Thinking of Leaving the US? This One’s For You.

by Gigi Griffis
Tallinn, Estonia

In the wake of the election, I’ve seen more and more people contemplating a big move—from the US to somewhere abroad.

Most people bring up Canada, Australia, or the UK, probably because they’re familiar places, places we’ve heard a lot about, places we know speak English…but did you know that both Malta and Belize are also English-speaking? And that if you have an Irish grandparent, getting citizenship there could be an option? And that there are lots of options in the non-English-speaking world that you might not want to skip over if you are seriously thinking of moving abroad?

Over the last four or five years, I’ve done a lot of interviewing with Americans who moved their lives, retirements, businesses, families, and talents to Europe. I managed to get Swiss residency, myself. And I’ve done quite a bit of research on other locations, both for articles I’ve written and for my own curiosity.

With so many people feeling so unsettled, I thought it might be a good time to share some of that research and those resources. Because knowledge is power. And if you’re seriously thinking about moving abroad, the first step is knowing what your options are.

Before I dive into resources and details, two caveats: The first is that I’m not a lawyer, an immigration expert, or a legal professional. This post is meant as a starting point, not an end-all-beat-all resource.

The second is this: let’s all be civil. I know this election has brought out some ugliness. Let’s leave that out of this. If someone wants to move abroad for any reason, that’s their decision. Let’s respect it. Any comments that aren’t respectful won’t be published. This is my house and we treat people kindly here.

Resources for Leaving America

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk resources. When I first started researching visas and residency requirements before I even hit the road full-time, the best resource I found was a book called Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America. Now, the last update was in 2012, so some of the info has probably changed, but I’d still consider it a good starting point.

Inside, you’ll find info on visas for almost any country you can think of, as well as a section covering important issues. Which countries, for example, have low crime rates? Where is marijuana legal? Which countries have the best healthcare systems? What are taxes like? The information isn’t in-depth, but it’ll get you started.

Other good starting resources include:

:: Embassy websites. Google “[country of your choice] embassy in the US” and you’ll find the current visa and residency information.

:: Expat groups. Search Facebook for “expats in [city/country of your choice]” and you’re likely to find a group or two full of people who have already been through the visa process. You can also find expats on sites like InterNations.

:: Search for “expat blog [country of your choice]” and chances are you’ll find some bloggers with sites full of info on things like visas and what life is like in their country of choice.

Some Common Types of Visas & Residence Permits

:: Marriage, obviously.

:: Family reunion. Do you have parents or family members residing in another country? Their residence may make it easier for you to apply.

:: Work. This one tends to be toughest for people to get, but if you have specialized skills or a company in the country you want to move to is willing to go to bat for you, you may be eligible for residency for the purpose of work.

:: Retirement and/or non-earning visas. If you have a pension, investment income, passive income, or some other means of supporting yourself without taking a local job, there are tons of countries that would be happy to extend a retirement or non-lucrative visa. Some countries have an age requirement (over 60 or over 65, for example), while others just want to make sure you won’t be taking a local job and, thus, are open to early retirees.

:: Research visas. These aren’t as common, but some countries offer residency or long-stay visas for those conducting research. This may include scientific research, research for a book, etc.

:: Self-employment. If you’re a freelancer who can prove you have enough income to support yourself without taking a local person’s job, many countries are open to you. And if you want to start a business or open a new branch of your existing business and plan on investing in the local economy, hiring local employees and contractors, and/or purchasing real estate, that can very much sweeten the deal.

:: Citizenship through ancestry. The process of getting citizenship through ancestry can be a tricky one, but if you can trace your family line back to a certain country, it’s never a bad idea to contact their embassy and ask what their requirements are for this type of process.

:: Artist or creative residency. In an attempt to promote art, music, theater, etc., some countries offer residence visas to distinguished persons in the arts.

:: Student. Often, these visas aren’t just open to full-time undergraduates. You can also get them for Master’s programs, PhDs, and sometimes even just going to language school. The tricky thing about student visas is that in some countries it can be very tough to convert a student visa to a work or other type of visa. Still, they can be a quick route in and an incentive to start learning the local language.

