The Best and Worst Places to Feel at Home Abroad
- #1 Mexico and #3 Costa Rica are great places for finding friends.
- Expats in #2 Malaysia find it easy to get by without local language skills.
- #59 Kuwait, #58 Japan, and #57 Denmark rank at the bottom of the index.
- In Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, finding friends is particularly challenging.
- Mexico, Malaysia, and Portugal are the countries where expats feel most at home.
- The language barrier is particularly high in Hungary and Russia.
The Top 10
In total, 59 countries and territories have made it into the ranking of the Expat Insider 2021 survey, with a minimum of 50 respondents per destination. The Ease of Settling In Index consists of four subcategories: Feeling at Home, Finding Friends, Friendliness, and Language. Survey respondents rated various factors in each subcategory on a scale from one (very bad) to seven (very good).
Mexico: A Great Place for Friendships
Since 2014, when the Expat Insider survey was first conducted, Mexico has consistently showed great results and ranked in the top 3 of the Ease of Settling In Index. This trend continues in 2021, as Mexico occupies first place in the index (and ranks second in the survey overall). The country shows great performances across all subcategories, ranking first for Feeling at Home and Finding Friends. In fact, 91% of respondents in Mexico agree that it is easy to get used to the local culture (vs. 65% globally), and 85%, respectively, feel at home in the local culture (vs. 63% globally) and find it easy to settle down in Mexico (vs. 62% globally). Seven in nine (78%) agree that it is easy to make local friends there (vs. 44% globally), and 77% believe that it is generally easy to find new friends, compared to a global average of 48%.
In the Friendliness subcategory, Mexico ranks second. Over nine in ten expats (92%) agree that people in the country are generally friendly towards foreign residents — 50% even agree completely, twice the global average of 25%. Eight in nine (89%) are also happy with the general friendliness of the population, 20 percentage points more than the global average of 69%. “I have found the Mexican people to be very hospitable. If you make the effort to learn the language, life is even better,” one US American expat points out.
I have found the Mexican people to be very hospitable.
While 73% of expats in Mexico agree that the local language is easy to learn — versus only 39% globally — only a little over half (52%) find it easy to live in the country without local language skills (vs. 54% globally). Mexico only ranks 35th for this factor. Still, 51% say that they speak the local language at least fairly well, and for an additional 17%, Spanish is also their native language.
Malaysia: Getting By without Local Language Skills
Malaysia ranks second in the Ease of Settling In Index and fourth overall. The country has consistently placed in the top 10 of the index since 2017 and makes it to the top 5 in three of the four subcategories.
More than four in nine expats in Malaysia (45%) agree that the local language is easy to learn (vs. 39% globally). At the same time, 92% find it easy to live there without local language skills — 55% even agree completely (vs. a global 54% and 21%, respectively). One reason for this could be the fact that, due to Malaysia’s colonial past, English is widely spoken across the country. Over a quarter (27%) even say that they don’t speak the native language, Malay, at all.
When it comes to Feeling at Home, Malaysia ranks third. In fact, 80% of expats in the country find it easy to get used to the local culture, 36% even very much so (vs. a global 65% and 21%, respectively). Around three-quarters find it easy to settle down in Malaysia (77%) and feel at home in the local culture (74%), compared to a global average of 62% and 63%, respectively. “It is easy to live here,” says an expat from the USA, “and the people are wonderful.”
The people in Malaysia are wonderful.
Survey respondents in the country also find it easy to make local friends: 63% say as much (vs. 44% globally) and a quarter (25%) even agrees completely. Close to two-thirds (66%) believe that it’s generally easy to find new friends in Malaysia (vs. 48% globally), whether they are fellow expats or locals. “Making friends here is not difficult,” an expat from India explains. “You meet a lot of honest people here.”
Although Malaysia does not rank in the top 10 of the Friendliness subcategory — the country places 15th — 82% rate the general friendliness of the population positively (vs. 69% globally). Close to four in five expats (79%) also agree that people in Malaysia are generally friendly towards foreign residents (vs. 67% globally).
Costa Rica: A Friendly Population
Costa Rica has consistently ranked in the top 10 of the Ease of Settling In Index since 2014 and occupies third place, both in the index and in the overall ranking, in 2021. Expats in Costa Rica find it generally easy to make new friends there — 65% say as much — and 70% agree that it is easy to make Costa Rican friends (vs. 44% globally). Another perk of living in the Central American country is the general friendliness of the population: 91% rate this factor positively, and more than half (52%) give it the best possible rating (vs. a global 69% and 28%, respectively).
