Living In Bulgaria – The Expat’s Guide
Retiring to Bulgaria is popular and it’s hardly surprising: you can live extremely well here on a foreign income and enjoy stunning scenery, snowy winters and hot, sunny summer days.
Bulgaria makes it onto Expatra’s list of the cheapest countries to retire and is eighth on our hugely popular annual list of the best places to retire abroad from the UK.
With its relatively mild climate, Bulgaria is pleasant all year round. The daytime temperatures vary from 0-5°C in the winter and 25-30°C in summer months.
According to (now 10-year-old) figures from think tank the IPPR, some 18,000 Britons have moved to Bulgaria, about half living here for half the year and the other half permanently.
That’s a surprisingly big number for a country of just seven million inhabitants – smaller than the city of London.
The largest community is in the capital, Sofia. Outside, Brits are more widely dispersed than in many countries, from Varna, on the Black Sea, to ski resort Bansko.
Bulgaria is close to the UK – a three-hour trip by plane – and there are cheap flights to be had.
But to settle well you must truly integrate into the community – and learning the language properly is a must.
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The existing rules, agreements, and arrangements between Bulgaria and the UK will change after Brexit. To keep informed, check our Living In Europe After Brexit guide on a regular basis. It features links to official resources containing major Brexit information.
The British government advises that you should register as a resident in Bulgaria, review your healthcare cover, check your passport is valid for travel and exchange your UK driving licence for a Bulgarian one.
The British Embassy holds regular outreach meetings for UK nationals across Bulgaria.
New Bulgarian rules require immigrants to demonstrate they can support themselves financially, although the Bulgarian prime minister has publicly welcomed British migrants.
Late EastEnders actor Leslie Grantham had to learn Bulgarian to star in Bulgarian TV series The English Neighbour in 2010, about a retired British chemist who sets up home in the fictional village of Plodorodno.
After divorcing, and having become familiar with the country and made friends, he himself moved to Bulgaria and bought an apartment, only returning to the UK shortly before his death in 2018.
If you are trying to familiarise yourself with the country, it’s worth watching some episodes.
Spend any time checking forums and you’ll find fairly even numbers of British expats extolling Bulgaria’s virtues or hauling it over the coals.
Over-sold as a location after its entry into the European Union in 2008, a real estate bubble quickly formed and burst in Bulgaria, which has left some out of pocket, particularly if they invested in big new tourist developments on the coast or in the ski resorts.
On the other hand, many have fallen in love with Bulgaria’s old-world charm and tradition, some likening it to 1950s Britain.
You’ll find plenty of ‘horse-and-cart villages’ alongside the potholes in the EU’s poorest member state.
If you earn a foreign income or pension, the cost of living is incredibly affordable and property prices have settled from their wild peaks.
However, buying property can be hugely complex, red tape means a small admin task can take all day and both general customer service and government staff’s attitudes get a good bashing.
Read more in our full article, Bulgaria: The pros and cons.
Unlike other retirement hotspots in Europe, Bulgaria does not have obvious British enclaves. As retiring here is more of a settlement, Britons who have made the move tend to scatter more widely into local communities around the country.
Several thousand international expats live in the capital – the cheapest city in Western Europe – either in apartments in downtown areas such as Doctor’s Garden, or in suburbs such as Boyana, Dragalevtsi and Bistritsa.
Many of the expat city-dwellers are workers, and the city boasts a thriving start-up scene. The city centre is small enough that no car is required if you live downtown: taxis are cheap and there are plenty of trams.
To the west of Sofia is the spa town of Bankya, about 20-30 minutes away. Many people commute to Sofia from here. It is thought that up to a fifth of the 30,000-strong population is foreign.
The ski resort of Bansko (and nearby spa village Banya) has obvious charms. It’s a small town nestled at the foot of the Pirin mountains, with a low cost of living making it attractive to those ski fans otherwise eyeing up France, Italy and Switzerland.
However, it has not lived up to the bubble hype, with massive over-development, which has led to more tourism diversification into golf greens, climbing centres and spa hotels. Other ski resorts include Pamporovo and Borovets.
A hugely popular coastal city on the Black Sea with its own direct budget flights from the UK, this beach town has also become a business hub. Other Black Sea resorts include Golden Sands, Sunny Beach, St Constantine and Helena.
Bulgaria’s second city and Europe’s 2019 capital of culture. Built on seven hills, it has a partially restored Roman stadium and an open-air Roman theatre, now used to stage open-air concerts and plays.
If you’re considering retiring to Bulgaria, you really should start language lessons. You won’t get far without at least elementary Bulgarian and you should familiarise yourself with the alphabet.
Get to grips, too, with some Bulgarian etiquette: don’t point your index finger, don’t ever slap someone on the back, and remember that you nod ‘no’ and shake your head for ‘yes’. There’s a great etiquette guide on the Bulgarian Embassy of London site.
In a country where the minimum wage is €286 (£245) a month, according to Eurostat, rents and utilities are low and a foreign pension can go a long way.
Prices in the UK are 82 percent higher than in Bulgaria, according to Numbeo – 214 percent including rent.
Renting a good two-bedroom apartment in a nice neighbourhood of Sofia will cost you around 700 – 800 BGN (Bulgarian Lev), about £300 – £340.
A country house in a remote village could be yours for as little as €20,000 and you could heat it for around £70 a month, half the price it would cost you in the UK.
