The American expat guide to living in Dubai- here’s everything you need to know

Deciding to move away from your country can be a huge jump for anyone. Moving from the US to the UAE (and Dubai), a country with a very different lifestyle can be a real culture shock. Failing to do enough research or preparing properly for life in the UAE, could make your move quite stressful. In order to help you make sure this fate doesn’t befall you, and to help you understand how different life may be in Dubai, we have written this complete expat guide to Dubai to help you through establishing your new life in the UAE. Hopefully, it will help a little in regards to lining up your expectations with reality. First things first, how will you get a job? Let’s take a look:

Employment

expat guide Dubai

Generally, a large number of people who decide to move to the United Arab Emirates do so for work-related reasons. This is usually because they have either been offered a position within a company there or are aiming to establish their own business in the country. As is the case in most countries, the visa type you get often depends on the reasoning behind your relocation. So, if you are already employed by a company or have been offered a position, you can apply for a work visa. This makes things quite easy for you in terms of the paperwork as it’ll mostly be managed by the company. Work visas are also the ones with the simplest requirements, so that will make things a lot easier for you.

Alternatively, if you are an entrepreneur, you can also apply for an investor visa or you can apply for a student visa if you are an international student who is thinking of moving to Dubai for educational purposes.  A major reason why people move to the UAE is favorable rates for tax-free-income. Taxes apply on certain levels of income but compared to other countries, are markedly reduced if not completely waived. That is something many potential movers look forward to when researching about beginning their new job in the UAE. However, what you might not know that employers have very high expectations from their expatriate employees. This oftentimes includes working long hours and high demands. Make sure this is clearly agreed when signing your contract. You should also get used to…

Weekends consisting of only Friday and Saturday

expat guide Dubai

Weekends in most countries consist of Saturdays and Sundays. However, that’s not the case in Dubai- the work week starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday. In Islam, Friday is a holy day and a day in which people are not supposed to work. This might be a bit difficult to get used to but after some time you’ll be fine. So, get read ready to replace TGIF wit TGIT (Thank God it’s Thursday).

Accommodation

When it comes to finding a home in Dubai, things can become slightly tricky, especially for US expats. You might be used to paying rent on a monthly basis but, in Dubai, though this option is often available, many landlords prefer to take payments in one go or in four installments divided over the year. It becomes imperative for an expat to be aware of this detail and discuss it with the landlord beforehand. You’ll have to plan your expenses accordingly and have a clear-cut-agreement with your landlord.

 

Furthermore, you might think that being tax-free will lead to a more luxurious lifestyle compared to the one you had in America. However, the truth is that accommodation can be a lot more expensive in the UAE. Accommodation in Dubai is on par with some of the world’s most expensive cities. Hence, if you don’t do your research, you could potentially end up living in small flats while paying exorbitant rent. It’s important to carry out adequate research and find a home which doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.

The weather

Dubai heat

Something that many migrants, tourists and other new arrivals to Dubai are not prepared for is the dramatic change in the temperature when you start living in Dubai. Even if you’ve been living in the hottest parts of the USA, nothing compares to the heat in the UAE. To put it simply, when you move to the UAE, you will discover a new definition of heat.

Going out during the day can prove to be exceptionally difficult, especially when you are new to the country, although you will eventually get used to such a change. Fortunately, all buildings in Dubai are centrally-air-conditioned; hence, you don’t have to worry about the heat too much on a day-to-day basis. However, when purchasing a home or deciding on which one to rent, be certain to make sure it is one which is centrally air-conditioned thus ensuring there are no unpleasant shocks awaiting you when you relocate or move house to the UAE.

The food

dubai food

Let’s not forget that before oil in the UAE was discovered, most of the country consisted of endless stretches of desert without the new fancy skyscrapers.  Hence, it’s no surprise that only a few crops grow in this part of the world and the main influences to the food scene in UAE came from Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the East African coast. However, with all the development in recent years, the amount of organic food produced in Dubai and UAE has significantly increased and there are even some local food chains famous for producing and selling locally-grown crops.

Needless to say, the local food is probably a lot different from what you might be used to but most expats don’t have any problems adjusting to the food. However, if you happen to be one of the rare ones that do, there are a lot of western restaurants and fast-food chains around the city to satisfy everyone’s taste. Also, one thing that surprises most expats is that in Dubai, brunch is the most important meal of the day. And people can have more of them in a single day! Having brunch with friends/family/coworkers/someone you just met is very common. Keep this in mind and prepare your stomach (and wallet) for this. Finally, if you want to taste more different dishes before you decide what you like and what you don’t, it’s probably a good idea to check out the Taste of Dubai festival (every year in March).   

