Want to move abroad? This map shows the best and worst countries to be an expatriate.

November 5, 2013

Tourists look over Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

China and Thailand are the two best countries to be an expatriate, according to a recent study by British bank HSBC that looked at economic opportunities and quality of life for expats in 34 countries. They're followed by small, rich countries known for their globalized business classes. In descending order, they are: Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, Bahrain and Singapore.

The worst of these 34 countries to be an expat is Egypt, which has seen xenophobia rise considerably since this summer's military coup and wave of populist nationalism. Also at the bottom of the list is much of Western Europe, which the report says is often too expensive for expats. In descending order: France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy and second-to-last is Ireland.

For 24 of those countries, the study also looked at metrics gauging the suitability of raising children as expats. If you incorporate the data on child rearing abroad along with the economic and quality-of-life measurements, China ranks first overall, following by Germany and Singapore. The study concludes that Germany is the best of these countries to raise expat children, that Thailand provides the best work-life experience for expats, and that Switzerland has the most favorable economy for expatriates.

This map shows how the 34 countries compare on economic opportunities and quality-of-life for expats. It does not include the metrics on child rearing. Bluer countries are better for expats and redder countries are worse:


The best and worst countries to be an expat. Data source; HSBC. Click to enlarge. (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

You can see right away that the data are very favorable for expat life in Asia's developing economies. Companies in these countries prize expat workers and tend to pay them 15 percent more, the report explains. This, combined with lower costs of living, can give expats much higher spending power than they'd enjoy elsewhere. Expats in East and Southeast Asia also tend to report that their social lives become much more active on moving there, due perhaps to the boost in disposable incomes as well as better weather and proximity to beaches.

Still, I was surprised to see mainland China rank so high. The country's worsening air quality (here is the most shocking photo of Chinese air pollution I've ever seen) and food safety issues (watch this video on Chinese "gutter oil" if you dare), particularly severe in the major cities likely to host expats, have sent a number of expats packing as China once again becomes a "hardship" posting. Perhaps the economics really are that favorable to outweigh these costs.

Germany and Switzerland also scored well for expats, as both economies improve despite the larger European woes. Salaries for expats are unusually high in the German-speaking countries and expenses are lower than in the rest of the Europe, owing to export-driven economic growth. Strong social programs and high standards of living also tend to make the experience pleasant, even if expats do not live as a class-above as they do in many developing economies.

Middle Eastern countries tend be worse places for expats, owing to legislation that makes it tougher for foreigners to own property and because of formal and informal social restrictions that can cut back on quality of life. The exceptions are Bahrain and Qatar, two very wealthy and very small Persian Gulf states whose governments work to attract the wealthy expats they see as crucial to building businesses there. It should go without saying that HSBC's study does not consider "guest workers" in its measurements. Gulf states, particularly Qatar, have notorious reputations for mistreating migrant laborers from South and Southeast Asia, who work in difficult conditions and with few protections.

A big surprise here may be the countries of Western Europe, which despite their wealth and high standards of living are considered among the worst countries to be an expat, according to the study. The report cites high taxes and costly services; expenses that might make sense if you're a citizen who plans to one day employ your country's substantial social services, but less so if you're an expat who pays into those services but doesn't fully benefit. The European Union's ongoing financial problems also mean that salaries are less competitive, particularly compared to the higher cost of living. Part of this may be that Western European companies, as well as foreign companies with offices in Western Europe, are not as willing to invest in growth with all the economic uncertainty. Otherwise, though, Western Europe ranks highly for child rearing, with high-quality education and child services relatively affordable.

Based just on this report, if you're thinking about flying off for the life of an expat and you don't want to have kids there, then you should consider China, Thailand or someplace else in Asia. And if you want to have kids abroad, then Germany should also be near the top of your list.

More maps from WorldViews:

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Max Fisher · November 4, 2013