The Privilege of Staying Home: COVID and the Highly Skilled Workforce

Yves here. As much as working at home has long suited me well, given that I am allergic to meetings and office politics, it’s created new layers of class inequality, not just the super rich and executive classes living each in their own strata, but the mere middle class knowledge workers now free of daily commutes…at the cost of sometimes having to contend with kids underfoot.

While sheltering in place is clearly preferable to having to turn up and face probable Covid-carrying co-workers and customers, I am still bothered by the loss of international travel. Not that I have any near term intent of going abroad, both for cost and time reasons on top of Covid concerns. But I do recall fondly seeing the world on the McKinsey plan, getting a big international junket on one of my independent consulting gigs (albeit having to work all the time during it), and doing some travel abroad on my own dime.

The mention of a nomad visa in this piece particularly triggered me, because it is the sort of thing I ought to be looking into. Given that the US is becoming ever more a predatory/rentier society, and the elderly make for easy pickings, I really need to become an expat. But Covid means I can’t even do due diligence even if money weren’t an obstacle. For instance, I have been briefly to Croatia and Costa Rica and spent a teeny bit more time in Portugal, but not enough to have more than the general impression, “Nice places, tourist friendly” which is hardly enough info on which to base a relocation decision. And they aren’t the only spots theoretically on the list.

That is a bit long-winded way of saying the mobility of knowledge workers isn’t as freewheeling as this piece implies. But the other leg of the argument, the great advantage of being able to (try to) weather the pandemic at home still stands.

By Agnieszka Weinar, an adjunct research professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University and previously a a scientific coordinator and research fellow, at the European University Institute in Florence and a policy officer at the European Commission. Originally published at openDemocracy

The COVID pandemic changed the way we look at the privilege of mobility. If, before the pandemic, moving across borders was a perk of being highly skilled, then during the pandemic we have seen a new privilege emerge: immobility.

Historically, mobility has been associated with two types of privilege, coming from financial or cultural capital. In other words, the wealthy or highly educated (or both) could enjoy lower-risk and relatively easier global mobility. Think about the ‘global professionals’ or ‘globally mobile elites’ or the ‘global race for talent’. Having either skills or money meant that the world was within reach and that the mobility limitations linked to a passport could be easier to overcome than for the rest of society.

The pandemic that brought the world to a halt in 2020 exacerbated the privilege of mobility and underscored the importance of capital or skills, as all pandemics in history have done.

In 2020, people who had either the capital or the skills that allowed them to be mobile while not suffering economically, hopped the planet to ride out the storm. Singapore, for example, became a popular hideout for the Asian super-rich, with its low infection rates and rather limited sanitary restrictions.

Those without capital but with the right set of skills and a good internet connection could choose to benefit from new policy developments. For example, a digital nomad visa in Croatia allowed many mid-level, highly skilled migrants with precarious job status to achieve a lifestyle they would not be able to afford if they had stayed in super-expensive urban hot spots by working remotely.

Anecdotal evidence shows that temporary labour migrants coming from countries with similar healthcare standards – for example workers in the European Union or Europeans working in the US or Canada – took the decision to go back to their home countries, and work from there.

The Privilege of Staying Put

However, the pandemic brought about a new phenomenon: staying put on one’s own terms.

The privilege of mobility turned into a privilege of immobility: choosing to stay immobile and still be safe. Those who could afford to do their jobs from home could do so – but only 25% of all workers in the US could actually work fully from home.

The ability to work from home was also the result of either financial capital, or a specific skill set.

Migrants who could do their jobs online could more easily keep working or find new jobs than those whose work requires their presence on location. This meant that highly skilled migrants in the so-called ‘non-essential’ occupations were less impacted by the lockdown than other groups.

This privilege of immobility is also visible in the practice of hiring employees for positions across the world without them moving countries. Hiring remotely to virtual offices has become more palatable to employers, while the workers have adjusted to new requirements. This trend – the growth of remote work, spanning time zones – is one of the biggest unknowns of the post-pandemic labour market.

Immobility has not always been experienced as a privilege by the highly skilled, however. For many highly skilled migrants hoping to move to a new country, the pandemic has meant difficult delays. In a prime destination for migration like Canada for example, immigration halved, leaving thousands of highly skilled migrants waiting for an unknown future.

What Next?

It is too early to understand the full impact of the pandemic on the mobility of highly skilled migrants. Mostly because the mobility data is still unavailable and the studies are ongoing. Yet, the future of highly skilled mobility itself will be one of the most important impacts of the pandemic. As companies move towards virtual office models, it may be that international recruitment will become redundant and the race for talent will move entirely online.

The potential for reducing highly skilled immigration and better utilising global skill pools through remote work is enormous. However, such a trend can bring about major societal changes and upheavals. One consequence might be a larger pool of virtual in-country workers: those who are ready to work and use their skills but would not move between regions, can now be hired to work for companies far away within the same country.

Another consequence might be the mass migration of highly skilled jobs to workers based abroad, with internationally marketable skills. In such a scenario, migration policies will focus mainly on low-skilled workers, who often risk their lives to move abroad. Any post-pandemic migration policy should take these trends into account.

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  1. Cocomaan

    I took an entirely remote position last summer when the boss at the old place called us all back. as she was know for being a petty office politics sort of person, I wasn’t going to subject myself to that.

    The place that hired me is in a mid sized city in a fairly rural area. They have money but hired remote because they could never get anyone to move out there. Interesting move to get some advantage.

