Relocating to Kyiv? Advice from Fellow Expats

 

Thanks to liberalized visa rules, ratification of an Association Agreement with the European Union and a reinvigorated investment climate, Kyiv is currently experiencing a boost in foreign visitors and temporary residents. Whether the big draw is a low cost of living, dynamic city life, Ukrainian hospitality or the country’s beauty and charm, it seems non-Ukrainians are discovering what a hidden treasure Kyiv is, and are actively considering relocating there. Of course, that decision brings a host of questions: How will I find a place to live? Set up my daily finances? Overcome the challenges of an unfamiliar language? And many more. The Kyiv Check-in team decided to ask some prominent Kyiv expats to shine a spotlight on these matters. We’re grateful to those like Emmanuel Lowe, Elitsa Zaimova, James Brooke and Sona Kaliska, who kindly shared their practical advice about what it’s like to live as a Ukrainian.


Meet Kyiv Expats


Elitsa Zaimova

From Bulgaria, an international business development/project management director of INTEGRITES

I was born and raised in Bulgaria, but most recently have lived in Spain and the U.S. I moved to Kyiv in January 2016 because of my husband’s relocation. I currently work at an international law firm, Integrites, that is very active in promoting business opportunities in Ukraine, specifically in the agriculture, IT, energy, and manufacturing sectors. I really enjoy living in Kyiv, and for that reason my husband and I decided to prolong our stay here. There are several reasons I like living here. First, it’s a fascinating city with great history and architecture. Secondly, there is always something to do in the city, whether it’s attending a conference, strolling on Vozdvyzhenska Street, checking out a museum, going to a concert, etc. Another factor is that the standard of living for expats is very affordable. Kyiv is one of the least expensive capitals in the world. Fourth, there are great bars and restaurants here. And finally, Kyiv has nice and friendly people.

Overall, I highly recommend living in Kyiv and exploring the city for several years. It’s a great place with lots of opportunities and great people. If any of your readers have questions that aren’t covered in this article, they should feel free to contact me via Facebook: Elitsa Zaimova. I am glad to help! 😊


James Brooke

From the United States; Editor in Chief of Ukrainian Business Journal (UBJ)

I am American, from a small town in New England, in the northeastern United States. I have been in and out of Kyiv for the past decade and moved here two years ago. After eight years in Moscow — and a two-year break running a newspaper in Cambodia — I moved to Ukraine in November 2016 to help the Kyiv Post as CEO. I soon realized that Ukraine was approaching a business turning point with the start of the free-trade pact with Europe. In the 1990s, as Brazil bureau chief for The New York Times, I had witnessed the investment magic created by free trade between the U.S. and Mexico: the combination of free trade, low wages, and a land border with an economic powerhouse. Then I decided to launch the Ukraine Business Journal, or UBJ.
For me, Kyiv is a pleasant change. Residents are more relaxed, more courteous than in Moscow. The city is on a more human scale and has a lot of greenery, with parks and trees. Many of the buildings are three to four stories. I enjoy the civilized lifestyle — a clean, historic city with high-quality and affordable entertainment.


Soňa Kaliská

From Slovakia, homemaker, volunteer Head of Fundraising in IWCK

I was born in Slovakia and lived for ten years as a permanent resident in the Czech Republic before moving to Ukraine. I came with my husband and 5-month-old daughter to Kyiv in February 2016, so I’ve been here more or less two years. I am on maternity leave, expecting my second baby at the end of March. Initially our expectations before moving to Kyiv were quite low. In our local media, Ukraine was always presented as a country at war and full of corruption. So it was a nice surprise to find out that in Kyiv we can find a lot of cosy restaurants, nice city parks and botanical gardens, beautiful spa resorts, modern shopping malls, and many things to do in our free time. We did not expect to have such a rich family life here. We found out more about the local culture, food, and lifestyle, and we like it.

I can share with you a list of dislikes as well, but I must honestly say that I feel at home here after two years. I know Ukraine will always be a country that carries nice memories for me and, after leaving, I’ll want to come back to visit.


