8 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Retiring Abroad

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Lots of folks dream about retiring abroad.  And Million Mile Secrets team member Meghan recently went to Panama with her family to help her mom decide whether she’d like to retire there.  I’ll let her tell you about it!

Meghan:   Thanks, Daraius!  My mom and I did a lot of research before choosing to visit Panama.  It’s on a LOT of those “Top 10 Retirement Destinations” lists you read on the internet.  So we decided to check it out!

We live in Montana, so my mom was very intrigued by the possibility of living in a tropical climate and not having to scrape her windshield 4+ months out of the year. 😉

Retire Abroad
Panama City Has a Beautiful Malecon (Walkway), Where You Can Stroll Along the Seaside From One End of the City to the Other!

Here’s what we learned in Panama!

Retire Abroad in Panama

My mom’s nearing retirement (yay!) and wanted to see if retiring in Panama would be a good fit for her.  She’s done a lot of research into affordable places to retire abroad, and her main considerations were:

  • Cost of Living
  • Climate
  • Lifestyle
  • Language & currency
  • Infrastructure
  • Proximity to the US

I imagine these are the common characteristics a lot of retirees consider when moving to a foreign country!

Panama ended up near the top of her list because of its mild climate, the fact that they use the US dollar, the (supposed!) lower cost of living, and because it isn’t too far from the US.

It’s also known for being welcoming to expats because visas are fairly easy to secure.  And they offer retirees perks like the “pensionado visa,” if you make $1,000+ each month (from Social Security, for example).  With the pensionado visa, you get discounts on things like prescriptions, airline tickets, hotel stays, movie tickets, and more.

She was particularly interested in Boquete, Panama.  It’s a small town in the western part of Panama near the border with Costa Rica that’s popular with expats.

Retire Abroad
Both Boquete and Bocas del Toro are a 6+ Hour Drive From Panama City

Here’s how Lonely Planet describes it:

“Boquete is known for its cool, fresh climate and pristine natural surroundings.  Flowers, coffee, vegetables and citrus fruits flourish in its rich soil, and the friendliness of the locals seems to rub off on everyone who passes through.”

Sounds nice, right?

We also decided to go to Bocas del Toro, a set of islands north of Boquete.  My mom wasn’t considering that as a retirement spot, we just wanted a few days at the beach. 😉

The other typical retirement destinations in Panama include Panama City, Coronado, Las Tablas, and Santa Fe.  We didn’t have enough time to check them all out!

What We Discovered

After a week in Bocas del Toro, we drove to Boquete.  The roads between Panama’s larger cities, like Panama City and David, are very nice, though there’s a lot of construction.

But the roads a little more off-the-beaten-path are less so, and Boquete is set in the mountains.  So after a few hours of winding roads, my mom decided she probably wouldn’t enjoy driving in Panama.

That said, we don’t live in a big city, so we’re not accustomed to fast drivers and lots of traffic!

Retire Abroad
Boquete, Panama, Is Surrounded by Rolling Hills and Mountains.  Including Volcan Baru, the Tallest Mountain in Panama!

When we drove into Boquete, we passed a number of gated communities, and lots of billboards marketing developments.  But the scenery was beautiful!  It certainly looked like the quaint, small town surrounded by mountains we’d read about.

1.   The Pros

Boquete’s climate is indeed near perfect if you’re looking for a spot that’s not too hot, but not too cold, and mainly sunny throughout the year.

Everything is green and lush, and the flowers are just amazing!  I might actually get into gardening if I lived there. 😉

Plus, it’s a popular vacation destination for tourists and for expats living in other parts of Panama.  So you wouldn’t ever feel too isolated.  We met a handful of families vacationing there from Panama City!

It’s also a short drive to David, one of the larger cities in Panama.  So you have easy access to larger ticket items like furniture & construction materials. – things that are often important for folks considering relocating abroad for retirement.

2.   The Cons

Admittedly, we were all a little underwhelmed when we first drove into town on the way to our hotel.  Mainly because of the surprising amount of traffic!

