“Are there any security measures expats should take when living overseas?”
I’ve always loved the idea of moving overseas but personal security has always been an issue for me since I was held at gun point when I was a younger man. What are the safest destinations to retire for an older expat and what measures do you take for personal and home security? Any tips on certain spots to avoid would be great too.
Glynna Prentice – Mexico Correspondent
In general, the overseas destinations we cover at IL are safer than where you probably live back home!
I’ve lived in Mexico for the last 10 years. Mexico gets a bad rap for security, but in fact most of the country is very safe…and at IL we don’t cover the areas that are dangerous. I have never felt threatened at any time during my years in Mexico, and in fact have found people to be warm, caring, and concerned about their own and their neighbors’ security.
But petty crime can happen anywhere. For instance, I would advise looking for a home or accommodation on a well-lit street. Many homes where I live are up narrow, poorly lit, pedestrian-only streets–and, if there’s ever a problem with muggings, that’s where they’ll take place. Likewise, use ordinary precautions when out at night: be aware of the people around you, and don’t flash huge wads of cash or fancy jewelry if you expect to be walking home by yourself.
Having said all that, I can say that, as a single woman, I feel safe walking around town in the evening. I’ve even been known to leave my handbag or my computer at a café on occasion…and have come rushing back to find it perfectly safe, even though everyone in the café had seen it sitting there.
So don’t let security worries keep you from considering life abroad. And if you ever have a question about a specific destination that IL covers, simply drop us a line to ask.
Suzan Haskins – Ecuador Correspondent
this is a question that’s hard to answer…I can’t really speak of Europe or Asia, but my husband and I have lived and traveled extensively in Latin America for 15 years now, and have only had 2 very slight brushes with crime: My husband was pick pocketed once on a crowded trolley in Quito, and our car was broken into one afternoon while we were in a restaurant outside Guadalajara, Mexico. Most of the crimes in Latin America are petty crimes…it’s rare that someone is ever physically harmed.
If you look at statistics, though, you will see that crime rates of all kinds are higher in Latin America than they are back in the States or Canada. Latin America is the “developing world”—although more and more I’d say the playing field is very level between developing nations and the so-called “developed” world. In any case…crime is higher here, no doubt. There are large disparities between rich and poor, and in some places, those chasms are growing ever larger…such as what’s happening in Venezuela.
You won’t see IL recommending countries like Venezuela, though, for our readers. Instead, we focus on countries—and communities within those countries—where we know our readers can live happily and safely. Crime can happen anywhere, as you know. Taxes here are very low. While we have 911 services, we don’t expect them to show up and intervene in anything…they’ll show up after the fact—sometime long after the fact. Instead, personal responsibility is key.
So my best advice is to watch and learn from how the locals live. They have bars on the doors and windows or alarm systems to protect their stuff…they don’t have a lot of expensive “stuff” to begin with…
But I think you’re asking more about physical crime than burglary and theft. Crime rates (murder, rape, etc) for those are higher here, too—but typically are domestic incidents or against people who know one another. Random muggings can surely happen, especially in lager cities. I’ve heard of people having their phones or iPads snatched, for example…and getting hurt in the tussle. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I don’t pull out my phone or iPad, etc. when I am out and about in the cities…
Common sense prevails. If you’re in a city, take a taxi at night. Don’t frequent late-night establishments where shady things can happen. Be careful who you trust. I’ve heard, of course, of a few expats who have been physically assaulted in their homes and it’s usually by someone they know or who knows they have something of value…sometimes a former worker or someone they thought was a friend.
I live in Cotacachi, a small town 2 hours north of Quito. I feel safe here. I can walk the streets at night by myself and still feel safe. However, the streets here typically roll up at 9 PM so I am rarely out late at night. There are a lot of single expat women who live here because they feel safe here. This is a long way of bringing this topic back to what I said before: IL tries to recommend places we know other expats live comfortably and safely. Keep reading about those places until you find one that sounds like your place…
Jim Santos – Ecuador Correspondent
Safety is a concern I do get asked about a lot. Unfortunately, I cannot think of anyplace in the world where I could tell you yes, you can live there without any chance of something bad happening to you. I’m afraid there just are no guarantees.
I can tell you that my wife and I have lived in Ecuador on the southern coast for almost three years now, and we have never felt unsafe. We do live in a modern oceanfront condo, with security card entry at the doors, video monitoring of public areas, and 24/7 staff – but we do not stay “holed up” inside. We walk regularly, sometimes before the sun comes up and often in the early evening. We walk to the mercado, take public local buses and taxis, and have never had any problems.
