The Best (and Worst) Places for Expats on a Budget
- Ho Chi Minh City places first in the Finance & Housing Index for the second year running.
- It gets better and better for Kuala Lumpur, as it moves to second place in both the Finance & Housing Index and the overall ranking.
- Third-ranked Bangkok completes the top 3 thanks to the ease of finding reasonably priced housing.
- Dublin, San Francisco, and Vancouver make up the bottom 3 in 2019.
- Athens still hasn’t recovered in regard to finances, coming last in the respective subcategory.
- Doha and Swiss city Bern, on the other hand, managed to improve their rankings in the index, while Beijing and Cape Town see worsened results.
The Top 15
For the Expat City Ranking 2019, 82 cities feature with a minimum sample size of 50 respondents per city. The Finance & Housing Index contains two subcategories which are both based on two questions each. In the Finance subcategory, survey participants were required to rate how satisfied they were with their financial situation and if they believed that their disposable household income was enough to cover the costs of daily life. For the Housing subcategory, survey respondents were asked whether they considered housing in their city affordable, and if it was easy for expats to find a new home. The Cost of Living Index also features in this article to give a better impression of expats’ financial situation across the globe; however, it does not factor into the Finance & Housing Index or the overall city ranking.
#1 Ho Chi Minh City — Success Again!
Ho Chi Minh City, the financial center of Vietnam, claims the top spot for the second year running in the Finance & Housing Index. As a newcomer in 2018, the city has gone from strength to strength and received very positive feedback from expats and also ranks third overall.
With regards to the Housing subcategory, Ho Chi Minh City ranks second place. The affordability of housing in the city is rated positively by 65% of respondents, and 87% agree that it is easy for expats to find accommodation there, compared to the global average of 50%.
The cost of living in Ho Chi Minh City is lower for my way of living.
Over three-quarters of respondents (77%) agree that they are content with their financial situation in the city, which is 20 percentage points higher than the global average (57%). A Singaporean expat appreciates that it is “close to Singapore and the cost of living is lower for my way of living”. Nearly all respondents (96%) agree that their disposable household income is enough or even more than enough to cover daily costs (vs. 77% globally). Ho Chi Minh City’s first place in the Finance subcategory is maybe not surprising, considering the economic progress of Vietnam: although Vietnam’s economic growth peaked at 7.1% in 2018, growth is still expected to remain strong at around 6.5% in 2020 and 2021.
#2 Kuala Lumpur — A Place for the Budget-Conscious
It’s been another good year for Kuala Lumpur, the cultural, financial, and economic center of Malaysia, as it moves up the leaderboard from third to second place in the Finance & Housing Index and jumps to second place overall.
Kuala Lumpur achieves the top spot in the Housing subcategory, with 86% of survey respondents agreeing that it is easy to find housing as an expat in the city; 41% even completely agree with this statement (vs. a respective 50% and 17% globally). Three-quarters of respondents (75%) also find that housing prices are affordable, which is more than double the global average (36%). According to InvestAsian, oversupply is currently a massive problem in Malaysia’s property market, although this proves to be beneficial for expats — even though Malaysia is one of the richest countries in the region, the prices of homes are among Southeast Asia’s lowest.
I love the freedom, low cost of living, and lifestyle in Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur claims the fifth spot in the Finance subcategory, with nearly three-quarters of respondents (73%) reporting to be happy with their financial situation. Close to four in five (78%) are also happy with the local cost of living; this is 35 percentage points more than the global average of 43%. An expat from Yemen compliments Kuala Lumpur on its “freedom, low cost of living, and lifestyle”.
#3 Bangkok — A Relatively Affordable Capital
Bangkok, the Thai capital, stays in the top 3 in the Finance & Housing Index for another year running. Although the city has dropped from second place in 2018 to third place in 2019, the feedback from expats is still positive.
With regards to how easy it is to find housing in Bangkok, 80% of respondents give agreeable answers, and 35% even completely agree (vs. 50% and 17% globally). The ease of finding a new, reasonably priced home appears to be an attractive aspect for expats moving to Bangkok; 58% of respondents find that the housing in the city is affordable (vs. 36% globally).
I like the much lower expense in Bangkok comparing to the same level of living standard.
