Kazakhstan is on the up. The economy is strengthening and, nearly 25 years after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has found its feet and is brimming with energy.
Expatriates moving to the busy new capital, Astana, will find new buildings springing up left, right and center, including skyscrapers and many apartment blocks, and ever-increasing numbers of shops and restaurants. The cosmopolitan former capital Almaty, in the mountainous south, remains the most important cultural center, teeming with trendy cafes and boutiques.
Cities in the north tend to have more of a Soviet flavor (understandably, based on their geography), while those in the south benefit from having mountain ranges on their doorstep. These are modern cities, but they are found in an ancient country. Kazakhstan is famous for its deserted steppes and its warriors on horseback flying golden eagles, and it is fiercely proud of its heritage.
Russian is the most common language; it is spoken by most people and is the language of business and commerce. But Kazakh is the national language, often used in government, and favored by those who are keen to preserve tradition. Both languages use the Cyrillic alphabet, and expats will find life in Kazakhstan much easier if they at least learn the letters so they can read food packaging, signs, and restaurant menus. English speakers and those able to translate Russian-English will find their skills in high demand, because many Kazakhs are eager to improve their English skills.
Expats moving to Kazakhstan can also expect plenty of attention from the famously friendly and hospitable local residents — which may include offers of fermented camels’ milk or a vodka drinking session. Most gatherings include a toast, so be prepared to make one if appropriate (this doesn’t have to be in Russian or Kazakh). If you’re invited to someone’s house, remember to try a bit of all of the food you’re offered and bring a small gift to your host.
Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, encompassing the lowest point in the former Soviet Union and a peak of 7,000 m, as well as having both desert and mountain climates. There are huge, startling variations in temperature and climate — hot summers can reach up to 40°C, and freezing winters can drop as low as -40°C. The capital Astana, perched on the Ishim River, is the second-coldest capital city in the world, after Ulan Bator in Mongolia — something to be aware of if you’re planning a move there.
On arrival in Kazakhstan, you’ll need to register with the authorities, and this registration needs to be renewed every 90 days, as well as every time you leave the country. You need to carry your passport and documentation with you at all times and be prepared to show it to the authorities if requested.
For short visits up to 15 days, Kazakhstan currently has a visa-free regime for citizens of the USA, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, Korea, and Japan, which means that passport-holders from any of these countries are exempt from visa requirements.
To apply for any other types of visa, you’ll need a letter of invitation from a sponsor within Kazakhstan — often an employer or the government itself.
If you are caught without the correct paperwork, you can expect to be deported and possibly imprisoned for a short period or banned from returning to Kazakhstan for five years — so it’s important to check with your nearest Kazakh embassy and make sure you’re abiding by the very latest laws.