Many a traveler has landed in Buenos Aires and within less than 24 hours started to ponder the question, “Could I find a way to live here?” Some don’t just ponder it; they actually move to Argentina.
Author and book coach Helen Wilkie echoes the feeling that many have with her story of what happened after her first visit to Argentina. “I came again that same year and realized a couple of weeks would no be enough. So I came for three months, then six months, then six months again, and finally I realized this is where I want to be. So I moved here last November. I couldn’t be happier.”
I profiled a lot of expatriates living in Argentina in my book A Better Life for Half the Price, but this is the country that has gone through the most whipsaw changes since then. While most of the info in that book is still spot-on for the destinations profiled, the cost of living in Argentina has whipsawed from cheap to somewhat expensive, to cheap again in the space of just a few years.
The good news is, it’s relatively cheap here again in terms of living expenses, especially if you’re earning dollars or euros somewhere else. “tk”
A large number of people who visit Argentina seem to dream of living there for a while at some point in their life. Buenos Aires is a major tourism magnet, but that’s just the beginning in a country that has more land than Mexico or Indonesia—but with a much lower population density.
Why Move to Argentina?
There’s a lot of diversity in the landscapes of Argentina. Up north you have a dramatic desert on one side, around the Salta Province and Iguazu Falls on the other. There are seasides, cities, and farms in the middle, down to glaciers and freezing cold in the jumping off point to Antarctica.
Once you get settled in, prices can be very reasonable, especially if you have a way of bringing in lots of U.S. dollars or euros in cash. It’s not as complicated now as when I was researching the book: back then when the Kirchners were running the economy like a rigged fairground game, there were two exchange rates: the official bank one and the real one on the street. The latest government took three smart steps after taking office: scrapping the old import restrictions, eliminating the high visa fee for foreign visitors, and making the official exchange rate the same as the real market rate. The first allowed business to flourish again, the second has resulted in a dramatic rise in tourists, and the last one created some short term pain and inflation as the exchange rate started reflecting reality instead of being a subterfuge.
The transitions haven’t been easy, compounded by a drought and some commodity price issues in this land of agriculture. For those not earning in the local currency, however, it’s a great time to lock in a lease or even buy something after being there a while and getting a good feel for the market.
Ron MacDonald, a private chef and the guy behind Palermo Craft Beer Tour, moved to Argentina with his family more than four years ao. He and his wife stayed on after they left for university. “After 30+ years in Colorado, we were really tired of dealing with the winters, icy roads, and cold. The culture is what sold us on Argentina, and Buenos Aires in particular. We live in the Palermo neighborhood now, but have also lived in the Congreso, Monserrat, and San Telmo neighborhoods. We spent some time in Cordoba (more like Colorado) and have considered moving there as well because it is beautiful and cheaper than the capital city. Mendoza is another option.
Argentina Housing Prices
Keith Lang of Nomad Flag Travel traveled to Argentina to learn Spanish on his way back to Europe from New Zealand. He ended up moving there, staying 5 years. Now he’s a digital nomad on the road, but he returns to Argentina a few months at a time to live. “Inflation is rampant and landlords even set the rates at two levels, increasing the price every 6 months, instead of every year (even though contracts are yearly),” he says. “In 2006-2010 it was one of the cheapest places in the world. After that prices increased a lot. But since the recent financial problems started, it’s a value destination again. However, this could change at any moment. $1000 a month will be enough for expenses and rent (long term) in Buenos Aires. Cities like Mendoza and Salta are cheaper than Buenos Aires.”
As in many countries, living in the biggest city is going to cost you more than living in the countryside. For Lisa Besserman though, coming from Manhattan made this country seem like a screaming bargain. When I interviewed her for the book, she was paying $700 a month for a duplex apartment in Palermo Hollywood, a great neighborhood, in a doorman building with a pool. “If you transplanted this place into Soho in Manhattan,” she said, “which is a pretty similar kind of feel, it would easily cost $10,000 to $15,000 per month.”
