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8 Places to Retire in Europe: The Basics

What American retirees need to know about getting residency, property and health care

Romantic Couple
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When Vibeke Arentz and her husband, Jeff Kacirk, decided to move from the San Francisco Bay Area to the south of France four years ago, it was a chance for the couple to immerse themselves in a place that fascinated them. They have not been disappointed. 

“The culture, the history, the cuisine, the scenery, the affordability, exploring the variety of France’s many different regions, learning and speaking French, how friendly and helpful people are here and the amazing community of friends that we have developed here in such a short time are all thrilling,” says Arentz, 58.

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They bought a home in Carcassonne and converted it into three apartments, living in one and renting out the other two to supplement their retirement income. “We love exploring France and also are happy to have all of Europe just a short distance away,” she says.

While several Caribbean and Central American countries have programs specifically geared to attract U.S. retirees, older Americans are increasingly looking to relocate to Europe, according to Kathleen Peddicord, founder and publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, which produces books, newsletters and online guides on moving and doing business abroad.

These days, “Europe makes a lot more sense, as the dollar is stronger versus the euro,” she says. “The other thing is that in the past five or seven years, Europe also has begun to make residency easier.”

If you’re weighing such a move, you’ll need to know the ins and outs of establishing legal residency, buying property as a foreigner and obtaining health insurance, as Medicare generally doesn’t cover care outside the U.S. “You have to prepare, and you have to come with full knowledge of what the challenges are,” Peddicord says.

Lief Simon, Live and Invest Overseas’ real estate editor, recommends hiring an immigration lawyer in your target country, preferably one who speaks English and has worked with other Americans, “to make sure you don’t miss any steps that can end up costing you.”

You’ll want trustworthy advice on how money moves such as buying a home could affect your tax situation. “The number one thing is to talk not to your own tax guy back in the States but to find a tax guy in the country,” says Doris Speer, president of the Association of Americans Resident Overseas.

Here are the basics for establishing yourself in eight popular European destinations for American retirees.

Provence France
Plateau de Valensole, Provence, France
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France

French culture, history, fine cuisine and world-renowned wine are major attractions, as are landscapes ranging from mountains to medieval villages to glitzy beach towns.

Residency: “The best visa category for an American retiree is a long-stay visitor visa,” which is required if you plan to be in the country for more than 90 days, says Daniel Tostado, an immigration attorney in France. You’ll need to show proof of retirement income that’s at least equal to the French minimum wage, which was a little less than 20,000 euros a year in 2022, according to Expatica, a resource site for English-speaking expatriates.

The French government website has information in English about long-stay visas. One such visa, called a VLS-TS, doubles as a residence permit and is validated by French immigration authorities within your first three months in the country. With other visas, you may need to obtain a residence permit within two months of arrival at the prefecture, or government office, in the area where you live.

Buying property: There are no restrictions on foreign retirees buying property, according to the online real estate marketplace Properstar. However, obtaining a mortgage from a French bank may be complicated for Americans. 

Health care: Once you’ve established residency, you can sign up for France’s national health insurance system, L’Assurance Maladie.

Kastelorizo Greece
Kastellorizo, Dodecanese Islands, Greece
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Greece

Dotted with ancient landmarks, scenic villages and sunny islands, and boasting the longest coastline in the Mediterranean Basin, Greece offers “a Mediterranean lifestyle at a low cost,” according to Live and Invest Overseas.

Residency: Go to the nearest Greek consulate in the U.S. to apply for a long-term visa, which lets you stay in Greece for up to a year. Once in the country, you can apply for a residence permit, which requires proof of at least 2,000 euros a month in income.

Buying property: Foreigners can buy real estate. The Golden Visa program allows anyone who buys property worth more than 250,000 euros to apply for residency without having to come to Greece first.

Health care: Foreign workers who pay social insurance contributions can join the public health care system, but as a retiree, you’ll need to purchase private coverage.

Kenmare Ireland
Kenmare, Ireland
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Ireland

Many Americans feel an ancestral connection, but the Emerald Isle’s picturesque rural villages, spectacular rugged coasts and deep musical and literary traditions are draws no matter your heritage.

Residency: Ireland has financial requirements for people who want to settle there, to ensure they’ll be able to support themselves. You must provide documentation, certified by an Irish accounting firm, that shows an individual income of at least 50,000 euros per year and access to additional emergency savings, generally at least 100,000 euros.

Retirees should apply for a Stamp 0 visa. The Irish Immigration Service website has details on visa terms and procedures.

Buying property: Americans retiring to Ireland can buy property with no restrictions.

Health care: Americans who become residents are entitled to get care from Ireland’s public health system, or they can opt for private insurance.

Rome Italy
Rome, Italy
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Italy

Stylish cities, rustic villages and (of course) great food and wine are part of Italy’s charm.

Residency: Apply in person at one of the Italian consulates in the U.S. for an Elective Residence Visa. You’ll need to provide proof of annual income of at least 31,000 euros from Social Security, savings, investments, a pension or annuity, as well as a lease or rental contract for a place to live.

Buying property: Americans can buy property without restrictions in Italy.

