Country Facts about the UAE

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What you should know about living costs and more in the UAE

There’s a lot more to the UAE than just tax-free earnings. Get up to speed with the country’s key facts – from cost of living to culture and driving – in our complete guide.

The cost of living in the UAE is pretty high. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are amongst the most expensive cities in the world to rent in. Also, in most of the rest of the federation, accommodation can be scarce and pricey. Add to this the obligatory healthcare and – if you have children – education costs, and your spending is going to be substantial.

Communications and connectivity in the UAE are good. This starts in Dubai with an international airport ranked the biggest in the world by certain measures. From Dubai International Airport you can easily get almost anywhere. Transportation infrastructure once you’re on the ground is also good. Driving and public transportation benefit from a good road network.

Cost of living

  • Be prepared to spend about half of your monthly salary on rent. Housing in Abu Dhabi can be even more expensive than in Dubai.
  • International education and private healthcare make up another large chunk of your budget, but expat families don’t really have alternative options.
  • Grocery prices are comparable to the UK or the US — and you can splurge as much as you want on shopping and leisure.

When you are planning your move to another country, you should have a rough idea of what your living expenses will be like. To find out more about your prospective cost of living in the UAE, start by itemizing your monthly household budget. The two or three most important expenses for expats living in the UAE are usually housing, healthcare, and childcare or education.

Abu Dhabi: The World’s Second-Most Expensive City to Rent in?

Housing will probably be the biggest item in your budget when it comes to the UAE’s cost of living. Obviously, the actual rent strongly depends on the size, the location, and the standard of the property. However, you will also be facing a definite shortage of affordable housing in the UAE.

In autumn 2015, local media, such as the National, reported that an international survey commissioned by a London-based residential property agency had identified Abu Dhabi as the second-most expensive out of 31 metropolises worldwide. In the CBRE Residential UK study, both Dubai and Abu Dhabi were among the top ten cities with the highest monthly rents across the globe. The report listed circa 1,700 GBP as the average rent in Abu Dhabi, followed by not quite 1,500 GBP in Dubai. If we use the foreign exchange rate of April 2016, these rental costs would be the equivalent of approximately 8,900 AED and 7,850 AED, respectively, per month.

Abu Dhabi’s rental market in particular is characterized by long waiting lists, even for high-end property. The emirate is nearly as populous as neighboring Dubai, but there is less construction activity and fewer property developments. Dubai’s exploding real estate market, on the other hand, seems to have slowed down a little. In the above-mentioned report, the average rent in Dubai “only” increased by 7%, compared to a 12% increase in Abu Dhabi. Prognoses for 2016 predict less steep rental increases for Abu Dhabi, as well as a slight rent drop for Dubai in the course of the year.

How Much to Spend on Housing in Dubai and Abu Dhabi

The sharp rental increases in Abu Dhabi seem to especially affect smaller apartments for single expats. A studio apartment requires an average annual rent of 65,000 AED, while you have to pencil in about 100,000 AED for a place with one bedroom. Expat families looking for more spacious accommodation have to pay circa 190,000 AED a year for a three-bedroom flat on Reem Island or 225,000 AED for one along the Corniche.

Unlike Abu Dhabi, Dubai has an online rental increase calculator, as provided by the Dubai Land Department. If you choose a specific neighborhood, as well as your preferred housing type, the website will give you a price range for that kind of rental property, also indicating by how much your landlord can raise your annual rent. Researching several areas with good transport connections to your workplace may help you to better plan your cost of living in the UAE.

So if you plan on moving to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, please consider that rental costs may add up to about 50% of your monthly salary. To reduce your cost of living in the UAE accordingly, talk to your employer about an additional housing allowance. However, as competition for available jobs is getting tougher, such expat perks are less and less common. Settling on a smaller allowance for shipping your belongings or furnishing your new home might still be on the table, though.

Utilities Not Included

But paying for your new home in the UAE doesn’t just involve the rental costs: don’t forget about the utility bill! These fees are usually not included in the rent. You need to set up your utilities in the UAE with the respective authority in your emirate, for example the DEWA (Dubai Electricity and Water Authority) or the ADDC (Abu Dhabi Distribution Company). These utility providers are responsible for the water and electricity supply, as well as the waste water and sewage disposal, in their respective emirate. The costs for water consumption and electricity will make up the biggest chunk of your utility bill — the additional sewerage charge is fairly negligible (e.g. the DEWA charges one fils per gallon of waste water).