Ron MacDonald says they eat out a lot, so he’s hesitant to give a monthly budget figure, but he does pay $650 a month for their apartment. That’s for a two-bedroom place with a nice terrace with a BBQ area and includes wifi, cable, and electricity. “Gas, electricity, and water are ridiculously cheap.”
Will Aquino, a DJ and event producer who came from Atlanta more than a decade ago, says he generally spends between US$1,000 and $,1500 a month in Buenos Aires depending on the time of year. “My general expenses are basically rent, utilities, phone, transportation and food/nightlife. My rent, utilities (gas, electric, house supplies, building expenses, housekeeper) and phone bill run me around $700. This is for an unfurnished 3br/3bt in front of a plaza with a church in Palermo.” He admits that these days, that is probably a few hundred dollars under market value. “Currently I have a friend living here so I actually pay about half of that. It’s great.”
“Life in Buenos Aires is definitely much less expensive than in Toronto,” says Helen, “even though I live in one of the most expensive barrios in the city, Recoleta. Prices have skyrocketed over the past year, but with the exchange rate as it is today, Argentina is definitely a bargain for those living on dollars—even Canadian dollars! For locals earning pesos, sadly, not so much.”
She says her very approximate monthly spending budget is $2,500, “and on that I live very well. My larger-than-Toronto apartment costs $1,300, but many of my friends live much more cheaply. I just happen to like living in a badass apartment in a posh area, and am willing to pay for it! On that budget I eat out a lot, take tango lessons and travel when I want to.
Naturally the prices drop when you settle in a smaller city or town. While $tk to $tk a month is a good deal in the capital for an apartment, that will get you something furnished and modern in Salta, Mendoza, Cordoba, or Rosario. Where Cathy lives in Patagonia, $350 gets her a four bedroom, two bath house on 15 acres, beside a river.
Plus, in Buenos Aires you have to deal with an odd leasing situation that also exisits in Mexico’s capital. Ron explains it this way:
If you aren’t local, don’t even think about renting long term unless you can rent from a fellow expat. Most Argentines require a property guarantee from a local. That means that a local property owner puts up their owned property to pay your rent if you don’t. Usually that has to be a family member. The laws in Argentina a very protective of renters, and this is the reason. If a deadbeat moves into your apartment, it can take years to get them out if they don’t pay the rent. So property owners are very careful of who they rent to, and if your can’t get that guarantee from a local, you probably won’t get a long term rental. That being said, there are a few companies that specialize in renting to expats, but you are going to pay more than a local.
Lining something up ahead of time is quite difficult in most parts of the country if you don’t want to pay a premium for convenience; hardly any agencies list prices online. The best plan is to rent a short-term apartment or stay in an apart-hotel at first so you can take your time looking around. Get recommendations from others (both locals and expatriates) on which agencies are trustworthy and look at plenty of apartments to assess what’s a good value.
If you’re going to buy a house or condo here, figure on paying the whole amount in cash, in dollars. People literally bring bags of money to a closing. In theory you can get a mortgage, but with interest rates running at the level of your credit cards, you probably don’t want to. You can’t find the bargains here you could 10 years ago since Argentines view real estate as one of their reliable investments and there have also been buyers from Brazil and Venezuela coming in too. If the financial system collapses again though like it did in the early 2000s, who knows?
Several people have mentioned that Airbnb prices are quite reasonable in Argentina and you can probably negotiate a lower rate for a stay of a month or more.
Transportation Costs in Argentina
“Public transportation is a bargain, and you can take a bus from anywhere to anywhere else in Buenos Aires,” says Helen. A bus or metro ride is 35-50 cents and a monthly pass is less than $14.
A taxi or Uber ride of a couple kilometers will cost $2-$4 or so in Buenos Aires, less in smaller cities.
One of the low-key best things about living in BA is that it’s very flat, making it very walkable/bikeable,” says Will. “Add to that a practically non-stop public transportation system with buses that can get you pretty much anywhere in the city and it’s easy. The alternatives are basically taxis and Uber or Easytaxi.” The “taxi mafia” has been fighting these services hard and you actually have to sit in the front seat if you go alone to avoid problems. “I would say I spend an average of $20 a month on public transportation, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of my non-walked trips. Then “I have Uber hooked up to Paypal and with current dollar to peso rates, the average trip to another neighborhood runs you $2-%5. I spend at most $50 a month on uber during the winter. It’s very cheap in general.