We even do some of the things expats consider “risky”, like taking regional buses into Guayaquil (a city of about 6 million) and then using their cabs. We have also rented cars and driven over 1000 miles around the country on our own, and have never had anything but friendly encounters with the locals and police.
That said, we do take the same normal precautions you would take traveling in the US or anywhere else. We try not to stand out with the way we dress, we don’t walk around wearing a lot of jewelry, we don’t walk around questionable areas at night, and we don’t hang out late at night in bars.
So my advice to you would be to look at the many expat options available to you and base your choice on things like climate, cost of living, etc.. Choose an area the locals consider a “good neighborhood”, and just take the same precautions that you take now.
Bonnie Hayman – Nicaragua Correspondent
Personal security is indeed important. Fortunately, living in Nicaragua, it is not difficult to have. Nicaragua is considered the safest country in Central America and I can attest to that. I moved here almost 9 years ago (a single female) and I have not had a problem. I take the local buses, walk on the streets at night, etc. I actually feel safer here by myself than in the U.S. And believe it or not, the rate for violent crime is 17 times worse in the U.S. than Nicaragua per capita.
So with bodily harm not an issue, the thing you have to worry about is theft, which is high in all countries in Latin America. You don’t want to leave your home completely unguarded. For this, you have many choices. A fence with outdoor dogs (the dogs can live year-round outside because the climate is great) is one big determent. Also, most housing complexes or developments have each house chipping in together to have a night guard who patrols the area around the houses.A night guard costs about $250 – $300 a month for 6 nights of 12-hour coverage. In addition, you can choose to have an electronic system with help on its way within 5 minutes. You can either buy the equipment yourself from the security company and have a low monthly service fee, or you can pay $100 a month for rented equipment and the service. Hope this helps.
Ann Kuffner – Belize Correspondent
Although Belize often gets a bad rap about crime, there are a number of areas in the country that are safe for expats to live in or visit. Those areas would include the cayes (Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker), Placencia, and Corozal – on the mainland. Although there is crime in these areas, the crimes are typically petty, or home break ins.
The area you would not want to live in is Belize City. That is where there is quite a bit of crime occurs, and it isn’t an attractive area. But I hesitate to go there during the day, to the downtown area, to shop. I do that regularly, for medical and legal appointments.
My main advice for anyone coming to Belize is to leave your flashy jewelry and watches behind. Belize is a very casual country. There’s also no need to carry a lot of cash on you, since debit and credit cards are accepted most places. And you can also easily get cash at ATMs in the main towns.
The most commonly stolen items in Belize are phones, cameras, IPads and computers. So keep those items out of sight and don’t leave them laying out in public areas, such as on the beach. And it’s safest not to walk alone on a dark beach at night unless you are in an area that you know is safe.
In terms of home security, you can find a rental, or home to buy, in a condominium complex in any of the tourist areas. All of the condominium and resort complexes have guards. That would be the safest way for you to go. If you lived in a home, instead, a dog is the best security you could have. Most expats who live in Belize full-time have at least one dog.
Wendy Dechambeau – Ecuador Correspondent
It’s always a good idea to be aware of your personal surroundings and take appropriate safety measures wherever you are in the world. But here in Ecuador there are few places that I would consider unsafe.
I often travel by myself (a single female) without any issues whatsoever. However, I do keep a good eye on my valuables and what’s happening around me – just like I would anywhere else. I also don’t take chances by going out alone late at night or getting into a taxi that’s not clearly marked. Again, it’s the same safety precautions I would take in any other country.
The key for living here is to remember that many people do not have a lot in the way of material wealth. Flashing wads of cash or fancy electronics while out and about is not only bad manners, but could be a temptation for someone feeling a bit desperate. Touristy areas tend to draw pickpockets so be aware of that when visiting areas with a lot of foreign visitors.
Jackie Minchillo – Costa Rica Correspondent
I would say the best personal security measures are rooted in common sense. I wouldn’t recommend walking around with valuables you don’t absolutely need with you, don’t leave valuables in plain sight in a vehicle. Lock the doors and windows of your home. Keep cash and valuables in a safe at home when you’re not there. Always carry a copy of your passport on you. Don’t leave personal items unattended in a public place.
My husband and I have never had any security concerns whatsoever – traveling throughout his native country of Brazil or living here in
Costa Rica for the past year and a half. We just are sure to remain alert and only pretty much carry around the cash we need and cell phones, unless we need something else specific with us. We also have a dog and that we feel is truly the best form of security for the home. People, we’ve found particularly here in Costa Rica are fearful of dogs, so you have one in your home, no one would try to enter.
