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Expat Insider - The World Through Expat Eyes

The Best & Worst Cities for Expats in 2019

Asian cities dominate the global top 5 in the Expat City Ranking 2019, while Italian cities Rome and Milan join Kuwait City at the bottom of the scale.
  • #1 Taipei manages to defend its first place from 2018.
  • #2 Kuala Lumpur is rated the best city for getting settled.
  • #3 Ho Chi Minh City ranks first in the Finance & Housing Index.
  • Following Singapore (#4) and Montréal (#5), European cities make up the rest of the top 10.
  • However, the bottom 10 also feature some prominent European and US American cities.
  • Bern and Doha are among the biggest winners compared to 2018.
  • Manama, Cape Town, and Auckland, meanwhile, have seen a reverse development.

Download the full Expat City Ranking 2019 report.


In the Expat Insider 2019 survey, over 20,000 participants were asked not only to rate their respective host country but also to share insights regarding their city of residence. Respondents rated more than 25 different aspects of urban life abroad on a scale of one to seven, with the rating process emphasizing expats’ personal satisfaction with these aspects. The individual ratings were bundled in various combinations for a total of 13 subcategories, and the mean values of these subcategories were used to draw up four topical indices:

These indices were further averaged to create the Expat City Ranking 2019. The additional Local Cost of Living Index is not included in the overall ranking to avoid overrepresenting the financial aspects of life abroad.

For a city to be featured in the ranking, a sample size of at least 50 survey participants per city was required; 82 cities met this requirement in 2019.

Taipei Stays on Top

Following Taiwan’s ranking as the best expat destination worldwide in 2019, Taipei’s first place in the Expat City Ranking 2019 is not much of a surprise. In fact, the city already held this spot in 2018, when it first featured in the ranking. Taipei continues to impress when it comes to the local quality of life, ranking 3rd out of 82 cities in this index (for detailed results, see the Quality of Urban Living Index). A respondent from Paraguay, for example, describes “the convenience of everything:  access to food, great transportation, and cheap medical services” as a highlight of life in Taipei.

I love the convenience of everything in Taipei: access to food, great transportation, and cheap medical service.

The Taiwanese metropolis also keeps its fourth place in the Finance & Housing Index. Worldwide, only about half the respondents (49%) agree that their disposable household income is more than enough to cover all their living expenses. In Taipei, however, close to two-thirds (65%) say the same, and over a fifth (21%) even have a gross yearly income of over 150,000 USD (vs. 9% globally). With 55% positive ratings, expats in Taipei are also much more likely to agree that housing is affordable than the global average (36%).

While the city has managed to hold onto its top spot in the overall ranking, it is not quite as far ahead as it used to be. Following an excellent 2nd rank out of 72 cities in the 2018 Urban Work Life Index, Taipei lands merely in a good 20th place out of 82 in 2019. Expats still love their work-life balance — over three-quarters (76%) rate it favorably compared to 60% worldwide — but Taipei has lost out on all other factors in this index. Nearly seven in ten (69%), for example, rate the state of the local economy favorably in 2019, only slightly above the global average of 2019 (66%) and noticeably below the 2018 result (84%). Similarly, while expats are still very much satisfied with local friendliness (4th), as well as finding friends and their social life (9th), Taipei has dropped from a 3rd rank in 2018 to place 18th in the 2019 Getting Settled Index.

A Warm Welcome in Kuala Lumpur

With its second place in 2019, Kuala Lumpur at last makes it into the global top 3 after consistently ranking among the top 10 cities in the past few years. Expats rate Kuala Lumpur the city where it’s easiest to get settled (for detailed results, see the Getting Settled Index), as well as one of the best cities worldwide when it comes to finance and housing. In fact, only Ho Chi Minh City — which places third overall — beats Kuala Lumpur in the latter index. A British expat explicitly praises the “availability of nice places to live at a reasonable cost”, and others agree: 75% rate the affordability of housing favorably, more than twice the worldwide average (36%), while 86% agree that it is easy for expats to find accommodation in Kuala Lumpur (vs. 50% globally).

I like the availability of nice places to live at a reasonable cost in Kuala Lumpur.

