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The sixth cheapest city, Phnom Penh, Photo: Ronan Crowley, Feature Photo: Tracy O

MatadorU graduate Megan Wood considers stretching the freelancer budget by moving to one the 10 least expensive international cities for expats.

I’m writing on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. I share a two-bedroom walk-up apartment with windows that won’t close tight and a light switch I have to secure down with tape to turn off. My rent is shockingly high. Worse, when I leave my overpriced apartment, I am tempted to visit all of the trendy, expensive bars and shops in the neighborhood.

Last year I was living rent free in rural Paraguay, essentially in a tree fort that I lovingly referred to as the “crap shack.” I had no potable water, toilet, sink, or heat. Cows roamed through my yard and rain leaked through the straw roof. If I felt like walking two hours to the nearest town, I could choose to patronize the whorehouse bar or one grocery store that occasionally stocked Pringles.

Xpatulator is a website that publishes a list of 300 international cities and ranks them quarterly by cost of living.

Next year, I need to get smart. I should move to one of the ten cheapest international cities in the world, somewhere I can afford a decent apartment and lifestyle at an even better price.

Xpatulator is a website that publishes a list of 300 international cities and ranks them quarterly by cost of living. Thirteen different categories are compared, including the cost of food, housing, recreation, education, and medical care. Hardship level measures how ‘difficult’ it is for an expat to live somewhere.

Here are the 10 cheapest international cities in the world, according to Xpatulator’s first quarterly report in 2011.

[Editor's Note: If considering moving to Tunis or Tripoli, be sure to keep up with current events and changes on the national political scene. These changes may directly affect cost of living and personal security.]
10. Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Dushanbe means “Monday” in Tajik, named after a popular Monday marketplace. The capital city has good access to mountain climbing and mountain biking opportunities in the Pamir Mountains. Mild winters might help ease the 40% hardship index. Groceries and housing are extra affordable, but the city’s nightlife is not up to Western standards and more expensive than other cities on the list.

Kampala, Photo: Cristoffer Crussell

9. Kampala, Uganda

English is widely spoken in Kampala, but there are opportunities to learn Swahili, which is the official language. Kampala is home to many NGOs, and therefore has a well-established expat scene. Kampala is a convenient base for activities like rafting the Nile River, going on safari and visiting chimpanzee sanctuaries.

8. Tunis, Tunisia

Olive oil, carpets, and the Mediterranean – must be North Africa. Tunis doesn’t have much in the way of beaches, but it makes a great jump-off point for Carthage.

There seems to be less hassle of foreigners here than in Morocco, but remember that anyone acting too friendly may want something from you. Ladies, don’t go to bars without a male, you may be mistaken for a prostitute.

7. La Paz, Bolivia

Matador Trips editor Hal Amen writes of La Paz: higher elevation = less money. 3,660 meters above sea level and the lowest GDP in South America – Bolivia has an overall low cost of living index.

Bolivia is the place to experience one of the world’s most dangerous roads, the altiplano, and the Southern Circuit.

Read Hal’s 7 Facts of Expat Life in Bolivia for more information.

6. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Southeast Asia has several factors that make it a draw for expats: warm water, delicious food, friendly locals, and low cost of living. Well, at least it’s still cheap to live in Phnom Penh even if neighboring countries’ capitals are a bit pricier.

Monsoons and corruption are both drawbacks, but transportation is ultra affordable, and so is healthcare. One American expat lives in Phnom Penh on two dollars a day.

Colombo, Photo: BriYYZ

5. Colombo, Sri Lanka

Living on an island tends to be expensive, but Sri Lanka is an exception. Housing is ultra affordable and there is an established community of expats. Alcohol is cheap, but if drinking makes you affectionate, be careful, public displays of hugging and kissing are culturally unacceptable.

If you’re thinking of visiting or moving to Colombo, check out Matadorian Dominic DeGrazier’s 9 Reasons Other Than Cheap Booze to Visit Sri Lanka.

4. Bhutan, Thimpu

I find it interesting that a country whose leadership has declared it is more concerned with Gross National Happiness than its Gross National Product would appear on this list; Thimpu has some of the of the cheapest housing and recreation options for expats.

To control tourism and protect the environment, Thimphu charges tourists a fee of $200 a day to enjoy Bhutan. Word is, that has been reduced to a government tax of $100 a day. But as an expat you wouldn’t be required to abide by tourist rules.

Adventure tours are starting to pop up which include mountain biking, rafting, hot springs, and trekking. Just thinking about moving to Thimpu makes me happy.