:: Missionary. Some countries have visa options specifically for missionaries and religious charity workers.

Keep in mind that this isn’t an extensive list. There are other types of visas in the world. These are just some of the most common I’ve run into in my research, so they’re a good starting point when thinking about how you might make a move abroad a reality.

Figuring Out Where to Go

Of course, the big question once you decide to get out is: where do you want to live? My suggestion is to start with your values. What’s important to you and your family? What matters?

Put everything that matters on the list – big or small. Then rank those things by importance. LGBTQ rights? Affordable healthcare? Paid maternity leave for both partners? Jobs available in your field? Warm weather? Snowy Christmases? Affordable housing? Access to great art and theater? A place to hike? Environmental policies? Low business tax rates?

Now, start by researching those things. Where in the world ranks best for LGBTQ rights or quality healthcare or women’s rights? Which countries have the right climate, landscape, housing situation, job situation? Start with your values and search from there.

To get you started, a few ideas:

If you value…quality healthcare
France’s healthcare system gets consistently good marks from every expat I’ve interviewed and it ranked #1 on the World Health Organization’s list (the most recent list is getting outdated, but the WHO has declined to rank in recent years because it got so much flack last time). Also high on that list you’ll find Italy, Singapore, Austria, and Japan.

If you value…self-employment
Germany has a reputation these days for being open to freelancers and creatives and quite a few other European nations have freelancer or self-employed visa options. Being self-employed is how I got my residence card in Switzerland in 2013 and 2014.

If you value…LGBTQ rights
According to The Richest, top picks for gay rights and gay-friendly community include Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, and Germany. According to the Rainbow Index, Malta, the UK, Portugal, and Norway are also high up on the list.

Another good starting point is this site, which features interviews with LGBTQ folks living in various countries to get their on-the-ground perspectives.

If you value…women’s rights
Denmark is the #1 country for women, according to one 7,000-woman survey, possibly due to its flexible parental leave programs, extremely low-cost healthcare and education, and earnings-related childcare policies. Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia ranked high in that same survey.

Nordic countries also have the most positive attitudes to gender equality in the world“In Denmark, for example, 85% of respondents said they believed that women and men are equally intelligent, but in the 18 Middle East and north Africa (MENA) nations surveyed, the figure was 48%.”

If you value…living car-free
Europe is your best bet here. Extensive train systems, clean and efficient buses, and walkable cities dot the continent, with places like Switzerland and Germany being at the top of the efficient and clean spectrum. Eastern Europe is a bit less well-connected than western, but if you’re committed, you could still get by car-free. I’ve spent years of my life in Europe and never once driven a car there or felt that I needed to.

If you value…low violent crime/safety and peace
According the Global Peace Index, the safest countries in the world are Iceland, Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, and Portugal. Scandinavia also gets very high marks. Japan ranks highest on the Asian continent. And Canada is one of just three non-European countries that make the list.

If you value…widely spoken English
In addition to the usual suspects, don’t forget that in Malta–a tiny Mediterranean island with temperate winters and Italian-inspired food–English is one of two official languages and last I checked the stat was that about 95% of the locals speak it. If you’re more inclined toward Central America and the island, Belize’s official language is also English and 97% of Jamaica speaks English (which is a higher percentage than the USA).

And even some countries where English isn’t an official language have large numbers of English speakers. According to one report, the Danes are the world’s best non-native English speakers (probably because schools start teaching English in first grade there). The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Poland, and Austria also ranked high on that same scale.


If you value…privacy
First, where not to go if you value privacy: the UK. They just passed what’s being called “the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy.”

If you’re looking for a country whose government has privacy laws, actively protects free speech, etc., the top five according to one privacy scoreboard are Spain, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Norway, and Slovenia.

If you value…organic and GMO-free food
GMOs cultivation is banned in quite a few countries, including Denmark, France, and Germany. Unfortunately, there aren’t many countries that ban the import of GMOs, so if GMO-free is your concern, consider picking a country with a cultivation ban and then only buying local products (while skipping imports religiously).

If you value…clean, protected, respected nature
According to one piece of research, the most environmentally friendly countries are Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Slovenia. They rank high for things like protected habitats, air quality, and clean drinking water.