According to 82% of expats living in Costa Rica, it is easy to get used to the local culture (vs. 65% globally), and four in five (80%) feel at home in the local culture (vs. 63% globally). Unsurprisingly, 77% find it easy to settle down in Costa Rica — 32% even very much so (vs. a global average of 62% and 23%, respectively).
Nearly seven in ten (69%) find the local language easy to learn, compared to a global average of 39%. The same share (69%) agree that it is easy to live in Costa Rica without local language skills (vs. 54% globally). However, only 2% of the survey respondents in Costa Rica don’t speak the local language at all. In fact, half (50%) say that they speak the local language very or fairly well, and for another 14%, Spanish is their mother tongue.
The Bottom 3: Where Expats Don’t Feel at Home
Kuwait (59th), Japan (58th), and Denmark (57th) rank at the bottom of the Ease of Settling In Index. Kuwait has consistently been in the bottom 3 of the index since 2014 and also ranks last in the overall ranking in 2021. The country yields particularly poor results in the Feeling at Home (59th) and Friendliness (59th) subcategories. Close to half of the expats in Kuwait (46%) do not feel at home in the local culture (vs. 20% globally). More than double the global average (37% vs. 18%) find it difficult to get used to the local culture, and 45% disagree that it is easy to settle down in Kuwait (vs. 22% globally). “There are no equal opportunities between locals and expats,” says one expat from the US. Over one-third of expats in Kuwait (36%) also rate the general friendliness of the population negatively, and 44% find that people in Kuwait are unfriendly towards foreign residents (vs. a global average of 16% and 18%, respectively).
Although Japan has not always ranked in the bottom 10 of the Ease of Settling In Index, it has received poor results in this index since 2014. The country ranks last in the Language subcategory, with 71% of expats finding Japanese difficult to learn. Five in nine (56%) disagree that it is easy to live in Japan without local language skills (vs. 29% globally). “If you don't speak/read/write Japanese, it's a bit harder to navigate here,” an expat from the USA admits. About a third do not find it easy to get used to (34%) or feel at home in the local culture (32%). Generally, 43% struggle to settle down in Japan, 16% even very much so (vs. 22% and 6%, globally). “Expats are treated fine,” a survey respondent from the USA shares, “but they are never looked at as part of the Japanese community.”
While Denmark has consistently ranked in the bottom 10 of the Ease of Settling In Index since 2014, the country doesn’t do quite as poorly overall, ranking 37th out of 59 destinations. Just under three in five expats in Denmark (58%) disagree that it is easy to find new friends in the country (vs. 32% globally), and 66% struggle to make local friends there, 30 percentage points more than the global average of 36%. Just 46% rate the general friendliness of the population positively, compared to 69% globally. Two in five expats (40%) do not find people in Denmark to be friendly towards foreign residents (vs. 18% globally). A survey respondent from Mongolia agrees that “it is very hard to get into the network of the locals. I don’t have any local friends outside of work.”
A Closer Look at the Subcategories
Portugal joins Mexico (1st) and Malaysia (3rd) in the top 3 of the Feeling at Home subcategory, where it ranks second. Over four in five expats in Portugal find it easy to feel at home in (83%) and get used to (82%) the local culture, and don’t struggle with settling down in the country (84%). “Overall, it has all you need!”, an expat from South Africa says about Portugal. It’s a different story for expats in Sweden: less than half (47%) find it easy to feel at home in the local culture, and more than a third (34%) struggle to get used to it. The Nordic country ranks 57th, occupying the bottom 3 of the subcategory alongside Japan and Kuwait.
Just like Mexico (1st) and Costa Rica (2nd), Colombia is a great place for Finding Friends, ranking third in this subcategory. Seven in ten expats (70%) find it easy to make local friends in Colombia (vs. 44% globally), and 65% agree that finding friends in general is easy there (vs. 48% globally). One survey respondent from the UK praises “the friendliness of the people who genuinely care”. The bottom of the Finding Friends subcategory is occupied by the Scandinavian countries Sweden (59th), Denmark (58th), and Norway (57th). As in Denmark, the majority of expats in Sweden (60%) and Norway (54%) thinks that it is difficult to find new friends. Just under five in eight expats (62%) disagree that it’s easy to make local friends in Sweden, and 59% say the same about Norway (vs. 36% globally). In fact, around half of the survey respondents in these countries (49% in Sweden and 48% in Norway) say that their friends are mostly other expats. “The local culture can be tough,” says one expat from Guatemala about Sweden, “with many unwritten rules and Swedes being notorious for being very reserved.” And a Colombian survey respondent in Norway says that “making local friends is almost impossible. People are kind and nice, but very closed.”
