A new survey on living and working abroad has revealed the best countries for expats to live. From Malaysia to Mexico, residents explain what makes them love their new home.
Whether it’s navigating the nuances of a new culture, seeking out the best local haunts or establishing new friendships, living abroad has no shortage of joys and challenges. But depending on what kind of lifestyle you’re looking for, some places make expat living easier than others.
Internations, the world’s largest expat network, recently put together its annual Expat Insider report, which ranks the top countries based on 56 aspects of expat life from cost of living to housing to high-speed internet availability. More than 12,000 expats representing 171 nationalities and living in 172 countries or territories responded, which resulted in an eclectic and sometimes-surprising list spanning the globe.
We spoke to residents living in a few of the top-ranked countries to understand what aspects of life help expats feel at home and allow them to build a new life there.
Ranked number one in this year’s survey, Mexico is no stranger to the recognition, after placing within the top five every year since 2014. The country ranks first in the Ease of Settling In index and its local friendliness subcategory, which also results in high scores in finding friends. In fact, 75% of expats surveyed said it’s easy to make local friends here, compared to just 43% globally.
“The people are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet,” said Dutch expat Aemilius Dost, who has lived in Mexico for a year and a half and blogs at Road to the Unknown. “I thoroughly enjoy the interactions I have while shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables at my local market. The simplicity of the lifestyle is easy for many to adopt.”
Top 10 countries for expats
Though Mexico’s bureaucracy can be challenging to navigate, it’s also easy to maintain residency if you qualify, and there’s no minimum amount of time you need to stay in the country to keep your visa status. While English is spoken in the most touristy areas, expats will find life easier if they work on their Spanish before they arrive. Even if you’re not an expert by the time you move, a little practice can go a long way. “Poco a poco (little by little), your Spanish knowledge will start to grow,” said Julien Casanova, founder of Oaxaca Travel Tips who has lived in Mexico for five years and is originally from the US.
Expats also express a deep appreciation for Mexico’s culture and history, echoed in its top ranking in the culture and welcome subcategory. “Close connection to family and tradition are infused throughout Mexican culture,” said Casanova. “I love living in Oaxaca City for this reason. It’s an incredibly festive city with deep roots in its pre-Hispanic past.”
Mexico has no shortage of unique cities that expats call home. “Mexico has all the landscapes, all the climates, all the gastronomy and culture. And best of all, the warmth and service of the people, the good humour always, the permanent party atmosphere wherever you go. It’s just a matter of connecting with everything,” said Elizabeth Lemos, originally from Uruguay, who has lived in Mexico since 2022 and serves as an Internations ambassador (a position that works to organise local expat gatherings). “In Mexico, you can find your place in the world.”
Spain has ranked in the top 10 in the survey’s Quality of Life index since 2014, due to its culture and nightlife, opportunities for recreation and leisure, and its moderate climate and weather.
“Even though it differs significantly from the south to the north of the country, the temperatures are generally mild and pleasant,” said resident Patricia Palacios, co-founder of España Guide, who has lived in Spain for the past decade. She says the weather is one of the main benefits of living here. “For example, cities such as Valencia and Malaga boast more than 300 sunny days per year and have an average temperature of 18C (65F).” She also loves the food options that the Mediterranean climate provides, and that the landscape and architecture that has been influenced by so many cultures over the years.
Valencia has a mild climate with more than 300 days of sunshine per year (Credit: Gonzalo Azumendi/Getty Images)
Cost of living continues to be less here than in other European countries, which can either be a blessing or a curse depending on your career status, since local salaries tend to be lower. “It would definitely be best if you could work remotely and earn a higher foreign income so that you could have a better standard of living,” advised Palacios. And while the country has a lauded digital nomad visa programme, she also says that being a freelancer can come with bureaucratic headaches and a “freelancing fee” on top of your normal taxes.
According to Palacios, locals tend to be easy-going, friendly and welcoming, especially to those trying to learn the language. They are very patient with foreigners with limited Spanish skills, which can be very important when starting out in a new country,” she said. According to the Internations survey, 80% of expats feel at home here, 18% higher than the global average.
That said, she recommends anyone moving here take dedicated Spanish classes. “Only if you speak the language will you be able to make the most out of your new life in Spain,” she said. “It’s also a way of showing respect and appreciation for the local culture.”
