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Expat Insider - The World Through Expat Eyes

The Best & Worst Places for Expats in 2021

In 2021, Taiwan, Mexico, and Costa Rica are the best expat destinations worldwide: all of them attract expats with their ease of settling in and good personal finances.

Top Findings 

  • In #1 Taiwan, not a single expat feels personally unsafe. 
  • #2 Mexico places first worldwide for personal happiness. 
  • In #3 Costa Rica, over nine in ten expats describe the population as generally friendly. 
  • South Africa (#57) joins Kuwait (#59) and Italy (#58) in the bottom 3. 

Safe & Sound in Taiwan

Taiwan ranks 1st out of 59 destinations for the third year in a row in the Expat Insider 2021 survey. It also comes first in the Quality of Life and Working Abroad Indices: Most expats are satisfied with their job security (83% vs. 61% globally) and the state of the local economy (85% vs. 62% globally). Additionally, the majority is happy with their job (75% vs. 68% globally) and their life in general (80% vs. 75% globally). Furthermore, 96% of expats rate the quality of medical care positively (vs. 71% globally), and another 94% are satisfied with its affordability (vs. 61% globally). An expat from Chile shares: “The Taiwanese healthcare system truly considers people as human beings instead of mere numbers.” Moreover, not a single expat feels personally unsafe in Taiwan (vs. 8% globally). An expat from Canada shares: “I can live independently. I feel safe wherever I go, and everything is convenient.”

The Taiwanese healthcare system truly considers people as human beings instead of mere numbers.

Although Taiwan places slightly lower in the Ease of Settling In Index (13th), it is the best-ranking country worldwide in the Friendliness subcategory (1st). Most expats find it easy to make friends there (62% vs. 48% globally) and describe the Taiwanese population as friendly towards foreign residents (96% vs. 67% globally).

Making Friends in Mexico

Mexico ranks 2nd out of 59 destinations worldwide. It is even rated the best country for expats in the Ease of Settling In Index (1st): 85% find it easy to settle down in Mexico (vs. 62% globally), and 78% say it is easy to make local friends (vs. 44% globally). A US American expat says that “the culture and friendliness of the local people” is their favorite thing about living in Mexico.

I love the culture and friendliness of the local people.

Mexico also does well in the Personal Finance (2nd) and Cost of Living (4th) Indices. In fact, four in five expats (80%) are satisfied with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally), and 90% say their disposable household income is enough or more than enough to cover their living expenses (vs. 77% globally).

Mexico performs slightly below average in the Quality of Life Index (31st). It comes in 42nd place in the Quality of the Environment subcategory, with 27% of expats being unhappy with the water and sanitation infrastructure (vs. 12% globally). Additionally, Mexico even ends up among the bottom 10 of the Safety & Security subcategory (51st), with 20% of expats concerned about their personal safety (vs. 8% globally). Despite that, 89% of expats in Mexico are happy with their life in general (vs. 75% globally), placing the country first worldwide for personal happiness.

Happy & Settled in Costa Rica

Costa Rica places 3rd out of 59 destinations in the Expat Insider 2021 survey. It ranks among the top 5 in the Ease of Settling In Index (3rd), with 91% of expats describing the population as generally friendly (vs. 69% globally). Another 87% describe the local residents as generally friendly towards foreign ones (vs. 67% globally), and 70% find it easy to make local friends (vs. 44% globally). “I love the social life and culture,” shares a US American expat. Maybe this is why most survey respondents find it easy to get used to the local culture (82% vs. 65% globally) and feel at home in it too (80% vs. 63% globally).

I love the social life and culture in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica performs well in the Quality of Life Index (14th), coming in second place worldwide for personal happiness — just behind Mexico (1st). All things considered, 88% of expats in Costa Rica are happy with their life (vs. 75% globally). The country comes 10th in the Quality of the Environment subcategory, with the majority of expats rating the natural environment (96% vs. 84% globally) and the air quality (91% vs. 66% globally) positively. However, Costa Rica lands in the bottom 10 of the Travel & Transportation subcategory (52nd): 29% of expats are unhappy with the public transportation system (vs. 15% globally). A Canadian expat shares: “Traffic is terrible because of poor drivers, bad roads, and insufficient infrastructure.”

On the upside, Costa Rica makes it into the top 10 of the Personal Finance Index (7th), with 84% of expats considering their disposable household income enough or more than enough to cover all expenses (vs. 77% globally).

Few Surprises in the Bottom 3

For the seventh time in eight years, Kuwait comes in last place in the Expat Insider survey (59th out of 59 countries). The country ranks last in the Quality of Life Index (59th), with especially poor results in the Leisure Options, Personal Happiness, and Travel & Transportation subcategories (59th for all). Kuwait is also the worst expat destination worldwide in the Ease of Settling In Index (59th), with 46% of expats not feeling at home in the local culture (vs. 20% globally) and 45% finding it difficult to settle down in this country (vs. 22% globally). Moreover, 51% have trouble finding new friends (vs. 32% globally), and 62% find it difficult to make local friends in particular (vs. 36% globally).