People in Norway are kind and nice, but very closed.
Taiwan ranks first for Friendliness, closely followed by Mexico and Costa Rica. In fact, 96% of expats in Taiwan rate the general friendliness of the population positively, compared to a global average of 69%. The same share (96%) agrees that people in Taiwan are generally friendly towards foreign residents, and 54% even agree completely (vs. a global average of 67% and 25% respectively). “Taiwanese citizens make me feel at home,” an expat from France points out. “I don’t feel like a foreigner here.” In the bottom 3 of the subcategory, Austria (58th) joins Denmark (57th) and Kuwait (59th). Nearly three in eight expats in Austria (37%) rate the general friendliness of the local population negatively (vs. 16% globally), and the same percentage (37%) find people in Austria to be generally not friendly towards foreign residents (vs. 18% globally). “Austrians take a long time to warm up to you,” says a British expat, and a survey respondent from Turkey agrees that “socializing with the locals is not easy”.
After Malaysia (1st), Singapore (2nd) and Kenya (3rd) rank in the top 3 of the Language subcategory. Nearly five in nine expats in Singapore (54%) agree that learning the local language is easy and 45% in Kenya say the same. In both countries, the majority of expats finds it easy to live there without local language skills — 77% in both Singapore and Kenya say as much. This might be due to the fact that English, which is also the language of the Expat Insider survey, has an official status in both Singapore and Kenya. The situation is a different one in Hungary (57th) and Russia (58th), which join Japan (59th) in the bottom 3 of the subcategory. Two-thirds of expats in Russia (67%) struggle to learn the local language, and the same is true for 88% of expats in Hungary (vs. 42% globally). “If there is a difficult language to learn in the world, it is Hungarian,” one expat from Venezuela says. Close to half (48%) find it difficult to live in Russia without local language skills, and 32% of expats in Hungary struggle with the same factor (vs. 29% globally).
If there is a difficult language to learn, it is Hungarian.
Trends in the Top & Bottom 10
There are four Latin American countries, Mexico (1st), Costa Rica (3rd), Colombia (4th), and Ecuador (10th), in the top 10 of the Ease of Settling In Index. Colombia seems to be a great place for expats to find friends — the country ranks third in the respective subcategory — and it occupies fifth place in the Friendliness subcategory, while Ecuador ranks sixth for Feeling at Home. Although expats in these destinations mostly agree that the local language is easy to learn, opinions differ on how easy it is to get by without local language skills: Costa Rica’s 27th place is the best result for this factor.
With Bahrain (5th) and Oman (6th), two Middle Eastern countries can be found in the top 10 of the Ease of Settling In Index as well. They show good results across all factors of the index. Bahrain does particularly well in the Language subcategory, where the country ranks sixth, while Oman yields positive results in the Friendliness subcategory, where it ranks fourth.
Next to Malaysia (2nd), two other Asian countries join the top 10 of the Ease of Settling In Index: the Philippines (7th) and Indonesia (8th). With good to great results across nearly all factors — and particularly in the Finding Friends subcategory — expats in the Philippines and Indonesia are more likely to struggle with the language and feeling at home in the country. Not all Asian countries do well in the Ease of Settling In Index, though. Both Japan (58th) and South Korea (54th) rank in the bottom 10, showing negative results across nearly every factor.
Countries in the D-A-CH region (Germany (55th), Austria (56th), and Switzerland (52nd)) rank in the bottom 10 as well and perform poorly across all factors. However, expats in Germany struggle with the local language the most — the country ranks 56th in the Languages subcategory.
For expats in the Nordic countries (Denmark (57th), Sweden (53rd), Norway (51st), and Finland (50th)), making connections seems to be particularly challenging: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway even make up the bottom 3 of the Finding Friends subcategory. On the other hand, expats in these countries find it relatively easy to live there without speaking the local language. This might be due to the high level of English proficiency in Northern Europe.
- The Best & Worst Places for Expats in 2021
- Friendships & Families Abroad
- Regional Report: Asian Tiger Cubs
- Regional Report: GCC States
- Regional Report: Northern Europe
- Country Report: Mexico
- EF English Proficiency Index