We strongly recommend renting a property in Bulgaria first, before you buy. Renting will allow you to get familiar with the area and make sure it works for you all year round.
The rate of home ownership in Bulgaria is high, at close to 90 percent, with many Bulgarians inheriting land and even a second home.
Refurbishments are to be expected if you buy, but a common warning on forums is to get local advice and recommendations when it comes to builders and never to pay everything upfront.
When it comes to buying, don’t just rely on local friends to help with the language – hire local, English-speaking notaries and attorneys.
You can ship your belongings to Bulgaria by sea, air or land; it’s close enough to drive your stuff over – and pets – yourself too.
As an EU country, standard EU rules apply to removals; do note you may need to list serial numbers and brands for all electrical appliances.
Read more in Expatra’s guide to international removals.
You must register your residence in Bulgaria if you are planning to stay for over 90 days, within three months of arrival and either in the Migration Directorate in Sofia or in the nearest regional directorate.
You will need to present proof of your income or pension and that you have a bank account in Bulgaria. To be considered financially independent, your monthly income should at least be equal to the national minimum wage per month.
Once you have your certificate of residence you need to apply for a Bulgarian ID card or lichna karta.
Once you have been resident in Bulgaria for five years, you can apply for Bulgarian citizenship.
You may need to provide a clean UK criminal record certificate. You will have to renounce UK citizenship if you apply for Bulgarian citizenship after Brexit.
Healthcare in Bulgaria is universal and financed by compulsory health insurance contributions.
As in any other EU country, in Bulgaria you will need EHIC and an S1 form to get access to the same level of public healthcare as Bulgarian residents.
To enrol in the Bulgarian healthcare system, you must first get your residency.
To join the public healthcare system you will need your S1 card or, if you are not eligible for an S1 card, you will have to register with the National Health Insurance Fund and pay compulsory contributions.
This will give you access to a GP, referrals to a specialist, and medicines at reduced prices or for free. You can choose your GP so most expats tend to choose a local and/or English-speaking doctor.
Private health cover is highly advisable and, although plans are expensive in comparison to the cost of state medical treatment, they are still cheaper than in other countries.
A basic plan from Uniqa for a couple under 70 years old will cost 330 BGN (£145) a year.
The UK has a double-taxation agreement with Bulgaria to ensure people do not pay tax on the same income in both countries.
In Bulgaria, you should expect to pay personal income tax and homeowner’s tax, as well as vehicle tax and a fee for rubbish collection.
If you have not worked in Bulgaria, you should claim your UK State Pension by contacting the International Pension Centre.
Your pension and other incomes will be taxed in Bulgaria at a flat rate of 10 percent, compared to the UK’s 20 – 45 percent. There is also a tax-free allowance of €4,050 (£3,460) per year.
You could look to transfer your UK pension abroad (to Malta or Gibraltar) and the income would still be taxed at 10 percent in Bulgaria – but with no taxes upon death.
A huge caveat is that there is no social security agreement between the UK and Bulgaria, so your UK state pension will be frozen at its current rate upon first payment, with no increases linked to inflation.
Heavy snow in winter, driving a little zanier than you are used to in the UK and potholes mean you will probably want a four-wheel-drive vehicle – and will drive on the right side of the road.
The LIMA app can help you with traffic and road conditions.
If you are resident in Bulgaria, you should exchange your UK licence for a Bulgarian driving licence at your nearest traffic police department within six months, after first registering with Bulgarian authorities.
The law is strict when it comes to drink-driving, with almost zero tolerance (0.05 percent blood-alcohol limit) and you could face losing your licence and even jail time.
When driving in Bulgaria, carry your passport or ID card, driving licence, registration card, insurance documents and vehicle inspection card.
We get so many emails about this subject and it has taken a lot of research to get to the bottom of this question.
From our contacts and from forums, the answer is yes: you can still open a Bulgarian bank account as a non-resident (although one Bulgarian, who had helped a non-resident Greek contact open an account recently, told us it was a “challenging task”).
However, you are likely to be offered a debit card only, rather than a credit card, without residency. Even then, you may be asked for proof of income being paid into the bank for up to six months.
You will need a Bulgarian bank account in order to buy property, residents told us.
It may take up to 14 days for your application to be approved, after which you may still have to return to the branch to actually open the account.
You must put a minimum amount into the account for it to be opened, which differs depending on the area. For instance, we were told, in Vratsa you can open a bank account with 450 lev but in Shumen it is 1,000 lev and in Veliko Turnovo around 3,000 lev. You can draw the money out once the paperwork is done, we were informed.
You may need to take a translator and/ or lawyer with you if you don’t speak Bulgarian, although one person told us that the teller at the branch in Sofia they went to “spoke good English”. Also, note that most banks will not offer joint accounts.
DSK Expressbank and Postbank were both recommended as Bulgarian banks for foreigners.
Bulgaria had expected to join the ERM-2 mechanism – the ‘waiting room’ to full euro membership – in 2020, and adopt the euro in 2023, but has now said it is “obliged to slow down the tempo” because of concerns about the exchange rate to the common currency and opposition within the country.
If you’re looking for a quieter pace of life, fresh produce and a beautiful beach-to-mountain backdrop at a lower cost than France or Switzerland, Bulgaria could be the ideal country for your retirement. It will require more work to settle down than, say, Spain, but that work could pay off with a whole new lifestyle.