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What You Need to Know When You’re Moving to Cairo

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  • Paul Zimmerer

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Relocating to Cairo

At a Glance:

  • Many areas around Cairo are attractive for expats, offering international restaurants, shops, and schools.
  • Real-estate agents are the best choice when looking for housing.
  • A 1950s decree still affects rental prices and informal settlements are continuously growing in number.
  • Satellite cities are popular and more and more people are heading towards them.
  • The long-term visa and work permit application process is a lengthy one; epitomizing the Egyptian bureaucracy.

For many expats moving to Cairo, short commutes to work and access to international schools and embassies are an important factor. Some also prefer to reside among compatriots. Thus, a large number of expatriates move to Cairo’s well-established expatriate neighborhoods.

Cairo’s Hotspots for Expats

Popular choices among expatriates moving to Cairo include Maadi, Garden City, Heliopolis, or the northern half of Zamalek. These districts are fairly westernized and offer many restaurants, cafés, and cinemas catering to Western tastes. If you are not interested in moving to Cairo’s city center, Maadi and Heliopolis are among your options. Heliopolis is a popular choice for wealthy Egyptians and expats, but it has seen a significant amount of unrest recently, which is something to look into before deciding to move there. The commutes from there are reasonably short.

All of the abovementioned areas also have a high density of international schools (please see our article on Living in Cairo). Moving to Cairo’s expat neighborhoods is often a very sensible choice for parents keen on enrolling their children in one of these institutions.

Several new satellite cities with sonorous names such as New Cairo are under construction. Once they are completed, they should quickly become a popular choice for middle-class and upper-class people. These areas will be a stark contrast to the busy city’s hustle-and-bustle. There is also a wide range of international schools and private universities in and around those satellite cities.

Relocation Services

Before moving to Cairo, discuss the possibility of hiring a relocation agency with your employer. These agencies provide you with everything you need before and during the process of moving to Cairo, including help with local authorities and assistance with your search for accommodation. If you want to keep the moving process as short and uncomplicated as possible, you might want to look into this option.

My House Is Your House

Searching for accommodation may work a bit differently than back home. If you’re moving to Cairo without the aid of a relocation agency, a simple internet search will not suffice. Using housing portals is not very common, and most apartments you find online are for daily rental, or to be let as vacation homes.

Usually, those moving to Cairo consult real-estate agents. This method is quite straightforward and does not differ from what you have experienced elsewhere. You can find listings in the various Egyptian English magazines available in hotels and at newsstands.

Local Friendliness When Flat Hunting

There is also a more direct method that many people moving to Cairo prefer: After deciding on a neighborhood, simply ask local shopkeepers for a semsarr. They will direct you to a realtor responsible for the area. It is rare for a semsarr to be listed anywhere, so if you are interested in a particular neighborhood, this is the most effective way.

There is an even more direct way, cutting out the last middleman: Every residential building has a bowab. This person assumes duties similar to a doorman or porter and is your most important contact after moving to Cairo, as a bowab can arrange almost anything for you. From newspapers to groceries or shirt presses, your bowab will be able to help you. Asking the bowab about a building that sparked your interest for vacant apartments can often prove fruitful.

It would be wise, however, to bring someone fluent in Arabic when approaching a semsarr or bowab, in order to avoid problems with the language barrier. After all, you may not speak Arabic well when first moving to Cairo.

The Housing Situation for Expats in Cairo

Moving to Cairo’s popular expat districts comes at a price. The usual rents for middle-class apartments range from 1600 to 2800 USD, and prices up to 5000 USD are considered normal in some parts of town. Cheaper rents are only available in Cairo’s less desirable boroughs. However, with a regular salary for highly qualified expats you should be able to find a home of similar quality to what you might be accustomed to. Most landlords require one quarter’s rent in advance, a month’s deposit, and a copy of your passport.

A Rough Patch

While Cairo expanded considerably in every dimension and its population doubled in size since the 1960s, the city administration often had troubles keeping up. Many of the challenges that came with the increasing number of factories, people, and vehicles were only met insufficiently.

We have pointed out the problematic traffic conditions in our article on Living in Cairo. Other shortcomings include inadequate garbage disposal, patchy electricity supply, and failing telephone connections. Short electricity blackouts are quite common in many parts of the city. There are also some issues with the sewer system and the quality of water pipes. The biggest blind spot of the city administration, however, has long been the inadequate number of new, affordable residences for Cairo’s new citizens.

Therefore, make sure when you are checking an apartment that the water heater, air conditioning, lighting, and electricity are functioning properly. Also, ask the landlord if there are any associated costs included, as in most cases tenants need to pay additional expenses such as the maintenance of the building or the monthly fee for the porter.

Government Headaches

Some expats end up in Cairo’s informal settlements. These high-density residential areas experienced exponential growth around the same time as the population of Cairo began to rise steadily. The city administration could often not keep up with the pace of demographic growth, and many people were left looking for affordable housing.

