By Glynna Prentice & Jessica Ramesch
Now more than ever, solo sun and adventure seekers are starting new lives beyond their home borders…and they match every description imaginable. You’ll find there are plenty of men and women—some are widows or widowers, others divorced or never married—and they all have one thing in common: they are moving abroad to enjoy better, more affordable lifestyles.
There is no hard data on the number of singles abroad—countries like the U.S. and Canada don’t keep track of how many of their citizens live elsewhere. But with intelligence gathered via our worldwide network of correspondents (and at International Living conferences), we estimate that between 40% and 50% of expats from the U.S. and Canada are single.
So if you’re solo and dreaming of life abroad, we have one short, sweet piece of advice: Just do it. Why? Well, first, you’ll be in good company, among thousands of singles all in the same boat. They’re in new communities, and they need to network and make friends. Over time, they become part of an overseas family. And if the hundreds upon hundreds of expats we’ve talked to are any indication, that’s just what your new circle of friends will feel like.
Why Singles Are Moving
Madeline Edwards traded her home city of Portland, Oregon, for the sunnier shores of Costa Rica. “I came for the peace and quiet, and stayed for the ambiance, the locals, the cost of living, and the general quality of life,” she says.
Richard Marazzi chose to live in Mexico part-time, during Canadian winters. “It’s perfect for me,” says Richard, adding that there is no question that time in Mexico has made a positive difference in managing his seasonal affective disorder. “I can really feel my stress levels drop from the moment I arrive, and it just gets better the longer I stay. In general, I’m more content and relaxed. The weather is nice and consistent, and I love all the sunshine and warmth.”
And there are similarly happy singles elsewhere in Latin America, Asia and Europe. Here are just some of the reasons they’ve given for going abroad:
“I was tired of high-stress jobs and wanted to enjoy life while I was still relatively young.”
“Looking ahead to the future, I saw no way to save enough to enjoy the quality of retirement I’d want in the U.S.”
For many, more freedom from financial worries ranks among their top reasons for considering such a big change. But the happiest singles have other reasons, besides. Moving abroad should be about adventure, opportunity, exploration…whatever motivates you and gets you out of bed in the morning.
Using a move as a chance to “reinvent yourself” resonates particularly strongly with single women. Over and over, women who spent decades raising a family or managing a career tell us, “this is my time.”
For Todd Johnston, the move was all about adventure and a desire to live life to the fullest. Before age 60 he had bought a condo in the small Ecuadorian mountain town of Cotacachi. From prior trips he knew firsthand about the country’s appeal—the mountains, the springlike climate, and, of course, the locals.
Born in snowy New Hampshire, Dennis Gelinas discovered Belize’s Caye Caulker thanks to a sailor friend who asked him to visit. The warm people and weather drew him in. “The laidback atmosphere on this charming little island immediately brought me back to my childhood in rural New Hampshire,” he says. “Small children played in the quiet, unpaved streets. Dogs ran loose. Everyone knew everyone. People greeted each other with smiles and banter.”
Is Single Life Abroad for You?
Before considering a new life abroad, we recommend profiling yourself ruthlessly. There are expat destinations in countries around the world to suit just about every taste. So, it’s up to you to be honest with yourself about what you need. What kind of climate do you like best? Do you want a small town or a large city? How social are you? Are you willing to learn a new language? Would you prefer a place with a large expat community, or a small one?
In English-speaking Belize, you won’t have to worry about learning a new language. And it’s certainly easy to get by with just English in large expat communities in Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. But even in these places, you’ll have a much easier time…and a richer overseas experience…if you make an effort to learn Spanish. Even if you choose Thailand, where tourism and business have led to English being widely spoken, it’s only polite to learn as much of the local language as you can. It’ll likely be much tougher for you than Spanish. Does that challenge sound exciting or daunting? Again, be brutally honest as you profile yourself.
On that note, occasionally we meet idealistic singles who say, “I want to live in a small village.” Or “I don’t want to live near other expats.” They want somewhere they can really connect to the locals…learn a new language via immersion…integrate into the local community…
Interacting with locals—making friends and acquaintances, getting to know the culture and engage with the community—is one of the biggest pleasures of expat life. It’s life-affirming and mind-broadening. But moving to a place with other expats—even if there are only a few—can make your transition, and life in general, much easier.