3. Tripoli, Libya

Although Tripoli is rated with an extreme hardship level of 40%, it’s ranked at number three for having low prices on entertainment, housing, and recreation. This seaport is the largest city in Libya and still largely unaffected by mass-tourism.

Here, you can learn Arabic, swim in the Mediterranean, and climb the still-standing city walls for the best views. Most jobs for expats in Tripoli are in the oil and gas industry.

2. Nuku’Alofa, Tonga

Nuku’Alofa has the cheapest hotels and restaurants on the list, but it’s another 40% hardship location. Now I’m going to throw out some persuasive verbs: snorkeling, surfing, dancing. And now some nouns: rainforest, coral, markets.
Nuku’Alofa is small enough to walk around. English is widely spoken.

Sana’a, Photo: Tom Volger

1. Sana’a, Yemen

The cheapest place to live on Xpatluator’s list is Sana’a. This Yemeni city has the cheapest food, cheapest housing, cheapest furniture, and cheapest medical care of all the 282 cities ranked. UNESCO has named the whole place a World Heritage Site. Sana’a is also one of the best places in the world to learn Arabic.

For more on living in Sana’a, read Matadorian Baxter Jackson’s Dreaming in Arabic, Learning in Yemen.

I’m thinking about finding a subletter and moving to Tonga. What about you?

Community Connection

Have you lived in any of these cities? Would you consider moving to any of them to cut down on your cost of living?

About The Author

Megan Wood

Megan Wood is a freelance travel writer and full-time free spirit. She has visited five continents and is currently writing a travel memoir about her time in the Peace Corps. Read her blog, My Bohemian Life, for her thoughts on travel, culture, and living without fear.

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  • timselec

    My dear Megan

    I agree with you but there are some holes to your list.
    Mainly Americans are not welcome in at least 4 of your destinations.
    Even in Cambodia you can not live on 2 dollars a day (been there tried that) and
    also you need to leave again unless you settle down there which opens up a new can of worms.
    As a writer we need to get paid better instead selling every piece we write
    for $10 no wonder nobody can make a living out off that.
    The pasture is always greener on the other side.

    • http://grantourismotravels.com/ lara dunston

      Expats live in a country because they are working there – it’s the job that takes them there and with it the benefits of a residence visa, salary, health insurance, etc. If this list is aimed at future expats then it needs to consider taxes (or lack of them) and perks, etc, because sometimes they make a mid-level city just as good a deal as the cheaper cities.

      • Megan Wood

        Good point Lara. You’re absolutely right, but taxes and perks were not included in the Xpatulators criteria because taxes and perks vary from job to job.

        • http://grantourismotravels.com/ lara dunston

          That’s why I think the calculator is flawed, because taxes and perks are major considerations for many when choosing where to move.

          Taxes and perks also vary by country, eg. Arabian Gulf countries such as the UAE are tax-free and perks, such as free housing and health insurance come with all good job packages, such as government jobs. Singapore has a low-income tax, and so on.

          Fun idea for a post though.

          • Heather Carreiro

            Good point about taxes and benefits Lara. Interestingly I just checked back at Xpatulator and the site has up a new article on calculating hypothetical tax (hypotax) for expats.

            While looking at the overall cost of living index may not as useful for potential expats, I’ve definitely found the site’s rankings for the separate ‘basket groups’ (rent, food, nightlife) to be useful when comparing different possible destinations prior to interviewing.

    • Megan Wood

      I agree, you can’t have an American lifestyle anywhere in the world for $2 a day. It is possible to feed, shelter and clothe yourself for that amount however. Thanks for commenting.

    • Megan Wood

      Also, this list is not written exclusively for Americans. There are lots of global citizens who are looking for new, affordable places to live and work.

  • http://www.sophiesworld.net Sophie

    So many exciting cities here and I want to see all of them, old and new. Though not Nuku’alofa. Been there and I’m sad to say, I found it to be one of the dullest places in the Pacific.

    • Megan Wood

      Bummer Sophie! I thought Nuku’alofa sounded really exciting. Thanks for the advice.

  • Jamison

    Sri Lanka looks intriguing

  • http://www.thecandytrail.com/ the candy trail … | Michael Robert Powell

    I assume you meant “cheapest capital cities” as there are hundreds of cheaper cities within dozens of countries including Indonesia, India, Peru, Colombia, etc.

    Sanaa is my personal fav, for atmosphere … but even a beer here is a mission to find (and it’s illegal; expensive).

