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Moving to Kyrgyzstan

Expats moving to Kyrgyzstan will find themselves in a small yet fascinating nook of Central Asia. With the rocky Tian Shan region covering 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan, this landlocked country is as mountainous as it is tiny, with numerous lakes and valleys dotted between the soaring peaks.

Once part of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has been making gradual changes to embrace a democratic future since it gained independence in 1991.

Expats who come to Kyrgyzstan usually work in the development sector for a range of international or local organisations and NGOs, or in the mining industry. Volunteering is also becoming increasingly popular, and there is always a high demand for English teachers. Kyrgyzstan is considered one of the safer, more attractive countries in Central Asia, and is frequently used by various companies as a base for conducting projects throughout the rest of the region.

That said, Kyrgyzstan is not a typical expat destination, with few moving there for reasons other than an already-established job contract. Most expats settle in the capital city of Bishkek, with a minority heading to the country's second-largest city of Osh instead.

The majority of Kyrgyzstan’s population is Muslim, but this is not an immediately apparent aspect of everyday life. Modern Kyrgyz culture is a blend of ancient tradition tempered with touches of Islam and Soviet-style habits (which becomes obvious when dealing with anything bureaucratic). In perfect demonstration of this careful balance, vodka is an essential part of any Kyrgyz celebration, though pork products are very much absent from such gatherings.

It is inexpensive to live well in Kyrgyzstan thanks to the country's low cost of living. Many companies organise comfortable accommodation for their employees when they arrive, but if not, various options are easily accessible in larger cities. Within most Kyrgyzstan city centres, renting is limited to apartment buildings of varying size and age, while those willing to venture further into the periphery will find houses and more spacious accommodation available.

Outdoorsy expats will be right at home in Kyrgyzstan with its stunning natural beauty offering plenty to do, see and explore. Endless opportunities for skiing and hiking present themselves on the country's many mountains, and swimming and lounging on the shores of the idyllic Lake Issyk-Kul are popular pastimes.

Not a typical expat enclave, Kyrgyzstan is certainly a destination primed for those seeking something a little less ordinary. A spirit of adventure and an open mind will go a long way in helping new arrivals adjust to life in this Central Asian country.


Fast facts

Official name: Kyrgyz Republic

Population: 6.5 million

Capital city: Bishkek (also largest city)

Political system: Unitary parliamentary constitutional republic

Neighbouring countries: Kyrgyzstan is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west and southwest, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east.

Geography: Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked mountainous country. The land is rich with minerals, but due to the mountainous terrain, very little of the land is cultivated.

Main languages: Kyrgyz and Russian (official)

Major religions: Islam

Money: The official currency is the Som (KGS), divided into 100 tyiyn.

Tipping: Tipping is not a common practice in Kyrgyzstan. Service charges are typically built into restaurant bills and flat-fare taxi rides, though expats may give an extra tip if they desire.

Time: GMT+6

Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz. Round, European-style two-pin plugs are common.

International dialling code: +996

Internet domain: .kg

Emergency numbers: 102 (police), 103 (ambulance), 101 (fire)

Transport and driving: Bishkek has an established public transport system consisting of buses, trolleybuses and taxis, but outside of the major urban centres, transport is limited and expats should consider purchasing their own vehicle.

Public Holidays in Kyrgyzstan

 

2021

2022

New Year’s Day

1 January

1 January

Orthodox Christmas Day

7 January

7 January

Defender of the Fatherland Day

23 February

23 February

International Women’s Day

8 March

8 March

Nooruz

21 March

21 March

Day of the People's April Revolution

7 April

7 April

Labour Day

1 May

1 May

Constitution Day

5 May

5 May

Victory Day

9 May

9 May

Orozo Ait

13 May

3 May

Kurman Ait

20 July

10 July

Independence Day

31 August

31 August

Days of History and Commemoration of Ancestors

7–8 November

7–8 November

*Islamic holidays are subject to the sighting of the moon, and dates can change on the Gregorian calendar.

Safety in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz people are generally welcoming toward foreigners and there is little to be concerned about when it comes to serious safety concerns in this Central Asian country. Many of the most obvious dangers can be avoided with a bit of common sense and a heightened awareness of the surrounding environment. It should also be noted that political and ethnic unrest within the past decade has not directly affected expats, and daily routines have always resumed within a few days.


