The Perfect Life for International People? What Surveys Reveal about Life Abroad

Wish you were here?
Wish you were here?

Today’s post is from Margit Grobbel of InterNations

Back in middle school, my classmates and I used to make up a game called “Anywhere but here” to while away the time during cover lessons and study hall. It involved closing your eyes, flicking through an atlas, and randomly pointing your finger at a map. Then you had to invent an elaborate story about your life in wherever you would end up.

Obviously, most adults contemplating a move abroad would want to make a more informed decision. Expat surveys and country rankings are a handy way of comparing potential destinations and getting an idea of what the quality of life, cost of living, etc., is like. But can such surveys actually tell us where life is best for expatriates?

As the world’s largest online community for expatriates, we kicked off the Expat insider Survey 2014 to gain insights into what daily life abroad is like for our international member base. We were particularly interested in seeing how satisfied they are with their respective destination.

A pivotal part of the survey report consists of a comprehensive country ranking, based on participants’ ratings of various factors, from leisure options to childcare costs. However, once we finished analyzing the data and compiling the ranking, some results rather surprised us, sparking heated discussions on our social media channels as well.

The highest-ranking expat destination on our overall index turned out to be Ecuador. The third place went to Mexico, ahead of such presumed favorites as Switzerland, Singapore, or Australia.

At the InterNations office, we hadn’t really given much thought to Ecuador, beyond its great reputation among trekking enthusiasts and wildlife watchers. As for Mexico, we were aware of local issues with personal safety, violence, and the impact of organized crime.

Such seemingly counter-intuitive results prompted us to take a closer look at our data. The areas where Mexico (or Ecuador, for that matter) do particularly well mainly include the “soft” topics featured in our ratings: how welcoming a country and its culture feel to new arrivals, how friendly the people are, or how easy it is to make new friends abroad.

When it comes to the “hard” facts, like working hours or medical care, our respondents’ subjective ratings are less strikingly different from what objective statistics would suggest. Let’s take just one example:

We asked the participants to judge the quality of education in their current country of residence. In this category, Mexico ranks 20th out of 34 countries altogether. If we counted only the OECD member states in this rating, Mexico would rank 15th out of 21.

The OECD Better Life Index, on the other hand, uses several statistical sources to assess the quality of education: the number of years spent in education, the percentage of the population that has completed upper secondary school, and the PISA test results.

Here Mexico sadly comes last out of 36 countries. If we included just the OECD member states also featured in the Expat Insider ranking for quality of education, Mexico would still be last out of 21 destinations.

The subjective assessment in our survey is thus somewhat better than what the statistics suggest. However, our survey population is not representative of the average Mexican citizen.

Our data for Mexico reveal that expat parents are very likely to have an academic degree themselves and to send their children to private schools. It might be reasonable to assume that socioeconomic factors could compensate for some potential disadvantages when it comes to the quality of education, or the quality of life in general.

What really boosted the overall ranking of both Mexico and Ecuador, though, was the respondents’ high personal satisfaction with life abroad. Its impact is partially a methodological issue, as this question was assigned disproportionate weight in the factors contributing to the country ranking.

Interestingly, however, this observation also tallies with life satisfaction in the OECD Better Life Index. Though Mexico doesn’t perform particularly well in areas like safety or income, its life satisfaction score of 7.4 out of 10 puts it among the top 10, on a par with Australia, Sweden, or the Netherlands.

While we can’t explain the somewhat baffling contrast in the OECD index, we can hazard a guess as to why our expat respondents in Mexico might be so happy.

Our survey population in Mexico skews rather differently from the global average with regard to various characteristics. They are noticeably older than the average respondent (by about five years), and they include a disproportionate number of US nationals.

Moreover, there’s a high percentage of people with dual citizenship, who are Mexican due to family background, marriage, or naturalization. Over 80% of respondents also state that they have at least fairly good Spanish skills. Factors like these would mitigate the impact of culture shock and the potential sources of frustration with living abroad.

We have used a fairly broad definition of “expat” that includes people from all walks of life who have chosen to live and/or work abroad. In Mexico, the “typical” expat (a senior employee or manager on a foreign assignment) is actually rare among our survey respondents. They rather feature a fairly high quota of retirees, teachers, or expats in various forms of self-employment. Their choice of destination was probably not subordinate to the demands of their career.

When we look at the reasons they give for moving to Mexico, these imply a certain degree of personal freedom as well. Participants say that they enjoy living abroad in general or that they were looking for a place with a lower cost of living; that they have always wanted to live in Mexico, or even that they moved for love.

Therefore, it’s not all that surprising that four in ten respondents in Mexico consider staying forever, compared to a global average of one in four.

This case study leads us back to our original question: Do expat surveys tell us where life is perfect for expatriates? Maybe they tell us it’s time to rephrase the question: Where is life abroad perfect for whom?

Useful links

OECD Better Life Index

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2 comments to “The Perfect Life for International People? What Surveys Reveal about Life Abroad”

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  1. Allan - 05/11/2014 Reply

    Interesting article! I am quite intrigued that Mexico and Ecuador topped the survey results. My favourite would be probably be Canada or Switzerland or maybe even somewhere in the UAE. Taking away all the variables that surveys uphold, I think a survey based on personal experiences could give a whole different result. Also, I would of though life satisfaction and income would have a direct correlation with the overall top ‘happiest’ place to live abroad. Thanks!

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