Health care: U.S. retirees who live in Italy on an Elective Residence Visa aren’t eligible for coverage under the Italian public health system, says Arturo Grasso, an attorney based in Rome. You’ll need to obtain private insurance, which is a requirement of the visa.

Marsaxlokk Malta
Marsaxlokk, Malta
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Malta

Situated on islands in the southern Mediterranean, Malta’s scenery includes ancient fortresses and gorgeous beaches, but this tiny nation also offers a vibrant urban lifestyle.

Residency: Malta aims to attract older adults from other countries with its Malta Retirement Programme, provided that they have Social Security or another type of foreign pension and own or rent property.

You can also apply for permanent residency, which has to be renewed every five years. There’s a special program (Malta Permanent Residence Programme) that allows you to stay indefinitely if you have at least 500,000 euros in assets and are willing to rent or buy a property and meet other conditions.

Buying property: Foreigners can buy property in Malta by obtaining an Acquisition of Immovable Property permit, though you’re limited to buying a primary residence.  

Health care: Maltese and European Union citizens and asylum seekers are eligible for free care from Maltese public health centers and clinics, but Americans must obtain private insurance.

Obidos Portugal
Obidos, Portugal
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Portugal

Cosmopolitan cities, long sandy beaches, a pleasant climate and a low cost of living have made Portugal one of Europe’s most heralded retirement destinations.

Residency: Americans must apply for a residence visa to retire in Portugal, according to Gizane Campos, public relations and brand manager for Global Citizen Solutions, a U.K.-based investment and relocation firm.

The D7 visa is for retirees who are able to live off their savings and retirement income; the current minimum amount is 8,460 euros a year for an individual. (If you’re moving with a spouse, he or she must have an annual income of at least 4,230 euros.) There’s also a Golden Visa program for those who want to invest in Portugal.

Buying property: Foreigners can buy property at lower prices than in other parts of Europe and the U.S., Campos says. Purchases include a property transfer tax and plenty of other fees.

Health care: You must have proof of private insurance to apply for residency, but once you obtain it, you can register for Portugal’s national health care system, the Serviço Nacional de Saúde, according to Global Citizen Solutions. There’s also the option of sticking with private coverage.

Vilac Spain
Nerja, Spain
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Spain

Spain is renowned for its sun-drenched beaches, historic cathedrals, distinct regional cultures and cities bursting with nightlife.

Residency: Apply for a  nonworking resident visa, which allows you to live in Spain as long as you can demonstrate that you have the means to support yourself for the initial year of residence (or that you have a regular source of income) and possess health insurance from an entity authorized to operate in the country, among other requirements.

Buying property: Foreigners buy a lot of Spanish real estate. To make a purchase, it’s necessary to apply for a document called a Foreigner Identification Number (Número de Identificación del Extranjero [NIE]) and pay taxes and other fees on the transaction, according to Properstar.

Health care: Initially, you’ll need private insurance. But once you’ve lived in Spain for a year and can provide proof of that residency, you can apply to join Spain’s national health insurance system through an arrangement called the Convenio Especial. You’ll pay monthly premiums, and the rates are higher if you are over 65.

Zurich Switzerland
Zurich, Switzerland
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Switzerland

Low taxes and excellent health care complement beautiful mountains and lakes to make Switzerland an attractive retirement destination, despite a high cost of living, according to Expatica.

Residency: You have to obtain both a Swiss visa and a residence permit from the immigration office in one of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

Buying property: You do not need government authorization to buy a home you will live in, so long as you have a valid residence permit. If you buy undeveloped land, you must build a house on it within one year. Government permission is required to buy a second home or a vacation property you plan to rent out.

Health care: You’ll need to buy private insurance. Switzerland requires most residents to obtain coverage from a list of authorized Swiss insurance companies.

Expert Picks for Top 5 Places to Retire Abroad

Back view of a retiree couple getting ready to depart at an airport with backpacks and a suitcase
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Live and Invest Overseas publisher and longtime expat Kathleen Peddicord annually ranks international retirement destinations on quality-of-life factors such as cost of living, health care, recreation, infrastructure, ease of travel to the U.S. and more. Here’s her list of the five most attractive places for Americans to retire abroad in 2023.

1. Chitré, Panama

Largely undiscovered small town with city comforts and low-cost beachfront property in a stable country that uses the U.S. dollar and offers an attractive retirement visa for foreigners.

2. Tavira, Portugal

Charming coastal town in Portugal’s Algarve region, famed for its beaches, cliffs and traditional villages and still relatively inexpensive.

3. Medellín, Colombia

“One of the world’s most livable cities,” according to Peddicord, with a near-perfect climate, good public services, ample green space and cosmopolitan offerings.

4. Kyrenia, Northern Cyprus

A tourism center perched on the Mediterranean offering affordable beachfront property amid spas, casinos, resorts and a charming old harbor guarded by a castle dating to the Crusades.

5. Corozal, Belize

Caribbean coastal living at a modest cost in an “up and coming” part of English-speaking, retiree-friendly Belize, just south of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Rounding out Peddicord’s top 10 are Costa de la Luz, Spain; Oaxaca, Mexico; Paris; Sanur, Bali, Indonesia; and Da Lat, Vietnam.