Expat Essentials

2019 edition: Dispatches’ list of the five best cities in Europe for expats


We’re posting our 2019 list of the best cities for expats 26 days from what looks like a no-deal Brexit. In the United States, the Trump Administration is a dumpster fire.


In the past few months, hundreds of global companies from Goldman Sachs to Ford have announced they’re pulling the plug on their UK operations and moving them to the Continent.

For Dispatches, this angst and dread is translating into more and more people coming to us for advice about where they can escape the madness. Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Luxembourg City, Dublin and Paris have been the only winners in Brexit. But for most expats, those cities are too crowded and too expensive … and only getting more so as thousands of jobs leave London for these financial and innovation centers.

Brexit is just one stream in the biggest population transfer in history, with young people moving to Boomtowns in droves from many of the newer EU member states. Since the fall of communism, Latvia has lost more than a quarter of its population; Romania and Lithuania have lost about one-sixth of their populations, and Bulgaria had 22 percent fewer people in 2018 than in 1990, with the trend projected to continue.

At the same time, countries with huge economies such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark have too few people to support economic growth (and pension obligations) due to aging populations.

So, this is a great time to be a highly skilled international. The question becomes, “If you’re an expat, where can you have it all … affordable and plentiful housing, great quality of life and terrific career opportunities?”

Some background

When we looked back at all our “best cities/countries for expats” lists, we discovered that while all have been different, if there is a commonality, it’s that we’ve been looking subconsciously for the Next Berlin. But Berlin ain’t Berlin, the poor but sexy city of the early 2000s.

Quoting a recent study from the real estate portal Immowelt, the BBC has a recent post about how monthly rents in Berlin have more than doubled in the last 10 years. Rent prices vary greatly based on neighborhood, but 2017 statistics show that a one-bedroom apartment in some of the city’s more desirable neighborhoods rent for more than 1,000 euros per month.

Dispatches’ lists are data-driven, but our ranking criteria have changed since 2016. We used to require that cities be in the EU. But we’re waiving that because we believe that Emerging Europe increasingly is the place to be. In the past, we had Frankfurt and Leipzig on the lists, but we’ve had a lot of feedback that unless you speak fluent German, these aren’t practical options for expats who aren’t working for multinational corporations.

Finally, we also included cities with fast-growing and promising economies such as Bucharest. But consulting our expat network, many of whom come from Emerging Europe countries such as Romania, Macedonia and Greece, they advise us that corruption in the Balkans and Eastern Europe intrudes on the lives of citizens to the point there is an increasing outflow of talent to Western Europe and Scandinavia.

So, our 2019 cities are ranked by:

  • overall cost of living compared to London: 100 points
  • density of talent and serious career opportunities with a prominent university driving innovation and creating tomorrow’s talent as in the Silicon Valley model is worth 100 points
  • affordability of rents and a reasonable quality of life: 100 points
  • because it is the common language for all highly skilled internationals, we rank by the percentage of people who speak English: 100 points
  • international schools: 100 points
  • corruption: 100 points

So, 600 would be a perfect score, which no city got.

Obviously, this is pretty subjective because there are terrific cities across Europe. So, at some point, our personal experiences and feedback from our expat network shape the rankings.

That there are two Dutch cities on the list is no accident. The Netherlands has a structural flaw in that its population is too small and too old to support its multinationals or even its startup and scale-ups. But to keep up with all the people who want to live here, this small country must build one million homes by 2030, and we’re 200,000 units short of the national target for rental housing.

No. 5 Ljubljana: 440 points

This is our favorite Ljubljana story. Fed up with being ignored by the help, Slovenian Member of Parliament Darij Krajcic walked out of a supermarket deli with a sandwich. Krajcic claimed later that he was doing it to teach the indifferent wait staff a lesson. When his own party got wind of what he did, they forced him to resign, according to the BBC. Think about that for a moment.