Costa Rica’s northern Pacific Coast and the Central Valley are both very popular retirement destinations and while things do happen, by and large I have found people are able to live in peace without daily fear of something happening.
Greg Seymour – Costa Rica Correspondent
Costa Rica overall is a very safe country. Most crimes that occur here are theft related. Violent crimes, especially in rural areas, are rare. I feel safer here than I did in the upper middle class neighborhood where I lived in Dallas.
The first step to take, anywhere in the world, is to make yourself as small of a target as possible. Don’t wear expensive jewelry or make a show of how wealthy you are. Next is the location you choose in the country.
For Costa Rica, the transient nature of tourist areas make crime easier to get away with… plus, tourists are typically bringing in a lot of money and may not know to try and blend in. Most beach areas are going to have more crime than in small towns. I live in a farming community. My neighbors are salt of the earth types and are honest. If there has been a burglary it is in everyones interest to stop it from happening again. This makes becoming involved with your community important. Help your neighbors, bring them food, don’t hide behind a wall.
Finally, get a dog. They are one of the best detergents to theft and can be great companions.
Be cautious but don’t live in fear.
Greg Seymour, IL Costa Rica Correspondent
Don Murray – Mexico Correspondent
Hello Herb and thank you for your very important question. Personal safety and security is a topic that is of concern to all when moving overseas or even while living in our own hometown. In fact, personal security is one of the key elements in finding contentment in our lives.
I want to address your question from two perspectives. First, from the statistical perspective and next, from my own personal experience having lived overseas for about 8 years, including both my retirement years as well as some time working overseas.
My wife and I currently live in Mexico, in Cancun on the Caribbean coast. Mexico is one of those places that gets plenty of publicity, back in the U.S., of its headline crimes such as murder, kidnapping and such. And those things do happen here. But statistically, Mexico and the U.S are nearly identical in crime statistics in all categories; both countries classified as having “moderate” crime by the statisticians at Numbeo.
And while crime does exist in every country and one’s personal safety cannot be completely assured regardless of where one lives, it does make sense to avoid countries whose crime statistics place it near the top of the list so you may wish to check www.numbeo.com to collect some data on this topic.
That said, it is rare for any country to be overrun with crime. It often exists in pockets of poverty or high drug activity across the globe. I’m sure my advice will be the same as many others on this topic: Ensure that your home is protected by good locking mechanisms on doors and windows (it is common to see homes with barred windows in many countries). Do not wear expensive jewelry or carry expensive cameras into sections of town with a known drug element or high crime in the same way you would avoid those areas in the U.S. Do not keep large sums of cash in your home. Essentially, Herb, just use common sense.
My wife and I have walked and driven our cars and motor scooters, without fear, in every country and community we’ve lived. We are among thousands of expats who have never had a problem with any sort of criminal activity anywhere we’ve lived. However, we do know those who have had issues.
Our experiences as expats have provided the richest chapters of our lives. I cannot imagine ever living in the U.S. again. The reduced costs and the significantly improved lifestyle that we enjoy here on a Caribbean beach can’t be beat! If the time comes when someone wants to take my wallet, cell phone or wrist watch, I will surrender them without concern as I know I have only as much money in my wallet as I am prepared to surrender and the single debit card that resides inside can be immediately cancelled and easily replaced. Cell phones are easily replaced and Timex offers plenty of replacement watches!
Good luck, Herb!
Don Murray, International Living Mexico
Nancy Kiernan – Colombia Correspondent
I am a late 50´s woman who has been living in Medellín Colombia for over 4 years. Much of this time I was here alone as my husband´s job took him back to the US on a regular basis for several months at a time. Medellín is a wonderful large city of nearly 3 million people. And as with any large city in any part of the world, there are things you should and shouldn´t do and areas you shouldn´t really go, especially at night.
When I first moved here I was given advice by locals – No dar papaya. This loosely translates to “don´t make yourself a target.” I walk the streets of the city alone during the day and with friends at night, and I have never felt unsafe at any time. I do however take precautions. I do not wear fancy jewelry or a good watch. I only carry the amount of money I think I would need for the day with me. I use my cell phone, but don´t take it out in areas where all eyes are on the foreigner or in crowded areas like the metro.
I live in an apartment building, that like most in Medellín, are gated and have 24 hour guards. I talk with my neighbors and friends, but rarely tell them if I am planning to go away for a trip. I am careful about who I invite into my home (both Colombians and expats) and never really talk much about what I do or do not have in my home for electronics etc.
When using the ATM machine, which I do frequently, I use one inside a mall (not on the street) and am very cognizant of who is around and watching me.
