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Expat Insider - The World Through Expat Eyes

Finding Your Feet: Best Cities for Getting Settled

Getting the paperwork done and moving house is one thing, feeling at home abroad is another matter. The Getting Settled Index reveals the best, and worst, cities in regard to friendliness, languages, socializing, and more — with two Gulf State capitals in the top 3.
  • #1 Kuala Lumpur delights with few language barriers and very friendly locals.
  • Over a quarter of respondents are completely satisfied with their social life in Manama (#2).
  • The vast majority of respondents in Muscat (#3) rate the friendliness of local residents and their attitude towards foreign residents positively. 
  • Expats have a harder time settling in Paris, Riyadh, and Vienna, where they encounter unfriendly populations, don’t feel at home, or struggle with the language.

Methodology

The Getting Settled Index of the Expat City Ranking 2017 covers a range of “soft” factors that can influence how easy it is for expats to find their feet abroad. Respondents were asked to rate their city of residence on a scale of one to seven for several factors. These include, for example, how easy it is to live in the city without local language skills, how happy expats are with their social life, whether or not they feel at home in the city, or how they would rate the general friendliness of the local population.

At least 45 respondents were required for a city to be featured in this index, with 51 cities making it into the final city ranking in 2017.

Plenty of Friendliness, Few Language Barriers: Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur, or “KL”, can be found in the top 10 of all four subcategories that make up the Getting Settled Index. It does best regarding the local language, where it ranks first. Respondents find it easy to live in “KL” without speaking Bahasa Malaysia: the majority (54%) even says it’s very easy. However, it is important to note that the Expat Insider survey was conducted in English, a language that is widely spoken in Malaysia due to the country’s colonial past and the status of English as a compulsory language taught in schools.

Less than a quarter of respondents (22%) consider the local language particularly hard to learn, compared to half the survey participants around the world who say the same about the language(s) of their respective country of residence. This result is somewhat surprising, though: two in five expats in “KL” admit to not speaking the local language at all, and only 8% know it very or at least fairly well, in addition to another 4% who are native speakers.

However, Kuala Lumpur does not only score well in terms of language, but it also ranks fourth in the Friends & Socializing subcategory: over seven in ten expats (71%) are generally happy with their social life in the Malaysian capital, and not quite two-thirds (65%) consider making new friends an easy endeavor, compared to not even half of all respondents worldwide (45%).

I love the easy-going temperament and friendliness of the local people in Malaysia.

This may well be related to the warm welcome expats in Kuala Lumpur seem to enjoy: close to four-fifths (78%) generally agree that the people are friendly towards foreign residents, and 38% even agree completely, compared to roughly a fifth (21%) worldwide. What is more, three-quarters of respondents say they feel at home in the city, while 85% find it easy to get used to the local culture.

A Warm Welcome and Familiar Faces: Manama

Just like Kuala Lumpur, Manama is featured in the top 10 for all four subcategories and also ranks best in terms of language: in fact, it comes second in the respective subcategory, just behind “KL”.

Close to six in ten respondents in Manama (59%) agree that it’s very easy to live in the city without speaking Arabic, the local language. Expats in Manama can consider themselves lucky then, as over two-fifths (41%) don’t speak the local language at all, and another 41% speak it only a little. Close to half (46%) also think that learning it wouldn’t be easy.

Bahrainis are very friendly and welcoming. Everyone speaks English.

Regardless of local language skills, expats in Manama have few problems finding friends: over a quarter (27%) are completely satisfied with their social life in the city, and close to two-thirds (65%) agree that finding new friends is easy there, opposed to less than half of expats worldwide (48%). The fact that 22% already had friends and/or family living in Bahrain — and an additional 16% even in Manama itself — has surely helped respondents in getting settled.

Even if not every expat was welcomed by family or friends, they benefit from a generally friendly attitude towards foreign residents, according to 84% of expats in Manama and compared to 67% of all respondents. Last but not least, close to four in five consider it generally easy to get used to the local culture (79%) and feel at home in Manama (78%). Worldwide, less than two-thirds (64% each) say the same about their own city of residence.

Finding Friends among a Large Expat Population: Muscat

Oman’s capital ranks first in the Local Friendliness subcategory and second when it comes to friends and socializing. The vast majority of respondents there rate the friendliness of the local residents (87%), as well as their attitude towards foreign residents (85%), positively. An impressive 45% even agree completely that the people in Muscat are friendly to expats; this is more than double the global average of 21%.