Victor Orbán in Hungary passed a Slave Law that forces people to work overtime without pay … and he’s still prime minister. Officials in Romania and Bulgaria have made an art out of extorting business owners … which is why Bucharest and Sofia aren’t on this list. And this guy loses his position over a 2-euro sandwich.

Of course, there are lots of other things about this city that put it on our list.

Slovenia’s education system is ranked as No. 12 in the world and No. 4  in the EU only behind Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands according to the most recent OECD rankings. So it’s not a shock that it’s a leader in robotics and even space exploration, with Slovenia announcing plans to launch its own satellites. Slovenia just announced it’s building Europe’s first AI research center.

Oh, and the country is gorgeous with unlimited outdoor activities including skiing, a rising star in European tourism. Who wouldn’t want to live here?


• Overall cost of living compared to London: Score 100

COL in Ljubljana is half of London.

Quality of Life/housing:  Score 90

This is one of the “Green” capitals of Europe, ranked No. 8 by the Copenhagenize bicycle-friendly cities Index. Our research shows the housing market is stable here.

According to real estate firm Metropola IN, in 2017, the cost of renting a 2-room apartment (40-to-60 m²) in Ljubljana was 550 to 750 euros per month. Renting a 3-room apartment (60-to-100 m²) cost 650 to 1,100 euros per month, and a 4-room apartment up to 130 m² rents for 750 to 1,400 euros per month. Try that in London.

U.S. News and World Report has Slovenia at No. 53 on their list of the best countries with bonus points for quality of life, entrepreneurship and business-friendliness.

• Talent and serious career opportunities: Score 70

The country as a whole has a tiny population of only 2 million. The largest companies in Slovenia are mostly local including Petrol, the national energy company. But there are many multinationals here including Siemens, SAP and other companies. Slovenia as a whole has a low unemployment rate of 5.3 percent as of August 2018.

The bad news? Ljubljana University is, um, not great. So it gets dinged for that. This is no Eindhoven, Zürich or Stockholm, but has potential.

• English speakers: Score 80

The data we found estimates that about 60 percent of Slovenians speak English on some level, and almost all young people in urban centers speak conversational English.

International Schools: Score 50 percent (just because of lack of info)

Ljubljana has multiple schools. It’s just that none has websites that are exactly informative. But here’s a good overview.

• Corruption:  Score 50

On Transparency’s internationals corruption Index, Slovenia is No. 36, the worst on our list, but less corrupt that Spain, Italy or Croatia.

Negatives: Is a city of 280,000 people – roughly 37 percent of the population of Zagreb – really a city?

Update: Ljubljana was just short-listed for European Capitals of Smart Tourism 2020. The European Parliament initiative recognizes outstanding achievements by European cities as tourism destinations in four categories: sustainability, accessibility, digitalization as well as cultural heritage and creativity, according to the website.

No. 4 Vienna: 485 points

When we were looking for a place to start Dispatches in Europe, contributor and longtime expat Ivana Avramovic insisted Vienna was the place. Exciting and elegant, with a large number of multinational corporations and the career opportunities they provide. And we went several times to check it out. What we found is, there’s a reason Vienna makes so many “Best Places to Live” lists.

An incredible cultural scene. Check. Giant clubs atop hotels. Check. Lovely urban parks and incredible restaurants. Check. What worked against Vienna in the past was location, far from the center of Europe’s business and tech centers in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Brussels and Paris. What lands it on this year’s list is, ironically, location. Vienna is close to where we predict the action will be in coming years, and that’s Emerging Europe, specifically Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia. That and its startup and tech scenes have gone from zero to 100 just since we were there to see the ecosystem in 2016.

Still, it’s not at the top of our list because the Far Right government is less and less expat friendly. But Vienna remains the only classical European capital that’s still affordable.


Overall cost of living compared with London: Score 70

Vienna is about 36-percent cheaper overall.