Crime in Kyrgyzstan

Petty crimes, such as pick-pocketing, are the most common safety threat to foreigners, especially on public transportation or in crowded public areas and markets. Foreigners can also be targets for muggings, so it is important not to walk alone at night. Common-sense practices such as acting discreet (especially when speaking English), trying to blend in, and not carrying large sums of money can help expats avoid drawing unwanted attention.


Protests and unrest in Kyrgyzstan

During past episodes of political and ethnic unrest, Western expats have not been targeted or affected by violence (unless they put themselves directly in the protests) and the biggest concerns they faced were that major businesses closed for a few days. It is advisable to avoid joining protests and to lie low if a tense situation arises.


Driving safety in Kyrgyzstan

There is an organised chaos to driving in Kyrgyzstan. The default speed is fast and drivers are willing to swerve around anything in their way to get to their destination. Traffic laws are rarely enforced and it's not unusual for traffic police to try to solicit a bribe. Expats should drive defensively and be aware at all times.

The condition of the main road network throughout Kyrgyzstan is not perfect but has improved dramatically over the past few years. Outside of cities the roads become more speckled with potholes and are poorly lit, which is especially dangerous when travelling over mountain passes.


Emergency services in Kyrgyzstan

There are emergency services in Kyrgyzstan’s larger cities and resort towns, but call-centre employees and paramedics often do not speak English. Medical service is inexpensive, though Kyrgyz hospitals are best avoided due to underfunding and outdated equipment. There are private hospitals and clinics in Bishkek with better-trained staff and newer equipment, though their services cost more. For simple treatments, some Kyrgyz doctors make house calls.

Expats can dial the following in an emergency:

  • Fire: 101

  • Police: 102

  • Hospital: 103

Working in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan's economy is rooted in its natural resources, with around a third of the country's GDP derived from agriculture. Other prominent industries include mining, manufacturing and exports.

Most expats will earn salaries far lower than what is possible in Western countries, or other expat destinations in general. Still, the low cost of living eases financial pressure and, while expats aren't likely to become rich in Kyrgyzstan, they will be able to live comfortably while experiencing a new culture and working environment.


Finding a job in Kyrgyzstan

Expats working in Kyrgyzstan are mainly employed by the development sector, either for large, international organisations such as the United Nations and the European Commission, or for smaller non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

In addition to development opportunities, there are several foreign-owned mining companies operating in Kyrgyzstan. Native speakers of English, and of European languages to a lesser extent, are always in high demand for teaching positions across all education levels.


Finding work in Kyrgyzstan

As most international organisations and NGOs are required to post job openings online, interested expats should research the websites of organisations and companies operating in Kyrgyzstan. It is not impossible to find such a position once in Kyrgyzstan, but most employers advertise and hire for positions based on online correspondence instead of looking for potential candidates who are already located in-country.

Every foreigner planning to work in Kyrgyzstan must have a valid work permit. Most employers will organise the visa and work permit, and expats should be wary of language schools and smaller organisations that do not assume this burden.


Work culture in Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz work week is Monday to Friday, and the typical workday is eight to nine hours. Teachers could have an altered schedule depending on their class load. Punctuality is not an obvious aspect of business in Kyrgyzstan and, though expats should be punctual themselves, they should be prepared to plan meetings around other participants arriving at least 15 minutes late.

When preparing business cards to distribute in Kyrgyzstan, it is useful to have one's information printed in both English and Kyrgyz or Russian. Expats should dress smartly for business purposes and always remember to keep their shoes clean.

Cost of Living in Kyrgyzstan

The cost of living in Kyrgyzstan is relatively low in comparison to other international expat destinations. This is demonstrated in Mercer's Cost of Living Survey for 2020, where Bishkek was ranked 206th out of 209 cities surveyed, making it one of the cheapest expat destinations worldwide.

Expats working for a large international organisation should expect a Western-style salary. Some companies consider Kyrgyzstan a 'hardship posting' and will offer an additional percentage on top of a basic salary to compensate for this.

Generally speaking, daily expenses in Kyrgyzstan are reasonably priced, as food is cheap, utilities are subsidised and real estate is much less expensive than other expat destinations. However, the costs of creature comforts and tastes of home can be shockingly high.


Cost of food in Kyrgyzstan

Due to food subsidies and the country's wobbly economy, prices for staples such as rice and flour will sometimes rise, but never to unreasonable levels for expats. Seasonal produce must be imported in the winter.

