Living in Dubai: The Essential Expat Guide

Dubai stands out as the true city of expats, and the recent changes made by the government have opened up even more opportunities. Let's take a look at what it’s really like living in Dubai.

A new life in Dubai could well be one of the most exciting experiences you’ll ever enjoy.

However, living in the UAE, like any new country, can be daunting, especially if you lack practical knowledge of how things are done locally.

Both the UAE and Dubai City, in particular, have introduced exciting changes aimed at expat residents.

The beautiful Miracle Garden in Dubai
Miracle Garden in Dubai

We’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of living in Dubai, with practical tips on residency, taxes, education, health, and plenty more, including the recent changes.

With our tips, you will know what to expect, so you can plan beforehand and make the very most of everything that the Dubai lifestyle has to offer.

Dubai living: the pros and cons

Dubai stands out from the crowd as Expatra’s top destination in the world to make money, and that’s no doubt a major feature on many would-be Dubai expats’ minds.

However, there are also several challenges and considerations that come with living in this thriving expat destination.

To help you make the most of your time in Dubai, we’ve put together a list of helpful resources that will guide you through the pros and cons of living in the city.

From information on healthcare options to tips on finding employment, these links will help make settling down into your new life as smooth as possible.

The pros:

Dubai is an exciting and happening destination that cannot be ignored!  It is, therefore, the place to be if you want to enjoy your social life and your working life in the fast lane.

Dubai City -  Skyline views from an outside restaurant

Easy access

The emirate is increasingly accessible, with its major international airport welcoming flights from across the world.

A sunshine-blessed climate

The climate in the emirate for eight months of the year is perfect.  Long hot days are dominated by cloudless blue skies and enhanced with beautiful warm seawater.

An exciting social scene

The social side of life is fantastic and diverse.  Many expats join a hotel or private beach club when they arrive and spend much of their downtime enjoying the facilities. 

Outstanding sports activities

There are more sports and sports clubs closely concentrated together within the emirate than anywhere else in the world! 

Dubai Football Academy
Dubai Football Academy

A dining-out extravaganza

Dining out is exceptional. Dubai’s bars, clubs, and restaurants play host to as wide a range of tastes as is probably possible!

World-class educational facilities

The educational standards in Dubai are excellent, and both American schools and British schools have seen considerable investment over the past decade.

Diverse employment opportunities

Every major international corporation has a base in Dubai – or so it seems! 

The city’s booming economy and thriving business scene make it an excellent destination for job seekers and entrepreneurs.

However, be prepared to put some effort into finding a job. It can be challenging and very competitive.

No income tax to pay

You can repatriate funds to your home country easily – therefore, you can earn a fantastic salary in Dubai, send some of it home, and build savings for your return.

A progressive healthcare system

Dubai is home to a high-quality healthcare system with many world-class hospitals and medical facilities.

With this in mind, you should ensure you have adequate health insurance coverage to access these services.

Shopping in Dubai is fantastic!

The city boasts some of the world’s largest and most opulent shopping malls. The Dubai Mall is the largest in the world by total area.

Low rates of crime

The crime rate in the United Arab Emirates is lower than in other industrialized nations. Petty crime, pickpocketing, and handbag or wallet thefts are very rare.

More tolerant

Dubai is a more tolerant emirate – tolerant of others’ beliefs and ways of life.  It is also one of the most moderate in terms of applying the rules of Islam to everyone’s everyday life. 

Expats can buy alcohol, and also they are allowed to eat and drink during the daylight hours of Ramadan.

Excellent public transportation

You’ll enjoy a modern, well-connected public transport system featuring buses, taxis, and the Dubai Metro. Taxis are very cheap, and the government is investing heavily in the public transportation system.

Domestic help

If you’ve got a busy work schedule that doesn’t leave much time to keep up with the housework, you’ll find it easy enough to get domestic help.

The cons:


Dubai is a bit of a bureaucratic headache, especially for newly arrived expatriates who have to have licenses and permits for everything. 

You need a permit to work and a permit to reside in Dubai. 

Get advice and assistance supplied and agreed on upfront from your employer to ease this initial adjustment period that can put some people off staying in the emirate!

Summers can be too hot!

The summer months from June to September are almost unbearably hot, and many expats take holiday time off during this period to return home. 

It can make it worse if you have children as most of the day they will need to stay indoors in air-conditioned rooms.

Traffic jams

The traffic situation in the city can be untenable and impact on the lives of those who have to commute or take children to school etc. 

The government’s program of investment into public transport systems is easing the problem, but if you want to take a drive in Dubai, it can become a lengthy journey.

It is expensive to live in Dubai as a family

Housing and schooling are incredibly expensive. The cost of living is on par with living in central London – i.e., it is very expensive.