You can check out the exact tariff on the DEWA and ADDC websites. Please take into consideration that the companies distinguish between fees for smaller apartments and those for larger villas with higher consumption (e.g. with a garden or a swimming pool on the premises). Both utility providers will also raise their tariff if your property consumes an excessive amount of water or electricity.

As a rule of thumb, figure in 500 AED for your monthly utility bill if you live in a studio apartment. For villa-type properties, utility costs can add as much as 5,000 AED to the monthly cost of living in the UAE. Due to the extreme heat from around April/May to September/October, the bill may actually be a little higher than that during the summer months, but you’ll need less electricity in winter when you don’t use the air-conditioning so much.

Hello, Hello, Baby — You Called?

Last but not least, you also have to think about your phone and internet connection. It is well worth shopping around and comparing various offers from the big local service providers, such as Du or Etisalat. One of these companies should have the ideal tariff that fits your personal needs. Just to give you a first impression of how much having a landline, using your smartphone, and getting a broadband internet connection will add to your cost of living in the UAE, here are some of their packages from February 2016:

A Du mobile plan with 2 GB of data, an additional 1 GB of social data, and 600 free minutes of phone calls can be purchased for 300 AED per month. Etisalat offers a pre-paid smartphone data pack of 1 GB that’s valid for 30 days at the price of 100 AED. Both companies’ monthly plans for 20 Mbps broadband internet, a landline phone connection, and free TV amount to circa 370 AED a month.

To see what else might add up during your expat life in the UAE, just read on in part two of this article.

Practical information

  • Country name: United Arab Emirates
  • Government type: constitutional monarchy
  • Area (km²): 83,600
  • Climate: subtropical-arid
  • Capital: Abu Dhabi
  • Population: 9,157,000 (July 2015 estimate)
  • Population density: 109/km²
  • Major urban areas: Abu Dhabi (2.7 million); Dubai (2.5 million); Sharjah (1.4 million)
  • Ethnic groups: Emirati 16.6%, other Arabs 23%, 42.3% Asians (subcontinent), 12.1% other Asians, 6% other expatriates. Only around 16.6% of the population is comprised of UAE nationals, as the population is dominated by expats.
  • Languages: Arabic (official language) and English, while Hindu, Urdu, and other South Asian languages are widely spoken.
  • Religions: Muslim 76%, Christian 9%, other 15% (2007 estimate). Islam is the official state religion.
  • Gross domestic product: 339.1 billion USD (nominal); 641.9 billion USD (PPP) (2015 estimate)
  • GDP per capita: 67,000 USD (2015 estimate)
  • Unemployment rate: 3.6% (2014)
  • Mercer Cost of Living Index 2015: Dubai (23) and Abu Dhabi (33)
  • Human Development Index 2014: 0.835 (ranked 41st)
  • Currency: UAE Dirham (د.إ / AED)
  • Time zone: GST (UTC + 04:00)
  • Country code: +971
  • Emergency number: 999
  • Voltage: 230 V / 50 Hz
  • Recommended vaccinations: routine vaccines, hepatitis A, typhoid

Flying Your Way into the UAE

  • Get to know everything about Dubai International Airport and its experience.
  • There are several options to get to Dubai International Airport.
  • Of course there are other airports in the UAE; we discuss two other important ones.

The World’s Number One: Dubai International Airport

Dubai International Airport (DHX) is the world’s busiest airport by international passenger traffic, handling around 70.5 million passengers in 2014. Currently, over 8,000 weekly flights are operated by 140 airlines to over 270 cities all across the world. The busiest routes from DHX are to London Heathrow, Doha (Qatar), and Kuwait City.

The biggest domestic airline is Emirates. It is the world’s third-biggest airline by scheduled passengers per kilometers flown and its hub is Dubai International Airport, where — together with Qantas — it exclusively serves Terminal 3. Emirates flies to 164 destinations in 70 countries, with an existing fleet of 219 passenger aircrafts. In 2014, 49.2 million passengers flew with Emirates, counting over 3,000 flights every week.

