Expat Exchange conducted a survey in early 2020 to explore the "Best Places to Live Abroad in 2020." Our survey was conducted just before the COVID-19 virus spread around the world, which upended what it means to live abroad.
That left us with the unenviable task of having to make sense of our initial findings while also giving proper attention to the changes thrust upon expats over these last many months.
As the pandemic has unfolded, we have conducted surveys, collected reports, and gleaned insights from expats as they've managed the trials and tribulations of living abroad during such an unusual and trying time.
Our goal is to continuously update Expat Exchange members as to what is being reported "from the field" so that they can make informed choices about how to move and live abroad. After comparing all of the available information to date, these are the 10 countries that rose to the top.
One of the questions in the pre-pandemic survey asked expats to rate the quality of their expatriate experience on a five point scale. The response options were: Extremely Satisfied, Very Satisfied, Moderately Satisfied, Slightly Satisfied, Not at All Satisfied.
After examining the results of our "Best Places" survey, the one country that stood out above all others for the percentage of people who indicated that they were "Extremely Satisfied" with the expatriate experience was France. At 65%, it was one of only two countries that rated above 50%. The second was Uruguay at 60%. However, while we want to highlight those two countries, we were most interested to see the countries that ranked the highest when we combined the responses for "Extremely Satisfied" and "Very Satisfied."
Always a popular destination for expats throughout the world, we were not at all surprised to read the glowing reviews submitted by expats living in France.
One expat in Sete, France shared (2020 Best Places Survey):
"I absolutely love living in Sete. Its affordability allowed me to buy a lovely apartment less than 0.5 km from the Mediterranean and with sea views. Good bus routes, reasonable grocer varieties, two first-run cinemas, multiple concert and other music venues, festivals, fabulous beaches, and it's located less than a 20 minute drive or train ride from Montpellier. The people are friendly and welcoming. I'm just as delighted with my choice to move here as I was when I made the decision six years ago."
Another expat in St-Nicolas-du-Pelem, France reported (2020 Best Places Survey):
"I love where I live, I love France. The people are friendly and helpful. I am at home here. We live in a rural area, but in a village there is always something going on. We have various associations to join and a gym. We are on the edge of the village with plenty of trails to walk with our dog. We have a second home in Nice and have friends there, too. We feel comfortable in both places"
An Expat in France in May 2020 (COVID Survey):
"Peaceful. People have been respectful and followed the law and advice from the government. I felt totally safe and glad that I was in the countryside and followed the rules given."
An Expat in St-Cirq, France reported in October 2020 (COVID Report):
"Every couple of weeks we may go to a favorite café for a drink or a sandwich, but always outdoors and always with masks. The weather has been foreboding, so even that is a rare treat. Once every week or two weeks we also go to a farm cooperative to buy whatever food we don't grow. That's our major outing. Mostly we stay home and work around the house or in the gardens and cook. We're doing a lot of preserving of fruits and roasting of vegetables for what is likely to be a cold winter to come. And of course, we're building up our wood supply, because we heat our house with wood stoves. So far, we don't know a single person here who has been diagnosed with COVID, though of course we read reports that there have been cases."
Read our articles 10 Tips for Living in France, 8 Things to Know Before You Move to France, and Healthcare in France
Expats in Uruguay routinely comment on the friendliness of the people, the climate, and the beauty and cleanliness of this popular South American destination.
One expat in Minas, Uruguay wrote (2020 Best Places Survey)
"I absolutely adore Minas, Uruguay. This town has it all, retirees, young families, artists, nature lovers, farmers. It is 2 hours from the big city of Montevideo, but feels like a world apart. However, when I do need something that i just cant find here, that is a beautiful, comfortable bus ride. It is the capital of this state of Lavalleja, so has pretty much any govt. office that you would need, as well as a wide selection of stores. This is where the mountains for the country are located, so features hiking, a lake, a river, a creek, a waterfall, and lots of nice areas to walk, bike, jog. The main square has been totally renovated during the last 5 years that I have lived here, and is such a lovely place to sit and people watch. I walk everywhere that I need. Yesterday I took the bus, one hour, to the beach at Priapolis. There are 2 farm markets each week, where I buy all my fruits and veggies. There are lots of activities involving music, art, crafts, cultural events."
Another Expat on Our Uruguay Forum (October 2020)
I retired to Uruguay almost 8 years ago and am about to sell my house here. Not to move back but to buy a nicer one. See I thought this would be a short term deal, Maybe 5-10 years but realize Uruguay will likely be another 20 years or forever. Now we still love things and places about the US and until the pandemic would visit often. We even bought and fixed up a vacation house there (currently renting on AirBnB, thank heavens). But we could have also gone the route of renting places when we visit too. So we could return home but choose not to. But right now I do miss New England in the fall!
