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2020 Study: Where Do Americans Who Leave the USA Go?

Posted in: I'm Moving, International Moving, Moving Advice

Key Findings

  • 10 million Americans are living outside the United States
  • Almost 40% of those living abroad never left the North American content. 28% live in Canada, 10% live in Mexico
  • Israel has 2.5% of all U.S. citizens living abroad
  • Luxembourg (+155%) and Qatar (+86%) saw the greatest net gains since 2017
  • Singapore (-18%) and Mali (-12%) registered greatest net losses
  • Between 17% to 39% of Americans moved abroad for love
  • 40% more Americans choose to retire abroad
  • 16% Americans keen to leave the U.S., 65% would do it for a better salary

According to the State Department, there are around 10 million Americans living outside the United States. 

What do we know about where they move? What are the top destinations for Americans moving abroad? Does Europe have the strongest pull? Do many Americans move to Africa?

There are lots of answers: hundreds of thousands of citizens leave the United States every year to pursue their careers, education, or, indeed, love. They also seek a lower cost of living, a better climate, or simply a fresh start by making a home for themselves in various corners of the world. Key trends in Americans moving overseas—backed up by research and statistics—are all below.

More Americans Move Abroad Every Year

How many Americans are there outside the United States? It’s a question that’s a lot more difficult to answer than it may seem.

The U.S. State Department estimates that number to be around 10 million in 2020, which is more than double the number of Americans residing overseas in 1999, when the same department reported it to be 4 million. Based on the statistics out of the United Nations, which are based on the foreign-born or foreign citizen population in each country of the world, the most recent estimate is 3.2 million.  While the actual number is likely to be somewhere in between, there’s one feature both of these sets of numbers sharethere’s been a steady increase in the number of Americans living overseas.

North of the Border and Down in Mexico: Where Most Americans Abroad Currently Live

One way to answer the questions of where Americans leave to when they move abroad is to, well, look at where most overseas Americans live right now. But that number varies.

These breakdowns, as well as most others that appear in this post, are based on the data from the United Nations, as the U.S. State Department doesn’t publish data on the distribution of Americans across the world. More than one-third (38%) of U.S. citizens living abroad live in either Canada (10%) or Mexico (28%) – of course, the only two countries with whom the United States has a land border.

“The American population of Singapore shrank by more than 17% between 2017 and 2019.”

Following that, nearly 8% live in jolly old Britain, around 4% each in Germany and Australia, and nearly 3% in Israel. Rounding up the top 10 are South Korea, France, and Japan – all home to about 2% of Americans residing overseas. Check our handy map below and see which other countries are popular (or not so popular) with American citizens living abroad. On a regional level, a few interesting patterns emerge. 

With Canada and Mexico being countries with the highest population of Americans, it’s not that surprising that 42.4% of all U.S. citizens overseas stay in North America. What is surprising, however, is that nearly one in six Americans that live abroad live in Asia more than in Australia & Oceania and South America combined.

Top Countries By Continent

Taking this regional view further, let’s look at the top countries in each of the world continents. While we have all the usual suspects coming out top in North America and Europe, two entries stand out elsewhere. Of all Asian countries, the relatively small state of Israel is in the number one spot with over 76 thousand Americans, accounting for 2.8% Americans worldwide. Although we can’t be sure, it’s likely down to strong cultural and economic ties between the U.S. and Israel.

“More than one-third (38%) of U.S. citizens living abroad live in either Canada (10%) or Mexico (28%)…”

In South America, curiously enough, it’s the smaller countries of Ecuador and Peru that attracted more Americans than any other country on the continent23,386, or 1% of all U.S. citizens living overseas.  Again, we don’t know whether this is down to the beautiful landscapes and beaches Ecuador and Peru are known for, but they managed to beat the region’s economic powers of Brazil and Argentina to the top of American relocation preferences in South America. Now that we know – more or less – where in the world Americans live, which countries are Americans moving to?  

Goodbye Economic Uncertainty, Hello Tax Holidays: Where Are Americans Moving To?

While the number of Americans living in each country varied greatly over the last few years, we only considered countries, where there were at least 1,000 Americans, to ensure that the figures weren’t skewed by a dozen of Americans moving in or out.

Countries with Largest Net Gains 

Four of the top 10 countries that saw the highest % upswing in the # of U.S. citizens moving in are on the list of biggest corporate tax havens.

