Cairo, Egypt Report of what it's like to live there - 03/11/22
Personal Experiences from Cairo, Egypt
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, previously lived in the Middle East and Africa.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
From the USA. Easy travel from East Coast with direct flights from Washington, DC and New York City. Options to layover in London, Paris, Frankfurt, or Munich en route to Cairo.
3. What years did you live here?
2021 - 2023.
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Diplomatic housing is in 3 neighborhoods: the first one has very few, then a second with mostly singles and people without children, and most of the community lives in the third. The longest commute is from the third and is 15 minutes without traffic but usually takes about 45 min - 1 hour during typical commutes. A shuttle service does pick up and drop off for all embassy staff every day and employees are not allowed to drive themselves to the embassy for work. The embassy owns several housing compounds. These apartments are large: 3-4 bedrooms but lack character and amenities. GSO is quite responsive to fixing things on these compounds. The compounds have a play area, dog area, space for grilling, and parking. The leased housing varies greatly, mostly spacious apartments, more character, but less convenience with GSO. There are a few standalone villas with nice yards for high ranking staff. Do not expect much outdoor space otherwise.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find everything you want and need on the local economy plus there's the added benefit of a large well-stocked commissary. Imported items are quite expensive but local food is incredibly cheap so it evens out. You will need to tour quite a few different grocers and produce stands to learn which places have what in stock, but once you know where to look everything can be ordered on an app and delivered for $2USD. The seasonal produce is great and many organic CSA type options for fresh fruit and vegetables. There are good butchers where you can request almost any cut or style of meat. The commissary is nice for alcohol, pork products, and cleaning supplies.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Everything - from La Croix to IPAs to taco spices to Doritos to Bounty Paper Towels to Arm & Hammer Toothpaste - can be found here, it may just take a while to locate it outside the commissary. We shipped cleaning supplies, seasonings, grains, and alcohol because we did not know this. We don't regret it because things are certainly cheaper at Costco but it was not necessary. We do recommend shipping your favorite Trader Joes items and favorite alcohol (the commissary tends to cater to the younger adult set with the wine, beer, and booze selection and the availability of alcohol on the local economy is reflective of a country that does not drink). Additionally, if you are brand loyal to certain toiletries or vitamins/medications, bring those.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Food delivery through apps is very common and very affordable. Cairo is a large city and you can find any type of food you are craving, including many Western chains. However, these restaurants do cater towards Egyptian clientele and you will find most of the Asian / African / European food is made quite bland. Egyptian food is delicious but heavy. We cook a lot because you can find great ingredients. Our favorite restaurants are Korean, Lebanese, and Yemeni.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
None, just the dust if you leave your windows or doors open (and somehow it's still there even when you don't).
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We've only used embassy mail (DPO) and the timeline has been somewhat erratic with COVID-19 shipping delays. Generally, we get receive mail every two weeks you will learn how to time your Amazon orders to make the flight on time.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is widely available and most people employ cleaners, nannies, drivers, etc. Depending on the service (and the nationality of the employee), the pay is between $6 - $8 per hour.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are gyms available at the Embassy and USAID buildings with a membership fee. There are many gyms and exercise venues to choose from including a Gold's Gym, yoga studios, spin studios, dance studios, CrossFit boxes, personal trainers who come to your home, sports leagues for kids and adults(tennis, Pickleball, softball, gymnastics, basketball, ...). All are very affordable and easy to plug into.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
This is definitely a cash-based society. There aren't even mobile-payment options which surprised me. It can be annoying to carry cash and you'll find yourself hoarding small bills as no one seems to have change. ATMs are everywhere and easy to use. Credit Cards can be used at some nice restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls, and hotels.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There seem to be many options but I do not have much information.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is widely spoken in Cairo, however it is very helpful to have enough Egyptian Arabic to navigate taxis / ubers and market sellers. The post language program is excellent and private lessons and tutors are affordable.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, it's a crowded chaotic city without any sidewalks and limited infrastructure for people with disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The metro is quite nice and convenient, however currently banned for diplomatic families. Ubers and taxis are very safe and affordable, we often choose these over driving ourselves to avoid the stress of driving and parking in this city.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Ubers and Taxis are readily available and affordable, however having a car here dramatically improves your quality of life, especially for getting out of the city on the weekends. Driving in Cairo takes a lot of bravery, but you will get the hang of it with practice. Outside of Cairo, the highways are easy to navigate. Currently (2022) shipping cars to Cairo is taking a long time (~6+ months). We chose to buy a car off a departing diplomatic family and we are happy we did. SUVs or vehicles with good visibility would be my recommendation.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. Your sponsor can get TE Data set up ahead of time and you can purchase a package according to your family's needs (we pay about $40/mo.). There are other options through Orange and Vodafone that people are mostly happy with.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We use the local providers. It's cheap and reliable, however without an Egyptian bank account you have to go in person to top up money for your plan each month which is a pain.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Yes! There are several recommended veterinarians who are well acquainted with how to get your animals in and out of Egypt. There is no quarantine required. We flew our dog in cargo on Lufthansa and it was a very straightforward process. I was surprised to see how much Egyptians care for street animals despite most not having pets of their own. It can be intimidating to walk your dog because of the packs of street dogs, but the bowabs are always helpful. There are several recommended pet kennels and it's possible to find people willing to stay with your dog at your home while you're traveling.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