    I have a lot of blue collar neighbors for whom my working from home is slightly annoying, but also amusing to them. I remind them that I probably make less than they do, in one case, half of what one guy makes with overtime doing appliance repair.

    During Covid, this has all been a godsend for me. I am done with going into an office as long as this is happening. Masking all day with fifty of my best friends sounds awful.

  2. vlade

    I believe Portugal is pretty expat-friendly, as is Spain. Most of the European countries have quite friendly health system, as long as they are at least permanent residents.

    It very much depends on what you’re looking for TBH. My experience is that you have to get your priorities on paper and work off that, with a provisio that people often don’t know what their priorities are until they actually try.

    I’d also caution on one thing – once you move out for a long enough period of time, and get home-sick (for whatever is the home), getting back rarely helps, as the place moved on and is not what you remember it to be anymore. I have met a number of expats who, homesick, came back home, and then disgusted left again.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      A lot of people love Portugal, but its not a country for people with German/US work and service expectations. There is an old joke about Portuguese not having the word ‘mañana’, because they don’t feel the need for a word conveying such a level of urgency. Things do get done in Portugal – its an admirably well run country in very many ways – but not always to some expats expectations.

      It does however, have a superb standard of living (outside of Lisbon and the Algarve) if you do have a steady income. The climate is great, its beautiful and there are amazing opportunities for the outdoors. Plus wonderful affordable food and wine.

      As someone who was an emigrant and returned home, I can confirm that its very difficult. In some ways its worse than being an immigrant, as because you are local people simply make assumptions that you know how everything works and you have a big social circle, when in reality its often like starting from scratch all over again.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I have friends who moved to Santa Fe (“The City Different”) and ran into the same thing! Workmen would blow off an appointment to go fishing. Work would eventually get done but big uncertainty as to when.

        Portugal is lovely (I’ve been twice, second time to a few coastal cities) but I may need cheaper too, as in Costa Rica, which has been bid up but my impression is overall a notch below any EU prices. And super well run and nice food too.

        Of course Colonel Smithers swears by Mauritius…but that is a long flight from anywhere! Very good self employed visa. Supposed to have very good medical care for what they do do but I wouldn’t hazard anything beyond pretty minor surgery there…not that I’m planning on surgery.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I don’t know the details, but Portugal heavily markets itself as expat friendly, especially for freelancers. There are all sorts of special visa and grant arrangements available. A Brazilian translator friend of mine has been happily spending Covid in a little mountain village in Portugal, making a reasonable living from online work. A lot of young Americans opt for Porto and the north.

          On costs, Portugal (a little like Spain and France) has a vastly different cost of living depending on where you are. If you go a little inland from the touristy/retirement haven of the Algarve, its amazing just how much cheaper rent and restaurant costs can be. You will quite literally pay three times the ‘normal’ price of a restaurant meal in Portugal in a tourist village that a local will expect. I’m sure David would confirm that its very similar in France.

          Healthcare is a little more difficult to address. A lot of people simply use temporary and travel insurance for emergency treatments. In many European countries the medics simply will not tell the administrators if someone arrives needing treatment but they suspect may not have whatever insurance/residence needs are required. I’ve mentioned it BLT before, but I know an elderly Australian man who was given outstanding cancer treatment in France – they simply asked for an address (he gave a French friends address) and was treated as if he was French. This almost certainly was not within the rules, but there was no way they were going to throw him out of the hospital.

          Needless to say, there is a high level of risk involved in trying to wing it with healthcare and pensions, as many retired British in the EU are finding out. But Portugal has a very large population of northern European retirees so the system is well designed to cater to their needs. Many of the retirees never bother to register as residents, and this can create complications.

          I guess this is a long winded way of saying that its important to do very comprehensive research before committing your future to any new country.

        2. John Mc

          My wife is from Mauritius – it has its issues being an island nation (imports, corruption, and stuck in the middle of Indian Ocean; not the greatest location for geo-political conflict avoidance). But there are many things to love also.

          From my view (previously a midwesterner – Indy, KC, and now DC area) Mauritius would be an excellent ex-pat jumping off point from which to travel from and to determine a final location later on. Creole would be important to know if staying for any significant duration, as would knowing where on the island to live (high priced coastal areas are for the tourists like Grand Baie in the north).

          It is a bit like Hawaii in that the hope of it makes it more romantic, but long term residence has some waning to it!

          Great discussion though

        3. dougk

          We’ve lived in Santa Fe and will go back for retirement when my current work gig ends. The saying there is that mañana doesn’t mean tomorrow; it means ‘not now.’ If you push to make things happen, it will only backfire on you. Coming from the big city it was certainly an adjustment but we did adjust and learned to go with the flow.

        4. ZacP

          I have been to Ecuador to visit some cousins who are part of a very large expat community there. The coastal region is nothing near as grand as a Costa Rica, and many prefer the more temperate mountain climate. The government seems very accommodating as long as you can invest a certain amount of dollars into a bank, and it is very convenient that there is no currency exchange to worry about. At least before COVID, the cities were vibrant with many things to see and do. Loved Cotacachi leather market and town, but there were so many gringos living there that I saw an irate man angry with a shopkeeper for not knowing any English

          1. ZacP

            (Another double poster here lol) I appreciate and learn from these types of conversations that have occasionally popped up on NC. My wife and I regularly associate with our local Spanish speaking neighbors and I hope to be fluent enough later on to retire and live simply somewhere abroad.

      2. R

        PK, in my experience, Portugal is positively N European compared to Spain in Portugal, at least in the corporate environment when I did business in Lisbon. Long hours, serious people, Atlantic-coast types. Good for a Yankee, Yves….

