Cairo, Egypt Report of what it's like to live there - 09/09/17
Personal Experiences from Cairo, Egypt
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, I previously did tours in the Caribbean and Europe.
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?
Washington, DC. It takes anywhere from 18 - 24 hours of travel time to get from Cairo to Washington, depending on connections. The U.S. government contract fare currently is with Delta/Air France and connects in Paris.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Diplomatic assignment at the U.S. embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is a mix of leased properties and U.S. Government properties around Cairo, though predominantly in the neighborhoods of Zamalek and Maadi. I lived in a US Government building in Zamalek. It was a two-bedroom unit, approximately 1500 sq. ft. The building had a small gym and parking spaces available, though parking would be tight - possible not sufficient - if everyone in the building brought a car. As it is, a car is not necessary in Cairo due to the abundance of taxis, Uber, etc. It's very easy to live in Cairo without a car.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Egypt is a relatively inexpensive country. Embassy staff are also spoiled with the commissary, which, at least in my estimation, has prices 25 - 30% lower than a typical grocery store in Washington, DC. The commissary is subsidized and you can get the same products found in US grocery stores.
Restaurants are affordable, though expensive options are also available. Eating a more "local" restaurants will be very cheap and the food quality is still usually pretty good. Think in the range of $10 total for a family of four at a local restaurant. Prices go up from there, particularly at the high-end hotels in Cairo.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
None, you can get everything at the commissary and/or on the local economy.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Otlob is probably the most prevalent app used to order takeout food. Delivery times vary but nearly every restaurant in Zamalek offers delivery. You can even get a cup of coffee delivered.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ants were a problem in some apartments, but not a huge issue. These were very small, almost not visible, black ants. No mosquitoes in Cairo! I cannot overstate how great this is. Flies in Cairo are the most annoying kind of flies I've ever encountered. They target your hair, eyes, nose, and mouth and are everywhere!
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We have an APO (U.S. military mail) within the embassy and that's what pretty much everyone used for letters and packages. I never heard of anyone using the local Egyptian mail system.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
It varies based on factors such as the maid's nationality. Among the embassy community, Filipino women seem to have a monopoly for providing maid and nanny services and they charge more than Egyptians. The overall cost for domestic help is very affordable compared to what you will pay in Washington.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Some of the U.S. government-owned buildings have gyms, which are small but well-maintained and have treadmills, elliptical machines, and free weights. Gold's Gym has several locations around Cairo and is on the expensive side, comparable prices to Washington. Local gyms will not be well-stocked, but they will be more affordable. The embassy also has a good gym but you have to purchase a membership through AECWA.
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?
Credit cards are accepted at the commissary, at the small PX in the embassy, at many higher-end restaurants and grocery stores. That said, Egypt is still largely a cash-based society so you will need to carry cash. Most people used the ATM inside the embassy or wrote checks to themselves at the bank branch in the embassy. I used the banking services inside the embassy (provided by Commercial International Bank [CIB]). The only ATM I used outside of the embassy was embedded inside a CIB bank branch near our apartment building and I never had any issues with it.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I believe some of the churches and cathedrals in Cairo offer English language services. There is a Catholic church in Zamalek and I believe that was one of the churches to offer English language services.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
The embassy has a language program open to staff and family members, which many people take advantage of, many have had positive experiences with the program and the instructors offer classes during the work day and after hours. Many Egyptians speak some English, given the previous prevalence of tourists. Of course, knowing some Arabic will enrich your experience. You can survive in Cairo without Arabic.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Cairo is difficult to navigate even for able-bodied people due to uneven sidewalks, potholes, etc. Many people resort to walking in the streets next to traffic. Very few buildings can easily accommodate people with disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, very affordable. Taxis are prevalent in Cairo and it's very easy to hail one pretty much any time of day or night. They are very affordable but be careful about using them because taxi drivers will often try to take advantage of foreigners. All taxis should have meters but many drivers will claim that the meter is broken. Also, many drivers will claim that they do not have change so make sure to carry small bills when you use taxis.
Uber was my favorite transport option in Cairo. Its prices were comparable to taxis and there was never any haggling or money exchanged, the cars tended to be nicer and the drivers used the GPS function embedded in Uber. GPS isn't always reliable in Cairo but will usually work if you're going to well-known neighborhoods or sites.
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?
Most people brought SUVs. The roads in Cairo are not great and there are unmarked speed bumps all around the city; you'll eventually learn where they are. We worked through the embassy mechanics, during their personal time they will be able to help with your vehicle. I did not hear of any problems with break-ins or carjackings, but many people experience fender benders, bumps, nicks, and scratches to their vehicles during their tour. I would not suggest bringing a new, an expensive, or a car that has any sort of sentimental value. On the upside, vehicles have a very good resale value in Cairo and many people were able to sell their cars after 2-3 years for the original purchase price they paid.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Most people go through an internet fixer to get the internet set up. I worked with the fixer and it was very easy, though I did pay a bit more for the convenience. I paid for the unlimited internet package, which was 2,110 Egyptian pounds every three months. The fixer would send a person to our building to collect the payments in cash, receipts were provided. I never had any issues and I thought it was a good system. However, some others did not have such a great experience.
