6 Big Pluses for Foreign Retirement

Long-time impediments to overseas living are disappearing due to globalization and technology.

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You name it: Ecuador, Belize, southern France, Mexico, Italy—the list goes on. Retire to these idyllic locales, we're told, and you will save money while improving the quality of your life. The only thing wrong with this picture is that hardly anyone actually retires overseas. Only about 1 percent of Social Security payments are made to beneficiaries outside the United States.

As the economic picture at home continues to darken, however, the grass is looking greener and greener in other countries. And if people explore leaving the United States, they will see a world that has gotten much smaller. Globalization is creating a homogeneity that may draw the wrath of some critics but undoubtedly makes foreign locations less, well, foreign. People can land in a strange country and not feel so strange.

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Terrorism? Yes, it makes some areas off-limits, but what else is new? Some people have viewed parts of the United States as off-limits for years. Meanwhile, the governmental stability of the United States is simply not what it used to be. There are precious few signs that things will get better here anytime soon. International Living ranks 25 countries as retirement destinations. The United States is in 15th place.

Against this backdrop are six compelling factors that either favor relocating overseas or greatly mitigate the traditional reasons not to. The first two have been, until recently, the only prevailing draws.

1) It's the money, stupid. It has long been possible to find attractive and low-cost places to live outside of the United States. This is still the case, and remains a strong draw.

2) It's the climate, stupid. The traditional allure of temperate climates and gorgeous natural settings has also not gone away. If you like warm weather year-round, you can still find it. Of course, that also was true in Russia this year.

[See Appeal of Overseas Retirement Grows for Many.]

Aside from these perennial attractions are four other evolving developments that are making it easier to thrive in retirement outside of the United States.

3) Improved medical care. The quality of foreign healthcare has improved. Medical tourism has helped reverse old stereotypes about foreign physicians and hospitals. It remains true that Medicare does not cover foreign healthcare costs. This may limit lower-income retirees to low-cost overseas health markets. But these markets also would be high on their list because of their overall low costs of living. Wealthier retirees already pay a lot for healthcare outside of Medicare, and would continue to do so. The big change is that fear of poor care is disappearing as a disincentive to retire outside of the United States.

4) Access to family and friends. If your grandchildren live three blocks away and your life revolves around seeing them at least every week, you probably aren't reading this story in the first place. Retiring to a foreign country is not only not high on your list, it's not even on your list. However, in terms of contact with family and friends, communications technology has made where you live irrelevant for most people. Florida is not so different than France, or any number of other countries. The Internet, E-mail, and the mushrooming variety of hand-held communications gizmos help people stay connected more easily and cheaply than ever before. Skype and other calling services make international phone calls very inexpensive. Airplane trips aren't so different either, although some may be longer. Again, the difference is that moving outside of the United States no longer cuts people off from those they care about.

5) It's a foreign culture, dude. Feeling out of place in another country has been a time-honored tradition among American ex-patriots. Increasingly, however, that feeling has gone away. Information technology is also a big driver of this shift. The world may still have many time zones but it has only one information zone. Armed with a good smartphone, you can be anywhere in the world and call up local street maps, and have access to reviews and details about stores and merchants. Increasingly powerful translation engines can also help overcome language barriers.

[See 8 Realities of the New Retirement.]

6) They like old people. The United States is getting older. We've been inundated with "age wave" trend stories about baby boomers. However, the rest of the world already is older, especially in Europe and other industrial countries. Their societies have been getting ready for older people for a lot longer than we have in the United States. Many of these nations also have cultures that are much more respectful of their elders than is the case in America.