        Same great joie de vivre though!

        Plus Oporto has a longstanding British community, in the port trade and at one time in the textile industry.

        One notable difference in Portugal is the standard of English. It is much better than in Spain, allegedly because in Portugal, English films are subtitled whereas in Spain they are dubbed.

      3. DNS

        Portuguese NC regular reader here. Actually we have TWO different words for “mañana” (spanish), manhã, meaning morning time and amanhã, tomorrow. Expectation of service really depends on regions/industries. Public service oscillatSmall country, but big differences in doing business from north to south, coastal areas to interior ones.

      4. DNS

        (sorry for double posting) Portuguese NC regular reader here. Actually we have TWO different words for “mañana” (spanish), manhã, meaning morning time and amanhã, tomorrow. Expectation of service really depends on regions/industries. Small country, but big differences in doing business from north to south, coastal areas to interior ones. Public service oscillates between ultra-efficient (taxes, social security, national health service all accessible online) and very slow (local municipalities, courts). Being in contact with a lot of expats myself, as I weekend on what has recently become of the hottest real estate areas in the world (holywood, fashion and oligarch types buying every plot), and being a former expat myself (Asia, during the economic crisis), I find that 90% of them have unrealistic expectations about Portugal, believing they are arriving at some kind of third-world country that is desperate for “help”, and get really annoyed when having to deal with “regulations” (“So you do actually have laws here?”). These are some eery post-colonial vibes.

    2. Bart Hansen

      We were in Portugal in 2014 and found it lovely and inexpensive. In Lisbon they have open air markets in some of the plazas where you can have a nice evening meal of sausages, cheese and bread.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    In Europe, the big limitation on this type of movement is tax laws. Put simply, companies are not permitting employees to live outside their ‘home’ state for a variety of regulatory and taxation reasons (this doesn’t apply to freelancers). A lot of fairly footloose people I knew hoped to find somewhere nice and cheap in Portugal and got a rude reminder from their employer that this was not acceptable. Even people going back to their home country for anything but a fairly short term was not considered ok.

    I haven’t seen updated information, but early last year the figures I saw for Dublin was that the outflow from the city was mainly more established people, mostly Irish, and going to cheaper rural areas. Usually somewhere within a couple of hours train or drive, so they could attend the office maybe 1-2 days a week. But counterintuitively, it was mostly young, non-Irish moving into Dublin, despite high costs. Mostly as starters in companies, including those with good skills, were expected to be close at hand for work, so they were not given the choice by employers. Basically, to be able to negotiate a situation where you can work far from the office, you need to be pretty well established within your skill/profession/job unless you want to live on constant day rates for freelancers.

    So my guess is that the ‘beneficiaries’ of new working patterns will be mostly the fairly well established professionals, not necessarily those with footloose skills.

    1. Larry

      The same mobility brake holds here in the US. In the early shut down the company I was working for had to remind employees that they are not actually an employer in all 50 states and moving and working to any state they chose was not to be allowed. Any remote full time relocation had to be manager approved. As it was clear an office return wasn’t going to be soon (they’re still remote) they started to allow more flexibility but also said salary would be reconsidered as the pay levels were based on living in the San Francisco/Boston markets.

      Living in Massachusetts, I know Western, MA would kill for some migration of remote workers to their hollowing out towns. A Berkshires rep was floating an idea to pay remote workers to relocate, similar to a plan Vermont had. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Vermont’s paid relocation plan worked very well.

    2. Jason Boxman

      Years before the pandemic, I had a coworker that “lived” in LA while working remotely from Uruguay the whole time with the employer none the wiser. Couldn’t you swing that kind of deal in Europe as well if you could lean on a legal address somewhere else?

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think smaller companies may be willing to do this, but anecdotally, big companies (especially banks and IT companies) will not allow any ambiguity, there are too many potential liabilities for them. Its not just the workers status and tax – the companies themselves have agreements and tax arrangements based on how many people they employ, and there are also complications with data protection – the latter in some cases may be the big one.

        1. Jokerstein

          I work for a VERY big software company – the manufacturer of the most successful database in the commercial world. We have no problems at all hiring people outside the US. I just hired someone in Croatia. Admittedly, we have business ops in virtually every country in the world, though.

          1. Zamfir

            My sister is HR manager for a similar company as yours, though a good chunk smaller. She has direct colleagues in many countries, usually multiple per country, to smooth out all the complications. It’s a massive effort, that gets unaffordable for smaller companies.

            In her case, I think the company only goes through this expense because they want a local sales and support team in many locations. Once they have the infrastructure for that, they can piggyback on that for other kinds of jobs

        2. Charles 2

          Yes, data is a big issue. It has been put in the back burner during the covid crisis, but at some point companies will feel the need to tighten the screws. The only relatively safe solution is very thin client with no data whatsoever stored locally and it is not 100% proof : there is no way to prevent a remote employee to take a picture of his/her display.

    3. JMM

      A friend of mine started working for a Canadian company from Spain. As you mention, he should be a Canadian resident, or a contractor. There’s a loophole to this: there are companies that have just the bare minimum infrastructure on a given country, so they’re “local companies”, they’ll hire you, but you work for the remote client. That way, on paper, you’re a local worker.

      In the end it turned out that the “provider” chosen by the Canadian company didn’t have a presence in Spain, and my friend had to go the contractor way (which is not that bad either way), but I found the whole experience quite enlightening.

