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10 Tips for Living in Ukraine

By Betsy Burlingame

Summary: Many expats move to Ukraine for its low cost of living. Expats living in Ukraine appreciate that most Ukrainians are salt-of-the-earth, hardworking people. Corruption and bribery are a way of life and expats share their experiences paying bribes.

Expat Ukraine - 10 Tips for Living in Ukraine

The Ukrainian People

"People here if they don't have a job, they invent one. Such is the man who watches our car and everyone else's in the parking lot. We all pay him 100uah a month and he sits all night in his car and watches everyone else's car. That is why when these people make it to America you will never see them in the welfare line. All the Ukrainians I have met in America do very good for themselves," explained one expat in the Ukraine. Another said, "They're 'salt of the Earth' kind of people then. My kind of people, no silver spoons. I worked my tail off to get as far as I got in life and I can definitely respect people who do the same."

While the majority of Ukrainians are hardworking, good people, there are some who try to take advantage of foreigners. "When I first came to Odessa, all the people I met were bottom-feeding scammers who would pretend to give me the shirt off their backs if they could figure out a way to make a buck from me," warned one expat who retired in Kharkov. He went on to say, "But after I learned some of the language and met a few people that were not associated with the scam industry, I met a whole new class of people. They are great people! Friendly, open and sincerely helpful. My circle of friends now is 95% Ukrainians with a few Americans who are honest, hard-working, big on family values and very interesting."

"The great thing about the Ukrainian summer is they very much have a European behaviour to night life. For example the shops, bars, cafes, restaurants, parks all stay open late, and people are out until late. In England, people go home and lock their doors after 8pm, it's the British isolationist mentality, (barring the occasional barbie). Ukrainians are far more sociable and friendly. People will stop and talk, in England if you try talking to a stranger there is immediate suspicion. It's a totally different culture," explained one British expat.

Healthcare in Ukraine

When asked about health insurance for expats in Ukraine, one person advised, "If you travel in Ukraine make sure you have real good international health insurance. I had a kidney stone attack and had to fly to New York for my surgery at the V.A. which the service is totally free. I am receiving 100% disability from the V.A. so all my medical costs are paid by the V.A. including medicines. In Kyiv (or Kiev) there are several hospitals, but one must pay 'before' any service is granted!!! You need to have a good medical interpreter to help you with the doctors and nurses." Expats who plan to have private expat health insurance, such as what is offered by Cigna Global, one of our sponsors, should ensure that it is in place prior to their arrival.

Learning Russian or Ukrainian?

Ukrainian may be the official language of Ukraine, but Russian is spoken in many areas. According to the Boston Globe article, The long war over the Ukrainian language, Russia has long claimed that Ukrainian is not a language, but something to the effect of peasant Russian. Linguists disagree. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war over language in the Ukraine has heated up considerably. For expats, the choice is less of a political one, but it's important to understand the history and debate. You'll most likely choose to learn whichever language is most common in the area where you live. That being said, the most universal advice that any expat gives to a new expat is to learn some of the language (unless, of course, you're moving to an English-speaking country). It is the key to settling in -- to understanding the culture, making friends and enjoying life abroad.

In some areas of Ukraine, whether or not you learn the language really isn't a choice. One former expat in Poltova explains, "Two and a half years ago I lived in Poltava, Ukraine for a year. Regional hub of about 300,000. Because I had no money and was essentially 'in the sticks,' it was important to learn some of one of the local languages. I chose Russian because it is more universally useful. If you live in a place like this, you will find virtually no one who speaks English! I'm not exaggerating. Outside of my fellow Russian students, who were from the Middle East and North Africa, and a couple of people at a language school in town, I never met a Ukrainian who spoke English in a whole year. And I like to go out and drink vodka! The linguistic isolation in a place like this is very extreme. Nothing is in English. You've been warned."

