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Top Ten Best Expat Cities


May 2011

With its rich colonial history and unique location in South East Asia, Malaysia has long been a popular destination for expats and foreign residents. Whether working here, retired here, or even born here, glorious weather and a high standard of living help to attract the multinational multitudes that help make Malaysia, and Kuala Lumpur in particular, such a vibrant and cosmopolitan place to live. Today, KL is home to around 50,000 expats with numbers growing every year, and the city is evolving to meet the needs of such a diverse international community in ways that benefit both locals and expats alike – including good schools, great restaurants, and a booming construction industry.

Internationally, the number of expatriates has exploded in the last decade as companies compete to be globallycompetitive, with the number of people living outside their home country reaching 190 million in 2007 (World Bank Global Links Report 2007). According to a recent Mercer survey, the number of employees on international assignments doubled between 2005 and 2008, with 47% of companies claiming to have increased the deployment of traditional expats (employees on 1-5 year assignments) and 38% increasing their numbers of ‘global nomads’ (employees that move from country to country on multiple short-term assignments).

So what makes a city attractive to an expatriate community? We’ve put together a list of the top ten best expat cities in the world: based on cost of living, quality of life, salary levels, and cultural diversity. While some are old favourites, others are new entrants in the expat stakes, as new countries join the race to attract international business. From Brazil to Belgium, KL to Cape town, join us as we span the globe to search for the best and brightest in expatriate living.

1 Kuala Lumpur

OK, so maybe we’re a little biased. However, there is no doubt that KL provides a fantastic base for expatriates. With its dominance in the oil and gas industry, not to mention the booming finance, tourism, and manufacturing/ICT sectors, Malaysia is an increasingly attractive location for international corporations as a low cost yet highly sophisticated centre in which to base their SE Asian concerns. In terms of lifestyle, KL has excellent expat schools (including ISKL, Alice Smith, Garden International), good transport facilities, lots of green spaces, a thriving and established expatriate community, and a vibrant community with a melting pot of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian influences. Accommodation is cheap, with a two-bed apartment costing from around RM2,500 (US$800) a month, and the cost of living is low. Best of all, Malaysia offers tax-free pensions and an attractive retiree property purchase plan (My Second Home) including a ten-year visa, making it a popular retirement location.

2 Dubai

Dubai offers a huge incentive for expat workers in the form of a tax-free salary, which has contributed to its current position as one of the top cities for overseas workers. The UAE city is highly renowned as a luxury oasis where expats maintain lavish lifestyles for a fraction it would cost them at home. However, recent problems with expat behaviour contravening Dubai’s religious laws has led to some bad publicity, while increased rental and property prices are now balancing out the wage surplus, and changes in the work law moving the weekend from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday means many expats are now expected to work 6 or 7-day weeks.

3 Singapore

Singapore was recently voted best place to live as an expatriate by HSBC International, and its first-world infrastructure combined with relatively low-cost of living make it an attractive choice. The expatriate community is well-established, with a wide range of schools, activities, and lifestyle facilities of an extremelyhigh standard. On the downside, the city has a reputation for tough residency laws including stringent rules on even minor offences such as chewing gum and jaywalking, and property prices no longer offer much advantage over the west due to a booming property market and strict regulations governing foreign property purchases.

4 Belgium

The capital of the Netherlands may seem like an odd choice, but Belgium is a glorious city rich in culture and heritage and has a reputation for safe streets and green living. Its long and fruitful association with South East Asia, starting centuries ago with the Dutch East India Company, has contributed to a culturally diverse city with many Asian and Indonesian influences. Belgium is home to the headquarters of a number of multinational corporations, including Royal Dutch Shell, and as over 80% of those posted to the Netherlands stay for over three years (according to HSBC), the city must be doing something right.

5 Mumbai

India is home to a booming economy sustained by the high demand for human capital, and expats with experience in management, financial services, and IT command surprisingly high salaries due to the explosion in outsourcing and offshoring. In Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, the low cost of labour, private healthcare, and the abundance of luxury extras such as maids, dining out, and shopping, make it an attractive location. However, the city loses points on its accommodation, which is extremely expensive and of a lower standard than most other top expatriate destinations. The frequent black-outs, clogged traffic, and tangled bureaucracy can also be a deterrent. However, the fantastic food, high standard of living, and career opportunities secure its position as a general favourite.

6 Buenos Aires

South America is booming, and Argentina combines Latin potential with European sophistication. The ‘Paris of South America’, Buenos Aires is sexy and sophisticated with a chilled out Euro vibe; swanky restaurants and glamorous nightclubs jostling for room with simple street cafes and relaxed beaches. Expats can find it hard to adjust to the different pace of life, where dinner rarely starts before 10pm and every afternoon features a siesta. However, the cost of living more than makes up for the change of pace, with US$50,000 buying a decent property and swanky apartments in a good neighborhood renting for around US$300.

7 Cape town

Cape town is easily one of the most breathtaking cities in the world, and for sheer beauty the city takes the crown hands down. Nestled in a ring of mountains next to a sparkling sea, with towering cliffs sheltering verdant vineyards and lush green fields reaching down to pure white sand beaches, the stunning scenery and exceptional climate make Cape town one of the most attractive cities for relocation. With its Dutch and English roots and cosmopolitan culture, Cape town offers an exciting and fulfilling range of expat activities and facilities. However, unfortunately safety concerns affect its attraction as an expat destination, and hugepockets of third world poverty continue to make South Africa a country in conflict. High crime levels and rising property prices counteract the draws of a lively arts scene and a friendly expat community.

8 Hong Kong

Hong Kong attracts the biggest earners of any major expat city, with almost half of expats earning more thanUS$200,000 a year. This reflects the large number of expats who work in finance and management, but also means that the city’s prices reflects its earners. Hong Kong is one of the priciest cities to live in, coming 8th on the 2010 Mercer league table of the world’s most expensive cities. However, its excellent schools and facilities and sophisticated cultural and social advantages go a long way to make up for the higher prices, and in a recent survey by Foreign Direct Investment, Hong Kong was voted second best city in the world for an expat posting.

9 Barcelona

Barcelona has the considerable appeal of a timezone in sync with most of Europe, and has long attracted businesses of all kinds with its award-winning architecture, world-renowned restaurants, and a seven-years-in-a-row nomination for Europe’s best city for quality of life (Cushman & Wakefield). Barcelona wins with its excellent infrastructure, laid back Mediterranean lifestyle, and mix of city sophistication and beach culture. Close to most major European capital cities, it is a favourite holiday destination as well as a winning expat location.

10 Chicago

Although the USA is not the first place that springs to mind when considering expat destinations, it scores highly on long-term living. European and American cities often house global corporate headquarters where temporary postings can migrate into long-term contracts and expats often feel more at home among familiar cultural surroundings. A business and financial centre in the US, and one of the largest travel hubs with its vast O’Hare airport, Chicago is a prime choice for executives required to travel frequently. The city has a high quality of life without the heart-stopping prices of the east and west coast hotspots of New York and LA, and has the appeal of excellent recreational facilities including watersports on Lake Michigan and cold winters offering a multitude of winter sports.