Where Expats Can (and Can’t) Live Comfortably
- Kuala Lumpur (1st) comes in first place for the second year in a row.
- Ho Chi Minh City (2nd) is back in the top 3, after dropping to 5th place in 2020.
- Expats in Bangkok (3rd) especially appreciate the ease of finding housing.
- In Dublin (57th) and Munich (56th), expats are particularly displeased with the housing market.
- Expats in Milan (55th) aren’t happy with their financial situation.
- Eight of the ten worst-performing cities are located in Western Europe.
The Top 10
Finance and Housing are the two subcategories that together make up this index. Each subcategory is further divided into two factors. For the Finance Subcategory, respondents were asked to rate their overall satisfaction with their financial situation. They were also asked if they felt their disposable household income is enough to cover daily costs. The former factor carries double weight in the subcategory.
For the Housing Subcategory, participants rated their city based on the affordability of housing and the ease of finding housing for expats.
Results from the Local Cost of Living Index are mentioned several times below. However, this index is provided purely as additional information. It does not factor into the Finance & Housing Index, nor the overall ranking, to avoid overrepresenting financial aspects in the general results.
In 2021, 57 cities made it into the ranking, with a minimum sample size of 50 respondents each.
Kuala Lumpur Defends Its Title
When it comes to affordable living, it doesn’t get much better than the Malaysian capital. Kuala Lumpur continues its winning streak in 2021. In addition to being the overall winner of the Expat City Ranking 2021, this Malaysian city also tops the Finance & Housing Index. It also came in first place in this index in 2020 and has consistently ranked in the top 3 for Finance & Housing since 2017.
Kuala Lumpur is THE destination for affordable and easily available expat housing, ranking first in the Housing Subcategory. More than nine in ten (91%) agree that it’s easy for expats to find housing in Kuala Lumpur (vs. 60% globally), with three in five (60%) even agreeing completely (vs. 24% globally). Close to three-quarters of expats (74%) also find that housing is affordable there (vs. 42% globally). Almost three in ten (29%) even consider the affordability very good — over twice the global average of 14%!
It seems that Kuala Lumpur is generally quite an affordable place to live. Close to two-thirds (64%) say their disposable household income is more than they need for daily life (vs. 52% worldwide). This is also reflected in the Local Cost of Living Index, with 31% very satisfied in this regard, more than double the global average (14%). The result is in line with the findings of the 2021 Mercer Cost of Living survey, which saw Kuala Lumpur (144th out of 209 cities) drop eight places in a ranking that puts the most expensive destinations at the top. What is more, expats in Kuala Lumpur are the most satisfied of all respondents with their financial situation (80% positive vs. 64% globally). Almost one in ten expats there (9%) say their annual income is over 200,000 USD (vs. 5% globally).
Money to Spare in Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City ranks second in the Finance & Housing Index 2021, up three spots from 2020. A low cost of living coupled with an above-average share of expats with high incomes makes Ho Chi Minh City an attractive destination for expats.
When it comes to disposable household income, three-quarters of respondents there (75%) say that they have more than enough for their daily lives (vs. 52% globally). The low cost of living helps explain this high percentage, as more than twice the global average consider it very good (34% vs. 14% globally). And it certainly doesn’t hurt that 13% of respondents (vs. only 3% worldwide!) earn over 250,000 USD per year. An expat from Singapore appreciates the “affordable cost of living well”.
But expats aren’t only pleased with their financial situation in Ho Chi Minh City. They also praise the ease of finding housing there (88% vs. 60% globally). In addition, 61% of expats rate the affordability of housing positively, nearly 20 percentage points more than the global average (42%).
The Housing Search Is a Breeze in Bangkok
Although it misses out on a place in the top 10 overall (11th), Bangkok comes in a proud third place in the Finance & Housing Index 2021, slowly climbing from spot four in 2020. It has consistently ranked in the top 5 of this index since 2017.
Just over double the global average agree completely that it is easy for expats to find housing in the Thai capital (49% vs. 24% globally). And nearly two-thirds (64%) rate the affordability of housing positively (vs. 42% worldwide). A British expat sums it up: “Whether you are renting or buying — it’s affordable.”
A similar percentage (65%) is satisfied with the general cost of living in Bangkok (vs. 48% globally). And indeed, an above-average percentage (83%) agree that their disposable household income is enough or more than enough to buy everything they need (vs. 77% globally). This might be helped by the fact that only 18% have a gross annual income of 25k USD or less, compared to 30% of expats worldwide.