Emmanuel Lowe

From France, Managing Partner at Elese International LLP, Head of SMEs committee of CCI France Ukraine

I was an independent wealth manager at my company in France. When I met my future wife, who is Ukrainian, the question of course arose: Who moves? My wife to Paris, or me to Kyiv? We created a list of pros and cons, and the list came out totally balanced. At work, I was pursuing only international clients, so there was no need to have a deep knowledge of Ukrainian or Russian. So for me it was much easier to move to Kyiv.

I’ve lived in Ukraine for five years so far, and I like this city, feel comfortable here and have no regrets. I have three daughters, the youngest born in Kyiv in December 2013, in the middle of the Maidan protests. She is named Mary-Ann, after the national symbol of the French Republic, a personification of liberty. We were with a lot of expats going to Maidan, and we were quite amazed that you were still fighting for values that we seemed to have forgotten about because we hadn’t fought for them in so many years. That gave me pause; I decided to close my company in France, and together with some friends we decided to launch a project to help Ukraine. We implemented this vision by creating Elese International LLP, which currently helps Ukrainian companies to export their goods or services, mainly to Western Europe. Additionally, I founded MultiNations Kyiv in 2015 (a platform for the expat community in Ukraine, which was frozen in July 2017) and currently I am a head of the SMEs committee в CCI France Ukraine and also involved in BIG. U (Business Incubator Group. Ukraine), focusing on SME development and promoting sustainable future businesses in Ukraine

Where to live in Kyiv?

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    The French expats are living between the National Circus, Zoloti Vorota, and Intercontinental (Shevchenkivskyi district). Why? Because here you will find French embassy, the Institut Français d’Ukraine, the French school, and French Chamber of Commerce.

    If you want to live in a district where there’s plenty of nighttime action, it’s preferable to live near NSC Olimpiyskiy, Gulliver, Zoloti Vorota, and that’s a nice area to live when you like to go out often. Obolon is good also, as it’s younger, and cheaper in a way; it has everything you need but it’s still far from the center. The metro works well for getting around, but it’s four or five stops from the city center.

    Soňa Kaliská

    I recommend living in the area around Zoloti Vorota and Saint Sophia Cathedral, where most of the expats live; that makes it easier to meet together. If you have children attending school, of course, it is better to live close to the school or the office where you work, because traffic jams are very common in Kyiv. Take into account the fact that there is heavy traffic around Gulliver and Besarabsky Market, etc.

    Note, marketing for rental apartments is not developed enough yet, and it can be very difficult to find a nice one for a reasonable price. Be ready to pay rent in cash, as it may become an issue to find an apartment where you may pay rent by bank transfer. Also, we do not like the local style of the interiors; most of the flats are in bad taste.

  • Elitsa Zaimova

    When it comes to finding an apartment, it was relatively easy. We were lucky to find an American guy, Sean, who owns a real estate company, AIM Realty. He helped us look for an apartment online while still residing in Washington D.C., and we were able to find a great place thanks to him.

    I live right by Shevchenko Park (Taras Shevchenko University). I initially requested a place in the center of the city. I absolutely love the location. Most of the expats live around that area (Shevchenko Park, Golden Gate, Khreschatyk area). My husband and I are relatively young and we like to go out, explore the city, go for a run, etc. A couple of things that were important to me: 1. I like minimalistic apartments (most foreigners do as well). Many apartments in Kyiv are decorated like contemporary museums or Barbie houses, not as actual places for living and calling home. 2. Make sure that the apartment is not on a busy street, because it can be very noisy. 3. I like to live by a park so I can go for a run, and Shevchenko Park is very nice. 4. It’s always good to have a supermarket nearby.