    4. Charles 2

      The advantage of remote work is that the only link to geography is the localization of the IP address. Route all traffic through a residential address in the “home” state, with the broadband contract conveniently used as a proof of residence, and employer has plausible deniability, or is even none the wiser.
      Ironically, COVID rather put a spammer in the works than facilitated that arrangement, as border restrictions made it more difficult or even impossible to hop into the train or the plane to answer an impromptu call to the head office.
      I concur however that it relies on good tax treaties between country of remote work and country of residence. SE Asia is quite good in that regard as most countries there have a “hands off” attitude regarding income sourced overseas : they are not even interested in knowing its existence.

  4. Arizona Slim

    Here in Tucson, there’s an effort to get remote workers to move here. And, surprise-surprise, it’s working pretty well. Here’s your linky-link:

    BTW, here’s another data point: I have a friend with an older brother who’s the quintessential IT geek. According to my friend, the brother just got a $120k/year job with Arizona State University. He’ll be running the IT aspects of ASU’s online learning programs, and, yes, he can do this job from home.

    Did I mention that my friend earned her degree online from Northern Arizona University? And that she really enjoyed the fact that she could earn a bachelor’s degree without having to suffer through the campus scene, AND that she could work full-time while living at home?

    My friend is NAU class of 2006.

  5. David

    A lot depends on where you are, and how much money you have. Language is a huge thing. If you’re a Swede working for a multinational in Germany who decides to relocate to Lisbon, then you can’t rely on being able to speak English in your daily life. You’ll need to find a bank which deals with expatriates into which your salary can be paid, you’ll need to get telephone and internet accounts, and sign contracts in Portuguese, as well as getting used to the terminology and practices of the local banking system. If your internet goes down, you may or may not find someone who speaks English to help you. You’ll need to navigate around doctors, dentists, pharmacies, hairdressers, local authorities, parking laws, instructions for putting out rubbish and a hundred other things. You may or may not have a right of residence, but even if you do you’ll have to make yourself known to the local tax authorities, or your bank will. You’ll almost certainly have to pay property taxes, and perhaps a charge for working from your home. Most European countries have a state health system with non-profit top-ups, and you’ll need to choose one, and navigate its own procedures, in pharmacies and with doctors, and on the internet. You may not find a policy in a language you can understand. Your cleaning lady will probably be from Angola or Mozambique, and may not even speak Portuguese that well. She may ask to be paid in cash, which is breaking the law in most European, countries. If you want to declare her you’ll have to fill in numerous forms and get her counter-signature. And so on and on and on.

    If you are deliberately sent abroad by a large organisation, specifically to work there, then you may have a local support structure, or access to one, that will do some of these things for you. But if you just relocate because you want to, you’re on your own. To navigate all these problems (and there are many others) requires either a great deal of money, or the willingness to spend an enormous amount of time and effort learning about and integrating into a different society, all the while doing your job. The author has clearly worked at large, multinational organisations where all these things are done for you. It’d be a shock if she ever found herself all alone.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I did this when I moved to Oz all on my own so I do have an idea of the difficulties ex the language part. I was lucky in that the Australians are super helpful and I’d made enough trips to have an adequate network for sorting out issues. But virtually every day for the first couple of months I’d run into some issue or practice that I hadn’t come across in my due diligence. Not enough to necessarily be a problem but pull me up short and remind me that things were not the same.

      My US medial policy worked in Oz (I’ve submitted claims from Oz, the UK, and Thailand) so I didn’t have that issue (and still won’t…you can see why I want to hang on to it). Just paid the cash rate and submitted for reimbursement (which was a bargain compared to US: first visit to a GP then A$75 v. $250 US). Which took forever because they had to sort out the FX rate applicable, something they seldom do. I have no idea how my US insurer would have handled an elective surgery (pre authorization required!). They couldn’t say no if necessary and I would still be entitled to appeal with a 3 day max turnaround from NY state if urgent but still…

      I know of a couple of people who’ve moved full time overseas and work full time on a quasi contract basis. They’ve managed to sort it out. But I think they pretend to be in the US for tax purposes.

      That is the part that is particularly awful for Americans. If you have more than $10,000 in a foreign bank account, you are subject to hellacious reporting. You are treated as if you are a money launderer. I managed to avoid that in Australia, it was a nuisance pulling down cash from an ATM every month to pay my rent and paying US credit cards (and hence FX fees for Oz transactions).

      The other big hassles are tax reporting. America taxes on world wide income but allows you to earn a certain amount overseas (uses to be $100,000, not sure what it is now). But you still have to report! And still file local tax returns too!

      And then there is the question of whether working, even if on a freelance job with a foreign employer, is kosher. Some countries take the view than any furriner working there is taking food from the mouth of a local. Oz is that way. You need a work visa of some sort. Or if you have one of those pricey retirement visas, you are not supposed to earn income save Social Security, a pension, or from investments.

      I am told some countries like Uruguay also have retirement visas but look the other way if you work. But can you rely on that persisting?

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Haha, yes it did take some doing to get adequate in slang, like “bundying in” and where “Happy little Vegemite” came from. And Americans are no good at imitating Australian accents, while I’ve seen Americans in London credibly slide toward British intonation and pronunciation, not enough to sound like a native but it does take the edge off “annoying American”.

          1. Rob

            I moved to Portugal from Australia. The Government and utilities have English speakers who they will direct you to. Tradespeople, and particularly older ones are more hit and miss. Most of the younger people speak some English – they subtitle rather than translate US movies.

            Inland where it is cheaper English tends to be less widely spoken. In the Algarve and Lisbon it will be more widely spoken. The Portuguese are very friendly and helpful.

