Greenville to Santiago: Why I Left the United States for Chile

Should You Do It Too?

On May 31 to June 1, 2012, I moved from Greenville, South Carolina, to Santiago, Chile. My belongings, loaded onto a container a few days before, were already on their way.

I’d left a part-time teaching position as an adjunct at a public university. The job was as stable as such jobs ever are, with at least three courses per semester for very low pay. I’d asked for a salary increase since I’d been there seven years, and was turned down. I chose to walk away.

Four Cardinal Errors“Why did you do it?” is a common question I receive — and “Why Chile?” Please indulge me while I say a few words about myself for context. A constitutionalist and supporter of strict limits on the coercive powers of the state, I’d been involved for years in various libertarian and patriot movements. I’d penned articles and books defending constitutionally limited government and the rights of individuals over, for example, group-based entitlements, and I was severely critical of political correctness. My first book was entitled Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action, 1994.

These efforts had made me unpopular in academia—to the extent anyone noticed. The heads of one philosophy department kicked me out the year after my book appeared, and it earned a place on an “index of banned books” at another institution for violating the boundaries of political correctness. So much for freedom of thought and a respect for diversity in higher education.

This mattered little to me. It seemed clear; the U.S. had entered a period of long-term decline, educationally, economically, politically, and morally. I was convinced that academia’s political and bureaucratic structure, as well as the retiring and dying off of a marginally more responsible generation, had placed people in positions of authority whose judgment was about as reliable as an astrological chart.

Just look at economists’ pronouncements about the supposed “economic recovery” in the United States, while 48 million people remain on food stamps. Most university faculty voted for Barack Obama despite his failure with the economy and levels of foreign warmongering and domestic police-statism that George W. Bush wouldn’t have dared attempt. Bush did not sign legislation authorizing the indefinite incarceration of U.S. citizens without due process—and he did not defend the right of the president to use drones to assassinate them.

I’d worked for Ron Paul in South Carolina both in 2008 and for brief periods afterwards. I was pleased with Dr. Paul’s greater visibility during the 2011 to 2012 presidential primary, but I also saw that media controllers minimized his opportunities to speak during televised debates. Media outlets also under-reported or misrepresented his ideas, and the Grand Old (Republican) Party establishment bullied his supporters. I could see the handwriting on the wall by the early months of 2012. His efforts and those of his supporters would come to no avail. The GOP would nominate another “electable” candidate—in other words, a neoconservative—and would probably lose in November.

Peter Schiff, Gerald Celente, Doug Casey, and many others predict that despite the soaring Dow Jones Industrial Average and mainstream Keynesian economists’ happy-talk about the “recovery,” at some point in the not-too-distant future the U.S. economy will go back into a deeper recession. The Federal Reserve’s irrational “quantitative easing” or expansionist monetary policies will be the ultimate cause.

The continued high unemployment or underemployment of millions of people also make the U.S. vulnerable to eventual civil unrest. Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security is thinking along these same lines. They have been aggregating weapons, including 1.6 billion hollow point bullets which clearly are not for al Qaeda!

Originally dismissed—predictably—as a “conspiracy theory,” this state of affairs has begun to draw the attention of mainstream business publications like Forbes, which recently called for a “national conversation.”

I’m not holding my breath! And I’ve been living here as an expat for ten months. So what’s the prognosis?

Unlike the United States and Europe, Chile is not in decline. The economy here is stronger than almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Construction projects abound in Santiago. The cost of living is lower than any city of comparable size in the United States. The Pacific-coastal climate is ideal. Scenery around the country is unparalleled.

Editor's note: Smog is a persistent problem in Santiago, and I took this during my visit there in 2010.

Editor’s note: Smog is a persistent problem in Santiago. I took this during my 2010 visit.

Given that Chile is a long, narrow country with over 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometres) of coastline, separated from the rest of South America by the Andes, you can be on the ocean, drive for perhaps two and a half hours, and be in the mountains!

