Living In New Zealand As An Expat – The Essential Guide

Discover what it's like living in New Zealand as an expat and whether this stunning country can become your home.

There’s more to New Zealand than the Haka and hobbits. More even than stunning vistas and sunny beaches. Scratch below the surface and find sophisticated cities, tranquil towns and a distinctly local approach to life.

Let’s talk about what it’s really like living in New Zealand as an expat.

Is New Zealand a good place to live?

Yes, so good that dreams of Christmas on the beach and the great outdoors have been drawing people there for decades. There is an awful lot more to New Zealand than spending your life on a beach or ski slope, though, and the complexities of this unique country make a difference.

Living in New Zealand - Abel Tasman National park
Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand.

You might think that New Zealand is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, and you would be right. From kayaking around the subtropical Bay of Islands to a spell hiking near Fox Glacier, those who love natural wonders will be spoiled rotten. If you thought there was nothing for a city mouse in this secluded island nation, however, you would be wrong.

The capital Wellington and Auckland both pull their weight as global cities, with smaller cities on the South Island bringing their own charms.

Wellington has the advantage of being the capital city, with an artsy reputation and a temperate climate. It has the flavour of a smaller, sweeter Seattle.

Auckland, the larger second city, is a delightful, sun-drenched melting pot with character bursting out of every seam.

Add to this picture the fact that New Zealand is very safe, has excellent education and healthcare, and you can begin to see why many ex-pats never leave.

Can a foreigner live in New Zealand?

Yes, but you will need a visa to reside in New Zealand. If you are from a visa waiver country (the EU, UK, USA and some other countries) then you will be able to arrive without a visa and travel without working or beginning an extended course of study.

Living in New Zealand
View of Whangamata beach in New Zealand

You will still need to fill out an NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority), but it’s more of a pre-arrival form than a visa application.

NZeTA forms would be perfect to cover you for a bit of reconnaissance and preliminary house-hunting.

To stay and work, you will need to choose between a few of the major options. Those under 35, working casually, have the option of a Working Holiday Visa, but this isn’t suitable for families. Here are some of the main visa streams to consider:

Work Visas 

Work visas can last up to five years, but more often two. They require a suitable employer in New Zealand to hire you for a full-time post. Your employer may have to prove that they looked for a domestic candidate, but the administrative burden of that doesn’t fall on you.

You will need to prove that you meet the basic character and health requirements to move, but otherwise, this visa is relatively straightforward. Subject to approval and the basic health and character checks, you can also bring your family with you.

Skilled Migrant Visas

 Skilled migrant visas are coveted. The application process is detailed, but if you are approved, you can become a permanent resident without a waiting period. To apply for a visa in this category, you should ideally have a job offer in New Zealand in a field that the NZ government officially considers ‘skilled’.

There are some obvious professions that New Zealand would like to welcome, like nurses, teachers and doctors, but the list doesn’t stop there by any means.

Work to Residence Visas 

Work to residence visas are similar to work visas, but with two major differences to be aware of. The first is that your job offer needs to be permanent or long term and on the long term skills shortage list. The second difference is that once you have been working on this visa for 24 months, you can apply for residency.

Living in New Zealand  the Bay of islands
The Bay of Islands where you can find more than 140 subtropical islands, golden beaches, charming towns and big-game fishing.

With a standard work visa, you might have to wait as long as 5 years before applying for permanent residency. This way is a faster route to a permanent visa.

Skill Shortage Visas

New Zealand, like most countries, has gaps in the workforce that it needs to find a way to fill. Some shortages are regional and some are short term, but all of them help you move and start moving towards a permanent residence visa.

The occupations needed are very varied, so if you aren’t a doctor, lawyer or accountant. Don’t despair. With regions of New Zealand desperate for all kinds of professionals, you might find a surprising niche.

For example, vineyard laden Hawke’s Bay is calling out for Bakers, Jockeys and Apiarists. Vehicle painters and car mechanics are also hot property across most Kiwi regions.

These visas usually start at 2 years, but your application to renew your visa will be strengthened by your work and time spent living in the country. So if your application succeeds the first time, the chances of rejection later are low.

Can I move to NZ without a job?

You can’t typically move to New Zealand without a job. Most visas include the need for a formal job offer, or significantly prefer applicants who have a job lined up. In practical terms, although there is some theoretical wiggle room, most primary applicants will need a job.

Secondary applicants are much less likely to need a job. For example, if you are someone moving with a spouse who holds a job offer, you will probably not need a job yourself.

Is New Zealand expensive?

Yes, New Zealand is relatively expensive. As the 18th most expensive country in the world according to popular indexes, life in New Zealand won’t come cheap. It is often perceived as expensive by people moving from the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S.A.

living in New Zealand
Wellington city.

New Zealand is geographically isolated and many of the goods you will want, have to be imported. That means import taxes and bigger price tags.

