Living in: The world’s best cities for expats

Where do foreigners find friendly locals, career opportunities and contentment? These five places ranked high in a recent survey.

Whether assessing the local climate, calculating the cost of living or understanding how easily you can make friends abroad, choosing a new country to live in comes with plenty of considerations. But when all is said and done, expats in certain countries end up happier than those in others.

To find out where expats were happiest these days, online network InterNations recently conducted a survey of 14,000 expats across 160 countries. The organization asked participants to weigh in on family life, work life, personal finance and ease of settling in to the community.

The countries where residents were happiest spanned the globe, with different factors contributing to each country’s ranking: Ecuador scored high on affordability; career opportunities contributed to expats’ satisfaction in Luxembourg and Switzerland; and overall friendliness helped Mexico and the US rise to the top.

But what’s it really like to live in these expat hot spots? We interviewed people from each country’s most populous city to find out.

Guayaquil, Ecuador
Ranking highest in overall satisfaction across a number of factors,  Ecuador earned particularly strong marks for its low cost of living and the ease with which newcomers make friends. While plenty of expats settle in the cosmopolitan capital of Quito and in old world Cuenca, many are moving to Guayaquil, the nation’s financial centre. Residents said an improving downtown area and rising career opportunities are among the draws.

“Just as New York is considered the financial and business centre and Los Angeles the arts and entertainment mecca of the US, the financial engine of Guayaquil contrasts with the cultural highlights of Quito,” explained Park Wilson, originally from the US, on his expat blog Viva Tropical. “For native Ecuadorians, this contrast can be summed up in a local saying: ‘the money is made in Guayaquil and spent in Quito.’”

But Guayaquil is becoming a cultural hub in its own right. The Malecón 2000 revitalization project, anchored by a 4km stretch of boardwalk, has upgraded the waterfront neighbourhood with a proliferation of restaurants, trendy boutiques and upscale condos. Cerro San Ana, which sits atop a prominent hill (and takes 444 steps to climb), has a bohemian vibe, with artisan shops and great views of the Guayas River.

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
Career-minded expats find plenty of opportunities in this tiny European country, which ranked second in the survey. According to the results, nearly two-thirds of the expats surveyed in Luxembourg moved there for a job. In fact, expats make up nearly 40% of the population. The large number ensures newcomers have an easy time connecting with fellow foreigners, and also gives the city an international flair

“When I came here for the first time, I was in the main playground of the city, Parc Merl, and it was full of mommies and kids,” said Rute Vendeirinho, a writer who moved from Lisbon in 2012 and blogs about her experiences at her site Expat Mum in Luxembourg. “I was amazed with how many different languages we could hear in that same playground. Everyone was speaking a different language, but everyone was just playing together.” 

Connecting with other expats is easy, she said, adding that fellow expats are always willing to help out with information on housing, taxes, schools and other issues. “You only feel alone here if you want,” she said.

While living close to the city centre is popular for singles and couples without kids, it doesn’t come cheap – a small bedroom in a shared apartment can easily go for 1,000 euros.  But downtown Luxembourg can also get a little sleepy after the workday, so those looking for livelier evenings should check out Clausen, just northeast of downtown. “Clausen is where the high-techies work hard and play hard – Microsoft, Skype and Amazon are here, as well as the hopping nightlife,” said Mike McQuaide, who moved from the US two years ago and writes about his expat experience at An American in Luxembourg.

Those with families generally prefer to live in the city’s suburbs, especially because a well-developed bus and train system makes commuting easy.  The neighbourhoods of Belair and Merl, both on the west side of the city centre, are popular with expats because of their proximity to the International School. Farther afield to the southwest, Bertrange and Strassen offer more affordable housing options.

Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico makes foreigners feel right at home. The country ranked first in ease of settling in and friendly locals – in fact, 91% of expats reported feeling content in the country, even despite headlines touting its dangers. While personal safety is a concern, Mexico City has seen a drop in crime since 2011, even as crime in other parts of the country has risen. In general, expats find the welcoming nature of locals and the community-oriented culture enough to offset the risks.

“When I first arrived here, I found an amazing sense of family set into the everyday lifestyle,” said Justin Ermini, who moved from the United States to Mexico City two years ago and now works as a chef at Anatol Restaurant. “On Saturdays and Sundays the parks are filled with children playing, families having long lunches together, [and] late family walks after dinner.”

 Both the nation’s largest city and its capital, Mexico City – or DF, as it’s often called, short for Distrito Federal (Federal District)has diverse neighbourhoods that range from fast-paced to laid-back. “You can be in Polanco living with all the amenities and dining and shopping of any luxury city,” Ermini said. “Coyoacán offers an artsy, hippy-like community feel and Roma is like the new Brooklyn, with speakeasy places, small boutiques and vintage stores.”

About 24km south of the city centre, Xochimilco captures some of the region’s more historic aspects, including its Aztec-era floating gardens, a traditional market and colonial-era houses and churches.

Zurich, Switzerland
Much like Luxembourg, Switzerland attracts expats interested in the country’s banking industry and financial markets. Zurich, in particular, draws a diverse mix of Swiss German, Swiss French and Swiss Italians, along with other nationalities – and almost everyone speaks English.

“The city has a very high standard of living, so most expats are very comfortable here,” said Gayle Cotton, a former Zurich expat who visits frequently and is the author of the book Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere! 5 Keys to Successful Cross-Cultural Communication.“In addition, there is a great support system for parents with children, and the schools and medical treatment are excellent.”

Residing in downtown Zurich is expensive, so most expats live in the neighbourhoods near Lake Zurich, such as Kilchberg, Thalwil, Horgen, Zolikon and Meilin. “Commuting to the city is easy with the efficient public transportation of trains, tram and buses,” Cotton said. While making friends here can be challenging due to the formality of the business community and the private nature of Swiss Germans, in particular, the friendships that expats do make can last a lifetime.

New York City, United States
The US ranked fifth overall on the list of best countries for expats, thanks in part to its citizens’ friendliness and the abundance of entertainment options. Most expats reported finding plenty of career opportunities and felt they were able to fit in easily. And New York City – with its diverse population and countless cultural opportunities – is a big draw.

“New York is very energetic and very exciting,” said Mish Slade, a former resident who moved to the city from London in 2012 and writes the Making It Anywhere blog. “There's a particular feeling you get that's unlike anywhere else.” Residents have a get-stuff-done attitude that translates into working hard and also finding adventurous recreational opportunities. “It's a lot more of a let's-make-cool-stuff-happen attitude than a lot of the other cities we've lived in, which have a more let’s-see-if-cool-stuff-happens vibe,” Slade said.  

The cost of housing does give many potential expats pause, as the city is the most expensive place to live in the US. Yet residents find they can save money on food (“eating out can be really cheap and really good!” Slade said), and by skipping the costs of owning a car in favour of the efficient, easy and affordable subway.

Though New York is fast-paced, those looking for a less frenetic neighbourhood feel might head to the Upper West Side or Park Slope in Brooklyn. Among the eight neighbourhoods she has lived in, Slade preferred the East Village. “In terms of food and location, the East Village is superb – it’s easy to get anywhere useful from there,” she said. The West Village, meanwhile, is packed with restaurants and boutiques and maintains a laid-back neighbourhood feel.