Do you dream of a tropical island retirement? Days strolling barefoot along sandy beaches, nights sipping mai tais and listening to waves lap against the shore. But the warm island that was perfect for vacation might not be a wise retirement destination. Some islands are too expensive for the typical retiree—everyday necessities must be shipped to islands, increasing their cost. And some are too small or isolated—all you need for a weeklong visit is a hotel and a beach, but retirees tend to prefer places that offer varied activity options, access to health care and a community of fellow retirees.
Here are nine foreign islands that are wonderful and affordable retirement destinations. Most have welcoming communities of retired Americans, so you won’t feel isolated. Be aware that retiring to foreign islands does require lifestyle adjustments. For instance, when shopping, it’s often possible to find familiar brands in local markets, but prices and selection will be much better if you opt for local alternatives. A couple can live comfortably on these islands for $2,000 to $3,000 per month including rent, or as little as half that if they buy a home and don’t have a mortgage except as noted. All the islands have at least basic medical care plus access to additional facilities as indicated…
Ambergris Caye, Belize, is a laid-back Caribbean island surrounded by exquisite turquoise seas. American retirees won’t face excessive culture shock here—the country’s main language is English, American expats are numerous, many American products are available, and the US dollar is widely accepted. The island’s “Qualified Retirement Person” program waives import duties on possessions shipped to the country by American retirees. For major medical problems, people go to nearby Chetumal, Mexico, or a major regional medical center in Mérida.
Isla Colón, Panama, has clear waters, warm weather and a peaceful lifestyle, too. English is widely spoken, and North American expats are common. It’s a great retirement spot if your goal is to sit on the beach and fish for your dinner. Panama is perhaps the safest, best-run Central American nation, and the cost of living is low, even compared with the other islands on this list—a couple can live here comfortably for perhaps $1,500 a month. There are restaurants and bars, but Isla Colón isn’t a great choice if you’re looking for nightlife or excitement, nor is it near a major city. Expats generally travel to Panama City (or another big city) for major medical procedures.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico, is just a few miles off the coast of Cancún, but this peaceful little island could hardly feel more different from that bustling spring-break city. Retirees here relax on sedate white-sand beaches and travel around the four-mile-long island in golf carts. Cancún is a 20-minute ferry ride away when you want a little excitement—or when you need to shop for something not available on Isla Mujeres—and flights from Cancún to Miami take less than two hours. There are plenty of English-speaking expats on the island, and you can get by speaking only English on the mainland, too. Serious medical issues are handled at hospitals in nearby Cancún or in Mérida.
Roatán, Honduras, is another great choice for retirees in search of peaceful white-sand beaches and picturesque fishing villages. It’s a former British colony, so English speakers abound. Because Roatán is one of the world’s great scuba-diving destinations, there are plenty of flights to the US and a strong infrastructure designed to cater to Western visitors. Beachfront condos can be had for less than $200,000, and beachfront apartment rentals for around $1,000 a month. It’s surprisingly easy to obtain many US products at local markets. For major medical procedures, many expats opt to take the 90-minute ferry ride to La Ceiba, a large city on the mainland. There are some things to do on the island, including bars, restaurants and live music, but this is not a destination for retirees who need nightlife—it’s for those who dream of spending days around the water and watching the sunset on the beach with friends.
Majorca, Spain, 130 miles south of Barcelona, has a stunning coastline of harbors and coves. The climate is mild all year, history abounds—there are ancient castles and Roman ruins—and with a population of more than 850,000 (approximately half of whom live in the city of Palma), there’s plenty to do. Majorca is part of Spain, so infrastructure is up to Western standards. Many locals speak at least a little English because of all the tourists and expats. There are about a dozen hospitals on the island.
Malta, off the southern coast of Italy, is a wonderful combination of an island retirement and a cultured European retirement. The weather is warm even in winter, and there are lovely beaches and breathtaking coastal trails…but Malta also has museums, centuries-old walled cities and castles, and plenty of restaurants and bars. It’s a tiny nation—just 122 square miles—but big enough to offer a truly varied and interesting life. Excellent health care is available. Nearly 90% of Malta’s population speaks English. And if you do get bored, flights to world-class European destinations take less than two hours and can be found for less than $200 round-trip.
Bali, Indonesia, is one of the world’s most iconic islands—its name alone conjures up images of tropical luxury. It does a good job of living up to that image, with palm trees, incredible beaches and temperatures in the 80s year-round. Bali usually is warm but rarely stiflingly hot. If you like it a little cooler, you could live on one of Bali’s mountains, where temperatures drop as elevation increases. Bali does get hit by the occasional monsoon during the winter rainy season, however. The island attracts plenty of vacationers and retirees from Australia, Europe and North America and also brings a range of activities and entertainment options, including spas, markets, restaurants and bars. As with the other Asian locations on this list, however, reaching Bali from the US requires virtually a full day on a plane. Major medical care is available in Singapore or Australia.
Koh Samui, Thailand, 400 miles south of Bangkok, is amazingly beautiful even by tropical island standards—the unspoiled beaches and clear waters are the stuff of dreams. Koh Samui’s golf courses are great, too. There are some expats from Australia and New Zealand, but this island remains very Thai in culture and character. Infrastructure is improving all the time, and there are excellent medical facilities. There are enough American, Australian and English expats and tourists on the island that you can get by speaking only English.
Penang Island, Malaysia, is one of the greatest places in the world to explore a mix of cultures and cuisines. Malay, Chinese, Indian and Thai people all live here, and there’s a European influence as well—the island was a British colony until the 1950s, so English is widely spoken. George Town, the capital, has some of the best and most varied street food in the world—you can eat very well there for just a few dollars—and its art scene and architecture are varied and vibrant. This is an island where you truly can live a luxurious life on an everyman budget. Penang is connected to the mainland by a bridge, and its airport is well-served by low-cost airlines. Penang has become a center for medical tourism, attracting many foreigners for its affordable high-quality care.