Asia is one of the world's most culturally diverse and economically advanced regions. It is considered to be the fastest-growing region for expatriates from all backgrounds, from young professionals choosing to build their careers to senior executives.
The continent has abundant natural resources and a skilled workforce ready to take on any international project, giving it an edge in all economic endeavours. Expats can enjoy living in this economic hub, as long as they are ready to adjust to their new culture and environment.
As the world's most populous continent, and also the most expensive, five of its cities—Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, and Singapore—landed in ECA International’s top 10 list, in its annual survey of the most expensive living costs across major international cities.
These cities might be costly, but they are worth every penny as they are considered to offer a great quality of life.
Hong Kong has been named the world's most expensive city for the third year in a row because of its strong currency. Their currency, the Hong Kong dollar (HKD), has maintained its strength against the US dollar, making everything from travel to housing and food fairly expensive for expats.
As residential property prices are among the highest in the world, the cost of living in Hong Kong depends mainly on your lifestyle and what type of accommodation you choose to live in. For example, you must pay HKD 12,000 to 20,000 (around USD 1,500 to 2,500) per month for a simple one-bedroom apartment further away from the centre. If you wish to live closer to the centre or rent a bigger place with more amenities, expect to pay HKD 20,000 to 30,000 (around USD 2,550 to 3,850) per month and more.
The cost of real estate is high due to limited land space for development and the high demand for housing. It is a good thing that Hong Kong has a high salary cap as well, so it is possible to balance the cost of living with a higher income level.
Tokyo’s position as an international business and financial centre and its proximity to Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe (and Osaka's Kansai International Airport) has made it the main gateway to Japan for tourists arriving by air.
Because it's one of the most densely populated cities worldwide, the cost of living is high because it requires a lot of infrastructure and maintenance to support such a large number of people. Japan has efficient public transportation systems and services, making it easier for residents to get around without owning cars. But even with these services available at an affordable price, living in Tokyo can still cost a fortune due to its high rent prices.
Expats living in Tokyo are generally paid more than their counterparts in other cities. Still, they also have to pay more for healthcare and housing— the cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment inside the city centre is estimated at around JPY 150,000 (around USD 1,100).
Shanghai is a hub for business, finance, and trade, with many multinational companies having their Asia headquarters there. The city is also home to some of China's priciest expat districts, including Xintiandi (Shanghai) and Lujiazui (Pudong). The latter is home to several skyscrapers, including Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai World Financial Centre, Oriental Pearl Tower, and Jinmao Tower II.
Shanghai is undergoing rapid modernisation, and its infrastructure is being constantly improved to cope with the increase in population. This means that housing is expensive, and many expats are required to live in gated communities or compounds. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Shanghai ranges from CNY 3,925 to 9,442 (around USD 582 to 1,400), and a single subway ride costs CNY 8 (around USD 1.30).
In general, Shanghai's cost of living is higher than other cities in Mainland China—Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Beijing—which are also some of the most expensive places to live in Asia.
Seoul has a vibrant economy, primarily driven by telecommunications, electronics, automobile production, chemicals, and more. The presence of these industries helped it become one of the most expensive cities in the world.
The city’s booming economy also led to an increase in construction sites and new buildings. Seoul has no shortage of luxury apartments, but these are mostly targeted at upper-income professionals who can afford this level of accommodation.
The cost of groceries also tends to be higher than in other Asian cities like Hong Kong. However, there are plenty of ways to reduce your grocery bill by shopping at discount stores like Lotte Mart or E-Mart, or getting a membership card for Costco or Sam’s Club, where you can get discounts on groceries and household items.
As a global financial hub, Singapore's high cost of living can be attributed to its high GDP per capita, which is expected to trend at around USD 61,000. The country’s small size, limited natural resources, and land constraints also contribute to its expensive living costs.
Singapore also has one of the highest incidences of income inequality among developed countries. While salaries have increased steadily since 2000 and are among the highest in the Asia-Pacific region, they are still much lower than those earned by expatriates working in Singapore.
The cost of living differs little between Singapore's 28 districts, but rental prices can significantly affect overall expenses—renting a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre can cost around SGD 2,768 (around USD 2,000).
While being the most expensive places to live in Asia, these five cities continue to attract expatriates thanks to their high quality of life, great work opportunities, infrastructure, and proximity to other Asian countries.
The pandemic also had a significant impact on the flow of expatriates moving in and out of these cities. For instance, due to the strict Covid-19 restrictions, many expatriates have chosen to move out of Hong Kong. Some destinations, such as Dubai, Thailand, South Korea, or even Singapore, are starting to emerge as top destinations for expatriates—which will certainly impact their cost of living in the years to come.
There are many countries in Asia where the cost of healthcare is high. With APRIL International, you can rest assured knowing that your health and that of your family are protected wherever you are in Asia.
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