Best Places for Expats in 2021 – And They Might Not Be Where You’d Think

InterNations Expat Insider is analyzed by our experts to deliver why some countries rank highly for expats, and other countries fall towards the bottom – and how this might affect your decision to move abroad.

When considering the best places for expats this year, the InterNations Expat Insider 2021 Survey ranked on three key areas:

  • Cost of living
  • Ease of settling in
  • Overall quality of life

Based on these qualities, Taiwan, Mexico and Costa Rica clinched the coveted top spots for living and working abroad in 2021. By comparison, the United States ranked 34th out of 59 places, largely because of a widely documented decline in U.S. quality of life over the past decade.

According to a 2020 report by The Social Progress Index, which extolls itself as, “the most comprehensive measure of a country’s social and environmental performance independent of economic factors,” out of 163 countries, only the United States, Hungary and Brazil had declined in quality of life over the past decade. These declines were small, the report concluded, but the United States had the largest decline in terms of the overall score.

The Social Progress Index measures quality of life and social progress by looking at:

  • Personal safety
  • Health and wellness
  • Environmental quality
  • Personal freedom and choice
  • Inclusiveness

The report went on to conclude that the United States declined “both in absolute terms and relative to its wealthy, world-power peers,” ranking just 28th in social progress, which was a marked 12-spot drop from its former place at 16th when the index was published in 2014.

Taiwan has sailed, however, into clinching the top spot for the third year in a row, based on a survey of over 12,000 expats, which was conducted by InterNations, an expat network with 4 million members.

On top of quality of life, it was Taiwan’s medical care that helped it secure the top spot. In 1995, Taiwan implemented a mandatory national single-payer healthcare system, funded primarily through payroll-based premiums, with premium payments subsidized by the government.

Globally, 71% of expats reported being happy with the quality of care they received in their country – for Taiwan, that number came in at 96%. Job security also rose to the top as an area where expats felt more satisfied with in Taiwan, feeling confident in the state of the local economy.

A quote pulled from an expat in the study reads, “The Taiwanese healthcare system truly considers people as human beings instead of mere numbers.”

Expats Favorite Countries for 2021:

  1. Taiwan
  2. Mexico
  3. Costa Rica
  4. Malaysia
  5. Portugal
  6. New Zealand
  7. Australia
  8. Ecuador
  9. Canada
  10. Vietnam

Expats Least Favorite Countries for 2021:

  1. Kuwait
  2. Italy
  3. South Africa
  4. Russia
  5. Egypt
  6. Japan
  7. Cyprus
  8. Turkey
  9. India
  10. Malta

Why Certain Countries Fell to the Bottom

Feeling at home with the local culture and being able to integrate, re: finding new friends and being able to navigate without being a fluent speaker of the local language, as well as career prospects, were big indicators for expats.

For example, in Japan, 45% said they felt at home in the local country, and in Kuwait, 46% of expats said they did not feel at home in the local culture and 51% had difficulty finding new friends. For Russia, the language was the biggest hurdle for expats, with 48% of respondents saying it was difficult to live in the country’s cities without speaking the local language.

Kuwait has come in last place for the past seven years, and this can mainly be traced to a poor performance in both work and leisure categories:

  • It ranked 57th in career prospects and satisfaction subcategories
  • 31%, so more than three in ten respondents are dissatisfied with their job in general (vs. 16% globally)
  • 34% are unhappy with their work-life balance (vs. 17% globally)

For Italy, which came in second to last place, personal finance and job security are the sections that drove it to the bottom of the list for expats.

Worldwide, Italy came in last place for the personal finance index – 30% are dissatisfied with their financial situation compared to 19% globally, with 14% claiming they are very much so dissatisfied, which is twice the global average.

Furthermore, one in three expats (33%) says their disposable household income is not enough to cover their expenses (vs. 23% globally), with a pull-out quote from one expat explaining, “finding a job in Italy is not easy for foreigners, not even for well-educated ones.”

Job insecurity rankings are high in Italy overall, as well as wage stagnation. And not just for expats – this is likely contributing to this metric, and the fact that the study found that 56% of expats negatively rated their local career prospects, and 31% being dissatisfied with their job (compared to 16% globally).

Interestingly enough, digital infrastructure played a role in Italy’s low ranking as well, with 23% of expats expressing difficulty getting high speed internet access at home, versus 12% globally. The pressure and difficulty of paying with anything other than cash contributed as well, where 18% found this difficult versus 9% globally.

By contrast, top ranked Taiwan came in at 13th in ease of settling in, but it was buoyed by being the best ranking country worldwide in the friendliness category, with most expats finding that it was easy to make friends there. 62% of expats found making friends easy, compared to 48% globally, and 96% described Taiwanese people as being friendly towards foreign residents.

Mexico was rated the best country for ease of settling in, with 85% of people finding it easy to integrate, and 78% saying it was easy to make friends in Mexico. However, Mexico’s rankings fell slightly when it came to the quality of life index and ranked 42nd when it came to “quality of the environment,” with 27% of expats being unhappy with the sanitation infrastructure (versus 12% globally) including water quality.

Additionally, Mexico found itself in the bottom 10 in safety and security, ranked at 51st with 20% of expats concerned about personal safety, versus 8% globally. In spite of lower rankings in these categories, 89% of expats in Mexico are happy with their life in general, which helped place the country first worldwide for personal happiness.

How did the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect These Rankings?

Health in general and how the global pandemic was handled in their country was a huge concern and consideration for expats this year – although maybe not as heavily weighed as you would think.

Keeping in mind that this survey was conducted in January of 2021, globally, only 45% of respondents said the pandemic had some influence on their time abroad or plans to go abroad.

Healthcare did have a damning effect on the United States, which received low quality of life and cost of living scores, but also saw only 20% of respondents satisfied with the affordability of the health care system, and 19% said the quality of care is negative. Globally, an average of 14% view care negatively.

How expats received national health information

A curious stat is how expats received trusted health information during the pandemic, which varied by a lot depending on the country. In Bahrain and Singapore, 75% and 74% (respectively) of expats relied on official government channels during the pandemic. However, in New Zealand, which had a strong government effort to combat the pandemic, respondents said they mainly relied on local news, at 69%. This was followed by 65% in Australia and 60% in the United Kingdom.

Social media rose up as the majority news source for COVID information in the Gulf states, with 59% in Oman, 55% in Saudi Arabia and 53% of expats in those countries saying they relied mainly on social media.

In spite of New Zealand and Australia’s expat community’s reliance on local news for pandemic information, expats gave those two countries top scores for how they rated official COVID-19 communications and related regulations. Brazil and Egypt were both ranked as the bottom two by that metric, and the United States ranked 54th when it came to official communications, near the bottom.

Top Findings

The biggest takeaways from the 2021 expat survey were:

  • In #1 Taiwan, not a single expat feels personally unsafe
  • Mexico ranks #2 overall, but places first worldwide for personal happiness
  • In #3 Costa Rica, over nine in ten expats describe the population as generally friendly
  • South Africa (#57) joins Kuwait (#59) and Italy (#58) in the bottom three

If you’re interested in moving overseas, check out this guide for moving overseas for your new job, where you’ll get tips on how to integrate successfully, and excel professionally abroad.

For assistance transitioning to an expat lifestyle, contact Suddath, helping over 4,000 people move internationally each year, all over the globe.