Living overseas part-time is becoming increasingly popular, especially for those keen to sample the ‘roving retirement’ lifestyle. This way of exploring the planet turns the traditional expat experience on its head, emphasizing flexibility and slow travel over the rigid idea of (a) deciding on a country, (b) buying a property there, and (c) moving in permanently.
These days, a fulfilling part-time life abroad is much easier to achieve than you might think, thanks to attractive global visa and residency options and a wealth of safe, affordable, ultra-livable countries to choose from.
A roving retirement is more than just an extended vacation. It’s a way of life that embraces several growing travel trends, including the desire for a more travel-filled retirement, an increase in digital nomad opportunities, a boost in solo travel, a preference for longer-term stays in each country, and a better understanding of the advantages of accessing low-cost, top-notch health care abroad. It stems from an urge to replace the tourist mindset with a live-like-a-local approach, viewing a country’s culture from the inside rather than the outside.
For many Americans and Canadians, Europe sits firmly at the top of the list when it comes to enchanting possibilities for part-time living. From the stunning beaches of Sardinia and breathtaking forests of Slovenia to the urban magic of Vienna, Barcelona, Bordeaux, and Prague, there’s more than enough variety in culture, geography, and weather to suit all tastes. Delectable cuisine, intriguing history, and vibrant social interactions are guaranteed in every corner of Europe, so your toughest decision may be choosing where to start your explorations.
Because the Internet has simplified so many globe-trotter tasks, it’s now a breeze to research countries, manage finances, keep in touch with family and friends, maintain an online business, organize house-sitting or home-swap opportunities, compare a country’s living expenses with others, sort out visas, and do all those other things that become part of a semi-nomadic, live-abroad lifestyle.
The pros and cons of part-time living in Europe
If you’ve been thinking about launching a new life in Europe, your choices are truly immense. North Americans take this leap every day. Retirees, pre-retirees, online entrepreneurs (of every age), and nomadic adventurers continue to discover the joys of a low-key expat lifestyle tailored to their personal circumstances.
So, what are some of the pros and cons of a part-time move to Europe?
Lower Cost of Living
You’ll find many of Europe’s most livable countries are easier on the budget than North America. Portugal, Spain, Greece, Croatia, Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic are just a few examples of nations where your dollar will go much further. Checking out different corners of Europe first-hand will give you a solid grasp of how they all compare for living costs.
A More Organic Approach to Living Abroad
The more European countries you try out for a few months, the more confidence you gain and the easier it gets. Your travels are adaptable and low-stress. It’s all about seeing where the journey takes you, rather than committing to a single foreign location.
Medical services in most European nations are first-rate, and are generally more affordable than in the U.S. That’s why so many North Americans flock to Europe for major procedures, cosmetic enhancements, and high-quality, low-cost pharmaceuticals.
Enjoying a roving European retirement is minimally committal. If you eventually decide it’s not for you or you get homesick, you can return to North America more easily than if you’re tied down to a more permanent situation that includes owning a house abroad.
The Spice of Life
Europe has it all: unique wildlife, sunny beaches, luscious mountain villages, and welcoming cities complete with imposing castles, cultural wonders, and inviting cafes wedged into narrow, cobblestoned lanes. When your expat life consists of staying in one place for months at a time, you get the best of both worlds—the chance to become part of a local community for a while and the constant anticipation of future travels.
Missing Friends and Family
Even if you choose to spend half the year in Europe and the rest in North America, you’ll still have to deal with some physical separation from loved ones. Skype and FaceTime can help, but they’re not quite the same as sharing a hug, a stroll, or a meal in person.
Less Time to Learn How Each Country Works
The more you move around, the less time you have to absorb all the little tips and nuances that make living in a new country easier: how to get around, where the locals find free entertainment, which grocery stores stock your favorite foods, etc. Absorbing the language, making new lifelong friends, and learning to navigate a country’s bureaucracy, traditions, and lifestyle take longer than just a month or two.
The very thing that makes a roving retirement so much fun (more travel), can also wear you down over time. The increased culture shock associated with living in different countries over a year is very real. The shorter your stay, the harder it is to establish comfortable routines.
How does the Schengen Area work?
In Europe, 26 countries currently fall under the Schengen visa scheme. At present, U.S. and Canadian passport holders are allowed to stay in Schengen countries visa-free for a total of 90 days within a 180-day period. For border control purposes, the Schengen zone acts somewhat like a single country, with easier freedom of movement between each country in the zone.
Once you’ve enjoyed your 90 days in Schengen, you must then spend 90 days outside the zone before re-entering. And beware: overstaying within Schengen can result in a hefty fine and/or deportation, so don’t leave your exit to the last minute.
Those 90 days in Schengen include your arrival and departure days. The days don’t need to be consecutive, but they’re treated as cumulative.
This system will soon change a bit, with an added requirement expected to be fully implemented by the end of 2022. The ETIAS precondition will apply to both Canadian and U.S. citizens traveling in the Schengen zone. ETIAS is a visa waiver introduced to pre-screen visa-exempt travelers to Schengen countries. It aims to keep all travelers safer by reducing illegal immigration and managing potential security threats within Schengen nations, including terrorism.