The airport has four terminals — three passenger terminals and one for cargo — with four concourses. Concourses A, B, and C are part of Terminal 3; Concourse D — the newest addition to the airport — is part of Terminal 1.

Dubai International Airport is a whole experience on its own. Ten lounges, business centers, meeting rooms, prayer rooms, more than 80 food and beverage facilities, a swimming pool, including access to a gym, jacuzzis, saunas, and showers, and even three hotels — it can be a bit overwhelming. As if that isn’t enough, you can pay a visit to one of the Zen gardens, or take a nap in one of the snooze cubes. And of course you can always spend your spare time in the airport exploring the 26,000 m2 of retail space.

Your Way to the Airport — How Will You Get There?

There are several options to get to the airport — or to get to Dubai from the airport.

You can travel to the airport using the Dubai Metro — both the red and green lines have stations at the airport. The red line has stations at Terminals 1 and 3, while the green line stops at the Airport Free Zone, which is close to Terminal 2. The metro operates from 05:50 to midnight from Saturday to Wednesday. On Thursday and Friday the metro operates until 01:00. Keep in mind that there is no metro service on Friday morning — the trains start operating at 13:00.

It is also possible to travel by bus. There are bus stops at all three terminals of the airport. To get from Terminal 1 to 3 — or the other way around — you can use the free shuttle bus that takes you from terminal to terminal. You can also use the metro to travel between the terminals.

The last option you have is to simply travel by taxi. Outside the airport, there are taxi stands with taxis waiting. A trip from the airport has a fixed starting fee of 20 AED.

Other Important Airports in the UAEAbu Dhabi International Airport

Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) is the UAE’s second-largest airport, with 20 million passengers in 2014. The airport is a base for around 40 airlines flying to 90 cities in over 50 countries. Etihad Airlines — the second-largest airline in the UAE — has its hub at AUH.

There are buses that go to the city center and back to the airport. There’s a bus every 40 minutes, and the buses operate 24 hours a day. A one-way trip costs 4 AED and takes around 45 minutes.

Sharjah International Airport

Sharjah International Airport handled 9.5 million passengers in 2014. The easiest method to travel to or from the airport in Sharjah is to take a taxi. It’s fast and reliable — all taxis have meters that calculate the amount you’ll have to pay for your trip. Another option is to take a long-distance bus, with which you can also travel to other emirates. If you’re traveling within Sharjah, local buses can take you to your destination — a bus leaves every 15 minutes.

Celebrating Islam, the Nation & More: Public Holidays in the UAE

  • Public holidays in the UAE occur on nine occasions; the exact number of days off work can, however, vary.
  • Religious holidays are determined by the Islamic calendar and as such fall on different dates each Gregorian year.
  • In case a public holiday falls onto a weekend, the day off may occasionally be moved to the previous or following day.

Islamic Holidays — A Matter of the Moon

Both, the Gregorian as well as the Islamic calendar (typically called Hijri calendar), are used in the UAE, with the latter of particular importance when it comes to the timing of Islamic practices and holidays. Based on the sightings of the new moon, the Hijri calendar includes 354 days, split up into twelve months:

  1. Muḥarram
  2. Ṣafar
  3. Rabi’ Al-Awwal
  4. Rabi’ Al-Thani
  5. Jumadá Al-Awwal
  6. Jumadá Al-Thani
  7. Rajab
  8. Sha‘ban
  9. Ramaḍan
  10. Shawwāl
  11. Dhu Al-Qa‘dah
  12. Dhu Al-Ḥijjah

Since the Islamic year is shorter than its Gregorian brother, dates do not directly correspond. The calendar’s beginnings are found in 622 AD of the Gregorian calendar, and as such the current Hijri year started in mid-October 2015 and is referred to as 1437 AH (anno hegirae, i.e. “the year of the Hijra”).

What is more, due to the fact that the beginnings of its months are based on the sighting of the new moon, the Gregorian dates of Islamic holidays are at first only estimated. Their exact timing is confirmed just shortly before the fact. Please also note that there’s often a difference between the number of paid days off when comparing the public and the private sector, so make sure to take these factors into account when planning your holidays while living in the UAE!