Quality of life/housing: Score 85

Housing in Vienna is an amazing 50-percent cheaper than London, according to Expatica. That’s in part because of entire new sections of the city that have come online since 2015 including Aspern Seestadt, as well as a steady supply of social housing for middle-class residents. Vienna is rising on the European Digital City Index, which uses hard data to rank how European cities support digital entrepreneurship. The public transportation matrix is one of the best – if not the best – in the world. And the city has more arts and entertainment than just about anywhere in Europe.

• Talent and serious career opportunities:  Score 80

In The Valley Model, Stanford creates the talent, the big tech companies hire the talent, the VCs finance the startups, and the startups rule the world. Vienna doesn’t really have any those things, though the University of Vienna ranked a respectable No. 143 in the world. But there’s a nascent startup/tech scene, with Bitpanda getting traction.

Vienna does have a lot of multinationals with operations/headquarters including arms manufacturer Styer-Mannlicher, Johnson Controls, IBM and GE, and the new easyJet Europe HQ. Finally, Vienna and all of Austria have a labor shortage, with about 200,000 jobs going unfilled nationwide. Austria has a low unemployment rate of about 4.8 percent as of last August.

• Prevalence of English: Score 70

English isn’t the main business language, though about 70-percent of people in Vienna are fluent.

International schools: Score 100

Vienna has at least 9 international schools, with something for almost every family’s budget. See Part. 1 here and Part. 2 here of our Dispatches list of schools in Vienna.

Corruption: Score 80

Austria ranks No. 14 on Transparency International’s list, below Tier 1 societies such as Denmark, Switzerland and Finland.

The negatives: Right-wing populists are in power now.

Update: Vienna is ranked No. 5 on the Arcadis list of most sustainable cities.

No. 3 Tallinn: 495 points

As we’ve stated many times, Tallinn is one of those places that’s teleporting into the future. The main reason it remains affordable is Estonia is still shaking off the vestiges of a Soviet Bloc country. But there’s no other city rushing as quickly to the future. We got an email recently from NimbleFins, which ranks Tallinn as the No. 5 city in the world for startups based on data from World Bank, OECD, UNESCO and the World Economic Forum.

Unlike other countries, Estonia actually wants you to move there. The country has a created a startup visa, and 1,000 people have taken them up on the offer to move their startups to Tallinn. So it’s no coincidence this tiny country – population 1.3 million – has sent more tech out into the wild than any other.


• Overall cost of living compared to London:  Score 100

Tallinn is half as expensive London, according to Expatistan.

Quality of life/housing: Score 90

Housing in Tallinn is almost 60-percent less than London, according to Expatica. Transportation is free! BUT, Tallinn has the most expensive housing in the Baltics, though it also has the highest salaries. See more stats here on Statistics Estonia.

• Talent and serious career opportunities: Score 90

The University of Tartu is the highest rated in Estonia but only ranks in the Top 300 globally. That said, Estonia has produced the tech talent that laid the foundations of several tech companies including Skype and TransferWise. And the Nimblefins data shows Estonia has the No. 2 technical workforce in the world, with almost 40 percent of people having tertiary degrees and 87 percent with secondary degrees.

And as we noted above, the emphasis on creating a digital society brought highly talented internationals here from all over the world. Estonia has a low unemployment rate of about 5.3 percent.

Prevalence of English: Score 60

Estonia gets dinged for this, with only about 50 percent of the population speaking English. But in Tallinn, most people speak English, and all startup and tech companies use English.

International schools: Score 80

Tallinn has two: International School of Tallinn and International School of Estonia. ISE is affordable by London standards, below 10,000 euros per year in tuition and ISE is comparable at about 20,000 euros per year.

• Corruption: Score 75

Estonia is a huge success story, with a Transparency International ranking of 18, better than any other former Soviet Bloc country and just behind Austria.

The negatives: The Euro-sceptic Conservative People’s Party of Estonia has gained political clout with its anti-immigrant platform and demands for a referendum on EU membership. A Baltic nation on Russia’s border, Tallinn is so close to Moscow that you can see Putin sunning his pecs shirtless on the roof of the Kremlin. That, and it’s the most northerly European capital other than Helsinki. So summer comes on a Tuesday.