There is an abundance of available land for purchase, and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. You won’t go hungry here!

Industries such as mining are thriving. Chile leads the world in copper, for example.

The Chilean people are peaceful, friendly, and helpful. They basically like gringos, something not true in all Latin American countries. Chile is not at war with anyone, and has neither designs on its neighbors nor an agenda of world domination.

Roughly 5.6 million people live in greater Santiago (around 40 percent of Chile’s population). It is a first world city, with a public transportation system at least as good, if not better, than anything found up north. TranSantiago, the company owning the Metro (as the subway system is called here), continues to build new lines crisscrossing the city. There is abundant bus transportation going to neighborhood nooks and crannies the Metro can’t reach.

In other words, unlike most big cities in the United States, you don’t need a car to get around! This is a definite plus, as gas is more expensive and auto maintenance leaves something to be desired—or so people tell me.

Health care is significantly less expensive and, again, is as good if not better than what you can obtain in the States. (Obamacare, on the other hand, will likely wreck what’s left of health care in the U.S. within four years, if not sooner.) Private health insurance is also less expensive and easy to obtain.

Internet access is as efficient here as in the United States.

It’s not just the economy, though. The sense of latent hostility that emanated from every corner of the U.S. is absent here. Santiago’s inner city is a thriving environment of work, education, and entertainment, not a boiling cauldron of racial resentment like, for example, Boston, Milwaukee, Atlanta, or countless other U.S. cities. In Chile, you are far less likely to be pepper-sprayed, struck in the head with batons, or tasered into oblivion by militarized police. The bottom line is, compared to similar environments in the U.S., you will be safe in your apartment or home, at work, and on transportation. You won’t have to worry about roaming street gangs in downtown Santiago. (Watch out for pickpockets, though!)

2013 Index of Economic Freedom (Heritage Foundation)

Be all this as it may, expatriation is not for everyone. Individuals considering such a move should do their homework with great and prayerful care before they decide that this is what they really want to do. Millionaires, of course, need not do as much homework. I am going to assume most readers are not millionaires. Many who want to come here will need to work.

I’ve cited a number of the pluses — admittedly not all of them helpful. A pleasant climate, for example, will not help you earn a living. Some will cite earthquakes as a negative, and a big quake did strike in 2010. Its epicenter was off the coast near Concepción, and that city sustained major tsunami damage in addition to that caused by the quake itself. It is also true that the most powerful quake on record struck Chile, in Valdivia, May 22, 1960. This quake measured 9.5 on the Richter scale and triggered a tsunami that affected coastlines as far away as the Philippines.

This is a Ring of Fire country. Those who come here can expect an occasional shake, rattle, and roll, so to speak.

That said, in my judgment danger from earthquakes is overblown. There are minor tremors all the time. Most are too small to detect unless you’re practically on top of them. I’ve felt two in my home office since moving here. Neither one even knocked me offline. There have been others, allegedly, that I didn’t feel. (I might have been traveling; who knows?)

The point is, earthquakes pose less danger here than, say, hurricanes to southeastern coastal states in the U.S., or tornadoes to the Midwest. There are building codes here, moreover. Santiago skyscrapers are built to be earthquake-resistant. The 2010 quake was more powerful than the one in Haiti. There was far less damage and loss of life here because Chilean builders respect the need for such codes.

Yates in Chile

Steven Yates in a shopping mall in Valdivia, southern Chile.

There are a few real negatives, though. Chile has no manufacturing of significance. Expect to pay more for electronics, office supplies of all kinds, and anything else that has to be imported. Expect to pay more to eat out. Forget smorgasbords like Ryan’s. There are no such places here. You’ll see other familiar names: Applebee’s, Starbucks, McDonald’s. But it costs considerably more to eat there than at their U.S. equivalents.