Ramadan and the Eid Al-Fitr  

While the whole month of Ramadan is considered holy and comes with certain rites and obligations, it is Eid Al-Fitr, the end of fasting, which is enthusiastically celebrated. Starting on the first day of the following month (Shawwal), the festival lasts for three days. During this time, Muslims rejoice in the breaking of their fast together with family and friends and give charity to those in need. You can expect this time to be a festive one, with fireworks and fairs, music and dancing, as well as various events and shows taking place across the Emirates.

Eid Al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice — 10 Dhu Al-Hijjah

Held in honor of Ibrahim’s (near) sacrifice of his son, the three day celebration of Eid Al-Adha typically includes the sacrifice of a goat or sheep and the sharing of its meat with the immediate family, other relatives, as well as the needy. The festival begins on the tenth of the last month (Dhu Al-Hijjah) and coincides with the second half of the Hajj pilgrimage.

Eid Al-Mawlid an Nabawi, the Prophet’s Birthday — 12 Rabi’ Al-Awwal

With Islam playing such a fundamental role in the UAE, it is hardly surprising that the prophet’s birthday on the twelfth of the third month (Rabi’ Al-Awwal) is also a public holiday in the UAE.

A Journey through the Night: Al Isra’a Wal Mi’raj — 27 Rajab

Held on the 27th day of the 7th month of the Hijri calendar (Rajab), the so-called Ascension Day is an Islamic holiday in memory of the night journey of the Prophet Muhammed, during which he traveled to Jerusalem as well as ascended to heaven to converse with previous prophets and God.

Standing Vigil on Arafat Day — 9 Dhu Al-Hijjah

Similarly to the Eid Al-Adha festival, the Arafat Day is also connected to the holy pilgrimage (Hajj) and is in fact set on the day before the former festival, i.e. on the ninth day of the last month (Dhu Al-Hijjah). On this day, which is a public holiday in the UAE, those on pilgrimage journey from Mina to the nearby Mount Arafat and the surrounding plain, where they stand vigil before God (wuquf). Muslims at home often fast on this day.

It’s Not All about Religion: National HolidaysCelebrating the New Year, Twice! — 1 January & 1 Muharram

Al-Hijra marks the beginning of a new year in the Islamic calendar and as such falls on the first day of the month Muharram. A public holiday in the UAE, the Islamic new year is welcomed less with grand celebrations (compared to some Western New Year’s traditions) and more regarded as a time of reflection as well as for looking forward.

In comparison, the new Gregorian year is welcomed with a bang in the UAE. A cause for celebration around the globe, the Emirati contribution to lightning up the sky with fireworks seems to get more and more impressive each New Year. This is particularly the case in Dubai and centered around Burj Khalifa: In 2015/16, around 1.6 tons of fireworks were installed on this skyscraper alone!

In Memory of the Fallen: Martyr’s Day — 30 November

A more recent fixture with its introduction in 2015, Martyr’s Day is a public holiday held in remembrance and honor of Emiratis who’ve fallen for their country, whether in military, civil, or humanitarian services. On this day, commemorative events and ceremonies are held across the Emirates.

The Birth of a Country: National Day — 2 December

Officially established in 1971, with Ras Al Khaimah joining the following year, the UAE’s beginning as an independent country is celebrated each year on 2 December. Depending on the weekday this date falls on, one, sometimes even two, days off work are granted for National Day.

Culture and Social Etiquette

  • Islamic values strongly influence daily life in the UAE, even for non-Muslims: from greetings and hospitality, to eating etiquette and more.
  • Expats need to be particularly aware of rules concerning dress code, alcohol, and relations between the men and women.
  • Wasta, the Arabian concept of networking and trading favors, also plays an important role in Emirati culture and can often smoothen the way.

One just needs to take a look at the impressive skyscrapers, huge shopping malls, and available leisure activities to recognize that the UAE in general and Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular are very modern. However, this does not mean that tradition and religion have lost any of their influence. Quite the contrary, old and new have managed to blend and create a unique and fascinating atmosphere in the UAE. So make sure you don’t forget to follow the local customs and social etiquette when being dazzled by the desert sun reflecting off Burj Khalifa!

