sending money abroad with CurrencyFair.
Sending money overseas? Save money when you send money with CurrencyFair’s low-margin FX rates.
This information is correct as of March 2022. This information is not to be relied on in making a decision with regard to an investment. We strongly recommend that you obtain independent financial advice before making any form of investment or significant financial transaction. This article is purely for general information purposes. Photo by Saul Mercado on Unsplash.
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