Update: Tallinn is experiencing a period of expansion including major new housing project and a new arts center.

No. 2 Eindhoven: 505 points

This is still the city that has it all … great career opportunities, access to all of Europe through its airport, a top technical university, affordability and a great low-crime quality of life.

As we wrote back in 2017:

We could go on for days about Eindhoven’s comparative advantages including a hot job market for engineers and other highly skilled workers. Which is nice. But what makes Eindhoven stand out is, it’s a figure-it-out town where Expat Spouses Initiative is solving one of the biggest challenges for multinationals …. getting trailing spouses out of the house and back in the workforce.

But … success often causes headaches. Ask anyone who grew up in The Valley and watched home prices go from affordable to insane in the course of 50 years. When we first came to Eindhoven in 2015, there were cheap apartments and bargain houses. Little by little, rents have risen with demand while supply hasn’t kept up as thousands of highly skilled internationals have poured into Eindhoven.

There are problems. But no other city also has the opportunities for highly skilled internationals, with five of the 10 most-valuable publicly traded tech companies in Europe either headquartered here, or with R&D here, including ASML, NXP and Philips.

Now we can add to that the Netherlands’ largest startup hub at High Tech Campus, with Eindhoven producing dozens of incredible startups and scale-ups over the years in every sector from solar-powered electric cars (Lightyear) to medical robotics (PrecEyes) to photonics.

HighTechXL maintains its status as the preeminent accelerator, shifting to deeptech, working to take CERN technology to market.

Eindhoven is still less expensive than Amsterdam and other innovation centers, though it’s more and more difficult to find housing as thousands of expats pour in.

The future really is being invented here.


• Overall cost of living compared to London: Score 75

COL in Eindhoven is about 36-percent less than London.

• Talent and serious career opportunities: Score 100

Eindhoven had been our No. 1 for years because it has the most opportunities for highly skilled internationals of any place in Europe. Just one company, ASML, was hiring an average of about 250 people per month most of last year. Nearly every company has open positions. Then there’s High Tech Campus Eindhoven, which is creating the largest startup hub in the Netherlands.

Finally, Eindhoven also has Technical University of Eindhoven, which is one of the Netherlands’ top-rated engineering schools and just getting better as it adds a new startup accelerator.

On paper, the Netherlands has an unemployment rate of about 3 percent, but it’s functionally zero.

Quality of life/housing: Score 80

Housing here is about 44 percent cheaper here than in London. That’s the good news. But Eindhoven is a major expat destination. As a result, the number of expats here is expected to double to 80,000 by 2020. We’ve done several deep-dive posts, documenting how Eindhoven went from an incredible bargain to a pricey housing market. Moreover, there are simply not enough apartments or houses. That said, Eindhoven is unique in that it has not one but two expat communities. Meerhoven is next to Eindhoven Airport and Blixembosch just north of Centrum. But some of those homes are selling for 500,000 euros-plus.

• Prevalence of English: Score 100

Please, it’s the Netherlands.

International Schools: Score 50

International School Eindhoven charges about 7,500 euros per year for secondary school compared to 12,500 to 17,000 euros per year for comparable schools in Berlin. But there’s only one school.

Corruption: Score 100

The Netherlands ranks No. 8 on Transparency International’s list, one of the least corrupt countries in the world.

The negatives: Petty crime is a problem, with an bike thefts an issue. And believe it or not, the Brabant region, which includes Eindhoven, is a major ecstasy and amphetamines production center for Europe.

Update: Eindhoven, along with Tampere, Finland and Genoa, Italy, is a demonstration city for experiments in a major livability study by UNaLab, the European Commission’s climate laboratory.

No. 1 Rotterdam: 550 points

One of the truisms of expat life is that you don’t know a place until you know it. Till you’ve explored it, talked with residents and done business there. In the last three years, we’ve gotten to really know Rotterdam intimately, and we can say this with confidence: This is one of the cutting-edge cities in Europe along with Dresden, to which Rotterdam often gets compared. And if you ask the Dutch, they’ll tell you this should be the first place expats consider when making a move.

