Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 05/07/18
Personal Experiences from Chennai, India
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Not first expatriate experience.
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?
It's about a 24 hour trip to the D.C. area, and further if you're flying into a smaller airport. Most flights to the U.S. go through Europe or the Middle East, but there are some direct flights from New Delhi, too. However you go, it's a long trip.
3. How long have you lived here?
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?
For the USG community, housing varies quite a bit. Singles, couples, and some families with one small child live in fairly nice, modern apartments that are leased. The options for such units have gotten steadily better over time. Larger families, however, live primarily in government owned homes--some SFHs and some former SFHs that have been split into upstairs and downstairs units. These are clustered in different parts of town, so you will likely be near at least a few other consulate families. There are a few nice options, but by and large these homes not great (sometimes because they are small, other times because of shoddy construction, smells, frequent maintenance issues, strange layouts, etc.; all seem outdated and unattractive). Many say the housing in Chennai is the worst they have seen in the foreign service. However, as these homes are USG-owned, unfortunately they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are a lot more expensive than you might think! If you eat like a local (primarily starch-based vegetarian options), then it's very cheap, but vegetables, fruits, chicken and other meats, cheeses, yogurts, etc. are more expensive than in the U.S. Be warned that in the hot season, we've had a lot of trouble with spoiled food even at the fanciest grocery stores.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More liquids! Dry products like pasta, cereal, etc. you can order through the pouch, but liquids are hard to come by here either because they're much more expensive or much lower quality than you'd like. Ship plenty of cooking oils, nut butters, dish and laundry soap, toiletries, etc.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are a lot of restaurant options and most deliver. A number of apps like Zomato, Swiggy, etc. offer food delivery. It's not quite as seamless as in the U.S., but it usually works if you're somewhat patient and flexible. KFC, Dominos, lots of Indian restaurants, Subway, lots of Asian restaurants, etc. all deliver.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ants, roaches, lizards and other pests can be a problem depending on housing. Most people are able to get infestations under control, however.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Diplomatic pouch takes 2-4 weeks. Be warned, however, that during the hot season anything remotely meltable (kids chewable gummies for instance) will likely arrive melted and ruined.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is available and affordable (200-400 USD/month for full-time work, depending on the job, hours, etc.) but not the same quality you are probably used to at previous posts. Expect to spend quite a bit of time and energy setting expectations and giving direction, and expect for that to be only 50% effective. Many expats employ a driver and housekeeper and/or nanny full time, and a gardener part-time. Part-time housekeepers are also available.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The consulate has a small gym. Private gyms, personal trainers, spinning studios, yoga studios, etc. are all available at reasonable costs.
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?
Most stores and restaurants that expats frequent accept U.S. credit cards. We've used ours often with no security issues. Most online Indian vendors (movie tickets, sports tickets, food delivery, etc.) only accept Indian credit cards. The consulate will help you apply for one if interested. We didn't do this and have been fine using cash, etc. There's an ATM at the consulate and at reputable banks around town; we've found them safe to use but primarily get money from the consulate cashier.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are several Catholic churches, etc.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Basic pleasantries would be appreciated, but you can get around fine with English most of the time, as long as you accept that there will be occasional miscommunications.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
This would not be an appropriate post for someone with mobility issues.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Uber (and Ola, a local Uber-like company) plus auto rickshaws are reliable and affordable around town. However, expect some frustration (much longer waits than your app shows, drivers who don't know how to read the map, rickshaw drivers who don't speak English and charge you triple what they should because you're a foreigner, etc.).
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?
Buying a car from an outgoing officer will be significantly easier for you than any other option. You can also buy a car on the local economy, from another expat, from another post, etc., but expect many months of bureaucracy before you can drive it. SUVs, mini-vans and sedans are all common--just depends on your needs. More and more singles and couples without kids are opting to rely on public transport and not buy a car. I don't think this would be feasible with children, however.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High-speed internet is available and affordable. However, internet lines are strung in an ad hoc way through trees, etc. It's not uncommon to lose internet for days (or in some case weeks) after heavy rains or other weather events. Some families have tried to guard against this by having two internet providers; it's unlikely for both to be down at the same time.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Bring an unlocked phone and get a local pay-as-you go SIM card. The consulate can help you set this up; it's cheap.