There is a certain amount of governmental censorship on films, access to websites, and even the likes of SKYPE.  Some expats find this restrictive and frustrating.

Long hours of work

Working hours can be very long, and international companies operating in Dubai, in particular, do tend to expect a lot from their expatriate employees.

Relentless development

Dubai is currently a building site.  There are pockets of calm and oases of tranquillity across the emirate, but there is also frenetic and relentless development occurring, which can make life a little tiring and stressful at times.

The city is not exactly the most environmentally friendly place, nor is it the sort of place to live if you want to take long walks in quiet places.

The secret to success in Dubai!

Success is really what you make of it. It’s a matter of personal choice and preference. Embrace the city and all it has to offer, and you’ll soon find that the pros far outweigh the cons of living in Dubai.

Things to know before you move

Dubai is one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  It is also the name of the main city within the emirate of Dubai.

Views is the Burj Al Arab Hotel - Dubai
The Burj Al Arab Hotel in Duabi

Dubai’s wealth has been built on its oil industry, but it has successfully diversified its economy so that today it has multiple strands supporting its fiscal strength – including tourism, real estate, financial services, health, and education.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the ruler of Dubai, and together with Abu Dhabi, the emirate has veto power over certain matters of national importance in the country’s legislature. 

As a result of this, foreign buyers are allowed to own the freehold title to certain properties in Dubai, for example – this is not the case in all other emirates within the UAE.

Dubai has become an exceptionally popular choice for relocation with expatriates for a number of key reasons. 

Firstly, despite the emirate’s economic contraction, which hit the world in 2008, Dubai is still a booming economy with abundant employment prospects, and opportunities for strong speculation in the local property market abounded.

The other key reason why Dubai is so appealing to expats is that the lifestyle locally is exceptionally good, particularly for Western expats who benefit from a largely excellent climate, wonderful leisure facilities, a relatively laid-back pace of life, and good education and healthcare standards.

If you are seriously considering moving to Dubai, this is what you need to know before you move:

Jobs and salaries in Dubai

For those who want to advance their careers, earn a tax-free salary, and live in one of the most exciting and vibrant locations in the world – Dubai is a top place to move to.

Building your professional career in Dubai can be an exciting experience, so if you want to have a go – read our Working In Dubai guide to start your career there.

Many people made strong fortunes in Dubai, and even to this day, it’s a center of wealth and prosperity.  

Expats who relocate long-term to Dubai can legitimately earn their salary free from income tax.

No income tax in Dubai is a big deal for many professionals, plus there are some additional tax advantages and some pitfalls as well.

It’s essential to understand whether Dubai is really as tax-free as it’s famed for, and you can get to the bottom of it in our Tax in Dubai guide.

One may say that the emirate’s heady days of constant economic expansion are over, for now at least, but there are still jobs in Dubai in many employment sectors.

Dubai aims to become one of the strongest global tech and innovation hubs to reduce oil dependency and diversify the economy even further.

The city has excellent infrastructure and connectivity, and the government is doing quite a lot to promote Dubai as a perfect destination for global talent and start-ups. 

Knowing which professions are in greatest demand in the UAE now and probably in the foreseeable future can help you considerably in finding a good job in Dubai.

Tips & facts – working in Dubai

If an employer is relocating you to be working in Dubai you want to negotiate your employment package. 

The cost of living in the city is so high you need relocation costs, accommodation costs, and your children’s education costs taken into consideration, at the very least.

If you’re looking for work in the emirate, you can enter on a visit visa, depending on the nation you herald from, and target employers directly. 

You can also look online to see which recruitment companies can assist you in finding work in the emirate.

You will need a labor card, and your employer will have to sponsor your visa to live and work in the emirate.

If you lose your job, you will have 30 days to find another job and another sponsor, or else you will have to leave.

You cannot just change jobs on a whim in the UAE – depending on the level of formal education you have. This restricts the number of times you can change jobs, believe it or not.

Dubai “remote work” visa

Dubai has also launched a ‘remote work’ visa program.

The program allows you to travel to Dubai and stay there for up to a year working as a self-employed or for your employer abroad.

You can rent a house in Dubai, have access to Dubai schools if you have children, utilities, and basically live like a local. You are officially allowed to work. However, you are not allowed to get a job in Dubai.

The application will cost you $287, plus you need to have health insurance in Dubai.

Education in Dubai: international, British, and American Schools

Another aspect of life in Dubai that attracts many expats is the high standard of education available.

There are numerous International schools in the city, offering an excellent education for expat children.

These schools typically offer differing curriculums, including education paths that follow both the British and the American curricula.

The schools are accredited by the relevant authorities in the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as by other nations and International education authorities, ensuring a high-quality learning experience for students.

