Emigrating from your home country is a leap of faith, whether the journey is motivated by love, circumstance or adventure. There’s a lot that can’t be planned, like the friendships formed, the impact on your worldview, and opportunities you’ll encounter through luck or good timing. But it’s not all in the hands of fate: some cities really are dream destinations for expats.
Cities with prime job prospects and an appreciation for diversity are high on the wish list for most migrants. Add an active social scene into the mix, along with compelling travel prospects, and expat life goes from good to life-altering, never-going-home incredible.
Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.
Using the countries that topped the Global Expat Index report for 2019 as a guide, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best cities for expats. All are welcoming metropolises that offer sweet lifestyles and epic travel opportunities; in other words, places that have the X(pat) factor.
Amsterdam – The Netherlands
Amsterdam is energised by an internationally-minded workforce and slick design scene. But simultaneously, charming vignettes associated with the Dutch capital are very real: you’ll cycle alongside canals, gather bunches of tulips in Bloemenmarkt, and walk the same streets as Rembrandt.
Amsterdammers value work-life balance so expats fall into the same rhythm, spending weekends ambling through Vondelpark, sipping jenever (a juniper-based spirit) in wood-lined bars, and definitely not checking work emails. Four different countries lie within a four-hour road trip of Amsterdam; try Düsseldorf, Brussels, Lille and Luxembourg for short breaks awash in art, architecture and excellent beer.
Chengdu – China
Culture-rich Chengdu is already on international travellers’ radars, thanks to temples, teahouses and fiery Sichuan cuisine. The city’s strong international job market, expanding public transport links and relatively liberal mindset are also turning the heads of potential expats.
When you aren’t exploring the coffee and craft beer scenes, or testing your tolerance for mouth-tingling peppercorns, the city’s a brilliant launch pad for travel; strike out for the panda research centre in Ya’an or Taoist spiritual nexus Qīngchéng Shān. Language skills are crucial in the long term, but there’s a lively expat community to ease Anglophones in.
No, you aren’t guaranteed the Crazy Rich Asians lifestyle. But Singapore is a global financial centre with multinationals and media companies stacked into its high-rises. Beyond stellar job prospects, low crime and enviable public transport, Singapore is a garden city with colourful temples, tropical walking trails and the odd gory theme park.
Singaporean food alone might persuade you to make the move: sensational char kway teow (a stir-fried noodle dish), kaya (coconut jam) toast and rojak (spicy salad), to name just a few. You’ll be in good company, too – expats are more than one-quarter of the Lion City’s population.
Reykjavík – Iceland
Is a new life beckoning from just south of the Arctic Circle? Reykjavík is increasingly a hub for tech and arts innovators, with cultural rhythms that reach their crescendo during the long midsummer days. Reykjavík (population 123,000) feels small-scale but it’s forward-thinking, LGBT-friendly, and has eye-popping landscapes: think glaciers, ashen beaches and a volcano-scarred national park.
Despite Iceland topping the Global Expat Index report, expat life has challenges here – expensive groceries, biting winters, regrettable encounters with Brennivín (caraway-flavoured schnapps) to name just a few – but considering life expectancy, levels of happiness and employment prospects, there’s a compelling case for moving north.
Salzburg – Austria
No need to swear allegiance to either outdoor adventure or artistic refinement; your promised land lies in the mountainous realms of Austria. Salzburg is the city of Mozart, replete with genteel coffeehouses and capped with a fairy-tale castle. South of the city rise Alpine playgrounds for skiers and hikers, like Zell am See and Obertauern.
Austria also ticks the boxes for affordable healthcare, moderate living costs and low crime. And personally, we find brushing up on German verbs much less painful when it’s accompanied by Salzburg’s nougat-marzipan treats Mozartkugeln.
Auckland – New Zealand
In a turbulent world, many people look longingly towards New Zealand. Wave-lashed coastlines and volcanic landscapes are the main source of drama in this largely peaceful, progressive nation. Auckland, as NZ’s biggest city, has the country’s pick of jobs and nightlife (not to mention the winning coffee), and yet the country’s natural splendour is still within easy reach.
Spend weekends away in glowworm-speckled Waitomo Caves, sip award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyards of Waiheke Island, or indulge in an evening banquet at every J.R.R. Tolkein fan’s dream expat destination: Hobbiton.
Mexico City – Mexico
If a city tailored for expats sounds too sedate, multitudinous Mexico City offers an all-sensory alternative. Expats happy to hurl themselves into a city of breath-taking scale and stand-still traffic jams find ample rewards in CDMX’s monumental museums, amazing gastronomy (once you taste mole sauce it’s hard to live without it), and bars where Frida Kahlo once knocked back beers.
Many foreign nationals are digital nomads or English teachers, while families might be tempted by the comparatively low costs of living and childcare...which could leave spare cash for touring Mexico’s ancient Aztec sites.
Montréal – Canada
The outdoorsy Canadian lifestyle has enormous expat appeal (and not just for people in the USA, pining for the universal healthcare across the border). Montréal has particular allure with its stately 19th-century architecture, smouldering blues and jazz scenes, and variegated food culture.
It’s also Canada’s party city (and poutine works wonders after a heavy night). French language skills are a factor in the visa process, which is an extra enticer for migrants from francophone countries. Even Canada’s notoriously frigid, snowy winters are no deterrent when there are ski fields less than 90 minutes’ drive of Montréal... bonjour, Bromont!
Portland – USA
Portland is already popular with tech-heads fleeing Bay Area burnout, now non-Americans are getting wise to Oregon’s largest city. The stereotypes of Portlandia – a comedy spoofing the earnestly arty, avowedly eco-friendly locals – don’t fall wide of the mark. Vegan food trucks, gluten-free cupcakes, gigantic book stores and horror-fiction writer HP Lovecraft-themed bars are an ordinary weekend.
The city embraces cycling and public transport, and locals prize farm-to-table food culture. With so many residents choosing non-traditional occupations and lifestyles, expats won’t feel out on a limb. As long as you care about community, you’ll fit right in.
Vilnius – Lithuania
Digital nomads, ready your plug adaptors: Lithuania boasts some of the world’s fastest wifi and its coffee-worshipping capital is dotted with venues to lay down your laptop. Vilnius is an outward-looking city of art collectives, tech start-ups and bookish young professionals.
Beyond the city’s cobblestone streets, dotted with new Nordic and rustic Lithuanian restaurants, roads less travelled beckon in bordering Poland, Belarus, Latvia and Kaliningrad (a Russian exclave). But don’t worry, you won’t need a passport to party in Vilnius’ fascinating self-declared micronation, Užupis.
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This article was originally published in September 2019 and updated in November 2020.