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?
Vets and kennel services are available. There's definitely bureaucracy around importing pets, but it's possible. Many people do it.
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?
Most EFMs who want to work find jobs at the consulate or telecommute to a previous job in the U.S. There are volunteer options on the local economy, but employment would not be lucrative.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Plenty! Local staff at the consulate or local friends could likely help you find volunteer work in whatever area interests you.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business attire is normal at the consulate, with some opting to wear lighter-weight Indian clothing purchased locally. Women typically don't show knees.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Take the same precautions you would take in any city. That being said, we have never felt unsafe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Dengue, malaria and chikungunya are real threats and members of the consulate community have gotten these diseases. Local medial care is sufficient for minor issues, but you will be medevaced (likely to SIngapore) for anything serious. Local dental care is very affordable; many choose to get braces, veneers, etc.
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?
Air quality in Chennai isn't nearly as bad as in New Delhi or Mumbai, but it's still not good. It's in the unhealthy range most of the time. Many in the expat community feel generally unwell a lot of the time, likely due to poor air quality. For someone with asthma or respiratory issues, I would not recommend this post.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Food allergies are not commonly known there. This would be a hard place to be unless the allergy is minor.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Locals describe the seasons as "hot, hotter, and hottest." That's pretty accurate, with a rainy season thrown into the mix too.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The American International School (AISC) is where most consulate kids attend, and it is truly a remarkable place for all levels. A few families are at a smaller French School. There are a number of preschool options as well. Most families describe AISC as the highlight of a tour in Chennai.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I don't know firsthand but believe that AISC would likely be very accommodating. I would suggest reaching out directly to the school.
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?
Nannies and preschools are both readily available. Most families do a combination of both. We pay about $300/mo for a full-time nanny and about $150/mo for a part-day preschool. There are a lot of preschool options, but most are very formal and serious academically; it's harder to find one that's play based. AISC has after school activities every day but Wednesday.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, mostly offered through the school. Pretty much any activity you can imagine.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Medium-sized, although most other expats live on the other side of town by the American School, so far enough away that we are fairly isolated from them. Morale overall is fair. There are a few people who love Chennai and a few people who hate it; most find it some combination of interesting and frustrating depending on the day.
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 lot of home entertainment, brunches and dinners out, playdates, etc. There are malls and movie theaters, laser tag, a few small theme parks, a bounce park, surfing lessons, etc. Nothing is quite the same quality as in the U.S. (with the exception of some restaurants which are great).
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
With arranged marriages and conservative alcohol laws and norms, this would probably be a hard post for singles. For couples, it would be best for homebodies. Due to the strength of the school, it's probably best for families, but there are plenty of struggles and frustrations for families as well, including a lack of green space, a lack of activities for kids of all ages, etc.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
There have been LGBT members of the consulate community who have fared fine. There's a small local LGBT population. South India tends to be more liberal than elsewhere in India, but it's still not the same atmosphere as a coastal U.S. city.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The regional travel opportunities are incredible! In just a few hours and for a few hundred dollars, you can get to: Goa, the Maldives, Dubai, Bangkok, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and more.
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
People tend to buy textiles, woodwork, etc. There are some beautiful rugs, but they're quite expensive.
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Amazing regional travel and the exceptional American International School community.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I had known how difficult it would be to not have the autonomy to go where I want when I want. The combination of right-hand drive, stick shift (which most cars are), and Indian driving norms means that most expats do not drive themselves. A few brave ones do, but I am not in that category. It has been harder than I expected relying on someone else to drive me around. As mentioned previously, Uber and rickshaws are options too, but they aren't without their frustrations.
I also wish I'd known about the quality of household help.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
We have made some great friends and enjoyed traveling and learning about India, but no, we would probably not move here knowing what we know now.
3. Do you have any other comments?
Don't bother shopping for clothes in advance. I bought a lot of new lightweight clothing before coming, but there are cheaper and better options available once you arrive.