I’ve been back in the UK for quite a while now, but I’m still frequently asked about my time living in Dubai: how to move there, how to find a job in Dubai and what life is like for expats in the sandpit. I’m always happy to share my experiences – in fact I just featured in a Western Union article about how to become an expat – and having lived in the emirate for 14 months, I feel qualified to share what I know about relocating to Dubai for people considering a move. Of course, this is just my personal experience, but since I’m asked about it so often, I thought it was time to publish a huge guide to moving to Dubai with all of the helpful information I can think of.
In case you’re new to While I’m Young, here’s the backstory: When I was 24 I moved to Dubai from the UK alone. I didn’t know a soul out there, but I’d had a job offer I couldn’t resist. And so, a few months after a surreal 48 hour visit during which I evidently nailed my interview, I boarded a one-way Emirates flight with a signed contract and a few weeks booked in a hotel. From there, I basically built a (fun!) life in Dubai from scratch.
In this guide, I’ve tried to cover anything that people relocating to Dubai might want to know; from living costs, the best places to live in Dubai, what to know about working in the UAE and useful tips for navigating a new culture.
While my time in Dubai always had an expiry date (I had a boyfriend waiting for me in the UK, and he’s now my fiancé), I made the absolute most of my time out there and would encourage anyone considering it to make the leap. Moving to Dubai proved to me that your whole life can change with one decision. The memories I made there, and the career experience I gained, are things I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. That being said, there are definitely things to be aware of before you emigrate to Dubai, so here’s my attempt at preparing you!
How to move to Dubai: what to know before you go
So, what’s expat life really like in Dubai?
I had colleagues who had young kids and a family home in Dubai, but that’s about the extent of my exposure to family life for expats in the UAE. My Dubai experience was much more of a millennial, Jager-soaked cliché, and I quickly learned why so many young, single people in their twenties and thirties move to Dubai. It’s a fantastic place to grow your career and live in a fiercely multicultural society, but it’s also a bonafide playground when you’re young and wild and free.
I worked 7am – 3.30pm from Sunday to Thursday and partied more than I should have at Ladies Nights during the week. I spent Fridays at lavish brunches in luxury hotels (read my guide to navigating your first Dubai brunch) and Saturdays sweating out my hangovers on the beach. Of course, there are other ways to live your life in Dubai, but that was how I did it. It beats coming home from work in the darkness of chilly Britain and spending every weekend in the same smelly local, lemme tell ya.
Needless to say, the quality of life available in Dubai is probably higher than the one you’re leaving behind – so long as you’re prepared to work hard before you can play hard.
Finding accommodation and where to live in Dubai
Finding a place to live in Dubai is one of the biggest challenges expats face when they move, providing that their job doesn’t supply accommodation. Even if your job doesn’t come with a home, many employers pay an accommodation allowance on top of your standard salary, so it’s worth asking then doing your research so you know what type of accommodation you can reasonably afford with that money.
Rent can fluctuate depending on the season so it’s best to search for accommodation at the beginning of the summer, when demand drops and so do prices. I got a hefty discount on my first few months of rent in one place because I moved in during a quiet month. As an example, you’ll pay between 3,500 (maids room, avoid!) and 6,000 AED per month for a room in a shared apartment in the Marina area. If you want a one-bed studio, you can expect to pay around 90,000 AED for a pad in Business Bay. Pretty much every residential building has a pool, gym and security so that can save you money on gym memberships.
The area and type of accommodation you opt for will depend on your salary and your family situation. Young, free and single western expats tend to favour the Marina area, JBR (my hood!) and JLT. Downtown and Business Bay are also popular with expats but rent is more expensive. Families will be most drawn to villa complexes in places like Mirdif, Emirates Hills, Silicon Oasis, Motor City and Arabian Ranches. You’ll definitely need a car if you opt to live in places like this because they aren’t as accessible with public transport.
