Southeast Asia is a remarkably beautiful and diverse region that is becoming much more welcoming to Western retirees. Southeast Asia’s big appeal for foreign retirees is the cost of living. Several countries here are among the world’s cheapest places to retire. Your money goes much further in this part of the world than in the United States or any other Western country, but that does not mean that the standard of living is necessarily lower.
It is possible to stretch your retirement nest egg to enjoy a better lifestyle in Southeast Asia than you could afford anywhere else in the world. For example, in the United States you’re probably paying at least US$50 per month for reasonably fast Internet. In the Philippines Internet costs US$12 per month, likely for faster speeds than you have now. In Thailand and Malaysia fast Internet is US$18 per month.
Similar savings can be seen in the prices of everything from rent and phone service to cooking gas, electricity, and groceries. A visit to the doctor costs less than US$20 throughout most of the region, and the care you receive is likely to exceed your expectations. English-speaking doctors educated in Europe, Australia, and North America are the norm. They work in hygienic offices with modern equipment and can be affiliated with modern internationally accredited hospitals. Thailand and Malaysia are among the top five countries in the world for medical tourism.
English is widely understood throughout the region, and it is an official language of the Philippines and parts of Malaysia. The majority of people you come into contact with in these two countries are fluent in English. Additionally, English is a required subject at schools in every country in Southeast Asia. Urban areas and many small towns have enough English speakers that communication rarely presents a significant barrier.
Living in Southeast Asia full time is increasingly becoming an option for Western retirees. Several countries now offer user-friendly, affordable retirement residency programs, this region’s answer to the pensionado programs that have attracted so many foreign retirees to key Latin American destinations. New programs offered by some countries in this part of the world directly appeal to foreigners looking for legal, long-term residency in retirement. Several countries waive any minimum monthly income requirements for long-term or permanent residency if you invest in a fixed-deposit account at a local bank. In countries where a monthly pension is required, the qualifying amount is often surprisingly low.
Thailand and the Philippines, in particular, are recruiting foreign retirees with benefit rich and low cost of entry visa programs.
Thailand. Thailand has some of the best beaches in the world, lush mountains and jungles, a laid-back, welcoming culture, and a foreigner-friendly infrastructure. Thailand also has one of the world’s lowest costs of living. For these reasons, thousands of foreigners have settled in this country in world-renowned resorts such as Koh Samui, Koh Lanta and Phuket, in cities including Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and in the smaller towns of Hua Hin, Cha-am and Pai. It’s rare to find a town in Thailand that doesn’t have at least a few foreign residents.
It used to be possible to stay indefinitely in the country with a tourist visa, making visa runs to a neighboring country every month or so. However, the relevant laws were changed a few years ago. Now a foreigner who wants to live in Thailand long term needs a visa. Thailand offers several residency visa options. Retirees typically want the non-immigrant “O-A” (long-stay) visa. To qualify, you must be age 50 or older at the time of application, have completed a satisfactory police records check, obtain a medical examination, present a certificate of health, and deposit 800,000 baht (about US$24,800) in a Thai bank for at least two months prior to making your application or be able to prove that you receive a pension of at least 65,000 baht (about US$2,000) per month.
The term of the “O-A” visa is one year. You can apply to extend it by showing three months of bank statements or pay stubs to the Immigration Department, proving that you continue to meet the financial requirements.
The Philippines. The cost of living in Thailand is low, but it’s lower still in the Philippines. A retiree could enjoy a quality lifestyle on a budget of US$1,000 per month or less in this country, including dining out and in-country travel. An elegant dinner for two, including drinks, can cost less than US$15. Plus, English is spoken by practically everyone, the scenery is stunning and the people are exceptionally friendly.
In addition, the Philippines offers the easiest path to permanent residency of any country in the region, and its retiree residency program comes with more benefits than any other country in this part of the world. Unlike Thailand’s retirement program, the Philippines program allows foreign residents to work or start a business. Once you have been granted permanent residency, you can stay in the country for as long as you want, and your visa never expires.
In addition to the ability to take a job or own a business, the retirement program also allows for the duty-free importation of up to US$7,000 worth of household belongings, an exemption from airport travel taxes, and other similar tax discounts and incentives. Further, you can leave the country and return any time you like without having to re-apply for residency.
Four types of special resident retiree visas are offered, starting with the SRRV smile program that allows you to remain in the Philippines for as long as you want provided you deposit US$20,000 in a Philippine bank and keep it there for the duration of your stay. This visa is available to anyone who is 35 or older. There is no minimum income requirement.
You qualify for the SRRV classic visa program by depositing US$50,000 in a Philippine bank or purchasing a condominium costing US$50,000 or more if you are between ages 35 and 49. If you are age 50 or older, you need invest only $10,000, provided you have an individual pension of at least US$800 per month. A couple must be able to show pension income of at least US$1,000 per month.
Kathleen Peddicord is the publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, offering retirement and overseas living advice in her free daily Overseas Opportunity Letter and the monthly Overseas Retirement Letter. The preceding article was originally published by U.S. News & World Report.