Customer service begins at poor and goes downhill from there. Few stores and shops post opening and closing times. This requires something Chileans don’t like to do, which is commit to anything time wise. Most are chronically late, and don’t seem to care much about time. This is not purposeful, of course, and I’ve concluded that it isn’t mere laziness or negligence. The Latin American conception of time is different from that of the Anglo world. Ours is linear; theirs is more spatial, if that makes sense. You get used to it and plan accordingly. You bring a book to read, for example.

Banking and money-transfer systems are not as advanced as in the U.S. I recently discovered first-hand the difficulties involved in getting money to the U.S. The persons I had to deal with simply didn’t know how to do it. Others can relate difficulties of their own dealing with Chilean banks, which are extremely risk averse.

Chilean Bureaucracy is legendary for its inefficiency. You can streamline the process of obtaining a one-year residency visa or other such documents as needed, if you have the right contacts. This, by the way, is true generally in Chile. Knowing the right people or being related to the right people is very important in this part of the world, whether to obtain work or simply get things done. Latin Americans have “two last names” to show all their family ties.

Earlier I stated that the Chilean economy is strong, and that’s true. But there are a few question-marks. There is a huge gap between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. While unemployment is low, so are wages which, on the average, are about half of those in the U.S. even with the bad economy there. There is, for all practical purposes, no minimum wage in Chile, and waiters, waitresses, and grocery-store baggers all basically work for tips.

There are differences in perception between gringos and Chileans about the economy—at least among those I’ve interacted with. Many don’t care for President Sebastian Piñera. Despite what gringos are apt to consider his successes with the economy, he is perceived by many Chileans as a creature of the super rich. They can’t identify with him.

I’ve been surprised at the conversations I’ve had with Chileans—college educated and attempting to rise within the middle class—who work long, hard hours for what they see as low pay. At the same time, gringos are moving here with stars in their eyes of a free-market paradise. While it is closer than the U.S., working here is not a paradise. Many people are struggling, both Chilean and gringo.

Chile voted a socialist government into power in 1970—that of Salvador Allende. His term in office ended violently with the most significant event in recent Chilean history, El Golpe, on September 11, 1973. Augusto Pinochet’s violent coup overthrew Allende and established a military dictatorship which lasted until 1990. During this period, Pinochet invited the infamous Chicago Boys (Chileans trained in economics at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman) to rebuild the economy. Their efforts, to some degree, account for the strength of the Chilean economy and as a plus for classical-liberal economics.

This system has not benefited Chileans uniformly, however. Some of my associates will disagree with me, but I believe the country could swing towards collectivism again. All it would take is an extremely good orator, another demagogue, on behalf of the poor and the struggling. Many Chileans, moreover, consider education unnecessarily expensive, and there is significant student discontent over the matter. There are present and former student leaders who are loud and aggressive.

Returning to expat considerations: poor customer service; Chileans’ odd sense of time leading to chronic lateness by Anglo standards, sluggish bureaucracy. None of these should be a the biggest stumbling block, though, for newly arrived gringos who have done their homework.

Let me put it this way, “si un estadounidense no sabe hablar español, y no quiere aprender, no debe mudarse a un país de Latinoamérica. Es mejor que se quede en los Estados Unidos o que se vaya a otro país donde se habla inglés como idioma oficial. Usted no podrá encontrar ningún trabajo.”

If you’ve no clue what I just said and you need to interact with others in a place where everyone speaks that way as a matter of course—typically very fast—you might have a problem of some magnitude on your hands!

Spaniards settled Chile, fought a war for independence from Spain, and remain Spanish speaking. While most educated people here have learned some English, and while there is a strong push to make Chile more bilingual for the purposes of global commerce, that doesn’t alter the fact that the prevailing language here is Spanish. Nearly all publications, traffic signs, store signs, maps, directions, food labels in grocery stores, utility bills, memos from your landlord, etc., are in Spanish. Unless you know at least survival Spanish, just buying groceries will be a trying experience.

A mitigating factor is that Chileans are used to gringos. Most are more patient than we tend to be with non-English speakers in the U.S. This factor only goes so far, however. If you live here, Chileans—like anyone—expect you to speak their language.

