Want to retire abroad? What you need to know, plus top picks for where to go

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Retiring abroad isn’t necessarily the goal for most South Africans, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be. It’s a wonderful opportunity to do something bold and exciting (when everyone least expects you to, too) and experience an adventure unlike any other. There’s no ignoring the expense that comes with such a move, but you have, after all, spent the bulk of your life working hard and tending to your family’s needs.

Here are a few destinations that could make for your much-deserved retirement bliss. We’ve considered affordability, quality of life, safety, and all the other factors that contribute to happy and healthy retirement years so you can plan for this milestone stage of your life with peace of mind. 

Portugal

Opening up the list of top retirement destinations is Portugal, which was voted one of the world’s best places to retire in International Living’s 2023 Annual Global Retirement Index. Portugal sells itself, really: think double-cheek kisses (Covid-19 allowing, of course), sidewalk cafes, ports, daily markets selling fresh produce, cities with cobblestone streets, spectacular scenery, a Mediterranean climate (and food) and and and. 

As one of the more popular European countries, Portugal is foreigner friendly. You can mostly get around speaking English, but you’re bound to pick up Portuguese em nenhum momento! Did we mention that the country boasts reliable transportation options like metros, trams, and taxis and is also very walkable – because you still need to clock your 10K steps in retirement. 

When it comes to the cost of living, if you can find yourself a nest outside the major cities, you’re likely to enjoy a wonderful quality of life at an affordable price. In these areas, most locals spend about $1 000/ month for living expenses such as rent, food, groceries and other essentials per person, whereas in Lisbon (the capital city), Porto and other hotspots, this figure easily doubles. Cost of living is largely dependent on your lifestyle, so take these figures as conservative estimations. 

Panama

On the other side of the world is Panama, a small country that straddles two continents: Central and South America. Panama is referred to as an isthmus, which is a narrow strip of land surrounded by water that acts as a bridge, or connecting point, of two larger land areas – Costa Rica to the northwest and Colombia to the southeast. Geography lesson aside, picturesque Panama is a coffee-lovers dream destination. If going for morning walks on stunning turquoise beaches with a cuppa in hand is what your heart desires (and/or scuba diving, snorkelling or surfing), then this Spanish-speaking country could be a good home for you. 

Panama’s history and ties with the US, which date back to the 1900s, make it a go-to for American expats, digital nomads and retirees, such as yourself (or soon to be, at least). It’s a country that’s easy to live in and will especially appeal to those looking for plenty of sunshine as well as close proximity to the US. The cost of living may not be as favourable as Portugal: as a single, you’re looking to spend just under $3 000/ month. However, the benefits of Panama’s pensioner programme will make a difference to your monthly bottom line. 

Resident pensionados or retirees in Panama are entitled to discounts across a range of everyday expenses. For example, 20% off prescription medication, 15% off hospital bills, 25% off monthly energy bills, 30% off bus, boat, and train fares, 25% off airline tickets and even 50% off entertainment such as movies, theatres, concerts and sporting events. The Panama Pensionado Visa is open to foreigners who can show proof of monthly pension funds of at least $1 000.

Vietnam

If a stint in southeast Asia has always been on your bucket list, consider Vietnam, from where you’ll have easy access to holiday havens such as Thailand and Cambodia – should you feel like a long weekend away. Not that you’ll need it, though, as Vietnam is a delightful country, offering mountains, forest, beaches, vibrant cities bursting with culture, temples, royal tombs, caves, rice fields and more. 

It’s a safe country and you’ll be able to get around with relative ease, especially if you don’t mind hopping onto a motorbike taxi. You can also look forward to unique cuisine that draws influences from China and Thailand. The cost of living is among the lowest in the world: a local adult needs about $500 per month to get by (excluding rent). As a foreigner looking to maintain a higher standard of living, you’re looking at about $1500 monthly for a rather comfortable life by Vietnamese standards. 

English is very widely spoken, especially among the older generation. If that is a priority for you, then expat-filled locations such as Da Nang or the much-loved Nha Trang, where you can enjoy some diving, would be suitable for you. 

There are many other options

If none of the countries mentioned above appeals to you, the fast-growing residence- and citizenship-by-investment route is one to explore. These “golden visa” programmes make it possible for you and your family to obtain legal residence or citizenship in a host of countries once you’ve made a sizable investment (sometimes referred to as a donation) in your country of choice and passed all the due diligence checks. This option is generally pricey, but there are some relatively less expensive options.

Money matters

While retiring abroad offers several benefits and advantages, if you don’t manage your money matters carefully from the get go, you may find yourself in a sticky position, to say the least. Under Commissioner Edward Kieswetter, the South African Revenue Services (SARS) has really ramped up its tax-collection ability and clamped down on non-compliance – and they’re not about to let up. The best thing to do, then, is to consult an emigration specialist who will advise you on your unique circumstances. 

Some of the things you need to think about are your tax residency status and whether your preferred retirement destination offers any tax-related incentives that could benefit you. If you plan to continue doing some work, you need to know before moving what the implications of this will be, lest you find yourself paying double taxes. Before you go, it’s also very important to know what the country’s laws on intestacy are and how best you should go about your estate planning. 

It’s all headache-inducing stuff, to be honest, but once the admin is all out of the way, you can get back to daydreaming about your soon-to-be-new home country and how you’ll spend your golden years. Whichever destination you decide on, remember these wise (anonymous) words: “Retirement is not the end of the road. It is the beginning of the open highway.” 

This post was sponsored by Shyft, the global money app, powered by Standard Bank. With Shyft you can buy forex instantly anytime, anywhere, and at the cheapest rates, and invest in top US stocks and ETFs. Shyft was named Best Financial Solution at the 2021 MTN Business App of the Year Awards. Visit Shyft to download it now, no matter where you bank. Shyft operates under the license of The Standard Bank of South Africa Limited, an authorised Financial Services Provider (FSP number 11287)

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