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Living Abroad

The Best & Worst Cities For Expats

Kuala Lumpur, Málaga, and Dubai are the best expat cities worldwide, according to findings in the Expat Insider survey.

Photo of sunrise over Kuala Lumpur's cityscape

View of Kuala Lumpur's city at sunrise.

iStock.com/neoellis

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Global expat community InterNations conducts one of the biggest annual surveys of life abroad, Expat Insider. In 2021, over 12,000 expats representing 174 nationalities participated. Covering key areas such as the quality of urban living, the ease of getting settled, urban work life, and finance and housing, the findings are a must-read for anyone interested in living abroad.

The Winners

Kuala Lumpur was rated the best city for expats in 2021, and it also ranks first in the Getting Settled Index. “It’s easy to live here, and the people are wonderful!”, according to one US expat in the city. In fact, KL makes it into the top 10 for nearly all rating factors of this index, from the friendliness toward foreign residents (6th) and the ease of finding new friends (3rd) to how little of a challenge it is to get used to the local culture (6th).

Kuala Lumpur also receives excellent results in the Finance & Housing Index (1st): it is the best city in terms of housing and only beaten by Ho Chi Minh City (1st) regarding finance: 64% of expats have a disposable household income that is more than enough to cover expenses in Kuala Lumpur (vs. 52% globally).

Second-placed Málaga (2nd) finds its biggest strength in the Getting Settled Index (3rd). The Spanish city even ranks first in the Friends & Socializing Subcategory: 69% of expats find it easy to make new friends (vs. 48% globally), and 78% are happy with their social life (vs. 57% globally). Málaga also receives excellent results in the Cost of Living (1st) and Finance & Housing (5th) Indices. The latter is largely due to the Housing Subcategory (3rd), with two-thirds of expats in Málaga (67%) rating the affordability of accommodation positively (vs. 42% worldwide).

Dubai, which ranks 3rd out of 57 cities in 2021, also seems to make settling in easy and lands in sixth place in the respective index. Respondents appreciate the lack of a language barrier in this expat hotspot: 94% find it easy to live in Dubai without local language skills (vs. 54% globally). What’s more, over four in five (81%) agree that the local population is friendly towards foreign residents (vs. 67%), and 70% have no problems getting used to the culture (vs. 65% globally).

Expats in Dubai also enjoy an above-average quality of life (11th). The vast majority rates the local leisure options favorably (84% vs. 72% globally) and feels safe in Dubai (97% vs. 84% globally). However, while housing is easy to find, according to 86% of respondents (vs. 60% globally), only 32% describe it as affordable (vs. 42% globally). Overall, Dubai comes in 35th place in the Local Cost of Living Index.

The Worst-Ranked Destinations

Rome has regularly placed in the bottom 3 since 2018, but in 2021, it comes last (57th out of 57 cities) for the first time. It also places last in the Urban Work Life Index, with a place among the bottom 10 for every single underlying factor — such as job satisfaction and career opportunities.

Expats are also dissatisfied with the Quality of Urban Living Index (55th) in Rome, with the Italian capital ranking especially poorly in the Health & Environment (50th) and Transportation (53rd) Subcategories. While things don’t look quite as dire in the Finance & Housing Index (45th), 47% of expats in Rome still describe housing as unaffordable (vs. 39% globally), and 41% say their household income is not enough to cover expenses (vs. 23% globally).

Milan (56th) joins Rome in the bottom 3 and shows similarly bad results in the Urban Work Life Index (55th). For example, over a quarter (26%) are generally dissatisfied with their job (vs. 16% globally). Unlike Rome, Milan also places among the bottom 3 in the Finance & Housing Index (55th), with a last place in its Finance Subcategory (57th).

Milan’s results are a little better in terms of quality of living, but its 47th place is still nothing to write home about. It is even found among the bottom 10 for personal safety (51st), political stability (48th), and its urban environment (48th).

The last city in the bottom 3, Johannesburg (55th), is also the worst city worldwide in the Quality of Urban Living Index (57th). Close to seven in ten expats in the South African city (68%) do not feel safe there, compared to a global average of 8%. What’s more, just about half (51%) rate the urban environment in Johannesburg favorably, 20 percentage points less than the global average of 71%. An above-average share is also unhappy with the local economy (48% vs. 19% globally) and career opportunities (41% vs. 33% globally), ranking Johannesburg 52nd out of 57 cities in the Urban Work Life Index.

Find out more in the complete Expat Insider 2021 report.

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Two supporters of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro dressed in Brazilian flags during a demonstration in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Bolsonaro supporters dressed in national colours with flags in a demonstration in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on November 4, 2022.

Ivan Abreu / ZUMA
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-Analysis-

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