As-Salam Alaikum — Greetings in the UAE

When greeting guests, business partners, etc. make sure to stand up, especially when greeting elder persons or those with a higher rank. The latter two should also be addressed first. Take your cue from Muslims whether or not to shake hands, though, as not all do due to religious reasons. This is particularly the case for handshakes between the opposite sexes! When a handshake does occur, the contact typically lasts quite a while and, among Arabs, is often followed by touching noses three times or a kiss to the cheek. In general, personal space is often smaller than in many other countries, particularly during a greeting, so don’t be surprised when your conversational partner steps a bit closer.

When making small talk, it is okay to enquire about an Emirati’s family in general, but make sure not to show any undue interest in female relatives. Similarly, men should not make any prolonged eye contact with Muslim women, as this is considered quite improper.

The traditional phrase for greeting in the UAE is As-salam alaikum ( “Peace be upon you”), with Wa alaikum as-salam ( “and upon you be peace”) the customary reply. During Ramadan, you may also hear Ramadan Kareem (“Happy/Blessed Ramadan”) as a form of greeting.

Keep Your Feet on the Ground

When living in the UAE, and particularly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you will encounter people from various cultures and backgrounds, so keep this in mind when interacting with others. What is more, religion plays an important role in everyday life and you’d do well to keep Islamic values in mind when out and about in the UAE. In general, respectful, courteous, and modest behavior will already go a long way towards ensuring you are not stepping on anyone’s toes. However, make sure to also keep the following in mind.

As comfortable as it might sometimes be when sitting down, don’t cross your legs — showing the sole of your foot as well as pointing at or even touching somebody with your foot is considered insulting in the UAE. If you are gesturing with your hand, make sure not to start pointing fingers and use your whole hand instead in order to be polite. Also, don’t forget that the left hand is considered unclean and should not be used for offering food, to name but one example.

Avoid any and all swearing, offensive language, insults, and offensive or aggressive behavior (also when driving!), as these offences are not taken lightly in the UAE and punishments go from fines to deportation. Also — and this might just sound like a common courtesy — always ask permission when taking photos with people in them. Similarly, don’t take pictures of governmental buildings, palaces, military installations, airports, ports, bridges, in mosques, etc. without prior permission.

Strictly speaking, you are not allowed to share private space, e.g. a flat, hotel room, or even a car, together with a person of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or otherwise closely related. While this rule is not necessarily rigorously enforced for non-Muslims — e.g. some hotels allowing shared rooms for non-married couples — it is important that you are aware of the potential for offense. Avoid any displays of affection in public, from kissing to holding hands — the latter is tolerated among married couples, and surprisingly common between men, though.

For more advice on business etiquette, punctuality, etc. you can also take a look at our article on Avoiding Business Blunders in the UAE.

Modesty Is Key, so Don’t Dress to Impress

When packing your bags for your stay in the Emirates, you would be best served to leave the following behind:

  • short skirts or shorts
  • transparent, revealing, or (very) form-fitting clothing
  • clothes with offensive and/or obscene motifs or texts

Instead, make sure you keep your wardrobe modest — at least the tops of your legs and arms should be covered and swimwear only belongs at the pool or beach. In the desert heat, clothing that is long, light, and airy is preferable, anyway.

Note that modest clothing is particularly important during the month of Ramadan or when visiting a mosque — here, women will also be asked to cover their heads and wear an abaya.

“A Plate for One Is Enough for Two” — Eating & Drinking Etiquette

The local eating and drinking habits are also heavily influenced by Islam and hospitality is considered a core value in the UAE. Even disregarding specific dietary restrictions and the Ramadan fasting, which we cover in more detail in our article on religion in the UAE, there are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind.

It is, for example, only polite to offer to share food when in the company of others — declining such an offer, by the way, is perfectly acceptable. Criticizing food, on the other hand, is considered very impolite — even if you are really not a fan of e.g. falafels.

When accepting or partaking in food or drink in the UAE, make sure you do so with your right hand — as previously mentioned, the left is considered unclean in Islam. For this reason, you might also encounter an “unusual” cutlery setting, with the fork on the right and the knife on the left. In some traditional restaurants, cutlery may be forgone completely and you eat with your hand instead, although this is not as common in public as it used to be.