Bangkok has been experiencing a condo boom over the past decade, with the number of units doubling from approximately 300,000 in 2008 to over 600,000 in 2018, which might explain these results.
For the local cost of living in general, 63% of respondents rate Bangkok positively, which is 20 percentage points higher than the global average (43%). An expat in Bangkok praises the city for having a “much lower expense comparing to the same level of living standard”. The results also illustrate the contentment of expats with their financial situation in Bangkok: 63% rate this factor positively (vs. 57% globally), though this is somewhat of a drop compared to 2018 when three-quarters (75%) were still of this opinion.
The Cities in the Bottom 3
Dublin, the Irish capital, ranks 72 out of 82 cities in the overall ranking and is left in last place for the Finance & Housing Index. However, this hardly comes as a surprise, following its last place in 2018 (72nd out of 72). Although Dublin receives only somewhat below-average results in the Finance subcategory — ranking 65th out of 82 — the worst results appear in the Housing subcategory. Homes in Dublin are expensive, with 88% of respondents rating the affordability of housing negatively (double the global average of 44%), and 59% even deeming the situation very bad. A Portuguese expat describes the rental market in the city as “so bad it makes me consider leaving the country.” Not only is housing expensive, it is also difficult to find: the majority of expats (86%) disagrees that accommodation is easy to find in Dublin; 41% even completely oppose this. One Portuguese expat explains that there are “no affordable quality housing available”, while another US American respondent also describes the cost of living as “very high”, which makes it “hard to save money”.
Next in line is the Californian city San Francisco, which comes second to last in the Finance & Housing Index (81st). A newcomer to the 2019 ranking, the city does not perform well in either of the subcategories, placing in 75th place for Finance and second from bottom for Housing. Finding affordable accommodation in San Francisco can be challenging, with 92% of survey respondents rating the respective factor negatively; in fact, not one of the survey participants is happy with the affordability of housing. This response on the cost of housing is also much higher than the global average (36% negative ratings). In addition to this, it is not only costly but also difficult to find properties which are available. The Business Insider claims that San Francisco's housing market is now commonly referred to as being in a "crisis", with 65% of the homes being rented instead of occupied by their owners and a median one-bedroom rent of 3,690 USD a month for new leases.
Vancouver takes the final spot in the bottom 3 of the index. A newcomer in 2018, it still remains far down on the leaderboard, ranking 55th overall and third from bottom for the Finance & Housing Index (80th). In a reverse from San Francisco, the Canadian coastal city comes second to last in the Finance subcategory (81st) and 75th for Housing. Over half the respondents (53%) disagree that it is easy to find housing in Vancouver. A Brazilian expat in Vancouver reveals that “housing prices are crazy expensive” and also that it is “impossible to think about it.” Over four-fifths (81%) rate the cost of accommodation negatively, with 53% agreeing that it was very bad. A Kenyan survey respondent finds the housing situation in Vancouver frustrating: “Buying a house or apartment is unaffordable without committing to a 20+ year mortgage. It feels very difficult to set down proper roots here unless you move way out in the suburbs.” CBC News writes that the average price of a house in Vancouver is four times higher than what prospective buyers could safely afford to pay.
A Few Changes — Success for Some, Losses for Others
It’s been a good year in the Finance & Housing Index for Doha, the capital of Qatar: it’s 10th rank in 2019 is an increase of twenty places from the previous year. Finding an affordable home in Doha seems much easier, as it moves up 17 places in the affordability ranking. For the Finance subcategory, the results are also promising: the city performs well and only just misses out on placing in the top 5, ranking sixth. An Indian survey respondent praises “the prosperity of Qatar”. Almost seven in ten expats (69%) are satisfied with their financial situation in Doha, versus 63% in 2018.
The Swiss city Bern is also beginning to move up the rankings, from a 60th to a 49th place in the index. This development is mostly due to its improved ranking in the Finance subcategory (from 70th to 53rd in 2019). Over half the respondents (53%) are financially content, compared to 40% in 2018. A German expat expresses their appreciation for the “security” and their “financial situation” in Bern. Another Swiss city, Basel, also receives a more positive result in 2019: nearly four-fifths of respondents in 2019 (78%) are content with their financial position, which is an eleven-percentage-point increase since 2018 (67%).