Placing 56th in the Working Abroad Index, Kuwait performs poorly in both the Work & Leisure (58th) and the Career Prospects & Satisfaction (57th) subcategories. More than three in ten respondents (31%) are dissatisfied with their job in general (vs. 16% globally), and 34% are unhappy with their work-life balance (vs. 17% globally).

Coming in 58th place, Italy is the second-worst country for expats. In the Personal Finance Index (59th), the Southern European country even lands in last place worldwide: 30% of expats are dissatisfied with their financial situation (vs. 19% globally), 14% even very much so, twice as much as the global average (7%). Furthermore, one in three expats (33%) says their disposable household income is not enough to cover their expenses (vs. 23% globally).

Finding a job in Italy is not easy for foreigners.

Italy also performs poorly in the Working Abroad Index (58th), coming last in the Career Prospects & Satisfaction subcategory (59th). More than half the expats (56%) rate their local career opportunities negatively (vs. 33% globally), and 31% are dissatisfied with their job (vs. 16% globally). An Iranian expat shares: “Finding a job is not easy for foreigners, not even for the well-educated ones.” Within the Quality of Life Index (42nd), Italy ranks worst in the Digital Life subcategory (51st): 23% of expats find it difficult to get high-speed internet access at home (vs. 12% globally), 18% consider it difficult to pay without cash (vs. 9% globally), and 40% are unhappy with the availability of government services online (vs. 21% globally).

Coming in 57th place, South Africa performs worst in the Personal Finance Index (55th): over one-third of expats in South Africa (34%) do not consider their disposable household income enough to cover all their expenses (vs. 24% globally), and just 57% are satisfied with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally). South Africa also ends up among the bottom 10 of the Working Abroad Index (54th), coming last worldwide in the Economy & Job Security subcategory (59th). Only 47% of expats are satisfied with their job security (vs. 61% globally), and less than a third (31%) are happy with the state of the local economy — exactly half the global average (62%).

You are not able to walk around safely in South Africa.

Ranking among the bottom 10 in the Quality of Life Index (52nd), South Africa comes in last worldwide in the Safety & Security subcategory (59th). More than one-third of expats (34%) do not consider South Africa a peaceful country (vs. 9% globally) and just about one in four (24%) feel safe there (vs. 84% globally). An Ethiopian expat even says: “You are not able to walk around safely.”

Trends in the Top & Bottom 10

With its 5th place out of 59 destinations, Portugal is in fact the only European destination to make it into the top 10 of the overall ranking. Expats appreciate most aspects of life in Portugal — its 36th place in the Working Abroad Index is the country’s worst result in an index ranking, while expats particularly appreciate the high quality of life (3rd).

Malaysia (4th) and Vietnam (10th) join Taiwan to represent Asia among the ten best expat destinations worldwide. While respondents in all three of them appreciate the local cost of living and its impact on their personal finances — Vietnam even places first in both indices — results in other areas of the survey vary. Expats rate Malaysia the second-best country in the Ease of Settling In Index, for example, while respondents in Vietnam report the highest levels of overall job satisfaction worldwide.

A bit further south in the Asia-Pacific region, New Zealand and Australia have both gained ground to rank sixth and seventh, respectively. This is the first time since 2016 that both countries have made it into the top 10 at the same time. With both placing among the top 15 in the Working Abroad and Quality of Life Indices and getting good results for the ease of settling in, expats’ only major struggles seem to be living expenses and limited travel opportunities.

On the other side of the world, Ecuador (8th) joins Mexico (2nd) and Costa Rica (3rd) in the top 10. Similarly to the results for the latter two destinations, expats in Ecuador are particularly happy with their personal finances (5th in the index) and the ease of settling in (10th). Respondents in Canada (9th overall) agree with the latter, but definitely not with the former: while the North American country does well in the Ease of Settling In Index (12th) — in addition to excellent results in the Quality of Life (5th) and Working Abroad (12th) Indices — it loses ground in the overall ranking due to a place in the bottom 10 for personal finance (50th out of 59).

At the other end of the list, fellow Mediterranean destinations Malta (50th), Turkey (52nd), Cyprus (53rd), and Egypt (55th) join Italy in the bottom 10. While all four receive at least average results when it comes to the ease of settling in, expats are particularly dissatisfied with their working life and financial aspects: Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt land among the bottom 10 in the Working Abroad Index, while Turkey’s 44th place out of 59 destinations is the best result in the Personal Finance Index for one of these four destinations.

Russia (56th), Japan (54th), and India (51st) complete the list of the ten worst countries for expats.

Further Reading