    James Brooke

    Kyiv’s historic center is very appealing for a foreigner. There is a rich variety of architecture. Each building seems to have a story to tell. I now live in the Golden Gate area, where I am three blocks from Saint Sophia Cathedral, which is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. My wife is from Cambodia and she had a hard time believing that Saint Sophia is older than Angkor Wat. Kyiv is a walking city, but also a city of hills. Enjoy the walking, but calculate the distance to your office. In the winter, the sidewalks are poorly cleared of snow and ice, so walking downhill can be treacherous.

Rent or buy?

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    As a former real estate asset manager, I’ve been asked this question often. The answer has to be determined on a case-by-case basis and depends on many factors. I tend to say that it’s preferable to buy because ownership helps you build a future. If you don’t need the property in the long run, you can then rent it or resell it. Sometimes it’s better to rent in a place you really want to live because buying is too costly. Another factor is whether you can handle renovations or not. Some people are comfortable paying higher prices for a home that doesn’t need extensive changes. Others like to bargain about the price and are willing to do some renovation. You can also buy and have good luck with renting out the property. I do the same with investments. Many investors are reluctant to invest in Ukraine because they focus on the fact that it’s risky, that there’s lots of corruption, and so on. Yes, however corruption is manageable, and you are risking a lot less money than you could in similar deals in Europe. Overall, it’s less costly and the IRR (internal rate of return) is much higher in Ukraine. It’s your willingness and appetite for risk that makes the difference.

  • James Brooke

    I rent in Kyiv partly because the rents are so low. For what I pay for a lovely two-bedroom apartment in Golden Gate, my son would be lucky to rent a parking spot in New York City. Of course, the low sale prices are tempting: because of overbuilding, the average apartment price dropped 6% last year in Kyiv. To buy an apartment in the historic center, there are often landmines in the form of unexpected bureaucratic issues that can be quite expensive to solve: illegal modifications that have to be registered, multiple owners, bureaucratic hurdles for modifications, etc. A Scottish friend bought an apartment two blocks from me, opened up the (empty) attic, and triggered a resident row that forced him to pay about $10,000 to shore up the foundation of a different wing of the building. It is no accident that so many lovely buildings in central Kyiv are half empty.

General safety precautions

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    There are some very basic things we expats find ourselves repeating the same conversation when newcomers complain someone had stolen his phone or paper or whatever: “Where was it when you last saw it?” “On the table when I went to the toilet.” “So why are you shocked?” When I go out, I won’t let my coat get out of my sight; if I’m sitting in a restaurant and someone behind me could potentially lift my wallet, I’m careful to put it somewhere safer. But it’s normal precautions, general rules you should follow anywhere. If we were to go out together in Paris, there are some places where you’d find yourself saying, “Wow, I feel much safer in Kyiv.”

    James Brooke

    The most dangerous thing you will do is walk on sidewalks in the winter. The U.S. Embassy pays a 25% ‘hardship’ bonus for diplomats living in Kyiv. This is comical and a waste of U.S. taxpayer money.

  • Elitsa Zaimova

    Generally, people in Kyiv are very nice, and over the two years I have lived here, I have not felt unsafe. However, be mindful when you walk in the tunnels alone at night, and be street smart. This is valid advice for being new to any city in world.

    One thing that many foreigners (and locals) should be mindful of in Kyiv is the women who hang out in gangs in overcrowded places in the center of the city (the Opera House during a busy performance; Shevchenko Park in the summer, markets, etc.), using deception to steal from people. After several attempts, they finally stole my phone while I was shopping at an outside food market.

Setting up daily finances

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    When it comes to opening a bank account in Ukraine, I would advise sticking to banks connected to foreign companies, because they are safe, follow strong due-diligence principles and tend to comply with European regulations that are stronger than Ukraine’s. Among them are Credit Agricole, BNP Paribas Group, Raiffeisen Bank Aval, OTP Bank, UniCredit. I would regard Oschadbank as one of the best state banks, but to do business with it is better if you speak Russian or Ukrainian. If you don’t need services such as cash deposits, no-limit cash withdrawals and so on, an online bank account (for example, with German bank N26) may be sufficient.