            If you plump for somewhere too out of the way, you may miss the depth of conversation you can get with native or native level English speakers. I chose an area where the Portuguese go on holiday, which does not have many native English speakers in it and rather enjoy the discussions I have when working in the UK. I don’t know if I will stay in my area, learn Portuguese or spend more time in Lisbon or the Algarve. I like warmth, so will probably remain in the Southern half, although I liked the Northern and central cities. It is a beautiful, friendly and safe country.

          2. George Wilson

            And of course you would be considered to be a “Sepo”.
            (Oz rhyming slang for “Septic” as in “Septic Tank” = “Yank”)

      1. BillS

        As an American expat living in Europe, I can vouch for the tax reporting hassles. Yes, you have the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion that allows around 120K of earnings. There are also housing exclusions and foreign tax credits that can be used to reduce the US tax bill to zero in most cases, but you need to file the paperwork. There are also the FATCA reporting requirements as well as the FinCEN form for bank accounts and investments. Once you understand the drill, it is doable if your situation is not too complex. For me, the main pain in the a$$ is the few hours I have to spend every year assembling the pile of paper for the IRS. So far, I have managed to avoid the dreaded double taxation. However, I really wish the USA would join the civilized world and go to a residence based tax system.

        1. BlueMoose

          I keep hearing about ‘having to’ file in the US even if you don’t owe them anything. I had not filed since 2004 and when I was applying for early Social Security 2 years ago I was mentally preparing myself for having to back file for all those years. Never came up.

          The guy at the embassy helping me knew more about my finances than I did. He even helped me with getting spousal benefits for my Polish wife. Her permanent residence status in USA had already expired and we did not want to pay to renew it since we did not plan on returning. Anyway, she had a Canadian passport so if we di need to return to visit family, she could use that.

          I’m not advocating avoiding filing. It is probably worth a few hours of pain each year.

      2. David

        I can see that worldwide health insurance would work for major problems, but paradoxically everyday things might be more difficult. I don’t know many health insurance policies that cover, for example, repeat prescriptions for chronic things like high blood pressure. And everybody here gets a Covid vaccine free …. if they show their state health insurance card. You’d probably have trouble finding someone here to vaccinate you, given that all the paperwork and record-keeping assumes you are part of the state system. And becoming part of the state system in many countries can be a lot of fun in itself. Anti money-laundering laws are becoming a big thing these days: in France, which has a special agency called Tracfin, you have to declare to your bank all the foreign bank accounts you have, and the bank is required by law to reject any payment into your French account which can’t easily be explained. If you do work for a client in the Middle East, for example, or South America, you’d have to send the bank full details of what you did, who the work was for, a copy of your invoice etc. Even then you might get investigated, if the sum is large enough.

        The work permit is a big thing in many countries and it’s not automatic. Employers can apply for you, or you can apply yourself, but in the latter case you must have the promise of a job. In most cases, if you wanted to keep your job but just work from abroad, then if there’s no special bilateral agreement, you’d have to pay tax and social security in the country where you are ordinarily resident, which is lots of fun. If you’re just a consultant, then you basically have to set up a business under local laws. Which is lots of fun also.

        The point, as you suggest, is that whilst none of this is impossible, it is very tiring and time consuming. Anyone who sees themselves moving from a gloomy office block in Manchester to work beside the pool in their Lisbon apartment building needs to think quite carefully before they do anything.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I’d add to this that quite a few people try to avoid the problems of long term residency by visa hopping – maybe taking on office based work in one country for a few months, and then move around various countries taking advantage of whatever scheme exists. This seems particularly popular in Asia, where you can move between some very cheap places to live for a few months, then spending time in somewhere like Shanghai or Singapore to make money on consultancy or teaching jobs. I once spent 3 hours in Fukuoka ferry terminal being grilled by Japanese immigration – it seems the Busan to Fukuoka ferry is popular with westerners doing this little visa dance and they seem to have decided I fitted the profile.

          Some people seem to have maintained that sort of lifestyle pretty much indefinitely, but covid has created a major problem for this type of movement. And as you suggest, anyone with longer term medical issues may find this very difficult, unless you can establish yourself a base in somewhere like Thailand and you have enough money to pay for the (cheap and excellent) healthcare.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          My insurance covers all medications. I’ve never never never had a prescription refused that was filled by a pharmacy in the >30 years I’ve had this policy. US required Covid jabs to be covered and they were charged to my insurance, so this would be reimbursed too. The only thing this policy does not like in the meds category is compounded Rx and meds sold out of the doctor’s office (self/dealing, possible unwarranted markups). They don’t pay those.

          So there would be nuisance and need to cover the float.

          1. vlade

            The issue may be that you might not get something at all.

            Say here, private payers weren’t eligible for a covid jab until about summer. Tough luck, you could have had any insurance on the earth, but unless you were in the local system, no jab.

      3. jim truti

        The most difficult thing for an American in the EU is to open a bank account.
        Most European banks simply will refuse to open a bank account if you are American .
        FATCA requires banks to report to the IRS and given the potential liabilities involved, they simply chose not to deal with americans.
        Big thank you to Obama for that. Amazing how long the IRS arm is.
        I remember how FACTA was promoted to punish tax cheat millionaires and it ended up making life miserable for the average american.
        I see now the same noise about boosting up the IRS to go after the rich millionaires. If it happens, lots of $50 lunch tickets of the average Joe will be audited instead.

        1. Dave in Austin

          Texas Gringo from RI via DC here:

          Twenty years ago when I got an Irish passport I walked into a bank in Dublin and got an account with a bit of work. I keep ~ $1,100 in it to make the bank happy and I hang onto it for dear life.

