Expat Essentials

Best Cities for Expats: With a low cost of living and high quality of life, No. 1 Vienna is the last truly affordable Tier-1 city in Europe


Vienna is like LeBron … if you’re looking for a weakness, there just isn’t one. And we’re not the only ones who feel that way. Austria topped Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey for 10 years! Vienna was atop the Economist Global Liveability Index for two years – 2018 and 2019. So, Vienna tops Dispatches’ “Best Cities for Expats” list for 2021.

Vienna remains the only truly affordable Tier 1 capital city in Europe. The cost of buying a home has risen, but prices remain far below Frankfurt. Okay, you’re probably not going to be moving into the trendy First District, but plenty of sections of the city are inviting, according to our expats here.

We’ve been there a lot, so we can verify that Vienna is – by most people’s definition – easily the most beautiful and inviting city on this list, with incredible Hapsburg palaces and museums surrounded by urban parks, recreation, party spots along the Danube and endless cultural opportunities and events. Oh, and it has the best transportation matrix in Europe. Oh, and it has housing!

Last year, it was not at the top of our list because of the Far Right government. That’s changed a bit, with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz drifting closer to Germany and distancing himself from Far Right groups.

If it does have a weakness compared to Eindhoven, which was our No. 1 city for years, it’s that it doesn’t have a lot of corporate career opportunities that don’t require German. However, as the world is increasingly digital, that matters less and less, especially if you speak Python or JavaScript.

For this 2021 list, we’ve mostly focused on Tier 2 cities that are close to the action. Vienna is the exception, the equal of Paris, Berlin or Stockholm.

For 2021, cities are ranked by six metrics, each worth 100 points:

• overall cost of living benchmarked against London, the most expensive city in Europe outside of billionaires-only outliers such as Geneva and Monaco.

• availability of housing, affordability of rents and a reasonable quality of life

• density of talent and serious career opportunities with a prominent university driving innovation and creating tomorrow’s talent as in the Silicon Valley model

• the percentage of people who speak English, the language of business

• availability of international schools

• corruption: the fewer the problems, the higher the score

So, 600 would be a perfect score, which no city has ever achieved. Vienna comes close to claim the No. 1 ranking on our list of best cities for expats with 545 points.

As we said last year, Vienna is close to where we predict the action will be in the 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 cover the ecosystem in 2016.

Overall cost of living: 95 points

The COL in Austria is half or less of our benchmark city of London in almost every category including housing, utilities and childcare. For example, renting a 1-bedroom in the center of Vienna is about 900 euros per month as opposed to 2,000 euros in London, according to crowd-sourced data platform Numbeo. Salaries are about 66 percent of London salaries, a much better ratio than in other cities on this list where salaries average half or less of London.

Yet, the lower cost of living doesn’t mean a lower quality of life. Vienna has arguably the best transportation system in Europe. All the inner districts (1 to 9) are super-well connected by metro, tram and bus. It has huge amounts of green space including the giant Prater amusement park in the center of the city.

We’re giving it an extra 10 points because this is, as we said, a Tier 1 capital city comparable to London, Paris and Berlin … the last affordable such city in Europe.

Talent and Careers: 85 points

Does Vienna have jobs? Oh, yeah. As of June 2021, there were at least 100,000 unfilled jobs in Austria as a whole, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Almost every conventional major multinational is represented here along with Austrian industrial powers such as Steyr. Austria also has some of the largest construction companies in Europe including Porr, which specializes in high-speed rail, roads, bridges and other precision infrastructure construction. Compared to London, salaries in Vienna are about 33-percent lower.

All that said, this is the one category where Vienna gets dinged because English is not the main business language unlike in the Netherlands and in Finland. Big employers such as financial giant Erste Group often require fluent English and fluent German.

One of the overlooked English-language employers in Vienna is the United Nations, which has a huge office complex there, the Vienna International Center, with 5,000 jobs, most of which go to non-Austrians.

In the past few years, Vienna’s startup ecosystem has caught fire, and new companies such as Meister can’t hire fast enough. Vienna does have a strong lineup of universities cranking out talent and startups, including Technical University of Vienna, which offers classes in English including an MBA Automotive Industry.

Housing and quality of life: 100 points

The “Vienna Model” includes more than 60 percent of residents living in social housing – half owned by the city and half by non-profit cooperatives, according to NewStatesman. Housing is a human right in Vienna, and the public housing isn’t just for low-income residents. The upper income threshold for a single person to qualify for a social home is 45,510 euros, which is roughly 20-percent higher than the median salary in the United States.

Vienna has added an entire new district to the city, Aspern City, and multiple multinational real estate developers have plans for billions in new housing.

When it comes to quality of life, Vienna again has few weaknesses. Its arts and culture offerings are legendary, including one of the greatest opera companies in the world. And, by the way, childcare fees are about 85-percent less than the cost of childcare services in London, according to Numbeo.

Also, Vienna is – unlike Helsinki or Valencia – incredibly international. About 40 percent of residents are from outside Austria, with Serbs and Turks the largest minorities.

Prevalence of English – 90 points

About 75 percent of Austrians speak English. When you’re talking about a big city such as Vienna, population 1.5 million, our guestimate is that about 85 percent of people there speak English based on our experience.

International schools – Score 100 points

Vienna has at least nine 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 and crime – 75 points

Corruption has been a problem here and that, along with a shift right politically, has kept Vienna out of Dispatches’ No. 1 position. Austria currently is ranked at No. 15 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index. Hans-Christian Strache, former leader of the far-right Freedom Party, is on trial for charges of corruption that came out of a video of Strache offering lucrative government contracts to a woman he thought had connections to a Russian oligarch in exchange for campaign donations. But the Kurz Government is distancing itself from the right and acquitted itself well during the pandemic.

The Council of Europe charges that Austria has been less than diligent in its efforts ro weed out corruption among members of parliament, judges and prosecutors.

A conservative government and shady dealings aside, Vienna is a super-safe city, with an exceptionally low crime rate compared to London.

So overall, a robust economy, a high-functioning society and affordable housing total up to 545 points, putting Vienna in our No. 1 slot for 2021.

See more about Vienna in our extensive Dispatches archives here.

Be sure to check out:

the intro to the Top 5 Cities for Expats list here, which includes details about the runner-up cities.

• details about No. 5 Valencia here.

• details about No. 4 Leuven here.

• jump to No. 3 Lisbon here.

read about No. 2 Helsinki here.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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