Americans Head to New Zealand and Leave ‘the Chaos’ Behind

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Pete McKenzie, a reporter based in Auckland, New Zealand.

In 2022, Lucy Schultz was fed up. She and her husband were traveling across the United States in a recreational vehicle while she worked as a wedding photographer. Everywhere they went, communities seemed polarized and the news felt bleak. “Our opinion of America was at its lowest,” she said. “It was an endless time warp of confusion.”

Then Ms. Schultz was hired by an American client who wanted to marry in New Zealand. She had previously visited there once, in 2014, before meeting her husband. Later, when she had described the remote Pacific archipelago to him, she said, “It fell on deaf ears, because the way I described it to him felt like a fantasy.”

This time, after the assignment was over, Ms. Schultz’s husband joined her for a road trip through New Zealand’s sparsely populated north. The country proved an easy sell. In a tiny cafe near a golden beach, he turned to her and asked, “When do we move?”

As the mood in the United States grows increasingly tense, New Zealand has become an object of fascination for many Americans, as it was for Ms. Schultz. After Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory, the number of Americans moving to New Zealand jumped by 65 percent. During one 2020 presidential debate, “How to move to New Zealand” was trending on Google search. As another U.S. election lurches into view, those who have made the move say they have few regrets.

“One of the big advantages of leaving the U.S. is I get to hit the unsubscribe button on the chaos,” Ms. Schultz, 31, said. “The politics and the election stresses out your nervous system when you live there. And I’ve just been able to check out of that.”

Ms. Schultz and her husband have settled near Hamilton, a small city on the North Island, and are applying for permanent residency. She has been delighted by the country’s functionality. “This is maybe a weird example, but public bathrooms are not a nightmare. You can go to the toilet and the hand soap dispenser will actually work,” she said. “Or there’ll be a public park with a grill that is actually functional.”

She volunteers at a nearby nature reserve, where she can walk through native forests, and is enthusiastic about the country’s friendliness. “I perhaps have some rose-tinted glasses,” she admitted, but she said she has been struck by “the sense of community that’s baked into the culture. Kiwis look out for each other.”

Other Americans are similarly enthusiastic. Sophie Zavaleta, 27, was learning to become a teacher in Alabama when she left for a study-abroad program in New Zealand in 2020. She intended to stay for two months, but when Covid-19, hit she extended her stay.

She soon fell in love with the country. Her host family took her on trips to the beach, where she became obsessed with the coastal landscape. She got a teaching job in Auckland, the country’s largest city, and found the work much less stressful than what she would face in the United States. Her two-month trip has stretched to four years, and could become permanent.

There are some downsides. Food and rent cost much more in New Zealand than back home, Ms. Zavaleta said, and she misses her family. But as the U.S. election approaches, she said, “I’m glad I live here and don’t necessarily have to deal with all the political craziness I know will be over there.”

New Zealand has a points-based immigration system that largely requires migrants to have specific skills or to work in certain jobs to fill labor shortages. According to Statistics New Zealand, 5,874 Americans moved to New Zealand between June 2022 and June 2023.

Todd Henry, a 41-year-old bar owner in Auckland, grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to New Zealand for good in 2013, after several stints living there temporarily. He said that the country’s positivity stood in stark contrast to the mood in the United States, where “a vibe of negativity permeated a lot of conversations you had with people. It’s hard to describe, but I felt like that weighed on me. Everything was a political disaster.”

During Mr. Henry’s visits home, he has found a growing interest in his decision to move. “I watched it go from people saying, ‘New Zealand, what’s that and why do you want to move there?’ to ‘How do I move there too?’” he said.

He has noticed some familiar shifts in New Zealand. The country recently went through a divisive election in which several conservative parties swept the liberal government from power. “New Zealand is changing as well, unfortunately, in some ways, in the direction of the United States. Although not to that extreme,” Mr. Henry said.

Even then, Mr. Henry and some other Americans who moved to New Zealand said they were shocked by the situation at home. “It’s bizarre watching that stuff from here,” Mr. Henry said. Few said they were tempted to return. America “is too far gone to be saved by merely voting,” Ms. Schultz said. “If I thought it was salvageable, I would still be there.”

Here are the week’s stories.

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