I cannot stress this enough. Unless you have a job waiting for you at a major corporation with a facility here, without language skills you won’t be able to work.

You could conceivably teach English. Frankly, though, some of us tried that and discovered to our dismay that the pay is by contact hour instead of course, making it even lower than adjunct pay in the U.S.! There are dozens of “institutes” here whose business is teaching English, a few with less than stellar reputations. (One, in fact, was sued by teachers who claimed not to have been paid.) Thousands of gringos here are teaching English. Many do “private classes” with just one student, typically traveling to the student’s workplace instead of a classroom. Last-minute cancellations are common, which means the teacher might have traveled halfway across the city only to discover that the student wasn’t there — which meant he wasn’t compensated unless something was been contracted in advance.

In other words, while a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) or a similar certificate affords a person an advantage in finding that sort of work, I don’t recommend coming to Chile thinking you will earn a comfortable living teaching English. I’ve seen numerous ads online and in international living type publications presenting English teaching as a path to overseas leisure. These, in my opinion, border on false advertising!

Upshot: learn as much Spanish as you can before moving. I am aware that with U.S. education in free fall, learning Spanish effectively there might be difficult. However, if you can’t figure out a way to do it, I would counsel against moving here — unless you are a millionaire who can afford to buy a tract of land to farm and live in an expat bubble.

There you have it — a set of pluses and minuses of life in Chile, from the perspective of one expat who happens to be an educator fortunate enough to have found a job at a university that offers his subject in English. (It’s part time, however.) I am also sometimes asked, How long do you plan to stay? Unknown. With improved Spanish skills, a good teaching job, and permanent residency, my stay here could be indefinite. Moving back to the United States — or going elsewhere — is not impossible. Time will tell.

Chile has much to recommend it. There are opportunities here for those willing and able to work to achieve them. But it isn’t Utopia. Those tempted to expatriate are doubtless different, with different skills, and different goals and expectations. To be sure your expectations align with reality, do your homework. Moving to a foreign country is not to be taken lightly or done on a whim without proper preparation.

Steven Yates About Steven Yates

A doctorate in philosophy and generalist, his interests range from philosophy of science to political philosophy and the role of philosophy in an advanced civilization. His latest book is Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic, and he teaches philosophy at Universidad de Santiago de Chile and owns Final Draft Editing Service.


  1. Sounds like a pain in the a** more than anything else if you ask me.

  2. PaytonAlexander says:

    “si un estadounidense no sabe hablar español, y no quiere aprender, no debe mudarse a un país de Latinoamericana…”
    What’s funny about this is that I think you meant to say “un país de Latinoamerica”, or “un país Latinoamericana”.  Either works, but not both.

  3. “Returning to expat considerations: poor customer service; Chileans’ odd sense of time leading to chronic lateness by Anglo standards, sluggish bureaucracy. None of these should be a stumbling block, though, for newly arrived gringos who have done their homework.”
    Just in case anyone thinks that those three issues are Chile-specific, they’re not. We deal with them regularly here in Ecuador as well.
    We’ve been considering moving to Chile for a few months now, after reading that Ecuador has purchased a nationwide face- and voice-recognition system. First country in the world to buy it, according to the manufacturer.

    • The Mobile Writer Yeah, the police state apparatus in Ecuador is concerning—although still amateur at this stage—and I find the compulsory voting law unbecoming, to say the least. As I’ve noted before, to some degree you’ve got to pick your poison, since every nation has its drawbacks. Thanks so much for reading, TMW.

  4. I enjoyed the read. Thanks

  5. TorreDeLucas says:

    This is a fantastic post. I am in college, and plan to do a study abroad in Coquimbo, Valparaíso, or Antafagasto. I have searched many websites, and I feel like all of the important info I was looking for was compiled into this one website! I love it!

