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Beautiful Medellín, Colombia, our expat home

So, you’ve decided to try living outside your home country. Congrats – taking “the road less traveled” is a wise, and yes, courageous, choice. If you approach it with an open heart and mind, we promise you’ll be awarded with adventures and memories of a lifetime.

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“I’m not telling you it will be easy. I am telling you it will be worth it.” Expat wisdom on a coffee mug.

As we’re coming up on our four-year anniversary of expatting – first in Panama and now in Colombia – here are our two cents how to expat, step by step. 

As you do your research and start to narrow down your target country, you’ll read a lot of glowing reviews in magazines and

on the internet extolling the benefits of different locations. Many of these sources paint a rosy picture that seems almost too good to be true (and you know the saying about that). A lower cost of living and a simpler way of life are especially big motivators for people from the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and other European countries, and, now in growing numbers, South Africa. Indeed it’s possible to realize these benefits somewhere other than one’s birth country, but it takes work, perseverance, and research.

Step 1: Do your homework.

In other words, don’t take the glossy magazines at face value, especially the countless articles that “list the 10 best countries to affordably retire to” or take a similar approach. Nine times out of 10, they’re promoting these countries with an ulterior motive, and the truth might be somewhat different. And avoid any sites or publications that are trying to sell property – that should be the last thing on your agenda, at least until you’ve had some actual experience living in your target country.

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One of the rewards of expat life in Colombia: the sunsets, the likes of which I’ve never seen outside of West Texas!

Try to connect with as many real-live expats as you can. Check out the online expat forums and blogs. The expat groups on Facebook can be good information sources, but you have to sort out the “trolls” from the legitimate posts made by people that actually live there. Our best information sources have always been, and continue to be, the expat blogs written by people who know what it’s like to live, day in and day out, in a given location. Nine times out of ten, these are written by people like us, who benefited greatly from those who went before them and are now eager to pay the favor forward by sharing information. Not only can you usually rely on these people to give you their unvarnished opinion, but you’ll also make contacts that can turn into real, live friendships and important on-the-ground resources once you’ve made the move. 

When you talk to folks, go beyond questions like weather, most livable neighborhoods, crime statistics, cost of healthcare and other living expenses (this information is easy to glean from a Google search). What’s it really like to access the healthcare system? What are the things they love the most, and what things aren’t so great? Is the language barrier really a big deal? Do they get homesick, and how do they stay connected to family? What do they miss the most about their birth country?

Here are a few links to get you started:
Cost of living comparisons – www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living
In-country expat aggregate sites – www.expat.com, www.expatfocus.com
The World Health Organization’s rankings of healthcare systems by country
A comparison of the quality of healthcare in the U.S. vs. other countries

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Moving our “kids,” Tango and Rosie, to Medellín last December.
Step 2: List the pros and cons of your target country and city.

No place is perfect. You have to weigh the options that are best for your particular circumstances. How is your health, and will you be able to receive affordable care and quality treatment in your new country? What’s the process for getting a residency visa, and how expensive is it? What about safety and political stability? Will your new country tax you on your income (this is a big one)? If you’re moving with pets, how complex and expensive is the process, and how pet-friendly is your target location? Does the area you’re looking at have a big expat community, if that’s important to you?

If you decide to settle in a non-English-speaking country, are you prepared to get a least a basic knowledge of the language? Here in Medellín, we call it “survival Spanish,” and it’s things like ordering food off a menu, asking directions, and being able to tell a cab driver where you live.

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Studying Spanish with our tutor, Lisca, in Panama

Before long, you might decide that survival language isn’t enough, and you want to be able to have more meaningful conversations with the locals. Besides language schools, private tutors, and online language training sites, look for every opportunity to practice your fledgling language skills – with taxi drivers, servers in restaurants, people on the street. We’ve found that people here are incredibly kind and forgiving as we butcher their language, and they seem to really appreciate the effort. 

Culturally, we see two options: jump in, feet first, and immerse yourself in your new country and its people, or take baby steps and move somewhere with a large expat community to make an easier transition. We call this the “training wheels” approach, and it’s essentially what we did when we moved first to Boquete, Panama. In a place like Boquete, it’s possible to live for many years without learning a word of Spanish. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and it’s the “comfort zone” many people need, but we realized after three years that it wasn’t the culture experience – the adventure – we’d signed up for.  

Step 3: Adjust your attitude before you adjust your latitude. Expatting isn’t for everyone.

If you are a positive, “glass half full” person in your home country, then you have the stuff for the expat life. Trust us, you’ll need all the positivity you can muster!

What is your comfort zone and how much inconvenience can you tolerate? If you need things like on-demand hot water,  having family close by, the convenience of shopping for anything you want, fast and reliable customer service, and reliable mail and shipping, you might be better off staying put. You might also have to deal with infrastructure issues: power outages, undrinkable tap water, sporadic internet service, and poor cell phone coverage, just to name a few. Of course, these factors can vary dramatically from country to country, and from province to province or city to city. 