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

  • http://annemerritt.blogspot.com Anne

    I really liked your introduction for presenting the two extremes of outrageously pricey Manhattan and the free but isolating Paraguay shack. I love big cities, but the cost of living, especially in North America or Europe, is just too steep.

    Well done on this list, for showing that urban-inclined expats have lots of options. Sana’a looks especially beautiful!

    • Megan Wood

      Glad you’re feeling inspired Anne. Be sure to let us know how Sana’a is…

  • Rocco

    Sweet, let’s move to Tripoli! Sign me up.

  • http://www.theinternationalstudentrecruiter.com Jessica Guiver

    Great article – thanks for the tips. I’ve only been to a few of these places, but want to see them all now! Sri Lanka is an all-time favorite of mine, and I’d recommend it to everyone.
    I feel like sub-letting my place and moving now, too…

  • http://www.europealacarte.co.uk/blog Karen Bryan

    You can’t be serious about going to live in Libya. Cheapness is not the only factor to consider.

    • Megan Wood

      Karen, this story was filed right before things got out of hand. Please check out the editor’s note and know that safety is always first priority.

    • Heather Carreiro

      Valid point – cost of living isn’t the only factor to consider when moving abroad, but this article is solely about cost of living and Tripoli did rank in the 10 cheapest cities for expats at the time of writing.

  • Pingback: This Week on the Web w/e March 11th | The Dame

  • journeyoflife

    It would be useful to have some details of entry requirements and eligibility criteria for being allowed to move to and work in another country. You can not just fly out to these places, rent an apartment for a year or two and set yourself up as a freelance writer.

    • Megan Wood

      That would be useful information, you’re right. Maybe we should do a follow up article, a How To Guide on setting up as a freelance writer in a foreign country. Great idea!

    • http://grantourismotravels.com/ lara dunston

      In the vast majority of countries, you simply can’t go and just set yourself up as a freelance writer and live there as an expat. You have to have a residence visa or work visa, complicated things to get. Sure, for countries such as Thailand with 30-day visas (60 days in some cases), you can probably get by for a while, doing visa runs every month or two. But living in a place for a few months does not make a person an expat.

      Expats usually line up jobs and sign contracts before they’ve even set eyes on the place they’ve moving to. You’ll find that – unless you buy property (a common means to getting residence visas) or sign up for a university degree or language course (for a student visa) – there are probably only a handful of countries where you can live as an expat and work legitimately as a freelance writer.

      (Trust me on this, I’ve been travelling the world constantly working as a full-time travel writer with my photographer-husband for the last 5 years, and my base since 1998 has actually been the UAE; Abu Dhabi, then Dubai. I also write on expat life.)

      • Heather Carreiro

        “There are probably only a handful of countries where you can live as an expat and work legitimately as a freelance writer.” – Very true, since freelancing isn’t likely to get anyone a visa. I know a lot of expat writers who have other jobs, such as teaching or working with NGOs, that do provide visas. Either that, or their spouses have full-time jobs that provide visas for the whole family.

  • http://www.ivorypomegranate.com Kirstin

    This was an interesting article, especially since I’m living in what is probably a close contender for the top ten, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I moved here because I knew it would be cheap (and if anybody is considering a big move to Central Asia, I’ve heard real estate is tougher to find in Dushanbe, and visas are easier to get in Kyrgyzstan!) and because I could find ways to supplement my income while working to set up my own business. In Bishkek, I have a studio apartment for $250 a month that’s just a bit smaller than the one I was renting in DC for $1450.

    But I do agree that it’s tough to rank cities in this way depending on everybody’s unique situations; I have to deal with my own visa issues, no health insurance, and I make the same income in a month here that I’d probably make in a week back home, but I know plenty of expats getting the “hardship” bonus, living in top-floor luxury apartments they don’t have to pay for.

    • http://www.ivorypomegranate.com Kirstin

      Wow! This site is actually really helpful and definitely demonstrates why you need to do serious research before you up and move to a “cheap” city. Bishkek is ranked 299 out of 300 for groceries and 2 out of 300 for personal care. AKA, it makes sense why I’m gaining weight and my hair looks sadly neglected.

  • http://roadslesstraveledphotography.com/ Matt

    Well, I guess for a website that ranks only 300 places, there’s going to be many places left out. I’ve spent quite a few years in Ukraine, and a week or two in places like Turkey, Belize, and Egypt and have come across a number of places that would likely rank well among these 300. But you if must live in the biggest city in a given country, or the capital of that country, I guess this is as good a place to start as any.