          This year I noticed that both my American and Irish passports had expired. So a few weeks ago I sat down and did the paperwork on both. The US demanded a picture taken by an agent, the post office in my case. Ireland said a selfie was OK, but no zoom and the lightling and distance mattered. I took it, went to the .IE website and uploaded it for the free inspection. It passed muster. I submitted both application later in the same week.

          Five days later, in the mail, signed for by the carrier apparently, my shiny new Irish passport and EU travel card arrived. The US says “probably” in 8 weeks.

          So now I can leave the US if Covid ever lets up. But coming back? I’ll carry my Birth Certificate, a copy of my old passport, my drivers license and a few other docs. If that will not work, I’ll fly to Mexico, spend a pleasant few days on Lake Chapala with expat friends, then walk across the border at the Laredo bridge. And if that doesn’t works I’ll wade the river with my backpack and all my IDs including my Texas driver’s licence and let the migras figure it out.

          I may become the first person ever to apply for refugee status in the US based on being denied my basic human rights by… the US government. If I lose the appeal I guess I’ll be deported to…

          1. Irrational

            And on the topic of Jim’s and Dave’s comments: US regulations are so silly that American citizens abroad are routinely denied the basic right of opening a current/checking account and certainly cannot invest in anything, so forget about a pension outside of the public system in whatever country you are in. Inhumane.

    2. vlade

      Language is definitely a big thing. That said, in many European countries you’ll get around with some level of English, but if you need quite a bit of health care and such, it’s best if you start doing the language ASAP.

      And yes, the bureaucracy in many European countries is hard to navigate, so you need a trusted help there (there are many “helps” which will just skim you) at least for a start – and it pays to go pro there, as many locals don’t really know all the ins and outs, especially for someone who’s not a local.

  6. Joe Well

    It looks like a lot of comments are going to be about being an expat which is good because it’s such a useful topic.

    The most important thing for a retiree to consider is healthcare. Local national health systems typically won’t cover you and neither will private insurers. Healthcare costs can really add up if you need long term care.

    Also, to get back to your home country when you can’t take a normal flight because you need an IV or a gurney, can cost tens of thousands of dollars since the airlines price gouge well beyond the cost of the number of seats and also the attendant has to be paid. Medevac flights for more serious cases cost much more.

    Just as an example, if I were to move to Mexico past the age I can get private insurance, I would want at minimum $200,000 on hand for emergency medical expenses. If I were to live in Cancun or some other place where foreigners get gouged routinely, much more. Of course, there are many retirees who can’t even afford a normal plane ticket home and are effectively stranded.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      As indicated above, my insurance policy (some people are lucky in investments, I am lucky in insurance) covers major medical all over the world. So that isn’t an issue save delay in reimbursement. Long term care policies are now no good in the US (if you started even 10 years ago with one of the few good insurers re paying claims you might be OK but now the premiums are high and will get worse).

      1. PlutoniumKun

        An Irish-American woman I know maintained an address in Ireland for her Irish born parents for many years. This entitled them to nursing home care in Ireland. When her father went deep into dementia they did the calculations and found it was about a third of the price for him to go to a nursing home in his native Kerry, despite not having lived there for nearly half a century. Between their own insurance and an Irish government subvention (nobody seemed to have noticed that he had never paid taxes in Ireland), she said it saved them tens of thousands every year.

        It really, really pays to keep open your options. I always recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to get a back up passport or residency in another country to take advantage of it, you never know when it will come in handy. Although USasians and Japanese seem to find it the most difficult, due to the various peculiarities of domestic tax and residency law.

      2. Joe Well

        Sorry, I used the wrong term. Instead of “long term care” I meant a long hospital stay, like after a major brain or heart surgery (e.g., after stroke or heart attack, or some kind of accident).

        Living in Latin America, if I were severely disabled I would consider getting together with someone in a similar situation and hiring around the clock home help and daily visiting nurses rather than go to some kind of long term care facility. I have no doubt that would cost a lot less than a nursing home or rehabilitation center in the US. However, this webpage claims that Mexican LTC facilities for expats charge under $2000, which sounds about right.

        An important difference between Latin America and the US with regards to health care is that there are consumer protection laws that limit what they can do in terms of surprise billing. It is a culture of upfront-cost pay-for-service with carefully itemized bills.

        I’m talking about Latin America but I assume things would be similar in many other “middle income countries.”

        My understanding of how LTC works in the US is that Medicaid forces you to draw down all your life savings that you hadn’t protected legally somehow, and then they pay the full cost of the nursing home. But I have been too scared to really look into it.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Medicaid level nursing homes are warehouses, hate to tell you.

          You are supposed to have had the $400,000 to $500,000 to secure your spot in a nursing home (not making it up; they want you in in the “independent living” phase where they make $ on you, basically an apt, meals 2-3X a day, some activities, hopefully a library too). At some facilities, the deposit is partly refundable if you don’t go broke and they have to eat into that to pay charges, at others not at all.

    2. voislav

      Typically you can buy local health insurance that gives you access to the local health care system. Since Croatia is mentioned, I can confirm that you can be enrolled into the local healthcare system for about 100 Euros a month. So a significant expense, but about half of what I’m paying in the US. It requires some copays and deductibles, but nowhere near the US levels as healthcare prices are much lower compared to US.

      1. Joe Well

        That depends on how much risk you are willing to tolerate as an 80 or 90 year old in a changing world, since Croatia doesn’t actually have a retirement visa or a path to permanent residence for retirees, according to this page I found (if you know better, please correct). You have to renew after 12 months, which means they reserve the right to kick you out then.