Full disclosure, it’s one of our staff favorites for biz and pleasure. Which means we spend quite a bit time here and know of what we speak. And trust us, Rotterdam not only looks like the future, its economy is starting to look beyond its historical comparative advantage as Europe’s largest port. Suddenly, Rotterdam is spinning out winning startups such as Coolblue, MetrixLab, Housing Anywhere and Travis the Translator, so the innovation scene is cooking here. We’ve been to PortXL’s demo day, and we saw amazing ideas including Ran Marine.

Unilever, which has a HQ in London and one in Rotterdam, announced it was moving all European operations here because of Brexit, then caught so much grief from shareholders it “unannounced” the move. They should rethink that because Rotterdam is the future. Our research shows rental housing in Rotterdam is at least 10-percent less than Amsterdam, for example. And unlike Amsterdam, Rotterdam has more housing because this is a modern city that replaces the Rotterdam destroyed in World War II.

Finally, Rotterdam wins on energy – from the Markthal to the port, this city is energizing rather than exhausting like London.

Overall cost of living compared to London: Score 70

Rotterdam is 30-percent less expensive than London, according to Expatistan.

• Talent and career opportunities: Score 100

Rotterdam has Erasmus University, which excels in medical and business. Erasmus’ business school regularly appears in the Top 10 of annual global rankings by Financial Times and The Times Higher Education, and the university overall currently is ranked No. 70 in the world by Times Higher Education.

The largest companies in the world all have operations in Rotterdam, and there’s an active startup accelerator, PortXL. Aside from port-related jobs, Unilever, which has dual headquarters in London and Rotterdam, is probably the largest employer, with dozens of jobs open here.

•Affordability of housing and quality of life: Score 80

Housing in Rotterdam is about 40-percent lower than in London, according to Expatistan. But let’s not kid ourselves … housing issues in the Netherlands overall aren’t going to go away any time soon, and Rotterdam – just like Eindhoven – has too many people and not enough places to put them. BUT, as you stand on the Erasmusbrug over the Maas, you can physically see that Rotterdam simply has more housing than Eindhoven. There are countless high-rise apartment buildings. One of the big trends is small apartments and houses of less than 500 square feet (50 m2) with a sign on one residential high-rise stating, “It’s not the size, it’s the view.” Welcome to the Netherlands.

• English as the main business language or at least commonly spoken: Score 100

The Netherlands and Denmark are ranked as the most English-fluent countries, with 90-plus percent of people totally fluent. English is the business language and all university classes are in English.

•International schools: Score 100

Rotterdam has three international schools: American International School, Rotterdam International Secondary School at Wolfert and International Department of the Blijberg Primary School. The most expensive is the American school, with total fees as much as 20,000 euros. The rest have tuitions under 10,000 euros. You can see our list here.

• Corruption: Score 100 points

The Netherlands ranks No. 8 on Transparency International’s list, one of the least-corrupt countries in the world.

Negatives: Rotterdam, like Eindhoven, has a growing drug production and distribution problem, but there are too few police.

Update: Rotterdam is one of 12 finalist for the EU’s Capital of Innovation. The annual 1 million award recognizes the city “best able to harness innovation to improve the lives of its citizens,” according the CoI website.

Honorable mention

Lisbon: The city we really, really wanted on the list, but Portugal still has high unemployment and too few English speakers.

Düsseldorf: One of our favorite cities, but unless you speak Germany and speak it fluently, there just aren’t that many opportunities there compared even to Frankfurt.

Berlin: Maybe in the Day, but in 2019, this is increasingly a city for the rich.

Paris: Who wouldn’t want to live in Paris? And it’s becoming a tech center.

Zagreb: Getting there as innovation becomes a driver.

Frankfurt: Has priced itself off the list as thousands of highly paid execs relocate here from London.

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