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Moving Abroad – Expats Struggle to get Residency

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There is a common notion amongst people from third world countries that I can go anywhere in the world and stay for as long as I want because I am an American and rich. Apparently, this is what they see. Rich Americans come into their towns as they please and seemingly stay for as long as they want. I oftentimes find myself having to explain a country’s immigration laws to the people who live there:

“No, I can not stay here for as long as I want, I have a date stamped into my passport that says when I have to leave.”

Leaving countries by the date that is stamped into my passport is usually alright by me — I am a traveler, the duration of one tourist visa is often a good amount of time to be in a country before moving on. But some people want to stay longer, some people want to live in another country. When these people come from rich countries we often call them expats, when they are from poor countries we call them immigrants.

World immigration map


The above map shows countries I the world who bring in more immigrants than have emigrants leaving.

It is amazing just how tenuous and unstable the lives of many expats are: many can be kicked out of the country that they turned into a home at pretty much any time. Many seem to have dug deep roots in the foreign countries where they have done a lengthy tenure, but these roots are superficial — expats rarely stand on solid ground anywhere.

The majority of expats that I have met when traveling are older men from the USA, Canada, or Europe who have retired and want to be able to live well off of their frail pensions — so they move to a cheap tropical country, they start a second life. In the words of my friend Chris, an expat who has been moving all around Latin America for the past two years: expats are often economic refugees, they can afford to live well abroad but would be dirt poor in their home countries.

Many expats buy property, open small businesses, many of them make a real investment in their new home. Most don’t work and have no ambition of ever doing so again: they are retired, done working. They sit around in foreign countries drinking beer, living in middle class accommodation, and are just spending money, stimulating business, and they have more than enough monetary resources stored up from their previous life to do so.

But many countries have lately been making it more difficult for expats to stay. Few countries in the world want immigrants and, ultimately, expats are immigrants. It is my impression that this resolve has now spread to poor countries and has been stretch to include rich immigrants. I am appalled when I find out that many expats are living on tourist visas — often after being denied residency multiple times. Many expats need to do visa runs every few months, they leave the country that they set up a base in, go to another for a few days, and then return. Many of these people live with the knowledge that they could be kicked out of their homes at the slightest change in visa policy at any time.

The CA-4, the Schengen, and many new visa policies of many regions of the world have spelled havoc for expat communities. An expat without a prayer of receiving residency in Europe can now only stay in the entire region for 90 out of every 180 days, Thailand has gotten far stricter with perpetual tourists, Honduras only allows two visa runs before baring reentry, the amount of times you can reenter El Salvador is ultimately left up to the immigration officer on the spot, Bolivia says that you can only stay for 90 days out of every year, China keeps a close eye on all of their temporary foreign residents, upon being granted an additional 90 days on my Japanese visa some years ago, a loving stamp that said, “final extension” was placed into my passport, and on and on and on all over the world.


Map of what the world would look like if net immigration determined a country’s bulk size

At the spin of a dime, a country can change their immigration policy, and the expats are given the boot. It has happened in some Central American countries, Thailand, it can happen anywhere.

There are also few countries willing to provide expats with actual residency. Without a formal job in most countries, it is not really possible to get more than a tourist visa. Expats are typically retired, they often do not want to be a part of the workforce, they have no aims to take money out of the economy, no ambition to take another person’s job — they just want a place to spend their money in. If they did want to work, then they could get working visas, but without taking a job the chance of optioning residency is slim. Some countries do offer retirement permits, but it is my impression that there are not many, and this type of residency is difficult to obtain.

I had a German friend in Suchitoto, El Salvador. He had been living there for two years, he has purchased property. But every three months he has to go to Belize or Costa Rica to renew his tourist visa. He just tried to get residency, and even after proving that he had more than an adequate amount of funds to pay for a lifetime of El Salvador living, he was still denied. So he is leaving the country, he said that he may try to go to Guatemala to get residency there. I am not hopeful that the results will be positive, he will probably continue to find himself making visa runs. Few countries want immigrants — apparently, even rich ones.

It is incredibly difficult for a foreigner to get residency in most countries of the world. The chances of me getting residency in El Salvador is less than the chances of a Salvadoran getting residency in the USA. I speak seriously. My cousin is married to a Salvadoran woman. He has been for many years. He had a very, very difficult time trying to obtain residency status there, and he is married to a citizen. This same couple had also lived in the USA for a while, my cousin’s wife was awarded a green card with little difficulty as she is married to a citizen.

I hear a lot of complaints about how difficult it is for a person from a third world country to come to the United States, but the USA is by far the most liberal country on the planet in regards to immigration. Over 20% of the world’s immigration each year is absorbed by the United States of America. It may not be easy to come to America, but it is easier than in most countries. If you dream of moving to Scandinavia, you can stuff it right now, it is not going to happen unless you are working or are a perpetual student; if you think that you can start a new life in Japan, forget it unless you constantly stay employed as an English teacher; if you want to have a solid foot hold upon which to build a home in Central America, guess again — you will perpetually be making visa runs every three months. I get mounds of mail from people trying to get residency in this or that country around the world, and it seems to always be a steep uphill road that offers little reward at the end.

Many countries in the world have virtually closed their doors to immigrants, even ones that are just going to spend money.

My German friend in Suchitoto carries immigration papers for the USA. He can go north of the border at any time, live, work, and be a resident. He found that it was vastly easier for him to emigrate to the USA than to El Salvador.

It is amazing to me how precarious the existence of many expats are in the countries they choose to live in. They seem set up, they seem stable — they own property, have been there for years — but many of them do not have any sort of legal foothold in the country that has become their home. Many of them are still tourists, they can be kicked out or not allowed to return at any time. Many expats come from the USA, from Canada, from German — three of the top countries for immigration in the world — they dream of setting up a new home in a new land. Many find that they are not welcome to stay.

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Filed under: Expatriots, Immigration, Visas

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Cincinnati, Ohio, USAMap