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Living Abroad

Cities Where It’s (Not) Easy For Expats To Get Settled

Feeling at home abroad can be hard sometimes. But while expats in some cities face this challenge, those in Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City, and Málaga report few difficulties.

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This is one of the key findings in Expat Insider, one of the largest annual surveys on life abroad. Conducted by expat community InterNations, the 2021 survey features the answers of over 12,000 people living and working abroad, representing 174 nationalities in total. The survey's Getting Settled Index covers key factors such as the local language, the ease of making friends, expats’ satisfaction with their social life, and more.

The Winners

In 2021, Kuala Lumpur not only places first in the Getting Settled Index, but it also gets rated the best city in general. Around three-quarters of expats find it easy to get used to the local culture (78% vs. 65% globally), feel right at home in Kuala Lumpur (75% vs. 65% globally), are satisfied with their social life there (74% vs. 57% globally), and agree that the local population is friendly towards foreign residents (77% vs. 67% globally).

Kuala Lumpur is “very international, with lovely people,” as a Swiss respondent puts it. What’s more, an impressive 92% of expats also state that it’s easy to live there without local language skills (vs. just 54% globally), with close to three in five (57%) even agreeing completely.

In second place, Mexico City also owes its great results to its friendly residents: over eight in ten respondents in Mexico City say that the local people are friendly in general (82% vs. 69% globally) and towards foreign residents in particular (88% vs. 67% globally). The majority (52%) even considers them very friendly (vs. 28% globally). Possibly due to this warm welcome, four in five respondents (80%) feel at home in Mexico City (vs. 65% globally).

Making new friends is not much of an issue either (73% positive ratings vs. 48% globally), and 93% find it easy to get used to the local culture (vs. 65% globally). Getting by without local language skills then seems to be the biggest challenge: only a third (33%) agree it’s easy to live in Mexico City without speaking Spanish (vs. 54% globally). However, three-quarters (75%) also consider the language easy to learn (vs. 39% globally).

Speaking of Spanish: the Spanish city of Málaga joins Kuala Lumpur and Mexico City on the podium. Only Muscat and Mexico City do even better when it comes to the local friendliness: more than four in five expats in Málaga rate this factor positively (86% vs. 69% globally) and agree that the local people are friendly towards foreign residents (82% vs. 67% globally). A similar share of expats feel at home in Málaga (80% vs. 65% globally) and are satisfied with their social life (78% vs. 57% globally) — one in five (20%) even considers it very easy to make new friends there (vs. 14% globally).

The Worst-Ranked Destinations

On the other side of the globe and the ranking scale, Tokyo comes last in the Getting SettledIndex. For instance, 54% of expats find it difficult to live in Tokyo without speaking Japanese (vs. 29% globally), and three-quarters (75%) think it’s difficult to learn, too (vs. 42% globally). Only about half the respondents (51%) feel at home in Tokyo (vs. 65% globally); a similar share even struggles to make friends there (51% vs. 32% globally). All in all, 38% agree that it is hard to get used to the local culture, 10% even very much so (vs. 18% and 5% globally).

Expats in Dusseldorf do not feel at home there either (36% vs. 19% globally); one of the reasons why the German city ranks second to last in this index. The share of expats who think that it is hard to get used to the local culture is more than twice the global average (37% vs.18% globally) and finding new friends in Dusseldorf can be a challenge according to 51% (vs.32% globally). Two in five (40%) are dissatisfied with their social life (vs. 25% globally). The local language is a challenge, too: above-average shares of expats in Dusseldorf say that it’s not easy to learn German (62% vs. 42% globally) or to live there without speaking it (45% vs. 29% globally).

Last but not least, Paris ranks 55th out of 57 cities in the Getting Settled Index in 2021. Around two in five expats in Paris find the locals unfriendly in general (39% vs. 16% globally)and towards foreign residents in particular (40% vs. 18 globally). Maybe that is why 53% of respondents also state that it is difficult to make new friends in Paris (vs. 32% globally). An above-average share of expats (70%) speak the local language at least fairly well (vs. 57%globally). This is good news, since 56% also agree that it is hard to live in Paris without speaking French (vs. 29% globally).

Find out more in the complete Expat Insider 2021 report.

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