The countries in Eastern Europe have long and complex histories. While Western Europe has many similar foundational elements in terms of religion and architecture, politics in the 20th Century have shaped two distinct regions of the world. For expats looking at Western Europe, Berlin and Amsterdam are two popular options, as are Portugal and Spain. Less readily considered is Eastern Europe, a growing and vibrant region that has become increasingly popular for entrepreneurs and digital nomads interested in an affordable cost of living in a culturally vibrant city. The cities profiled on this page — Budapest, Bucharest, Plovdiv, and Tallinn — represent the locations with the most expat activity, as well as those places with the most lenient visa policies for foreigners.
Interestingly, while places like Panama have a highly stratified cost of living for the most popular expat spots, these Eastern European capitals are affordable across the board. None of the cities and towns profiled are expat-focused, they have an intriguing mix of cultures, languages, locals, travelers, and expats. This is ideal for expats, digital nomads, and entrepreneurs who are equally as interested in experiencing the culture as they are in experiencing the lower cost of living.
Life & Living Costs Bulgaria
Life & Living Costs Hungary
Life & Living Costs Romania
Resources & Advice for Moving
Trip Planning Advice
Cost of Living Comparison
Why Eastern Europe?
Many Eastern European countries are also focusing fast on development as they eye the Eurozone and look for ways to both enter that economic agreement, and to increase the standard of living for their residents. For those moving to Eastern Europe, this bodes well for a continued increase in quality of life and opportunities. And perhaps just as compelling for many entrepreneurs and digital nomads — the ability to use Europe as a homebase from which you explore the rest of the world. Discount airlines are popular and flights are affordable to anywhere in Western Europe. Even more, discount flights into Central Asia, and Africa make even more compelling vacation spots. And the topping on it all for the digital nomad crowd is good wifi. With the emerging startup scenes prevalent, each city can guarantee solid internet connections.
And expats considering Eastern Europe are often looking for cooler climates rather than the beaches of southern Europe, or the sweltering heat in places like Thailand or Costa Rica. Most places profiled here give expats the opportunity to venture outside the cities and hike in the mountains within just a short drive. They are gorgeous countries, boasting rolling hills and jagged mountain peaks. Nature is a compelling reason to consider Eastern Europe — it’s rugged, wild, and gorgeous.
Equally so, however, is the cost of living. Unless your family hails from Eastern Europe, there is a good chance you had never previously considered moving to this region of the world. Plovdiv and Tallinn have grown in recent years to incubate a fascinating startup and entrepreneurial scene. Living in a place where their money stretches further is one of the first actions entrepreneurs take as they build their businesses. Bucharest is surprisingly pricier, but other spots in Romania are still a bargain. For this reason, anyone interested in the startup scene will find ample opportunities for community in these cities profiled. And while there is definitely a young vibe to the expat scene in many cities, they are also filled with locals also raising kids and enjoying retirement. Each city offers international schools, and many entrepreneurs bring their young families to the city as they build the tech startups.
In short, there are compelling opportunities for expats interested in having the location and culture benefits of living in Europe, while also benefiting from a lower living cost than they find elsewhere in Europe.
Currencies: Bulgarian Lev; 1 USD 1 = 1.76 BGN (current BGN rate). Hungarian Forint; 1 USD = 280 HUF (current HUF rate). Estonian Euro; 1USD = .89 EUR (current EUR rate). Romanian Lei; 1 USD = 4RON (current RON rate)
Expat Scene: Eastern Europe is an attractive option for expats, retirees, and entrepreneurs who are looking for cities with character, as well as a low cost of living. Many tech start-ups and expats call places like Plovdiv, Tallinn, and Budapest home. Many of the entrepreneurs and digital nomads will be Europeans from other cities across the region. Visas can be tricky for North Americans, so there is a very European vibe to the expat scene.
Internet: Internet in each of these cities is very good. The connections are strong and average 55 mps down, with some cities (Plovdiv) reaching even 95 up and 65 down. That said, cities like Bucharest do not have rampant public wifi. While you can get a good connection at home, the free wifi trend hasn’t caught on in all areas of Eastern Europe yet.
Visas: Not all of Eastern Europe is part of the Schengen Agreement. Both Hungary and Estonia are Schengen Agreement countries. Romania and Bulgaria were given preliminary approval to join in 2016. For Schengen Agreement countries, you can visit there without a visa for three months in a six month period. To live there, each one has a differing approval process, and some have freelancers visas, but everything can get pricey when you have to translate documents into the local language. The resources at the end provide additional links and information.
