Should You Move to Europe?
We left America because it seemed like a country in rapid decline. What are the pros and cons of your doing it too?
Things look pretty bleak in America right now. Has anyone noticed?
Sorry. Too soon?
In fact, things are so bleak that record numbers of Americans are thinking about leaving the country. Europe is a very popular destination.
And I totally empathize. Michael and I decided to leave America the night that Donald Trump was elected president. We’ve spent the last five years as nomads, living in Europe about half that time.
(Important caveats: just because we left America, that doesn’t mean we’ve given up “the fight.” And, yes, leaving America requires some degree of privilege.)
Americans seem to have two views on Europe, depending on their political beliefs.
Europe is a perfect paradise with no social problems, and where Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s views would make her a moderate conservative.
Europe is an over-regulated, dysfunctional hell-hole where innovation is discouraged and ambition goes to die.
In fact, there’s some truth to both these statements — except for the bit about Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, which is complete nonsense. She has very liberal views even over here in Europe, and she’s really liberal on social issues.
Obviously, Europe is a massive area — slightly larger than the United States, with more than twice the total population — and it’s made up of somewhere between forty-four and fifty different countries (depending on how you define “Europe”).
In short, generalizations are kind of silly.
And yet, “Europe” is different enough from America that some generalizations are possible. And Europe is different in ways that have surprised me: it’s not just America-except-with-free-college-and-universal-health-care.
From Michael’s and my point of view, the pluses of Europe massively outweigh the minuses. This area of the world, especially Western Europe, is much more in sync with our personal values and priorities than the United States.
Meanwhile, the cost of living in Southern and Eastern Europe is so low that we find these are very attractive destinations too.
Whether a move to Europe is right for you obviously depends on, yes, how bad you think things are going to get in America — but also on your personal values and priorities.
Here are the pros and cons of such a move, as least as this American expat sees them.
Pro: The quality of life is better.
Most Americans have heard how people in Europe work fewer hours, get far more vacation, and have much stronger government safety nets, making it easier for people to raise kids, retire comfortably, and get, you know, health care.
Well, it’s all true, especially in Western Europe.
Not long ago, the Atlantic Magazine put it bluntly: The Best Parenting Advice is Go Live in Europe.
This isn’t just a question of government policies; it’s also a question of culture, which really is different in Europe, and which will affect every aspect of your life.
When Michael and I first moved to Italy, I was surprised how the whole coworking area would break for lunch every day — and how that lunch would stretch out into a long and lively shared meal that sometimes lasted hours.
The first week, I thought, “Is lunch going to last two hours every day? Am I just supposed to accept that I’m going to get less work done in Italy?”
The answer to both questions turned out to be, “Yes!” And after that first wary week, I never regretted it for a second.
Con: Taxes are higher, and wages and productivity are lower.
I love the European lifestyle, but it all comes at a cost — literally. Taxes are higher and wages are lower, compared to the United States.
There is a longstanding, raging debate about economic comparisons between the two areas: “American salaries are much higher!” “Yeah, but Europeans don’t have to pay for things like health care!” “Just admit the European economy isn’t nearly as dynamic as the American one!” “You admit that all your fancy numbers don’t take into account lifestyle factors!”
This guy makes a pretty convincing case that the average American keeps somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 more per person per year than the average European — and that’s controlled for cost of living (and not skewed by the mega-rich).
Does all that extra cash make up for America’s insane health care system, crazy work hours, expensive colleges, dysfunctional government, and daily mass shootings?
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
But do keep in mind that, as an expat, you may very well be paying very high taxes for things you might never directly benefit from, like education and a generous pension system.
Oh, and those Roth IRAs? They’re not going to help you in Europe. You’ll probably end up paying taxes on that money twice.
And if you’re an entrepreneur, you might soon find yourself very frustrated by European attitudes. American filmmakers have told me flatly, “European film crews simply don’t understand the concept of making movies. When it’s noon, they break for lunch, even in the middle of a shot. And when the clock strikes five, they leave.”
These differing attitudes also apply to European bureaucracies, which can be off-the-charts maddening, and to the contractor you hire to remodel your kitchen.
Oh, and while you’ll probably fit right in among the expat and nomad communities, that may be less true of the locals.
Americans are an incredibly transient people; Europeans aren’t. In many cases, families have lived in cities and towns for many hundreds of years — sometimes on the same plot of land or even in the same building.
If you move to Europe, you’ll probably make many wonderful European friends. But they’ll never see you as one of their own.
Pro: European cities are much more people-oriented.
In earlier articles, I’ve written about all the ways life is different outside of America — it’s easier to make friends, people are fitter and healthier, families are stronger, the food is better — and I stand by it all.
It all goes back to that question of culture.
I’m always amused when I look into American and European cafes and coffee shops. In America, these shops will be crowded, but almost everyone will be working on a laptop. In Europe, by contrast, people will be jabbering away with each other (and often smoking, alas).
Sure, there may be a few people on laptops in European cafes, but they’re almost invariably American expats or nomads.
