Pros and Cons of Moving to Kazakhstan

Before moving abroad, expats will need to weigh up the pros and cons of living in Kazakhstan to ensure that relocation is the right decision for them.

Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is unknown to many expats. For years it was in the shadow of its predecessor, Almaty, but it has matured and ever more corporate headquarters, embassies and consular services are moving north to Astana.

A quick Internet search will divulge that it's the world's second coldest capital city, but what is life really like for expats in Kazakhstan? Below is an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of living in Kazakhstan. It makes specific references to life in Astana, which is where most expats are based, but the information also applies to the country as a whole.

Accommodation in Kazakhstan

The quality of accommodation in Kazakhstan depends, to a certain extent, on an expat's allowance. For those with a healthy salary and accommodation allowance there are many decent-sized apartments to choose from, while those without a housing stipend may struggle to find something suitable.

+ PRO: Expanding choices in accommodation options

Astana is expanding at an amazing rate and new apartment blocks are being built all the time. If expats move into a new apartment, the landlords are generally happy to provide furniture to order.

There is a wide range of choice in the types of apartments – from riverside home in the older, Soviet-designed right bank part of the city to high-rise apartments with spectacular views in the new centre.

One- to three-bedroom apartments are the norm, but four-bedroom units are available if expats are willing to shop around.

- CON: Houses are hard to find

Most accommodation in Kazakhstan is in apartment buildings. Houses are available, but rents are much higher and they're very expensive to heat.

+ PRO: Cheap utilities

Water and heating are run on a central network and piped directly into each building. This is cheaper than running an individual boiler.

- CON: No control over utilities

As the utilities are run on a central network, residents have very little choice on when the heating is turned on or off. In some buildings the heating is so warm that tenants may have to open the windows to cool it down – even in the middle of winter.

Many buildings have an interruption in the supply of hot water for one to three days twice a year while the systems are switched from summer to winter and back again.

Lifestyle and shopping in Kazakhstan

It's natural for expats to worry about the winter temperatures, but Astana is well equipped to deal with this and most people find it an easy city to live in, with plenty of options for socialising. 

+ PRO: Growing social scene

Kazakhstanis are very friendly and welcoming, and while the expat community in Astana is still small, it's growing rapidly and there is an active international club for just about any interest.

The city's restaurant scene is also developing and new offerings open every month, with a good range of quality food to suit mist budgets.

There is a wide range of concerts, plays, ballets and circuses available in the city, all at very good prices. Although the quality is not always the highest, expats shouldn't be stuck for something to see.

+ PRO: Beautiful parks and architecture

While the old town is rather chaotic in places, the river has beautiful pedestrianised embankments which make them a wonderful location for a stroll at any time of the year, in the summer pleasure boats take customers for rides and beaches are opened for swimming. In the winter, ice slides and skating rinks are built at intervals along the river.

The new centre has been built with gardens in mind. It runs East West along a central garden boulevard that is carpeted in flowers and fountains over the summer months. There are also some impressive buildings mostly situated along this boulevard, and at the western end is Kazakhstan's largest shopping centre in Kazakhstan, a giant tented complex that has a beach (complete with sand imported from the Maldives) and swimming pool complex on its 5th floor.

At the other end of the boulevard and across the river is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Norman Foster’s pyramidal concert hall and conference venue. In between there is the magnificent Ak Orda, the blue-domed President’s Palace and the Baiterek – a tower topped with a golden egg, which is the symbol of Astana and the new Kazakhstan.

- CON: Isolation

Astana is a long way from anywhere else. Borovoye – the nearest lake resort is a 250km drive or a three-hour train journey away. Karaganda, the nearest neighbouring big city is a similar distance away and the best way to get to Almaty is with an expensive flight or a 12-hour train ride.

Astana has a limited number of direct flights, so to travel to most destinations expats will have to transfer through a hub such as Moscow, Kiev, Vienna, Frankfurt or Abu Dhabi. Fortunately, the airport does operate throughout the winter – rarely closing even in the most extreme temperatures and conditions - but road and rail links are sometimes blocked.

Safety in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is generally quite safe, especially if expats exercise the necessary level of of caution. Driving in Kazakhstan can be challenging and those that have no experience driving during a Kazakh winter should be extra careful. 

+ PRO: Low crime rates

Astana is a very safe place with low levels of petty crime, and even lower levels of serious crime.The new town centre is safe to walk through until late at night, even for a woman alone.