An expat in Odessa, who chose to learn Russian, described his journey, "When I decided to live in Odessa, I knew I could have lived here comfortably and never spoken a word of Russian (the official language may be Ukrainian, but everyone on the street speaks Russian). But the best part of living in a foreign country is immersing yourself in the culture and language. When I was here last spring, I had a couple of bilingual friends that tutored me every day and taught me enough language to survive. But I wasn't learning fast enough, because if you are with a person that speaks English, the temptation is to always speak English. So, when I returned, I contacted a young woman I had met last spring and asked her if she would be my tutor. The timing was right, because she had just lost her job, and she happily agreed. Why did I choose her? Because she does not speak English! Galina comes to my apartment 4 days a week for 2 hour sessions. I learn more quickly because any communication between us must be in Russian...with a little help from Google Translate occasionally. This 'total immersion' system works well as I will explain in a moment.... Previously, whenever I needed to go out to see the sights or go shopping I always took one of my bilingual friends with me to act as an interpreter and be my 'safety blanket'. I don't need that now. I go to the market alone and buy what I need. If I need to buy something out of the ordinary (like new soles for my shoes or a guitar), I learn the vocabulary necessary to complete the transaction and go look for what I need. My motto is 'communication does not need to be perfect to be effective'. With a few Russian words and phrases, facial expressions and hand gestures, I can always get what I need. On occasion, when the weather is cooler, I go to the nearst bus stop and hop on a bus at random and ride it to the end of the route. Sometimes I find myself in small villages far from Odessa. I explore what there is to see and then catch the next bus back to Odessa. I am comfortable in this country. An experience yesterday underlies the benefits of immersion in a culture... Yesterday morning, I was taking my daily walk through the city and I stopped at the City Garden to sit on a bench and rest. I saw a stunningly beautiful young woman walking with a guy. She saw me and sat next to me on the bench and started rattling off in the usual 'machine-gun' staccato of spoken Russian. I said, 'Not so fast! I don't speak Russian well!'. Once she slowed down, I learned that she and her husband had just arrived in Odessa from Karkhov. They would be here for 3 days of sightseeing. To make a long story short, for the next 45 minutes (with my Ruptured Russian) I gave them a walking tour of the City Center of Odessa. I showed them the hotels, restaurants and cafes that I liked. I showed them museums and other points of interest that they could come back to later. I showed them the Black Sea and told them what buses they could ride to go to the Dolphinarium, the beaches and to the huge open air markets. All the time we were walking, the girl was asking me about life in America, and I gave her answers."

Staying in Ukraine Longer than the 90-day Tourist Visa

A soon to be expat in Ukraine asked, "Could I go the Ukraine on the 90 day visa, then go to a border country rather the fly back to the USA, then back to Ukraine? How long would I need to stay out of Ukraine before returning? By the book, is one allowed only a total of 180 days per year in Ukraine in this case?" One expat replied, "Your question about visa -- yes, just cross the border in ANY other country, and get a stamp in your passport. I personally went to Moldova." Another said, "Yes, that is correct. 180 days total, but they never really check. I watch the time I stay carefully not because of getting into trouble with Ukraine but the IRS. I claim foreign exemption and if I am ever audited (which I am sure will happen eventually), I do not want any expensive hiccups." Expats in Ukraine shared more experiences regarding overstaying the time limit. One said, "I had a similar experience with the local officials at the airport the last time I visited Odessa. My passport went through a washing machine and washed out my entry stamp. When the immigration guard saw it, he said 'You have a big problem.' He conferred with his supervisor and then they invited me into their 'office' which was the nearest restroom. To make a long story short, when I gave them $100 they were all smiles and they stamped the exit visa into my passport immediately." Another expat said, "My 'friend' in San Diego had that problem. I simply paid the $50 fine, and am having no problems now after 18 months. Too expensive to deport you, they get money, and you spend money while here. Not in their best interest to see you go." Echoing that experience, an expat said, "Yes -- overstaying one's time in Ukraine will not get you deported. If staying in Ukraine permanently, don't worry. The problem is when one leaves the country. You will be called out of the group boarding the airplane, sit on a bench, and told to wait -- officials will approach you with a price to pay -- usually not too bad. You will get a stamp in passport and all is well. Board the plane."

