20 Frequently Asked Retire Overseas Questions

You can generally collect Social Security, but can’t utilize Medicare abroad.

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Beginning to think about the possibility of retirement overseas can be intimidating. Most people have a lot of questions when they are in the early stages of planning a new life abroad. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about retirement overseas.

1. If I move overseas, could I ever return to the United States? Living overseas, even full-time or as a legal resident of another country, does not affect your ability to spend time in the United States. If you're still an American citizen, you can come and go as you please.

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2. Living overseas, could I lose my U.S. citizenship? Your residency status abroad has no effect on your U.S. citizenship. Remember, residency and citizenship are two different things. The only way to lose your U.S. citizenship is to renounce it formally. You can’t lose your U.S. citizenship accidentally.

3. Do I need a passport to retire overseas? You need a passport to travel anywhere in the world outside the U.S., no matter how long you intend to stay.

4. Do I need any vaccinations? Some countries require you to have specific vaccinations before you'll be permitted to enter. There are also many foreign retirement spots where, although it’s not required, you may choose to be vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a good section on its website discussing which vaccinations might be advisable, depending on your current state of health and where in the world you intend to spend time.

5. Can I drink the water? The safety of the drinking water varies considerably depending on where you are going. The tap water is potable in France, for example, but it tastes funny because of the chemicals it's treated with. The tap water is generally not potable in Ireland, but it is in Panama City and other parts of Panama. The easiest strategy is to drink bottled water everywhere outside the U.S.

6. Is it really safe? Nowhere in the world is 100 percent crime-free, but many countries outside the U.S. are generally safe. That is not to say no one ever does anything he or she shouldn't do in any of these places. Use common sense at home and abroad. Lock the front door to your house, don't leave the keys in your car, and don't wear flashy jewelry on the street.

7. Are there bugs or snakes? There are mosquitoes, gnats, sand flies, cockroaches, and spiders nearly everywhere. You'll find snakes in the jungle and other rural areas, sometimes including poisonous ones. It's easy enough, though, to educate yourself on which varieties of creepy-crawlies you might encounter in your new home once you decide where you're moving. Note that nearly every state in the U.S. has snakes, too.

8. Are there earthquakes or hurricanes? Yes, these natural disasters occur in many countries. Panama, for example, sits outside the hurricane belt, but sometimes the earth does quake.

9. Can I still receive my Social Security payments? Yes. You can even have your monthly Social Security check direct-deposited into your account in many countries.

10. Will Medicare cover me overseas? No. You need to make other plans for covering your medical expenses overseas. The good news is that medical care and health insurance cost a fraction of what they cost in the U.S. in many countries.

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11. Will my computer, cell phone, and DVD player work in another country? Your laptop computer will work anywhere, as all laptop AC adapters should be dual current and work with 110V and 220V electrical systems. You may need a plug adapter to be able to plug your computer cord into the outlet, depending on where you're going to be spending time. Most of Central and South America uses the U.S.-type plug. In Europe, Asia, and Argentina, you'll need a plug adapter. You can find adapter sets in shops in most international airports.

Your cell phone may or may not work. Find out if your current carrier has coverage where you're traveling and if your plan allows roaming in that country. In the long term, you'll want a local cell phone.

Every DVD player is programmed to play DVDs from particular zones. If you bring your U.S. DVD player with you to Europe, Asia, or South America and try to use it to play local DVDs, it probably won't work. Unless you have a multi-zone player, leave it behind and buy a new one in your new country when you arrive. They are easy to find and typically not expensive in most places in the world.

12. Can I drive using my U.S. driver's license? You can typically use your existing driver's license for the first 30 days to one year that you're a resident in a new country. After this time, most countries require you to qualify for a local driver's license or to have your U.S. license validated locally.

13. Do I really need to learn the local language? No. You could get by in most places speaking only English, but it could add to your experience to learn the local language.

14. Is there Burger King? Fast food has gone global. You can buy Coca-Cola almost anywhere on earth, and McDonald's can be found everywhere except in the most remote regions of the planet.

15. Can I get a job? Probably not. To work in a foreign country, you'll need a work visa. This is not easily obtained unless you're sponsored for a job by an international employer and relocated to the country with their help. You can, however, start your own business in many parts of the world. The easiest way to begin is with a laptop-based enterprise.

16. Will my U.S. credit and debit cards work overseas? U.S. credit cards should work abroad. Before you use them, research what fees you'll be charged. Some credit card companies impose such onerous fees when their cards are used in foreign countries that it can be worth switching to another card before you move.

17. How will my friends and family be able to stay in touch with me? The Internet age has made it possible to retire overseas and still communicate with friends and family on a daily basis via e-mail.

18. How much does it cost to move overseas? There is no one-budget-fits-all answer to this question.  Depending on your personal circumstances, where you want to move, and what kind of lifestyle you want to establish, your initial capital requirement could amount to a few thousand dollars.

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19. What are my options if I don't qualify for health insurance? Most in-country health coverage providers will write you a new policy up until age 63 that can cost less than $100 a month, with exceptions based on pre-existing conditions. Bupa International writes policies up until age 74, which typically cost $200 a month or less, depending primarily on your age. Lloyd's of London accepts new policy-holders up until the age of 85 with renewals for life, but these policies aren't cheap. 

If you don't qualify for in-country or international coverage because of your age or your health circumstances, you can choose to go without insurance altogether. This isn't as crazy of an idea as it may seem, because medical costs in many places outside the U.S. can be affordable.

20. Can I bring my pets with me? You can bring your cats and dogs with you almost anywhere. In some cases, a quarantine period will be required following the pet's arrival in the new country. Sometimes your pet must reside at a registered facility, while other times it can be in a space you create at your new home according to government specifications.

Other animals can be more complicated. Our son Jackson wanted to bring his pet turtle with him from Paris to Panama City. While this was possible, the associated fees to the airline and the Panama government were so great we gave the turtle away to friends in Paris instead. Once in Panama, Jack got a pet iguana.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.