While it’s true that many expats don’t really get to choose whether they live in a big city or a small town in a foreign country, many actually do have the choice. I’ve lived mostly in larger foreign cities, but I’ve also experienced smaller towns abroad, and as I’m preparing to move yet again I thought it would be worth discussing the merits of both.
As with so many of these topics, if you are fluent in the local language it becomes a different question altogether. In other words, if you are a Brit moving to New Zealand you’ll have far fewer complications than a Brit moving to Vietnam.
Advantages of big cities
1 – Employment opportunities
Many people move abroad for their retirement, and those people have the advantage of not having to find a local job. There are also so-called digital nomads, like myself, who can work anywhere there is an internet connection, but most other expats will be working in their adopted country, and the better jobs tend to be concentrated in the large cities.
2 – Far more resources
When changing countries it’s inevitable that you’ll be giving up some familiar things from home, and you are far more likely to find those things or local equivalents in larger cities. Food is one obvious example where you can find large supermarkets in most big cities, while in smaller towns you might have only a few small shops and an outdoor farmer’s market. The small town choices can seem wonderful at first, but eventually you’ll long for more variety and things from elsewhere.
3 – Bigger expat communities
Again, if you aren’t fluent in the local language, having an expat community around you to rely on can make a huge difference in your life. The larger the city the more likely it will contain a community of some kind from your home country, but it might also be very spread out, so researching this in advance is wise. On the other hand, if you find a small town with an expat community, it can be even better because it will be more concentrated and everything will be less overwhelming.
4 – Coming and going is easier
With only a few exceptions, flights from the large-city airports will be cheaper and go to more destinations than flights from smaller airports. In fact, in many cases you’ll need to fly or drive to the big airport and go from there, so the rest of the world will feel farther away. If you have to pay US$200 more or spend a full day on the road both coming and going, those trips home won’t be nearly as easy.
Advantages of small towns
1 – Everything is cheaper
It’s pretty much a universal truth around the world that the larger the city in each country, the more expensive it will be. Except for perhaps some of the Phuket beaches, Bangkok is the most expensive city in Thailand, for example. If you can work out a good lifestyle in a smaller town, it’s going to cost a lot less, which will give you more opportunities to travel or have a better lifestyle in other ways.
2 – It’s easier making local friends
Some people are better than others at making friends wherever they go, but I think most would agree that it’s easier to make friends in a smaller community, provided you can communicate with them. When you can walk to the local market and recognize the same faces most of the time, you’ll be recognized as well, and becoming friendly is a short step away. In large cities the people are conditioned to keep their heads down, so it will usually take more effort.
3 – A less intimidating atmosphere
The overall quality of life certainly depends on whether you are a big city person who likes nightlife and culture or someone who prefers quiet and room to breathe, but I think nearly everyone would agree that small towns are far less intimidating for foreigners. In a small coastal community in Panama, for example, people will recognize the new face and will usually offer to help, while in Panama City it will feel like everything is just flying by. This is true even if you are fluent in the language, so it’s yet another thing to consider if you are lucky enough to have a choice.