Obtaining Residency in Ukraine

An expat shared, "Ok. Here is the run down on me getting my Ukraine permanent residence permit. Since my wife is a Russian national, but has lived in Ukraine since she was 11 and has a Ukrainian permanent resident permit also, then I get to bypass the temporary resident permit and go straight to a permanent like her. Don't know if this is the way it's supposed to be, but it's what the lady at the OVIR (Organization of Visas, Immigration and Registration) office says and I'm not about to argue. We started this process a month ago and had to put on hold until the new 2016 immigration quotas came down from Kiev. Since then I have shelled out about $100 in bribes and other necessary monies to make the process faster and smoother. First I had to go to 3 different hospital departments. One for a blood test. The doctor asked my wife if I really wanted to give blood and wait 10 days for the result, or pay 300 grivna and get the paper with her stamp on it with instant results. Of course I chose to pay the 300 uah, duh! Then there was the chest xray to see if I had tuberculosis, 100 uah for instant processing. Saved a week. Then there was the 500 uah bottle of premium cognac and a box of chocolates and premium coffee to the lady at the OVIR office so that we wouldn't have to make a trip to The Ukraine Embassy in Moldova to get an immigration visa stamp in my passport. Then there was the 300 uah to the doctor at another hospital so she would have to really examine me which means running her finger up my butt for a prostate exam and wait a week for the results. Then there was the extra 150 uah to pay in order to get my police record from the Ukraine police in 5 days instead of 2 weeks. All in all I am wondering now if I shouldn't have done what others have done and just go pay a lawyer. Might have come out even or ahead by doing that. But it was still a lesson learned in how things work in Ukraine."

With regard to the police record check, he advised, "Don't go through the FBI to do it. It's not necessary and takes too long. What I did is what the American Embassy in Kiev told me to do and it's the same for people adopting children from Ukraine. Go to the website of your state police and see if you can get a notarized copy of your criminal record. For a lot of states you can get this document online and emailed to you, but it needs to be certified with a notary seal. For instance, I lived in Pennsylvania, so I paid online and had them send it to me in the mail since it had to come out of Harrisburg. You can do this in any state if you have lived there before as long as it's the state that your driving license is in because you need to show that to the lady at the OVIR. If you have a criminal record, just make sure to get your record in the state where you don't have a record as state criminal records only show records from that state. That's why you may not want to go the FBI route as this will be national. Anyways, Ukraine doesn't care about your criminal record per say, they just need to have the document. When you get this document, you need to send it or go to your state's Secretary of State and have it apostilled for use in Ukraine. You will need all your documents apostilled such as your divorce decree if you're getting married here as well as your birth certificate. When you get to Ukraine you need to go to a notary and get all certified translations of all your documents. This included your passport, drivers license, divorce decree and birth certificate. This cost me about 600 uah in Kiev. Not much. Letter of non impediment to marriage is no longer needed from the embassy nor will they give it to you. Instead, they give you a copy of the new Ukraine law stating you don't need it. Now bear in mind not all OVIR offices do everything the same so you may need to check to see what documents they want as there is no real standardisation in Ukraine."

Transferring Money to the Ukraine

"The question on transfer of money from US banks to a Ukraine Bank is a interesting topic. As all things in Ukraine, one can wiggle in and out of a situation many different ways!! I just spent Dec 16-26 2015 in Odessa. We were visiting family and looking at property around Odessa area. I stopped by 2 Banks and asked the very same question about transferring money from a US Bank to a Ukraine Bank to pay for a property purchase. I was told the old 3% fee for a Bank-to-Bank transfer of money recently went to 7%. That's a huge fee if one is paying $70-140K for a property purchase. So, definitely research all options available to avoid fees!! Advice -- don't think like an American, think like you are from Ukraine... just wiggle, wiggle, wiggle and you will find the loop hole," suggested a soon-to-be expat.

Another expat shared how he avoids the 7% transfer fees, "I use my Wells Fargo Debt card and can take up to $1000 per day. Fees are none from the bank in Ukraine (Rafeissen, Pro Credit, and I think Uni Credit also, but there are many that do not charge) and then the fees from Wells which are 5 dollars each withdrawl as stated on their website. Then I carry a no foreign transaction fee credit card for purchases I don't want to pay cash for, which I try and do all the time so as to increase my mileage balance! Then, if I want to buy a car or something over there, I simply wire transfer from the USA to my bank there. So I again pay Well's $40 to do that. From what you write you need to establish a bank account there! 80 percent of the people that work at Pro Credit are sent to school in Germany to learn English and our way of banking."

Another expat suggested, "Keep it simple... Set up an account with Western Union using your US bank account. Send yourself the money. You will receive it in 4 business days in dollars. The fee is only $12 per $1000. I don't know if you have a Premium Bank in Kharkov, but they usually convert at a rate 20-30 grivna/$100 more than anyone else on the street."

