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Moving Abroad – Expats Struggle to get Residency

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 [...]

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.

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 88 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 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

16 comments… add one

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  • Sam June 7, 2010, 8:57 pm

    I would be curious to get Dave from the LongestWayHome’s point of view on this. Since he’s traveling around the world looking for a home what are his thoughts on how easy it will be to settle down in a particular country (from the perspective of working your way through the bureaucratic red tape)?

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  • The Longest Way Home June 8, 2010, 10:51 am

    Hey Wade / Sam,

    The title of this article was like a a red flag to a bull (I am sure Wade knew this when he wrote it, ha ha).

    In the genteel world of “location independent” travelers who make it out that life’s a beach, it’s refreshing to see an up front and honest article like this.

    Here’s my point of view:

    From what I’ve experienced, and seen, what Wade says is by and large, quite true.

    It seems for the past few years obtaining residency for anyone in “undeveloped” countries is getting very hard. Perhaps more so within “developed” countries.

    Take Australia – I cannot legally work there as I have no degree, period. Even with a sponsor it is painfully difficult and expensive to jump through the hoops to do so. I know of two others in a similar situation.

    One became engaged to an Australian. Has a degree. And upon renewal, was refused. The grounds of refusal – she was a Nanny, and it’s not an “essential” job. They were told to leave. The relationship went for year, before fizzling out.

    The second is a retiree, wanting to retire into an English speaking country. Went on a tourist visa, applied for residence with intent to buy a house and was refused. Reason – none given.

    Now, from a local Australian’s perspective I asked how can I go there to work for say 6 months and see the lay of the land without breaking any law.

    His answer “Paint yourself brown, and come in on a boat from Indonesia or Sri Lanka. You’ll get a status nearly straight away” (keep in mind, it’s not me saying that)

    Unfortunately, I see the point he’s getting at.

    Is the U.S.A. any different? Here’s a link to a U.K. couple with a profitable business in Maine being kicked out. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/us/30visas.html

    Looking at other less “developed countries” It’s a similar trait these days. Thailand has cracked down a lot. Malaysia will offer 2nd home residency to those that can afford a 2nd home there. aka $250,000 plus conditions.

    Of the others, as Wade states, you are at the whim of the Government. Legal resident until they change their minds or the Government changes in the next election.

    Not only that, but in many places they will try to nail you to the wall financially if you wish residence.

    Is it a two way road though? Maybe not.

    I have friends in developing countries who obtained educational scholarships to developed countries, or volunteer positions. Silently they will admit, this is not the reason they are going. It is the reason that they can get in under.

    Once there, marriage, babies, and a list of legal frameworks will aid in them staying for life. What’s more, they can also then afford to buy a house, or land. Something many foreigners cannot do in developing countries.

    My question to everyone is: Why is it so difficult to get residency in a developing country?

    The only answer I can think of is not so politically correct. So let me just say, it’s not a good idea to have a bunch of legally adept & able foreigners running around in charge of local business. Soon the authorities lose control.

    Is it all doom and gloom? No. But it sure isn’t getting any easier. Stumble on the right contact, offer a unique skill, and continuously reach for that residency ring and it will happen.

    This I have to believe, otherwise I am in it deep.

    We are living in a pivotal moment in history, something that’s often times hard to see from the present. Times are changing greatly. With this, comes new opportunity.

    What these opportunities are is another story …

    Dave (Wade, sorry for the length of the reply! It was your red flag that got me going 🙂 )

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 11, 2010, 11:36 pm

      Dave,

      Thanks for adding some depth to this. It is an interesting place we find ourselves in, traveling in a world that is both opening up and closing its doors at the same time. This is the time for countries dropping their borders and becoming regions as well as successionist movements dividing countries up into ever smaller units.

      Right on, man, this is a pivotal time. I am glad to be traveling through it with you.

      I believe that your analysis as to the reasons why expats are hung in limbo or even unwelcome is right on. Countries seem to not want to loose control to local foreigner influence. Most countries are run by their business elite, their policy is often dictated by their upper classes. Why would these people allow economic competitors to stay in their country and allow them the security that they would need to set up business? The rich classes of the developing world rule with iron fists — they own just about everything, they completely control the countries. Allowing expats to easily stay and have firm ground to build on would be competition to this rule. Even though such growth is often good for the people of the country.

