A common perception of expatriates is of retirees looking to enjoy a different climate and way of life during their work-free years. But people become expats for a variety of reasons – for their careers, a better lifestyle, and healthcare, among others.
Modern technology has changed the expat game. Whether it be telehealth, insurance apps, or simply working remotely, technology’s impact on the lives of current and potential expats cannot be underestimated.
To be able to assist expats, insurers need to first understand who they are, where they are going, and why. This has changed over time and so have expats’ expectations of their insurers and their products. Thus, to meet customer needs and wants, the modern expat needs to be explained.
Who are modern expats?
Data from the 2023 Expat Insider report by InterNations – which surveyed more than 12,000 expats worldwide, representing 171 nationalities and living in 172 countries or territories – presents the characteristics of today’s expats.
Understandably, those aged 61 and above represent the largest age group (18 per cent), but the average age of all expats is 46.2 years, according to the report. The top five age groups are:
• 61 and above – 18 per cent
• 36–40 – 14 per cent
• 31–35 – 13 per cent
• 41–45 – 12 per cent
• 46–50 – 11 per cent.
Joe Thomas, UK Managing Director at APRIL International, said these results reflect the international health insurer’s policyholders’ demographics: “The average age of a long-term policyholder at APRIL International is in the range of 35 to 46, with the split relatively evenly balanced between males and females,” he said.
Therefore, the majority are of working age. In fact, jobs and careers are some of the main motivations for moving abroad, with the top three reasons cited by InterNations being finding themselves a new role abroad (15 per cent), being recruited internationally (10 per cent) and being sent to the destination country by their employer (nine per cent).
Opportunities for remote working post-pandemic have transformed the definition of an expat. “Historically, expats have been viewed as retired couples who left home for warmer weather,” explained Arjan Toor, CEO of global health service company Cigna Healthcare. “But in the post-Covid-19 world where working from home is second nature, there is no such thing as a typical expat.”
Opportunities for remote working post-pandemic have transformed the definition of an expat
Conversely, Lynn Pina, Chief Marketing Officer at international health insurer GeoBlue, believes that the definition hasn’t changed. She explained: “I wouldn’t say the definition has changed per se, as much as the addition of different and new categories of people who may be living and/or working abroad. For example, thanks to the post-pandemic trend of remote work, we know that there is a whole new class of workers – termed ‘international remote workers’ – who may be working abroad but not on a formal work assignment for a company.”
This view was shared by Lauren Gumport, VP of Communications and Brand Strategy at Faye: “I’m not sure the definition has changed, but I think the notion of it has become more common – especially with Covid-19 pushing working remotely so significantly. The idea of living and working abroad has become more mainstream and acceptable.”
Where are they headed?
With the characteristics of the modern expat more clearly defined, it is important to understand where they are moving to and why more than a third of all expats (35 per cent) told InterNations they were prepared to stay in these nations indefinitely.
Joe Cronin, CEO of International Citizens Insurance, a provider of expatriate insurance, explained the factors he’s witnessed expats consider: “Many of them choose countries that they perceive as providing both good healthcare and a low risk of crime or international conflict.
“Others are seeking a higher quality of life, which may include factors like better climate, work-life balance, or access to outdoor activities. The cost of living abroad, including housing, healthcare, food, and cost of daily living, can also be a determining factor,” he said.
According to the Expat Insider report, the most common countries of residence are Germany, Spain, UAE, US, and Switzerland.
Despite being the most common country for expats to head to, Germany actually ranks 49th out of 53 countries in the survey. InterNations explained why: “When starting life in Germany, expats face big challenges due to the country’s lack of digitalisation, the inflexible bureaucracy, and the tense situation in the housing market.” The country also fared badly in terms of happiness, friendliness, and language.
In contrast, Spain had an overall ranking of second, finishing top on the Quality of Life Index, thanks to its health, wellbeing, and leisure options. InterNations said: “Overall, 87 per cent of expats are happy with their life in Spain, compared to 72 per cent globally.” It also noted, though, that working life is where the country struggles, with many expats struggling with career prospects and the local jobs market.
The UAE ranks highly across many of the indexes in the survey – Expat Essentials (second), Working Abroad (fourth) and Quality of Life (fourth) – including at the top for infrastructure for cars, government support of environmental policies, a creative local business culture, and the ease of getting a visa. However, in the Work and Leisure subcategory, many expats to the UAE experience poor work-life balance and low pay, and in the Personal Finance Index, respondents are also unhappy with their financial situation, citing low disposable incomes.
Career prospects are much better in the US by comparison – ranking first in this subcategory – and it places highly among digital and language subcategories too. However, expats say their money isn’t going far enough, with housing and healthcare being particularly expensive there. And, although career prospects are high, working life takes its toll with expats dissatisfied with working hours, work-life balance, and the ‘hire-and-fire’ culture in the US.
Switzerland is also an expensive country to live in, although 65 per cent of expats are satisfied with their financial situation and 82 per cent say their disposable income offers them the opportunity to live comfortably. It also ranks positively for travel and transport opportunities, recreational sports and environmental policies, but many expats to Switzerland feel lonely – it has never been out of the bottom 10 countries in the Ease of Settling In Index, said InterNations.