Where to Live in Ukraine

"Living in Ukraine is great for some -- not so for others. Some love their shopping malls, close proximity to food shopping -- some love their privacy. Living in any large city in Ukraine will be much more costly than in what we call the suburbs. Odessa oblast is a very large oblast (State as we would say). My wife is from this oblast as well. By train she was 3 1/2 hours away -- just 30 miles from Moldova. The cost of living in Odessa city is the beckon of the beautiful Black Sea. A favorite summer recreation area now in Ukraine. Before the Beaches of the Crimea were the favorite. Since the Russian domination (invasion) of the East of Ukraine, this has changed. It may be well for you to go buy some land and have your own home built your way! Most Ukrainian homes lack that American style, or needs . All major cities in Ukraine will be much more expensive than the smaller cities will be. I have a home in Kherson -- about two hours from Odessa by car -- not too expensive there. Most of Ukraine is becoming more modern now -- most appliances and furnishings can be had in most cities. Yes, with the economy so down, many places are available at lower prices," reported one expat living in Ukraine.

Odessa, with a population of approximately 1 million, is the third biggest city in the Ukraine. Located in southern Ukraine on the Black Sea. "Odessa may be a cosmopolitan city, with people from over 160 nations living here, but is has never been 'tourist friendly' in the Western sense. Maybe that is why I like it here. The people here are real, and not trying to put on a show for me. Living here is challenging, but by immersing myself into the culture somewhat, I receive some good rewards. The ultimate reward for living here is the low cost of living at the present. I live in a modest, one-bedroom apartment in the City Center and for less than $1000 per month I enjoy a comfortable life. As for security, I have never seen any evidence of crime in the part of the city where I live. I never think twice about walking the streets late at night. Three-man police patrols are a common sight on the street," described one expat living in Odessa.

If you are looking for a suburb of Odessa, there are a number to consider. One expat said, "My two bits worth on places to live around Odessa. Some days when I am bored I just walk to the nearest bus stop and get on any random bus and ride it to the end of the line to see where it goes. As a result, I have been to many of the 'suburbs' around Odessa. I was not impressed with Illichivsk. It seemed to be just a smaller version of Odessa with no extra appeal. Mayaki and Teplodar were nice, clean small towns. And farther south there is Belgorod-Dnestrovsky. It has some interesting historical features. All of these places are far enough away from Odessa to get away from the congestion and crowds, but they are still in the public transportation grid so you don't have to buy a car if you don't want one."

L'viv is by far my favorite city I have visited so far. I loved the old buildings, cobble stone streets, many building were very clean and well kept up. Not so much graffiti on building as in Odessa." reported another expat in Ukraine. Another said, "L'viv is very, very cool. Definitely take a guided tour, there are many cool facts that were worth the money. There is a small weapons museum that has a surprisingly wide range of items. The Kryjivka restaurant is fun -- underground WWW bunker theme based restaurant. You have to give the secret password to get in :). House of Legends is interesting. We went on a weekend in the summer and the symphony came outside to perform Sunday morning in front of the Opera house, very cool. I could have stayed there a week, definitely will make another trip, loved it. It is very quaint and clean."

Cost of Living in Ukraine

"Cost of living is a very big plus. My expenses are only 1/3 of what they would be in the US," remarked one expat. An expat in Odessa broke down his living costs saying," Odessa: Cost of living. I live on around $1000 per month. At the time of this writing, the exchange rate is 24.20, so you can calculate the following numbers in dollars. I pay 6300 uah per month for a 1 bedroom apt in the City Center near the Potemkin Stairs. Utilities last month (gas, electric and water) was 1160 uah. Internet costs 110 uah per month. I never use the TV so I don't pay for that. Food is around 4000 uah per month. I don't do a lot of cooking. Most of what I eat comes in a package or else it is something I can warm up in the microwave. Someone who did their own cooking could get by with a lot less. Last month I spent 1400 uah on restaurant meals. That was excessive, because I rarely eat at the regular restaurants. I may pay 78 uah for two Fresh McMuffins and some orange juice at McDonalds a couple of times a month. If I want to eat out, I go to Puzata Xata and get all I can eat of the best food in Odessa for under $5. I pay around 5000 uah per month for a Russian tutor 4 days a week. A cleaning lady cleans my apartment for 250 uah twice a month. The rest of the $1000 is miscellaneous discretionary expenditures. I figure the cost of living here is 1/3 of what I would pay in America. That is mostly because I pay less for housing and I don't have the expense of my two cars. I am paying $50 per month to have them stored while I am in Ukraine. I hope this gives you something tangible to think about."