The first piece of good news is that compared to Australia, New Zealand is still less expensive. The second is that different parts of New Zealand come with different costs. Some cities or regions are much less expensive than others.

Does NZ have free healthcare?

No, but healthcare is socialized and coverage with public or private insurance is universal. As a new resident of the country, you will need your private medical insurance for any ongoing treatment. You will also pay more out of pocket than the subsidised prices for permanent residents and citizens.

You won’t pay for any acute, emergency treatment that is the result of an accident because accidents are covered by public funding. This extends to any person legally in New Zealand, including tourists and visitors.

Primary Care is one of the most privatised areas of the mixed public/private system in New Zealand. So, expect to pay something when you visit your GP or family doctor, even once you are a permanent resident. It could be a co-pay or a nominal fee.

If you become a resident, then there are subsidies via community health services cards for those with long term conditions or those living on low incomes.

Many medicines are either free or heavily subsidised by the government, but if you want a specific brand name or formulation, you might have to pay for it yourself.

Private medical insurance is usually less expensive than in the USA, but it depends on your circumstances.

The pros and cons of living in New Zealand

The pros   

1. Scenery 

Stunning scenery is everywhere. You can’t get away from the unique splendour of the natural world in New Zealand. Everyday life is set up with the assumption that you will want to get out in it.

Living in New Zealand - Waikato
Lush green rural scenery in Waikato.

2. Weather 

Think about where in New Zealand you want to live, but within this one small country, you can find almost any weather you want. Snowy peaks and sun-baked islands are both standard fare.

3. Public education 

Public schools are available to everyone with a relevant visa. Often free, but otherwise moderately priced. They are rigorous and geared towards getting the best for every child.

Universities are a popular path and well subsidised, with generous loan forgiveness policies for residents and citizens who stay to use their degree within New Zealand.

4. Eating out

Food can be expensive in New Zealand, but the mark-up on eating out is usually modest. This tends to encourage a culture of going out and about, sampling new things and being social. 

New Zealand is fiercely proud of its produce, and the restaurant sector takes pride in making it shine. 

5. Atmosphere

New Zealanders have collectively mastered a can-do attitude, without it ever seeming in your face. They are quietly determined in all their endeavours, whether that means climbing a mountain, producing a film or just riding a ferry to work all winter long without ever putting on a coat.

The cons of living in New Zealand

1. Limited motorways

If you are from a place where you expect all roads to have two lanes and tarmac, then rural New Zealand will surprise you. Some people take this as part of their adventure but bear it in mind.

The network of large, well-maintained roads is limited outside cities. It’s not complete wilderness, but rural kiwis favour a four-wheel drive for a reason.

2. Housing

Colonial villas are beautiful and there are plenty of lovely residential neighbourhoods, but housing can be expensive. Especially considering that many properties in New Zealand don’t come with insulation, central heating systems or double glazing.

Living in New Zealand - Wellington
Traditional residential houses at Mount Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand.

Kiwis are a hardy bunch, and they take a draft or two on the chin. In Auckland, some people don’t mind surviving with a few extra jumpers in the winter. Further south, you should check your prospective home for cold weather comforts.

3. Reality vs imagination

New Zealand can feel a world away from everything else. It is breathtaking, and it certainly looks like a fairytale in places.

Some people are surprised when they realise that it isn’t immune to problems. Global problems like social deprivation and crime do crop up in places. New Zealand is generally a thriving society, but some areas still struggle with crime and poverty.

Where to live in New Zealand

1. Auckland

If you want a big city, Auckland is your answer. Auckland is scarcely possible to call a single city. With the North Shore, Central city, Manukau and Waitakere all making up part of the northern melting pot, Auckland is full of life.

Living in New Zealand - Auckland
Auckland in the North Island of New Zealand is the most populous urban area in the country.

North Shore has pretty, upmarket suburbs, good access to transport links and several good options for schools. Devonport and Bayswater are particularly popular with expats.

Waitakere is the wildest of the bunch, with some of its suburbs nestled in bush forests. Try vibrant young suburb Kelston or the established, woody wonderland in Titirangi.

Manukau is the southern city within a city. Diverse, lively and on the more affordable side for Auckland.

Central districts all have a distinct feel, from hippy Point Chevalier to trendy Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. For the well-heeled and established, there are Remuera and Herne Bay. If you prefer something more modern and urban, you could live right in the CBD, Newmarket or Eden Terrace.

You can find more information about this city in our Living In Auckland As An Expat guide.

2. Wellington

If you want capital amenities without fuss, look at Wellington. To the rest of the world, Wellington is an undiscovered gem. Auckland is the bigger, more bombastic sibling, but Wellington is perfectly formed. Almost curated.

You can be in the capital city at 5 pm and an unspoiled nature reserve by half-past.

The windy city has plenty of beautiful coffee spots for taking refuge. It is also a gathering point for live music, as well as being family-friendly.

