Upon visiting Uruguay, and specifically Montevideo, Anthony Bourdain made the remark that this was a perfect place for American expats. It’s a rather stunning statement from a guy who confessed his desire to live in Southeast Asia should he have chosen to leave the US permanently. That episode of Parts Unknown is the reason I visited Uruguay, and though I can only personally share my experiences from time in Montevideo (as I didn’t see the rest of the country), I do want to talk about expat life here.
Let’s start with the definition of “expat.” There are two types of people who leave their home country behind. The first is the digital nomad, someone whose life and income do not depend on being in a specific place. If I were to ever totally leave the US, this would be my path. My income (both from real estate and from writing) are still tied to US dollars. My desire to get permanent residency or citizenship elsewhere (beyond my already existing German citizenship) is not strong, nor is it necessary, since I don’t need a job anywhere I would decide to go.
The second category is the true expat, someone who permanently moves to another country, and settles there, becoming part of their new society. Where the digital nomad might move from place to place, the expat has a single home, and chooses to identify with this home over his/her country of birth.
For a digital nomad, things like the exchange rate from dollars to the local currency matter more, whereas for the expat, purchase power of the local currency as related to income is more important. Ease of tourist visa matters more to the digital nomad (and even ease of extending those) while the expat values a pathway to permanent residency and possibly citizenship. Local healthcare matters more to the expat, as do availability of jobs locally, political stability, education, and housing purchase costs, while the digital nomad cares more about short-term rentals, use of English, and possibly transportation costs back to the US.
So all that being said, what makes a country a good one for expats, and does Uruguay live up to Anthony Bourdain’s high praise? I polled a Facebook group of expats living in Uruguay, and will add my own observations.
Short-term tourist visas are easy to get in Uruguay; all an American has to do is show up to be able to stay for 90 days. That can be renewed once while in-country, or indefinitely via leaving and returning for a new visa. Those do not, however, allow for work as best as I can tell. A work visa is good for 30 days and must be sponsored by an Uruguayan company, but residency can then be applied for with this income. While final approval for residency can take a while, having it in process allows one to stay, and to import one’s household goods with no tax.
Uruguay is not a cheap country by South American standards, but most Americans from major cities will find corresponding housing costs in Montevideo to be relatively affordable. (Rental apartments in Montevideo seem to be less than half of what they would be in my home of Los Angeles.) Food prices are a bit cheaper here than at home, and while gas is much more expensive, public transit in Montevideo is good and easy to use, meaning one doesn’t need a car to be in the capital. (That is also good because cars are outrageously expensive in relation to the US.) Foreign nationals can even purchase property in Uruguay before becoming permanent residents, so there isn’t even a rental necessity for expats.
For those who really see life here on a permanent basis, there are some other major perks of expat life in Uruguay. First, education is free, and all children are provided with a laptop. Healthcare is decent and affordable. The economy is stable, with good employment, and one of the highest gdp per capita (and income levels) of any South American country. The country is also politically stable, something not to be taken for granted here, with a roughly 90% voter turnout and a rising, though still not equal, share of women in the legislature.
When one adds in a moderate climate, legal abortion, separation of church and state, legal marijuana, and some of the best beef in the world, there is certainly a lot going for little Uruguay as an expat destination. My expat group poll harped on many of these things, as well as low crime rates (even in Montevideo in comparison to other Latin American capitals and major American cities), a welcoming attitude toward foreigners, and a strong network of existing expats. They also frequently referenced the slower and more relaxed pace of life.
So what did I notice in Montevideo? Infrastructure is good, public wifi is widely available, green spaces are plentiful, transportation (buses) is easy to navigate, and people are relatively friendly. The waterfront is great here, and rental prices that I found were reasonable compared to home. My grocery shopping trips were relatively affordable, and dining out was – at worst – no more expensive than in Los Angeles. It was certainly not as affordable as Buenos Aires, nor does Montevideo offer direct flights to the US, but were I to live somewhere permanently, the stability here would matter a bit more. (Remember, Argentina currently has inflation over 100%, meaning that while your dollar goes far, local wages are not keeping pace.)
It is a fascinating aspect of travel, to not only be a visitor somewhere, but to consider what living in that place would mean. As a digital nomad, some of Uruguay’s best features are less applicable to me. But as a true expat, I can’t think of many things the country lacks that would make a big impact on my life.
After ten days in Montevideo, I didn’t leave yearning to move here permanently. But I can imagine life here being good. Life in Uruguay as an expat is also achievable, with residency being easily within one’s grasp, something one can’t say about most places. Add these things up, and perhaps this truly is a wonderful place for an American to move.
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