A reader from the U.S. sent in a question a week or so ago. He and his wife are considering retiring outside the country and had been receiving emails about all the low-cost-of-living opportunities available to expats and he was wondering if US$2,000 a month was enough to live on in the countries being touted.
He also wondered what criteria I use when selecting a country to move to, which I haven’t done now for more than 3 1/2 years.
First, I suggested that the email promotions he was receiving were mostly real estate promotions, getting people excited about luxury living on a dime in Ecuador or someplace else in Latin America (used to be Costa Rica before the influx of gringos raised the cost of living). “Buy a home here,” they urge, and BTW, they have some homes to offer.
First, I would never recommend buying property in another country – unless you’re rich and it would just be a second/vacation home. Real estate usually is too hard to get out from under in a foreign country. Renting usually is a better option.
Second, I warned that $2,000 would not be enough for the reader and his wife, maybe for one of them but not both. Yes, it’s possible for a couple to live on that in Latin America or in many places around the globe, but the austerity necessary would not be pleasant for long.
As to my criteria when evaluating a country, the overall cost of living is the first item, followed closely by rental prices in the town where I would be moving to. I’ve found that food costs in low cost-of-living countries are basically the same, with local foods cheap and imported foods expensive. I also consider political stability and religion, language, banking, and medical.
In addition, how long I can stay in the country with my passport and how easy it would be to make visa runs is important. Costa Rica, for example, allows you to stay in-country for 3 months before you must exit. Nicaragua and Panama are relatively close for visa runs and offer accommodations and entertainment for the 2-3 days you are out of country.
Many countries allow 90-day passport stays, but some are more restrictive, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, where you can only stay 30 days. With a 30-day window, it becomes even more important that a low-cost option for visa runs is available, which is not the case in much of Vietnam (unless you’re near the Laos border) or Indonesia (unless you’re near Singapore as Batam is). This 30-day window is a main reason why I’ve not considered either Vietnam or Indonesia in the past for relocation. The strong religious influence in Indonesia was also a deciding factor.
Yet, here I am in Indonesia. But for my first 2 1/2 years here I had a work permit and so didn’t need to make any visa runs. For the past year, however, I have been making such runs, which are pretty easy given the closeness of Singapore (13 miles by ferry; $40). Those runs were made every two months for the past year, as I was on a business visa sponsored by a company here. Interestingly, a business visa specifically says you cannot conduct business while in Indonesia.
Now, without a business visa, I am forced to ferry to Singapore every 4 weeks. Previously, this would have cost me the $40 ferry ticket, plus $35 for a 30-day visa on arrival.. Doing the math, that’s $870 a year for the privilege to live on Batam.
But that cost was cut in half when the government decided to add the U.S. and 29 countries to its visa-on-arrival exempt list, meaning no more $35 fee when entering the country. This week I tested the new system and was somewhat concerned about how the new procedures would work. Would there be paperwork? Would I have to have a hotel or resort reservation?
First of all, not all the ports on Batam are exempt, only Hang Nadim airport and the ferry terminals at Batam Centre and Sekupang, both of which are a taxi ride away. The Harbour Bay ferry terminal is within walking distance for me but is not on the exempt list for some reason.
For my first trip, I decided to depart from Harbour Bay and re-enter at Batam Centre, where I had never used the ferry before. I chose the Batam Fast ferry service. My unfamiliarity with the Batam Centre terminal and immigration there made me nervous, almost like when, in the past, I was making a move to a new country. It should be such an easy trip, but I was nervous anyway.
One nice aspect of the monthly trips will be that I can stock up on hard-to-get foods every month in Singapore at the upscale grocery in the terminal mall, which I did on this trip, bringing back bacon, cold cuts, pickles, sour cream, Parmesan cheese and some other things.
If I hadn’t gone to the store, I could have returned almost immediately to Batam, but in this case I missed that ferry and had to wait for the next one. The ride to Batam Centre from Singapore is about 20 minutes longer than to Harbour Bay and this was the first time I had taken it.
As usual, I made sure I was near the exit when we docked so as to get in the front of the immigration line. Turns out that was not necessary, at least on this day. I should note that I decided to make this trip on a Tuesday, and will go every fourth Tuesday, because I guessed there would be fewer people traveling. I was right.
The Batam Centre immigration area is new and modern, with several lines available, including for visa on arrival. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, figuring there would still be paperwork to fill out. So I stopped at the VOA counter, flashed my passport, and asked if my VOA was free and where should I go.
Now I should note that the free VOA is only if you are a tourist. Apparently, if you declare you are here for business then you still have to pay the $35.
The hijab-wearing Mandiri Indonesia bank clerk behind the VOA counter asked if I was on business or holiday. Of course I said “holiday.” She then directed me to a line with a “Foreign Passports” sign. There were only two people ahead of me.
This is where I had the biggest surprise. The immigration officer did the usual perusal of my passport, looked at me, looked at his computer screen, and then stamped my passport. No questions at all. I just cannot understand some of the things they do here, or don’t do here.
Relieved now that I know the new visa run process might be more often but not a problem, I walked outside to fill out the last bit of information about future trips – the taxi fare. Turns out it is only Rp 70,000 ($5) one-way to Nagoya, about a 20-minute ride.
If I compare costs of now and before, I will be paying for the $40 ferry ticket every month and $10 for round-trip taxi fare, or $600 a year, saving $270. Probably worth having to make monthly trips.
And, yes, I know I didn’t pay for taxis both ways on this trip, but I think I will have to in the future. This is because, in its infinite wisdom, the government decreed that you have to exit from the port where you came in to be exempt from the VOA fee. So, if someone enters through Batam Centre and then goes to the airport and visits Yogyakarta, they have to return to Batam to leave the country, or have to pay the $35 fee.
This means, I think, that in the future I will not be able to walk to Harbour Bay to exit; I will have to taxi to Batam Centre, where I entered, in order to exit without paying the fee. Eventually, I’m guessing, Harbour Bay will be added to the exempt list.
Finally, I’m working on a tickets-for-advertising trade with one of the ferry operators that will cut my ferry ticket price in half every month. This will bring my annual costs down to $360, from $600. As a bonus, the trade will include a second ticket that I don’t need but can use to raffle off on the BatamExpat.com website every month. So I reduce my expenses, add a new, prestigious advertiser to my site, and get something of value I can promote to my web audience.
I think that’s called making lemonade out of lemons. I just call it adapting to what you are presented with, or making the best with what you have to work with.
A WORD OF CAUTION: It is very possible that at some point when I make these monthly visa runs (as a tourist) that immigration will pull be aside to ask what I’m doing. I’m obviously not a tourist if I’m making monthly runs to Singapore and have done it numerous times, they will reason correctly. At that point, they can deport me back to Singapore, leaving all my possessions still in my apartment in Batam. What do I do then? My contingency plan would be to either, 1. suggest I be given a 30-day/$35 “Business visa”; or 2. call a friend and have my suitcases loaded up and brought to me at the ferry terminal, if immigration will allow (or ask someone to bring the bags over on the ferry). Stay tuned, because this is likely to happen unless I can find someone to sponsor me on a one-year business visa.