Retiring abroad has become a reality for an increasing number of older adults looking to trade in cold weather and rising costs for a lower cost of living and a tropical paradise. There are popular expatriate communities in virtually every corner of the world, from Canada and Latin America to Europe, the South Pacific, and Asia.
The Southeast Asia region is one of the most popular. It offers an enticing blend of natural beauty, warm weather, rich culture, welcoming people, and in many cases, a lower cost of living. But how to decide where to go? Here, we take a look at some important factors to help you compare and contrast two of Southeast Asia’s most popular expat locales: the Philippines and Thailand.
Cost of Living
The cost of living for a comfortable lifestyle is a top concern for many older adults considering an overseas retirement. If you’re looking for a low cost of living with a high standard of living, you’ll find it in both the Philippines and Thailand, though one does tend to be cheaper than the other.
Expats in the Philippines can live comfortably for about $800 to $1,200 a month (more if you live in Manila’s city center), and that may include dining out, some in-country travel, and hiring someone to help with the cooking and cleaning. If you’re at least 50 years old, you qualify for one of four Special Resident Retiree’s Visas (SRRV). The SSRV Classic is for “active/healthy retirees.” To get it you need a time deposit of $10,000 and must have a monthly pension of at least $800 for a single applicant or $1,000 for a couple. If you don’t have a pension, the required deposit is $20,000; it’s $50,000 if you’re between 35 and 49 years old.
A big part of any retirement budget is housing. In the Philippines, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city center is approximately $333, according to city and country database website Numbeo.com. If you need more space, you’ll pay about $719 a month for a three-bedroom unit. Outside the city, rent drops to an average of $187 a month for a one-bedroom apartment and $370.30 for a three-bedroom unit.
Thailand is more expensive, with $2,000 a month serving as a good starting point for most expats, though your budget will vary depending on your lifestyle and preferences (true anywhere). To qualify for a long-stay visa you’ll need a minimum monthly income of 65,000 baht ($2,064 as of July 15, 2020), an account balance of at least 800,000 baht ($25,400) in a Thai bank or a combined bank account and monthly income that equals 800,000 baht per year.
As far as rent goes, you’ll probably end up paying more for housing in Thailand. According to Numbeo.com, you’re looking at an average of $476 to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the city center and $1,179.09 for a three-bedroom unit. You’ll save money if you rent outside the city center: Average rent there is $278 for one-bedroom and $625 for three bedrooms.
Many aspects of daily life are similar in both countries. Each offers rich biodiversity, natural beauty, white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water, and ample opportunities to enjoy the outdoors with activities such as golf, hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and diving, to name a few. In either country, it’s possible to find established expat communities in the middle of a large, bustling city or a quiet, scenic town—in the mountains or at the beach.
Despite many similarities, there naturally are certain contrasts between the two countries, perhaps most notably in how easy it is to communicate with the locals. If you’re not already fluent in one of the languages, you’re likely to have a much easier time in the Philippines, where English is one of two official languages, the other being Filipino (or Tagalog). The Philippines markets itself as the third-largest English-speaking country in the world, behind only the U.S. and the U.K. You’ll also find that many Filipinos speak with a clear American accent, partly because the nation was a U.S. colony for five decades.
This isn’t the case in Thailand, and you may find it difficult to have any type of conversation with the locals unless you speak Thai (or the other person happens to speak English—the exception, not the norm). According to the EF English Proficiency Index conducted by Education First Language Institute, the English abilities of Thai people are ranked 17 out of 25 Asian countries (surpassing only Sri Lanka and Myanmar) and 74 out of 100 countries worldwide. The index notes that Thailand is a non-English speaking country with “very low” English proficiency.
Visas are another difference. The Philippines is very welcoming to expats and even has a government agency dedicated to attracting foreign retirees. Once you have permanent residency you can stay in the country as long you like (your retiree visa does not expire), and you can leave and return without reapplying for residency. Expats can take advantage of a number of financial benefits too, including discounts for the 60-and-up crowd, the duty-free import of $7,000 worth of household goods and immunity from airport travel taxes. Expat residents are also allowed to work or start businesses.
You can get a retirement visa in Thailand, but you’ll have to jump through a few hoops to do so. You’ll also have to notify the immigration office every 90 days regarding your address—either by checking in with your local immigration office (or with the local police station in areas without one), by mail or by hiring an agent who can act on your behalf through a power of attorney. If you don’t get a retirement visa for one reason or another, you can get a one-year multiple-entry visa, extendable for three months on or before its one-year expiration date. Unlike with a retirement visa, you’ll need to exit and re-enter Thailand every 90 days.
While the big differences likely to affect expat retirees are the language situation and immigration procedures, it’s worth noting a couple of other considerations. One is the food. Thailand is home to one of the world’s most popular cuisines, which is based on pairing opposite tastes: chili paste with coconut milk, palm sugar with lime juice, and sweet noodles with a salty crunch. While considered good, Filipino cuisine is generally less noteworthy.
Another consideration is healthcare. You can expect reasonably good, affordable healthcare in the Philippines if you are in Manila, but it may be a different story outside the city. The U.S. embassy in Manila notes that “hospitals in and around Manila often offer high-quality medical care. Many hospitals outside major urban areas may offer only basic medical care in rudimentary conditions. It is wise to evaluate the standards of medical care at a hospital before contemplating a medical procedure.”
The healthcare system in Thailand, on the other hand, is considered excellent, and you can find at least one private hospital in most major provinces (popular tourist areas have more). Thailand is one of Asia’s leading medical tourism destinations, and English-speaking practitioners and quality health care can be found both inside and outside of Bangkok.
The Bottom Line
The Philippines and Thailand each offer a good quality of life, a low cost of living, beautiful scenery and many activities to keep you busy during retirement. Ultimately, the choice between the two is a very personal one, depending on your lifestyle, preference, and comfort. As with retiring abroad anywhere, it can be a good idea to give a country a “trial run” first—such as spending six to 12 months there—to make sure you’ll be happy over the long term in retirement.
U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad are encouraged to enroll in the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which provides security updates and makes it easier for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to contact you and/or your family in case of an emergency.
You are also encouraged to check the U.S. Department of State’s travel warnings and alerts prior to and while you are traveling overseas.