When eating in the company of Muslims, it is only polite to keep their dietary restrictions in mind and avoid food that is not halal (such as pork) as well as alcohol. The latter may only be consumed in designated areas (e.g. a licensed hotel bar) or in the privacy of your own home and is, strictly speaking, only permissible when in the possession of a drinking license. In the emirate of Sharjah, you won’t find any alcohol at all.

In the other emirates, the legal age for drinking alcohol is 21 or 18 in case of Abu Dhabi. You may purchase alcohol in order to drink it later at special liquor stores, but only if you are in possession of an alcohol purchasing license, which is just handed out to non-Muslims. Make sure to use an opaque bag when carrying your purchase home and be aware that being even just slightly drunk in public is a punishable offense.

Wasta: Networking the Arabian Way

“It’s not what you know, but who you know” is not an unheard of concept in most societies, from Chinese guanxi to Arabian wasta. Roughly translating to “clout” or “connections”, wasta in the UAE denotes authority, power, and influence. So if you’ve got wasta or know someone with a high level of wasta, this may well make your life in the UAE easier, smooth business transactions, help with the job search, speed up bureaucratic procedures, etc.

Traditionally, the concept is rooted in obligations to the family/tribe and managing the relations to others via wasta, e.g. intermediaries settling a dispute between clans. In modern times, this has translated more into networking and trading favors or the promise of future favors. Your existing network of contacts as well as your social standing, profession, nationality, etc. all play a role in your “level of wasta”.


  • Which traffic rules should you pay attention to?
  • What exactly is the black points system?
  • What do you need for a safe road trip through the desert?
  • Are there a lot of road accidents in the UAE?
  • Does the UAE have toll roads? And how do you pay for them?
  • How can you exchange your foreign driver’s license?

Keeping an Eye on the Traffic Rules

While taking part in the crazy traffic of the UAE, you have to keep the traffic rules in mind. Like in many countries, the minimum age for driving is 18, and you’re only allowed to drive with a valid driver’s license. Something that’s also good to know is that the traffic moves on the right-hand side of the road and turning right on a red light is forbidden. Make sure you put your phone away, because using it while driving is not allowed — except when using a hands-free system. You should always wear your seat belt; this is mandatory for all people in the car. Children who weigh between 18–36 kg and are less than 145 cm tall should be seated in a booster seat. Children under the age of ten are not allowed to sit in the front seat.

The last — but maybe the most important — traffic rule is that intoxicated or drunk driving is prohibited, regardless of the amount. The penalties for this are very serious — you face between one month and three years in jail and/or a fine of between 20,000 and 30,000 AED. And if that isn’t enough, you also risk losing your driver’s license for a certain amount of time.

Speed limits on the roads in the UAE are as follows:

  • highways: 100–120 kmph
  • urban areas: 40–80 kmph
  • residential areas: 40 kmph

Beyond Fines: The Black Points System

You won’t only get a fine when you break the traffic rules. The UAE has a black points system, where you receive black points for your traffic violations. The maximum amount of points you’re allowed to have is 24 — if you exceed that limit, you may be banned from driving any type of vehicle for one year. Each traffic violation has a different amount of black points assigned to it. Intoxicated or drunk driving for example will give you 24 points immediately. If you’re caught speeding, you’ll get twelve points and running a red light will get you eight. You can find a full list of the traffic violations on the website of the Abu Dhabi Police. The black points you receive have a validity of one year. After that, they are deleted from the system and you start out with a blank slate again.

The Declining Number of Road Accidents

Even though the UAE has an excellent road network, the number of road accidents is high. However, that number is steadily decreasing each year, as the government is improving the roads. From 2011 to 2013, the total number of road accidents declined by almost 25% and the number of fatalities dropped by almost 10%. So you can say that driving in the UAE is getting a lot safer.

The main causes for traffic accidents in the UAE are sudden swerving, misjudgment of other road users, speeding, tailgating, and lack of attention. You should therefore be on the lookout for other road users’ unsafe driving practices and remember to employ defensive driving techniques.

One thing to remember when you’re involved in a road accident is to leave your car where it is when someone is injured — when no one’s hurt, you can move it to the side of the road.