Another expat added to the conversation saying, "Housing is a little different than the apartments so I will share about that. It's great news for those of you who like houses with a yard etc.. I live on say the county line (which is called Odesa Oblast here) in a 3 bedroom house. It is about 30 minutes drive to the center of the city, plus or minus, depending on traffic. So costs are less than downtown as with most cities and a 3 bedroom house is about 6000 uah per month to rent. To purchase the same is 125k and up. But close to the house I live in, there are apt's that are 3000 uah per month and up.. So yes, downtown is close to twice as expensive. Russophile did not cover TV so I can. It is great! You buy a satellite dish one time and receiver for about $100 and your done ! You will get about 20 American channels. If you desire more channels, they cost about 2 dollars each per month. So next I can share telephone expense. I have a land line also and calling to the states is about 5$ for each call, 15 minute's. The local calls I think are free if not, then close.. Cell phones: they have all the options available. The big guys (ATT, T-mobile, etc. ) are not here YET, so it is cheaper for now. Expats don't seem to be big phone users and I would say that I am average user so my cost for my cell phone is $5 per month. As far as food is concerned Russophile hit that about exact, 1000 uah EACH per month will do it. So again, he got it right in my opinion, about 1/3 less than the states overall."

Bribery and Corruption is a Way of Life in the Ukraine

"You will find that a little BRIBE money talks -- so much corruption, however that is the way of life in Ukraine. Where there is a will, there is a way!" confessed one expat. A common theme in the advice provided by expats in Ukraine is bribery and corruption. It's helpful to know when other expats pay bribes to get things done. On a broader scale, everyone seems to agree that bribery and corruption are hurting the Ukrainian economy and government. "I know an expat who has lived in Odessa for the last 10 years. He has no 'outside' source of income. He lives and profits here from his own ingenuity and hard work. He also holds a gloomy view of the future. He stated many reasons, but the most poignant statement he made was, 'It's not the country, it's the people that are the problem'. After 70 years of indoctrination of Communist ideology, the populace here cannot grasp the concept of business without corruption; good customer service; hope for a better future and the value of planning ahead, saving money and investing in an education in a field with a future. If someone does try to break out of the mold, it is like the crabs in a bowl. If one tries to climb out, the others pull him back in. Those with a little spark of ambition know that their only hope for a brighter future is to get out of Ukraine. But many won't take that step when the opportunity is placed before them," commented one expat in Ukraine. Additionally, corruption has plagued the Ukrainian government for years and ultimately led to the recent resignation of the Ukrainian Prime Minister.

Driving in the Ukraine

"Cars! Wow it is a learning experience! I have had a few now and have learned the hard way. Ukrainians are by far the worst driver's in the world! No if's and's or butt's! They do everything!! Red lights running happens 90 percent of the time every light you must stop for. Consequently there are going to be accidents and a lot of them.. So buying a car.. I bought a new Nissan, with full coverage ins, and that cost about 30 percent more than the states. Insurance was also 30 percent more. So some guy decided to do a u-turn from the right lane of a 4 way highway and I was in the left lane. He never saw me and turned directly into to me. I was doing the speed limit (50mph) and there was nothing I could do. He hit the passenger side, sending the car up on two wheels (witnesses said I did pretty good on two wheels for about 300 yds!) anyway it crashed down on the drivers side, slid for another 200 yards into oncoming traffic and it seemed like forever but it stopped. The airbags and seat belts saved my life but about costs. The insurance co does not pay full value! We paid about 35k for the car and 6 months later they gave us 17,500! And insurance was like I said 30 percent more or about 125 usd per month. And the guy who hit me had only the minimum required by law and it does not cover the other car. So the best thing to do is if you need a car, and that is only IF, buy a cheap one, get government insurance and get it fixed WHEN it gets crashed. That is cheap, Ukrainians are great at restoring car's, they have a lot of practice," advised an expat living in the Ukraine.

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About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

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First Published: Apr 14, 2016

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