Retiring in Guatemala: Immigration, housing and banking

Retiring in Guatemala is a great option if you are looking for a country that still has a strong identity, beautiful landscapes, and a low cost of living. An ever growing number of US and European expats decide to make Guatemala their home after falling in love with the country during their first visit.

peten guatemala

Including me. I love Guatemala for so many reasons, but the people and diversity is one of the main traits that makes me fall again and again for Guatemala. Imagine a country where you could wake up in the highlands, surrounded by volcanoes, have a feast of shrimp and grilled fish on the beach for lunch, and soak in thermal waters at night? That is how diverse Guatemala is, and all that within one hour drive or two.

Before you decide to retire in Guatemala, I would recommend that you spend a couple of extended holidays there. The weather is at its best during the Northern hemisphere winter, and in a month or two, you could get a good grasp of the whole country, then decide on your favorite retirement spot.

The main destination to retire in Guatemala is Antigua Guatemala. A beautiful colonial town surrounded by volcanoes, where life is slow and really easy for expats. The second most popular destination is gorgeous Lake Atitlán, a volcanic lake about three hours drive from the capital. If you enjoy a stunning natural setting, and a more local lifestyle, Lake Atitlán is your best bet. Other options include the Pacific Coast, the Caribbean, although Belize and Honduras have better beaches than Guatemala, and remote Peten, the heart of the Mayan culture. I personally have made my home in Peten, where prices are much lower than in the South of the country, and live in a beautiful lakeside property next to the sleepy colonial town of Flores.

The first matter on your list if you are planning to retire in Guatemala will be immigration. Most nationalities, including US and European Community are allowed to visit Guatemala for 90 days without a visa. You can renew your residency for a further 90 days with a simple application to the immigration bureau. Then you have to exit the country. As many expats just come over for 4 to 6 months in winter, this is the option they choose. If you wish to stay all year long, getting a 2 year residency is pretty easy, and with the help of a qualified lawyer should cost around $1500. At the end of the two years, you have to apply for another two years, after which you are allowed to request a permanent residency.

Then comes finding a house and setting up utilities. As I said before, I recommend that you visit the country for at least a month before you take the plunge. You should meet with realtors there and get a feel of rental and sale prices. From your home country, you can find a few real estate agencies online, although their listings are often outdated and they do not work well with email. Most speak good English though and will attend you as well as possible once you get there. Finding a hotel for a week is a good solution while you sort out longer term housing. Utilities are usually kept to the first house owner’s name, because the procedure to put your name on it is tedious. Water is generally provided by a dwell inside the condo, and included in the condo fee, or a fix rate is set by the council. Rarely do you get a meter. Expect to pay around $10 per month for a flat rate, meters are more expensive. Electricity is quite reliable, after five years of living here I have never spent more than six hours without it, there are power cuts of 30 minutes every once in a while but nothing to worry about. Claro and Tigo are the main internet providers, they offer 3G USB sticks that you can take all around the country. Both providers offer terrible service and high prices, expect to pay $40 per month for one laptop, or one smartphone connection.

If your savings are still in the US on a dollar account, you may not want to open a bank account in Guatemala. Several US banks offer credit cards with no fee or commission on ATM withdrawals abroad, allowing you to withdraw as little money as you need for a day or two. Make sure you set up internet banking before you go, so you can access your accounts online. If you prefer to open a bank account, knowing someone in Guatemala will help, as the bank generally asks for a reference. The exchange rate is around 8 Quetzales to the dollar, and has been ever since I first visited in 2003. The US dollar is widely accepted and all the major banks offer banking and credit cards in US dollars. It is unlikely that you will get a credit card as first though, with no credit history, but they will give you a debit card and checkbook with your current account. Outside of Guatemala City and Antigua, most businesses are cash only, but you now find ATMs in all the smaller towns.

For a more detailed estimate of your monthly budget, please refer to the budget article.

Comments

  1. I really appreciate all of the information you have provided here. My mother is looking to retire in Guatemala and I am trying to arrange for her visa. Could you please let me know if you applied for your 2 year residency visa in the states or in Guatemala? I would like to know if it is possible (or necessary) to apply for a visa at the Guatemala embassy before departing for Guatemala.

    • Hi Juliet, I applied in Guatemala but it was a work visa so I don’t know about retirement visas. What I would advise is for your mother to come spend 3 months in Guatemala on a tourist visa and first see if she really can see herself living there, then try to arrange as much on site as possible. She can come back home for a couple of month then do the permanent move.

  2. I am trying to obtain land in El Remata Flores It is lakeside land and controlled by Municipality under a lease situation although bought by the current owner. I need to find an English speaking lawyer to look at the lease and tell me if a S.A company can be set up in my name for the lease transfer. I want to start a Permacuture project eventually to provide community and to show how to grow food sustainably along with water storage.
    I am attending the PDC course in December with Atitlan Organics.
    Can you help? I feel like I am climbing mountains in my slippers at the moment but like Mr. Luthor King ‘ I have a dream’
    I am British so long way to come but.
    Thank you

    • Hi Cheryll, the lakeside properties are NEVER fully owned unless the first deed on the property was done before 1954 which is very unlikely in El Remate. All the municipal concessions have now to be tranfered to OCRET, which is a governmental concession. The owner should be in the process of doing that and transfering his concession to OCRET. It takes about 6 months and once it is done he can transfer to you. Or you can buy the municipal concession but it is riskier, it is not uncommon that 2-3 owners are fighting for the same piece of land and you may get in trouble. Sorry I don’t know any English speaking lawyer around there, but you can drop me an email and I may be able to help with my lawyer.

      • Hi Pauline,
        I have now tracked a list of English speaking Lawyers in Guatemala and have one on the case. I know it is complicated which is why I needed clarification. I really do appreciate your input and it has given me a little more knowledge, so thank you. If you want the list compiled by the American authorities to keep on file for others, then do let me know.
        Cheryll

  3. MARIO R COMPARINI says:

    Dear Pauline,
    Liked you review and recommendations. My wife and I are planning to retire within 5 years approximately. I have family in Guatemala and they may assist us when we get there. Plan to live in a farm south of Guatemala City(family owned). We may not have any mortgage payments then, just the usual utilities and other basic necessities. My concern is health insurance coverage.

    • Hi Mario, soudns like a nice plan, regarding healthcare some companies offer health insurance, depending on your age and shape it may be better to have savings and cover your own costs. Guatemala’s hospitals are around 30% cheaper than the US for the best ones, with US trained doctors, but if you need intensive treatment then insurance may be safer.

      • Mario Comparini says:

        Thanks for your response. What would be an affordable income in $ for a retired couple who wish to live comfortably in Guatemala. $ 2500,3000,etc. you get the picture. Appreciate your input.

        Sincerely, Mario Comparini

        • Hi Mario, you can check my post about the cost of retiring in Guatemala http://sanpedroitza.com/retire-guatemala-costs/
          if you do not pay for accommodation, $1,000-$1,500 can be enough for two, $300 for food, $300 for staff, $200 for utilities, and the rest for travel, health and transportation. Then add accommodation (anywhere from $500 to $3,000+ depending on location and amenities) and how many times you want to fly back per year.

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