Top countries for expats… and why we don’t recommend any of them!

There are all kinds of lists out there of the top countries for expats. They tell you where to live and work with no consideration of taxes or factors other than “quality of life.” I find these lists boring and useless… most expats are looking for excitement and to reduce their taxes. If we wanted boring homogenized cities, we would have stayed home!

For example, the British bank HSBC just published it’s Expat Explorer Report, listing the best countries to work, live and experience the highest quality of life as an expat. Predictably, they listed a who’s who of expensive high tax countries, with one exception.

HSBC named Singapore as the top overall expat country, which is the only country on the list I agree with.

Singapore won with 62% of expats saying they’re earning more in Singapore than in their home country and 66% saying their quality of life was better.

I also note that Singapore’s tax rate is reasonable, with most paying 10 to 20% on their local salary. Also, there’s no capital gain or inheritance tax and individuals are taxed only on the income earned in Singapore and not on their worldwide income.

If a US citizen combines Singapore’s rate with the US Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, and their income is around $100,000, they can expect to pay a total of 10%.

Here are the top 10 countries for expats according to HSBC:

  1. Singapore
  2. New Zealand
  3. Canada
  4. Czech Republic
  5. Switzerland
  6. Norway
  7. Austria
  8. Sweden
  9. Bahrain
  10. Germany

Then there are the lists of the “safest” countries for expats. Every country on these lists is high tax and high cost… you could have stayed home if you wanted to give up half of your income to the government.

For example, a recent survey by InterNations listed the world’s safest countries for expats. Here’s what they found:

  1. Luxembourg – A country of only 500,000 people, but near zero crime rate.
  2. Singapore – One of the richest countries in the world with solid quality of life and personal safety scores.
  3. Japan – This country is working hard to attract skilled expats and is known for its “peacefulness.”
  4. Canada – Very low crime rates in the frozen north.
  5. Malta – This island has all of 400,000 residents and is the top pick for many UK expats. You can get a passport from Malta with an investment of about $1.2 million.
  6. Switzerland – This country has a very low crime rate and always ranks in the top 10 for quality of life… so long as cost is no object!
  7. Norway – This is the top expat country for EU residents with young children.
  8. New Zealand – Expats love these two islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Many setup trusts or other structures in the nearby Cook Islands before moving to New Zealand.
  9. Finland – 70% of expats moving to Finland cited safety as a primary motivator.
  10. Taiwan – This country has the highest job satisfaction ranking and did well in safety. So long as you like a big city vibe and humidity, Taiwan is a great country for expats… very similar in weather and style to Panama.

Again, I don’t recommend any of these countries as your home base… though, I’m a big fan of Taiwan as a place to visit.

We’re focused on zero tax countries with low operating costs and low labor costs. Because English is a must, and clients like to have an easy commute to the United States, I often recommend Latin American… maybe a corporation in Panama while living in Mexico or Colombia.

The number one question I get when I recommend Mexico, Panama, Belize, Nicaragua, or Colombia as the best countries for expats is, “is it safe?” Our perception is that Mexico and Colombia are run by drug dealers who roam about killing and kidnapping willy nilly. This is totally untrue.

Take a read through Most Dangerous Cities in the Word. St. Louis, Baltimore, and Detroit are all rated as more dangerous than Tijuana, Mexico which comes in at #35. When this list is next updated, Chicago will probably beat them all.

Living safely in Latin America and Belize is about knowing your limitations. Of course there are parts of town you should avoid… as there are in all major cities.  If you stick to expat friendly areas, you’ll be fine.

When you select an offshore jurisdiction for your business, you should focus on: the privacy and asset protection offered by your entity, the quality of banking, whether the country will tax your corporate profits, availability of office space and employees (if relevant to you), and the ease of obtaining residency in the country.

In my opinion, each and every criteria above is more important than the quality of life offered in some frozen tundra of a country. Once you’re setup in an efficient jurisdiction, you can move around and spend as much time as you like in a high cost one.

The number one country for expats using only these criteria is Panama. No one else even comes close to matching Panama on banking, privacy, asset protection and taxation.

For example, Panama will only tax your local income – if you open a bar in the country, you’ll pay tax in the country. Panama won’t tax your foreign sourced profits or corporate income earned from sales to persons and companies outside of Panama.

Of primary importance to US citizens is the ease of acquiring residency in the country. This is a big deal to us gringos because we want to qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion using the residency test rather than the physical presence test.

The FEIE allows us to earn $102,100 from our offshore corporations tax free. If a husband and wife are both working in the business, this can go up to $204,200.

To qualify under the physical presence test, you must be out of the US for 330 out of 365 days… which is difficult for many with family back in the States. If you’re a legal resident of a foreign country, you can qualify under the residency test and spend 3 to 4 months a year in America.

That’s why you want residency… here’s the easiest way to get it quickly from Panama.

The most efficient way to get residency in Panama is through investment. You can either buy a condo for $350,000 or buy teak for $20,000. The teak program is quick, easy, and doesn’t lock you in like a real estate purchase does.

This assumes you’re from the US, EU, UK, or any of the other top 50 countries. For more on Panama reforestation visa, see: Best Panama Residency by Investment Program.

I hope you’ve found this article on the top countries for expats to be helpful. For more information in this, or to get residency in Panama, please contact me at info@premieroffshore.com or call us at (619) 550-2743. All consultations are free and confidential.