Locals are warm and humble and welcoming.

Similarly, over seven in ten respondents in Muscat (71%) agree that finding new friends is easy in the city, and 70% are happy with their social lives. However, just like in Manama, respondents in Muscat often already had family or friends waiting in the city: this was the case for 15% of survey participants in Muscat. Considering this, as well as Oman’s large expat population — in January 2017, expats made up nearly half the local population — it seems hardly surprising that 46% of respondents have mostly other expats as friends.

These great results are slightly offset by Muscat’s performance in the Feeling Welcome subcategory, where it ranks 13th out of 51 cities: over seven in ten respondents (71%) find it generally easy to get used to the local culture and to feel at home in the city (vs. 64% globally). Neither is the local language much of a problem: two in five consider Arabic not easy to learn, a third doesn’t speak it at all and 52% only a little. However, close to four-fifths (79%) also find it easy to live in Muscat without local language skills.

Cities That Make It Hard to Settle

Paris, Riyadh, and Vienna can all be found at the other end of the ranking scale. While the French capital does not score well in any of the four subcategories of the Getting Settled Index, it loses the most ground with regard to local friendliness: only 18% of all respondents rate the friendliness of the local residents in their respective cities negatively, but in Paris a staggering 46% say the same. Over one in ten (11%) even call it very bad, and another 12% think people in Paris are not friendly at all towards foreign residents — this is three times the global average of 4%!

Expats in Paris struggle with making friends in the city: 58% generally agree that this isn’t easy, compared to just a third (33%) worldwide. Language skills also seem to play an important role here: while an impressive 41% say they speak French very well — in addition to 5% who are native speakers and a quarter who speaks it fairly well — two-thirds would also not agree that it is easy to live in Paris without speaking French.

Most French aren't really interested in making friends with people outside their family and existing social milieu.

Riyadh, on the other hand, performs worst in terms of feeling welcome and socializing. Over two-fifths of expats (41%) don’t feel at home in Riyadh, which is nearly double the global average (21%). Close to half (48%) are dissatisfied with their social life in Riyadh as well, making the city rank last for this single factor.

Leisure is not that exciting, my daily routine is work and home, I’m being deprived of a social life.

Vienna, which ranks third from the bottom, is another city that doesn’t seem to welcome expats with open arms: close to two in five respondents (39%) regard the local population as generally unfriendly towards foreign residents, and nearly half (48%) have trouble finding new friends. In fact, the same percentage is friends with mostly other expats, compared to a third of respondents worldwide. This might be partly related to difficulties in communicating: half the expats in Vienna find it hard to live there without local language skills, and two-thirds (67%) also consider the local variety of German hard to learn.

The locals are really not welcoming towards foreigners, they aren't willing to connect with me, or to help me develop my language skills. They are even unwilling to stop using their own dialects which foreigners can't understand.

Head to South Africa for a Great Social Life

Next to Muscat and Manama, it is the featured cities in South Africa that stand out when it comes to expats’ satisfaction regarding their social life. In fact, Johannesburg and Cape Town rank first and third respectively for this factor!

In Johannesburg, close to three-quarters (73%) generally agree that they are happy with their social life, and a third even agrees completely. Less than half the global average report having problems finding new friends in South Africa’s biggest city (15% vs. 33% globally), and respondents are also less likely to have just expats as friends (15% vs. 33% globally). Rather, two-thirds (37%) say their social circle is a fairly mixed group, with another 19% having mostly local friends. What is more, close to half (49%) think that local leisure options in Johannesburg are excellent.

Having mainly local friends is not quite as common in Cape Town, with only 8% of respondents saying this is the case for them. Nevertheless, seven in ten expats are generally happy with their social life in Cape Town, eleven percentage points more than the global average of 59% — over a third (34%) are even completely happy. Respondents in Cape Town are even more satisfied with the local leisure options than those in Johannesburg: well over three in five (64%) say they couldn’t be any better.

The only European city in the top 5, Amsterdam ranks fourth in regard to expats’ social life. Over seven in ten respondents (72%) are generally happy with this factor, compared to 59% of all survey participants. Expats may tend to stick closer together than in other cities — 47% of respondents in Amsterdam say their social circle consists of mostly other expats, compared to 33% worldwide — but the city seems to offer great leisure options: the majority (55%) is completely satisfied with this factor, compared to just a third of all respondents.

Full Ranking

Further Reading