Expat to Expat Advice: Global Nomads Tell All
Who could provide better advice on the expat life than our very own expat readers? In our recent reader survey — which we wrote about here, here and here – we asked you to weigh in with your top tips and tricks for people heading overseas on expat adventures. We’ve compiled many of your responses below — some practical, some poignant – along with a list of online resources you found helpful.
What you told us (in your own words):
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The Good Expat: 5 Steps to a Successful Expat Experience
10:00 pm ET
Jul 5, 2015
Montaigne once said: “The pleasantest things in the world are pleasant thoughts: and the great art of life is to have as many of them as possible.”
I’m no expert on the great art of life, but having lived on four different continents, I know that Montaigne is on to something when it comes to expat life. As an expat, you have a choice: You can be miserable because nothing in your new life works as it did before, or you can enjoy the wonder of exploring a new culture, even if it’s a culture where “just now” means “later, tomorrow, definitely not anytime soon.”
I won’t ever forget the low point of our expat assignment in South Africa. It was March 2010, we had been living in Johannesburg for a week, and I was sitting on a chair in our empty new kitchen with my head on the table, letting a wave of self-pity wash over me. The kids hated their new school. Plus, I had no car and no cell phone (and neither one seemed possible to be acquired without the other). An army of ants had marched up my arm that morning, angrily swarming out of the electric kettle as I was pouring my tea. And I had hardly closed an eye since we had arrived, because every night I was woken by a blood-curdling scream. The sound, it turned out, emanated from a flock of hadedas, a South African species of bird with vocal chords 10 times stronger than any rooster. I’d come to like them, people assured me, but I wanted to strangle them one by one. Forget the crime I’d been warned of. Getting hijacked at gunpoint sounded more promising than dealing with the non-human predators invading my house.
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Guess Which Ranks as the Most Expensive City for Expats?
Luanda, the capital of oil-rich Angola, tops the list of most expensive cities for expats for the third year in a row, according to a ranking released by consultancy Mercer on Tuesday. For expats, imported goods and safe living conditions come at a steep cost in Luanda.
The top five most expensive cities have remained relatively stable. Moving from No. 3 to No. 2 this year, Hong Kong, with its currency pegged to the U.S. dollar, is known for having one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. Zurich, Geneva and Bern all remained in the top 10, strengthening Switzerland’s position as one of the most expensive countries for expats, thanks to this year’s appreciation of the Swiss franc against the euro. Singapore held its position at No. 4 for the second year, a consistently popular and pricey location for multinational companies in the Asia-Pacific region. Seoul rose from No. 14 to No. 8 because of the recent appreciation of the Korean currency. Shanghai and Beijing rose 4 positions each, to No. 6 and 7, respectively, thanks to the strengthening of the Chinese yuan. The yuan’s appreciation and the high price of imported foreign goods have raised the cost of living in many Chinese cities, with 9 listed in the top 30 most expensive expat locales.
Using New York as the base city, Mercer compares the cost of a variety of factors relevant to expat life, including housing, transportation, food, imported goods, entertainment and clothing. Mercer’s analysis can be used to determine the appropriate compensation packages for employees sent abroad by their companies. Ilya Bonic, president of Mercer’s Talent business, said: “Sending employees abroad is necessary to compete in markets and for critical talent, and employers need a reliable and accurate reflection of the cost to their bottom line.”
The least expensive cities for expats are scattered in different regions, but they are primarily in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The least expensive city for expats is Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which, according to expatarrivals.com, “is not a popular expat destination, with few moving here for reasons other than an already-established job contract. The exact number of Western expats in Kyrgyzstan has never been determined, but is likely to be around 1,000 people.” Rounding out the bottom three are Windhoek (Namibia’s capital) and Karachi (Pakistan). Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, is the fourth-cheapest place to live as an expat, which could be connected to recent political unrest and terrorist activities. Cape Town, a city relatively popular with expats, is also listed as one of the cheapest places to be an expat, thanks to the weakening South African rand.
The top five most expensive European cities to live in are Zurich (3), Geneva (5), Bern (9), London (12) and Copenhagen (24). Many Western European cities fell in the rankings, with Paris (46) falling 14 points, Vienna (56) falling 24, and Rome (59) falling 28 spots. Scandinavian currencies also dropped in comparison to the U.S. dollar, with Stockholm (106) falling 68 points. Although it is still top 5 for Europe, Copenhagen (24) fell 9 points from last year’s No. 15. Unsurprisingly, following a year of devaluation for the Russian ruble following U.S. sanctions and international uncertainty, the cost of living as an expat in Russia decreased significantly, with Moscow (50) dropping 41 points, and St. Petersburg (152) dropping 117.
Moving to the Asia-Pacific region as an expat comes with a notably high cost of living, with the 5 most expensive cities in that region coming in the top 10 worldwide. Hong Kong’s U.S. dollar peg and competitive housing market kept it at No. 2, and Singapore (4) remained near the top as well. Seoul (8) appeared in the top 10 for the first time. Tokyo (11) was bumped down from No. 7 due to the devaluation of the yen against the dollar. Chinese cities Shenzhen (14), Guangzhou (15), Shenyang (21), Qingdao (24), Nanjing (26), Tianjin (27), and Chengdu (29) all made jumps up the rankings. Taipei (41) in Taiwan also jumped 20 spots. Every major expat city in South and Southeast Asia either became more expensive to live in or remained constant over the past year. The cost of living for expats in Australia went down due to the devaluation of the Australian dollar against the U.S. dollar, with Sydney, the country’s most expensive city, moving from No. 26 to 31.
Tel Aviv (18) remained the most expensive city in the Middle East for expats, while several other Middle Eastern cities became more expensive for expats, as many Middle Eastern countries peg their currency to the U.S. dollar. The other top 4 most expensive cities for expats, Dubai (23), Abu Dhabi (33), Beirut (44) and Amman (54) all operate on U.S.-pegged currencies and saw major leaps up the scale this year. Housing for expats, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has seen major price increases over the past year.
Latin America remained fairly consistent, with a general trend toward shifting up the list. Buenos Aires (19) tops the list as the most expensive city in the region, with a significant amount of inflation in the goods and services basket. Brazil’s São Paulo (40) and Rio de Janeiro (67) were the second and third most expensive places to live, respectively, in Latin America, followed by Montevideo (83) in Uruguay and San Juan (89) in Puerto Rico, all popular destinations for expats.
Africa has some notably expensive places to live as an expat, due to the “two-tier economy” for locals and expats. Luanda is at No. 1, followed by Chad’s N’Djamena (10), Kinshasa (13) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Victoria (17) in the Seychelles, and Lagos (20) in Nigeria. Most of this is due to the high price of ensuring an employee’s safety in these areas that are often known for being unstable. Lagos, however, is a burgeoning expat destination, due to its position as the business hub of Western Africa.
In the U.S., the appreciating dollar means affording housing is relatively more expensive than it is abroad. New York, the city used for comparison in this survey, was the 16thmost expensive city for expats, followed by Los Angeles (36), San Francisco (37) and Washington, D.C. (50). All of these costs are up from last year and mirror cost increases in other U.S. cities, especially those with growing tech or financial centers, like Seattle (106) and Portland, Ore. (135).
Worldwide, here’s how the cities ranked:
Correction: Islamabad is the capital of Pakistan. An earlier version of this post misidentified Karachi as the capital.
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