If you value…diversity
For black people looking for somewhere inclusive and safe, Thailand, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Dubai get high marks in this article and Johannesburg, South Africa; Kigali, Rwanda; Abuja, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; and Nairobi, Kenya rank high in this one.

Here’s another, more recent list identifying some European cities where African-Americans can feel welcome. Her picks include Edinburgh, Scotland; Berlin, Germany; Nice, France; Krakow, Poland; and Budva, Montenegro.

For Muslims, this list may be a good place to start.

If you value…low taxes
Macedonia, Qatar, Zambia, Singapore, Croatia, Luxembourg, Cambodia, Montenegro, Hong Kong, and Canada all rank among the top 20 lowest tax rates for businesses according to Business Insider.

The lowest personal income taxes are found in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Mongolia, Guatemala, and some Caribbean islands.

If you value…fill in your own blank
There are a thousand things you might value in a home country, so if your value isn’t included above, it’s time to do a little research. Start big: Google “best countries for [your value here]” and then look for sources you trust. Then take those countries that show up in the sources you trust and do your own research. What are their laws? What other info is there on the thing you value? And what kind of visas does that country offer? Research and knowledge are where big steps like this start.

Any expats out there in the audience? If you have a perspective on what you like and dislike about your own adopted country or how it ranks against values like these, we’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment.

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Jen November 28, 2016 - 9:33 pm

Thanks so much for putting together this list. We’ve been traveling abroad for 1.5 years now and since we’re not in the US, we’ll we’re not so sure we want to go back right now. I never thought that a freelance visa could be a way into a country – I didn’t really know that existed.

I can speak for Ecuador having amazing health care. It’s 100% free (even for foreigners). I recently sprained my ankle badly and had x-rays, a cast, received a brace, shots, and a ride to the hospital, completely free.

gigigriffis November 29, 2016 - 10:49 am

Glad it’s helpful! I’ve heard great things about Ecuador. I think a lot of Americans have been looking at retiring there in recent years. And yes – freelancer visas! From the perspective of many governments, they’re a great thing. You bring in people who are bringing in money every month to your country/economy and aren’t taking any money out.

Marissa_Travel Greece, Travel Europe November 29, 2016 - 12:42 pm

Hi Gigi, Wow, congrats on such an informative post. I think you covered many basic things for someone to think about. The healthcare I’ve received in Greece has been so great. Generally, from an expat perspective — a good attitude tops all. That’s my advice. Anything can be achieved anywhere with a good positive outlook. The hard times will always be learning experiences for later. My life is definitely richer for having lived abroad no matter what the future may hold. :)

M December 3, 2016 - 9:55 am

Curious: do you know what the situation would be if you’re (W-2) employed in the US by a company for which you’re allowed to work remotely? Can you use freelance Visas or something similar for that to keep your job but live elsewhere?

gigigriffis December 3, 2016 - 11:04 am

If your job is remote, I’m guessing you’d be eligible in some places. Again, it seems like a benefit to them – bringing money into the economy without taking any out. Your best bet if you have a unique situation is to contact the embassy of the place you’re interested in moving to and ask what the process would be to obtain a visa for your situation.

A Helpful Link | Voting With Our Feet December 4, 2016 - 2:14 pm

[…] shortlisted Costa Rica, Thailand, Ireland, Spain, Argentina, Mexico, and obviously Canada, but this blog post from Gigi Griffis at The Ramble has opened up a lot of good possible places to check out that I […]

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[…] also read Gigi Griffis’ recent piece, recommending where to live to match your values. She suggested France for quality healthcare, Germany for self-employment, Spain for LGBTQ rights, […]

Jared @ Cannabismo July 26, 2017 - 1:57 am

Hi Gigi! Glad you came up with this informative article. We are considering migration. We are not in the US but would love to go somewhere that values human rights, I mean, employment being number one (it’s like employees here are under paid, not enough benefits etc.; a peaceful and safe place to live) health care and education. Your article has covered almost everything we need to know. We are now on freelancing/self employed and you gave us hope for including information regarding our current employment status. Thanks Gigi! You just put a smile on my face and a hope in my heart :)


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