Read our articles 7 Best Places to Live in Uruguay, Pros and Cons of Living in Uruguay, and 5 Important Tips about Healthcare for Expats in Uruguay.
Expats in Ecuador consistently sing its praises year in and year out. A variety of climates to choose from, low cost of living, its use of the U.S. dollar as its currency are among the many reasons that Ecuador lands on the short list of many people considering a life abroad.
One expat in Guayaquil, Ecuador wrote (2020 Best Places Survey)
"I love the cost of living, especially housing."
One expat in Manta, Ecuador wrote (2020 Best Places Survey)
"Great place, happy friendly people, and good weather."
An Expat in Cuenca shared in a COVID-19 Report (September 2020):
"From what I have seen in the local news it can be difficult for an individual to get a test, although there are some areas where the government is doing random tests in communities to locate hot spots. The COVID-19 cases and deaths in this area remain steady to slowing, so the hospitals are now taking in other patients besides COVID-19. Both my wife and I are glad that we're not in the US right now."
Read our articles 10 Best Places to Live in Ecuador, 10 Tips for Living in Ecuador, and 9 Important Tips about Healthcare for Expats in Ecuador.
Spain's warm culture (food!), climate and a variety of locations makes it rank among the top destinations among our members.
An Expat in Granada, Spain Shared (2020 Best Places Survey)
"For my husband and me, our search led us to Spain, having heard it had a low cost of living, excellent health care and a good climate. We visited a few times and fell in love, particularly with the city of Granada. There is a vibrant evening life of cafes, flamenco dancing, and strolling ("Only tourists pay for tapas."). The city is rich in History to explore, and the surrounding countryside, from the tallest mountain in Spain to the quaint villages are great day trips. What we like most is the casual openness of the Spanish lifestyle."
An Expat in Spain Shared (2020 Best Places Survey)
"We are in a small town on the Costa Del Sol and had minimal cases. We were in total lockdown, everybody complied."
Read our articles 10 Tips for Living in Spain,
Healthcare in Spain, and
Best Places to Live in Spain.
The climate, access to good health care and friendliness of the Portuguese continues to make Portugal an increasingly popular destination for expats from all over the world.
An Expat in Portugal Shared (2020 Best Places Survey)
"We love pretty much everything about living in the Porto area. It is quite rainy from November through January (Seattle like) but other than that, the weather is great. The rest of the year is warm and mild. The people are wonderful, friendly and helpful, and the food and wines are outstanding for half or less than food and drink in the states. The food is fresher and more flavorful than in the US and the variety is great. It is a seafood and wine lover's dream come true. Healthcare is outstanding and for a fraction of the cost of that stateside."
Early in the Pandemic, Another shared (COVID-19 Survey):
"Frustrating that we cannot get out. Protective measures are only minor inconveniences. Virtually no disruption in availability of products / food in stores, the only exception being hand sanitizer, and face masks (early on only, now resolved). No price hikes in stores either. In the US & UK friends are reporting issues with price increases, and reduced availability of various items."
Read our articles Best Places to Live in Portugal,
Healthcare in Portugal, and
10 Tips for Living in Portugal.
The warm weather, proximity to the United States and cheap cost of living makes Mexico a very popular option for expats, particularly U.S. citizens.
An Expat in Mexico Shared (2020 Best Places Survey)
"Love the location, love the expat community & the natives are all very friendly. We don't love the noise at night or the humidity, but that is because we come from dry climates. Most people love the weather here."
Early in the Pandemic, Another shared (COVID-19 Survey):
I live in Playa del Carmen. Non-essntial businesses are closed and we have a curfew 7pm-5am. We must wear masks. People are very compliant.
Another expat in Tequis, Mexico wrote in a COVID-19 Report (October 2020):
"Non citizens are free to travel. Travel is limited since is outbreak. Not as many options. Airlines and bus routes are limited. There are some roadside stops for temperature checks."
Read our articles Best Places to Live in Mexico, Healthcare in Mexico, and 10 Tips for Living in Mexico.
The natural and artistic beauty of Italy, the allure of its culture, and the fantastic climate lands Italy in our top 10, despite the challenges experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
An Expat living in Fasano, Italy (2020 Best Places Survey):
Endless beaches, miles of ancient olive groves, a high standard of living at a low cost (food and wine are actually cheap), weekly outdoor markets in every town, stone trulli structures dotting the landscape, outstanding architecture, mild and short winters, arid summers, Nirvana springs and falls, fantastic and healthy cuisine, inexpensive dining at a multitude of restaurants in all types of settings, the kind and accessible Pugliese, and two regional airports (Bari and Brindisi).