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  • Sam June 8, 2010, 11:50 pm

    Thanks Dave! This was an interesting post and reply that I don’t hear too much about. I’ve always heard of how those coming to the U.S. find it difficult to gain citizenship but have never thought too much of the reverse circumstance.

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  • The Longest Way Home June 10, 2010, 4:28 am

    No problems Sam, pleasure.

    Just as a footnote: Today I discovered that Portugal (other European countries too), will allow Filipinos who have residency there, to claim Portuguese social security from the Philippines. Here’s a government link to the story.

    Now, I can’t find the ins & outs of this new policy. But in a world where even a Filipino can’t get social security in their own country, let alone a foreigner.And, where European countries are going bust. Is this right?

    Yes if they reside in Portugal / Europe but to claim whilst back in the Philippines? No, I don’t think that’s right.

    Just my two cents

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  • Paulo Martins June 10, 2010, 1:38 pm

    Great post Wade,

    One thing Europeans have in common is that they can emigrate to any of their neighbor countries, get jobs and live happily (forever) without needing visas or special permits.

    Conversely, someone from England can move to Spain, get a job, rent/buy a house then decide to move to the Netherlands and do the same again without having to learn another language.

    I hold a Portuguese passport and lived for 15 years in several European countries without a single problem. All I had to do was get a Social Security number and open a bank account (easy tasks) and I was ready to find jobs.

    My current mission is to the same in Latin America although reading Wade’s post makes me realize that I might find some (legal) obstacles.
    Perhaps Brazil, being a Portuguese ex-colony has more flexible laws towards the likes of me…I can only hope right?

    Let’s see if Dave (The Longest Way Home) does find a home in some tropical country and all of us can all move down there too.

    Finally, there’s always the option of getting married to a Guatemalan lady…

    Ciao 4 now

    ~ Paulo ~

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  • Caitlin June 10, 2010, 8:48 pm

    Sigh.

    Yeah…

    I know that it is possible to get residency in Guatemala (a friend of a friend got hers, apparently) but I think most long-term residents live in the gray zone. I know people in Xela who’ve been living there for years and just go to Mexico every three months. There are even some quasi-legal businesses set up around the Lake and in Xela where you pay to have someone go a renew your visa for you. Me, that makes me uncomfortable so I always do it myself but many of my friends have used those services.

    It’s somewhat likely (maybe 40% probability) that I’ll move back to Guatemala in the not too distant future, so I have a lot of border runs to look forward to. You know what, though, it doesn’t really bother me. If being an illegal immigrant means spending a weekend drinking tequila in San Cristobal de las Casas every three months, that’s ok with me!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 11, 2010, 11:42 pm

      Going to write about those full service visa runs — going to have to use one soon as getting an extension is expensive, corrupt, and leaves me in a more precarious position out here in Livingston.

      A Guatemalan residency permit is an unbelievable hassle. A girl just came through here who applied for one. Between the time she submitting her application and now the people responsible in government for granted such permits walked out as the governmet stopped paying them. So the girl waits.

      Visa runs seem to be less of a hassle.

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  • Tang Gui June 14, 2010, 12:51 am

    Residency is pretty easy to do residency in the Dominican Republic. Let´s see how long this lasts. I agree with Wade for the most part regarding: Yes – it´s really difficult just about anywhere to just chill out and spend your money, or to work remotely, earn money, and live in another country as a legal resident.

    Let´s look at this a bit deeper. What is residency aka domicile? It´s your tax home. By being a resident, you pay taxes to the government from your earnings, and in some cases from investments and/or capital gains. If you´re a pensioner, retiree, or some dude working on a laptop, you´re likely not paying any taxes to the government of your new country.

    Continuing, let´s look at two aspects of developing nations:

    1) This is especially true in Latin America – the governments are incredibly corrupt and a good bit of tax revenue is robbed – either from pork barrel politics or farming out large public works projects to their cronies. If you´re not paying into this system, why would they want to give you legal status in the country? However, there still exist many pensioner/retiree visas, residency by investment programs, and other ways of obtaining legal status in developing nations. There are several countries that are totally okay with you chilling out and spending your money in the street rather than spending it elsewhere. Shop around. It is possible.

