When Lizzie Brandon first arrived in Auckland, New Zealand in 2008, she used to write down things about her new home that were different to life in Bedford, England, more than 11,000 miles away.
Some items on that list? “Nobody wears shoes… you don’t have to tip.”
While not everyone in Auckland walks around barefoot, it’s true that tipping is relatively unheard of. But for a newcomer these relative oddities say a lot about the city’s laid-back, egalitarian vibe.
With 1.4 million people, Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, a remote country in the South Pacific known more for hobbits, rugby and sheep than being a draw for foreign workers. But with 39% of its population born abroad, it’s one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities — even more so than London or New York.
Kiwis (a nickname for New Zealanders based on their national bird) are fond of the outdoors, and Aucklanders are no different. The city is built on an isthmus between two harbours, and with rugged hills and black-sand beaches to the west and golden bays to the north, it’s a haven for fishing, sailing, hiking, cycling and most other leisure activities that involve getting out of the house.
We feel genuinely privileged and grateful to live here.
The city’s outdoorsy nature and cosmopolitan makeup are two reasons why it often ranks high on annual global liveability lists – recruitment consulting firm Mercer last month listed it third in its annual Quality of Living Rankings for the third year running and Auckland is ninth on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of the world's most liveable cities. Overall, the country rates highly as a place to live for foreign workers — HSBC listed New Zealand as the second-best place to live for expats in its latest Expat Explorer survey.
Brandon agrees it’s a great place for foreigners. “We love it. We really, really love it,” said the 45-year-old, who moved to Auckland after her husband Sean got a job offer as a roofing contracts manager. The couple live in Browns Bay, a quiet suburb on the city’s north shore. Coming from flat, landlocked Bedford, it’s a luxury for Brandon to have the beach at her doorstep.
“We still have to pinch ourselves when coming over the hill to our home in Browns Bay and seeing the ocean. The view is stunning,” she said. “We feel genuinely privileged and grateful to live here.”
Generally, people wanting to work in New Zealand will be granted a visa if they either have a job offer from an accredited employer, have specialist skills or work in fields that are in demand, such as biotechnology and creative industries. The New Zealand government has a list of some 700 in-demand skilled occupations on its website.
Some people apply for permanent residency straight away through a points system, which rewards applicants for qualifications and needed skills.
They’re entitled to all of our healthcare benefits and education, and are treated just like a New Zealander.
Those with a job offer can get a two-year Work to Residence (Talent) visa which allows expats to upgrade from a temporary to resident visa. Libby Svensen, director of New Zealand-based relocation company Relocations International, said most of her expatriate clients arrive on a two-year working visa, which has benefits on its own.
“They’re entitled to all of our healthcare benefits and education, and are treated just like a New Zealander,” she said. “All that has to happen on top of that is that their kids have a student visa, so they don’t have to pay international fees [for schooling].”
Landing the job
White-collar professionals are the most common type of employee in the city, which is positioning itself as a high-tech hub for information communications technology (ICT). Auckland mayor Len Brown said the ICT sector is growing at about 15% every year. “It’s about 14% of the entire regional economy at the moment.”
He said there is strong investment from China and the US “in particular Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego — there’s a number of businesses that are looking to invest and establish themselves in Auckland.”
Many multinational tech companies have bases there, such as Vodafone, Cisco and Microsoft. There are also opportunities in the financial services, engineering and construction, tourism and life sciences industries.
Auckland’s time zones mean the work day overlaps with the US (there is currently a four-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Auckland) and parts of Asia.
Where to live
Auckland’s housing market is notoriously overcooked. The average house price jumped almost 18% last year — the average value in the Auckland region is now NZ$926,000 ($623,000), although prices have cooled somewhat in recent months.
Svensen said rent is “inappropriately expensive”.
“It’s not a New York or a London, but it’s very poor value for money. In New Zealand dollars you’re paying NZ$450 a week ($303) for a basic two-bedroom apartment and paying NZ$900 ($605) a week for a nice, tidy but simple three-bedroom townhouse in the suburbs.”
Although there are some apartments in the city centre, the vast majority of families live in houses in the suburbs. “Generally families orient towards the suburbs because that’s where the schools are,” Svensen said.
Suburbs near the central business district, such as Ponsonby, Herne Bay and Parnell contain beautiful villas and leafy streets, but can be very expensive — the average three-bedroom home costs around $1.2 million ($807,000).
It’s not a New York or a London, but it’s very poor value for money.
Many people, priced out of the central suburbs look further west, north or south. But living further out comes with its own challenges — it’s not uncommon for Aucklanders to have an hour-long commute each way.
Auckland is a large, spread-out city and most people drive — those coming from other international cities may be surprised at the relative lack of public transport. The city’s rail network is patchy, with no underground rail network. Buses do run to most places but can be sparse on the weekends.
When the traffic’s bad, it’s absolutely appalling. If one thing goes wrong, everything is gridlocked.
Because of the reliance on cars, traffic can get pretty bad during the daily commute. Brandon agrees — she drives over the Auckland Harbour Bridge to get to her home from the city. “When the traffic’s bad, it’s absolutely appalling. If one thing goes wrong, everything is gridlocked.”
But things are slowly improving — public transport patronage is growing by about 10% each year, and earlier this year authorities approved the construction of the City Rail Link, an underground rail system due in 2018-19 which should ease pressure on the network.
What to do
New Zealand is known as an outdoorsy nation, and Auckland is no different. Some of the city’s beaches, such as Mission Bay and Takapuna Beach, are very close to the city’s main centres. Further west, the Waitakere Ranges offer excellent hiking and the rugged black-sand beaches of Piha and Muriwai attract surfers from all over the world.
It’s so lovely that everyone has boats and goes fishing on the weekends.
Being perched right on the Hauraki Gulf, many Aucklanders take to the water to relax — whether it’s sailing in weekend regattas or taking a trailer boat out early to catch fish. It’s one thing that Brandon noticed when she arrived. “It’s so lovely that everyone has boats and goes fishing on the weekends.”
Those who prefer staying indoors with a meal aren’t out of luck either. Auckland has a thriving restaurant scene and when it comes to café culture, it fancies itself as at least equal, if not superior to its Australian neighbours Sydney and Melbourne. Locals ask for a flat white — smaller than a latte, it consists of velvety microfoam poured over a double ristretto shot — that any Auckland barista should be able to make.
New Zealand has a good reputation as a quality producer of New World wines, and there are some excellent vineyards on the city’s doorstep. Waiheke Island, a 35-minute ferry ride from the CBD, is a great spot to tour the vineyards and sample the wares afterwards.
For the most part, the people of New Zealand, and Auckland, have a laid-back, egalitarian approach to life and generally are friendly, welcoming and approachable. Tipping is not expected or part of the culture.
Most Aucklanders take their sport very seriously — rugby is something of a national obsession, so those who want to break the ice quickly may want to familiarise themselves with the game. Kiwis enjoy a good-natured rivalry with their Australian neighbours, in everything from sport to coffee to breakfast spreads.
“Hobbiton is two hours south of where we live,” Brandon said. “That still blows my mind.”
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