Water: In general, drinking tap water is safe in these parts of Europe. The water is chlorinated, but there are local bacteria your gut will have to adjust to during your first month in all four countries. If you are unsure of its safety, this website is a great resource.
Safety: Safety concerns are quite small in Eastern Europe, with pickpockets and petty crime being the most frequent problems. Being aware of your surroundings and talking to locals is always a good option when gauging safety in terms of travel, as well as in which neighbourhoods to live.
Average Local Salary: About USD $900 in Budapest. A big range, on average USD $1,150 for Tallinn — much higher for IT workers and considerably less for waitstaff. Roughly USD $1,000 in Bucharest. And about USD $520 for Plovdiv and Sofia. Wages for the entire country are often lower (sometimes significantly lower) than these larger and capital cities.
Possible Issues: Navigating visas is one of the hardest parts of moving to Eastern Europe for most North Americans. Once all four countries profiled are a part of the Schengen, that will make it significantly easier for Europeans looking to move east. Language difficulties are also significant. Knowing a Slavic or Russian-based language would help ease the transition a bit, though German could be just as useful. Most languages in this region aren’t influenced by the Romance languages, which makes it them difficult for English-speakers to learn. Notably, however, Romanian is a Category I language — considered easy — for English speakers.
Child Friendliness: Europe is very child-friendly, with many cultures placing high values on family. Each of the cities profiled has international schools, which are required for children who don’t speak the local language. There are a lot of green spaces and pretty architecture. It’s easy to enjoy Eastern Europe and take weekend trips to nearby cities and countries, or hop on a plane with the kids (some flights are under $100 USD per person) and explore other areas. It’s all also very driveable to take road trips.
Pet Friendliness: For the most part, Eastern Europe is pet-friendly. To find the rules for importing pets, there is a very helpful resource called Pet Passport, which has a database of pet import rules for 240 countries.
Life & Living Costs in Bulgaria
Not typically referred to as an expat or digital nomad destination, Plovdiv is surprisingly ideal for those in the tech sector who are looking for programmers, designers, and other creatives. An 800-year-old city, and named Plovdiv the sixth oldest town in the world, Plovdiv is filled with historical charm. It’s a bonus that it’s filled with modern technologies too — the wifi is downright speedy! In fact, among the fastest speeds in Europe, with 30 mbps being the lowest you’d find in the city, and you can find many in the 90 mbps down speed (and as much as 60 mbps up). For an entrepreneur or digital nomad, that’s pretty alluring. The city has a thriving café culture, with most not minding if people spend the day. Bulgarians love to grab a coffee with friends and enjoy the company, the ambiance, and the food.
In the past few years, Bulgaria is gaining a reputation for knowledgeable IT workers at bargain costs. Perhaps for that reason, the age range of most expats is 20-40 years, with retirees living in the suburbs and countryside. The majority of the expat community in Plovdiv is made up of entrepreneurs and students, which is part of why the city also boasts a vibrant nightlife of clubs and bars. The cost of living is low compared to most anywhere in Western Europe, but you still have the benefit of being adjacent to all the European hotspots. But even with Europe close, Bulgaria is gorgeous and the varied topography and climate make for interesting road trips and weekend getaways year round.
Living in Bulgaria is even more affordable than some digital nomad hotspots in Southeast Asia like Thailand and Vietnam. Plus, Plovdiv and Sofia have undeniable charms. The culture is entirely different, but it’s intriguing to see how those with the privilege of moving around could choose, for similar costs, several varied cultures and lifestyles. Expats report that they love the quality of life in Bulgaria. Even in Sofia, the capital, coffee is cheap and the food is abundant. Rent is affordable and what you get in return is very nice. Fresh juices are the norm and portions are large and affordable. It’s just an overall place where digital nomads feel like everything is “enough.”
The cost of living is among the biggest draws, and can be as low as $650 for those living on a budget, and scale up from there to $1,000 per month for a middle-class life, and $2,000 for a lot of luxury. You can bargain budget if you’re staying for a year (for the best rental prices) and you’ll still have a pretty good life, although upping your budget will go far in terms of fun, food, and living spaces.