    Well, if you’re curious about any of the places I mentioned, just click my name to go to my photo website.

  • http://nitinbothraphotography.blogspot.com Nitin Bothra

    Hii Megan

    I am passionate about travelling and i travel a lot in my own country.But i want to travel abroad in some of the most interesting places to meet those interesting cultures and people…But funding is low as i am a student and that too in India so can you guide me how should i proceed and what job should i take so that i can full-fill my dream

    • Megan Wood

      Hi Nitin,

      It’s great that you’re passionate about traveling. I think that funding travel, especially for students, is a huge obstacle, but it can be overcome if you’re willing to be creative and work hard. One great resource is WWOOF, check out http://matadornetwork.com/change/a-first-timers-gudie-to-wwoof-ing for more advice. Best of luck and keep traveling…

  • http://nomadnitin.wordpress.com/ Nitin Bothra

    Thanx Megan….but i really don’t know any farming…I am good at photography and mechanical engineering stuff which i am studying present.I have just started a bog on my travel experiences too.So any job or internship related to travel writing or travel photography if you any of these do let me know……

    Thanx again for replying.

  • Sonia Naidu

    Hi Megan,

    Nice article. Just wondering: did you possibly get Thimphu (city) and Bhutan (country) mixed-up? The heading order and description underneath led me to wonder…

  • http://www.travellingcorner.com/ Nina

    Yemen was on my list for 2011 but i didnt have the yourage due to protests to vist at the end. What about Thailand?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1084252316 Allan Chin

    Megan,

    If you had come to the Lower East Side 40 years ago, it would have made it to the 10 cheapest cities in the world to live. I grew up there back then, and you couldn’t give the apartments away. Now people are clamoring to pay, or are being charged, outrageous amounts for the same old crap we were running away from way back when…

  • http://carseatcoversforgirls.us/ Keith Taylor

    The mountain biking around Dushanbe isn’t as convenient as you might think.  It’s a long drive on hairy roads from the capital before you hit the mountains proper, and if you’re planning on cycling in the mountains you’d better bring a truck-proof helmet (and a separate visa for the GBAO).  Nice city though.

    Phnom Penh, on the other hand, is a joy.  I know a few expats there who pay $200 rent each month for three storey townhouses with roof gardens.  I pay the same in Bangkok for a small studio apartment with a balcony crowded with angry, angry cockroaches.

  • http://locationliberated.com/ Adam Dudley

    You compare the Lower East Side to rural Paraguay. I don’t think it’s necessary to go from one extreme to the other. How about finding a place to live overseas that’s more mid-range on a cost-of-living basis? For example, my wife and I found that the cost-of-living in Berlin, Germany was comprable (and sometimes less expensive) than living in Orlando, Florida.

    Here’s why.For one thing, we didn’t need a car because Berlin’s public transportation system is so awesome. Second, inexpensive and delicious street food is abundant in Berlin whereas it is not in Orlando. Third, in 2011 we rented a rockstar apartment in one of the trendiest districts in Berlin for 30% less than what we would pay for a comprable apartment in Orlando…and…Berlin has much, much, much more to offer in terms of dining, drinking, and entertainment options.So, there are mid-range options to consider. No need to sacrifice all modern conveniences and make such a severe change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001637961269 Kathy Conner

    About Tonga, don’t forget the religious fervor. We were on vacation there, and my husband walked out to the dock to fish.  After a little bit, the manager walked out and asked if he would mind NOT fishing today.  It was Sunday, you see, and although he tried to get the employees to understand that fishing was not Work, they were getting extremely upset that he was “breaking the Lord’s Law”.  As the manager was a New Zealander, and was obviously embarrassed, my husband put down the pole.  Then he noticed all the people who had been watching him!

  • Nicole

    While Sana’a might be cheap to live in, its government is very corrupt and tensions often run high. I live there for six months and experienced multiple protests, horrendous medical care, a plethora of shanty towns, and a lot of negativity. Many folks there are very anti-American and European (unless one is German). They have a lot of hate for anyone of African or Asian heritage as well.

  • Awais Raisani

    nice

  • Aubrey Vail

    Philippines should be one of these.

    • Kiarash Jahanpour

      No ate/ Philippines r not cheap!! when you compare it with Europe or usa its cheap but i was in some of these countries in this list, the cost of living in theses countries less than one third of Philippines. for example one k/g chicken in Tajikistan is 50 peso but in philippines is 120peso!!

  • Deborah Doyle

    Megan, Did you work for the Peace Corps, or were you a volunteer?

  • Ashok Gupta

    hello

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