Local laws

Dubai People

For an American, possibly the most difficult part about adjusting to life in the UAE are the different local laws. This includes alcohol bans, restrictions on unmarried individuals living together, and much more. The legal system of the country is well-established, and the authorities are extremely strict when it comes to ensuring that all the laws of the country are followed properly. So, be sure to read up on the major legal differences before moving. Also, when you’re living in the UAE, be sure you aren’t doing something which would have been totally acceptable in America but could lead to serious criminal consequences in the UAE. This leads me to the next point…

Bureaucracy

For newcomers, Dubai can cause headaches when it comes to bureaucracy. You want to buy alcohol? You need a permit. Want to drive in Dubai? You need a special permit. Want to work/reside in Dubai? You need a permit(s). Try to learn as much as you can before moving to Dubai to ease this initial period of adjustment that can drive a lot of people crazy. If you’re planning to visit more countries in the Middle East while in Dubai and don’t want to go through the hassle of getting a visa and all the needed documentation, check out this website for getting a Saudi Arabia business visa.

Cultural awareness

expat guide Dubai

An expat guide to Dubai can’t be complete without talking about cultural awareness. Sure, Dubai is by far the most liberal emirate in the UAE. However, don’t forget it still is an Arab emirate and most of the local culture is influenced by Islam. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong in this, it’s just different. For example, don’t be surprised if you’re not greeted by a lady. Many women feel uncomfortable in the presence of a man. Additionally, short dresses and miniskirts are not accepted in public places even though it’s completely fine to wear them in the city’s tourist hotspots. Furthermore, don’t forget that Muslim people pray five times per day; don’t be surprised if you see someone dropping whatever they’re doing to go for prayer. Public display of affection is also a big no-no.

Traveling around

Dubai traffic

Most cities in the UAE are not very pedestrian-friendly. Dubai has a good public transport system but this doesn’t connect all parts of the city. The best way to get around in most cities in the UAE are the local buses. They can take you anywhere but in most cases aren’t as frequent as one might wish. Hence, owning a car is probably the most convenient way of getting around. Sure, navigating in the notorious Dubai traffic isn’t a walk in the park. Directions are usually given via landmarks and the highways can be very difficult; one wrong turn can cost you an extra hour of driving! It also doesn’t help that…

The city is always under construction

Dubai construction

The goal of this expat guide to Dubai is to prepare you for your move without any surprises and a lot of people find it strange that there’s always something new being built in Dubai, whether that’s large skyscrapers, malls, or some new tourist attractions. This makes getting around even more difficult because Dubai already has a huge traffic problem and sometimes because of this, the usual route you were taking when going home will change out of nowhere. So, don’t be surprised if you see cranes in every part of the city working on building the next “biggest/tallest ___ in the world! 

Alternatively, if you’re visiting Dubai as a tourist and want to make out most of your time and money, check out this Dubai guide for all budgets.

Healthcare in Dubai

Finally, before we round up this expat guide to Dubai, we need to mention a few words about healthcare. The city’s network of hospitals and doctors is comparable to the highest international standards. The major private hospitals are equipped with some state-of-the-art medical equipment. Government hospitals aren’t as well-equipped as their private counterparts but are still more than decent. Furthermore, all employers must take care of healthcare expenditures for all of their employees. This is something you should know before signing any work contract. Also, when choosing a health plan, it’s advisable to choose one of the larger better-known brands; smaller clinics and hospitals may not provide the quality of care expected by most expats.

Living in the UAE might be a huge change when moving from America. However, major cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi are known to be extremely enjoyable places to live in, offering great entertainment and lifestyle. So, as long as you do your research and take the proper precautions, you are sure to love living there! 

Helpful resources for traveling to Dubai

For cheap flights to Dubai, use this Qatar Airways coupon to save up to 20% on your Dubai flight. If you’re a student, take advantage of this STA travel coupon to save on all of your flights to Europe.

For renting a car in Dubai, save 15% with this Sixt discount code.

For saving on travel insurance, check out this special offer by World Nomads.

To save on accommodation, use this link to get 15% off on all accommodation bookings in Dubai.

Finally if you’re planning to visit Saudi Arabia during your stay in Dubai, note that you need a special Saudi Arabia Visa and you can’t travel visa-free even if you’re an expat.

Did you ever consider moving to Dubai? What do you think about this expat guide to Dubai? Did you get some useful tips from this article? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments! 

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35 thoughts on “The American expat guide to living in Dubai- here’s everything you need to know”

  1. I have only traveled to Dubai as a tourist, and just for one day in between flights. I did bumped into the bureaucracy when I asked for a one day visa at the airport, to get out and explore. That was a bit of a nightmare, but in the end I received it. I remember the heat… in the end I jumped in a cab on my way back to the airport, as it was too much.

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  2. Wow, I guess if you’re a newcomer, you really need to know the laws, and requirements. That’s nice thing to know from someone who experienced it. I guess constructions are always there during summer, but not sure how often in Dubai. Anyway, I hope I can visit Dubai someday.

