Americans are saying goodbye to the US: Where are they going?

Expat news
  • US airport departure
    Tupungato /
Published on 2024-02-21 at 11:00
Recent studies show that more Americans are moving abroad than ever before. The United Kingdom is challenging Canada as the most popular English-speaking destination, while the United States' other neighbor, Mexico, remains the second most preferred destination. New Zealand is also increasingly popular. Better life-work balance and a lower cost of living are the leading reasons for moving abroad.

160,000 Americans chose a new stage of life abroad in 2023

A stunning 160,000 Americans packed their bags for other countries in 2023. The number might actually be higher if we count some American expats who are using tourist visas to work abroad (even if, it must be warned, this is in a legal gray zone).

In December 2023, the removal company Hire a Helper published a study about trends in American expatriation. They found that while the number of Google searches by Americans about expatriation had decreased, the actual relocations had actually increased. It seems that during the pandemic years, Americans were researching how to move, and they were finally able to take the big leap in 2023. The Association of Americans Overseas calculates that there has been a sharp 13% increase in the number of expatriate Americans since 2018. There are now around 5.5 million Americans living abroad.

What factors are behind this wave of American expatriation? 

Studies by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and Axios indicate that fewer and fewer Americans believe in the “American Dream.” A WSJ poll from late 2023 shows that only 36% of Americans now believe that it's possible to get ahead in life if you work hard enough. 45% believe that it was once true in the past but is no longer possible. 

On multiple media outlets like CNN, CNBC and the Daily Mail, many of these expats mention their poor work-life balance in the US as a key reason for moving abroad. The US is notorious for being the only highly developed country with no legally mandated minimum days off work. A study by the International Labor Organisation found that Americans often work 500 hours more yearly than their European counterparts.

As the dollar is the most stable tradable currency worldwide, moving to countries with weaker currencies means that middle-class Americans are often able to enjoy a better standard of living as expats than back home. Some Latinos and African-Americans also report choosing the expat life because they face less racism, or less violent racism, elsewhere, especially in countries of the Global South like Mexico. 

In the case of Mexican Americans, there is a phenomenon of reverse migration. In 2023, the Pew Research Center found out that, for the first time since the 1940s, there are more Mexican expats and Mexican-Americans moving back to Mexico than new Mexican immigrants coming to the US. Many of them are second- and third-generation Americans who are using their bilingualism, family ties, and cultural connections to embark on a new expat adventure in the country of their parents/grandparents. 

The UK is now the leading English-speaking destination for American expats

For many years, Canada was the top destination for American expats. It made sense because it's an English-speaking country that's the direct neighbor of the US – no need to catch a flight; Americans can often even drive there! On top of that, Canada has liberal immigration policies and is trying to attract skilled expat workers.

But in 2023, the English-speaking country that attracted the most new American expats was the United Kingdom, not Canada. Close to 22,000 Americans moved to the UK last year on various visas, from student to work to family reunification visas. According to the Pew Research Centre, only 20% of Americans are proficient in a second language other than English, which explains why moving to another country of the Anglosphere is more practical for many American expats. Cultural similarities also make the move easier. 

This trend might change, though, as the UK government has recently announced highly restrictive immigration reforms that will come into effect by 2025. For one, international graduate students can no longer bring their dependent family members to the UK. This is likely to discourage older PhD students with spouses and children from choosing the UK for Fall 2024. The salary requirement for a Skilled Work Visa has also more than doubled — from £26,200 to £38,700. It will certainly disqualify many American expats from remaining in the UK, especially if they are younger expats in the early years of their careers or in less well-paid industries like the arts.

The proximity and low cost-of-living of Mexico make it an attractive destination for American expats

Mexico registered close to 20,000 new American expats in 2023, making it the second preferred destination of American expats. The number could be higher if expats using tourist visas as a route to expatriation are also considered. 

Mexico is a short flight away from the US; the most common second language spoken by Americans is Spanish, and many Americans are themselves of Mexican heritage… their preference for this destination makes perfect sense. As previously mentioned, many Mexican-Americans are using their family ties to move to the Central American country. In several newspapers, American expats there say they appreciate the more laid-back lifestyle there, which allows them to spend more time with their families outside of work.

The warm weather, lush greenery, and rich cultural scene in Mexico also attract American expats. The capital, Mexico City, is one of the cities worldwide with the most museums. It boasts 150 museums, which is even more than Paris.

The cost of living in the UK can be even higher than in major American cities. In contrast, the cost of living in Mexico is very low for expats who earn and have savings in dollars. Forbes reports that in many places across Mexico, American expats can live a comfortable life for under USD1,250 per month. For example, a three-bedroom apartment in the coastal city of Veracruz easily costs less than USD400 to rent per month. 

Unfortunately, the surge of American expats in Mexico hasn't been a phenomenon that's only positive. Some locals are protesting about gentrification and sharp increases in rent in areas where Americans have flocked to. Some locals were even pushed out of their homes after they could no longer afford the new rent.

New Zealand attracted more than twice as many American expats in 2023 than in 2022

Over 4,000 Americans relocated to New Zealand in 2023, according to data from Statistics New Zealand. This represents a sharp increase from the previous year when only around 1,500 Americans had chosen the land of the Kiwis.

An economic development agency in the capital of Wellington named Wellingtonnz is even specifically trying to attract American expats through an advertising campaign. The company's CEO has told the media that the city suffers from a labor shortage in fields like healthcare, information technology (especially programming and gaming), construction and advanced manufacturing. Wellingtonnz installed a giant yellow “Escape” key in the middle of Manhattan. When people approach the key, a host asks them about their work-life balance in New York City. He/She then tells them that Wellington is a place where they can enjoy a better work-life balance.

In the media, American expats in New Zealand confirm that their life-work balance has improved, even if their cost of living is still roughly the same as in the US. They also appreciate the access to more affordable quality healthcare, the proximity to nature (great for those who love outdoor sports!), and the friendliness and hospitality of New Zealanders. 

A downside has been that the immigration and relocation process can be long and expensive, especially as New Zealand is quite far from the US. Some expats who had to relocate their pets, for one, say that this doubled the cost of their relocation.