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Expat Insider - The World Through Expat Eyes

The Best & Worst Cities for Expats

In the Expat City Ranking 2021, the top 3 destinations — Kuala Lumpur, Málaga, and Dubai — are geographically very diverse. Among the bottom 3, however, two Italian cities occupy the last and second-to-last places.
  • Kuala Lumpur (1st out of 57) receives stellar ratings for Finance & Housing.
  • Málaga (2nd) impresses expats with its climate and leisure options.
  • Expats find it easy to get settled in Dubai (3rd).
  • Cities from the Asia-Pacific region are very well represented in the top 10.
  • Six out of the bottom 10 cities are located across Europe.

Kuala Lumpur: Welcoming & Affordable

Kuala Lumpur (1st out of 57) also ranks first in the Getting Settled Index — nearly all rating factors make it into the top 10. “It’s easy to live here, and the people are wonderful!”, a US expat sums up her experience. (For details, see the Getting Settled Index 2021.)

It boasts stellar results in the Finance & Housing Index (1st), too (see the Finance & Housing Index 2021). Kuala Lumpur comes first in the Housing Subcategory and is only beaten by Ho Chi Minh City (1st) with regard to finance: 64% of expats have a disposable household income that is more than enough to cover expenses in Kuala Lumpur (vs. 52% globally).

In the Urban Work Life Index (30th), it gets mixed results. Expats are happy with their working hours (75% vs. 66% globally) and work-life balance (72% vs. 66% globally). However, 34% rate the local career opportunities negatively (vs. 33% globally), and only 57% view the state of the local economy favorably (vs. 62% globally).

Lastly, the Quality of Urban Living Index (41st) is Kuala Lumpur’s weakest point. While it lands in ninth place of the Leisure & Climate Subcategory, the results for other factors are rather subpar. This includes the urban environment (38th), personal safety (42nd), and transportation (47th). For example, 69% of expats globally rate the local transportation system positively, compared to 57% in Kuala Lumpur.

Málaga: Relocating for a Better Quality of Life

Málaga (2nd) follows right behind Kuala Lumpur in the global top 3. The Getting Settled Index (3rd) is also its biggest strength. It even places first in the Friends & Socializing Subcategory: 69% of expats find it easy to make new friends (vs. 48% globally), and 78% are happy with their social life (vs. 57% globally). (For more information, see the Getting Settled Index 2021)

Málaga also receives great results in both the Cost of Living (1st) and the Finance & Housing (5th) Indices. The latter is largely due to the Housing Subcategory (3rd), though (see the Finance & Housing Index 2021). For Finance, Málaga merely comes 25th. Still, 82% of expats feel their disposable household income is enough or more than enough to cover expenses (vs. 77% globally).

Málaga scores an above-average 15th place in the Quality of Urban Living Index as well. In the Leisure & Climate Subcategory, it even comes first: 80% love the weather (vs. 27% globally), and 86% are happy with the leisure options (vs. 72% globally). “I love the climate, the beautiful nature, and the rich cultural life here,” says a female expat from Iceland. Málaga is aso a safe city (12th), where healthcare is both of good quality (18th) and affordable (15th).

The Urban Work Life Index (51st) is Málaga’s biggest weakness. Though its results in the Work- Life Balance Subcategory (32nd) are decent enough, it is not a city for career-driven expats: 28% are not satisfied with their job in general (vs. 16% globally), and 55% view the local career opportunities negatively (vs. 33% globally). However, only 14% relocated for work-related reasons (vs. 36% globally), while 33% did so for a better quality of life (vs. 7% globally).

Dubai: Making It Easy for Expats to Get Settled

Similar to Kuala Lumpur and Málaga, Dubai (3rd) makes it easy for expats to settle in. It places sixth in the Getting Settled Index. The respondents appreciate the lack of a language barrier in this expat hotspot: 94% find it easy to live in Dubai without speaking the local language (vs. 54% globally). Moreover, 81% describe the local people as friendly towards foreign residents (vs. 67%), and 70% say that it is easy to get used to the local culture (vs. 65% globally).

Expats also benefit from an above-average quality of life. While Dubai misses out on the top 10 in the Quality of Urban Living Index (11th), it offers a safe and stable environment with good leisure options: 84% rate the latter positively (vs. 72% globally), while 97% feel safe in Dubai (vs. 84% globally). “As a woman from a country where there is a lot of crime, safety is a big deal to me,” stresses a female expat from South Africa.

