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A Comprehensive Guide about Living in Cairo

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  • Paul Zimmerer

    Before I moved to Cairo I contacted some local members on InterNations. They gave me some great assistance.

Life in Cairo

At a Glance:

  • The oldest metro system in Africa connects you everywhere in Cairo.
  • There are various taxi types and companies to choose from depending on your needs.
  • The disregard for traffic lights, and the never-ending traffic jams in Cairo are a challenge for expats to get accustomed to.
  • Quality private healthcare and 24/7 pharmacies put you in safe hands.
  • A wide range of international kindergartens and schools is available for your children.

Cairo is one of the busiest cities in Africa and the Arab world. As such, living in Cairo is as intriguing as it is potentially overwhelming. Before you explore the expansive metropolitan area, you should first familiarize yourself with the many ways to get around town.

Within Reach Thanks to the Metro System

While living in Cairo, you will enjoy the benefits of one of the few full-fledged metro systems in Africa (in fact, Cairo and Algiers are the only African cities equipped with a metro system). The system is vital to everyday life and indispensable to the millions in Cairo’s outskirts. Its opening in 1987 provided a much-needed relief for the chronically congested streets, which only add to the chaos.

The three lines, serving over 4 million customers per day, are almost as much a natural part of life in Cairo as the heat. Every important part of town that you may have to reach while living in Cairo is serviced by these lines. Another line is currently being considered, including an airport connection and the long-awaited extension of the third line. This measure will definitely make living in Cairo, and particularly international travel to the city (see part 2 of this article), a lot more comfortable.

Please keep in mind that the middle cars of the metro are reserved for women, although they can, of course, also use the other cars. This is a testament to the religious influence on life in Cairo, and should be respected at all times, especially during the very busy rush hour.

Minibus Mayhem

Of course, the metro is only one part of the public transportation system you can use. The city also boasts a tram system, ferries across the Nile, and several bus options.

Most people living in Cairo use the standard bus system or one of the many minibuses. The latter are particularly useful as they service more, and narrower, streets. You can take minibuses from wherever you are, as they can be found almost anywhere in Cairo. There are also the more expensive CTA buses, which feature air conditioning on board. If you have trouble adjusting to the heat, you might want to use those.

Crazy Taxis

Many people who are new to living in Cairo may prefer to use taxis, as it can take some time to get used to your new surroundings.

Using the many public taxis is the easiest way to move around major Egyptian cities. The color of these taxis is dependent on the city you are in. In Cairo, they are black and white. If you venture out to Alexandria, the taxis will be yellow and black.

Cairo also has two additional types of taxis; plain white ones and yellow ones. These, unlike the black and white ones, are equipped with a meter to calculate the fare and are using more modern, air-conditioned cars. It would be wise to use either of them to avoid the usual hassle over the fare price when using a black and white taxi. Plain white taxis are more convenient to use as they can be hailed from the street, while a yellow taxi, usually called City Cab, has to be booked before your journey starts.  The number for the City Cab is 19155.

A new taxi service was also recently launched with the name London Cab, which allows you to book a cab that is similarly looking to the iconic London taxi and has the option of paying the fare by credit card. It is especially useful for airport transfers. Make sure to ask at your hotel desk for assistance.

A Bumpy Ride

One of the most infamous aspects of living in Cairo is traffic. With an ever increasing population of 12 million people, traffic conditions have worsened. Although Cairo features a lengthy ring road around the city redirecting vehicles out of the busy center, jams are a regular occurrence.

If a car is not absolutely vital, you should try to avoid adding to the chaos. Not only are the streets congested nearly all the time, but some traffic rules are also ignored or interpreted rather freely. This takes some getting used to, not only for drivers, but also for pedestrians and you might have to reevaluate how important traffic lights are to you while living in Cairo.

Keep a Weather Eye

It is recommended not to wander off to unknown or ominous-looking neighborhoods in Cairo, due to the turmoil that the city experienced in the previous years. There are still some traces of violence scattered around Cairo, so it is better to be on the safe side in regards to some neighborhoods. Ask a local friend or colleague about the safety of the place you plan to visit. Usually, areas with malls, high end restaurants and hotels, as well as the many satellite cities around Cairo are considered a safe place to roam around for expats.  Do make sure to stay clear of any demonstrations that may be taking place, though.

Cairo: Medical Care & International Travel

Ready for Takeoff?

Cairo International Airport is one of the busiest on the continent. In 2015, EgyptAir was ranked 2nd based on fleet size of airlines within Africa. More than 65 other airlines also offer connections to and from the airport, serving more than 14 million customers annually.

A major hub for travel into Africa and the Middle East, the airport is recently undergoing renovation, with changes being made to Terminal 2. Additionally, a subway line connecting the airport with downtown Cairo is currently under construction. This should considerably improve the airport’s accessibility.

Right now, various shuttle services and taxis are your best option. However, be sure to ask the driver to avoid neighborhoods known for demonstrations and civil unrest, and plan some extra time for your journey. Fares range anywhere between 25 and 105 EGP for an airport shuttle, and between 65 and 470 EGP for “limousine services”, which are like taxis but with fixed prices depending on your destination and the level of comfort you desire.