While Luxembourg does impose taxation on both personal and corporate income, Qatar and Cayman Islands do not, while Hong Kong’s personal income tax is capped at 17%.  Considering that Americans are obliged to file taxes even if they live outside the U.S., it seems logical that many would be keen to minimize the tax burden in their new home country.  Other than looking for a tax break, Americans seem to also seek out beautiful landscapes, with countries Iceland, Peru, and Czechia (formerly known as Czech Republic) all in the top ten having gained between 15% and 19% of American residents since 2017. On the regional level, it’s South America that saw the greatest % increase in new residents from the U.S. – 25% more Americans now live on the continent than in 2017.

Countries with Greatest Net Losses 

Looking at the countries that saw the biggest drop in the number of Americans living in them, Singapore is at the top of that list. The American population of Singapore shrank by more than 17% between 2017 and 2019. Other countries among the top 10 net losers include Tanzania, Mali, and Venezuelacountries whose political situation took a turn for the worse in recent years.

The three countries on the Mediterranean – Italy, Albania, and Greece – also have been going through economic difficulties in recent years.  The overall region with the biggest decline in transplants? Well, it’s the rest of North America. Maybe Americans aren’t as keen on moving to Canada or Mexico as they used to be.

To see how many Americans all the world’s countries gained or lost, check our map below. Countries that saw a net gain are shaded blue, and those that saw a net decline are shaded yellow.

Love, Languages, and Low Cost of Living: Why Americans Move Abroad

Okay, so why are people moving out of the country? In another parallel to how Americans move within the country, love tends to play a big part in the decision to move abroad.

“Four of the top 10 countries that saw the highest % upswing in the # of U.S. citizens moving in are on the list of biggest corporate tax havens.”

While our very own study from last year found that around a quarter (24%) moved to pursue a romantic relationship, a survey by the global expat site InterNations in 2018 found that 17% of Americans who moved abroad did so to join their romantic partner. Another 13% – to improve their language skills, while 44% noted that they enjoyed the lower cost of living in their new home country. A similar 2019 study by the American Expat Finance found that 39% moved abroad for romantic reasons, while 28% did so for professional opportunities, with a further 8% simply decided to go on an adventure. 

Retirement abroad also seems to be fast becoming a popular choice. The Social Security Administration noted a 40% increase in the number of retirees drawing their social security overseas, according to CNBC report, which cites affordable healthcare and better weather as key factors for those retiring abroad. According to the report by Randstad – a global HR consultancy – the top reasons for Americans to move to a different country were: better salary (66%), better work-life balance (64%), and to search for a more meaningful career (58%).

Do Americans Really Leave for Political Reasons?

What about the political discontent? Did many Americans move abroad due to the political situation in the country since the last election?

The studies of Americans abroad certainly don’t show it, although the impetus appears to be there. As evidenced by this Gallup survey, for example, 16% would prefer to permanently leave the U.S. rather than staying in America. That said, one study out of Kent University in the UK registered “leaving a bad or disappointing situation in the U.S.” as one of the top motivations for potentially moving abroad, noted by 49% of respondents.

One way to explain this is the discrepancy between aspirations and means. As Gallup’s survey points out, the interest to leave the country is highest among America’s poorest residents – those least financially capable of making such a radical change. Another way to explain the lack of politically motivated moves among expats is the role politics plays in their lives. While the situation in the country might be of concern to some, factors like relationships, family, career, and education play a much bigger part in a serious decision that is moving abroad.

Whether seeking for more sunshine, following their loved ones, or pursuing their career passions, millions of Americans have been moving abroad in the last few years. Sure, most of them only went just north or just south of the border, but many others traveled further, and now there are anywhere between 6 and 10 million Americans living in over 160 countries of the world.

Thinking of making a big leap? Consider your options, do your research, and make sure to weigh up all the pros and cons of changing countries. We at HireAHelper might not be able to help with that part, but can certainly help ensure that the stateside part of your move goes smoothly. 

Sources and Methodology
Unless otherwise stated, all the visualizations appearing in this post are made on the basis of the “International migrant stock 2019” statistics series produced by the United Nations. While its estimates of Americans residing abroad are likely conservatively low, it remains the only detailed source of such data.
As the U.S. doesn’t track the # of its citizens moving abroad and the United Nations producing data based on # of people with certain citizenship living in a given country, there are not deterministic figures on the number of Americans leaving the country each year. 
Countries with the biggest net gains and losses in the number of Americans living there were determined based on the change in the number of U.S. citizens in that country, as it appears by the United Nations statistics.
Countries for which there is no data, aren’t necessarily countries where no Americans live. These gaps in the data are likely down to peculiarities of local statistics on foreign citizen population, or simply lack thereof.
Illustrations by Deborah Lee

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