I found dealing with landlords in Dubai to be a bit of a nightmare and had to move apartment a few times, so be prepared to be messed around a bit. There are a lot of illegal shared apartments but I never heard of anyone actually getting in trouble for it.
Technically, unmarried men and women aren’t allowed to live together in Dubai but I knew plenty who did and never had any trouble.
Be aware that it’s not uncommon for (legit) landlords to require you to pay 12 months rent in advance (or three or six months, if they’re generous) and it’s illegal for your cheque to bounce in Dubai. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to have savings and a secure job before you move out. It’s also one of the reasons I (and most of my friends) favoured pay-monthly, dodgy apartment shares for at least the first few months at least.
The go-to websites for finding accommodation in Dubai are Dubizzle and bayut. My list of useful apps and websites for Dubai expats should come in handy!
Finding a job and what to know about working in Dubai
I was approached on LinkedIn and flown out for an interview so I don’t actually have any experience of job-hunting in Dubai, except through friends, who struggled.
I’d never advise anyone to move to Dubai if they don’t have a job lined up. I know a lot of people do it, but the job market isn’t great at the moment and many don’t find a decent job for six months or so. Dubai isn’t a cheap place to live if you’re not getting a wage! Plus, if you’re only there on a tourist visa you have to take a lot of trips to Oman…
I’d also never recommend taking a job if your employer refuses to arrange your visa or health insurance.
If your skills lie in the service or manual labour industry, be aware that many of these jobs are filled by Asian expats and they’re typically not very well paid.
One of the best websites to find jobs in Dubai is GulfTalent. It’s also worth checking the careers section on the websites of companies you’re interested in.
Essential paperwork when becoming a Dubai resident
All expats living in Dubai need to register for a Resident Identity Card (it was called an Emirates ID when I lived there) before they can get their residence visa. You should carry your ID card at all times as you may be fined if you’re asked to display it and can’t.
To get your Dubai residence visa, you need to do medical tests (a chest x-ray, blood tests and fingerprinting). My employer sorted all of this out for me but I know that’s often not the case.
It’s best to do your own research using the official channels because things can change and I don’t want to get in trouble for giving you the wrong advice!
Transport and getting around Dubai
There’s only one way to go in Dubai, and that’s Sheikh Zayed Road. This 12-lane mega-road is the main artery of the emirate and impossible to avoid.
Dubai’s Metro system is very efficient, cheap and it’s one of the cleanest in the world. The metro comes every four minutes and stops at various points along Sheikh Zayed Road. The red line runs from the airport to the other end of Dubai, covering the length of SZR. If you’re relying on public transport to get somewhere that’s not near the ‘spine’ of Dubai, you’ll need to figure out the closest station then get a taxi from there.
Good to know: The stations are all named after businesses (Noor Bank, Shadaf DG etc), and don’t actually indicate the area name. This can be quite confusing, so make sure you know which station is for you.
Most people who use the metro frequently get a rechargeable nol card.
The front carriage of every metro train is the ‘Gold’ section. A Gold card is slightly more expensive but the seats are more comfortable and you get a little tray table. It’s a lot less crowded than the regular carriages and makes you feel like royalty. You know, if the Sheikh was in the habit of riding the metro. Come to think of it, he has been known to do this in the past…
Women and children can sit in a separate metro section, which is directly behind the gold carriage. The ladies-only section is usually much less crowded and you attract less stares, so I always sat there.
There’s also a tram that shuttles people around the JBR area, which you can pay for with your metro card.
Dubai’s official taxis are beige, with green or red roofs, and there are plenty of them. They’re moderately priced and basically essential if you don’t drive, especially in the stifling hot height of summer.
An important thing to remember is that none of the drivers in Dubai are local and they rarely know where they’re going – even if they say they do. Make sure you Google Map your journey before you get in the cab and give your driver landmarks to look out for on the way – addresses aren’t really a thing in Dubai.
Females shouldn’t sit in the front if they’re on their own. Same goes for Uber.
