Expat Insider, one of the biggest surveys about living and working abroad, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Kathrin, Chief Marketing Officer at InterNations, and Margit, Senior Content & Communications Manager, reminisce about a decade of Expat Insider.
What were the results that surprised them most? Should the survey report be considered an endorsement of any specific destination or rather a general resource? And how does the survey still manage to receive an impressive media coverage of more than 1,000 articles per year?
The Expat Insider 2023 report was published a week ago, featuring data from more than 12,000 respondents worldwide. It ranks 53 countries according to five topics: Quality of Life, Working Abroad, Ease of Settling in, Personal Finances, and Expat Essentials (Housing, Admin Topics, Language, Digital Life), plus expats’ overall personal satisfaction with life abroad.
What results surprised you personally most?
Margit: In our first survey back in 2014, Mexico already scored very well. It did so for the same reasons as this year, where it ranks first again. It’s an affordable destination, the people are friendly, and it’s a good place for globetrotters and retirees. Back then, this surprised me. I’d imagined that countries where you can boost your career would come out on top.
Other lifestyle destinations, such as Panama, Spain, and Portugal, also make it into the top 10 of this year’s ranking. These are places where people move for a nicer quality of life or for retiring abroad. They don’t necessarily relocate to get the best job and earn tons of money.
And with the rise of remote work, these countries are probably becoming even more attractive. Some of them have already introduced visas aimed at digital nomads.
How astonished were you about Germany ranking among the bottom 10 destinations for expats in 2023?
Margit: Well, Germany didn’t always rank quite so poorly globally. One reason for its most recent drop in our ranking is probably that we introduced the Expat Essentials Index to our survey last year. It specifically deals with Housing, Language, Digital Life, and Administration. Our survey had included some rating factors from these areas before. But bundling them all in an index of their own gave them more weight.
So, it’s no wonder that Germany’s results got even worse. We have a housing crisis in most big cities, the places expats typically move to because that’s where the jobs are. The German language isn’t easy to learn, the country’s way behind on digitalization, and the bureaucracy can be a nightmare.
But over the years, Germany has also become worse in other indices, such as Personal Finances. I think that the rising cost of living might also explain why people are less and less satisfied.
How accurate are the survey results?
Kathrin: We promote the survey in our InterNations Communities. Therefore, the overwhelming share of participants are our members. This introduces a certain bias, as our member base is not representative of the whole expat population in any given country.
Still, our respondents are expats from all over the world. They do share some interesting insights on life abroad which might be hard to come by otherwise.
Margit: I think the Expat Insider report is a helpful tool for research, but you shouldn’t take the survey as a recommendation or an endorsement to move anywhere in particular.
For example, in our ranking this year, Norway dropped to a second-to-last place globally. But what if you really fancy moving to Norway? Maybe it’s best to look at our survey in detail and see where exactly Norway does badly. Then you can decide if these are aspects you can personally live with.
Or another country might have a poor local job market. But if your job back home allows for remote work from abroad, this might not be an issue for you.
And this also works the other way round: If a country does really well, it’s not an automatic green light for you to go ahead and move there. It could still be the wrong place for you personally.
Kathrin: Yes, exactly. The results are based on the subjective opinions of the participants, and everyone has to weigh the pros and cons for themselves. Is it the friendliness of the population, the culture, the language, or the job market that’s important to you?
Once you’ve clarified this for yourself, the survey can be a great additional resource. After all, it’s based on the experience of people who actually live in these countries.
Expat Insider is celebrating its 10th publication this year. Over the last decade, what were the biggest obstacles when you were working on the survey?
Kathrin: The biggest challenge is always to get enough participants to provide a truly global picture of what life is like abroad. In the big expat hubs, we easily get hundreds of responses per country, but in smaller or off-the-beaten-track destinations, we sometimes struggle. That’s why this year, we feature only 53 countries in the ranking.
With journalists, it can be difficult to explain to them why we can’t draw certain conclusions based on our data. In our analysis, we do not look at correlations between different ratings.
For example, we can’t say that satisfaction with work-life balance is always higher in countries with lower average working hours. It may be true in many cases, but there is no established correlation between these two factors. However, journalists often want exactly these types of catchy statements.
How come you manage to achieve such a huge media echo every year, with more than 1,000 articles worldwide? What exactly catches the journalists’ interest every time?
Kathrin: Journalists love rankings.
Margit: Everyone loves a good ranking! You can turn it into listicles and slideshows too …
Kathrin: Some countries even seem to take delight in their bad results, especially when the topic features in the current public debate. The Austrian press is always happy to report on the unfriendliness of their local population.
And our recent Expat Essentials press release hit a nerve in Germany. There’s an ongoing discussion about how the country can attract more highly skilled workers from abroad and why they don’t like it here. Our ranking gave reasons for why expats are unhappy in Germany, so the press coverage was extremely high.
Margit: I think the interest of the German press was also high because everyone has strong opinions about some of these topics. Germany’s lack of digitalization and the way it impacts our bureaucracy is something locals struggle with as well.
So, some newspapers like to reflect and report on the state of their own country. But others talk more about the overall Expat Insider ranking with the best and worst destinations around the world.
Margit: Yes, indeed. For example, India’s media always seem interested in our survey. India exports a lot of skilled workers and specialists, and therefore their media outlets like to report on the countries where people enjoy living abroad.
Kathrin, when you had the idea of a global expat survey 10 years ago, did you think it would be such a success story?
Kathrin: To be honest, I think I approached it a bit naively. If I had known how big the survey would become one day and how complex it is, I might not have had the courage to start it in the first place.
What made it such a challenge — but also such a big achievement — was that we were completely new to the subject. Compared to our biggest competitor in the field of expat surveys at the time, we had a tiny fraction of their budget and personal resources. But we managed to at least equal them in popularity and success.
How come that the Expat Insider results sometimes differ strongly from those of other surveys about living and working abroad?
Margit: The results will always depend on what kind of questions you ask. If you ask about tax policy, international tax havens will score a lot better, which they do in some surveys.
Other surveys also look at objective data, for example, the actual cost of living in a certain country. But we simply ask our respondents how they subjectively rate the cost of living abroad, which is obviously a different matter.
After a decade of analyzing more than 12,000 questionnaires per year: which development can you see in InterNations members?
Kathrin: Looking just at the reasons for moving abroad, we’ve noticed that the share of people on a typical assignment has been declining slightly. I believe that expats are getting more diverse in terms of demographics and their motivation for going abroad.
Though we haven’t really dug into our data to confirm this, it is well known that the expat population is no longer dominated by the Western assignees who coined the term “expat” in the first place. A big share of today’s expats come from other parts of the world and help to fill the skills shortages in Western countries.
Image credit: InterNations