An Expat living in La Spezia, Italy:
We are strongly encouraged to not go out of our own communities. Exits on the autostrada are being checked as to who is using the highways. There is free pharmacy and grocery delivery from our town stores. The mayor checks in via Facebook almost daily. We are in the country and can take walks as long as we are healthy. All stores and outside areas are posted with signs to stay at least 1 meter away from anyone we meet. The grocery is very well stocked...a little low on wine and beer and veggies but other than that little change. We are requested to buy not more than 5 of any one item.
An Expat in Milan, Italy Shared in a Covid-19 Report (October 2020)
"I had Covid in March, and my family of 4 safely separated and no-one else in my family got it. As an American, when I read the news in Italy versus the US, feel so fortunate to be here. My kids go to private school and their safety regulations make me feel they are safe."
Read our articles 10 Tips for Living in Italy, 12 Best Places to Live in Italy, Healthcare in Italy.
Expats in Canada generally report their love for the cleanliness, its natural beauty, and the universal healthcare system.
An Expat in Vancouver, Canada Shared (2020 Best Places Survey):
"I live in the suburb of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Vancouver is the third most livable city in the world, also the third most expensive in which to actually live by the Economist Intelligence Unit! Great social events, wonderful art galleries, theater, opera, sporting and music venues. Great film community, A great international career. I am 15 minutes from a world quality ski resort from my house, I can put my kayak in the ocean 5 minutes from my door. I can be sailing within the hour. There is little to worry about other than petty crime."
We have universal health coverage that is excellent. My province has one of the lowest rates of infection in the Americas. The federal and provincial governments are following the CDC guidelines and are currently working with other countries and local medical, environmental and business leaders to ascertain when and to what degree we can begin the return to normal. I was in Africa during the ebola crisis, lived in the Asia & the Middle East during epidemics. Followed all scientific medical advice. Here, we have been in self isolation for 2 months, away from anyone outside the family and only going out to purchase necessities.
Read our articles 10 Tips for Living in Canada and 5 Tips for Expat Tech Jobs in Canada.
Expats in Panama choose to live in Panama due to its ease of residency, low taxes (not taxed on worldwide income), friendly people, inexpensive healthcare, and laid back lifestyle. A great many people that start off their expat journey in other Central and South American countries end up living in Panama.
An Expat in Panama Shared (2020 Best Places Survey):
"I like the mix of locals and expats in my community. I like that there are restaurants I can go to that are close by from local flavors to class dining. I like that there is a lot of opportunity to volunteer in the community. I love living on the beach and falling asleep and waking up to the sound of the waves. It feels like I’m on vacation all the time. I have a few favorite restaurants that I wish were closer. I do wish there was a PriceSmart (think Sam’s Club or Costco) closer. It’s almost an hour from where we live. There isn’t much I can complain about. The roads could be maintained better and the infrastructure could be more stable. We have power outages sometimes but usually not for very long. I have everything I need and most of what I want nearby."
An Expat in Panama Shared Early in the Pandemic (COVID-19 Survey)
"The government has done a wonderful job to make sure that healthcare resources have not been overwhelmed. They took swift, decisive measures from the very first case on March 8. They ordered enough PPE and ventilators, and have carried out extensive testing. The infection rate in Panama has averaged 2.8%, while it is over 7% world-wide."
An Expat in Chiriqui, Panama
"Panamanian citizens and foreign permanent residents are allowed in now. Many of my friends & neighbors have been able to return in the last month or so after being marooned in different parts of the world for months. All that I know have had to total quarantine for 14 days in their homes. Welcome home everyone!"
Read our articles 10 Tips for Living in Panama,
Healthcare in Panama
7 Best Places to Live in Panama.
Expats in Thailand enjoy a far lower cost of living, friendly people, and natural beauty of this Southeast Asian country. While there are some hurdles to settling in, most expats find it worth the effort and find the experience of living there "invigorating."
An Expat in Bankok, Thailand Shared (2020 Best Places Survey):
"There is much to like in Bangkok, and I have found that if you mix with the local population and make an effort to learn and use their language, it is very rewarding. The only problem here is the bureaucracy, especially immigration bureaucracy which is difficult and confusing... The Thai people are very warm and welcoming which makes it a very satisfying place to live and work."
An Expat in Chiang Mai Shared Early in the Pandemic (COVID-19 Survey)
I feel that Thailand has handled the COVID-19 situation very well as can be seen by the number of infections and deaths here. Chiang Mai has excellent hospitals and very well trained health professionals. The closure of many businesses and restaurants has been very annoying. I especially miss going to a swimming pool, but I am willing to endure this for the benefit of my own health and that of all the people of Thailand."
Read our articles
Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai, Thailand,
Healthcare in Thailand, and
10 Tips for Living in Thailand