Another very important factor for couples is that you and your spouse or partner need to be on the same page. If one is wavering, you need to address that before you make any move. Expatting has to be a team effort. And if you’re thinking of moving as an escape – from your country’s political situation or otherwise – chances are you won’t be happy somewhere else. (Remember, the grass is always greener.)  

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Applying for John’s cedulá (official ID card) at the Oficina de Migración in Medellín

Most of all, don’t go with the expectation that your new home should be more like your old one. Expecting things to happen just as fast, or be just as easy, as they are in your native country will quickly result in frustration, and – in our opinion – misses the whole point of expatting. Sure, we have plenty of moments when we’re scratching our heads and saying things like “We could have gotten this done five times faster and easier back in the States.” Depending on where you go, expect lots of inefficiencies, government bureaucracies, and moment of sheer disbelief bordering on the comical. But we’ve learned that these moments are part of the experience. If you go with the flow and enter each situation with an open mind, you will get the job done!

Step 4: Get your boots on the ground.

As surprising as it seems, we’ve met people who actually picked up and moved to their new country after just one vacation visit, or even without ever having visited before. We would lay odds that most of these people have already moved back home or will be doing so soon. One little visit, hitting just the tourist sites, is not enough to experience day-to-day life in the new location with all of its pleasures and challenges.

At a minimum, we recommend two or three visits to your target city, and try to spend at least two weeks at a time. And try to

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One of the AirBnBs we rented on our last fact-finding trip to Medellín

go at different times of the year, so you’ll know if you can tolerate the area’s weather extremes. Rather than staying in a hotel, try to rent a small apartment or an AirBnB. Buy groceries and cook in. Try to simulate, as much as possible, what actually living there is like. (On our last visit to Medellin before our move, we stayed in AirBnBs in three different neighborhoods.) Does the neighborhood have a safe reputation, and is it quiet? Are the locals friendly and helpful? How walkable is it, and how convenient to restaurants, shopping, transportation, healthcare facilities, and entertainment?  

If you have already connected with expat bloggers in your prospective city, plan on meeting up with them. Buy them lunch and get their perspective and recommendations. They will be your best and most current information source for immigration and visa requirements, housing, transportation, health care, and other matters, since information is constantly changing and what you read on the internet is often outdated. 

A smartphone is your best friend. Get yourself a local sim card and make sure you’ve loaded, at the minimum, WhatsApp and some sort of navigation app, such as Google Maps or Waze. WhatsApp is especially critical in Latin America, since EVERYONE uses it. In fact, people here are much more likely to respond to a WhatsApp message than an email or voicemail. Other highly useful apps are Google Translate and other language apps, Units Plus (a nifty metric-to-imperial tool for every type of unit, as well as a currency converter). We also love Easy Taxi, a taxi version of Uber that brings a taxi right to your door in minutes, with your destination already programmed into the driver’s phone.

Step 5: Figure out money matters.

The financial aspects of expatting should be a central element in your research. You’ll get a feel for the cost of living in your new country after your “living like a local” trip. Remember: relocating to another country involves (sometimes significant) costs: transportation, shipping, visas, furnishing a new home, the true costs of healthcare, deposits and other fees for renting, the costs of trips back home to see family, etc. If a lower cost of living is your primary motivator for moving, weigh these expenses – you might be better off staying put.

And before we go any further, we suggest – no, we urge – that you live in your new city for at least six months before you even THINK of buying property. A year is even better.

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No relation at all to financial matters, except to say that the best things in life are free! This is our favorite secret swimming hole in Panama.

How will you access your money and how will you pay for things?In Colombia and other Latin American countries, ATMs are the best places to get local currency at the best exchange rates. Tip: get a debit card that has no foreign transaction fees and reimburses you for all ATM fees. We have Charles Scwab debit cards that do just that – here’s more info

We do have a Colombian bank account (it was a prerequisite for renting our apartment) but we pay our local bills by transferring funds from our US bank account using Xoom. A similar service is World Remit. Both offer a less expensive means than a bank wire transfer, and the transaction happens quickly, usually within an hour. If you’re collecting Social Security in the U.S., we do not recommend having your Social Security check deposited into a foreign bank account. It is a process to get it set up, and you may be charged fees.

Here’s one they don’t tell you about in the retirement publications! After living as expats for over a year in Panama, we got a call from our financial advisor saying that Morgan Stanley was phasing out all of its overseas clients. In other words, the company that had managed our retirement funds for decades was firing us! We were given 90 days to move our funds and close the accounts. After a bit of a scramble, we were able to go with Charles Schwab, and it’s actually turned out to be a good move, since CS has a whole division dedicated to overseas retirees. Lesson: check to make sure your investment company will stay with you if you move to another country.

