Kiev, Ukraine Report of what it's like to live there - 05/23/17

Personal Experiences from Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine 05/23/17

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, I have had multiple experiences in Europe and Central Asia.

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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?

New York, NY. There is a direct flight on Ukrainian International (UIA), although I have never taken it (but it's cheap!) Otherwise it's about two hours to the usual hubs of Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, etc.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Three years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomatic mission

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

There is a wide variety of nice housing available. Fairly large apartments in the city center for everyone who works down there (which is basically everyone except U.S. Embassy folks); huge houses near the Embassy for those who want them. Many wealthy Ukrainians live in nearby suburbs. Embassy commute time from the center is 15-40 minutes.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Great variety available at low cost. There are a few really nice supermarkets (like, live music and tanks of king crab nice) where you can get basically anything; there also are plenty of smaller supermarkets that are still pretty nice and have a pretty good selection, including imported fruits and veggies out of season. Oh, and they all have pre-made sushi! Covered markets are great from spring through fall. Even imported goods seem less expensive here; our family of four eats well for about $70/week on groceries.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Specialty flours and grains are hard to find locally or at the commissary. We brought some American hipster beer, which was nice, but there are more and more local alternatives available.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There has been an explosion in restaurants in the last few years. Lots of great new-Ukrainian, Georgian, Italian, continental, and more and more Chinese-ish options. There are Mexican restaurants but they are disappointing; also Thai and Indian are few and far between - but that is likely to change. A lot of places deliver, and there is a service called eda.ua that will pick up for you for a small fee. There also is a monthly "street food festival" in warmer months that brings together the many food truck-size vendors from around Ukraine.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We use pouch (no APO at Embassy yet) and it takes about two to three weeks. Local government post office is not reliable, but Nova Poshta, a private service, is a great way to send things around Ukraine (they also will handle money, so, for example, you can order from an online retailer and give Nova Poshta the cash when you pick it up at your local branch). They can do international mail too and are open late and on weekends.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Internationals are way overpaying (I've see Ukrainian ads for less than $2/hour for nannies), but $5/hour gets you wonderful, usually English-speaking help. People get really close to their nannies, who are general flexible about cooking, cleaning and errand-running as well. Non-parents at least have housekeepers who come in once a week. Good cooks are hard to find but can be found with a little work.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Embassy has an okay gym, but serious exercisers should check out the many local options. Sport Life is cheaper than the U.S. and some of them have pools; there are also really high-end options if you feel like spending $200 a month to get the gym of your dreams. Also lots of lap pools, crossfit and dance studios. Private trainers are very reasonable. Ukrainians are pretty fit, so if you are into a niche sport and have some language, you can find it here.

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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?

I've used credit cards at major retailers with no problem, although I generally use cash (and you have to at smaller places). Take caution with ATMs - those attached to major banks or in the Embassy are generally okay, but credit card cloning is an issue at smaller ones.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Definitely Catholic mass; not sure about others.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

The more, the better. Russian is still the de facto language of spoken Kyiv, but Ukrainian grows in importance every day. Young people try really hard to speak English with you, and in generally Ukrainians are incredibly generous in working to understand you and help you communicate. Good tutors are available for about $7/hour.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes - few ramps and curb cuts or accessible means of transportation. But people would always be offering to help (and genuinely trying to).

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Kyiv has an extensive public transportation network that is clean, safe, and absurdly cheap (less than 20 cents for anything). The trams are a bit slow, but generally everything runs frequently and you can figure out how to get anywhere on it. Taxis are also safe and inexpensive, and Uber is here now. An Uber from my apartment to the Embassy (a 15 or 20-minute drive) costs about $2.

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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?

People go a little crazy bringing SUVs here; I don't think you really need one, although you DO need snow tires or four-wheel drive. There are a lot of really nice cars in Kyiv, so don't worry about bringing something "too nice" - it's not. Parts are generally available. There is an occasional smashed window if you leave something in the car, although most buildings have guarded and underground parking.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, it's pretty good - we stream and Skype with generally no problem. The commissary can help you get it up within days of arrival. You can also buy a local SIM card and get cheap data on mobile devices.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Embassy staff get Blackberries, but most people wind up getting local SIM cards so they can have data, Uber and access to Telegram and WhatsApp, which Ukrainians like to use. We have KyivStar and also us it to call the States for about 1 cent a minute (crazy!).

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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?

