Your guide to expat life in United Arab Emirates

Living in the UAE

The UAE offers expats an exceptional quality of life, with modern accommodation and medical facilities, good international schools and a highly developed infrastructure.

There’s plenty to keep you entertained in the lively cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, including great beaches, watersports, indoor skiing, excellent restaurants and sprawling shopping malls. All this comes at a price though. The cost of living in the UAE has increased over recent years. And while expat salaries are still high, benefits packages aren’t as comprehensive as they used to be.

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Accommodation

Rents in the UAE have stabilised in recent years, but accommodation is still likely to be one’s biggest expense. Although many companies allocate housing for expat employees, formal housing allowances aren’t as common as they were a few years ago.

The standard of housing in the UAE is high and you’ll have a variety of options to choose from. Apartments tend to come with shared facilities such as a gym, sauna and swimming pool, while compound villas often have amenities such as a medical centre, tennis court, gym and restaurant.

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Furnished/unfurnished

Both furnished and unfurnished housing is available. Many unfurnished apartments don’t even have basic appliances – so if you choose this option, be prepared for high start-up costs. The transient nature of the UAE means there’s a thriving second-hand market as expats get rid of their furniture and appliances before moving back home. These are advertised by word of mouth or on various classified websites.

Residence visa

You’ll need a residence visa to rent accommodation in the UAE. When you sign the lease, you’ll have to present a copy of your visa and passport, along with proof of address and proof of income from your employer.

Renting property

Leases are usually for a year. It’s common to pay a full 12 months’ rent upfront, although some landlords accept post-dated cheques. You’ll also have to pay a security deposit of around 5% of the annual rent. Before you sign the lease, check for additional charges such as maintenance fees. And make sure the landlord’s responsibilities are clearly stated.

Culture changes

Despite the UAE being such a cosmopolitan country, adapting to the conservative culture will be one of the biggest adjustments you’ll need to make.

It’s easy for expats to quickly slide into an insular niche made up of people from home or places similar to home. But there are many opportunities to socialise and meet people, both local and foreign. And the best approach to life in the UAE is an open-minded one.

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Dress

Dress in the UAE is conservative. Although many women wear the traditional hijab or abaya, expats aren’t expected to follow this custom. But it’s still important to dress modestly and cover your shoulders and legs when you’re out in public.

Ramadan

Ramadan is the holiest time in the Islamic calendar - and you should avoid eating, drinking and smoking in public or in front of Muslim friends and colleagues during daylight hours. When the fast is broken for the day, expats are encouraged to join in the feasting. Many companies operate on reduced hours and provide special rooms where non-Muslim employees can eat during the holy month.

Climate

Getting used to the relentless heat is one of the biggest challenges expats face when they move to the UAE. All buildings are air-conditioned to help ease the discomfort, but it may take time to adapt to the mostly indoor lifestyle.

Working week

The first working day of the week in the Emirates is Sunday and the weekend is over Friday and Saturday. Most government and public offices are closed on Saturdays.

Co-habiting

Unmarried couples aren’t allowed to live together in the UAE and lawbreakers can be jailed and deported.

Alcohol

Drinking alcohol is only legal for non-Muslims in licensed restaurants, hotels or private venues. You’ll need a special licence if you want to buy alcohol in the UAE.

Education

Expat children are allowed to attend public schools in the UAE, but unlike locals, expats are charged school fees. This, along with the fact that teaching in public schools is in Arabic, leads most expat parents to consider international schools. There are a number of these across the Emirates. Most have high standards, but spaces are limited, so you should start the enrolment process as early as possible.

The school year runs from September to July, with the year broken into three terms. The school week is from Sunday to Thursday and hours vary depending on the school.

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Private schools

Private schooling in the UAE is expensive. It’s no longer standard practice to include an education allowance in expat employment packages, so you’ll need to budget for school fees, along with all the additional costs such as uniforms, textbooks, transport and extracurricular activities.

International schools

Most international schools follow the British or American curriculum or the International Baccalaureate, but there are also French, German, Japanese and Indian schools. By law, all children in public and private schools must take UAE social studies and Arabic, though these subjects are only compulsory up until Grades 9 and 10 respectively. Schools are also required to offer Islamic studies as a subject, but this class is optional for non-Muslims.

Homeschooling

The high cost of international education in the UAE has pushed many expat parents towards homeschooling. This is also a good option if you know you won’t be staying in the country long and you don’t want to deal with the bureaucratic process of enrolling in an international school. As homeschooling becomes more popular, many support groups have been set up to help parents.

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Keeping in touch

Mobile

Most international networks have roaming agreements in the UAE, but keeping your home mobile contract is expensive. You can apply for a local contract once you have a residence visa and a bank account, although pay-as-you-go services are quicker to organise when you first arrive.

Telecoms

Choosing your telecoms provider is relatively straightforward. There are two primary companies, Du and Etisalat. They dominate the market and most residential buildings are pre-connected for services with one of them. Both companies offer packages for internet, cable and telephone - so it’s worth investigating your options.

Internet and social media

You can access most social media sites in the UAE, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Instant messaging services like WhatsApp are widely used, but restricted, and Skype isn’t allowed in the UAE. Some websites are blocked because they’re seen as offensive to the religious and moral values of the country.

Healthcare

The UAE has an excellent healthcare infrastructure and modern medical facilities. Both public and private services are available, but most expats opt for private hospitals where medical staff speak English. Many doctors are expats themselves, so it isn’t difficult to find one from your home country.

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Private healthcare

Private healthcare in the UAE is expensive and it’s essential that you have comprehensive medical insurance. In Abu Dhabi you need medical insurance to get a residence visa. By law, Abu Dhabi and Dubai companies have to provide medical insurance to expat employees – so this is one expense you don’t need to worry about.

Pharmacies

There are pharmacies across all cities, and most are open 24/7. Although many medications are available, the country has strict drug laws. You may need a prescription for things that are sold over the counter back home.

Health assessment

Expats must pass a health assessment to get a residence visa for the UAE.

Emergency services

Emergency services in the UAE are adequate, although ambulances are mainly used for road accidents, so many people use their own transport or taxis to get to a hospital in an emergency.

Getting around

The UAE doesn’t have an extensive public transport system, so a car is the easiest way to get around the country. It’s no surprise that petrol is cheap. And you may find you can afford a more luxurious car than you could back home.

The UAE is a small country and getting from one emirate to another doesn’t take long. Road conditions are good and major cities are connected by multi-lane freeways.

Driving in the Emirates can take some getting used to. Roads are often congested, traffic regulations are strict and there’s a zero-tolerance policy towards drinking and driving. You can drive with an international licence, but you’ll need a local one if you have residency status.

With stiflingly hot temperatures, it goes without saying that the UAE isn’t very pedestrian or cyclist friendly. You can catch a bus or taxi in the major cities. Ride-hailing services, such as Uber, are also available. And Dubai’s metro system is fast, efficient and cheap.

The UAE is a major travel hub and Dubai has one of the busiest airports in the world. Many international airlines offer daily services to and from the Emirates, making the country a great base for expats who want to see the world.

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All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in October 2020. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.