Retire in Europe

Now is one of the best times for Australians to pack up and move to Europe. The great attraction is real estate. In France, Spain, Greece and Portugal the real estate markets have collapsed. And combined with the current strength of the Australian dollar, this means that it has become affordable to live what is the European dream of many.

At the moment, you can buy the classic chateau in France for A$750,000 or the ubiquitous and gorgeous stone country cottage for less than A$120,000 – but with the old, stone pretty ones, beware of reconstruction/renovation costs and upkeep.

In Spain, apartments and luxury homes are up for grabs—cheap. Prices have fallen by almost half in many areas. You can buy a four-bedroom apartment in a hilltop town in southern Spain, with expansive rural views and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and beaches ten minutes away, for about A$400,000. Or you can buy a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Barcelona for around A$150,000.

And, of course, there is the whole European lifestyle thing: the food and wine, the people, the culture, the proximity to so many wonderful countries, the landscape, including great skiing, and even the politics.

But the fact is, Europe is not as cheap as Asia. Europe is not fundamentally cheaper, as is Asia.

If you want a luxurious lifestyle in Europe, you will pay for it. Perhaps, right now, not as much as you would in Australia, but certainly more than in Asia. And, unlike most countries in Asia, Australia is not a mere six to eight hours away on a direct flight.

As well, there are issues with long stay visas for the non-EU passport holder.

Even so, for the well off Eurocentric retiree, Europe provides a real opportunity for a new life after retirement, whether for a few months, a year of forever.

Visas for Europe 

The VISA stumbling block.

There is, however, one massive problem in ‘packing up and taking off’ to Europe. And that is the difficulty of obtaining a long-stay visa. 

The Schengen Convention limits non-EU or non-UK citizens to just three months stay in any one six month period in the Schengen area. (See Visa Box)

All is not lost though. Long-term visas are available. But they are not easy to obtain.

Visa rules relating to long-term periods - mostly for study, work and business visits - are determined by each individual EU country. 

A Window – Long Stay Visas.

 Australian citizens who wish to stay in a Schengen country, like France or Spain, for more than 90 days must get a visa.

Applications must be made to the Schengen member country directly. The rules/requirements can vary between countries. France (see visa box) may have different requirements than say Portugal or Spain (see visa box).

It is achievable, but it takes time, energy and it is never a sure thing until you get your visa.

Fiona, who has lived in Paris for several years, has never had a problem with visa renewal because as she says “France loves to welcome anyone who is creative. They have special rules for writers, artists and the like. It is time consuming to apply and then to renew every year. But once you know the drill, it is fine.”

Similarly, Penny who lives in Provence was issued with a long stay visa and a carte de sejour over 10 years ago when the rules were less strict. She renews her visa every year at the local prefecture and this year she was surprised when they presented her with a 10-year visa. She was not told the reason for this but presumes it is because she has lived there for a decade. Needless to say, she is delighted. The biggest problem Penny had encountered with the yearly visa renewal was providing proof of income. She needed a friendly bank manager to sign a letter every year confirming that she would receive an income equivalent to at least 1,000 euros a month. Bank managers change periodically and some are less willing than others to cooperate. Penny had to change her Australian bank at one stage just to ensure that she could get the right documents for visa renewal.

It certainly helps if you have dual citizenship – Australian and EU. Michael in Barcelona already had an EU passport and he finds the visa issue no problem at all. Similarly for Chelsea living  in Vejer de la Frontera, she has Spanish citizenship. However, it took several months for Chelsea’s Australian husband to obtain his residency.

Carmen and John were in a similar situation to Chelsea and her husband Michael. Carmen had lived in Australia for 20 years but she kept her Spanish citizenship. Her husband John has an Australian passport.

“We initially were misinformed by Spanish authorities in Australia,” John said. “Their reaction was - ‘Well you are married to a Spanish national so there will be no problems getting a visa to live there. Apply once you arrive in Spain.’ So, naively, we did that. But bureaucracy was invented in Spain, I think, if not France.”

John began the process in Spain in the normal way - he started looking things up on the internet, found the appropriate address and then, off he went.

“But things were not that simple,” John explained. “First of all, when I got there they would say, ‘You’ve come to the wrong office’ or ‘We do not understand what you are trying to do.’ It all had to be in Spanish of course.

“The real challenge was getting the right information. We filled out forms we thought were right on the internet, but they were not. In essence, internet information on visas is not maintained well.

“In the end I had to do what most immigrants do - I found an immigration agent. It cost 450 euros for the whole thing.”

And there was a lot of paperwork involved.

 “To prove that I could support myself and had an income I had to show bank statements, superannuation statements and so on,” John said. “This was a real chore because the documents are in the wrong language and the authorities do not understand them. Plus the bank statements had to be signed off by a bank manager, they had to be translated, and they had to include an official conversion of the bank balances to Euros.

“But the agent was good. He knew when to push back. He could say, ‘hey look at this website, it is obvious what the conversion rate of the Australian dollar is’, and so on.

“So, it is a very arbitrary process. It depends on the person you confront in the bureaucracy.”

If John had his time over, he would have used a domestic Australian immigration agent. “And I now know that there are agents in Australia who specialise in getting people Spanish visas.”

John has a retired Australian friend, with no EU links, who handled her application from Australia and although it took six months, she succeeded in obtaining a long stay visa.

“She had to demonstrate that she had health insurance – I did as well – and she had to show she had a regular income. That was not so hard as she had super savings. She did that through the Spanish authorities in Australia – the consulate in Sydney. In fact, if you do not speak Spanish, it is much easier to apply in your home country.”

In summary, there are no massive barriers, particularly if your partner has an EU passport. It is just a difficult, time consuming process. “In retrospect, at least, you see it this way and you just ask yourself why the difficulties and issues and document requirements etc could not have been better explained,” John said.