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Expat Essentials: Top 10 tips for living in the UAE

By Jessica Cook

One of the wonderful things about living in Dubai is that it’s a cultural melting pot. The UAE provides exposure to new people, traditions and experiences on a daily basis.

For the last decade expats have been moving to the UAE in large numbers, often lured by the promise of tax-free wealth and luxury living.

Although many of our backgrounds are different, it is fair to say that we expats experience many of the same benefits as well as culture shocks when we move to the Middle East.  Here are some top tips to bear in mind:

1. Residency

Except for the UAE and GCC national citizens, other nationalities must obtain a UAE residence visa to legally live in, Dubai, and other emirates. For other expats, the company that employs them will sponsor them for a UAE residence visa, along with a labour card or work permit. A residence visa is required to open a bank account, obtain a driving license, register a car and apply for a PO Box.

2. Dress modestly and sensibly

It is important to respect the mix of cultures and sensitivities. Keep in mind local sensibilities when dressing, particularly if visiting crowded public places such as souks or shopping malls. Beach-goers should be aware that topless sunbathing and nudity are prohibited.

3. Driving in Dubai

Driving occurs on the right-hand side in Dubai therefore you should give way to your left. For many countries you can simply swap your existing license for a UAE equivalent once you receive your residence visa. A happy alternative to driving in Dubai can be found in the Dubai Metro, and the extensive fleet of taxis and buses.

4. Never drink and drive 

There is a zero tolerance policy on drink driving and this will be heavily penalised and you could face criminal charges.

5. Beware Bank Charges

Banks in the UAE are very quick to offer new residents free accounts and credit card services, but often these are anything but free. Most banks require a minimum balance to be maintained in their accounts; if your balance falls short of this minimum at any time during the month, banks will charge you a fee. Many expats will bank offshore which is advisable, but be careful as you can expect to be charged up to 2% for cash withdrawals from many accounts so it is worth shopping around.

6. Healthcare

Most companies will offer some sort of healthcare provision but it is important that you know exactly what you are covered for and also whether that covers your spouse and children. If you are pregnant in the UAE, then medical insurance is more or less a necessity. Maternity cover is rarely included in the health insurance policies offered by companies. It is very important that you know the boundaries of coverage so you don’t end up with a financial burden and nasty surprise

7. Schools

Different curricula adopt different approaches to learning. All curricula lead to public examinations and qualifications and these will be important in your choice of curriculum for your child - you may need to consider the requirements of any future application to university or further education, either in the UAE or abroad. In addition, if you are coming from abroad, your selection of a curriculum may depend upon your country of origin, as you may want your child to integrate back into your home country’s education system at some time in the future. There are a wide variety of schools to choose from and this can often be overwhelming. Many of the schools require entrance tests and the costs of the schools will vary.

8. Saving for the future

Of course one of the luring factors for many expats is the tax-free income we receive, however one of the first things that is neglected when we move here is making provision for retirement. Very few companies offer any sort of pension scheme and saving for retirement often gets put on the back burner. Just because your company doesn’t offer a set scheme doesn’t mean you should not be saving. There are many personal pension plans that as an expatriate will have even better benefits to take advantage of.

9. Travel

The wonderful thing about the UAE is that it can support a lifestyle that can be as expensive or as economical as you choose it to be. It is definitely worth being on the lookout for deals and discounts which can enable you to buy the things without paying full price. As expats we often travel more than most and so being economical here can save us a fortune in the long term. Look out for credit cards that offer airmiles. There are many offers available and the points soon rack up.

10. Cohabiting in Dubai

Living with a member of the opposite sex, to whom you are not related, nor married, is against the law and comes with a minimum jail sentence of one year, followed by deportation. The same applies to having physical relations with someone you are not married to.

(The author of this article, Jessica Cook is a Private Client Adviser with AES International, a global wealth management company.)