You can also go directly to the internet company and initiate/terminate service but it will be significantly more involved and take longer. Using the fixer, I made a phone call requesting installation/connection and it was installed within 2 days. I bought a router from the fixer but that was not required. Also, Egypt recently passed a law limiting internet usage for high-use connections. A couple of people in our building who stream a lot of music or movies had their internet cut off toward the end of the month due to high usage and had to wait for the new month to begin before service was restored. They reached out to the company about this because they had the unlimited internet package and they were basically told nothing could be done.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Most people use Vodafone for their personal cell phone service. Vodafone has 4G service and it's easy to get a number and recharge your phone and internet credit. They also offer internet dongles with 4G data to hold you over until you get your internet set up. The internet service through Vodafone was really fast and reliable.
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?
We had a poor experience with an embassy staff member who also provided veterinary services during his personal time. He checked out our pet twice and we didn't feel the was competent as a veterinarian. There are good veterinarian service options around Zamalek and in Maadi. Ask around for recommendations when you arrive.
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?
This is a sore spot among embassy spouses - and rightfully so! The embassy in Cairo is large and there are jobs available in the embassy but obtaining a security clearance takes a very long time. With the current hiring freeze, things are getting worse. I know a few spouses who waited six months or longer to find work within the embassy, some were not able to find anything at all or they had to wait so long for their clearances that they were not able to begin working until very late in their tours. Working on the local economy will require approval from the Chief of Mission, with heavy input from RSO, and it's not guaranteed to be approved. Local wages are very low and most jobs on the local economy will require Arabic.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
I believe that many exist but I'm not aware of any specific person who regularly volunteered.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
The dress code in the embassy is business formal. People tend to dress conservatively in public. Most women will be wear long sleeves and pants year round, men don't typically wear shorts. Foreign women are not expected to cover their heads, in fact, not all Egyptian women are covered, but wearing anything revealing can potentially draw unwanted attention. Many women in the embassy community were cat called, hissed at (a local way of cat calling), touched, groped, etc.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Violent crime and street crime tend to be low and I never felt uncomfortable walking around during the day or at night. The potential for terrorism is real and attacks did occur during my time in Egypt. Not every attack makes international news, you probably already heard about the big ones.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
I had good experiences with dental care in Egypt. There is a very good dentist in Zamalek that many embassy staff use. Many people were medically evacuated for anything complicated.
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?
The air quality varies by season. The spring, summer, fall had fairly good air quality. Air quality in the winter is abysmal. Sometimes you can taste the air due to it being filled with spoke from burning garbage and pollution. It is common in the winter to not be able to see across the Nile or the tops of buildings, due to smog, pollution, smoke, etc. Many people had respiratory issues during the winter.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Air quality in the winter is terrible, see above.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Fortunately, it's sunny almost every day in Cairo. It does rain 2-3 times per year, usually in October/November.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
October - April = very mild days and chilly evenings. May - September = hot to oppressively hot. Summers here can be terrible, but at least it's not normally very humid. I hear the Gulf States are much worse for weather due to the heat and humidity.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I hear very good things about the international school in Cairo, though I cannot speak from direct experience.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community in Cairo is huge. Cairo is a major international city and there are dozens of embassies, international organizations, etc. that use Cairo as a hub for their regional activities. Morale tends to be mixed, though most people seem to be happy. Cairo has a way of grinding you down over time. Most people arrive happy and then cannot wait to leave by the end of their tour.
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?
There is a group that hosts diplomatic happy hours for all diplomats in Cairo. The British Embassy hosts pub quiz nights. There are a lot of opportunities to get to know people.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I believe it is. However, it may be difficult for foreigners to date locals, especially if they are not Muslim. Families seem to do well here and many people take advantage of the Maadi house, which has a pool and children's playground. That said, there are really no parks in Cairo and it's very difficult to walk around the city with a stroller.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Absolutely not, mostly due to religious beliefs.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There are tensions between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt. Men are treated as first class citizens and women are second class citizens.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Many people rave about Egypt and its wealth of historical treasures. I honestly was let down time after time by what Egypt had to offer. I did enjoy the pyramids and Sphinx but Luxor was a let down. Overall, for me, it boiled down to paying a lot for low quality. Honestly, my best trips were to Europe. Direct flights to the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, etc. are cheap and quick. You pay more but you get what you pay for and without any of the hassles of traveling in Egypt, including people constantly trying to gouge for every little thing. Traveling in Egypt just wore me down and I never truly enjoyed it.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Many people go to Alexandria for weekend trips (3-hour drive from Cairo), to Ain Sukhna (2-hour drive) for the beach, Hurghada or El Gouna for long weekends (5-hour drive), Sharm El Sheik (1-hour flight), Luxor/Aswan (1-hour flight) for the temples and/or the Nile cruises.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes, many people go to the Khan el Khalili, which is the large open air market in Islamic Cairo to buy any manner of traditional crafts. Alabaster is also very cheap in Egypt and they make many items out of the stone, which are usually very nice. Be ready to haggle when buying items in markets. Tourist/foreigner pricing applies and you will be gouged, just expect it. Some people will take a local with them to try to avoid the gouging, it doesn't always work.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
For me, there were not too many. I didn't love Cairo, but I didn't hate it, either. I did enjoy the European travel that I did while I was here. Cairo is a major city in a developing country and it can be fun to live here but it's also very frustrating, particularly traffic and the local driving/littering habits.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How difficult spousal employment really would be. I was assured time and time again by many different people that spouses would have ample employment opportunities, that was simply not true in my case.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No, I would not. Again, I didn't love Cairo. It had some nice qualities but overall I wouldn't come back.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Sense of personal space, nice car, healthy lungs.
4. But don't forget your:
Patience, patience, patience.