The Bottom 3: Finance & Housing Woes in Western Europe
Dublin comes in last in the Finance & Housing Index for the fourth year running. Expats are especially frustrated with the housing situation there, with only Hong Kong receiving worse results when it comes to the affordability of housing. Close to four in five expats in the Irish capital (79%) rate this factor negatively (vs. 39% negative ratings globally). More than half (52%) even give it the worst possible rating (vs. only 12% worldwide). And indeed, it seems that the pandemic has worsened an already difficult housing market, causing rents to continue to rise and “[triggering] a mini-buying frenzy”.
Housing isn’t only expensive, it’s hard to come by in the first place. Well over three times the global average of expats in Dublin (26% vs. 7%) even disagree completely that it’s easy for expats to find housing there.
Expats’ dissatisfaction doesn’t end with the affordability of housing, though. Close to four in five (79%) rate the cost of living negatively (vs. 34% worldwide), with over four times the global average even saying it is very bad (30% vs. 7% globally). Only Geneva (57th) and New York (56th) do worse. When it comes to the Finance Subcategory, Dublin does comparatively better, but is still found in the bottom half with its 39th place out of 57 cities.
Munich comes in second to last in the index. Expats continue to lament the housing situation there, consistently landing the German city in the bottom 3 of the Housing Subcategory since 2017. In 2021, Munich even comes in last place in this subcategory. No other city ranks worse for the ease of finding housing: over seven in ten (72%) consider it difficult for expats, and 24% even disagree completely that it is easy (vs. a global 23% and 7%, respectively).
An even higher share (83%) rates the affordability of housing negatively (vs. 39% globally), with 38% going so far as to give it the worst possible rating (vs. only 12% globally). “Apartment rental prices are ridiculously high for the quality you are getting,” adds a female respondent from the Philippines.
Munich has much more average results in the Finance Subcategory, with 78% agreeing that their disposable household income is enough to cover daily costs (vs. 77% globally). This is despite two-third of respondents in Munich (67%) rating the cost of living negatively (vs. 34% worldwide).
Milan rounds out the bottom 3. As opposed to Dublin and Munich, in this Italian city, expats are most dissatisfied with their financial situation. Milan places at the very bottom of the Finance Subcategory, as well as coming in last place for both factors within this subcategory.
Only 39% of expats in Milan are satisfied with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally). And double the global average are not satisfied at all (14% vs. 7% globally). In addition, nearly two in five (39%) say that their disposable household income is not enough to pay for everything they need for daily life (vs. 23% globally).
Western Europe Overrepresented in the Bottom 10
Eight of the ten cities at the bottom of the Housing & Finance Index are located in Western Europe. With the exception of Milan (which performs worse in the Finance Subcategory), the other European cities are also the seven very worst destinations for housing.
The bottom 10 are rounded out by two Canadian cities — Vancouver (54th) and Toronto (48th). They perform particularly badly in the Finance Subcategory, coming in 54th and 52nd place, respectively.
Highs & Lows in the Two Subcategories
Aachen (3rd) joins Ho Chi Minh City (1st) and Kuala Lumpur (2nd) in the top 3 of the Finance Subcategory. Over two-thirds of expats in Aachen (68%) say that their disposable household income is more than enough to cover daily expenses (vs. 52% globally).
On the other end of the spectrum, Johannesburg (56th) and Rome (55th) join Milan (57th) in the bottom 3 of the Finance Subcategory. In Johannesburg, 16% of expats give their financial situation the worst possible rating (vs. 7% worldwide). And in Rome, 41% of respondents disagree that their disposable household income is enough to break even (vs. 23% globally).
With third-placed Málaga, a European city joins Asian cities Kuala Lumpur (1st) and Bangkok (2nd) in the top 3 of the Housing Subcategory. Two-thirds of respondents in Málaga (67%) rate the affordability of housing favorably (vs. 42% worldwide). Only Kuala Lumpur receives better results for this factor. And close to half (48%) completely agree that it’s easy for expats to find housing, twice the global average of 24%.
At the bottom of the Housing Subcategory, a third European city (55th place Geneva) joins Munich (57th) and Dublin (56th). A staggering 87% of expats in Geneva rate the affordability of housing negatively, with 35% even considering it very bad (vs. 39% and 12% globally).