“If you are thinking about coming long term, and you want to explore the country on your own, consider importing your car,” says Ron. If you do it within six months there are no import taxes (at least that was current last time I checked). Cars are very expensive here, and parking is a big expense, but worth it if you want to drive around the country.
Argentine Food & Drink Prices
Most expats will tell you this is where the real bargains are—assuming you like red meat and wine that is. You have to bow to local norms to eat like a local here: a coffee and a couple medialuna pastries is the typical breakfast, around tk in a Buenos Aires cafe. A big lunch is supposed to get you through most of the day, then it’s not uncommon for a 10:00 dinner to be “too early” for the locals.
If you like a good steak dinner accompanied by a nice bottle of wine, you’ll be in heaven here. They take their grilled meats very seriously in this country and it’s considered a God-given right to sip wine with every meal. Prices are quite reasonable on both, to the point where a group of people can go out and eat to their heart’s content for $10-$20 a person in places that aren’t overly fancy. The things Argentines do well they do very well: barbecued meat, wine, coffee, ice cream, and pastries. Some would add Italian food to that mix, though it can be hit-and-miss.
Ron MacDonald says eating out can cost as much as it would in the USA for cuisines outside of the local sphere. At the high end though, fine dining is a relatively good value. “We went to eat at one of the top 50 places in South America (Don Julio) and paid about US$120 for a lot of food, but it would have easily cost us $2-300 in the USA for what we ate.”
He supplied these prices for groceries from a recent shopping trip though:
One onion: 20 cents
One tomato: 25 cents
One head of leaf lettuce: 40 cents
Two 1-liter beers: 2.25 (total for two)
One bottle of pretty good red wine: $3 (most expensive wines range between 8-10 dollars)
One 750 ml bottle of local whiskey: $3
Chicken: $1.5 dollars for 2.2 pounds of chicken.
One artichoke: 90 cents
One pound of potatoes: 25 cents
Will says he is notorious for never cooking. “I generally spend $300-$400 a month on food, which is a good bit more than the average person that cooks at home I’d imagine.”
When I was in Buenos Aires earlier this year, I saw coffee and two pastries for $2 all over the place, draft beers for less than $2 a pint, and set multi-course lunches for $6-$9 in nice neighborhoods.
The Argentina Visa Situation
They’re not real big on rules in Argentina and that includes visa rules. You get three months in your passport upon entry, which you can extend just by leaving the country and coming back. You can do this the same day via a ferry to Uruguay, a bus to Chile, or even a hike across the mountains in Patagonia. Many renew their tourist visa indefinitely and haven’t run into any issues.
People who have come to work for an international company tend to get a work visa, but many others just leave four times a year. If something happens and they overstay their visa, it’s not the end of the world. “Argentina is one of the most lax countries for visas,” expat mother Cathy Brown says. I don’t want to do anything wrong because I’ve got kids, but I’ve heard from a lot of people that if you overstay your visa, you just have to pay 300 pesos (less than $tk at the current rate)—whether you overstayed a day or five years. They sign off and you’re on your way.”
If you’re only going to stay six months at a time, you may be able to renew your tourist visa locally without leaving the country. That’s generally only going to work once though, so it’s best for people not planning to spend the whole year here.
Getting a business visa requires a letter from an employer, a specified time period, and the employer’s acceptance of financial responsibility for the traveler. For obvious reasons, they have to really want you to make this happen. If you get one though, multiple-entry business visas are valid for four years.
As always, check the official rules on the right government sites, then ask locals living there what the real deal is.
Health Care in Argentina
In general, Argentina has one of the most lenient health care systems in the world if you are willing to use the public system. Even tourists have access to it. Every expat I have talked to that lived in the country has some tale of going to the doctor or hospital and paying nothing or close to it. There’s only a fee for private services or some medicines. “I spent 9 days in a hospital earlier this year with pneumonia, says Helen. “It was the public hospital system, and I paid not a single peso. Compare that to the US costs!”