5. Time to make a decision. 

OK. You’ve made your first fact-finding trip and you’ve been back a couple of times to try on different neighborhoods. You’ve gotten most of your questions answered and you’ve found the city/town/village that feels like “home.” It’s time to make a decision.

Here’s our initial post about our decision to move to Boquete, Panama. (It seems sooo long ago!)

AAANNDD . . .

Here’s how we decided on Laureles, our new home in Medellín. 

Now your most important work is ahead of you. Find out exactly what is required for legal residency – fees, timeframes, and necessary paperwork. What is required to open a bank account, secure housing, obtain healthcare coverage. How do you get a driver’s license, sign up for utilities in your name, and get a mobile phone contract?

Which leads us to . . .

6. Get an advocate.

Getting things done in another country with a completely different culture is challenging enough, but if you’ve got a language barrier, the challenges are multiplied. Even before you move, try to connect with a facilitator or advocate, someone local who also speaks your language and can help you navigate the business/legal aspects of getting settled in your new home. 

In Medellin, a growing number of enterprising people are offering such services – locals who understand how to jump through their county’s bureaucratic hoops, but also understand the needs of newly arrived expats. We were lucky enough to find such a person, and he’s been our lifesaver.

Final suggestions
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The sum total of all the possessions we brought to Panama back in 2015 – including two pups in their crates. When we recently moved to Colombia, it was about the same.

Expatting is not for the stuff-addicted; in fact, the leaner and meaner you go, the happier you’ll be. We know of many new expats that have moved with a 40-foot container, shipped a car (a few even shipped motorcycles and one brought a boat!), only to realize a year or so later that the expat life was not for them. The lesson: don’t bring your stuff, especially your big, expensive stuff, unless you’re prepared to sell it at a huge loss or ship it back if you change your mind. There are also customs duties to consider.

And here’s a random thing you might not consider (we didn’t): is your passport up to snuff? Many countries will not allow entry if a passport is within six months of expiring. And if you’re from the U.S., you might not be aware that they no longer issue extra pages for an unexpired passport that’s run out of stamping room. Our passports don’t expire for another year, but we’re now renewing them because we’re down to a couple of pages apiece.   

Other important paperwork, wherever you go, is your original drivers license, birth certificate, Social Security proof of retirement letter or other proof of pension funds, marriage certificate, bank statements, and a copy of your last tax filing. Bring several copies of each. As you apply for residency in your new country, be prepared to present certified, notarized, and/or apostilled copies of these documents. Bring your medical records, and get a summary of your medical history translated into the language of your new country .

What’s your exit strategy?

It’s something you might not want to think about, after doing all your homework and making a decision as monumental as picking a new country and city to call home. But what if things go south in your new location – politically, economically, militarily? We’re not trying to be downers, but the world today is a complicated place. Take Nicaragua, for instance. We have friends who built a life and a lovely home there, and who recently had to leave when the country was plunged into a civil and political crisis last year.

Are you willing to pick up and leave everything behind? How much of your expatting investment are you willing to walk away from? (It’s another argument for moving with as little stuff as possible, and for not buying property right away.) Do you have a plan and the funds for making a quick exit if need be?

Footnote: So why did we decide to expat?

In 2001, we sailed out of San Francisco aboard our 42-foot sailboat, Compania. For me, it was the realization of a lifetime dream. I had always wanted the adventure of casting off the lines, leaving the shore, experiencing a deeper connection with nature, and learning to be as self-sufficient as I could within my skills and boundaries. I am extremely grateful that I was able to share this experience with my co-captain and soulmate, my wonderful and beautiful wife, Susan. (Note from Susan: Aww! Ditto, babe!!)

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At anchor in Las Hadas, Mexico, in 2003 with our beloved boat cat, Roscoe

That trip came to an end in 2004, but it ignited the travel and adventure bug within both of us. As we got back to “dirt world” (as sailors like to call boring, stable life on land) and resumed our careers, we started dreaming of someday living outside the country. One thing lead to another, and here we are – 16 years later – living the good life in Medellín, Colombia. And we wouldn’t change a thing!  

***

So there you have it. Feeding your jones for adventure and wanderlust, seeing what’s around the next corner, experiencing different cultures and new people, learning new histories and geographies, beholding otherworldly natural beauty, and enjoying that wonderful sense of freedom. These are just a few of the rewards of expatting that we’ve experienced, and we wish the same for you!

17 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading the helpful hints in your post as they appeared to give a realistic expectation of what to expect when choosing to move to another country. I would love to know why you decided to move from Panama to Medellin and what have been the highlights and low points for you both since moving away from the States. If you addressed these points in a post I missed, I apologize!

    Annie

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Annie! Glad the post is helpful.

