Canberra, Australia Report of what it's like to live there - 08/26/20
Personal Experiences from Canberra, Australia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. We previously lived in Kinshasa, DRC, and I previously lived in Toronto and in the UK.
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?
Charlotte, NC - its a LOOOOOOOOOOONG way. There are no direct international flights from Canberra except to Singapore (and that may have gone away as well). So you have to fly from Canberra to either Sydney or Melbourne (approx. 2 hours), then transfer and fly on to LA, Houston or San Francisco (13+ hours) then on to the East coast (approx. 5 hours from LA to CLT). It certainly feels like nothing is close to Australia. It's probably the hardest part of living there.
3. How long have you lived here?
We lived there for two years from 2017-2019.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We had an AMAZING house - a little older, but big and with an enormous yard (sometime a curse, but mostly a blessing). We could get into the City (such as it is) in about 10 minutes. Traffic is very, very light compared to any of the cities we've lived in (DC, Toronto, Kinshasa - even Charlotte, NC). For our mission the housing was not at all centrally located - people lived in newer houses in the "Northside" (north of the manmade Lake Burley Griffin) and people lived in the Southside in older houses with slower internet, but closer to the Embassies and downtown. Some people loved being in the North, others complained endlessly about the longer "commute."
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Pretty much everything is available - there is a Costco, Target and Woolies and Coles (the two biggest grocery stores) have pretty much anything and everything you could want. We sometimes struggled to find some more "American" things like graham crackers, canned pumpkin and cranberry sauce, but even those things could be found in a bigger city. Price was generally more expensive than the US, but the Australian dollar continued to decline while we were there and I, at least, found it was a mixed bag. Some things were definitely more expensive, but others could be cheaper (ie: avocados when in season = cheap), beer = always expensive). I didn't find the prices to be of particular hardship - especially after living in Africa.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Graham crackers and some grits (I used polenta and it worked ok, but if I could go back that is what I'd ship). Maybe marshmallows - most Australian marshmallows have flavor, but Costco usually had regular ones.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
I'm sure there is food delivery, but other than the occasional pizza we didn't use it much. We loved to try out various restaurants and there are some goods ones - but they seem expensive. Again, I found that when I took out the 15-20% tip that is now typical in the US (pre-COVID) and added in the dollar exchange the costs was pretty close to what you'd pay in the US. The one exception to that was breakfast - that always seems REALLY expensive to me comparatively and after going out for brunch once early on we avoided leaving the house before lunch.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We didn't have any issues with bugs - notwithstanding what everyone says about Australia. We did see a few redback (like black widows) spiders, but they never bothered us. We had a pretty large Hunter spider in our house at one point, but it was significantly smaller than the one we had in Kinshasa - and they are harmless (in fact, they eat the bad spiders, so they are better than harmless). Otherwise, we didn't see much in the way of bugs other than a few flies and mosquitos in summer.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We used the diplomatic post office usually. Australia Post is, in my experience, dismal. It takes forever to get anything anywhere outside of Australia, and it is really expensive (inside and outside Australia).
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We did not have household help - partially because we didn't really need it and partially because it is really expensive. Minimum wage is approx. $20/hour - even babysitters get paid in those types of numbers - and it adds up fast.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
We used Fitness First which was only about a 10 min walk from our house (one of the best things about Canberra is every neighborhood has its own "shops" - small IGA, usually a coffee shop (or two), pharmacy, often gym and hairdresser as well as a post office). I didn't find it expensive compared to DC or CLT - I think it was around $40 US/month.
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?
Not only are credit cards used everywhere (we almost never carried cash) but Australia was WAY ahead of the US in terms of contactless payment, tapping and chips. When we came back to the US in late 2019 I couldn't believe how antiquated things seemed - I have to open my wallet and pull out an actual card? How very 2010! Now in the US things have change primarily because of COVID, but you will have no issues using credit cards in Australia. We opened an Australian bank account to make paying some bills (ie: gym) easier, but all ATMs are common and safe (as safe as the US for sure - probably safer on average).
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Everything is in English - if you consider Australian English. ;)
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
The local language is English - so assuming you are speaking English you'll be fine.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I'm not sure, but I would think people who are differently abled would be just fine - the Australians are pretty cognizant of making sure everyone can participate.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes and yes. We used taxis, ubers, buses and trains - all lovely, clean and affordable (though not cheap - just "Australia" affordable).
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?
Anything you'd like - except not really because you can only bring a right hand drive car - so you'll probably have to buy one when you arrive. We picked up a Toyota when we arrived and sold it when we left. Easy peasy.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes - it is readily available - various providers. I don't remember how long it took to get it installed, but we bought SIM cards when we arrived in Sydney and used them as hotspots until it was installed. Decent internet, not too expensive. In Canberra the internet is better/faster in the newer areas North of the Lake.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We kept our US phones (iPhone and Samsung) and put in Australian sims. Worked like a charm for two years.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Amazing vets and kennels - we shipped our dog from the US (and back when we left) and he did have to be quarantined, but only for 10 days (BUT you have to get the rabies titer done 6 months before departure otherwise the quarantine is longer). It was EXPENSIVE - but so totally worth it in our opinion. We loved the vet we went to (Northside Animal Hospital) and, while expensive compared to some places (ie: Kinshasa) we had them do some surgery on our dog when we arrived after we priced the same surgery in DC for $2100 and paid about $1300 in Canberra.
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?