Furthermore, these schools often have a diverse international community, allowing for a culturally enriching environment for children.

However, it’s important to note that the cost of sending your child to an International School can be quite high.

Also, the places available can be limited, so planning for this expense and ensuring there are vacancies is essential when moving to the UAE.

For higher education, there are quite a few internationally recognized universities in Dubai.

Can I retire in Dubai?

Yes, starting from September 2020, Dubai expat residents can apply for the “Retire in Dubai” scheme.

Under this scheme, eligible residents aged 55 and over can apply for a retirement visa that would be renewable every five years.

To be eligible, you must meet one of the three requirements:

  • You must earn a monthly income of 20,000 dirhams ($5,500);
  • Or you must have savings of 1 million dirhams;
  • Or own a property in Dubai worth 2 million dirhams.

To start with, the program will focus on residents working in Dubai who have reached retirement age.

Applicants must have valid UAE health insurance

A high standard of living and a vibrant social scene

When talking about living in Dubai, the majority of the time, we’re talking about the City of Dubai rather than the emirate as a whole. 

This is where the majority of expats base themselves in the emirate and where they find work.  The city is also the lifestyle hub for the entire region.

The lifestyle in the city is the one thing you won’t hear expats complaining about. 

Although due to the heat, it is mostly limited to indoor air-conditioned activities, nevertheless there are plenty of entertainments of all sorts including amazing shopping.

From a range of theme parks to private beach clubs, from incredibly opulent shopping malls to cinema complexes and an abundance of restaurants, from indoor snowboarding to the most remarkable music festivals – Dubai really does have it all.

Read what kind of lifestyle in Dubai you can expect and how to get the most out of life in Dubai.

Shopping in Dubai

There are multiple malls in the city – and in fact, the largest mall in the world exists in Dubai.  What’s more, you can buy everything from Ikea furniture to traditional textiles in the emirate.

The Dubai Mall - One of the largest shopping malls in the world
The Dubai Mall

A lot of what you buy is tax-free – however, importation costs can ratchet up what you’re paying for items. Moreover, VAT was introduced in 2018 at a rate of 5%, excluding basic food items, healthcare, and education. Take care when out shopping if you’re on a budget.

Shop in local markets and supermarkets for lower prices.

Avoid malls on a Friday night as they are packed.

Many expats leaving Dubai are looking to offload everything from furniture to cars – look on forums and supermarket/employment place notice boards for bargains.

The cost of living in Dubai

When it comes to the cost of living, there is, again, good and bad news.

The cost of accommodation can be as much as GBP 15,000 a year for a decent rental apartment in a good location, and this has to be paid upfront.

What’s more, if you want to buy a property, you may have to wait many years for an off-plan apartment or villa to be completed or pay top dollar for a resale property.

However, if you already own property and want to rent it out, the good news is that you can easily achieve yields of between 8 and 11%.

Other than accommodation, the other high-cost outlays you need to be aware of include school fees which are now extortionate at the best schools as expats fight for places. 

Whilst there is a law restricting the annual rate of school fee inflation to between 16 and 20 percent, schools find all sorts of ways to add on extras, and this has seen annual inflation of up to 80 percent in school fees.

Medical insurance and the cost of healthcare in Dubai are high – but then the quality you get is exceptional.

Basic day-to-day grocery costs are average. Alcohol is quite expensive too.

Fuel costs are affordable, as are vehicle costs when compared to the UK, for example.

Even with the introduction of VAT in Dubai (at a rate of 5%, it is one of the lowest in the world), daily shopping costs are very reasonable.

Healthcare in Dubai

Since the introduction of mandatory health insurance in Dubai, every resident needs to be insured in one way or another.

Valid health insurance is necessary to obtain a residency visa. The new law is a part of Dubai’s program to become one of the most advanced countries in terms of healthcare quality and affordability for all residents.

As you are moving to a totally different climate with totally different local bugs and health threats, there are some essential steps to be undertaken before your relocation and during your stay.

Our Healthcare in Dubai guide will tell you what you need to do before and after moving to keep your family and yourself healthy and what you can expect from the Dubai healthcare system.

Helpful resources for adjusting to culture shock

Learn as much about Dubai and the UAE in general as you can before you move there – and if possible, visit before you commit to relocation. 

Also, get on forums and chat with other expats who already live in the emirate to find out what it’s really like.

Here are some facts that you need to know before moving:

  • Adultery is a crime punishable by prison and subsequent deportation – as is getting into debt and even bouncing a cheque.  
  • Never drink and drive, and never take non-prescribed drugs.
  • Respect the dress code, and dress conservatively.
  • Respect the local religion and traditions, and appreciate that during Ramadan, you should not eat or drink during the hours of daylight in view of local people – it is deeply disrespectful. 