  6. Makaparker says:

    fjpinochetsm hiciste un blog con la historia de tu vida pino? XD

  7. avisomartes says:

    If you have a professional degree and speak spanish, you could do ok. There’s no laws against racial discrimination so whites can feel safely guarded. In Chile we love white people. Indios y negros are were they belong.

  8. Dear Mr. Yates,
    I enjoyed reading your post and found it to be most helpful.  My husband and I are thinking of moving to Chile permanently when our youngest graduates from high school, two years from now. How are the colleges there?  My husband has 25 years experience as an architect and specializes in Healthcare.  It’s been difficult finding any job postings in his field.  Do you have any suggestions?  Thank you,

    Liz Pritchett

  9. giarodrigues says:

    Hi there Mr. Yates,
    I liked your post because it explained a bit about Chile. I lived in Miami for 12 years and met  few chileans. I love them as they are very loving people. I am brazilian but its a bit beligerent here and cant fit back so I will move. I am thinking about a few options in Europe or Chile. 
    Wish you best. Thanks.

  10. Richard Oquist says:

    Mr. Yates,
    My family we are planning to move to Chile. Is any way the we can communicate with you? Twitter maybe?

  11. thegonzfm says:

    @avisomartes And thus racism and classism rears its ugly head.  What is worse, you probably have mestizo blood.  What a shame.

  12. Ron Mitchell says:

    Good information.  My wife and I are considering a move to Chile and appreciate any information you provide.  I´m currently working in Peru and will for about 1 more year and plan to see if it makes sense for us to try Chile when the project ends.  We are planning a trip to Santiago and possibly Viña in January to look around.  I´m guessing a comfortable life there would cost us $4-5K (not supporting kids anymore), but we will not need to work there for economic support.  Spanish is a work in progress…I can get around but not function yet as well as I would like.  BTW, I lived in Greenville a couple of years. 
    I will be interested in your updates.

  13. Marta Hammond says:

    I appreciated the overall video of Steven Yates! I am a nurse in the states looking to work abroad. I am currently learning Spanish. Your perspective of the U.S.A. was refreshing & truthful. Many U.S. citizens are so dissatisfied with the government. For the first time in my life, I feel like the working poor….I am only 48. I am making less money, have been laid off, & am on Obama healthcare. I have two bachelor degrees…what is wrong with this picture. I need a vacation…so am seriously thinking about checking out Chile as a single female. I look forward to reading your book!

  14. I am a 35 year-old Chilean expat living in the US for the last 4 years.  I’m a translator and have been an international liaison for Chilean companies/individuals in foreign markets. 
    You said, “Unless you have a job waiting for you at a major corporation with a facility here, without language skills you won’t be able to work.”  That phrase seems so hopeless that I would add that while it’s ideal to know the language before hand, if you don’t know Spanish, and you still want to move to Chile (or any other country for that matter), you could give yourself at least 3 months to learn the language.  While some people may think it’s unconceivable to learn a language in such a short time, full immersion in another culture and language is powerful enough to produce such a result, when there is dedication and perseverance. This has been my experience as a Director for a Chilean non-profit working with countless foreign volunteers who developed Spanish skills in more or less that time frame.

  15. Thanks for this write-up! I realize it’s a few years old, but the situation in the States remains applicable. I’m from Puerto Rico and live in Texas, but have been curious about life in Chile and happened upon this article. Is there an update to your situation there? Have you moved on to another country?

  16. Patricio San Martin says:


    do you want to enjoy a chilean BBQ or asado 35 min north from santiago? Let´s talk

  17. You praise the metro, buses, and healthcare in Chile, but it’s precisely because of right-wing/libertarian attitudes that these are awful in the US. How can the US have these things with an every person for themselves, pay no taxes attitude. Countries with advanced transportation and healthcare are not libertarian countries because these are social goods and require cooperation, not individualism. The US is far to the right when it comes to things like social goods that benefit normal people. The Republican solution is everybody pays for their own private insurance and drives their own car. They just passed a trillion dollar tax cut. Think about what that could do for transportation and healthcare. That’s why it’s so bad.

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