Bishkek is more expensive than the rest of the country in every way but also has the most diverse selection of food and imports. In larger cities, there are Western-style supermarkets, convenience stores and department stores. But with most items, if it's in one of these stores then it's likely also available and cheaper in one of Kyrgyzstan’s many bazaars.


Cost of accommodation in Kyrgyzstan

Prices for accommodation vary widely depending on location and size. Utility prices will rise or fall depending on various factors. Utilities from private companies can be more reliable but are much more expensive.


Cost of personal goods in Kyrgyzstan

Due to the high cost of good-quality furniture, appliances and clothing, many expats, especially those with families, prefer to ship most of their possessions. However, shipping to this landlocked, mountainous country with sometimes unreliable infrastructure can be an expensive, time consuming and often frustrating process, so expats should try to negotiate as large a shipping allowance as possible with their employer. Expats working for anything other than a well-established, well-funded organisation should expect to cover shipping costs themselves.


Cost of transport in Kyrgyzstan

Public transportation in Kyrgyzstan is quite affordable, but buying a car can be expensive, as all vehicles are imported or bought second hand in the country. Best practice for buying a vehicle is to purchase from another expat who is leaving the country.


Cost of education in Kyrgyzstan

Schooling options are limited for expats with children, as there are few international schools in Kyrgyzstan. Annual tuition fees are sky high and expats should try to negotiate an education allowance or subsidy into their contract.


Cost of living in Kyrgyzstan chart

Prices vary across Kyrgyzstan. These are average costs for Bishkek in December 2020.

Accommodation (monthly rent in a good area)

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

KGS 25,000

One-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

KGS 15,000

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

KGS 45,000

Three-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

KGS 26,000

Shopping

Eggs (dozen)

KGS 92

Milk (1 litre)

KGS 44

Rice (1kg)

KGS 72

Loaf of white bread

KGS 22

Chicken breasts (1kg)

KGS 280

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)

KGS 90

Eating out

Big Mac Meal

KGS 250

Coca-Cola (330ml)

KGS 34

Cappuccino

KGS 118

Bottle of local beer

KGS 70

Three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant

KGS 1,700

Utilities

Mobile-to-mobile call rate (per minute)

KGS 2.30

Internet (uncapped ADSL or cable – average per month)

KGS 1,300

Basic utilities (per month for a small apartment)

KGS 3,000

Transportation

Taxi rate (per kilometre)

KGS 12

Bus/train fare in the city centre

KGS 10

Petrol/gasoline (per litre)

 KGS 44

Culture Shock in Kyrgyzstan

Culture in modern-day Kyrgyzstan is heavily influenced by its proximity and historical ties to Russia. Everything from language and clothing to the music played in buses and nightclubs bears Soviet influence.

Many new arrivals will find the mixture of unfamiliar Kyrgyz and Russian traditions and habits strange. This former Soviet Union republic was isolated for many years and, as a result, there are very few expats who will have encountered local behaviour. Foreigners therefore often experience a significant degree of culture shock in Kyrgyzstan.


Language in Kyrgyzstan

Like many former Soviet Union countries, the people of Kyrgyzstan were made to give up their native languages and speak only Russian. Today, Russian is more common in the northern region and in larger cities, while Kyrgyz is more common in the south.

Kyrgyz is a Turkic language related to Kazakh and Uzbek. It shares the Cyrillic script with Russian but has three extra letters that reflect unique Kyrgyz sounds.

English speakers can be hard to come by in Kyrgyzstan, but much more so outside of large cities or tourist destinations. The ability to read Cyrillic is a must for any expat, and knowing basic phrases in Russian is sure to prevent a few headaches. Luckily, it is inexpensive to study Russian (or Kyrgyz) in the country and there are plenty of eager speaking partners looking for English lessons.


Etiquette and customs in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz people are generally warm and inviting, so it's likely expats will eventually find themselves invited to a traditional Kyrgyz dinner. Guests should take a small gift (alcohol or sweets work well) and be sure to remove their shoes at the door. Eating and drinking are taken very seriously and guests at a Kyrgyz dinner will be overwhelmed with food.

Toasts are made frequently, usually with vodka. Men are expected to take part in every toast they are offered; women can sometimes politely decline alcohol, but otherwise, are expected to keep up with every toast. It is common that if a bottle of vodka is opened, it must be finished in one sitting.