Find out more about the costs, best areas, amenities and lifestyle in our Living In Wellington guide.

3. Dunedin

For the academic with an eye on the outdoors, give Dunedin a try. Dunedin is a compact city with a lot to offer. A historic botanical garden, a striking black basalt train station and a world-renowned university make the inner city grand. It has all the life that students bring to a city and no shortage of charm

There are countless forests and beaches within the city limits,so you won’t have to go far to enjoy spectacular nature.

Housing in Dunedin comes a little cheaper than in larger cities, but this town is anything but provincial.

4. Christchurch

Christchurch welcomes new residents, with a mild climate and the option to ski or surf within a two-hour drive. Recovery is ongoing from a recent bout of earthquakes but the spirit of Christchurch hasn’t moved an inch. Most local cafés and a range of events are keeping the spirit of Christchurch thriving.

Living in New Zealand - Christchurch
South Island. Christchurch in Canterbury Region.

The city is one of the more affordable options in New Zealand, with buckets of character to charm new arrivals. You can even go punting through the historic centre on the Avon River.

Read more about this location in our guide on The Best Areas To Live In Christchurch.

5. Coromandel

The Coromandel is famous for white-sand beaches, sunshine and a slower pace of life. All of that is true, and you can’t miss the Coromandel. It is overflowing with beauty. The erstwhile hippie haven now beckons weekenders and holidaymakers.

It can feel like the only place to be but remember your everyday needs. Finding a permanent job offer could be harder and certain amenities become stretched at peak season.

6. Queenstown

Queenstown looms large in travellers’ minds. Undoubtedly, the ski town is beautiful, and the natural surroundings are incredible. In the long term, though, you should bear in mind that the prices for accommodation, food and transport are steep.

You can find more inspiration in our Best Places To Live In New Zealand guide.

Things to know before you move

On the road 

For people used to the size of the UK or Ireland, New Zealand can seem intimidatingly large. The driving distances are long and the road quality is variable. Most New Zealanders don’t think an hour is a long drive, and the most common way to travel between the two biggest cities (Auckland and Wellington) is to make the eight-hour drive.

Cars are relatively cheap and in New Zealand, you can start driving at just 15. Getting on the road is a rite of passage.

For people moving from the USA and Canada, the biggest difference will be that in New Zealand, you drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Pies

 Pies are something close to a religion in New Zealand. If you walk into a dairy (or, as you may know it, a corner store or shop) you are less likely to find a fridge of sandwiches or ready to eat meals than a heated cabinet full of meat pies. New Zealand loves a meat pie, both as an old favourite and a classic to deconstruct and reinvent. They are everywhere. 

Sports

The sports-mad reputation New Zealand has is well-earned. A kiwi who doesn’t consider themselves ‘sporty’ is still likely to play at least one sport, run, climb or swim in their spare time.

Living in New Zealand
Taupo Marina on the Waikato River, North island.

Breezily announcing that you’re not into sports will get one of two responses.

The first option is a stare that suggests you’ve grown a second head. The second is an amused laugh from the person you’re talking to. Right before they agree and say that they really only ski, surf and run a bit at the weekends. Casually, you know. 

Kiwis don’t bite

Most people in New Zealand are friendly, sincere and welcoming. Especially in cities, people are used to and happy to encounter new neighbours.

South Islanders have a reputation for being a little dour on first acquaintance. Not unlike their distant cousins in some areas of Scotland. This will be more noticeable to newcomers from the United States or Canada, kiwi customer service takes a polite, reserved tone rather than bouncy enthusiasm.

Barefoot children

Especially in the warmer north, you will see people walk around without shoes. Mostly children, but not exclusively. This is on purpose and because they prefer it that way. Some primary schools will even have children in lessons and the playground without shoes.

Health and safety culture

Litigation culture, health and safety, call it what you will. New Zealand is either blissfully free of it or many years behind, depending on your perspective. American and British parents will notice a lack of cotton wool wrapping when it comes to kids and an emphasis on independence.

Sheep

There really are between 6 and 10 sheep per human being in New Zealand. This isn’t news to people in New Zealand, and they tend to view it as an asset.

The final thoughts on living in New Zealand

When you look at New Zealand, it’s easy to get caught up with the breathtaking views of Mount Cook, the glaciers and the geysers. Easy, but not the whole story. From melting pots to chocolate boxes, the communities of New Zealand are diverse and developing.

Give some thought to where you’ll find your niche and get ready to get stuck in, as a kiwi might say.

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Hannah Morby
Hannah Morby

Hannah is a freelance writer based in picturesque Carmarthenshire, the UK. After winding her way around the world, living in New Zealand, Yorkshire and the Home Counties, she is now settled closer to her childhood home in Wales.

Having left a career working in higher education, she now enjoys life as a copywriter, mother and chief zookeeper to a small menagerie of cats, dogs and chickens.

You can contact Hannah on LinkedIn: Hannah Morby

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