5 great cities for ex-pats in Asia
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5 great cities for ex-pats in Asia

By Casey Hynes

FOR young ex-pats, Asia presents incredible opportunities for travel, career and personal development and growth. It is a region of great wealth and prosperity, but also of extreme human rights violations and abject poverty. Foreigners who move to Asia often find it is a far different and more fascinating place than they anticipated, and that Asian cities can be wonderful locations for personal and professional growth.

The following five cities are among the best in Asia for ex-pats. They represent a range of potential lifestyles, and include highly developed and technologically advanced cities, as well as ones that are still growing. All offer a good quality of life and have the necessary facilities, including vital medical services, public transportation and easy opportunities for travel to other parts of the region.

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo is not only the most expensive city in Asia, but in the world. This metropolis will cost you some money to live in but the pay-off will be well worth it. This highly advanced, even futuristic, city has everything you would want in an urban destination: culture, entertainment, excellent food, efficient infrastructure, style, and well-maintained and beautiful green spaces.

According to the website Numbeo, rent for an average one-bedroom apartment in the city center is about US$ 1,500 per month. However, a post on costs of living in Tokyo on the website Japan Guide suggests that a move to the Japanese capital does not necessarily mean breaking the bank. Ex-pats will often find themselves craving the comforts of home, especially when it comes to Western foods, but if you are willing to eat like the locals, you’ll find your costs much reduced.

As is the case in any country, you can save money if you’re willing to forego some luxuries and live outside the heart of the city. And living in Japan, which is arguably the most developed and culturally rich country in the region, is well worth doing if only for a few months.

Hong Kong

Though technically a part of the People’s Republic of China – it is described by the Chinese government as a special autonomous region – Hong Kong is a world apart from mainland cities. As a global financial hub, Hong Kong draws finance and economics experts and the quality of life here can be good.


A cook prepares the braised beef with noodles at a restaurant in Mongkok, Hong Kong. This is a city that can be expensive, but also surprisingly cheap. Pic: AP.

However, the cost living can also be high. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s recent report on global costs of living ranked Hong Kong as the 14th most expensive city in the world. Mercer ranked it even higher, at number nine, factoring in the cost of housing. A monthly rental of a luxury two-bedroom apartment here goes for several thousand USD per month.

Because of its position as a financial center, those working in this sector are more likely to have jobs that allow them to sustain a comfortable lifestyle in the city. It is more challenging for those who come to Hong Kong wishing to work as freelancers and tutors, as jobs can be more difficult to come by and oftentimes a freelancer’s salary is not on par with the cost of living in Hong Kong, at least as long as one plans to go out for drinks, entertainment and occasional expensive meals.

Beijing, China

Some would question the idea of Beijing being on a list of attractive ex-pat destinations over Shanghai, but the city does have several overlooked charms. Shanghai is more developed and cosmopolitan than Beijing, to be sure, but Beijing’s roughness is part of its appeal. As the capital, Beijing is the seat of China’s government and draws diplomats, politicians and businessmen from all over the world.


Great markets are just one example of Beijing’s many charms. Pic: AP.

Many ex-pats take a teaching job as a means of “getting their foot in the door” in China, as obtaining a visa and getting situated can be difficult to manage from the outside, but once you’ve arrived in Beijing, you’ll quick realize there are many career paths open to you.

The city has seen a boom in restaurant and entertainment openings in recent years, creating many job opportunities for locals and foreigners alike. There is a strong and growing arts and performance scene and the barrier to entry in many areas is quite low.

Beijing is the type of city that can be as cheap or expensive as you make it. An average apartment within the city will likely cost you about $ 400 a month, which is still less than in many major American or European cities. Meals can be enjoyed for less than $ 10, depending on where you’re eating and even beers can be found for less than $ 2 a glass – though no promises on quality.

Beijing offers a great range of career and lifestyle opportunities, but there are two major drawbacks. One is obtaining a visa, which the Chinese government has made more difficult, even for tourist visas, in the past year. The air quality in Beijing can also be abysmal at times, with the city blanketed in a thick smog. On clear days, Beijing is a beauty but there tend to be more polluted days than clear ones so it is worthwhile to invest in a purifier and face mask if you are planning to move there.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

This northern Thai city draws many an ex-pat with its varied attractions and opportunities. Foreigners looking to live in Chiang Mai have the option of working as an English teacher or with a non-governmental organization that helps local people, hill tribes, monks, and endangered animals in the region.


Chiang Mai seen at night from Doi Suthep mountain. Pic: Shutterstock.com.

Street food is available in abundance and a meal costs as little as US$ 1 for a place of rice and seasoned meats and vegetables. Fresh, healthy smoothies. As for where to live, beautiful, multi-storied apartments can be rented for $ 500 a month, depending on where in the city you choose to stay. Chiang Mai is attractive thanks to it’s affordability alone.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur is attractive as an ex-pat destination for a number of reasons. English is widely spoken here, making it easier to get around and to get to know the locals and your colleagues than it might be in other parts of Asia. Kuala Lumpur is also a relatively clean city, especially when compared with parts of China and cities such as Bangkok. And the price tag for most essentials and daily amenities is far lower than the first two locations on this list.


Pic: AP.

According to the Labour Mobility website, the strongest industries in KL are finance, real estate and insurance, so ex-pats working in those areas will likely find it easiest to be transferred to Kuala Lumpur or to secure employment there on their own.

Labour Mobility cited ex-pats in Kuala Lumpur as saying they found it an easier place to get to know locals and enjoy their social lives than in other major cities, specifically Hong Kong and Singapore. But because the other two are so much more advanced in other regards, the quality of life overall in Kuala Lumpur was ranked lower.

Malaysia is a Muslim country, which means the nightlife scene is less rollicking than in other areas. Many women who have traveled through Kuala Lumpur on their own have commented that they felt uncomfortable due to local men staring or making comments toward them that prompted them to question their safety in the Malaysian capital.

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