Before moving abroad, expats will need to weigh up the pros and cons of living in Kazakhstan to ensure that relocation to this vast Eurasian country is the right decision for them.
Astana (previously Nur-Sultan), the capital of Kazakhstan, is unknown to many expats. For years, it was in the shadow of its predecessor, Almaty, but it has matured and ever more corporate headquarters, embassies and consular services are moving north to Astana.
A quick internet search will reveal that it's home to the world's second-coldest capital city, but what is life really like for expats in Kazakhstan? Below is an overview of the pros and cons of moving to Kazakhstan.
Accommodation in Kazakhstan
The quality of accommodation in Kazakhstan depends, to a certain extent, on an expat's budget or an employer-allotted allowance. For those with a healthy salary and an accommodation allowance, there are many decent-sized apartments to choose from, while those without a housing stipend may struggle to find something suitable.
+ PRO: Expanding choices in accommodation options
Astana is expanding at an exponential rate, with new apartment blocks constantly popping up. If expats move into a new apartment, the landlords are generally happy to provide furniture. There is a wide range of apartment types to choose from – from riverside homes in the older, Soviet-designed part of the city, to high-rise apartments with spectacular views in the new centre.
One- to three-bedroom apartments are the norm, but four-bedroom units are available if expats are willing to shop around.
- CON: Houses are hard to find
Most accommodation in Kazakhstan's major cities is in the form of apartment buildings. Houses are available, but rents are much higher, and they're expensive to heat.
+ PRO: Cheap utilities
Water and heating are run on a central network and piped directly into each building. This is cheaper than running an individual boiler.
- CON: No control over utilities
As the utilities are run on a central network, residents have very little choice on when the heating is turned on or off. In some buildings, the heating is so warm that tenants may have to open the windows to cool it down – even in the middle of winter.
Lifestyle in Kazakhstan
It's natural for expats to worry about the winter temperatures, but Astana is well equipped to deal with this and most people find it an easy city to live in, with plenty of options for socialising.
+ PRO: Growing social scene
Kazakhstanis are friendly and welcoming, and while the expat community in cities such as Astana and Almaty is still relatively small, it's growing rapidly and there is an active international club for just about any interest.
- CON: The country's cities are largely isolated
Astana is a long way from anywhere else. The city has a limited number of direct flights, so expats will have to transfer through hubs such as Moscow, Frankfurt or Vienna to travel to most destinations. Fortunately, the airport does operate throughout the winter – rarely closing even in the most extreme temperatures and conditions – but road and rail links are sometimes disrupted due to bad weather conditions.
Safety in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is generally quite safe, especially if expats exercise the necessary level of caution. Driving in Kazakhstan can be challenging, and those that have no experience driving during a harsh winter should be extra careful.
+ PRO: Low crime rates
Astana is a very safe place, with low levels of petty crime and even lower levels of serious crime. The new town centre is safe to walk through until late at night, even for a woman alone.
- CON: Hazardous driving conditions
Most expats have the use of a company car and driver, but many still drive themselves.
Astana's road network is new and well maintained, and snow is cleared almost as soon as it falls. However, roads in other areas of the country may not match this standard.
Working and doing business in Kazakhstan
Expats working or doing business in Kazakhstan will find that practices differ slightly from what they're used to. However, making the necessary adjustments will be essential to an expat's success in the workplace.
+ PRO: Good salary packages
Most expats are in Kazakhstan with a large international company or embassy, although an increasing number work in education. Such positions are usually highly paid and may come with perks such as housing, education and medical allowances.
- CON: Bureaucracy is rife
Things are improving, but there is still a lot of bureaucracy to cope with in Kazakhstan.
Not everyone will speak English, so be prepared to take a translator to any meetings with local contractors and suppliers. Be aware that while Russian is the language of commerce and spoken by most people, Kazakh is the national language and may be used for speeches, particularly by government ministers.
- CON: Nobody says no
It can be difficult to get to a final decision. People in Kazakhstan have a difficult time saying ‘no’ and will often agree to a proposal only to fail to put it into action simply because it cannot be done.
Culture shock in Kazakhstan
Overcoming culture shock and learning to accept local cultural nuances will play a major part in new arrivals settling into their new life. Having an open mind and taking the time to get to know the locals will definitely help expats make the most of their experience in Kazakhstan.
+ PRO: Friendly and welcoming locals
Kazakhstanis are famously hospitable. Expats shouldn't be surprised if their landlady has left some food or small gifts for their arrival, and neighbours will almost certainly come to introduce themselves and bring gifts for national holidays.
- CON: Drinking culture
Whether it is drinking fermented camel’s milk or learning how to knock back endless vodka toasts, drinking is a cultural initiation expats will never forget. Some expats may find the Kazakhstani love of drinking a bit overwhelming at first.
Cost of living in Kazakhstan
The cost of living in Kazakhstan will depend significantly on each individual's lifestyle. For those who are willing to immerse themselves in the local way of life, it is possible to live modestly and save money.
+ PRO: Affordable basic food
The very basic foods such as bread and milk are very cheap in Kazakhstan. If expats want a good range of food products, particularly foreign (non-Kazakhstani) food, they should expect to pay a lot of money.
- CON: Pricey furniture, clothing and electronics
Almost everything is imported into Kazakhstan, and that is reflected in the price. Furniture imported from Europe or Turkey retails at a premium, and even lower-quality imports from China are expensive. Electronics are also pricey, but the markup is not as severe. Imported clothing from popular brands is available, but expats shouldn’t compare prices with the online charges in their home country.
Education and schools in Kazakhstan
There is a growing range of international schooling options, mostly in Astana and Almaty. Local schools are good but are best used only by local students due to the language barrier.
+ PRO: Increasing choice of international schools
International schools tend to recruit their teachers from abroad, and many offer an excellent quality of education. Children can continue with their curriculum from home with minimum disruption. As a result of demand, more international schools are continuing to open in Kazakhstan, giving parents more options.
- CON: Limited space in international schools
The country's international schools are very popular with locals as well as expats, so space is limited and there is often a waiting list. It is wise to contact the schools as early as possible to reserve a place.
Healthcare in Kazakhstan
+ PRO: International health insurance
Most expats in Kazakhstan have health insurance provided by their employers. The health insurance company will have a relationship with a specific clinic that will facilitate access to local healthcare.
- CON: Most intensive medical care takes place abroad
Health insurers and local partners will facilitate GP services, triage and emergency treatment in Astana, but they are likely to send expats, either by commercial flight or medical evacuation, abroad for more serious matters. The closest centres of medical excellence are Frankfurt and Istanbul.