Ready for an Adventure? Tips for Desert Driving

It’s not only important to know how to stay safe on the normal roads, but also under special circumstances. When you’re going to make a trip into the desert and you’re going by car, you should take precautions. The safest way of driving is with a 4×4 vehicle. You should make sure that you bring enough water and a phone with good service. And don’t forget to watch out for camels!

There is a big selection of desert driving courses (to choose from) in the UAE. During these courses, you learn how to handle a 4×4 vehicle, about the topography of the desert, and about situations that are likely to happen. It is very important to know how to stay safe and how to keep cool if anything happens. The Emirates Driving Institute has more information on the courses and on how to register.

The One and Only Road Toll System

The only road toll system in the UAE is the Salik system in and around Dubai. Salik has six toll gates, which can be paid for with the Salik tag. You affix the tag to the windshield of your car and it will be recognized by the toll gate. The tag can be purchased at the Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) Customer Service Centers, gas stations, the Emirates National Bank of Dubai, and the Dubai Islamic Bank. When you buy it for the first time, you’ll have to pay 100 AED: 50 AED for the tag and the other 50 AED will be added to your Salik account. You can recharge your account via the website, the Smart Salik App, by mobile payment, by SMS, by using one of the many Salik kiosks, or by calling 800-72545. For most of the methods you can use your credit card, but other options are Salik Recharge cards, e-vouchers, a direct bank transfer, or paying in cash.

Exchanging Your Foreign Driver’s License

Citizens from a number of countries can easily exchange their foreign driver’s license without having to take a driving test or go to a driving school. These countries are as follows:

  • Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France
  • Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, New Zealand
  • Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Africa
  • South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States

However, for some countries in the list, there are exceptions. Citizens from Canada, Cyprus, Greece, Japan, Poland, South Korea, and Turkey require a translation of their driver’s license from their respective consulates. Also, citizens from Canada need a letter from the Canadian Consulate in Dubai to verify that their driver’s license is legitimate before they can exchange their license.

You’ll need the following documents to exchange your driver’s license:

  • a passport with a valid residence permit, original and copy
  • a copy of your residence permit
  • your current driver’s license, original and copy
  • a translation of your driver’s license (for the countries listed above)
  • a letter from your consulate (for Canadians)
  • one passport photo
  • an eye test certificate
  • 360 AED for the transfer fee and opening a driving file

Citizens from all other countries will have to take a driving course and pass a driving test before they can get their UAE driver’s license. Please note that if you hold a driver’s license for a country of which you are not a citizen, you will also have to follow this procedure to obtain a driver’s license. If you are between 18 and 21 years old, you can apply for a probationary license. To get your driver’s license, you’ll have to follow these steps:

  1. Go to an optician or your driving school to get an eye test done.
  2. Your driving school will take care of all the paperwork with the RTA. Sometimes the RTA has a counter at the driving school.
  3. You will receive a temporary driver’s license, which you will have to carry with you in the training car.
  4. When you have passed all the internal tests — like garage and parking — your driving school will register you for a theory test, followed by a road test.

When you’ve passed all the tests, you receive an applicant file, signed by the examiner. The file consists of a test pass certificate and a clearance letter from the driving school. You can now apply for your driver’s license at the RTA. You’ll have to pay a fee of 160 AED and show your valid visa and passport. Congratulations, you’re now ready to drive in the UAE!


  • The most popular mode of public transportation in the UAE is the taxi.
  • Buses not only operate within each individual emirate — you can also travel between the different emirates by bus.
  • Dubai is the only emirate with a metro and tram system. Altogether, the two networks cover over 80 km.
  • To pay for public transportation, some emirates have found a simple solution.
  • Special modes of transportation are available for traveling over water.

The Number One in the UAE

Taxis are the most important mode of transportation and are available almost all over the UAE, for a relatively cheap price compared to other major cities. The UAE has a well-organized system, and in Dubai the taxis are regulated by the government. Most of the taxis have a fare meter, which calculates the amount you’ll have to pay for your journey. The fare per kilometer is fixed at around 1.60 AED per minute. The fixed starting fare is about 3 or 4 AED; if you take a taxi from the airport it’s 20 AED. You can find several taxi stands throughout the cities, around various stations, and outside the airports. These stands make it easy to find a taxi, but you can also just stop one on the street.