        In many countries there is a requirement that non-permanent-residents are not at risk of “becoming a public charge.” Will Croatia take this attitude toward people who are obviously likely to require a lot of healthcare?

        This visa instability is a risk with almost all countries that allow people in with few hassles.

        From this page:

        “Instead of a “Retirement Visa,” Croatia offers a Temporary Residence Permit allowing you to live in Croatia. Among several qualifications (see Visa Requirements section below), you must have adequate funds to support yourself and any family members on your visa. As the Temporary Residence Permit does not allow you to work, your “sufficient funds” must be passive income, retirement savings, or pension, i.e., you are retired. Hence, for easy reference, many folks call this residency permit a “Retirement Visa.”

        While a Permanent Residence Permit is indefinite, a Temporary Residence Permit only allows you to stay in Croatia for 6 months to 12 months, depending on which reason you used to get your long-term visa.”

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Yes, anything less than permanent residence is risky. Even the very pricey Oz retirement visas are good for only 4 years but theoretically renewable.

        2. Marco Sison | Nomadic FIRE

          From this page:

          That is my site you linked to (thank for reading BTW)

          Since you are concerned about renewals, I thought it would be prudent to clarify the Temporary Residence Permit renewal. You are not allowed back-to-back renewals in Croatia. You will definitely get kicked out for at least 90 days before you can renew again.

          From my FAQ:
          Is the temporary residency permit renewable? If so, for how many years can you remain on a temporary basis?
          The maximum duration for the Croatian temporary residence permit is one year. After the permit expires, you must leave Croatia for 90 days. You cannot renew or extend this permit and must wait 6 months before reapplying.

      2. Marco Sison | Nomadic FIRE

        Just FYI, there is also a considerable upfront cost to access HZZO (the National Healthcare System). Under the Croatian “retirement visa,” you are required to pay 12-months of premium to “buy-in” to their public healthcare.

  7. HH

    A fact of modern life is that consumption of jet fuel is a status metric. Before COVID, academics and professionals attended distant conferences and destination weddings were planned with the assumption that status points were awarded as a function of travel cost and tourist amenities. In this regard, COVID has been a great leveler. It may even have killed the egregious Davos global status festival.

    1. vlade

      Hah, with the advent of EasyJet and Ryanair in Europe, it was often the case that the cost of the ticket was the smallest bit on the expense list (less than parking, or train, or a taxi from the airport for example).

      Great leveler? Been there.

  8. BeliTsari

    Our mild COVID, 5 blocks from Zabar’s. Reviewing occasional repair radiographs (while watching my hippy-dippy renewable-regenerative-smart-efficient equities portfolios soar) streaming Giri-Haji, Better Call Saul, Boss, Gamorrah, Babylon Berlin… sure seemed better than my “retired” co-workers, doing Nord Stream 2, (shutting-down) ACP, KXL, Penn East.. inspection double-joining of 42″ diameter six ton pipe in Rooski-oligarch mills, sick as dogs, working amidst kids 1/3rd their age, outside in exceedingly rough weather… doing this, overseas; in case Trump was reelected, or Biden did just exactly what he promised his constiuents, didn’t really seem an especially good idea. Chronic PASC brain fog and any number of long term damage took at least 4 of my “retired” coworker friends, months after acute symptoms (some, quite mild). So, going to W40th @ Park Ave for a root canal was the scariest trip, I’d take. And tipping the Fresh Direct guy included a well-researched KF-94 mask.

  9. John Mc

    It’s ironic you are writing this Yves, as I have felt the exact same way for the past year.

    Was thinking about Montpellier/Beziers area in France or the Scottish highlands. Please keep writing about this issue as it reminds me of the reality of what many of us here think — US is/may well continue to deteriorate, need a new horizon.

    Imagine an island of naked capitalists :)


    1. Joe Well

      It would be fascinating to see how well-informed, realistically minded, intelligent and thoughtful people crack the nut of expat retirement, especially, visas, healthcare, and having some kind of community and connection so far from home (loneliness is the biggest killer of expats and retirees, imagine being both).

      None of that is easy to do, but if anyone can figure it out, it’s the NC commentariat.

        1. LilD

          I bet the true answer is “it depends” as there are many systems at play and diversity in utility…. Weather, culture, health care, employment…

          I’m personally interested in community (social groups; music, bridge, tennis) and clean air and weather so I’m in central California and will probably stay here, but I’m also wealthy and old so wtf

          I looked at NZ thoroughly. had an opportunity to teach at Waikato in Hamilton, so not the normal path. Kiwis are nice but drink a lot, and it’s a pretty homogeneous culture despite the Māori and islanders. Weather is good and great outdoor activities.
          Used to be able to get in on investor visa , $10million kiwi for level II but that has been closed for a while

          I have friends in Costa Rica who love it. They are young and healthy and don’t know anything about the health care system but have a yoga studio (and passive income)

          I might like Crete or Sicily (Syracuse) too. Nice lifestyle.

          Lived in Spain in high school and Iberia can work as well.

          As a US citizen you are pretty screwed tax wise anywhere.

          Any place will work for you if you have what you need to be happy

    2. LAS

      Imagine an island with a population of expat old farts trying to set up homes and infrastructure and governance, with their arthritic limbs and shuffling gaits! Good story there.