European culture is also expressed in the way the cities are arranged and organized. They’re denser and more people-orientated, with centralized parks and plazas, and much more vibrant public transportation options.
When we lived in Istanbul, there were probably 100 cafes or restaurants within 100 meters of our apartment. Meanwhile, the vast, seamless, efficient subway, trolley, bus, and ferry system got us all over this massive city of 15 million people. You could even pay for a taxi with your transit card.
Meanwhile, back when Michael and I lived in Seattle (and Los Angeles before that), it seemed like we were always stuck in traffic. And despite the fact that cars are supposedly all about “freedom,” that insane traffic made our lives absolutely miserable. After a while, we didn’t even want to leave the house.
Now, living in Europe, we’re almost never in a car — and we’re always out and about. Ironically, now that we’ve given up our car, we finally feel free.
Con: Your living space will be a lot smaller and more modest. And you’ll have a lot fewer “things.”
Why are public spaces so fabulous in Europe? Because private spaces are so much more modest. Apartments are smaller, and far fewer people own cars. Suburbs, when they exist at all, are denser too.
Rather than “back yards” people have “balconies” (if they’re really lucky). And, incidentally, your washing machine may very well be on that balcony — and don’t even think about having a dryer. That’s what the clotheslines is for. Forget about choosing from among twenty different kinds of cereal or buying in bulk, which isn’t really a thing here. Stores have fewer options.
Americans, meanwhile, place a very high value on “things”: a nice car for every person, a big house, lots of luxuries and conveniences, and the latest technology and gadgets of every kind.
All my life I’ve heard how Americans are materialistic, but I didn’t know how extreme that consumerism is until I left the country.
That said, there are those who say that if you live in a developed country (and you’re not poor), life is essentially equally good wherever you are — it just depends on what you want your priorities to be. Do you want a big lawn and a big television? Or do you prefer old world charm and a more walkable lifestyle?
I recently read a snarky comment about how the TV show Friends screwed up the entire Millennial Generation, because it told them that fabulous New York apartments and easy, laid-back jobs are the “norm” in life, something to be expected.
But the truth is, you can’t have it all. You have to choose. And Europe and America have made remarkably different choices.
Pro: There are lots of ways to move to Europe.
Here are all the ways Americans can live in Europe full-time.
Apply for citizenship via your ancestry. This is especially easy if you have ancestors from Greece, Italy, Poland, Ireland, Germany (if you have ancestors killed by Nazis), and (especially) Hungary, where even great-grandparents can qualify. Better still, most European countries allow for dual citizenship.
Get a long-term visa. Options include:
A student visa.
A work visa (through an existing job).
A talent visa (if you have a particular skill).
An investment or “golden” visa (which requires a sizable investment, but that can include the real estate where you live).
A business or entrepreneur visa (which requires you to start a local business).
A spouse/partner visa (if you marry a local citizen).
A digital nomad visa, which more and more countries are starting to offer, allows people to stay long-term in a country, working remotely, in exchange for certain fees and tax liabilities.
A retirement visa. Don’t let the name fool you: you don’t need to be retired!
Become a digital nomad and simply travel on tourist visas. This is not the same thing as a “digital nomad visa,” and you generally can’t stay in any country longer than 90 days at a time. But one European country, Georgia, which is absolutely lovely and ridiculously inexpensive, grants tourist visas of one year simply upon arrival.
And here’s some good news: if you’re granted a long-term visa or citizenship in any country that is part of the 26-nation “Schengen Zone” (which includes most of Western Europe), you may immediately or eventually be allowed unrestricted travel or residency in most of the European continent.
Con: Visas can be expensive and complicated, and can restrict the work you’re allowed to do.
Many visas are expensive, requiring fees, minimum incomes, and/or considerable investments in the local economy.
Meanwhile, some visas won’t allow you to take a local job.
And you want to move to one of the supposedly wondrous Scandinavian countries? Good luck with that, because they make it extremely difficult. However, you can get residency in another Schengen Zone country and then move to Scandinavia.
Michael and I are digital nomads, but we’ve never used digital nomad visas. Instead, we travel on the aforementioned tourist visas. The wrinkle is that Americans can’t stay anywhere in the entire 26-nation Schengen Zone on a tourist visa for more than 90 days in any 180 period.
On the other hand, this restriction has forced us to periodically live in non-Schengen Zone countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and we’ve ended up loving that. It’s great for the pocketbook too.
The cold hard truth is that you can’t simply move to Europe on a whim — not unless a handsome European prince happens to fall in love with you over your Christmas holiday.
But becoming a digital nomad (like Michael and me) is a really good option, especially if you’re retired or have a remote job where you earn an American-sized salary. In that case, as long as you don’t stay in any one country longer than a hundred and eighty days in a year, you don’t even have to pay income taxes.
It’s kind of the ultimate life-hack.
One final thought
If you’re really thinking about leaving America for Europe, I’m sure this won’t be the only article you’ll read.
You should read them all, no matter how intimidating and overwhelming they make you feel.
Leaving the country is intimidating and overwhelming — and a fair bit of work as well.
But after marrying Michael, it is also, hands down, the best decision I ever made.