Exploring the Country

Although Egypt offers an extensive (and relatively comfortable) railway system, most national travel is undertaken in buses. The biggest center of transportation in Egypt is, of course, located in Cairo, at Ramses Square.

Via the modern highways extending in every direction, you will reach your destination fairly quickly and comfortably when traveling by car. But please keep in mind that the desert areas should be off limits to expats for safety reasons. Trips to the Nile delta and to Sinai should also be avoided whether by car or bus. If you do not have work-related business there, it would be unwise to go exploring outside the established tourist routes.

Private Healthcare Is the Way to Go

Your health is in good hands in Cairo, just make sure that you get your shots beforehand (tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, polio, mumps, measles, and influenza). The city is Egypt’s main center for medical treatment, and generally speaking, it has the highest standard of medical care in the nation. You can expect almost every doctor in Cairo to have a good command of English. Seeing how many medical practitioners have spent some time abroad during part of their training, this does not come as a surprise.

Dozens of hospitals and clinics of different size and quality and with various specializations are available in Cairo. If you are not sure which hospital is the best option for you, you should consult your family doctor for advice. Many expats choose specific institutions, though, according to their language, insurance coverage, or specific health needs.

The As-Salam International Hospital, located in Cairo’s Maadi district, is one of the largest private hospitals in Egypt. This internationally recognized institution is the preferred choice of many expats. But there are numerous other fine institutions, including an Anglo-American clinic and an Italian hospital.

Pharmacies and Emergency Services: You’re Covered

Pharmacies that are open for business around the clock are quite common in Cairo, and it is best to familiarize yourself with the one nearest to your home. Rarely are prescriptions needed. You can usually get what you require immediately. If not, your pharmacist can make an order for you. Brand names will probably vary from those you know from home, but you can identify your medication by its main active ingredient.

The general emergency hotline for the ambulance in Egypt is 123. The general number for the police is 122 and the number for the tourist police hotline is 126. In order to receive the quickest possible help in case of emergencies, it could prove wise to directly call the emergency line of your district or part of town. The American Chamber of Commerce offers a comprehensive list on their website. Please keep in mind that, due to the traffic situation, Cairo’s emergency services are somewhat unreliable.

Have Peace of Mind during Your Stay

As we have outlined in our article on Working in Cairo, the Egyptian social security system does unfortunately not apply to expats. Please make sure your insurance company offers full coverage for Egypt, or discuss possible company insurance plans with your employer. In any case, expect to pay fees for every visit to the doctor’s and every hospital stay.

It is possible to receive medical attention without health insurance, but you might be faced with considerable costs depending on the nature of your ailment. For example, many hospitals require a security deposit to ensure you can pay your bills. You may also be expected to pay upfront and in cash for treatment.

Recommended international insurance providers that offer coverage for Egypt include Allianz and Bupa. IAMAT also offers travel health information and is a direct link to reliable doctors and healthcare providers.

Cairo: International Education & Etiquette

Cairo boasts a great variety of international schools with different language backgrounds and levels of education. Ranging from preschools to universities and academies, Cairo offers everything you might desire for your children’s education. Most institutions are British and US-American, but German, Canadian, Pakistani or French schools are represented as well.

Expats tend to enroll their children at one of these institutions, as Egyptian public schools might not be quite up to their standards. Although education is mandatory for children aged 6 to 14 in Egypt and almost every child goes to school, the dropout rate is quite high. Furthermore, many public school teachers may lack motivation and incentives, due to low wages for teaching staff. Adding to the fact that the majority of public schools teach in the Arabic language, enrolling your children in an international school is typically the better choice.

You can find a selection of international schools in the link list we provide below.

Selected International Schools in Cairo

Note: This is not an all-encompassing list of all the international schools in Cairo, but only a small selection.

General Etiquette Tips

We have outlined some rules regarding business etiquette in Egypt in our article on Working in Cairo. However, life in Cairo is, of course, not limited to business-related activities. Expats, especially Westerners who have only had limited contact with Arabic culture, should keep the following general rules in mind.

Foreigners are expected to show modesty in their dress code, both in business and leisure. To some Westerners, the fashion sense of Egyptians might seem very conservative, but it should be followed nonetheless. This does not mean that you should, under any circumstances, emulate traditional Egyptian clothing: It would be considered a severe faux pas and might even offend others.

Alcohol is a very divisive topic. Of course there are Egyptians who enjoy it, but alcohol consumption should not be celebrated as it is in other countries. It is best to only drink when you are offered alcohol, and only modestly. If you are among obviously religious people or entertain them in your home, it is best not to offer or drink any alcohol.

Egyptians are very fond of joking and frequently joke about themselves or their country. You, however, should never joke about Egypt. You will inevitably cause great offense. Please try to keep the topic of politics out of conversations as much as possible, especially in the turbulent times the country is currently going through. Only if you know someone reasonably well is it acceptable to debate or even bring up politics.

Women should not be surprised to see some old-fashioned forms of chivalry. Even if some women might be mildly annoyed by what they possibly consider outmoded behavior, they should tolerate it as long it’s clearly meant to be courteous.

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  • Paul Zimmerer

    Before I moved to Cairo I contacted some local members on InterNations. They gave me some great assistance.

  • Barbara Sciera

    Cairo is a bustling metropolis. Through InterNations I met some other expat women. Now we meet on a weekly basis.

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