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How to Choose the Best City to Live Abroad

A Guide to Help You Go with Your Needs

Living abroad in Paris
Paris, a long-time favorite of American expats, combines high art and living in a uniquely French way.

What makes a city an attractive destination for foreigners is in part its financial strength, but in the eyes of most expats we have encountered and who have written about their experience it takes more than a booming economy to make a metropolis a great place to live. It is a combination of work opportunities, a vibrant business climate, a great quality of life, and the subjective "feel" that make a desirable destination. For many expats, what is perceived as "quality of life" is important and encompasses everything that makes living in a city enjoyable—from the often-important cost of living, food, housing, transportation, arts and culture, leisure time activities, educational opportunities, climate, geographical location, health care, and safety, etc. What makes a city great depends not only on your interests and way of living, but also on your age, family status, as well as professional and educational goals. What makes a city great can change over time, just as many move from city to city at home, especially in the United States. In sum, we have observed over the years that for many people choices about where to live are a matter of the perception of subjective quality over "objective" measurable quantity. We finish with our own list of the top cities to live in.

Living abroad in Rome by day
Living abroad in Rome at night
Day or night, you are always aware that you are walking through history in Rome, one of the many charms of a sensual and mysterious city.

Find Yourself a Great City to Live In

There are no absolute objective criteria or measurements to determine if a city is great. While it can be useful to follow human development indexes of prosperity and infrastructure development such as referenced below, finding your own great city to live in is a subjective choice involving your personal taste in combination with your unique situation and options. I found Rio de Janeiro to be noisy, chaotic, and congested, but I enjoyed the city's vibrant cultural life. Auckland, New Zealand, on the other hand, lacked the excitement of Rio de Janeiro, but the safe and quiet city is often mentioned in commercial media as one of the top ten most livable cities in the world. New York City and San Francisco are truly great American cities but unaffordable for the vast majority, the living quarters are generally extremely cramped for the cost, decent educational options for children often involve the equivalent of college tuition costs from the early years, yet many still flock and remain there for multicultural, aesthetic, and career reasons—for some there are no comparable alternatives in the U.S., as is the case for the Editor.

Living abroad in Barcelona
In Barcelona, the genius architect Gaudi left his unique mark everywhere, but there are so many other beautiful ancient cathedrals, medieval streets, and works of art to explore in a great city.

When preparing your own list of favorite cities, it's a good idea to write down qualities that are important to you.

For example, how important is culture to you, and what aspects?

  • Ethnic cuisine or 3-star dining?
  • Opera or punk rock?
  • A city full of parks and greenery?
  • Lively outdoor street life?
  • Booming nightlife? A city that never sleeps?
  • Great food markets?
  • Interesting architecture?
  • Energetic and forward-thinking or relaxed and backward-looking views on life?
  • Clean and orderly or dirty and chaotic?
  • How sensitive are you to the view of foreigners by locals, pro, con, or indifferent?
  • Would you want to start a family or move a family to the city?

Or perhaps you seek a unique admixture of all of the above?

Such qualities will have a huge daily impact on your life abroad, so they should be at least a core consideration in your selection process.

Living in Prague
The unique bridges are part of what gives Prague a unique flair.

Selection Criteria for a Great City

Here are suggested key criteria to create a checklist when searching to live in a great city:

  • Cost of Living
  • Housing
  • Food
  • Education and Child-Friendliness
  • Infrastructure, Transportation
  • Leisure and Culture: Movies, concerts, theater, art, museums, restaurants, etc.
  • Ambiance, atmosphere, beauty, and historic flair
  • Climate
  • Exercise
  • Nature and the outdoors
  • Shopping, lifestyle
  • Health Care
  • Safety
  • Geographic Location

Cost of Living

Most likely, the single most important factor that will impact the quality of your life abroad is the cost of living in the city you choose. Unlike international employees who receive cost of living and moving allowances from their companies while working abroad, expats who move overseas on their own have to deal with these issues in unknown surroundings and on their own. Unless you are independently wealthy or have a large retirement fund, your income or available funds will have a large direct impact on the livability of a city. If the cost of rent, transportation, utilities, and food all exceed your budget, then even the most attractive city will not be livable for you.

For example, Auckland, New Zealand, was affordable, because the cost of living was low at the time and I had a job that paid my bills. On the other hand, as a student in Rio de Janeiro I did not earn any money. Brazil's currency was stronger versus the dollar at the time, and eating out and other leisure activities were quite expensive. In New York City—where having money inherently opens up doors to an entirely different experience than living there without—you may still enjoy many aspects of the multicultural life, but the day-to-day grind will more likely eventually drain you even relative to all the great characteristics.

Living in Lisbon
Lisbon seduces with its hillside neighborhoods and narrow alleys.