Local wages are low and you need to speak Russian or Ukrainian (or both). Spouses generally work at the Embassy or one of the schools.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Lots - I know people who help with tech NGOs, orphanages, etc. Language skills are definitely useful.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Go ahead and try, but you'll never be overdressed for something here. Ukrainians, especially women, put a lot of effort into getting ready every morning, and it shows. Suits at work, and cool casual clothes the rest of the time. And you can decide any event is formal and wear a ball gown - you won't be the only one.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Honestly, fewer than pretty much anywhere else I've lived. There are occasional pickpocketings of tourists, and fights might occur after 2 a.m. outside bars, but I walk around after dark without concern. The babushki (i.e. grandmas) are pretty vigilant in shooing away anyone suspicious (and also letting you know if your child is inappropriately dressed for the weather). To add to the security, a lot of us live in buildings with rich Ukrainians who have bodyguards, who also patrol parking lots and the like. A car accident is probably what I fear most - there are some crazy (and probably drunk) drivers out there.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

None really, although seasonal allergies can be tough. Local routine care is pretty good, as are elective procedures (lasik, cosmetic stuff, etc) and very inexpensive. A lot of people have dental work done, and Ukraine is a world leader in fertility treatment tourism. However, for non-routine stuff, including most child births, we go to London.

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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?

Air quality is pretty good - it's very leafy.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Food allergies are sort of a foreign concept, but people try to be helpful. You can get gluten free products at some restaurants and stores.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Winter is looong and dark - it can be an issue.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Similar to New England - long, very cold winters with a lot of snow, but glorious, sunny and not too hot from April through October. And even in the winter, there is plenty of fun stuff indoors and out to do.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Two good options plus a few preschools; everyone seems to find something that works for them.

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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?

Great preschool options, both local and international, and generally much cheaper than the States. Our son went to a local (Ukrainian and Russian language) school that was open to foreigners for $500 a month. It's open 8-8 and serves a bunch of meals (he likes borshch, luckily!) While it's somewhat institutional in that the kids are all expected to behave and do the same things (and nap until they are six!), we found the teachers were loving and he got a lot out of it. There was a big emphasis on performing (including constant calls for insane costumes for plays). And his language skills are now amazing. We would definitely do it again. One thing to note is that in recent years there has ceased to be a purely Russian-speaking preschool, so those families looking for that have been disappointed. All of them speak at least a little Ukrainian, even though the kids are more likely to speak Russian at home.

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3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, great variety. We did soccer and baby music, others have found good swimming, ballet, gymnastics, lego, etc. Less if you want to stick to English. Ukrainians take this VERY seriously; usually the challenge is convincing them this is just for fun and not so that your kid is in the Olympics in the next 10 years. But then again, they definitely teach kids about winners and losers and the importance of hard work - everyone definitely does NOT get a trophy!

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large - in the thousands. Many are men who have been here forever and are married to Ukrainian women. Morale is generally very high.

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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?

It's been easy through kid stuff, but there are also meet up and expat-oriented groups; AmCham has happy hours. The expats are pretty social and accessible, as are many Ukrainians - many people worked overseas and came back.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Great for all, although, like a lot of places, tougher for single women - and in that sense, more so than most places! It's been great for us as a family - lots to do and a great attitude toward children, who are welcomed and fussed over everywhere. I've been at a nice restaurant at 9 p.m. and seen a family with small kids come in to eat, and nobody bats an eye, even at fancy places.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

It's getting better, although there is still a lot of fear and discrimination among Ukrainians.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Gender wise, it's fine, although women are expected to both look amazing at all times AND do much of the work. This is not a diverse place, so non-Caucasians should expect stares and comments, although more out of curiosity and surprise than malice.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Exploring this fascinating, beautiful and friendly city and country. The countryside around Kyiv and in Western Ukraine. Watching the huge changes since 2014. Not caring what anything costs because it is so inexpensive.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Lots of day resorts near Kyiv in the summer where you can swim, eat, get a massage for very little. We loved Odesa, Lviv and Kaminets-Podilskiy. There are few international tourists, so the whole country is a hidden gem!

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Somewhat - lots of embroidery, some pottery, and more and more interesting clothing designers.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

The green trees, good restaurants, friendly people, many restaurants with playgrounds and "animators" (people to play with the kids), outdoor festivals all year round, ridiculous quality of beauty treatments, ease of getting anything done.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Honestly, it was nicer than I expected. I was right to invest in good winter gear.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, and I would stay here forever!

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Huge car, consumables, need for things to start exactly on time

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4. But don't forget your:

Nice clothes - they're still not nice enough! And your willingness to try new experiences.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

"Bloodlands," any one of the good histories of Ukraine, "Everything is Illuminiated."

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6. Do you have any other comments?

This post is really a gem, despite the hard work.

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