Knowing and following laws and rules in Dubai is key to your well-being in the country.

Major changes introduced in the UAE legislation

In 2020 the UAE introduced several changes to the rules and laws that govern the Emirates with the aim of boosting the country’s economic and social standing.

Here are the changes that have the most profound effect on expats:

  • The so-called ‘honor killings’ and harassment of women aren’t treated leniently any longer.
  • Drinking alcohol without a license is permitted.
  • Living together outside of marriage is no longer illegal.
  • Expats in the UAE can follow their home nation’s law on divorce and inheritance.
  • Foreign investors, except for the energy and hydrocarbons, telecommunications, and transport sectors, can fully own local companies without needing an Emirati sponsor.

Driving in Dubai

The city is a rapidly expanding metropolis, attracting holidaymakers and expats from all over the globe.  It is modern, lively, and busy.

Driving in Dubai. A challenging intersection.
Driving in Dubai can be challenging for new arrivals

When it comes to driving in Dubai, obeying traffic regulations should become your first priority.

You cannot buy your own car in Dubai until you have a local driving license, but you can rent a car on your international license.

If you want to ride a motorbike in Dubai, you need to have a license from your own nation. If you want to take tours off-road in the UAE, you need to pass a desert driving course.

Public transport

Getting around a modern metropolis for those who don’t like driving or don’t feel comfortable with it in a foreign country is initially a challenge.

It takes some time to get used to routes, modes of transport, and local know-how of using public transport. However, after you familiarise yourself with it, getting around the city will become only easier.

Dubai is planning to become the smartest city in the world in terms of public transport.

The city can already boast driverless Metro trains, Tesla taxi cars, and even self-driving buses are becoming a reality.

So traveling by public transport in Dubai can be a perfect option for those who want to avoid the hassle of driving.

Finding a home

Property prices in Dubai have surged and crashed and surged again. However, rental rates remain exceptionally high.

What’s more, you may be expected to pay for one year’s rent in advance.  This can be difficult for many moving to the emirate, and some employers help out.

Find out if they will also help you find somewhere to live, as this can be tricky and time-consuming.

If possible, reside in Dubai in temporary accommodation for as long as you can so you have plenty of time to get to know the different residential areas. 

This way, you can find the right one for your needs and tastes.

Different areas of the emirate cost very different amounts and are more or less salubrious.  Learn where would suit you before you commit to renting a property in Dubai permanently.

Wondering where to live in Dubai? Our Best Places To Live In Dubai For Families will help you with the research.

Living in Dubai – final thoughts

Dubai is truly an intoxicating country with the potential for an unprecedented lifestyle. A true world-class vision of a futuristic, forward-looking city that still holds onto a conservative tradition that you will have to accept.

Dubai could be the perfect place to call home if you’re the type of person who thrives on buzz and excitement.

No doubt, Dubai as a destination is a personal choice. Some people love it, and some people hate it.

However, what’s certain is that if you can love it, you can save an incredible amount of tax and potentially build much more wealth than you ever could back home!

You might find useful:

  • Planning to live in the UAE and work remotely? Find out about UAE’s residence visa for working outside the UAE on the UAE government site.
  • All about Dubai public transport, including planning your journey and topping up your nol Card on the Road and Transport Authority site.
  • For the most up-to-date summary of the cost of living, check Numbeo.
  • Check the latest Dubai travel updates, including health requirements and coronavirus, on the Visit Dubai site.


  1. Hi! What rights do expat women have when divorcing in Dubai? Is it true that a child can be taken away from them? Where i can read about it? Thanks

  2. Please how much would be enough for me to process visa to live and work in Dubai in cheap location. Also how long does the visa take to come out. Also the cheapest airlines to fly?

    • Hi Sylvanus,
      If you have an employment contract, most of the paperwork will be done by your employer, also most of the costs will be/should be absorbed by the company that employs you.
      If you are a freelancer/skilled employee or investor with sufficient income to support yourself, you can apply for the UAE green visa. As a skilled employee you have to show the minimum salary of AED 15,000
      As a freelancer, you need to show a minimum of AED 360,000 as your annual income from self-employment for the previous two years.
      You can also buy a property in Dubai and that can qualify you for a visa.
      Hope this helps.

  3. Would love to know more about working for the health sector in dubai best hospitals also with a toddler who is 3 please

  4. I am a British citizen living in Uk
    I have been running convenience store (in Dubai it is known as supermarket ) for last 15 yrs
    In uk
    I would like to buy a supermarket in Dubai
    Please suggest the complete procedure of buying the supermarket

  5. good to know Grt advice.
    Could you please add info? regarding migrated to Emirate as a refugee
    is there UNHCR United Nation High Comission for Refugees in place
    please can I be advised?

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