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Retiring in Belize

So you fell in love with the Belize experience, outdoors and indoors, met some expats who bought their beachfront lot for a song, and want to do the same for your retirement years? Here's the scoop on what you can really expect if you decide to follow suit.

Belize can be enchanting for potential retirees. The climate is frost-free. Land and housing costs are still moderate, especially compared with already popular areas of the Caribbean. The official language is English, and the historical and legal background of the country is more comparable to that of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain than most other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Belize has a stable and democratic, if sometimes colorful, political tradition. Recreational activities, on land and on the water, are almost limitless.

But there are drawbacks: high costs for imported food, fuel, and household items; high import duties (up to 70% of retail value or higher on imported vehicles); crime and drug problems; culture shock for those unaccustomed to the ways of a semitropical, developing country with a true multicultural society; growing resentment of foreigners; plenty of red tape and petty corruption; increasing taxes such as the 12.5% Goods and Services Tax (GST) on everything from refrigerators to cars and restaurant meals; a 5% transfer tax on real estate purchases by foreigners, payable by the buyer (buyers of new condos or houses also pay 12.5% sales tax, the latter usually built into the sales price); and, most important for many retirees, medical care that in many cases isn't up to first-world snuff.

If retirement or relocation in Belize still sounds like a good option for you, there are three options to look into:

The Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Program. It's run by the Belize Tourism Board, and anyone at least 45 years old is eligible to participate in the program. It requires a pension, Social Security, or other provable, reliable income of at least US$2,000 a month. In return, you (and your spouse and minor children) have the right to import household goods, a car, boat, and even an airplane free of import duty. Income generated from outside Belize isn’t taxed by Belize. Although as a QRP participant you can’t work for pay in Belize, you can own a business and have employees who work for you. Hundreds of QRP applications have been approved since the program was started in 2001. It's a wonder that more haven't applied: 75 million baby boomers in the United States alone are expected to retire over the next 20 years. Many of them will be looking for alternatives to cold winters and high prices up north. Contact the Tourism Board for more information (www.belizeretirement.org).

Official Permanent Residency. For those not ready to retire, it's still possible to move to Belize, although work permits usually are difficult to obtain and salaries are a fraction of those in the United States, Canada, or Western Europe. The best option may be to invest in or start a business in Belize that employs Belizean workers, thus paving the way for a self-employment work permit and residency.

With official Permanent Residency, you can work in Belize or operate a business, just like any Belizean. You can bring in household goods duty-free. Before you can apply for residency, you need to live in Belize for a year leaving for no more than two weeks. Permanent Residency applications are handled by the Belize Immigration Department and may take a few months to a year for approval. Belize citizenship requires living in Belize for at least five years as a Permanent Resident.

Regular Tourist Permit. Many expats simply stay in Belize on a tourist permit (actually, it’s a stamp in your passport). Upon entry, you receive a free visitor permit, good for up to 30 days. This permit can be renewed at any Immigration office for BZ$50 a month for up to six months. After that, renewals cost BZ$100 a month. With a tourist permit, you can’t work in Belize. Renewals are never guaranteed, and the rules could change at any time.

Ambergris Caye, the Corozal Town area, Placencia and Hopkins, and Cayo have attracted the largest number of foreign residents, some full-time and others snowbirds. Ambergris Caye, the number choice for expats, has an idyllic Caribbean island atmosphere, but real estate prices here are high. Corozal Town and its environs have among Belize's lowest living costs, and Mexico is right next door. The Cayo appeals to those who want land for growing fruit trees or keeping a few horses. Placencia and Hopkins have some of the best beaches in Belize. More off-the-beaten-path areas, such as Punta Gorda area in Toledo District and parts of northeast Corozal District on the Bay of Chetumal, such as Sarteneja, are beginning to generate interest from foreigners looking for lower stress and more affordable land prices.

The best advice for anyone contemplating retiring or relocating: Try before you buy. If possible, rent an apartment or house for a few months. Be cautious about buying property. Real-estate agents generally aren't licensed or regulated, and because the pool of qualified buyers in Belize is small, it's a lot harder to sell than to buy. Bottom line: Belize isn't for everyone. The country, as seen from the perspective of a resident, isn't the same as the Belize that's experienced by vacationers.

Easy Belize, by Lan Sluder (author of Fodor's Belize), is a handbook for those considering retiring or relocation in Belize. The author, with more than 20 years’ experience in Belize, interviewed scores of expats and retirees in Belize to help provide readers with a realistic view of the pros and cons of living here.

Updated: 2013-12-18

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