When I moved from Germany to Hong Kong 1.5 years ago I thought it probably can’t get any crazier than that. I had lived in North and South America and in a few places in Europe but Asia seemed to be a different world. Yet, here I am in Cairo now (hint: the Egyptian Cairo…there is also a Cairo in the USA), a city larger than Hong Kong and a step up in the ranking of insane expat cities (I mean this in a positiv way).
We just moved a few days ago, us and the two cats. Between making the decision to start a new life in Egypt and touchdown in Cairo we had 6 weeks. Not a lot of time to prepare a relocation and I have to admit I had countless night hours without sleep. Of course, I was concerned about living in an North African capital. In the end, I had only been on a wedding in South Africa and a safari in Namibia and Botswana. Moving to a country that has been shaped by a recent revolution and basically is located right next to the desert, is something different than watching zebra in the wild in Namibia and drinking wine in Stellenbosch in South Africa. However what I found the most intriguing about moving here, there are so few information online about moving to and living in Cairo as an expat. So here are 10 things to know before moving to Cairo.
8 Things To Know Before Moving To Cairo
Don’t read too much online about the situation in Cairo
I have done the mistake and joined almost all Cairo expat groups on Facebook and read personal reports on other expat forums. It has helped me to the extent that I know I have to check the expiry date for every food item I purchase and to not drink the tab water. However I have also read many stories about women being harassed and foreigners being fooled by Egyptians. It got to a point that I was afraid going outside by myself before even moving to Cairo. Including a pre-visit to Cairo I have spent a few weeks in this city now and have never felt uncomfortable and only met the most friendly and welcoming people. I am not saying that there will never be the moment when my cultural understanding won’t appreciate the behaviour of the Egyptian culture. However it is not good to be overcautious as well and run the risk of missing out on the full extent of expat life in Cairo.
Make the first few days count
When moving to a new city I find it very important to get a good first impression. Especially in a city like Cairo, there are many obstacles that can be challenging. In order to face these kind of challenges I need to be able to draw on positiv experiences. I make sure that I have a good time in the first few days and weeks and even spoil myself a little bit more than I would usually do. Rather than frustratingly looking for ingredients I need (and that might not even exist in Cairo) to cook a meal, I go out for dinner. Rather than getting stomach problems from local food (that I had never eaten before) I rely on Western comfort food knowing that I will have enough time to slowly explore the local cuisine. And even though I should be furnishing my home and unpacking all boxes, I rather go on a short day trip to some beautiful destination (like the red sea) or visit an attraction (like the Egyptian Museum) to recharge my batteries every few days.
Be prepared in case you have a specific diet or allergy
Luckily I don’t have any allergies but I try to eat healthy and choose the ingredients I buy carefully. Before moving to Hong Kong I was Vegan but found it too difficult to continue as I was not able to find the variety of food I used to eat in Germany. Unfortunately, the food scene in Cairo is not a bit comparable to the ones of European or American capitals (well, we are in Africa after all). You do have all these great Egyptian foods and I swear I would love to eat hummus all day long but I still want to keep up with my nutritious diet. Things like almond milk and spelt flakes are hard to find and some you won’t even be able to get at all (like soya yoghurt). So I made a culinary list of everything that I didn’t want to give up. This is the point where you have to become creative. I bought myself a Vitamix blender to make my own almond milk and fresh carrot juice and a Vegan culture starter to produce soya yoghurt. Right now I am quite happy that I am not able to buy each and everything from the shelves because it finally ‘forces’ me to make my own food and control the ingredients that go inside.
Be ready to change or adjust your lifestyle
If you like to ride your bicycle, jog through the woods or take a long walk along the river, Cairo will have a hard time doing this for you. There are alternatives but you might not be able to get out of bed, get out the door and start the day with a run that easily anymore. It is probably more likely that you will take your car and drive somewhere to pursue your workouts. For me this is a very new concept. There are many other things that will change my lifestyle, like I am used to do my grocery shopping every evening because we had many supermarkets close by. Now, I need to drive for 30 min to the next Carrefour or shop in the small neighbourhood market with less selection or simply get things delivered (which I am not very fond of as I like to select everything myself). Yet, I’ll manage to find a way eventually as I am aware that my routine from back home needs to be adjusted or entirely changed. But as they say, life begins when you leave your comfort zone.
Get your own impression on the neighbourhoods
Again, there are many opinions online that tell you where to live in Cairo as an expat. You will also meet people in Cairo that tell you where it is best and safest to live. As for everything else it is best to get your own idea because not everyone has the same taste. I can only recommend to go on a 1-2 day tour to get to know all relevant neighbourhoods. After that, sit down and make a list of requirements that you find important for your neighbourhood. Why after? Because you probably don’t know yet what Cairo has to offer. We had a look at New Cairo City (a district in Cairo) first which basically consists of new compounds, many of them empty. The compounds are great, they are huge and very modern but you won’t find many bars and restaurants close by. As the realtor showed as one compound flat after the other we assumed that this was the way of living here. When we checked out Al Maadi (another district) with another realtor we realised that there is an area with more social life but all the apartments were much older. In Europe we probably would have found a modern flat in a busy neighbourhood. In Cairo we had to prioritise and decided that modernity and size of the flat comes after the proximity to cozy cafes and a few more restaurant options.
Moving your pets to Egypt is not difficult
Moving the two cats to Cairo was my greatest concern. I was afraid that it would be difficult to get all required documents on time and then go through immigration without any problems. I did not use a pet relocation agency as I found the costs horrendous in Hong Kong. In the end, the whole process turned out be quite simple. All the cats needed were up-to-date vaccinations (including rabies), each a microchip and a general health certificate. A few days before departure, the health certificates got certified by the Hong Kong government and also by the Egyptian embassy. When entering Cairo, nobody really looked at the documents and it took a few seconds to pass immigration.
Stay strong during your flat hunt
Flat hunting in Cairo is a science by itself. You think you know but you have no idea. We saw 47 apartment in 2.5 days and there were only two that fulfilled our requirements (renovated or at least not mouldy bathrooms and kitchen, no rusty pipes, no electrical wires hanging from the walls, safe area etc.). If you are not a fan of Egyptian interior design (like us) expect 80 % of the flats to be a flop. Knowing that, there are some steps you can follow to find your perfect place.
1. Don’t rely only on one realtor but use 1-2 other ones
2. Try to circle your favorite neighbourhood as soon as you can and even within that neighbourhood, try to focus your flat hunt on just a few streets or a small part
3. Share your priorities with the realtor, over and over again. If you enter a flat and instantly don’t like it, tell the realtor why and move on to the next one. If you definitely want a balcony or some outdoor space and the realtor keeps showing you flats without any of the two, repeat your requirements. It took a few viewings but eventually all realtors had a very good feeling of what we really wanted from a flat.
Buy furniture in advance
Every time I moved I bought additional or new furniture because either I wanted to replace an old object or I had to get something extra that was needed in the new flat. Either way, in case you ship your belongings from your home to Cairo and have some space left in your container, buy everything you need in your home country. Design and prices of furniture in Egypt can be very different from what you are used to. During our pre-visit to Cairo (before moving here) we went to IKEA to check out the collection and look for items we knew we needed in Cairo. Comparing the prices to IKEA in Hong Kong we realised that Cairo was much more expensive. So instead of buying the mattress from IKEA in Cairo, we bought it for 300 Euros (375 USD) less in Hong Kong, had it delivered to our home and picked up by the removal company like all our other furniture.
If you have any questions about moving to or living in Cairo, leave a comment. Or if you have any other recommendations that make a move to Cairo easier, please share your thoughts and experiences.