    The system of paying for community facilities is somewhat tricky here, particularly if you rent a сommunal apartment and the landlord doesn’t register you officially as a resident. As a result you may end up overpaying. For example, if you live alone in a flat where three members of a family are registered, you will often have to pay the amount due for three people. So it’s better to know and negotiate those fees in advance. The first thing to take care of when you’re negotiating a rental agreement is to certify that you’re officially registered and insist on getting that in writing. Also, I would recommend checking bills yourself. If you don’t understand the bills, show them to a Ukrainian friend and ask for his help.

  • Elitsa Zaimova

    I don’t use Ukrainian banks. I use my U.S. bank account and a credit card, with no fees for any purchases in Ukraine. I actually don’t pay utilities (as a separate bill), and I’d highly advise all expats to negotiate having utilities included in their rent.

    When it comes to the banking system, it is very hard for a U.S. citizen (resident) to open an account in a foreign bank, as lots of paperwork needs to be done, I have to declare the account if I have over $10,000, etc. Also, I don’t think that Ukrainian banks are quite stable, and with the fluctuation of the hryvnia, I would not suggest keeping any local currency in a bank account. Also, I am not sure how liquid the banks are in regards to foreign reserves, so trying to keep U.S. dollars and withdraw them from a local bank might be a challenge.

Overcoming language challenges

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    I can read and understand Russian to an extent; I have a feel for the structure and get the gist of what’s being said, but I won’t catch all the details, and I’m not able to converse easily about general topics. That’s generally sufficient for me, because I work with international clients. There’s even some benefit to not being entirely fluent, as at home we speak mostly in English. My wife often talks in Russian or Ukrainian to the children, while I speak French to them. That means they get a chance to learn four languages, which provides them with an early advantage in life. The negative aspect of not speaking Russian or Ukrainian fluently is when we’re in gatherings of friends; even if people are making an effort to communicate with me, I tend to feel sidelined sometimes. It’s not totally uncomfortable, but it would be better if I could speak Russian or Ukrainian. Of course, whenever you know some words in Ukrainian and use them, it really breaks the ice with local people.

    What I advise foreigners to do is at least learn the alphabet. Thus, even if you don’t understand anything but are starting to read, you will catch some of the words, as many are derived from French or English, or sometimes German.

  • Elitsa Zaimova

    I speak Russian (not fluently) and understand Ukrainian. I am taking classes from an online platform called Preply. It’s super helpful, as I work and need flexible hours. I am Bulgarian, so the culture and the language are similar. However, I had a lot of fun teaching my husband the Cyrillic alphabet. I’d like to learn Ukrainian, but Russian is hard enough, and most likely my husband and I will be transferred to another Russian-speaking country, so for that reason it makes more sense to continue improving my Russian language skills. However, I’ve noticed difficulty communicating in Russian (this is my personal observation). If you don’t speak either of the two languages, I think English will be fine (besides communicating with some Uber drivers and elderly Ukrainians).

Getting medical care

Emmanuel Lowe

There are plenty of options on the market depending on your needs, and a number of private clinics. But for serious problems, say a complicated surgery, it’s probably best to go elsewhere: Switzerland, Germany or France. Kyiv has very good diagnosticians but they’re very poorly equipped. My advice is to, at minimum, get acquainted quickly with an expat able to introduce you to a Ukrainian who will guide you and help with documentation, etc. In general, Ukrainians are really helpful.

Soňa Kaliská

If you have money, you have access to good medical care. However, if you apply to public hospitals, bribes are necessary, and it is not easy to find doctors speaking English.
As I am currently choosing a maternity hospital to deliver our second baby here, I discovered that often there is no relevant information about equipment, experience of the doctors, or emergency units available for the client. This makes choosing a place a difficult decision.