      So – we address most of the reasons we moved from Panama to Medellin in this post: http://latitudeadjustmentblog.com/2018/07/07/next-port-of-call-medellin-colombia/

      The short answer is that we just got bored in Boquete. We made wonderful friends there, but we weren’t being challenged to learn more Spanish. We wanted the excitement and culture of a big city. After two visits to Medellín, we knew it was the place for us.

      Highlights – the people here are kind, generous, and very forgiving as we try to communicate and butcher their language! The cost of living is sooo much lower here. Every day we see some new wonder or something that makes us scratch our heads and laugh. It’s a wonderfully pet-friendly city that’s perfect for our two dogs. And the weather is delightful.

      Low points? There aren’t too many, but one thing is that Medellin does have an air pollution problem. It’s no worse than other cities this size in the world, and they’re working on it – but it is a consideration for people with respiratory issues. And we got what we asked for – it’s very rare to find an English speaker here and learning Spanish is a daily challenge. We are improving, though, poco a poco.

      Hope that answers your questions!

      Cheers,
      Susan

      • Susan,

        Thanks so much for providing the link to your post explaining why you chose to move from Boquete and also including the highlights and low points of your adopted city. It’s great reading such a positive spin on Medellin. I look forward to reading your other old posts on Medellin so I can catch up on your experiences there. My husband and I spent a few days there as part of about a two week period in Colombia and a total of 3.5 months in South America in the fall of 2017. We’re returning to SA in November for about almost seven weeks to go on cruises to both Antarctica and Patagonia before renting a car in the latter area for five days and then spending about ten days touring Asuncion and southern Paraguay, one of the very few countries we didn’t make it to in SA in 2017.

        Keep up the enjoyable posts in between walks in the parks with your dogs, dining in new restaurants and exploring more of Medellin and Colombia!

        Annie

        • Hi, thanks! And let us know if we can answer any more questions for you about Medellín. Your SA trip sounds amazing, BTW. We have something similar in mind soon for Patagonia – and we’re really interested in your arrangement for visiting Antarctica. Which cruise line are you using?

          • Susan,

            A full year ago we booked our Antarctica cruise for this November to get the cheapest room with Southern Explorations on their former scientific vessel called Ushuaia. We figured we’re going for the great experience of exploring our last continent and wouldn’t be spending a lot of time in our small room. I hope I won’t have to eat my words come November when Steven and I are ensconced in our 100 sq. ft room!

            BTW, I thought of you last night when I finally got around to reading the August/September Natgeo Travel magazine and there was an article in it about Medellin. Fun reading possibly for you if you can unearth it.

            Annie

  2. Excellent advice and information! I especially loved your tip, “Adjust your attitude before you adjust your latitude” because making the decision to live outside your native country is all about patience, flexibility, re-setting your expectations and embracing your new country with an open mind and spirit of adventure. We said it many times, and I predict I’ll be saying it many more – making the decision to leave the US in 2012 was the best thing we’d ever done. No regrets and what an experience it’s been to learn more about the people and world we live in. Anita

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Anita! We know you understand this experience as well as anyone. I hope you make it to South America one of these days!

  3. This is a great post and a must read for anyone contemplating moving to another country. We live in England but currently touring Europe with our home on wheels, at the moment we don’t feel ready to move to another country, but we don’t rule out doing that in the future. For me health and safety would be a priority and then I would like to be able to speak the local language as fluent as possible. Making friends with locals would make me feel a greater sense of belonging. Thanks for a very interesting post

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Gilda! Some of our best times were spent traveling around the U.S. in a motor home (do they call them caravans in the U.K.?) – that’s a great way to go, and what an amazing time you must be having in Europe!

  4. Excellent, as usual, mis amigos. We especially like the advice to avoid jumping into a place based on emotional and/or hyped up information. I think it’s a natural tendency for expats to swoon over their newfound home, and to simply deny any negative or unsavory items about it, because that may draw judgmental opinions if things go south. We’ve certainly been guilty of over-hyping Medellin and Colombia. We love living here, and can’t imagine leaving, but the city and the country do have issues that should not be glossed over. One thing about your post that I would re-emphasize is for potential expats to be very careful who they choose/hire as advocates. It’s almost too easy to find folks these days who are self-appointed experts, with zero credentials for the services they’re offering. Great post, keep ’em coming.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      All great points, amigo. Rose-colored glasses are not advised when choosing your destination city and country. I think that’s why it’s important to try and spend as much time there as possible so you can evaluate the place, warts and all. And yes, we should emphasize that you should choose the advisor carefully and only after speaking to references and hearing from others who have experience working with him/her.

  5. Hi John and Susan: I really enjoy following your blog. It is insightful and entertaining. I would love to share some of your most recent post with my blog readers. Please, let me know if you would be okay with that. Our blog appears at https://2RetireInPanama.com

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      That would be great, Greg! Thank you 🙂 Feel free to share whatever you like.

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