How is it like to live in Hungary as an expat?
Expats tell us about practicalities like renting a place and public transport, and their first impressions about Hungarian people and hospitality. And, of course, about Hungary’s crazy moon language that simply defies comparison.
Are there many expats?
I’ve read somewhere that Hungary has the least amount of expats by percentage than anywhere else in Europe. I’m not sure if that is true, but it probably isn’t far off the actuality. (Greta, Spain)
I would agree there are fewer expats in Budapest than in other European capitals. It’s also a lot more difficult to find your way here.
It was much easier to be an expat in Hungary ten or 15 years ago, when a wave of foreigners arrived to invest, work or ‘help’. At one point, we had at least three competing English-language newspapers. We had expat bars and expat businesses. The multinationals were just starting up in Hungary and they generally brought in foreign management. Those days are gone. Those people have left.
The odd thing is it feels like Budapest’s foreign population is even larger now. In my neighborhood, every other person you hear on the streets is speaking English.
My guess is much of Budapest foreign population is transient:
– Weekend travelers with the discount airlines
– Brits on stag parties (oh dear)
– Foreigners who keep flats here, but live elsewhere
– Foreign exchange students (big population!)
– Digital nomads”
Renting in Budapest used to be cheap. Not anymore
“When renting, you can still expect preferential treatment as a foreigner (if your landlord is willing to communicate in English.) I have a foreign-sounding name but I was born in Hungary and I still remember when I was sent away from the viewing of a not-too-elegant apartment I wanted to rent. The owner was hoping for a “diplomat” as it goes in real estate lingo, i.e. a rich foreigner, to whom money is not an object. Usually, it just means they want an expat whose company pays the rent. But not this landlady. She also wanted to sell off her daughter to a foreigner – and therefore advertised to “diplomats”. Neither her nor the apartment was prepared for actual diplomats but she had a daughter “of sellable age”, as they say in Hungarian, and she wanted to use the opportunity to introduce her to the unsuspecting “diplomat”. I turned out to be fluent in Hungarian, and also married, so I was asked to leave, not too politely. The real estate agent apologised later.” (Carla, US)
“Renting used to be the only thing that was cheaper in Budapest than in Western Europe. Not anymore. I have been living here since 2013, and what happened on the rental market was outrageous. As an expat you will want to live in downtown Budapest, and that is where the prices have doubled since I moved here. First, the landlords went crazy about Airbnb and the city became a Prague-like hub for British tourists. That I can understand. But then my landlord told me that everyone is looking to sell to rich Chinese and Russians, who are coming in on the government’s warm invitation for a free EU-residency. And they don’t even mind if their apartments are left empty, they don’t even look at them before they buy. My dear Hungarian friends wanted to start a family but couldn’t possibly buy – nor rent with a pregnant girlfriend. Prices went up 50% every year for the last few years and you have no chance living on a local salary. Just none.
I am seriously contemplating to move because – let’s face it – when not on a rich expat salary, living here is more of a day-to-day struggle than a breeze that it used to be.” (Martin, Germany)
Warm hospitality – But don’t drink the ‘pálinka’
“Hungarians are friendly, open and welcoming people for a certain time. If you’re a tourist you’ll feel the helpfulness of locals the best experience in your life in foreign countries.” (Zoltán)
“Many working age Hungarians have emigrated to other nations like Germany and the UK. The people who are left behind are generally older people who have more conservative views on politics and immigration.” (Prasanth, India)
“Many, excepting govertnment workers, can be very kind and helpful. But you must speak it well enough to be understood as they are not familiar with foreigners who butcher their language.
Especially outside of Budapest, you are expected to have good manners by providing salutations whenever you enter a place of business and saying good bye as you exit. It is almost as if you have entered a time warp from 50+ years ago when such formalities were very much expected in the UK, Canada and the United States.” (Edith)
“Everyone offers ‘pálinka’, the local spirit. Everyone swears that theirs is the best. Everyone knows it isn’t. I don’t know if they’re just fucking with guests or want to make you feel indebted. Anyway, it goes for every country in the region and I also lived in Czechia, Slovakia and Romania, so…” (H.M. Italy)
The dreaded language barrier
“As for the levels of English, young people, especially in Budapest, speak it reasonably well, but the older generation is completely impervious to foreign languages and might only understand a little bit of German or Russian, if you’re lucky.” (Christian)
“Working here can be difficult without speaking the local language fluently which is difficult to learn (counts as the 2nd most difficult language in the world). Wages are low opposed to other european countries.” (Zoltan)
“A major dividing line is language. Yes, Hungarian is a notoriously difficult language to master. And you can get by with basic English in many places – at least in Budapest. However, even a few words of magyarul can open doors.” (Steven)
“If you get outside of downtown Pest districts or nicer districts of Buda and you won’t find too many people comfortable speaking a language besides their native Hungarian, which is one of the toughest languages to learn due to its very complex grammar. This contributes to a lot of expats not hanging around. Younger and educated Hungarians under 30 years old generally do speak English with varying degrees of fluency.” (Edith)
“I noticed a huge difference between Hungarians who do actually speak English (or those having an international background, generally well educated) and those who do not, especially over a certain age. The first tend to be extremely open, although I find it rather hard to make friends (most of them are my colleagues, mainly girls, as they find foreigners more attractive and interessant from their fellows, sorry HunMens 😉 , while I almost have no contact with hungarian guys out of my office, while in Sweden I had and I still have many good friends on both sides.” (Enrique)
Entertainment: Opera is great
“i am an opera fan. i go to the opera in budapest. i dont “live” there, but i spend two to three months a year there. in budapest i get to see live opera with a high quality value of production for less money than it costs to go to a movie in the usa.
ditto for chamber music, musicals, orchestra performances, ballet.” Robert
“Entertainment for expats can vary depending on your location in Hungary. In the larger cities there will be some films that will be shown in their original languages but with Hungarian subtitles. There are some expat events in Budapest but you will not likely find much outside of the big cities.” (Edith)
“Food is quite heavy and simple. Fat is flavour in Hungary. Except for paprika powder (both sweet and spicy) most of the food is reminiscent of German cuisine as they like their processed pork sausages and salami, potatoes and sauerkraut. They have a lot of soups and stews as well. Western-inspired cuisine isn’t plentiful outside of Budapest, but they have taken to US fast food places, especially in the larger cities. Supermarkets are now the place where most do their shopping.” (Edith, US)
Public transport works
“Having a car is not necessary here as public transport can be quite good, even in small towns and the countryside. It won’t necessarily be quick but Hungarians have decent public transport in the cities and trains and buses between the towns and cities. It’s not always new, but it will get you to where you want and is dependable. (although the trains do not always run on time)” (Edith, US)
Driving and getting around
- You don’t have a Wal-Mart everywhere. Yes, many things can be found in small stores in the bottom of the buildings, but I find that especially with electronics, you will have to go far out to larger stores to find what you want, if it is even there. This is given you are in Budapest. In many towns you will be happy if you can attain some things after a week, after either having ordered it or gone to BP.
- Winter is misery. The sun will not shine for 6–7 days in a row. It is cold. It is gray, it is dark. Combine that with many poor people and alcoholic homeless and construction workers.
- Cars are more expensive. Driving is nowhere near as comfortable as say in Texas.
- Most cities have a downtown with old nice buildings, but the outer cities are packed with Panel houses, cracked and poorly painted concrete, and tall grass now mowed, and growing in between the concrete.
In the second part of the post, expats speak about their experiences with starting a business and the local living standards.
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