- CON: Hazardous driving conditions

Astana's road network is new and well maintained, and snow is cleared almost as soon as it falls, with ploughs operating on a 24-hour basis throughout winter. While cars are required to pass an annual check and to use winter tyres during the snow, not all drivers do this. Lane discipline is another fluid concept and many drivers use their hooter or horn instead of indicators.

Most expatriates have the use of a company car and driver, but many still drive themselves. The bus network is extensive and cheap, and it is simple, safe and acceptable to hitch a ride in a ‘gypsy’ cab. Proper taxis are more expensive and not always easy to order.

Working and doing business in Kazakhstan

Expats working or doing business in Kazakhstan will find that practices do differ slightly from what they're used to. However, making the necessary adjustments will be essential to an expat's success in the workplace.

+ PRO: Good salary packages

Most expats are in Astana with a large international company or embassy, although an increasing number work in education. Many expat jobs are tax paid and come with good housing, pension, education and medical allowances too.

- CON: Bureaucracy

Things are improving but there is still a lot of bureaucracy to cope with in Kazakhstan – from obtaining a work permit to registering with the police on arrival in the country (and every 90 days thereafter).

Not everyone will speak English or German so be prepared to take a translator to any meetings with local contractors and suppliers. Be aware that while Russian is the language of commerce and spoken by most people, Kazakh is the national language and may be used for speeches, particularly by government ministers.

- CON: Nobody says no

It can be difficult to get to a final decision. People do not like to say ‘no’ and will often agree to a proposal only to fail to put this agreement into action because it cannot be done.

Culture shock in Kazahstan

Overcoming culture shock and learning to accept Kazakh cultural nuances will play a major part in expats settling into their new life. Having a open mind and taking the time to get to know the locals will definitley help expats make the most of their experience in Kazakstan. 

+ PRO: Friendly and welcoming locals

Kazakhstanis are famously hospitable. Expats shouldn't be surprised if their landlady has left some food or small gifts for their arrival, and neighbours will, almost certainly, come to introduce themselves and will bring gifts for national holidays – particularly New Year.

- CON: Drinking culture

Whether it is drinking fermented camel’s milk or learning how to knock back endless votka toasts, drinking is a cultural initiation expats will never forget. Some expats may find the Kazakh love of drinking a bit overwhelming at first. 

Cost of living in Kazakhstan

The cost of living in Kazakstan will depend significantly on each individual's lifestyle. For those who are willing to immerse themselves in the Kazakh way of life, it is possible to live modestly and save money. 

+ PRO: Affordable basic food

The very basics of food such as bread and milk are very cheap in Kazakhstan. If expats want a good range of food products, particularly foreign (non Kazakh) food, they should expect to pay a lot of money.

- CON: High cost of living

Almost everything is imported into Kazakhstan and that is reflected in the price. Cars do not depreciate so the cost of even a very old second hand model is high. Furniture imported from Europe or Turkey retails at a premium and even the lower quality imports from China are expensive. Electronics are also pricey, but the mark up is not as severe. Imported clothing from popular brands such as Gap, Desigual, Zara, Mango and Topshop is available but expas shouldn’t compare prices with the online cost in their home country.

Education and schools in Kazakhstan

There is a growing range of international schooling options in Astana. These include Nuroda, Turkish school, a British Independent School called Haileybury Astana and QSI American International School. Local schools are good but are for local students only.

+ PRO: Increasing choice of international schools

The international schools tend to recruit their teachers from abroad. Pupils at Haileybury study the British curriculum while those at QSI and Miras study under the American system. This means that it is possible for families to stay together in Astana without the need for boarding schools.

- CON: Limited space in international schools

The international schools are very popular, with locals as well as expatriates, so space is limited and there is often a waiting list. It is wise to contact the schools as early as possible to reserve a place.

Healthcare in Kazakhstan

+ PRO: International health insurance

Most expats in Astana have health insurance provided by their employer. The home insurance company will have a relationship with a specific clinic that will facilitate access to local healthcare. 

- CON: Most medical care takes place abroad

The Mother and Child Hospital and the President’s Hospital receive good reports. Health insurers and local partner will facilitate GP services, triage and emergency treatment in Astana but they are likely to send expats, by either commercial flight or medevac, abroad for more serious matters. The closest centres of medical excellence are Frankfurt and Istanbul. Expatriates who have been sent to hospitals there give good reports.