Who’s the best local carpenter or electrician (and how much should you pay them)? How and where do you sign up for utilities? What shops sell goodies from back home? Choose a place with at least a small expat community and you won’t have to figure out these things on your own.
In addition, other expats will be eager to befriend you. You’re a new face. And they know what it’s like to make the move and be away from your home country. They’ll get together for national or religious holidays, for election nights and Superbowls, and being able to join them will allow you to enjoy life abroad without missing home too much.
Will I Be Safe Overseas?
Expats in popular destinations will often tell you that they feel safer abroad than they did back home. (These same expats also agree that it’s best to use common sense and never take safety for granted.)
“The streets of Spain are so much safer than any city in the U.S. that I feel perfectly comfortable walking alone any time of the day or night,” says Marsha Scarbrough. “In fact, the sidewalks of central Madrid are lively and crowded at midnight every night of the week. Aside from a few pickpockets, crime is negligible compared to American cities. Violent crime is extremely rare.”
In the city of Porto, in Portugal, freelance writer Kevin Casey felt the same. “If you’re looking for lively pubs, world-class restaurants, pavement cafés, and waterside scenery, take a walk through the city’s river districts. The nightlife here is family friendly, though many restaurants don’t even open their doors for dinner until 8:30 p.m. I felt totally safe everywhere I went, even at midnight.”
Perhaps you expected as much of cities in Europe. Maybe you’re thinking:
That’s all well and good, but what about Latin America’s Most Notorious?
Despite the media’s focus on violence, much of Mexico is very safe. Many singles live here quite happily. Puerto Vallarta, Mérida, Lake Chapala…all these destinations are fun, filled with single expats, and may well be far safer than where you live now. Naturally, you’ll find some crime in cities…that goes for Europe, too…but again, crime rates are often a mere fraction of what you’d see in U.S. cities of the same size.
From Colombia Nancy Kiernan reports “Many people have an outdated perspective of life here. The dark days of Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels that are still portrayed in the Netflix series Narcos, are long gone. It’s safe to live in many parts of Colombia.”
These days her hometown of Medellin has a thriving expat community. “Sure, every city in Colombia has its good and not-so-good areas,” she says. But Nancy doesn’t spend her days in a guarded lair. “Here I am much more active, thanks to the perfect year-round, spring-like weather.”
“When I lived in Maine, I was shuttered up in the house during the long, cold winter months, only venturing out to go to work or run necessary errands. But now, with Medellín daytime temperatures in the mid-70s F to low 80s F, I spend quite a bit of my time walking around the city, joining friends for mountain hikes on the weekends, and even taking the occasional horseback riding trip.”
Looking for Love?
Not everyone is single by choice. In fact, most singles prefer to leave the door to romance ajar as opposed to firmly closed. Fortunately, there are significant numbers of singles, of every sexual persuasion, in most large expat havens.
But not all destinations are created equal. Some expat destinations tend to create a “couples culture” that unconsciously excludes singles. You’re not invited to dinner because it throws the numbers off at the table? You’re only invited when there’s a spare (fe)male? Yep, that’s “couples culture.”
Other destinations may have seedy reputations or tend to attract many more singles of one sex—usually males—than the other. The Philippines and Thailand both fit these descriptions.
Whatever destination you’re interested in, you’ll need to plan a visit—ideally an extended one—so you can judge whether you’ll truly be comfortable there.
Where to Live as a Single Abroad
Here are some of the most popular places to live the single life abroad.
Mexico has more North American expats than any other foreign country in the world. And no wonder. It’s close and convenient, it’s largely First World, and it offers a cost of living as low as half that of the U.S. and Canada.
Mexico has expat communities all over the country, so be as picky as you like in your requirements—you’ll find someplace in Mexico to suit. Chicago native Steve Garcia chose the mountain town of Guanajuato. “I live well here on Social Security. My expenses are $1,200 a month, including rent. I have a two-bedroom with a terrace garden and the biggest shower in town,” he says.
A hilly historic town with narrow cobblestone lanes—many only for pedestrians—it appeals to people who enjoy walking. “I like shopping in the small tiendas,” says Steve. “I walk through town, buying certain things here, certain things there. The ambiance encourages you to get out. I figured that would keep me young—all the exercise. Plus, with the dollar going up, I’ve got 50% more to spend, which is really helpful so I can go up to the U.S. and see my kids more often.”