Kuala Lumpur lands in an above-average 26th place in the Urban Work Life Index. Four in five expats (80%) are generally satisfied with their job, though less than half (47%) rate the local career opportunities favorably. “The work prospects for foreigners, especially ones educated in Malaysia, are getting smaller within these borders,” according to a Bangladeshi respondent. This may well be connected to the state of the local economy, which only a below-average 62% regard positively (vs. 66% globally). Nevertheless, expats are still satisfied with their job security (22nd) and work-life balance (25th) in Kuala Lumpur. The city receives its worst result in the Quality of Urban Living Index (44th), where a satisfactory availability (17th) and affordability (27th) of healthcare is undercut by below-average ratings for political stability (55th) and personal safety (60th).

Ho Chi Minh City: A Financial Paradise?

Following a 4th place out of 72 cities in 2018, Ho Chi Minh City manages to further improve its result to rank 3rd out of 82 in 2019. Expats rate Vietnam’s most populous city as the best place for finance and housing, with the city ranking first for all but one of the underlying factors: HCMC places second regarding the affordability of housing (for more details, see the Finance & Housing Index). Over four in five respondents (81%) are also satisfied with the local cost of living in general, nearly double the global average (43%). Ho Chi Minh City does similarly well in the Urban Work Life Index, ranking third. A top 10 place in the Job & Career (1st) and Work-Life Balance (6th) subcategories is offset by less exciting — though still good — ratings for the state of the local economy: 81% regard it favorably, compared to 66% of respondents worldwide.

The people in HCMC are amazing!

When it comes getting settled, expats have a comparatively easy time in Ho Chi Minh City, ranking it 15th in this index. It places third in both the Local Friendliness and the Friends & Socializing subcategories, and a Swiss expat even goes so far as to say that “the people in HCMC are amazing”. The language barrier can put a damper on things, though: nearly three-quarters (74%) say the local language is difficult to learn (vs. 45% globally), ranking Ho Chi Minh City 72nd for this factor. The city ranks even worse for the quality of the environment (73rd out of 82). “Litter is a major problem, and the local people have very little regard for the cleanliness of their country,” a respondent from South Africa thinks. Nearly half the expats (47%) agree, rating the quality of the environment negatively, 30 percentage points above the global average of 17%. With the exception of the local climate and weather (28th), expats are generally not very satisfied with the quality of life, which results in a 63rd rank, Ho Chi Minh City’s worst performance in any index.

Asian and European Cities Ahead

Singapore’s fourth place further adds to Asian destinations dominating the Expat City Ranking 2019. The four top cities all do very well regarding finance and housing, with Singapore receiving the “worst” result here, a 15th rank mostly due to the expensive housing in the city-state: 53% of expats rate this factor negatively (vs. 44% globally). All four Asian cities rank among the top 20 of the Getting Settled Index, though results in the Urban Work Life Index and especially the Quality of Urban Living Index vary greatly.

While Canadian city Montréal follows in fifth place, European cities make up the rest of the top 10: from Lisbon (6th) and Barcelona (7th) on the Iberian Peninsula to The Hague (9th) in the Netherlands to Swiss cities Zug (8th) and Basel (10th). Unlike the Asian top 4, these European cities show rather mixed results for housing and finance while doing well for the quality of life, from Zug placing first to Barcelona ranking twelfth in this index. Among the five European cities, Lisbon and Barcelona are clearly ahead in terms of getting settled, ranking 6th and 13th, respectively, while Swiss cities Zug (58th) and Basel (62nd) only make it into the lower half of the index.

At the Bottom of the List

As in the case of Taipei and Taiwan, Kuwait City’s disappointing performance mirrors Kuwait’s last place in the country-specific Expat Insider 2019 ranking. Expats rank the city among the bottom 5 of the Urban Work Life (79th), Quality of Urban Living (81st), and Getting Settled (82nd) Indices. An Indian respondent thinks there is “zero quality of living” in Kuwait City, while an expat from Egypt has experienced “discrimination against expats” and dislikes the “expensive housing”. While more than half the respondents (55%) agree that housing is not affordable (vs. 44% globally), Kuwait City does at least rank seventh in the Finance subcategory, its best result across the board.