Dubai has the only toll road system in the whole UAE — Salik. You can find more information about Salik in our article about driving in the UAE. If you pass a toll gate with the taxi you’re in, an additional 4 AED will be added to the final amount you’ll have to pay.

Buses in the Emirates and between the Emirates

Taxis aren’t the only important modes of transportation in the UAE. Buses are also very important for the public transportation network. Except for in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they are even the only mode of public transportation in the Emirates. The biggest bus networks are in Dubai and Abu Dhabi; Dubai has 112 routes and Abu Dhabi has 75. The bus networks in the other emirates mainly consist of buses connecting the emirates with each other. You can use the Nol, Hafilat, and Sayer cards (see below) to pay for the buses in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, respectively.

Don’t Lose Track in Dubai — Metros and Trams

Dubai is the leader of the UAE when it comes to public transportation. It’s the only city that has a tram and metro network.

The Dubai Tram is the newest mode of transportation in Dubai. The service started operating in November 2014 and immediately became a big success. At the moment, the track is 10.6 km long and serves eleven stations with two lines. Another 4 km is planned to be added to the network, together with eight more stations. From Saturday to Thursday the trams operate from 06:30 to 01:38, on Friday they start at 09:00.

The Dubai Metro has been around a little longer, since 2009. The network also has two lines — a red line and a green line — covering 70 km and 49 stations. The red line stops at stations between Rashidiya (close to Dubai International Airport) and UAE Exchange, while the green line runs from Etisalat Metro Station to Dubai Healthcare Center.

You can switch between the tram and metro at DAMAC Metro Station and Jumeirah Lakes Towers Metro Station. These stations are both on the red metro line.

Something that can help you plan your journey in Dubai is RTA — Wojhati. This doesn’t only work for the metro and tram, but also for the buses. You can also install the app on your smartphone.

Getting Rid of the Hassle: Paying Made Easy

Paying for public transportation always seems to be a hassle. There are some things that can make the process easier for you in the UAE. In Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah you can purchase a special card which you can use to pay for public transportation.

Dubai — The Nol Card

If you’re traveling in Dubai, you can use the Nol Card. There are four different types of this card: red for tourists and visitors, silver for frequent travelers, gold to get access to the gold class in trams and metro trains, and lastly blue for frequent travelers who want their credit secured. Purchasing this card is easy: decide which type of card fits you the best and meets your needs and purchase it at a ticket office, vending machine, a RTA Customer Service Center, from a sales agent, or online.

Abu Dhabi — The Hafilat Smart Card

Abu Dhabi has another card: the Hafilat Smart Card. This card is used for the bus network. Again, there are several types of cards you can choose from, but there are three options that are used the most: a temporary card, an anonymous card, and a personalized card. You can get the card at various ticket sales offices, ticket vending machines, swift reloader machines, and the intercity driver consoles for the intercity buses.

Sharjah — The Sayer Card

Lastly, you can get a Sayer Card in Sharjah. There’s only one type of this card, but it has the same principle as Abu Dhabi’s Hafilat Smart Card. You can use it to pay for your bus trip fare by simply inserting the card into the card reader. The card is available at selected bus terminals and by asking the bus driver.

Abras and Ferries: Special Modes of Transportation

But taxis, buses, metros, and trams aren’t the only modes of transportation in the UAE. You can also travel over water, using abras or ferries.

The Dubai abras are small motorized water taxis that take you over the Dubai Creek. There are two routes: route one goes from Deira Old Souk Abra Station to Bur Dubai Abra Station and route two goes from Sabkha Abra Station back to the starting station. A trip takes about five to seven minutes and costs 1 AED. Route one operates from 05:00 to midnight; route two is available 24 hours a day.

The Abu Dhabi ferry service doesn’t only offer services to pedestrians, but also to cars. There’s only one route, from Marsa Jabel Al Dhanna to Delma Island. The ferry service operates three times a day, except on Fridays — then it’s only twice. Passengers twelve years of age or older pay 20 AED; children under twelve don’t have to pay anything. When taking your car on the ferry, you should make sure to bring a valid ID, the vehicle registration card, and a fee of 100 AED.

InterNations GO!
by InterNations GO!
11 May 2016
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