Where To Next? A Look at Expat Cities

In my line of work, understanding the status of expat cities can be quite helpful. The more I can assist global HR managers in effective expat management, the better. In working with global HR teams and employees in various stages of the assignment process, it’s essential to learn and understand the expat process from A to Z. I am familiar with typical expat cities, but wanted to learn more about trending, or up-and-coming, expat cities.

What I discovered isn’t exactly what I expected.

The Trendy

My greatest resource for reviewing the trending expat cities was our partner’s AIRINC’s Trending Expat Cities 2013 report. This report examines five-year global trends in expatriate relocation. The survey revealed that there was not much movement in the top ten, but a rising star was Sao Paulo, moving from 24th to 9th in a few short years.

Here are the top-ten trending cities:

  • London
  • Singapore
  • Shanghai
  • Hong Kong
  • Tokyo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • Paris
  • Sao Paulo
  • Sydney


After reviewing this data, I wondered if the areas teeming with expat activity were also some of the costliest, so I turned to Mercer’s 2014 Cost of Living Rankings.

The Costly

To conduct its survey, Mercer researched 211 cities on 5 continents and compared the costs of over 200 items in each location. These items included food, housing, clothes, transportation and entertainment.

Here are the top-twelve costliest expat cities:

  • Luanda, Angola
  • N’djamena, Chad
  • Hong Kong
  • Singapore
  • Zurich
  • Geneva
  • Tokyo
  • Bern
  • Moscow
  • Shanghai
  • Beijing
  • London

So, six cities—Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing and London—are on both lists.

That’s considerable overlap. So now we’ve identified the trendy, we’ve listed the costly, but what about the attractive? For that, I turned to the expats.

The Desirable

I reviewed the Britain-based HSBC 2013 survey that asked 7,000 expats in 34 countries to rank their assignment location according to the criteria of economics, experience and raising children.

Their findings? China and Thailand take the top expat location spots followed by the small, rich countries of Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, Bahrain and Singapore. At the bottom of the list? Egypt and most of Western Europe, with the survey citing cost of living as the culprit. (You’ll note Western Europe’s absence from the trending expat city list as well.)

This report gives a solid thumbs up to expat life in developing Asian countries. Higher pay combined with a lower cost of living and many entertainment options enables these countries to score well. In general, Middle Eastern countries get the expats’ thumbs down due to restrictions on property ownership and quality of life.

The Results

So, what does all this mean? I’ve asked myself this same question. Reviewing the data, it seems that Asia is the common denominator.

Five out of the top-ten trending cities are in Asia, and five out of the top-twelve costliest cities are in Asia. Countries in Asia also rank as top locales with the expats. Looking at these surveys collectively indicates that the popularity of Asian destinations will only continue to rise, especially as businesses and economies continue to grow in this region of the world.

With growth and desire landing in sometimes costly Asia, global HR managers should keep a close eye on how to effectively manage expats in these destinations. When researching locations and costs for assignees, it will be essential to factor the escalating costs in these countries into cost projections or budget reports. Monitoring the general cost of living, specifically the housing and utilities, will be a key factor in keeping costs as manageable as possible.

While impractical to track the ever-changing climate of multiple expat cities—whether trendy, costly or desirable—global HR managers will benefit from keeping tabs on global current events, which potentially impact existing or proposed assignees.