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Education and Transport in Kenya

Jambo! — Welcome to East Africa! Are you wondering what expat life in Kenya is like? The InterNations Expat Guide to living in Kenya introduces you to leisure activities and contemporary culture, but we also address practical issues like healthcare, education, and transportation.

Understanding How the Kenyan School System Works

Kenya’s education system follows the 8-4-4 formula. Eight years of primary school are followed by four years of secondary education, and ideally, four years of university. Kids often attend one or two years of kindergarten before starting elementary school at age six. Over the following eight years, called Standard 1 to Standard 8, they benefit from a free education and prepare to take the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE).

According to their academic achievements in elementary school, Kenyan students attend certain types of secondary schooling. Government-funded national schools for the top students are the most prestigious ones. So-called harambee schools are often supported by entire communities and take in less successful students as well. Finally, the more expensive private schools often follow the British model rather than the local system.

All three kinds of secondary school end with the final exams for the Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education. After successfully graduating with the KCSE, students may attend one of Kenya’s 44 universities or numerous vocational colleges.

The Schools of Choice for Most Expatriates

Unfortunately, Kenya’s schools have to contend with a variety of problems, such as low literacy levels among many students, unreliable allocation of funds, very high student-to-teacher ratios, and drop-out rates among older kids, especially girls. While such problems are worse in impoverished and isolated regions rather than urban middle-class neighborhoods, many expats prefer international schools for their kids.

International schools often have a nursery and pre-school program, international diplomas, and language support for non-native English speakers. Such schools, however, are also quite expensive, and their tuition fees make up a large part of the family budget.

Popular international schools in Kenya include:

Flying into Kenya

Most expats arrive in Kenya by its busiest airport, the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, located in the southeast of Nairobi. However, a major fire in August 2013 damaged large parts of the JKIA terminal, which up until recently resulted in significant delays due to the limited availability of key airport facilities.

The fire may, however, have been a blessing in disguise. Because of it, the Kenyan government pushed for the speeding up of construction on a new terminal that had previously experienced setback after setback since its foundations were laid in 2010. The result was the opening of Terminal 1A (called Terminal 4 during construction) and a restoration of the airport’s functionality.

Mombasa airport  is the second largest airport in the country. Tourists make use of this airport as well, as there are, for example, 18 airlines flying directly from and to Europe, and connections to over 20 cities in the region itself.

Limited Options for Public Transportation in Kenya Once you have landed safely at one of Kenya’s international airports in Nairobi or Mombasa, you will soon notice that the public transportation network is somewhat lacking. There is only one major train line, which runs from Nairobi to Mombasa two or three times per week. This route, which used to run to Kisumu and was known as the “Lunatic Express” in colonial times, is now mainly a haunt for European tourists on a nostalgia tour in first-class compartments.

Intercity transport has been taken over by a bus network, particularly near Nairobi, on the coast, and in the west and south. If you book a long-haul ride with one of the bigger, reputable companies and travel during daylight hours, it should be pretty comfortable and comparatively safe.

At any rate, travel by coach is still safer than Kenya’s ubiquitous matatus or mini-buses. These vans (mostly brightly painted Nissans) are plentiful, cheap, loud, and rather dangerous. Although the government introduced stricter safety regulations, we strongly advise against going by matatu. There’s a reason why the front-row seat next to the driver is called “seat of death”; head-on collisions are sadly frequent on Kenya’s roads.

Braving the Roads in a Cab or Car

Taxis are somewhat over-priced and not always comfortable, but they are indeed the most convenient and safest way to travel around Nairobi and Mombasa. You can find them near international hotels and most tourist sites, and they are usually marked with a yellow line on the side of the car. Attention, though: There is no meter, and you have to agree upon the fare in advance. A ride from central Nairobi to Westlands is about 1,000 KES, for example.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a company car service or cannot afford to hire a good driver (which quite a few expats do), you can venture onto the roads yourself. You are allowed to use an international driving permit or a foreign license from a Commonwealth country for up to three months.

You should then get in touch with the National Transport & Safety Authority or the Kenyan Automobile Association and ask if/how you can exchange your foreign license for a Kenyan permit. Always remember to use the left-side of the road and to drive as defensively and risk-aware as possible.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

Mario Rimardi

"Wish I had discovered InterNations before I relocated to Kenya. It's really helpful on both a private and a professional level. "

Caroline Hayes

"Expats on InterNations gave us valuable hints for finding an appropriate school in Nairobi for our two children."

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