Average Cost of Living in Bulgaria: $600 – $1,900
|Monthly Expense||Costs (USD$)|
|Rent||$200 – $500|
|Nightlife||$50 – $100|
|Transportation||$20 – $50|
Life & Living Costs in Budapest, Hungary
Another upcoming hotspot for expats, entrepreneurs, and digital nomads, Budapest feels similar to other European countries with it’s solid cafe culture and good wifi. In addition to decent wifi in your rentals, the cafes in the city also generally offer fast speeds and a welcoming atmosphere.
If you’re renting in Budapest, understand that the city is comprised of 23 districts. While many expats prefer to live in the Buda side — due to its green spaces and residential feel — some prefer the vibrant Pest side, settling in districts 13 and 5 (downtown and Belváros). Your income and friend-group may largely determine where you want to move in the city. Higher earning expats tend to frequent different areas than the budgeting digital nomad crew.
Another benefit for all expats living in Hungary is the affordable healthcare. It’s a trend the country is actively supporting, with medical tourism a lucrative business for the country. For expats, this means great access to hospitals and dentists.
Moving to Hungary won’t supply the rock-bottom prices of nearby Bulgaria, but if you have a job or a reason to be there, the country offers affordable living and lovely perks of easy travel throughout Hungary, and Europe on the whole.
Average Cost of Living in Hungary: $750 – $2,000
|Monthly Expense||Costs (USD$)|
|Rent||$176 – $500|
|Food||$360 – $600|
|Transportation (metro card & weekend trips)||$80|
Gary Lukatch left a job in the financial industry in New Mexico and moved to Budapest, where he worked as a teacher. His cut in pay was significant, but so was the quality of life change he experienced living in Budapest. Gary reports that his apartment, located in the middle of town, and utilities in Budapest cost around $400 per month.
Life & Living Costs in Bucharest, Romania
Bucharest won’t win awards for architectural beauty, in fact, the city is grey, communist-era aesthetics, and — bizarrely — has a similarly somber feel as Aberdeen, Scotland. The thing is, a lot of travelers skip Bucharest because it lacks that outward charm of Plovdiv or Tallinn. But if you talk to locals, they say there’s a lot to love under the surface, and it just takes spending some time to discover that there is more to Bucharest than grey buildings and the tiny Old Town.
What’s more, there’s a cultural wormhole that Romania passed through because of Communism. Some of the Westernization that happened elsewhere bypassed Romania. The mindset is refreshingly different than the home-culture in America and will provide good fodder for late-night conversations over wine with friends, or impromptu discussions with taxi drivers.
Most expats are here for work, but there are a number of travelers and digital nomads who pop through the city while they sample the Eastern European scene. It’s affordable, the younger generation speaks a good deal of English, and has it’s own kind of charm once you embrace the culture and meet a friend group with whom you can explore. And exploring is a favorite expat activity that really adds to the quality of life. The capital is well located, with coastline on one side and mountains on the other. In fact, Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson drove the Transfăgărășan Highway and considered it quite possible the best road in the world. We pretty much agree, it’s stunning. And although there aren’t a ton of international flights to far-flung places, Istanbul is just an hour flight away and connects to any other destination under the sun.
The city is also growing and progressing, with a new bike lanes being added in popular areas. It has diversity at every turn, old mixing with new, poverty and new wealth. For living costs, this creates a broad range. Although the Worldwide Cost of Living survey has regularly ranked Bucharest among the lowest cost of living in Europe, that doesn’t always bear out for those expecting Western amenities. It’s affordable, but not rock-bottom.
Average Cost of Living in Romania: $750 – $1,500
|Monthly Expenses||Costs (USD$)|
|Rent||$300 – $700|
Bucharest Expat is probably one of the best websites for those wishing to relocate and start a life in Romania’s capital city. Their cost of living section details everything from renting or buying an apartment to restaurants to markets to sports to transportation. According to Bucharest Expat, rent in the city starting at $350 per month, although with local salaries low, you could likely find bare-budget accommodation for less.
Life & Living Costs in Tallinn, Estonia
One of the smaller European capital cities, Tallinn is a hotspot for tech startups, and that vibrant scene is only growing. It’s definitely on the radar for digital nomads more than retirees, perhaps because of location? Located in northern Europe, you can expect frigid winters. One big benefit being that the south of Spain is just an affordable plane ride away, as is the rest of Europe. And although there are lifers in the expat scene, many expats are in the tech space and spend just a couple of years in Tallinn before moving on to other cities and countries.