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    • Thanks, Laurence- I’m glad you liked this post. Yup, construction work usually takes place in the summer but Dubai doesn’t really have a winter, hence, construction activities never stop 🙂

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  3. I’ve always wanted to visit Dubai and I am glad I came across this post – appreciate all the insightful tips in this expat guide which is also so helpful for travelers who’d like to learn more about this incredible city. I didn’t know that Sundays are working days in Dubai – that’s good to know as helps with trip planning too. Brunch being the most popular meal sounds great to me – and being a foodie, I’d love to attend the Taste of Dubai festival. Expat and travelers should surely familiarize themselves with the local laws. Thanks for helping me learn so many new things about what it’s like to live in Dubai. Stunning photographs!

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    • Thank you, Aditi and I’m glad to hear that you got some useful tips about living/traveling in Dubai from this article.

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  4. Moving to another country is always daunting. You laid out what to expect with living in Dubai from the laws, culture, and health care aspects. I’m glad to hear that Dubai has a local transportation even though most people use a car to travel.

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    • Indeed, it is, Jackie. I’m glad you think that and that you loved this post. Thank you for stopping by and dropping a comment.

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  5. I really liked this article. Well explained and it really useful for people who are planning ro move to UAE . Important points like job opportunities, accommodation and weekends will definitely help a lot. Thank you.

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  6. To be honest, I have been to Dubai twice. The first time, 6 years ago, I didn’t like that much the city. But, I was visited the city this year and I totally loved it. So many new things to do there and to visit. Love the places which offers so many things to do and visit, not only for adult but also for kids. I am thinking about going back again soon, this time with my family and with my 3 year old daughter. I am sure she would love it.

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    • For some reason, a lot of people don’t like Dubai after their first visit but have a much better second experience. I don’t know if this is due to low expectations or not exploring the city previously. Anyway, I’m very glad you liked this post and thank you for stopping by and dropping a comment.

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  7. I live in Dubai and some things I would totally relate to it. As an Indian I am not used to alcohol and so got well adjusted to this place. I agree that rents are high here but I would say, this city is very safe for all.

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  8. Hey Daniel!
    Awesome post! Hands down! Well written and informative. I concur that the heat is something that is beyond anything I have ever experienced in US. Also, it is good to be aware of all the local customs. Different, but worth exploring? How long are you going to be in Dubai?

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    • Thank you, Anna, I’m really glad you liked it. Actually, I’m not in Dubai anymore, I wrote this after staying there for some time 🙂

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    • that’s something that stops a lot of people from visiting Dubai. The average temperature in the summer lingers between 40 and 45 degrees (Celsius)!

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  9. I briefly considered moving to Dubai for work once, but it never came to fruition. I think I would have a hard time adjusting to some of the differences! Some things really stood out to me – paying for rent all at once?! I can see that being a major burden for people. I have only traveled through Dubai, but it was enough to feel the heat in August, and I don’t think I could adjust to that. Would love to visit though!

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    • It isn’t an easy decision, Dani. Of course, there are pros and cons just like any other city. Anyway, I hope you get the chance to visit someday

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  10. Talking about heat in Dubai, I remember my friend told me that one time she forgot to take her underwear from outside and it turned to a cracker! Haha… This post is so informative for those whose going to move to Dubai. I wonder if Christians move their worship time from Sunday to Friday or Saturday in Dubai.

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    • haha, I can totally imagine that happening, Umiko. Now, that you mentioned it, that’s an interesting point. I didn’t bother because I’m not very religious but I wonder how religious Christians manage.

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  11. Not sure I could live in Dubai for too long but I could see it would have some benefits. There’s so much stuff to do there now, I’m sure it would take a while to get bored. Must be a good based to explore other parts of the area as well.

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    • Indeed, Paul- there are pros and cons, just like living in any other city. Yes, its airport is very well-connected to pretty much all parts of the world and there sure are a lot of things to do in Dubai

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  12. This is a great, well detailed guide for those looking to relocate to the UAE/Dubai. I like that you’ve covered the good and the bad as I previously thought of Dubai as a full-on glamour city. It’s good to read about the lifestyle and local laws before deciding to move there!

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  13. I’m really hesitant when it comes to Dubai – too much, too big, too fast. I understand that people are attracted by the glamour, but I prefer a slower growth. Also, regarding the environment, the larger than life mentality seems a bit outdated. However, it’s very interesting to read about the things expats have to take into consideration when moving to Dubai.

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    • you’re right about too much too fast part, Renata but the city is developing with speed of life and local authorities have put a lot of efforts in recent years to turn it into a “smart city”.

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  14. I have a lot of friends both from the UK and South Africa that either live or have lived in Dubai mainly do to being offered well-paid jobs. It’s not a place that has ever appealed to me despite loving travel and basically wanting to visit everywhere. This guide is super useful and perfect for those looking to make the move

    Laura x

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  15. This is a good comprehensive guide for all who wish to move to UAE. Rightly said without prior preparation it would be stressful to acclimatize with other culture and environment. Helpful post.

    Reply

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