Political instability, social turbulence and the economic crisis have cast a shadow over an otherwise sunny Greece. Yet, relative to other countries, the standards of living remain high for middle-class people; and even amidst the financial problems new opportunities arise for those smart – or desperate – enough to grab them.
There are numerous pros and cons for expats in moving to Greece right now and depending on who you are and what you are looking for, Greece may be your dream destination or a place you should definitely avoid until the crisis is resolved. Let’s look below at what makes Greece a good (or bad) destination for an expat.
It’s all Greek to me!
Language is probably the first thing an expat will examine while considering Greece as a potential destination. The Greek language can be tricky to learn and notoriously difficult to master. Thankfully almost everyone speaks English at least to some degree, most stores have English price lists, and all road signs and signs on important public buildings have their names in English as well as in Greek. Thanks to the widespread international tourism, English speakers don’t really need to know a single word of Greek to move here. However, not knowing the local language marks you clearly as a foreigner, which brings us to…
Attitudes towards expats
Thanks to tourism Greek people are usually very warm towards expats… unless they perceive them as potential competitors for a precious job opening!
Unemployment is at its post-WWII high thanks to the economic crisis, and the Greek people are very angry about that. This anger is often expressed against foreign people who compete for work with locals, but mostly over lower-income jobs. Hence there is widespread anger towards Balkan people, such as Albanians and Bulgarians, for taking low-paid jobs. The same is not true of European expats who will compete with locals for middle and high-income jobs. However, nowadays employers will often prefer to hire a local over a better-qualified foreigner just for the sake of their own public image. Supporting the local economy and giving jobs to Greeks is the latest fad in business promotion.
Most of these problems, however, are magically solved if you know the language to an adequate level. Obviously, though, becoming fluent in Greek is not a viable solution for expats looking for a new home.
Public sector workers are especially respectful towards non-Greeks and you can use that to your advantage. It is not uncommon for expats to be allowed to jump queues and receive special treatment in public hospitals and other state facilities. The police are also very kind to English speakers and generally every phone operator will go the extra mile to help you if you talk to them with a BBC accent. Sadly, the same does not hold true for expats from Balkan countries…
As we have seen above, unemployment is sky-high and there are strong biases against hiring foreigners over Greeks, so almost all mainstream jobs, including long-time favourite expat jobs such as language teaching, are usually out of reach. If you are planning to find work as an ESL teacher, just forget it.
However, Greece is quite welcoming to expats who run their own internet business. Taxation is quite light, internet access is (relatively) cheap and the country’s telecom infrastructure is rather advanced. Expats can definitely survive and thrive in Greece as long as they do not (directly) rely on the Greek market. Remember that Greeks represent just a bit more than one in 700 of the global population. By doing business only in Greece you miss out on the remaining 699!
House prices have plummeted dramatically in the last few years. Even in metropolitan areas, houses have lost as much as 50% (sometimes more!) of their 2008 value. The same holds true for rents, and the price of housing in suburban and rural areas has dropped even more impressively. House prices are expected to keep falling, though, and buying a house in Greece now might mean it will be devalued by more than 10% in the next couple of years. On the other hand, if the crisis is resolved, house prices are expected to skyrocket – so the property market in Greece today is a real gambling house.
Cost of living
Living in Greece is said to have been as much as 30% cheaper than in most other European countries with similar standards of living. Since the financial crisis, though, the cost of living has been steadily increasing thanks to heavier taxes, increases in electricity bills and increased prices for numerous everyday commodities. However, the cost of living is more than offset by the lower house prices we have seen today, and an expat coming from the UK will probably find everything a lot cheaper than it is back home. Nevertheless, with the euro fluctuating so much, it may be hard to find peace of mind if you are living on a fixed sterling income. From month to month, you may be €50-€60 off your budget target in either direction, thanks to the whims of the EUR/GBP exchange ratio!
Unless you know the language or have at least one friend to help you get around the bureaucracy, Greece can be a bit confusing and unwelcoming to expats who have just arrived here. The legal substructure of the country in taxation and health insurance matters appears to change every year, and it can be very hard for a newcomer to grasp how fluid and unorganised some aspects of the public sector are.
Apart from bureaucracy and the cumbersome beast that is Greek government, getting accustomed to life in Greece is also disrupted by numerous strikes, riots and demonstrations (typically more than once a month in major cities). These can be very off-putting for expats, since public transport, taxis, hospitals, pharmacies, street cleaners and commercial stores may stop working during these times, sometimes for days at an end. All demonstrations are announced and planned days beforehand, but not knowing where to look and whom to ask can leave you unprepared!
Verdict: Is Greece presently a good place for expats to move to?
As a Greek myself I would have to say that right now, Greece is only good for expats with a solid income that does not depend on Greece (eg internet businesses) and for people who don’t mind the occasional misadventure at the hands of Greece’s dysfunctional economy. If you can weather the frequent strikes and the complete lack of conventional job opportunities, and if you are feeling just a bit adventurous, then – and only then – is Greece a good place for you to move to.