The many cafes and bars in Tallinn, mostly outside the touristy Old Town, can be attributed to hipsters, and are an ideal place to work while enjoying good coffee. Tallinn is not without its challenges, the weather can be harsh in winter months and the locals can appear to be cold and dismissive, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Carlos Miceli, an entrepreneur who lived in Tallinn, found the locals are respectful, patient, calm, and helpful when engaged, however they are not inclined to initiate contact.
Average Cost of Living in Tallinn, Estonia: $900 – $2,200
|Monthly Expense||Costs (USD$)|
|Rent||$350 – $650|
|Nightlife||$70 – $100|
Links & Resources For Moving to Eastern Europe
- A Better Life for Half the Price: A Mexican expat breaks down all the major expat spots in the world with costs, quality of living, and resources. I learned a lot and found a couple of countries I hadn’t previously considered. It’s worth buying if you’re still searching out which country is best for the life you want to live.
- Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America: There are a lot of these general guides. The book above, Better Life is about where is a good culture fit, whereas this is the better of the lot of “move overseas” books that covers the practicalities and very hands-on information you need as someone considering living anywhere outside the U.S. If you’re new all the researching, this can kick-start your process. And if you are laser focused on the retirement topic, versus moving overseas at a different state in life, this retirement guide has great advice.
- The Tax Book for U.S. Expats: This is well-priced and unique to expats and retirees filing abroad. It gives a granular look at forms, terms, and sorting out exactly how to file — good for those with complicated tax situations. More recently released, U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans goes broader and is aimed at younger expats and digital nomads still working and handling how to earn income overseas, pay taxes, and live a nomadic life. It doesn’t explain the terms or niche situations/forms as well as the other book, but instead acts as a guide for younger travelers. Depending on your situation, pick up a copy of one of these guides before you leave so that you will have a tax system in place that maximizes the opportunities to easily file.
- You’ll also want property insurance once you’re living overseas — I’ve used Clements for many years now.
- Maria is a Bulgarian woman who blogs in English. She has a lot of great Bulgarian travel ideas future expats can scour for tips and ideas on what it would be like to live in Bulgaria. Everything from must-know driving tips to an amazingly detailed guide about all things Bulgaria.
- Plovdiv has great coworking spaces, with Biz Labs at the front and Hackafe is an intriguing hackerspace!
- Just Landed covers some of the basics if you’re a new arrival.
- Check out the Facebook group about Living in Bulgaria as an expat.
- How to get started when you first move to Budapest: Covering everything from immigration paperwork to finding a job to finding a place to live to medical care and more. I highly recommend bookmarking this site for quick reference as you prepare for your move to Budapest.
- Finding a job in Budapest: This post by a British expat living in the city gives detail information on how to find a job in Budapest, including job bank websites and CV tips.
- Finding a place to rent is easier with a local phone number, so secure one of those right away. Then look to these sites for rentals: Apartments of Budapest, Budapest Rent, and Real Estate Hungary.
- Just Landed is a good all-around resource for new arrivals.
- Visit the active Facebook group: All Expats Budapest.
- New expats and digital nomads should look through the forums at Just Landed.
- This Facebook group is useful: Cs & Expats in Bucharest.
- Garage48 Hub is the primary coworking space in Tallinn and is very focused on helping incubate startups and entrepreneurs. Coworking is also good and Töökoht has an active community.
- Facebook groups can be helpful, this one is a good resource for those considering Tallinn: Expats in Tallinn/Estonia.
Planning a Research Trip to Eastern Europe?
- If you’re visiting the region, I recommend using Booking.com to research the best hotels and guest houses. The properties are well reviewed and it’s my go-to for finding a good spot. Even if you pick a different hotel, ALA readers receive a discount on their first booking!
- Pick out a good travel insurance policy like World Nomads (I’ve used them since 2008) to cover you while you’re either in transit visiting your future homes, or their insurance policies can work well as long-term expat insurance too.
- If you’re in Bucharest, I recommend Antique Hostel.
- In Budapest, you can’t go wrong with Hotel Chesscom.
- And in Tallinn, Tabinoya-Tallinn’s Travellers House is well located and will allow you to get a vibe for the city and also apartment hunt.
Cost of Living Comparison
Still researching the right spot to live? Our Cost of Living Guides share extensive resources and expat stories or all the major spots around the world. These guides include thorough breakdowns of the culture, quality of life, vibe, and — importantly — budget breakdowns so you can better plan which spot in the world best meets your needs.
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