The Finance & Housing Index (21st) is a bit of a mixed bag for Dubai. On the one hand, 86% state that housing for expats is easy to find (vs. 60% globally). But only 32% describe it as affordable (vs. 42% globally) and 28% are dissatisfied with their financial situation (vs. 19% globally). With 48% rating the cost of living negatively, Dubai comes 35th in this index. Dubai does worst in the Urban Work Life Index (38th). It places slightly above the global average for its local economy (23rd) and career opportunities (27th). Quite a few expats complain about long hours and little security, though: 22% rate their work-life balance negatively (vs. 17% globally), and 32% view their job security unfavorably (vs. 20% globally). With 57% moving for work-related reasons (vs. 36% globally), Dubai might not have lived up to their expectations.

The Bottom 3: Where Italy Meets South Africa

Rome has landed among the bottom 3 since 2018, but in 2021, it comes last (57th out of 57) for the first time. It also places last in the Urban Work Life Index, where all underlying factors — such as job satisfaction and career opportunities — end up in the bottom 10 (see the Urban Work Life Index 2021).

The Quality of Urban Living Index (55th) is another area where Rome ranks among the bottom 3. It does especially poorly in the Transportation (53rd) and Health & Environment (50th) Subcategories. For example, 47% rate public transportation negatively (vs. 20% globally). (For more information, please see the Quality of Urban Living Index 2021.) Things look up a little in the Finance & Housing Index (45th), but Rome still places below the global average: 47% of expats describe housing as unaffordable (vs. 39% globally), and 41% say their household income is not enough to cover expenses in Rome (vs. 23% globally). Even Rome’s best rating — a 40th place in the Getting Settled Index — is far from satisfactory: 31% describe the local people as unfriendly towards foreign residents (vs. 18% globally).

With Milan (56th), another Italian city joins Rome in the bottom 3. Milan also does worst in the Urban Work Life Index (55th). For example, 26% of expats are unhappy with their job in general, compared to 16% globally (see the Urban Work Life Index 2021). Unlike Rome, it lands among the bottom 3 in the Finance & Housing Index (55th). In the Finance Subcategory (57th), Milan is even the worst-rated city worldwide. (For more details, see the Finance & Housing Index 2021.)

Milan performs a little better in the Quality of Urban Living Index (47th) — but this doesn’t actually mean good results. It even comes among the bottom 10 for its urban environment (48th), political stability (48th), and personal safety (51st). Its best result is a mere 44th place in the Getting Settled Index. Three in ten expats (30%) do not feel at home in Milan (vs. 19% globally).

Johannesburg (55th), the last city in the bottom 3, is also the one that does worst in the Quality of Urban Living Index (57th). Its results for personal safety are particularly staggering — 68% of expats do not feel safe there, compared to a global average of 8% (see also Quality of Urban Living Index 2021).

The city narrowly escapes the bottom 5 in the Urban Work Life Index (52nd). In the Work-Life Balance Subcategory, it does not do too badly (27th). However, expats are unhappy with the career opportunities (41% vs. 33% globally) and the local economy (48% vs. 19% globally). Johannesburg’s results in the Getting Settled (29th) and Finance & Housing (24th) Indices are a stark contrast to the other two. But opinions are sharply divided with regard to housing and finance. On the one hand, expats consider housing easy to afford (9th) and to find (13th). On the other hand, 42% state that their household income is not enough to cover expenses (vs. 23% globally).

Regional Trends among the Top & Bottom 10

Among the top 10 destinations in the Expat City Ranking 2021, cities in the Asia-Pacific region are very well represented. In addition to Kuala Lumpur (1st), there is Sydney (4th), Singapore (5th), and Ho Chi Minh City (6th). Sydney might even have made it into the top 3 if not for its 29th place in the Finance & Housing Index. Ho Chi Minh City has fairly similar results to Kuala Lumpur, but it does a lot better in the Urban Work Life Index (10th) — and even worse in the Quality of Urban Living Index (52nd).

The other region that dominates the top 10 is Europe. Málaga (2nd) is followed by Prague (7th), Basel (9th), and Madrid (10th). However, European cities also predominate in the bottom 10, with six out of the ten worst-rated destinations located across the continent. Apart from Rome (57th) and Milan (56th), there are Istanbul (54th) and Moscow (49th) in Eastern Europe, as well as Maastricht (50th) and Paris (51st) in the west. And while the Asia-Pacific region is very well represented among the top 10, one of its cities ends up at the bottom: Tokyo ranks 53rd.

The MENA region — the Middle East and North Africa — is represented among both the best- and the worst-rated cities worldwide. Cairo’s disappointing 52nd rank forms a stark contrast to Dubai’s 3rd place. Johannesburg (55th) is the only sub-Saharan destination at either end of the ranking, though Nairobi lands in a very good 12th place. Lastly, Mexico City (8th) is the lone Latin American destination among the top 10, whereas New York (48th) represents North America in the bottom 10.

Further Reading