This Central American country ranks third in the index thanks to high scores in the ease of settling in, ease of finding friends and the culture and welcome categories. Like Spain, the country has introduced a digital nomad visa, with one of the world’s lowest fees – in fact, expats in the index rank it one of the top-five countries where it’s easiest to get a visa. The climate and weather also help the country’s high placement, ranking 11th overall in that subindex.
“Panama has amazing weather per my personal preference – 75F-85F [24-29C] all year, and a good mix of rain and sun,” said expat Sarah Bajc, owner at the local Camaroncito EcoResort & Beach. The country is also closer geographically to the United States, making it easier for her to have phone calls and visits with family and friends after 10 years of living in Asia.
The US-dollar-based economy also makes it easy to handle finances, said Bajc, and allowed her to purchase real estate relatively straightforwardly. Similarly, the Internations survey also found that most expats think housing here is both easy to find and afford. The country ranked eighth overall in the Personal Finance index, with 80% of expats reporting being happy with their financial situation.
Prioritising economic and personal safety along with the opportunity to purchase beach-front real estate, Bajc found her decision on where to retire easy. “Panama was the winner,” she said. “Especially when considering the economy, weather and a welcoming, diverse culture that loves to dance!”
The only Middle Eastern country in the top 10, Bahrain ranked ninth and was the most improved country on the list from 2022 to 2023, moving up 19 places. It moved up the most in the Personal Finance index, as nearly half of expats surveyed rated the cost of living more favourably than in 2022, and reported a great satisfaction with their financial situation.
The country also scored well across multiple types of indexes, ranking number one in the Expat Essentials category, which includes topics like administration (such as opening a bank account), housing, digital access and language. It’s also one of the easiest places to get a visa and deal with local authorities, and 78% of those surveyed reported that it’s easy to live here without speaking Arabic.
Residents also say the country grows on you, with appreciation for its benefits only deepening over time. “During expat gatherings and events, other expats inevitably gush over how beautiful the country is and how welcomed they feel with Bahraini friends and colleagues,” said Internations ambassador Sharmila Vadi, who is originally from India and a 23-year resident of Bahrain’s capital, Manama. “Almost everyone you talk to will agree with you about how warm and culturally friendly the country and its people are.”
Vadi cites a work environment that is welcoming but competitive enough to keep growing a successful career. “A brilliant mix of well-educated Bahraini workforce working side by side with skilled expatriates makes the work environment very exciting and conducive towards knowledge exchange, therefore leading to fantastic career growth for all,” she said. She notes that many expats have found career success and end up staying longer than originally planned, even purchasing property.
Vadi has also seen a rise in the availability of entertainment options over recent years, especially the months leading up to the Bahrain Grand Prix (held in March), which sees top musical artists performing concerts along with art exhibitions and other creative activities. The annual Spring of Culture Festival brings together talent and showcases from across the world (like Turkish poetry and the Japan Film Festival), while also highlighting the country’s own rich culture and historical sites. “There is always much to look forward to in terms of entertainment, allowing us to enjoy a good work-and-personal-life balance,” said Vadi. “This makes it both exciting at times, and occasionally slow enough to make living here quite an enjoyable experience.”
Ranked number four in the overall index, Malaysia jumped up the Quality of Life subindex this year, with residents ranking the country third in its availability of travel opportunities. The Southeast Asian country also scores well in local friendliness and personal finance.
Spanning two regions (Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia on the island of Borneo), Malaysia is a stellar homebase for those looking to travel frequently. “The ability to reach the whole of Southeast Asia within two hours of flight time makes it the centre of the region, allowing easy access to regional markets,” said resident and Internations ambassador Shawn Bhushan, who was born here but has also lived in Singapore, London, Hong Kong and Miami. He also loves exploring the country itself and getting to know it in a new way. “The sparse and vastness of the country allows discovery of foods, travel to vintage cities, Unesco heritage sites, islands, history, geography and religions.”
Bhushan finds the cost of living here to be very manageable, with income and overheads easy to balance. English is widely understood, and the local language is written in Romanised script, making it easier for English speakers to read. As a teacher who previously lived in Malaysia for two years, Bajc added that education is respected here. “The Malay culture prizes education, and my students (and their parents) treated me with great affection and respect,” she recalled.
In this warm and welcoming culture, Bajc was able to make many friends within the traditional Malay community as well as the Indian and Chinese communities, but she notes that there’s a difference between social friendship and genuine acceptance that expats may find challenging in the long run. That said, expats report that it’s easy to initially engage with people here. “There is an air of social ease in many settings where a conversation can be struck, and people respond with humility and sincerity,” said Bhushan.