I’ve traveled a lot in developing countries, especially in Latin America, so I wasn’t as surprised at the downtown area.  But I think my mom had envisioned more of a European, cafe society, type of setting with lots of restaurants, sidewalks, and beautiful architecture.

Retire Abroad
Here’s One of the Main Roads Through Boquete, Panama.  You Can See It Doesn’t Have the Old European Architecture of a City Like Quito, Ecuador, for Example

There ARE small towns like this in Central and South America.  Antigua, Guatemala, or Cuenca, Ecuador, come to mind.  But Boquete doesn’t have that feel.  You get the sense that a lot of the expats stay in their gated communities and enjoy the fact that they can golf year-round.  They aren’t there for the culture, and haven’t necessarily invested in the town.

In contrast, for example, to Puerto Vallarta, where expats have opened coffee shops, clothing stores, and restaurants.  And it feels like they’re really trying to live and build a community there.

We also found that there wasn’t a lot to do in Boquete, aside from a handful of touristy (but fun!) things like a zip-line tour, touring a coffee farm, or white water rafting.  We’d read there was a lot of hiking in the area, but found the trails to be poorly marked and unkept.

I’m not trying to give Boquete a bad name, I’m just explaining how real life can differ from what’s shown in magazines!

Plus, we only spent 5 days in Boquete, so we certainly didn’t have time to explore everything.  And we spoke with a number of expats that loved living there and feel like they’ve made a community of friends.  So to each their own!

8 Questions to Ask Yourself When Retiring Abroad

1.   What’s the cost of living?

Most folks think of retiring abroad because they’re looking for a way to stretch their savings.  So you’ll need to consider things like home prices, rent prices, costs of utilities, and more.

Mainly, you’ll need to have a good understanding of your budget, and what type of lifestyle you’ll be able to afford within that budget.

2.   What’s the cost and quality of medical care?

Medical care is a huge issue for lots of folks, especially retirees.  So you’ll need to figure out what (if any!) type of coverage your current insurance provides overseas.  And what options are available to retirees in whichever country you’re considering moving to.

3.   What’s the language?

English is spoken in lots of places around the globe  But you may find it more difficult to communicate if you’re considering a smaller town in another country.  So be sure you’re up for the challenges that come with moving abroad and not speaking the language!

4.   How will you get money?

Lots of folks will keep their US bank accounts when they retire abroad.  But you’ll still need money.  So you’ll have to factor in the cost of things like ATM fees or wire transfer fees.  Sometimes it might make more sense to open a local bank account, if you can.

5.   Will you be safe?

If you’re concerned about the safety of a particular spot, check out the US Department of State’s website.  They provide information like safety and security, visa requirements, health, and more, on every country around the world.

Retire Abroad
You Can Find Lots of Useful Information on the US Department of State’s Website

6.   How do taxes work?

You’ll likely still be on the hook for paying taxes in the US if you’re still working or making money.  But the amount of taxes you’ll pay to the country you’re living in will vary, depending on the country you choose.

If you’re living on a budget, understanding these taxes is important!  So I suggest doing your homework to see what makes the most sense for your particular situation.

7.   How often will you visit family, and how will you communicate with them?

If you plan on returning to the US a couple of times per year, you’ll need to factor in those costs as well.

Plus, if you don’t like 7+ hour plane rides, you need to pick a spot close to the US.  That automatically excludes Europe for lots of folks.

And you’ll want to make sure you have access to modern conveniences like decent internet.  So you can Skype with your grandchildren. 😉

8.   What do you need to bring?

Is there a particular item you can’t live without?  I’ve found it difficult to find seemingly common things like peanut butter or my favorite kind of sunscreen in certain small towns.

If so, check to see if you can get it in the country you plan on moving to.  If not, plan ahead!

Bottom Line

If you’re looking to retire abroad, be sure to consider things like cost of living, climate, language, and more.  Because all of these will play a role in whether retiring to a particular country makes sense for you!

On our trip to Panama, we discovered it wasn’t the right spot for my mom.  But I don’t want to scare anyone away from considering Panama as a retirement spot.  In fact, lots of folks love it!

Are you thinking of retiring abroad?  If so, where?

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