    2) In a lot of these countries, residency is possible if all your documents are in order. Most people have a hard time, because they don´t read/know the requirements, which change often. This delays their applications incredibly. Furthermore, regarding long processing times of paperwork – if you made $100-400/month, worked in the immigration department, and had basically no upward mobility both professionally and socially, would you really give a shit about doing your job as quickly and efficiently as possible? What difference would it make for you if you sent 14 or 63 residency packets to the next step? None. Therefore, you would have no incentive.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 14, 2010, 3:47 pm

      Tang,

      You have two great points. First of all, taxes — people who don’t work or own property don’t pay taxes. Why would a government care about people who don’t pay them? Though the money that expats pay is residually taxed — they buy things and the people who receive the money pay tax on it (maybe?).
      Though expats who work often do pay tax. My cousin in El Salvador pays taxes, and he is still given a real hard time with obtaining a residency permit.

      The other point about the inefficiency and disorganization of many governments of third world countries is right on. Perhaps many of these countries don’t make their immigration procedures difficult intentionally, but because their bureaucracy is not really able to efficiently handle foreign residency applicants — or they are not a prime priority.

      Even as my cousin interpreted a speech by the president of El Salvsor about how the country is going to try to attract foreign retirees and expats, my German friend’s residency application was being denied. Perhaps many of these countries are just not able to deal with immigration — perhaps they have more pressing matters.

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  • Travel22 June 30, 2010, 1:31 pm

    This is a misleading article – there are still many many countries who give residency visas to people of “independant means”. The list of countries doing this is endless. There are 2 types of countries in the world –

    1) Economic powers – USA, UK, Canada, Australia – these countries do not want any immigrants UNLESS they are willing to work like slaves or set up businesses and even then work like slaves under very strict rules / regulations etc. The very poor immigrants are attracted to move to such countries as they want you to constantly CONTRIBUTE to their dying economies. Very clearly – these countries have made immigration into a BIG money making business and nothing else. They dont care for immigrants as individuals at all – for them an immigrant is nothing but a NUMBER and depending on how that number performs on their balance sheets they decide to keep it or kick it.

    2) Peaceful countries which are more or less offering a high quality of life at a low price but with less economic activity going on. Many carribean countries, spain, italy, and even some middle eastern countries have laws which allow wealthy foreigners to live without restrictions. Changes in visa policies do not make a difference as long as u immigrate before the policy changes and keep maintaining the original status. Even the UK offers a £1 million investor visa for people who just want to go hang around and do nothing… Canada offers the same too but in UK and canada there is more options for people who want to work and build a better life.

    Immigration for wealthy people has always been open – it may be getting a bit tougher because wealthy around the world has also grown – so I guess there are many more wealthy people immigrating now… but if u got the money – there is a price for everything… in fact majority of the countries offer some sort of investor visa for rich people… some ask for a major investment and some just ask for proof of funds to sustain yourself.

    As for el-salvador – they might have been expecting a Bribe which the author’s friend did not pay up so got refused. In poor countries u can buy a passport by bribing the officers.. it happens all the time.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 30, 2010, 4:00 pm

      Ok, good point, the super rich have more emigration options than people of lesser wealth. Though this class was not really the subject of the article.

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  • Khon Kaen Retirement October 18, 2010, 4:44 am

    It isn’t worth the time, money, or government beauracracy to get permanent residncy in Thailand. I am happy to be on a one-year visa that is easily renewable.

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  • Liz October 20, 2010, 3:38 pm

    Interesting article – and what grabs my attention are the graphics. I’d love to use them for community education purposes – do you recall where these graphics are from, and how recent they are?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 28, 2010, 7:39 pm

      They are probably from WIKIpedia.

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  • Jenny October 24, 2012, 3:10 pm

    The USA is such a confusing place. I am an American and I have had friends who come here legally, buy homes, build businesses and then their Visa is up and they have to go. Or others bought homes and pay taxes and play by the rules and only can stay for a certain number of months and have to leave before they can return.
    WHY???? I do not get this.They are contributing and paying taxes and the USA does this to them but the ones that come here illegally are not only allowed to stay but are protected, given rights, given welfare,healthcare, food stamps, housing,given drivers licenses and they even vote and if they do the NAACP,etc start screaming voter suppression if anyone tries to make them prove they are a citizen.

    I as a working tax payer do not get it. I welcome the ones who come here legally and help us with this tax burden from the ones that have slithered under the fences.

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