While all this can sound a little overwhelming, I can honestly say that I would live and act the exact same way if I were living in a large US city.
Jessica Ramesch – Panama Correspondent
Hello Herb and thanks for visiting the IL website. I’m IL’s Panama Editor and can thus give you my take on Panama.
Even though Panama is generally recognized as one of the safest countries in Central America, no country is completely crime free. Panama has good parts and bad just like every other country. The city of Colon is widely regarded as the black sheep of Panama, so to speak, and to be avoided. (Note that I am referring to the city of Colon, not the entire province of Colon, where you’ll find the historic town of Portobelo.)
I myself live in the capital, Panama City, and feel safe to drive or walk, day or night, pretty much anywhere in the downtown/metropolitan area. When I am in the capital’s historic Casco Viejo sector I make sure not to wander into the adjacent Santa Ana district (which is hard to do by mistake, as there is a marked difference in feel and appearance). Here what you see is typically what you get, meaning that unsafe areas on the city fringes or elsewhere in the country can be easy to spot.
I drive all over the country for my work as a writer for International Living, usually alone, and feel perfectly comfortable doing so. I use the same street smart skills I did when I was living in the States…know where you’re going and be aware of who and what is around you, don’t flash expensive jewelry, wads of cash, and so on…and that has been enough to keep me safe. When you travel—even if you’re a seasoned traveler—it’s all too easy to forget your street smarts and go into vacation mode. I’ve often been guilty of this myself. Make a conscious effort to remain aware and look around you.
In Panama it’s generally easy to avoid violent crime if you’re not into drugs or organized crime. Theft/break-ins are the most common concern amongst ordinary citizens and residents. Random violence (snipers, mass shootings, serial killers, etc) is practically unheard of in Panama. This was a factor in my decision to stay here.
The most important tip I can give a potential expat who plans to rent or buy a place to live anywhere in the world is this: do what the neighbors do. In Latin America, for example, most people do not have fancy alarm systems, but they do tend to have simpler deterrents…buildings typically have security guards as doormen, houses typically have safety grilles on windows and safety doors, and barking dogs are widely regarded as the best type of alarm. These aren’t signs that a neighborhood is dangerous—they are considered common-sense features.
IL Panama Editor Jessica Ramesch
Jason Holland – Roving Latin America Correspondent
I’ve traveled to several destinations in Latin America, including Nicaragua, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Peru. And I’ve felt safe in all of them.But I do take precautions.
I use my hotel room safe for valuables like passports and laptops. I usually have a safe at home too and use an alarm system too. I use ATMs in well-trafficked, public areas, preferably during the day. I never leave anything of value on my beach towel while I go swim. I prefer guarded parking lots for my car. And I keep hold of my backpack on the bus and am conscious of my phone and wallet in my pocket.
I guess the main thing is to be aware of your surroundings and be prepared. While violent crime against expats is rare in all the places I’ve lived and traveled, property crime and theft does happen. Things like home break and car break ins aren’t common but frequent enough that you have to take steps. Alarm systems, safes, always locking your door, and house-sitters for when you’re going to be gone for an extended period are a good idea. And if you’re especially considering about crime and safety, living in a condo or gated community can give peace of mind.
Steve LePoidevin – Thailand Correspondent
This is Steve LePoidevin, International Living’s Thailand correspondent.
We lived in China for six years and Chiang Mai, Thailand for three. We have also traveled extensively through Southeast Asia. I can say without a doubt that most parts of Asia are relatively safe. We have never felt unsafe wherever we found ourselves and have never had a bad experience in any country. Having said that, we’ve always avoided being out and about after midnight or in the wee hours of the morning, which seems to be the time that most incidents happen. I would certainly rate Chiang Mai as a very safe place for older expats.
As far as personal security goes, we never carry large amounts of cash with us and try not to stand out from the crowd. We don’t wear flashy jewelry or wave top-of-the-line cameras and cell phones around. In fact, I rarely carry my large SLR camera around anymore but rely instead on my older-looking iPhone for photos. I only take my large, bulky camera with me now if I am heading out to take some specific shots. The only thing I have ever had stolen was a laptop and that was in broad daylight in the United States. Needless to say, I now keep very close tabs on my laptop and iPad and tend not to take them outside the house unless absolutely necessary.
During our years in Asia, we have always rented condominiums. These have always included 24-7 security which allows the residents to leave for days or months at a time without any worries. It is one of the reasons we have always preferred to stay in condos. Many homes in Thailand can be found in moo baans or gated communities. These also usually have round-the-clock security.
Hope this helps in your future decisions.