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Career at a Cost in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is an unusual destination that offers great opportunities for career-minded expats. The local economy is flourishing, and assignees in management positions can expect decent incomes and nice perks. However, its infrastructure remains underdeveloped, and it’s easy to feel a bit isolated.
Bayterek Tower, designed by star architect Norman Foster, has become the best-known landmark in Astana.

In the Expat Insider 2014 survey, Kazakhstan yielded a surprising result. To be honest, we hadn’t really considered its benefits as a major expat destination.

For us, Kazakhstan was mostly famous for the rugged beauty of its scenery. The biggest landlocked country in the world features endless steppes, sandy deserts, and snow-capped mountains, as well as Lake Balkash and the Caspian Sea. The first Kazakh city that came to mind is a Russian enclave with fewer than 40,000 inhabitants: Baikonur, home to the world’s oldest operational space flight facility.

However, in our Personal Finance Index, Kazakhstan promptly ranked among the global top three. Of our survey respondents, 75% were satisfied with their personal income. About four in ten expats said their income is a lot higher than back home – and more than enough to cover their daily needs.

Life in Central Asia isn’t necessarily cheap, though. In our (reverse) Cost of Living Index, Kazakhstan ranked 38th out of 61 countries. Thus, it was perceived to be about as expensive as Japan (#37) by our survey participants, but far cheaper than neighboring Russia (#57).

In the Mercer Cost of Living ranking for expatriates, Almaty – Kazakhstan’s most populous city – used to be listed among the 50 most expensive places worldwide. It has recently dropped to #111, but this doesn’t mean that living expenses for Almaty have decreased. The Kazakh tenge has simply suffered a decline in value compared to the US dollar.

Nonetheless, the expense required to uphold their usual standard of living in Almaty or Astana shouldn’t worry most expats too much. According to Expat Insider, one-third of the participants from Kazakhstan have an annual household income of 100,000 USD or more.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Most of our well-to-do expatriates moved to Kazakhstan for work-related reasons. Among our respondents, 27% were foreign assignees sent by their employers, and one in four found a new job on their own. There was also a significant subset of traveling spouses. One in five expats relocated for their partner’s job or education.

The expats often received quite a few perks from their employer. Nearly nine in ten got support for obtaining visas and work permits, but there were other benefits, too. Up to 60% of our survey participants in Kazakhstan were granted company housing and sponsored health insurance plans, and one in four took part in free language classes or intercultural seminars.

In which sectors will you benefit from Kazakhstan’s booming economy? According to the Expat Insider data, the manufacturing industry is the most popular field of employment. Kazakhstan does have a very productive secondary sector: it employs only 12% of the local workforce, but creates 38% of the GDP.

Kazakhstan produces construction materials, electrical motors, tractors, and agricultural machinery. If that’s not your area of expertise, you could look into business services and consulting, or into the primary sector: either accounted for 9% of our respondents working in Kazakhstan.

The country owes much of its current wealth to its abundant resources. It has huge reserves of oil and gas, and its mining industry extracts various minerals and precious metals. For example, Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium worldwide.

Maybe, just maybe, the oil reserves will explain an odd detail about the nationalities we found in Kazakhstan’s expat community. In the global survey population, only 0.34% of 14,000 participants were from Norway. In Kazakhstan, they were rather overrepresented with over 3%. Might this be due to the importance of the petroleum industry in both countries?

All Work, No Play?

Expat life in Kazakhstan comes with some drawbacks as well. While our respondents were mostly happy with their income and career prospects, many found their work-life balance less than satisfactory. On average, they work 44.3 hours per week. One in four expats was not content with their personal work-life balance.

Thus it’s hardly surprising that most expats in Kazakhstan – a whopping 81% – meet new friends at work. Expat clubs are also a favorite way of socializing for nearly half of our survey participants. However, other leisure opportunities apparently leave a lot to be desired.

Almaty, the country’s commercial and cultural capital, actually offers a plethora of cafés, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and shopping centers. It’s also close to several popular ski resorts. If you like skiing, hiking, or fishing, the nearby Tien Shan Mountains are the place to go.

On the other hand, Astana is often described as a kind of soulless place: Since it became the new capital in 1997, it has expanded rapidly, mixing old Soviet-style architecture with futuristic buildings. However, it’s best-known for its cold climate rather than its tourist attractions.

The greatest problem might be geographical isolation. Kazakhstan ranked 57th (out of 61) for travel and transport. It covers a surface area as large as Western Europe, but has one of the lowest population densities worldwide.

It’s not easy to get out of town for a mini-break unless you take an international flight every time. For instance, it takes 24 hours to go from Almaty to Urumqui (China) by bus, and 82 hours (!) to reach Moscow by train. Even the overnight train from Almaty to Astana will take 12 hours. This is enough to make anyone stir-crazy.

For much of the local expat community, though, their stay is of limited duration: 46% were planning to live there for one to three years. Only 5% would like to settle down forever. 

Marc De Smet

"Life as an expat in Nur-Sultan can be hard on occasion. InterNations and the contact to fellow expats make it a lot easier for me."

Myra Jennings

"My husband works for an Nur-Sultan oil company all day, so I had to make my own way to settle. So glad I've found the InterNations expat community."

Global Expat Guide