2019 proved not to be the best year for the Greek capital, Athens, as it drops 20 places and ranks at 46th place in the Finance & Housing Index. Coming last in the Finance subcategory, almost half the respondents (47%) are unsatisfied with their financial situation in the city, compared to 34% in 2018. A Russian respondent highlights the “bad economic situation” in Athens, and an American expat explains that “it’s difficult to find steady employment because of the unsteady economy”.
Beijing’s performance in 2019 is also worse than the previous year, especially in the Housing subcategory where it dropped 16 places to rank 54th. Just 18% of expats in 2019 have positive attitudes towards the affordability of housing in the Chinese capital, which is eight percentage points less than the previous year; 64% disagree that housing prices are reasonable. A South African expat names the “high cost of living” in Beijing as one of the biggest disadvantages about life in the city.
Cape Town suffered a blow as well, dropping 20 places in the Finance & Housing Index to 35th place. The ease of finding a home in Cape Town receives positive feedback by 67% of respondents in 2019, a 19-percentage-point decrease from the 2018 result (86%), suggesting this is becoming more of an issue in the South African city. Less than half the expats (46%) are satisfied with their financial situation in 2019, which is a decrease of 13 percentage points, compared to 2018 (59%).
Places to Find an (Un-)Affordable Home
Kuala Lumpur claims the top spot for the Housing subcategory this year, moving up the ranks from third place in 2018. A British expat compliments the city on the “availability of nice places to live at reasonable cost”. Ho Chi Minh City follows closely behind Kuala Lumpur and places second in the Housing subcategory. Although not managing to stay at the top of the podium this year, the Vietnamese city is still popular among expats: almost nine in ten expats (87%) believe it is easy to find housing there.
Bangkok remains in the top 3 of the Housing subcategory, too, but drops down one place into third position. One-fifth of survey respondents (20%) deem the cost of accommodation in Bangkok to be very good. Moreover, four in five expats (80%) believe that is easy to find a place to live in the Thai capital. In contrast, Dublin is at the bottom of the ranking, with 59% of expats completely disagreeing that homes are affordable in the Irish city, followed by San Francisco (81st) and Munich (80th).
Where to Save It and Where to Spend It
For the Finance subcategory, there are a few different contenders. Ho Chi Minh City still features in the top spot, moving up from 4th place in 2018 to 1st place in 2019. Over three-quarters of survey respondents (77%) report that they are satisfied with their financial situation there.
In contrast, the Swiss city Zug takes second place, moving up four ranks from sixth place in 2018. Over three-quarters of expats (76%) are financially content in Zug, compared to 57% of respondents worldwide, and seven in ten (70%) agree that their disposable household income is more than they need for daily life. Moving down a place since 2018 but still coming in third, Taipei keeps up its strong performance in the Finance subcategory. Nearly seven in ten of survey respondents (69%) are happy with their financial position in the Taiwanese capital.
For expats who are looking to save some of their money, some destinations are less suitable. Athens places at the bottom for the Finance subcategory and 68th in the overall ranking. Over two in five expats there (41%) share that their disposable household income is not enough to cover daily expenses, compared to 23% of respondents worldwide; 22% even go so far as to say it is not nearly enough. Athens is then followed by Vancouver and Auckland, which are the remaining cities that make up the bottom 3 in the Finance subcategory. Over two-fifths of expats in New Zealand’s biggest city (42%) rate their financial situation negatively, compared to 26% globally.
- The World Bank. Vietnam Overview. Accessed 25 Oct 2019.
- InvestAsian. Buying Malaysia Real Estate: Why I’m Still Positive. 19 Apr 2019.
- ASEAN Today. Not all residents are happy with Bangkok’s housing boom. 26 Apr 2019.
- Business Insider. 11 facts about San Francisco’s housing market that will make you glad you live somewhere else. 6 Jun 2019.
- CBC News. Home prices in Vancouver are quadruple what average millennial can afford: report. 12 Jun 2019
- Expat Insider 2019 — The Best & Worst Cities for Expats
- Expat Insider 2018 — Cities for the Budget-Conscious Expat
- Expats in Ho Chi Minh City
- Expats in Kuala Lumpur
- Expats in Bangkok