There do not seem to be enough EFM jobs offered through the mission given the number of EFMs who want to work here. The EFM jobs that are offered are very competitive despite being very low-paying, in my opinion. The PSC jobs offered through USAID offer more reasonable pay. It's possible to work on the local economy through NGOs, schools and universities, and the UN system however we have heard it can be difficult to get approval for anything human rights/journalism related. Local salaries are low, however so are mission salaries for EFMs. Teleworking is common and seems to be preferred among spouses and partners looking to work.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots of opportunities to volunteer with animal TNR / Foster / Adoption agencies. A couple of refugee organizations offer volunteer opportunities. There seem to be lots of options offered through churches here.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Suits and business clothes are worn at the embassy but outside the embassy is very informal. Modesty can be an issue for women; generally shorts/ short skirts/ low cut tops will get stares.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
As a woman I feel very safe and comfortable walking alone at all hours. Men make comments and taxis honk but it's easy to ignore. Petty theft is rare. Biggest concern is traffic accidents.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The pollution during the winter months will exacerbate any respiratory conditions. Routine medical care is decent and inexpensive on the local market, although medical professionals have been overwhelmed with COVID-19. There are private hospitals and clinicians recommended for emergencies, and the care has been good, although I know many people prefer to MedEvac.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Yes. The pollution is quite bad, particularly from December - February. There are also sand storms. We plan our outdoor time according to the air quality. Those who are sensitive or have existing respiratory conditions will struggle here.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
There's so much variety available for food, I think food allergies could be easily managed (although when eating out you would need to be able to communicate well in Arabic to waitstaff). It's a dry climate and I haven't noticed seasonal allergies, however the dust is quite pervasive and can be challenging.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
I was surprised to find there are four distinct seasons. Hottest months are July and August and you definitely do not want to be outside in the sun for too long making site-seeing during those months difficult (daytime temperatures were between 100 - 110 degrees Fahrenheit). Coldest months are December - February and you will use your heat, boots, and sweaters (temperatures range between 40 - 60 degrees Fahrenheit). It's usually very dry, with rain only a few times per year, however this past year has seen a lot of rainy days and even snow in Alexandria.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We do not have children, but families rave about the international school options including Cairo American College, the British School, the Irish School, and Kompass.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Day cares and preschools are available, and schools have lots of after school activities, but I do not have details.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, everything including girl and boy scouts, horseback riding, ballet, karate, and all your usual sports.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is massive here which can make it difficult to plug in. Morale is much higher among non-USG personnel so it is worth seeking out friends outside the mission. Many UN regional offices are based here, lots of international school teachers, international college professors, international business people, NGO workers, and Arabic students, in addition to other diplomatic missions. Because it is a popular family post, most people seem to make friends through school and kid activities.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There are all sorts of interest groups on Facebook and WhatsApp. There is a Cairo Hash House Harriers group, triathlon training groups, book clubs in various languages, pottery classes, painting classes, trivia nights, etc. Covid-19 has put a pause on the official diplomat social scene. In Maadi many people gather at the American Club.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes, as long as you enjoy large cities you will be able to find your people and your scene here. For single people and couples without kids, it may take a bit longer and more effort to meet people and socialize. Families really seem to love this post for the schools, kid-friendly travel opportunities, and hefty post differential.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It would be very challenging to live an open life in Egypt. Non-cishet people are not widely accepted among Egyptians.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Yes, Egyptians are warm and welcoming and fun to get to know. Many are well-educated and easy to relate to, similar to friends back home. However, Egyptians can be quite racist especially towards Africans and black people. There are also very segregated social classes in Cairo with stark differences in opportunities, education, and privilege.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Upper class Egyptian women are incredibly strong and fight hard for their rights. They hold high-power professional jobs. However, you will see and interact with many more men than women in the middle and lower classes. Waiters and store clerks will always address other men first and when I'm with my male partner, will solely talk to him. Black people are often presumed to be African migrants and refugees who are discriminated against. The Coptic Christians officially make up 10% of the population, but they are a large presence and seem to be respected. Egyptians preach religious tolerance, however the ever-shrinking Jewish population indicates otherwise.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We could spend the entire two year tour only traveling and vacationing in Egypt and not be bored or disappointed. There is so much to see and explore here! Our favorite trips have been a Nile Dhahabiya cruise, snorkeling in Sahl Hasheesh and Dahab, and a relaxing weekend in Fayoum. The history here is incredible and the ancient temples, tombs, and artifacts are true wonders. And if you need a break, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Turkey are easy quick flights away.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Cairo's art scene is incredible - spend time wandering the art galleries and artist workshops. We prefer Dahab and Hurghada to Sharm. Do an environmental tour of Mokkatam for an impressive look at the world's most efficient recycling system (all done by hand). Go out to see the 40 million year old whale fossils in Wadi Hitan - puts the 4500+ year old pyramids in perspective.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
It depends. Egyptian cotton is pretty much all exported so definitely don't expect to find amazing deals on textiles. Wood is very expensive. Antiques are fun to shop for. There are really beautiful brass lamps. Lots of funky pottery. Really fun and affordable artwork / paintings. Good incense / oils.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Cairo is the 7th largest city in the world and a great blend of Arab and African liveliness (some refer to it as chaos). You can truly find everything and often have it delivered to your doorstep. The traffic and pollution can be grating, but it's easy to escape for the weekend to the beach, desert, or ancient wonder. Egyptians are easy to befriend and wonderfully hospitable.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
You will want a car for the convenience of getting out of the city when you need it. There are four seasons so don't leave all your winter clothing at home.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely! Two years is not enough time.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Expectations that Cairo will be like other NEA posts
4. But don't forget your:
Patience, enthusiasm, flexibility, city smarts
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Read Cairo Circles by Doma Mahmoud, anything by Naguib Mahfouz (Cairo Trilogy, Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs)
Watch the recent documentaries on Netflix and PBS