Panama boasts cool mountain havens and country hamlets…miles and miles of beaches along the Pacific and Caribbean…and, of course, a modern capital famous for its sparkling skyline. Many locals speak English—among them doctors and white-collar execs.
In March 2003, Penny Barrett visited the mountain town of Boquete. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “Compared to Michigan winters, the climate here is heaven. Temperatures range from about 65 F at night to 86 F at high noon, with plenty of sunshine despite frequent showers.
Nature lovers, artists, foodies, alternative healers, and musicians all feel welcome in this highland hamlet. The local Panamanian population is friendly and welcoming. And although it certainly helps, you don’t need to be fluent in Spanish to enjoy a comfortable life here.
“Panamanians are very family oriented. If you speak Spanish and are on good terms with your neighbors, you’ll be invited to birthday and holiday parties,” says Penny. “Most of us learn basic Spanish…enough to be able to communicate with household help or buy the things we need.”
Boquete’s active community has helped make it one of the most popular expat destinations in the world. In fact, Penny says she is never short on things to do.
“I’m a volunteer for the Boquete Community Players, which is our theater and events center,” she says, “and I’m a volunteer for the Handicap Foundation—I have made friends with many Panamanians through that group. I have three small rental properties and am part owner of a monthly flea market. I also do a lot of Airbnb hosting and have met some great folks that way. Many of my guests have ended up moving to Boquete, and I try to help them make the transition.”
Costa Rica also has a climate and location to suit nearly every taste. Cool Central Valley towns, surrounded by coffee farms and lush green mountainsides…Pacific Coast beach towns where you can doze in a hammock in the afternoon sun, with clear waters lapping the shore nearby…and the dramatic volcano backdrop of Lake Arenal, home to a close-knit community of expats.
Long-time New Yorker Kathy Bowen chose the popular beach town of Tamarindo. “I got to experience the sense of community in Tamarindo almost immediately, and I found people to be friendly and truly willing to help, share information, show me around, and such.
From Spanish classes to shopping, there’s plenty to keep her busy when she wants to be. “In general I find people here just have more time for each other—it’s much easier to get together with friends than it is in New York,” she adds. “Everyone is pretty much within 10 minutes of each other. So it makes things like ‘Bloody Mary Saturdays’ fun and easy.”
The beautiful beach is definitely a major draw, but Kathy says it's the underlying vibe of happiness that keeps her so content here. “People seem to have less anger in general. They’re happier with less, they have time for one another, and there’s a kindness and willingness to lend a helping hand—particularly to older people—that has been particularly comforting for me. I have been tapped on the shoulder waiting in line, for example, and sent to the front so I don’t have to wait. Little things like that have made life all-around enjoyable.”
And There’s Much More To Explore
Latin America offers ease of travel and proximity to the U.S., and many North Americans grow up learning Spanish. It’s no wonder you’ll find more expat singles from North America there than in Europe and Asia. But that doesn’t mean you should cross these regions off your list.
Portugal is a magical place where Medieval villages perch atop steep escarpments, and deep rivers snake through vineyards and rustling woodland. The fact that it’s Western Europe’s most affordable destination is a happy bonus.
“You ever have one of those ‘pinch yourself’ moments, when everything aligns and you feel you’ve arrived? That’s the feeling I wake up to every day in Portugal,” says Mike Sager, originally from California.
Spain also boasts beautiful beaches, mountains, and cities…and, of course, plenty of sunshine. It’s the most popular country for Europeans seeking a home overseas. North Americans, too, have begun to see the allure of Spain for laidback yet cultured European life.
“Without a doubt, moving to Spain was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. Today, my social life is on fire. My health is fantastic. I’m learning a new language. I have more friends than I can count, most of them 30 or 40 years younger than me. My late-life adventure is in full swing,” says Marsha Scarbrough
Thailand offers a year-round tropical climate and access to modern comforts and conveniences, including affordable, high quality medical care…for pennies on the dollar. Thailand is home to glittering temples, lush mountain jungles, and tropical beaches and islands. Its people are welcoming with a fun-loving nature...the face of “The Land of Smiles,” with its fascinating culture and history.
“The lifestyle here is vibrant, friendly, and rewarding,” says Pamela Manning. “There is no way I could afford to get out so much if I didn’t live in Thailand. I can go out every day, play golf, lunch with other expats, and enjoy many local events. You can’t help but feel very alive here.