Getting the new ETIAS authorization is pretty easy: you apply online from the U.S. or Canada (which takes about 20 minutes) and if all’s well, you’ll then receive an electronic multi-entry travel authorization that’s valid for three years. You can find further information about ETIAS here (for U.S. travelers) and here (for Canadian travelers).
This visa waiver doesn’t allow free reign to travel all over Europe—it’s only for Schengen countries. For U.S. travelers, current costs for ETIAS are around $41 for children (six to 12 years) and around $70 for adults; this can vary in response to currency fluctuations.
Fortunately, there are a number of European countries that aren’t part of the Schengen zone, so if your plan is to wander around Europe indefinitely, that’s not a problem at all. When it’s time to leave Schengen, you simply hop out for at least 90 days into one or more of the non-Schengen nations such as Albania, Croatia, Republic of Ireland, Cyprus, the U.K., Romania, Monaco, Turkey, etc. Other possibilities include skipping across the Mediterranean to North Africa (Morocco is popular) or spending time in one or more of the non-Schengen ex-Soviet states such as Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, etc.
Several Balkan nations are currently in discussions to create a kind of ‘mini-Schengen’ amongst themselves, which will be totally separate from the normal Schengen zone but would offer similar regional freedom of movement. This new zone is likely to include Albania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and possibly some other Balkan countries.
Note: European travel rules can change rapidly, so always obtain the most up-to-date visa information before you travel.
Special European visa options for North Americans
Some countries in Europe offer longer-term visas for North Americans, which can go a long way toward facilitating extended travels. Super-affordable Albania, for example, which boasts some of the loveliest beaches in Europe, permits U.S. citizens to stay visa-free for a year without applying for a residency permit.
Georgia (formerly part of Russia) is quite liberal with its visa policies, allowing visitors from many different countries (including the U.S. and Canada) to stay visa-free for a year.
Other possibilities for lengthening your time in Europe include getting a student visa, applying for a working holiday program, arranging a work permit, joining a language assistant program, or investing funds in a particular country (termed a Golden Visa or Immigrant Investor Program—a common choice for well-off retirees).
Germany has an interesting freelancer visa option (Freiberufler) that’s also worth investigating if you’re a digital nomad hoping to live there long-term. France also offers a special long-stay visa for North Americans (and many other global travelers) that requires proof of adequate funds, proof of accommodation, a promise not to work in France, and some other stipulations.
A handful of European countries actively recruit long-term English teachers from abroad, including France, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, and Spain. For these positions, you’ll need to apply from your home country and possess a TEFL certificate.
Other potential options for longer-term European living include volunteering, official cultural homestay programs, and au pair positions, which are normally organized ahead of time through agencies in your home country.
Sample itineraries for exploring European prospects
As you wander the European continent, you’ll soon discover there are plenty of folks already there who are living the part-time digital nomad/roving retiree/ temporary resident dream. They may not spend their whole year in Europe, but they always end up back there because the quality of life is too good to pass up.
So, if you’re hoping to experience long-term European living for yourself, where should you go? The answer comes down to what you’re after. If affordability is your main priority, gravitate toward the cheapest European cities. In places like Sibiu (Romania), Rzeszow (Poland), Nis (Serbia), Skopje (North Macedonia), and picturesque Varna (Bulgaria), your monthly expenses will be just a fraction of what you pay in North America.
If your goal is to be surrounded by breathtaking nature, you could do much worse than Portugal’s Algarve, Lake Bohinj in Slovenia, Scotland’s Isle of Skye, northern Italy, or just about anywhere in Norway, Montenegro, or Croatia. For laptop-toting digital nomads requiring high Internet speeds, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Sweden, and Bulgaria should be on your travel list. History buffs wanting a vibrant city life might lean toward Athens, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Rome, Berlin, and Barcelona. Foodies will thrive in Tbilisi, Copenhagen, Palermo, Thessaloniki, and San Sebastian. It’s all about finding your European happy place.
Endless destination combinations are possible for the wandering, part-time expat in Europe. Here’s just one random example that could keep you going for more than a year:
Sample roving itinerary:
6 weeks in Ljubljana, Slovenia (Schengen)
6 weeks in Krakow, Poland (Schengen)
10 weeks in Brasov, Romania (non-Schengen)
10 weeks in Cork, Ireland (non-Schengen)
6 weeks in Carvoeira, Portugal (Schengen)
6 weeks in Aarhus, Denmark (Schengen)
8 weeks in Edinburgh, Scotland (non-Schengen)
8 weeks in Rovinj, Croatia (non-Schengen)
10 weeks in Plovdiv, Bulgaria (non-Schengen)
If you only need a six-months-maximum European itinerary because you plan to spend half the year in North America or other parts of the world, here’s a sample of what you could get up to, roaming leisurely through Europe:
4 weeks in Stockholm, Sweden (Schengen)
4 weeks in Valencia, Spain (Schengen)
4 weeks in Chania, Crete – Greece (Schengen)
4 weeks in Kotor, Montenegro (non-Schengen)
4 weeks in Belgrade, Serbia (non-Schengen)
4 weeks in Ohrid, North Macedonia (non-Schengen)
The roving expat lifestyle is all about flexibility and autonomy. Over time, you can decide whether you want to eventually make a permanent move to Europe, or are quite happy to continue your slow-paced, strategic wanderings for months or years to come.