Elitsa Zaimova

I’ve visited a few private clinics in Ukraine and I think the level of care is not bad. While customer service is practically nonexistent and most doctors don’t speak much English, the private hospitals are quite nice and efficient. The prices are relatively low (in comparison with the U.S.). I don’t have healthcare insurance and pay out of pocket.
In regards to spas, I like to go to banyas (sauna houses) with friends. You can rent rooms with a sauna and cold pool, and have drinks and other amenities for about $10/person for three to four hours (drinks included). The beauty industry is very well developed and relatively inexpensive. Laser epilation and all sorts of beauty procedures are offered in almost every corner of Kyiv and are quite affordable. I hope to find time to make use of some of them soon.

James Brooke

Medical care in Ukraine, in dollar terms, is far cheaper than in the U.S. At a very modern clinic, I had my teeth cleaned for USD 40. At a good government hospital, I had a non-urgent hernia operation. At Dr. Sam’s, I had a full range of medical tests. In 10 years, it is conceivable that Ukraine will be a destination for medical tourism.


Transportation & commute

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    Compared to Paris, I like Kyiv’s public transport system. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about overloaded public transport, especially marshrutkas (small buses), and yes, that happens, but I would add that the network of trolleybuses, city trains and metro is quite good in terms of getting you where you need to go. The Metro is easier to figure out than Paris’s, because there are fewer lines and fewer people using them. I am very comfortable with it and feel it is very safe.
    As to taxis, I’ve never been overcharged because I pay attention to what rides should cost. Do your homework and know the prices. Apps like Uklon or Uber are especially helpful for foreigners. The Ukrainian IT software, Uklon, is very convenient; it’s in English and Ukrainian, and you’ll know in advance what you will pay. Yes, there are taxi drivers that will take the long way on purpose or otherwise break the fare rules, but it’s like that in many countries.

    Fortunately, thanks to a Turkish contractor there’s been a significant improvement in the condition of Kyiv’s roadways. In the first year after Maidan, there was 100 km of roadway improvements, then 1,000 km, and this year it’s 2,000 km. With that much improvement, you can breathe easier and conclude, “Yes, that is real change!”

  • Elitsa Zaimova

    Kyiv’s metro is the best one I’ve ever experienced. It’s always on time and never breaks down. The only problem is the long escalators (fun fact: Arsenalna metro is the deepest in the world). However, my workplace is far from the metro, and for that reason I take Uber every day. It’s inexpensive and relatively good (cars are old and drivers are not familiar with the streets, but overall, it’s good). Uklon is another option (this is the Ukrainian Uber). Most expats use Elite taxi. Among my dislikes are pretty heavy traffic in rush hours and the monopoly on the airline market — tickets are relatively expensive to other European capitals.

    Catching a cab from the airport: The average ride from Boryspil Airport to the center of the city is about UAH 300. The taxi guys at the airport will charge you about 800–1500. Make sure to order Uber; it works well in Ukraine.

    Soňa Kaliská

    I rarely use the metro. It is very fast and super cheap, but overcrowded. Those who like to walk a lot using a stroller, be prepared for poor pavement conditions. I once took a train to Lviv, and I can assure you that it was very convenient. In general, roads are in bad shape, but I’ve seen significant improvements over the two years we’ve been here.

Shopping for grocery & household items

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    We go to ATB and Silpo because it’s close to us; also to Auchan and Fozzi for a bigger shopping. For an open market, we go to the Lukyanivskyi market and Zhitnii market in Podil district. We can find almost everything there. Of course, if you have some very specific product you need for a certain type of recipe, you may not be able to find it, or it will be high-priced. But if you are open-minded, you will discover that Ukrainian cuisine is quite good. I can cook French recipes here and find almost everything I need. I should say that my Ukrainian wife helps a lot in finding ingredients.
    We like oysters from Ukraine and cook mussels from the Black Sea. I was pleasantly surprised when this summer, during the “Breakfast with 1+1” TV show with Miroslava Ulyanina, she asked an Italian guest, a Spanish one, and me to do a blind test of eight cheeses from different countries — and my favorite was goat cheese from Ukraine! So you have really good product.

    James Brooke

    My wife and I generally shop at Silpo, which has a wide variety of goods, so we find everything we need — fresh vegetables, fresh fish, baby diapers, etc. On Saturdays, she often goes to the Asian food market at Iziumska Str.