  10. Fred

    I lived in rural Texas with poor internet. If I wasn’t retired I’d probably would have to go into work. Which means I’d be one of the few engineers in the office and most of my time would be going to the shop floor to fix problems and answering questions from those who were also in the office. Probably getting poor reviews for not doing my projects on time.

  11. LawnDart

    I’ve travelled the world on my own and on the taxpayer’s dime, and I miss it (not all of it, to be sure). The best hamburger I’ve ever had was in Belgium, I fell in love and nearly jumped ship in Brazil, and drank beer with communist rebels in Asia (who, fortunately for myself, seemed to be taking the night off).

    And I’ve travelled throughout USA, met many fine individuals, and have enjoyed stays in a number of quite incredible places. But having seen a good piece of the outside world, having lived some of my life elsewhere, I know that this isn’t the place for me: despite having been born here, it can never be home, and I sure as hell don’t want to spend the rest of my days here.

    1. jim truti

      It must have been the belgian french fries not the burger itself, they have some of the best fries as they fry them twice.
      Belgium has lousy weather but an excellent quality of life, and dont start me on their beers.
      Still, If I had to chose , it would be without any doubt those typical medieval villages in the Alsace region in France, they have an extraordinary quality of life and the french living in the villages have an extraordinary way of life you will find nowhere else.

      1. BeliTsari

        My last partner was from Alzey. Better fried chicken than Mississippi, duck or tallow fat fries about the same as Belgium, Pittsburgh or Louisiana (frozen 1/4″ russet, first pass 325° F, crisping @ 375°F) Pork FAR better, altbier, wine & creampuffs about the same; but proximity to US style PX items (real Chorizo, Rapture hot sauce). Krauts, a bit more sardonic/ ironic?

      2. LawnDart

        It was the burger, although the fries were excellent.

        It was in a town called Zottenhelm (sp?), prepared by one Philip Moore, owner of (eng.) “The Blue Walk” and a festival/concert promoter. I was on a roundabout non-sensical mission to drop off fresh CDs from a blues singer from Chicago who had toured with him, and found my way there.

        Short of killing the cow while I waited, everything, everything, on my cheeseburger was hyper-local (he insisted on serving me a burger, because “American”)– greens and tomato from tgeir garden, bread and cheese from town, cow… …dunno. Locals seemed astonished I was there– “We haven’t seen an American around here in 50-years… …and most of them are burried on that hill over there…”

        I was treated like royality, offered a job, marriage and more while I was there, in a place in Europe where they still actually liked Americans. And I loved it there– great people, very chill and not too serious.

  12. tongorad

    Ex-expat here. I lived/worked 10+ years in Thailand. Wish I was still there.
    One might have to turn down the volume on customer service expectations slightly, but now that I’m back in the US for a few years, I find most things more difficult here by comparison.
    Especially health care. Routine visits to the excellent Euro-standard hospital (I was going to say western standard, but I’ve never seen such a nice medical facility in the US) were in the 1000- 2000 baht range ($30-60 dollars), including medicine, which were filled at the on-site pharmacy.
    Re paperwork, retiring in Thailand is not easy, however there is a sizable Scandinavian community in Rayong province where I lived.
    Hope to return there someday.

  13. Dave in Austin

    Two days ago it was fruitcake; today it’s expats. NC is a wonderful place to view Capitalism, naked, frolicking, ducking taxes and seeking out the best quality of life. We are what Yves’ post is all about.

    A Foreign Service Officer friend who helped handle the end in Saigon said “When the mortar shells begin to land, all the expats suddenly remember they are still patriots at heart.” You should read the book by the American Ambassador to France about the late summer of 1914, when he, a few staff and some Ivy League college boys willing to stay for a few weeks and work for free, handled “The Great Return”… in the days when you didn’t need a passport to travel, just a good Letter of Credit.

    1. vlade

      “Given that the US is becoming ever more a predatory/rentier society, and the elderly make for easy pickings, I really need to become an expat. “.

      Because clearly, Yves wants to do it so she can pay less in taxes. Right.

      And as for expats – yes, of course there were those that run.

      But say in WW1, it wasn’t only those that run, it was a few hundred Americans joining the Foreign legion, Lafayette Esccadrille, but mostly about 2500 volunteers in American Ambulance Field Service.

    1. Noone from Nowheresville

      Ex-pat to me always brought to mind someone of Western European nationality or former Empire decent. I’d go further and say that a British Empire person would be the first to flash into my mind even though I know that is inaccurate. I blame PBS, their historical recreation shows and the Victorian era empires and storytellers otherwise known as authors.

      In general, the connotation conferred to the individuals as being higher up in the food chain (adding even if they were supposedly broke; race ranking counted more than simple money although money definitely counts), to be able to freely move, maintain a certain standard of living and be accepted within their new environment by the locals.

      The word immigrant comes with a lot more baggage in the US. Based on my informal discussions, most confer that term to the people who sneak across the border with little to no skills in the modern US world. Which of course is also incorrect.

      As far as moving is concerned, I think as the Jackpot speeds up and the Covid pandemic eventually causes governments to fall, especially if this lasts a decade, means that moving will become particularly precarious even if one has been an ex-pat in places for years. People will be looking for scapegoats. Westerns who take up more resources in general won’t be welcomed the same way. And money and the status it currently confers may not hold the value that it does now. Depends on how angry the local populations gets and that’s definitely true in the US.

    2. Joe Well

      None, except legally, because in many countries there are special “non-immigrant” classes of visas and residence permits, which is a technical distinction meaning it’s easier for them to kick you out without notice.

      But in US vernacular we call you an immigrant if you decide you want to stay indefinitely and/or work regardless of visa status.

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