When researching my book I interviewed Leigh Shulman and her family, who live in Salta, Argentina. “One of the biggest expenses for our family is medical insurance, which is about $300 a month for good care,” she said. “If you pay $60 more a month that includes plastic surgery once a year!”
What’s Not to Like?
“Banking has always been a major headache in Argentina,” says Keith. “Nobody trusts the banks (and why would they?). I used local bank accounts and when possible, services like Zoom to transfer money. But I ran a business in the country so all of my income was generated there.”
Many ATMs have a low limit on the maximum you can withdraw, which creates a lot of stress if you need to get to your cash. “Currently ATM’s are maxed at a withdrawal of 8500 pesos per transaction which is about 150 dollars, and the fee is $10. Add USA bank fees if charged by your bank and that can be substantial. We do use our debit card when we can and that lowers the percentage fee significantly. Otherwise, we travel to the USA fairly often and always bring back cash which we can change at good rates. I wish it was easier, but for now, it isn’t ideal.”
Helen says it’s even worse for Canadians than for Americans. “My business is still based in Canada, as are my bank accounts. I get money by using a debit card and withdrawing from my Canadian bank accounts in pesos. But the charges are outrageous! I pay the equivalent of C$15 every time I take out money. Most of us use our credit cards as much as possible to avoid this.”
Will says it’s good to have lots of options for getting to your money. “I currently have an Argentine account in pesos, my US account in dollars and my Paypal account in dollars attached to my US accounts. Paypal has been my saving grace for the last 11 years, as it’s easy to send money to/from friends with US accounts. I have a Whatsapp group of friends here that is dedicated to USD/AR$ money transfers because someone is always looking to exchange dollars for pesos and vice versa. Despite new laws requiring all vendors to accept credit and debit cards, you still will find places where their machine is ‘broken’ or your card ‘doesn’t work’ so it’s not really possible to rely solely on cards. In fact, nowadays because of a problem with the current Argentine law, Uber can’t officially pay their drivers right now so the only money that drivers can get paid in is cash. This means that when a driver see’s you’re paying with card they often cancel on you.”
Everyone complains that electronics are both out of date and overpriced. To the point where people only buy them in Argentina if it’s an emergency.
“Small appliances, particularly electronics, are very expensive here,” says Helen. “In the expat community, I find that when anyone is going to the US or Canada or the UK, they pretty much expect their friends to have them bring stuff back for them. We will order an iPhone on Amazon, then have it delivered to a friend who will bring it back here. Also, I paint in acrylics as a hobby, and the supplies are very expensive compared to in Canada.”
Will also says to remember that “Argentine Castellano is distinct to the region, get the book Che Boludo to brush up on all the Argentine slang. Do some homework before coming because no matter how good you think your Spanish is you will struggle to understand the Porteños (People of the port city of Buenos Aires).
“Go with an open mind and lots of patience,” Keith advises. “Argentina is one of the most bureaucratic countries in the world. Learn to love eating late and staying up late. Make sure you can access funds outside of Argentina before you go, for emergencies and for survival. Knowledge of Spanish is essential for getting a job but be warned that work permits are very difficult to obtain.”
A Unique Culture and a Lower Cost of Living
The effort will be rewarded. “Most locals are friendly/open and we have made good friends with many locals,” says Ron. “In general, Argentines are curious about outsiders and sincerely interested in our thoughts and opinions. I want to emphasize this because I think Argentines have a reputation of being hard to connect with, but I have found the opposite to be true.
The bottom line? If you’re able to exchange dollars for pesos at anywhere close to the street rate, you can live pretty well in Buenos Aires for half or less what you would spend in a big city in the USA, Canada, and Europe. Even you’re coming from a smaller town, you can still get by for half if moving somewhere other than the capital in Argentina. If you’re sharing a place, it’s even easier. For a couple or family, $1,500 a month will put you above the middle class average and if you’re pulling in a few grand a month, you can live an upper-crust life here.