Bribes are an unfortunate custom in Kyrgyzstan. Policemen sometimes stop foreigners to check their passport and visa and may threaten those caught without them with a trip to the police station before requesting a small payoff. Taxi drivers sometimes try to charge foreigners more and bureaucratic tasks have been known to be facilitated with a few bills.


Food in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz cuisine can take some time to adjust to. Many dishes are heavy on meat and animal fat (usually mutton), and a variety of vegetables can be tough to find in winter. Kyrgyz delicacies include horse-meat sausage, beshbarmak (boiled mutton with noodles and broth), and kumys, Kyrgyzstan’s national drink made from fermented mare’s milk. Many expats consider kumis to be an acquired taste.


Doing business in Kyrgyzstan

It is not unusual for a Kyrgyz businessperson to arrive late to a meeting, and it should not be seen as an insult nor should expats allow it to blemish their perception of the person's work ethic. Try not to plan meetings too far in advance, as they will inevitably be rescheduled at least once or twice.

When meeting any Kyrgyz person (even outside of a business environment), it is normal that all men shake hands. Women sometimes offer to shake hands with men, but it is not typical and should not be taken personally if a woman doesn't extend her hand.

Accommodation in Kyrgyzstan

Most expats living in Kyrgyzstan settle in either Bishkek, the capital, or Osh, the country’s second largest city. Accommodation in Kyrgyzstan is widely available and varied in nature – depending on their personal and work circumstances, some expats are just as likely to call a small room in a shared family house 'home' as others are to unwind in a three-room luxury apartment in a new mid-rise building.


Types of accommodation in Kyrgyzstan

In recent years, more and more mid-rise luxury style apartment buildings have found their way into the Bishkek skyline, making for reasonably-priced, high-standard accommodation. These can be quite expensive, but accommodation outside of the capital is cheaper and falls into the category of Soviet-style apartment blocks or small houses.

Amenities such as swimming pools, gardens and private yards are uncommon in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the city centres where most expats choose to settle. Further away from the tightly packed urban spaces, expats can find houses with more personal space.

Furnished and semi-furnished apartments are the most common housing options. A semi-furnished apartment may require kitchenware, linen and small appliances. A fully-furnished house will include everything needed to live comfortably.

There are several furniture stores in larger cities but they all sell goods imported from China (inexpensive and poor quality), Turkey (expensive) or Europe (very expensive). There are also plenty of skilled craftsmen in Kyrgyzstan available to make furniture and housewares (such as cabinets, tables, curtains) at a better price, but tracking down a quality worker can be difficult, especially without the necessary language skills.


Finding accommodation in Kyrgyzstan

If an expat's employer is arranging their visa and work permit, it is likely that they will also arrange for their accommodation in Kyrgyzstan. But for those who have to do it themselves, reasonable accommodation is easy to find through word-of-mouth or reputable real-estate agencies. There are several agencies in Bishkek with English-speaking agents who can narrow down available properties to suit an expat's budget and preferred neighbourhood.

One thing to note when searching for housing is that a place is advertised by the total number of rooms, not just the number of bedrooms. Therefore, what is called a studio apartment elsewhere is known as a one-room apartment in Kyrgyzstan, a one-bedroom is called a two-room apartment, etc.


Renting in Kyrgyzstan

Leases

Lease agreements in Kyrgyzstan can be simple verbal agreements or fully drafted legal documents. Be sure that it is made clear who will be responsible for paying for utilities and taxes. The term of a lease agreement is usually flexible and most landlords will not require more than one month’s rent upfront or more than one month’s notice before moving out.

Utilities

Utilities such as gas, electricity, water and internet are not typically included in rental prices and are usually an extra expense for the tenant. Some landlords do include one or several utility costs as part of the rental price, but this is not a given.

Security

There should always be some form of security, whether it's a 24-hour security guard or a digital code to enter the building. Extra security on top of what is already available is usually unnecessary.

Expat Experiences in Kyrgyzstan

When considering a move to a new city, there is nothing more useful than hearing real life stories from other expats who have lived there. Here are some interviews on expat life in Kyrgyzstan. Please contact us if you live or have lived in Kyrgyzstan and would like to share your experience.


Kristina Gray is an American expat who, after living abroad for more than 15 years, is now back in the US. In her interview with Expat Arrivals, she talks about her expat experience of life in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.