We both worked for the Embassy, but lots of spouses worked on the local economy - especially teaching. Telecommuting is pretty hard given the time difference (ranging from 14 to 16 hours from the US East Coast depending on the time of year), but I know someone who did therapy telecommuting for their whole tour.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
All the same types as you would find in the US. Animal shelters were very popular.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
We were business casual mostly at work, and the typical dress code is pretty much the same as the US. The only time I used formal dress was for the Marine Corps Ball.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not really. Australia is very safe - safer than the US in many, many ways. However, there have been wildfires since we left - and those types of fires are always a possible issue - the US Embassy was evacuated due to fires in 2003, so that is always a risk. I'm sure there is petty crime like anywhere, but overall we felt MUCH safer in Canberra than anywhere else we have ever lived.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is great. No evacuation. In fact, while we were there about 8 people from our Embassy had babies in Australia - not one of them went back to the US and all said it was an amazing experience.
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?
In Canberra - great. Not sure if I could say the same about Sydney. Definitely some season allergy issues, and obviously during the fires the air quality was terrible (on several days the worst in the world), but while we were there we had no issues.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Pretty much the same things they need to know in the US. Almost all restaurants will ask if anyone has any allergies or sensitivities. Environmental - Spring and Fall are going to involve some itchy eyes and sneezing for allergy sufferers, but I didn't find anything different than being on the East Coast of the US.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
No. Though because it is so far away and the time difference is so difficult - lots of people do tend to feel very isolated from family and friends.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Four seasons. Beautiful spring, hot summer, lovely fall and cold (but not too cold) winter. It probably snows in the Canberra area about once every 2-3 years, but there is skiing only a few hours away in the Snowy Mountains
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are no international school. Our child went to a private IB school which was, by far, the best school we have ever been involved with. They were loving and caring and amazing teachers and great parents. It was the hardest part of leaving for us. Most people send their children either to one of the private parochial schools (most are Anglican or Catholic) or to one of the local public schools. I never heard anyone complain about their choice. In fact, for the most part, people raved about the schooling. The hardest part is that the Southern Hemisphere school system can be complicated. We held our daughter back for half a term and she repeated kindergarten, but then we left half way through her 2nd grade year and she had to start her new school in the US only a couple of months later having skipped half of grade 2 (but back to the excellence of the schools - she was not at all behind, and, in some subjects ahead).
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Lots. Like in the US. Very accommodating from what I heard (though I do not have any special needs children).
3. 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?
Yes - though expensive I did not have any children in pre-school, but my friends with children at the "early years" program thought it was great. Schools do have before/after care - we used it and it was much better than the before/after care at the US school our child went to.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes - lots of classes and sports. We did swimming, field hockey, cricket, soccer and horseback riding at various times. Pretty much anything you can think of other than US football.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
I have no idea how big the expat community is as it is not really a tight knit group. Like many other posts like Australia, most people make their own fun, travel a lot, and don't really need the expat community to either keep them occupied or help them fit in. We made (and kept) Australian friends and, though we did participate in Embassy sponsored events they were really not a big deal compared to some posts.
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?
I joined a book club that included other Americans, and I was part of a group of mums who ran, but otherwise, as noted above, you make your own fun. People go to Sydney or the beach for the weekend, or they go skiing or they meet up at a local pool. It mostly just feels like you are in the US living your life most of the time (except for the accents and the kangaroos in the streets).
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think it is hard for single people. In reality Canberra is a small town. It was FABULOUS for a family with small children - tons of things to do, both inside and outside, and a wonderful family atmosphere - with easy traffic. I don't think it would be the most exciting place for some singles - though there were bars and dance clubs - and it seemed that it was definitely becoming more hip and trendy when we left.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I think it is fine, but I'm not sure. I knew several who seemed happy - except for the lack of excitement - I think they would have preferred to be in Sydney or Melbourne, but more because of the access to fun, rather than the LGBT issues. Australians generally seem very accepting and welcoming to the LGBT community from my observations.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
We had no problem making friends - though it is a VERY homogenous place. I think it is certainly possible for people to feel uncomfortable given the lack of diversity, but I can't speak to that from experience.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not that I saw at all.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Perth and Western Australia were amazing (Margaret River!), we loved Brisbane and Noosaville, Melbourne is exciting and fun, Sydney is wonderful, the beaches are great, skiing was pretty good (though REALLY expensive). We were unsure about doing Uluru and the Red Center, but we had an amazing time and would highly recommend it - just do it in July (winter) as the flies are terrible. Tasmania was one of our favorite trips as well. It's all great! (just don't forget Australia is a big country - it takes a while to get places!)
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Questacon - the kids science museum is great, the botanical gardens and the arboretum are both great places to take kids (and the gardens do movies in the summer). There are hikes all over Canberra - we tried to do as many as we could and loved them all.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Meh. You can buy didgeridoos and Aboriginal art, but I not sure that I'd say there is anything "typical."
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The traffic is amazing - not crowded and so well organized. Really though we loved this tour and loved the ease of living in Canberra.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How far removed you feel from people on the East Coast of the US (and really everywhere) due to the distance and time change.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Hopes of saving a ton of money - you are going to spend it on traveling and enjoying an easy life with good food, good restaurants and lots of places to go.
4. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen and camera!
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
In a Sunburned Country. Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Muriel's Wedding.
6. Do you have any other comments?
If you are looking for non-stop excitement and a place that is really "different" from home (assuming that is the US or Canada) you will not find it in Australia, but you will find amazingly friendly people, a relatively easy life and lots of kangaroos!