Driving in Dubai
Okay I never did it – but my word of advice is to drive in Dubai at your own risk. I saw more road traffic accidents while living there than I had in my whole life beforehand. Big egos are worsened with even bigger cars and it’s every (wo)man for themselves.
Dubai has a zero tolerance approach to drink-driving, so don’t get behind the wheel if you’ve had any alcohol at all.
Banking and saving money in Dubai
Most banks require you to be a resident in Dubai to open an account and it takes a week or two to get it set up. I was with Emirates NBD. Be sure to take plenty of passport sized photos with you when you move to Dubai, because you’ll need them! You should check exactly what your new bank requires you to bring with you when setting up an account – some ask for a tenancy agreement, which is hard to produce if you live in a shared apartment.
Sometimes your employer will recommend a bank, and this makes choosing easier! That was the case for me.
Your debit card will arrive by courier, usually. There are a lot of laws surrounding credit cards in Dubai that I don’t understand so even though my bank issued me a credit card without me asking for one, I cut it up and threw it away. You definitely don’t want to get into debt in Dubai!
Many companies will give you a gratuity when you leave your job, depending on the length of time you worked there. It’s a nice little bonus!
I made a huge mistake when I left Dubai and didn’t arrange for my savings to be transferred to my UK bank account in advance, so I had an absolute nightmare getting that sorted out. Use a company like Western Union to transfer yours. I try not to think about how much I lost because of my poor planning.
Navigating the culture in Dubai
The population of Dubai is predominantly made up of expatriates and this is testament to how welcoming the UAE is. The destination is a cultural melting pot and completely unique. You’ll get to know colleagues and friends from all over the world.
Of course, living in a Muslim country means acclimatising to its rules and code of conduct, but Dubai is far more lenient than most people who have never been think. I partied more in Dubai than I do in the UK – but it’s important to be aware of the laws, particularly as a woman. Depending on the circles you move in, it’s easy to forget that you’re living in a Muslim country with different rules to those we have in the UK.
My post about frequently asked questions for Dubai life should clarify things.
With such a large expat population, it’s you’re not as exposed to Emirati culture as you might expect. Far away from the dizzying skyscrapers and bright lights of Downtown and the Marina, projects like the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and the ever popular abra ride across Dubai Creek keep Dubai’s past traditions and customs alive. There’s a side to Dubai that many tourists don’t bother getting to know, but the gold souks of Deira and their surrounds hold a certain charm that isn’t quite outdone by those viral gold-dispensing ATMs. Read my guide to cultural things to do in Dubai for more inspiration (and do this stuff early on in your Dubai career, because you’ll soon get caught up in The Brunch Life).
The working week runs from Sunday to Thursday and you’ll be pleased to know that the UAE has a LOT of national holidays. They love a day off there! There are also many ‘dry nights’ where hotels and clubs won’t serve alcohol or play loud music, but I’m sure you can take a night off.
Business slows during Ramadan and many non-Muslim expats leave the country during this time. Definitely try to experience an Iftar, if that’s something you’ve never done before. I recommend the one at Brasserie in Le Royal Meridien. Be respectful and don’t eat or drink anything in a public space before sundown – and this includes chewing gum.
As a general rule, cover your shoulders and knees in government buildings, places of worship and in the mall and on the metro. These are the places you will actually get in trouble for not following the dress code. Plus, it gets cold in the air-con!
Is learning Arabic essential when you move to Dubai?
While it’s alway nice to try to learn the local language anywhere you go, there’s really no need to learn Arabic for your move to Dubai unless you want to. I had great intentions to learn but quickly realised that the only way I’d pick up Arabic was if I took lessons, because everyone speaks English. In fact, the only time I ever struggled to be understood was with foreign taxi drivers. Most of the people you’ll come into contact with in shops etc will likely be from the Philippines. The few phrases I picked up that have seeped into Dubai’s expat vocabulary are ‘habibi‘ (a term of endearment), ‘yalla‘ (let’s go/hurry up) and ‘Inshallah‘ (Allah willing). Aaaaand that’s about all I know.