Looking at their own clients, Pina and Thomas shared the locations that they have travelled to. “Among GeoBlue’s clients, which are comprised mostly of traditional corporate expats on long-term work assignments, our top countries are South Korea, Germany, Hong Kong, China, Japan and the UK,” said Pina.
“Typical destinations are Europe, countries in Asia – such as Thailand and Singapore – and the Gulf,” said Thomas. “Africa is also a continent with emerging markets and growing economies, which is appealing to expats.”
How have things changed, and why?
The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated a lot of issues and also made people refocus on what they wanted in life. For a lot of people, this included travel plans, especially since it was so limited at the time. “After the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, people don’t want to put their dreams of travel on hold,” said Cronin.
Another trend that has taken over the working world, and particularly the travel sector since the pandemic, is the rise of digital nomads. Governments have responded to this trend by creating visas for these travellers. “More than 50 countries now offer digital nomad visas, and that number is growing,” said Cronin. “Plus, since 2020, workplaces are more open to remote options – many are still entirely remote. So the digital nomad sector has bounced back and will grow more.” He also gave the examples of Thailand, Costa Rica, and Portugal, which all offer digital nomad visas of varying lengths.
Gumport explained that Portugal created its visa because of the Covid-19 pandemic ‘to welcome in those who want to live and work abroad’. Toor also echoed this sentiment: “Remote working opportunities and greater connectivity have made living globally more attractive in recent years, and with people more likely to re-evaluate their lives since the pandemic, lifestyle has replaced finances as the priority for moving overseas. It’s no longer just about the salary and perks of the job,” he said.
The global cost of living crisis has also sparked an increasing number of people leaving their home countries in search of a cheaper life. One country that has experienced a number of residents leaving for a more cost-effective lifestyle is the US – particularly retirees, who are looking for affordable retirement locations. Cronin explained why: “Expats are drawn to locations that have a lower cost of living, including Mexico and Costa Rica. Mexico has a four-year non-lucrative visa that most expats can qualify for, and life is less expensive there. If you can work or retire remotely, why not save money while exploring the beaches and mountains of Costa Rica?”
Clients can now transact the majority of their business with the insurer online and receive more timely updates
What are insurers doing?
In terms of health insurance, Covid-19 not only impacted the health sector directly, but also the general population’s attitude towards their health. “The past three years, and their global difficulties, have been a wake-up call for many expatriates,” Cronin emphasised. “They’ve seen the limits of what public healthcare and their embassy or consulate can do in challenging circumstances. For medical evacuations or repatriations, there’s no substitute for a good international insurance policy.”
Another way that policies have adapted to the expat lifestyle post-pandemic is by offering telehealth. “The pandemic saw a dramatic increase in acceptance and adoption of telehealth by consumers and providers,” explained Pina. “No longer a niche offering, telehealth is now becoming a fundamental building block in delivering greater access to care across a range of medical specialties and needs, from primary care to chronic care to mental and behavioural health services.”
Overall, to benefit expats, especially digital nomads who are travelling more readily, digital insurance solutions are the focus of many insurers. For example, GeoBlue offers ‘eClaims capabilities, telehealth, a robust mobile app that has a suite of digital tools’, said Pina. Faye also offers digital tools to be used via smartphones, explained Gumport. “We’re already enabling Faye travellers to do a ton via their phones via the Faye app: get their trips covered, receive real-time alerts on their flights, see local crucial destination info, file claims and be reimbursed on approved claims to their phone’s wallet,” she said.
Cronin explained why digital solutions are beneficial to insureds: “Clients can now transact the majority of their business with the insurer online and receive more timely updates and access to more comprehensive plan information in real time,” he said.
Insurers are also helping policyholders with more practical issues. Thomas explained what APRIL International does: “Providing members with support on navigating through the health system in their new country is equally important – from helping them choose a doctor to finding the right medical facility and answering any questions they might have about their cover,” he said.
In addition, emotional and wellbeing support is being provided by insurers to ‘offer a full solution, one that supports individuals’ personal life, their work lives and everything in between’, according to Toor. “At Cigna Healthcare, we provide tools and resources, not just to help with what people can expect when moving abroad, but also to support wellbeing and mental health, including virtual healthcare, and counselling,” he added.
The expat experience
Although insurers are simplifying processes for expats, making the practical transition easier from a health and travel perspective, there are other major practical issues that have to be sorted. “With a family move, the needs of different generations must be considered – moving children away from their friends, finding new schools and suitable accommodation are just some of the life changes,” said Toor. “A younger couple may be leaving behind older parents and an established friendship group, while a retired couple may have the reverse situation whereby they’re leaving their younger family members and an established way of life.”
Adapting to a new lifestyle is a challenge, but an important part of any expat experience, as Gumport – an expat herself – can attest. From her experience of relocating from the US to Tel Aviv, she advised: “Make local friends, learn the language as best you can, embrace cultural differences and ask for help.”