Informal settlements are low-cost housing units erected on land which was formerly used for agriculture. It is estimated that about 40 to 50% of Greater Cairo’s inhabitants reside in these settlements. Official figures are very inaccurate and vary greatly. The informal areas mostly feature narrow streets, medium-height structures, and lack of official governmental infrastructure (public transportation, garbage disposal). They often have great problems of accessibility, as private minibus companies are the only option.

Informal areas are not equal to slums, though. To the contrary, almost any Egyptian you meet could potentially live in those settlements. The residences are built reasonably well and the rents are low, providing quite a few lower-middle-class families with a real alternative to the either luxurious rents or decrepit houses of the inner city.

A System Flaw

One factor that greatly influenced the development of informal settlements was the freezing of rents in the 1950s. Former President Nasser made this decree in order to guarantee affordability of inner-city housing for the masses. The inflation of the Egyptian pound during the following decades resulted in rents that are now almost laughably marginal (often about 10 EGP).

For this reason, many owners do not offer their apartments for rent, leaving thousands of housing units empty. Of course, this also resulted in rapid decay of the old houses, as there were no tenants to pay for their upkeep. If one of these buildings still has residents, due to an old rental contract, they basically live there for free, but under undesirable circumstances.

A Bright Future Awaits

The current situation is a lot more promising. Satellite cities, such as 6th of October City, and New Cairo, offer modern and spacious houses and villas to Cairo’s upper class. As fully functional small communities, they also feature schools, shopping malls, and various options for your leisure time. While construction is not quite completed yet, these cities, particularly New Cairo, will be among the most popular choices for expats in the near future.

Cairo: Visa and Residency Permits

Before you set foot on a plane headed to Cairo, please check with your local Egyptian embassy whether or not you require an entry visa prior to arrival. The list of countries exempt from visas for short stays is long, and many other nationals can acquire an entry visa at the airport. However, checking beforehand is highly recommended.

Foreign nationals coming to Egypt for work or study require a temporary visa to enter the country regardless of their nationality. Temporary visas are issued to those whose stay is between three months to one year, for reasons other than recreational purposes.

Getting Your Work Permit

Expats interested in employment in Egypt must obtain work permits and follow the regulations issued by the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration. The work permit is valid for up to one year and can then be renewed. After a work permit is acquired, the foreign national’s visa is converted into a work visa. Before foreign nationals can begin the process of applying for a work permit, they must get security clearance from National Security in Egypt. They also need to provide proof of health, which involves undergoing an HIV test. To apply for a work permit, you require:

  • a filled in application form which you can get from the work permit department at the Ministry of Manpower and Training Facilities at the Tahrir complex
  • a valid passport
  • seven passport-size photos
  • two copies of your employer’s incorporation contract
  • two copies of your Tax ID card (The Ministry of Manpower can help you with that.)
  • two copies of your academic degrees and certificates
  • a copy of the commercial register from your employer
  • license required for exercising your profession (if applicable)
  • a memorandum from your employer justifying hiring a foreigner instead of an Egyptian citizen
  • approval from the related authority
  • a representative from your company who is going to act on your behalf and apply for your work permit
  • proof of a negative HIV test
  • security clearance from Egypt’s State Security Service
  • payment of the permit fees (around 1,000 EGP)

In It for the Long Haul — Residence Permit

There are two types of residence visas in addition to the work-based one: The ordinary visa and the special visa. The ordinary visa is valid for three or five years. It grants your spouse a residence permit for the amount of time identified on your work permit. To obtain a work permit themselves, your spouse must apply for one on their own.

The special visa is for expats born in Egypt before 26 May 1952 or who have resided in Egypt for more than 20 years prior to this date. It is valid for 10 years and can be renewed.

You can check all the requirements regarding visas and documents on the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs websites.

Alien Registration

You will have to register with the police upon arrival. This is a very simple task and should not take a lot of time. You can also ask the tourist police (dressed in white uniforms during summertime) for help. If you first arrive at a hotel, they will take care of this task for you.

Take Care of Your Health

Please consult your doctor in order to check up on routine vaccinations well in advance of your move to Cairo. This is also a good time to get an HIV test done. This is necessary for your application for a work permit.

You should also get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, both very common in Egypt, and typhoid. Other health hazards include schistosomiasis — a parasitic disease mostly caught by swimming in the Nile — and diarrhea, which can be caused by drinking tap water. Please stick to bottled water, which is cheap and readily available everywhere.

Keep in mind that air pollution is a big concern in Cairo. With a third of the nation’s industry located in the metropolitan area and, at times, horrible traffic jams, the air quality suffers considerably. The fact that Cairo is surrounded by desert does not help to alleviate the problem: Dust and sand are all around. If you have any problems with your respiratory system, talk to your doctor before you leave.

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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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