Cost of living in Dubai
Yes, Dubai is expensive. But it might not be as expensive as you think, and you’ll likely have more disposable income than you do in the UK. The average wage in Dubai is 15,000 AED per month and this is tax-free.
Your new salary can seem seriously impressive compared to the one you were earning at home however this is offset by rents that rival London’s.
Day to day life in Dubai can be as budget or as costly as you make it. I found it was a lot more common to get things delivered (food, a single carrot from the supermarket, booze – literally anything) than it is at home, and that can rack up your outgoings because if you have any sort of decency, you’ll tip the delivery guy.
The cost of groceries is a bit more expensive in Dubai than in the UK, but you can still shop savvy. Supermarkets like Carrefour, M&S(!), Park&Shop etc sell most UK brands nowadays.
When it comes to clothes shopping, most of the western expats I know wait until they’re at home to splurge because there’s a significant mark-up on fashion in Dubai. However, you can get cheaper clothes on sites like souk.com and Namshi.
The main places to shop in Dubai are Dubai Mall (be warned that if you get the metro there you have a LONG walk to get to the actual shops, but it’s air-conditioned so could be worse) (you’ll also get lost), Marina Mall, Festival City Mall, Ibn Battuta etc.
For kitting out your accommodation, there’s an IKEA. For general stuff, Dragon Mart is a Chinese superstore that sells everything under the sun.
Going out costs in Dubai
There are a lot of temptations, with brunches costing anywhere from 100 AED to 600 AED, and a main dish at an average restaurant costing at least 50 AED. That being said, there are plenty of ways to save money in Dubai and reduce your living costs: investing in The Entertainer will save you a lot of money when it comes to going out, working out and eating out.
Booze, predictably, pushes the bill up exponentially when out and about. A spirit and mixer or glass of wine at one of Dubai’s beach bars will set you back at least 50 AED. Girls, this is why we’re forever thankful for Ladies Nights, k?
Weather in Dubai: it it manageable?
It’s hot. So, so hot. I moved out in January, when the temperature was cooler and I’d recommend moving to Dubai in the colder months if possible because it gives you time to acclimatise – although nothing really prepares you for a sweltering 46 degree July day in Dubai.
Obviously, everywhere is air-conditioned so it’s really not that hard to survive in the heat.
Hobbies and pasttimes in Dubai
If you’re into fitness, you won’t be at a loss. Dubai is one of those places that quickly embraces every fitness trend going, and I even tried everything from aerial hoop to reformer pilates there. You can go horse-riding in the desert, skiing at the mall and even zip-lining in Dubai.
As I’ve mentioned, most people find themselves dining out a lot and there are plenty of incredible restaurants that you can experience. Then there’s the nightlife.
Dubai’s beach clubs and nightclubs are one of the reasons it’s referred to as the Vegas of the Middle East. I saw world-famous DJs on a school night, danced in the sand and frequently ended up in bed by 6pm after indulging too hard at brunch. From rooftop bars to free ladies nights and pool days, you definitely can party in Dubai. Your employer can arrange an alcohol license for you, and that’s important for staying out of trouble.
If family or friends are coming to visit you, you might find my five day Dubai itinerary helpful for planning their stay.
Obviously, hiring a yacht and throwing a nautical themed party is a Dubai rite of passage. Even if you only do it once, it’s worth doing for the experience and surprisingly reasonable if you have a big group that can all chip in. Of course, you have to meet people first before you can pile them all onto a super yacht – so read my tips for making friends in Dubai to get you started.
Read: 31 Funny Things About Dubai For New Expats
My aim is to keep adding to this post so that it becomes a valuable resource for anyone looking for information about moving to Dubai. Whether you’re just curious about expat life in the sandpit or you’re planning on relocating to Dubai and would like me to add specific tips, or even if you’re just looking for some reassurance about an upcoming move to Dubai; please just leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.
This post will be updated often with the latest facts and new sections.
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This post is sponsored by Western Union. Views and tips are my own.