  • Soňa Kaliská

    For buying food I definitely recommend the Silpo chain of stores (next to the circus, Le Silpo, big Silpo in Obolonskyi District). Sometimes we do shopping at Fozzy or Auchan. We love local markets, with fresh food, meat and vegetables from babushkas (old women). In summer I often go to Zhitnyi Rynok; it’s my favourite one. Volodymyrskyi is also good, with a convenient location for us.

    For buying household items, we go to Epicenter; for kids’ stuff we choose Antoshka. I used to bring baby food from home, and the same with clothes and healthy food products. Clothes are more expensive here, at least the international brands. The chain EkoLavka is rather good, but assortment is very limited in comparison to what I am used to in Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic.

    The issue for me is that online shopping is undeveloped here (bad service, no international credit cards accepted, no or very short warranty for products, long delivery times).

Schooling for children

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    My daughter is 4 years old and is enrolled in the French-Ukrainian kindergarten Rikiki. It’s bilingual, Ukrainian and French (half of the classes are in Ukrainian, the other half in French). I know the owner; she is French and has been living in Ukraine for 27 years. It’s a very nice school.

    James Brooke

    Our son will turn two on May 1, so we are looking at nearby nursery schools. We recently visited CREF and were quite impressed.

  • Soňa Kaliská

    Our daughter will be starting at the Montessori kindergarten on Volodymyrska Street. I chose this one because of English communication, the style of education, and a location not far from our apartment. If we stay here longer, we would choose the Kyiv International School in Svyatoshynskyi District as an elementary school for our child, because I’ve heard many positive recommendations from other expat families, have met the director of the school, seen the teaching materials and visited a few events at this school. I really like it.

Socializing & networking

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    Discovering everything as it comes, being open — I think that’s the key to discovering Ukraine.
    For me, it was very easy to socialize here. If you are open-minded and accept some differences, you can really enjoy your life here. Of course, it’s much easier if you encounter people who are kind enough to help you to find your way into local society. For networking, I would recommend the meetings of Silicon Drinkabout Kyiv, because of the great atmosphere and nice people. It’s an IT environment but may be interesting to take part in even if you are not directly concerned with the IT world.

  • Elitsa Zaimova

    Ukrainians are very friendly and open-minded. If they speak English, it’s easy to socialize. I was able to find friends through IWCK (International Women’s Club of Kyiv). I had a hard time adjusting in the beginning because I didn’t have many friends in Kyiv. However, after joining IWCK, I was able to meet 80+ wonderful women and found many friends.

    James Brooke

    I go to Frydays fairly often. I like classical music so I go to the Opera, Sinfonia, Operetta, etc. The quality is high and the prices are as cheap as you can hope for. Ukrainians can be reserved to the point of shyness, but frankly most Europeans are reserved. Europeans like to make fun of Americans as too outgoing, but openness is a trait of the New World, from Brazil up to Canada.

Surviving winter

  • Emmanuel Lowe

    No doubt, you’ll need a good coat! (laughing) As to activities, there is a slope in Kyiv where you can enjoy some light snowboarding or skiing. There is also a good entertainment center on the north side of Kyiv called Blockbuster, which is packed with numerous activities. There is ice-skating, bowling, carting, an amusement park and plenty of other things to do for kids.
    Bukovel might be a really good winter getaway in our case, but our usual practice is to spend a week away in a warmer place where we can get a good dose of vitamin D, and then enjoy the winter charm of Kyiv.

  • Elitsa Zaimova

    Kyiv is beautiful in the winter. If the weather is not too cold, I love going to the outdoor Christmas market on Sofiiska and getting a glintwine and shashlik. On a cold Saturday, I usually do brunch with friends or play tennis indoors in Podil. If the weather is very cold and I have friends in town, we eat Ukrainian food (it’s quite heavy and keeps you warm), give long speeches (very typical for Ukraine), and drink vodka shots. I also love borsch.