Surveys and Websites on the Quality and Cost of Livin of Cities Abroad

The first two surveys listed below are often used as guidelines by global companies for their employees and transferees and do not necessarily reflect the needs and preferences of individuals. The latter two websites are interesting to the wider public for different reasons relating to the quality of life and the cost of living.

  • The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) publishes the annual Global Livability Ranking and Survey that ranks 140 cities worldwide. The survey considers safety, infrastructure, and availability of goods and services. The top five most livable cities in 2014 were Melbourne, Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, and Australia, which might be too much of an  Anglo-centric selection for some. The EIU also publishes the annual Worldwide cost of living index. The most expensive cities were Singapore, Paris, Oslo, Zurich, and Melbourne. To see the city cost of living report you must pay.

  • The UK-based lifestyle magazine Monocle  publishes an annual “The Global Quality of Life Survey" as a video that lists 25 top locations with exceptional quality of life. The criteria are more lifestyle-oriented and consider safety, climate, transportation, medical care, leisure, environment, urban design, etc. The top five cities for 2014 were Copenhagen, Tokyo, Melbourne, Stockholm, and Helsinki.

  • Numbeo.com is an interesting website, since the data is gathered into the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries. Numbeo provides real-time information on the cost of living, housing, health care, traffic, crime, and pollution which users can compare, look up, and add to themselves.

Living in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is not generally ranked among the "most livable cities" in many surveys, but it has undeniable allure.

How to Get Started

To begin the process of researching cities where you might wish to relocate, ask yourself to think about the countries you know or those that entice you. It's important to establish a goal and purpose. What will you be doing there? Study, work, or primarily enjoying life? Are you going on a sabbatical, working on a personal project, performing research, immersing yourself in a foreign culture, or retiring?

Find websites, blogs, newsfeeds, and expat communities discussing these cities and keep up on current events so you get an idea about what to expect, and perhaps you can network some connections before you go. If your city of choice has disruptive transportation or garbage worker strikes every month, you might instead look for another city nearby. Read as many books, articles, and online reviews about your destination to learn as much as possible about your favorite city before making the final choice to move. Perhaps most importantly, you should also strongly consider taking at least one fact-finding trip just to make sure that your chosen city is what you expect, and that you really imagine feeling at home there for the long term.

Living in Amsterdam
Amsterdam's canals and houseboats add to the city's relaxed atmosphere along with its famous quality of life.

Editor's Choice of the Best Cities to Live Abroad

Our choice of the best cities abroad with over one million inhabitants is not based primarily on economics, jobs, or infrastructure, but largely on the quality of life. What is common is a unique flair that invites discovery and inspiration, and adds joy to everyday life. What better way to start your day than to buy a warm crisp baguette, fresh croissants, and a pain au chocolat at a Parisian bakery every morning, or have a doppio cappuccino at an Italian bar, or [fill in the blank]? Here are our favorite large cities outside the U.S. (that we have visited long-term or lived in ourselves), presented in alphabetical order:

  • Amsterdam — the canals, bicycles, and coffee houses make for relaxed living.

  • Auckland — combines the beauty of the Polynesian islands with Western standard of living.

  • Barcelona — vibrant and dynamic as ever; great coffee houses and architecture too; popular with international students. Madrid is underrated, with the great Prado museum, endless tapas bars and restaurants, and a bustling nightlife that makes New York City seem tame.

  • Buenos Aires — still the "Paris of South America," despite some economic issues; great nightlife, street life, bookshops, and coffee houses.

  • Lisbon — a picturesque port city with a rich history and narrow winding alleys where you can lose yourself; completely off the beaten path at the Western edge of Europe.

  • Munich — a melting pot of talent and culture from all over Germany, blended with Bavarian “Gemütlichkeit” and lots of lager beer. Berlin is another excellent option in Germany due to its famous multicultural character.

  • Paris — a great walking city with sidewalk cafés as far as the eye can see, book sellers along the Seine river, world-class museums, cheese shops and bakeries — does it get any better?

  • Prague — incredible beer, friendly people, and an old city center worthy of fairly tales.

  • Rome — a city where you walk through history, can hear music resonating in Roman ruins or beautiful cathedrals and churches, experience many unique neighborhoods such as Trastevere, enjoy great outdoor nightlife during the summer, with so much Italian spontaneity and sensuality.

  • Vancouver — the best of Canada in a dramatic setting of mountains, islands, and the Pacific Ocean. Montreal is a close second, especially for young people who enjoy multicultural living, good food, and a vibrant music scene & nightlife.

Of course, there are many extraordinary cities worldwide, and we could not include them all in our list, nor have we lived in them all. Please feel free to discuss your favorite cities in the comments section below.

Related Topics
Living Abroad by Country
How to Choose a Country to Live In
 
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