Italian cities Rome (81st) and Milan (80th) have nearly hit rock bottom. Both are among the ten worst-rated cities worldwide in the Urban Work Life Index, with Rome even placing last. A Czech expat names the “impossibility of professional growth, underpayment, nepotism, bureaucracy, and the general state of the infrastructure” as downsides of life in Rome, while a US American in Milan points out that “there aren‘t a lot of job opportunities and it‘s hard owning my own business. The taxes are too high.” Both cities actually rank among the bottom 10 of the Finance subcategory, too, with only around four in nine expats in Milan (42%) and Rome (44%) being satisfied with their financial situation, compared to 57% of expats worldwide. What is more, the political upheaval of the past year did not go unnoticed by expats: just a quarter or less in Rome and Milan rate the factor political stability favorably (vs. 61% globally). This is one reason — but certainly not the only one — for Milan’s (60th) and Rome’s (76th) disappointing result in the Quality of Urban Living Index in general.

Paris (78th) joins Rome and Milan as the only other European city in the bottom 10, together with three prominent US American cities: San Francisco (77th), Los Angeles (76th), and New York City (74th). All three receive their best — though still average — rating in the Getting Settled Index, and some of their worst results in the Finance & Housing Index. San Francisco even ranks second to last in the latter, with the majority (92%) agreeing that housing is not affordable there, more than double the global average of 44%.

Up & Downs in the Ranking

Bern doesn’t do quite as well as fellow Swiss cities Zug and Basel, but it has seen noticeable improvements in the Expat City Ranking 2019: following a 61st rank out of 72 cities in 2018, it has moved up to 38th place out of 82 cities. This improved result is mainly due to the Finance & Housing Index: while Bern narrowly missed ending up among the bottom 10 in this index in 2018, ranking 60th out of 72, it now places 49th out of 82. The share of respondents satisfied with their financial situation might still be below the global average (53% vs. 57%); however, this is a vast improvement from 40% in 2018.

Doha has made an even bigger jump than Bern, going from 50th place in 2018 to ranking 12th in 2019. Results have improved for nearly every factor featured in the survey. For example, respondents in the Qatari capital are more likely to agree that it is easy to get used to the local culture (62% in 2019 vs. 50% in 2018), happier with the state of the local economy (80% vs. 67%), and less likely to rate the affordability of housing negatively (43% vs. 59%).

Manama in neighboring Bahrain has experienced a reverse development, with losses affecting many rating factors and resulting in a 21st place following its 3rd rank in 2018. It still does very well for getting settled (2nd after a 1st place in 2018) but has seen big changes for work life (from 13th to 58th). For example, expats’ satisfaction with their working hours has fallen by 26 percentage points (from 79% positive answers in 2018 to just 53% in 2019), and the share of respondents dissatisfied with their job has doubled from 8% to 16%.

Cape Town is another city that has undergone some heavy losses in the ranking: after coming in 20th place in 2018, it only ranks 65th in 2019. Expats are less satisfied across the board — even in the Getting Settled Index, where Cape Town does best, it only ranks 21st out of 82. In 2018, the city still made it into the top 10 in this index (8th). What’s more, Cape Town now lands in the bottom 10 for work life (76th vs. 54th in 2018) and has dropped 20 ranks in regard to finance and housing (from 15th to 35th). While in 2018, 86% of respondents agreed that it’s easy for expats to find housing in the legislative capital of South Africa, only two-thirds (67%) still agree in 2019, for example. Expats are also noticeably less satisfied with the local transportation (from 33% negative responses in 2018 to 54% in 2019).

Auckland’s decline in the overall city ranking may not be quite as extreme as Cape Town’s, but ranking 64th out of 82 cities in 2019 following a 37th place out of 72 in 2018 is still quite the drop. Results have once again worsened across the board, but especially when it comes to safety: in 2018, 95% of respondents regarded their personal safety in Auckland positively, and over three in five (62%) even gave it the best possible rating. In 2019, the respective shares have fallen to 77% and 32%. However, this result that may well be connected to the Christchurch mosque shootings, which shocked all of New Zealand around the same time the Expat Insider 2019 survey was conducted.

Further Reading