Islamabad, Pakistan Report of what it's like to live there - 10/10/23
Personal Experiences from Islamabad, Pakistan
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
It was my third, after Beirut and Riga.
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?
I am Greek and the usual way to travel to my home country was via Gulf. In general this is the way to move around from Pakistan to most parts of the world (Sri Lanka, etc).
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What years did you live here?
From 2014 up to 2021.
5. 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 expats the options are 2:
A) to stay in the Diplomatic Enclave. It is a sort of an extensive settlement (close to the governmental buildings), a city within the city with checkpoints on the gates, abundant police protection and barb wired fences separating it from the rest of the capital. Several Embassies are situated within the perimeter and it is self sufficient with its own super market (albeit a small one), bank branches and a few cafeterias. Apart from the Embassy employees of the enclave (that makes sense to live in it), there are flats available for the accommodation of other expats whose work is outside the enclave. However, these generally do not offer good value for money. In addition, when there are riots and the nearby governmental buildings are barricaded, someone living inside the diplomatic enclave might get blocked within its premises. Some years ago, that lasted for whole months.
My suggestion for those who are not obliged to live in the Enclave is to
B) find accommodation in one of the decent and relatively safe sectors of Islamabad (F6, F7, E7, etc). Several upper middle-class Pakistanis build in these sectors 2 storey houses (usually with parking space, garden, etc). The "upper portion" is offered for rent to expats, while themselves live on the ground floor. The landlords tend to be rather indiscreet (e.g. regarding the visitors of their tenants) but this is hardly an issue for expat families - with the additional bonus of the protection from burglars.
Generally, the advise is not to live far away from your work. Frequent demonstrations, riots, etc might easily make things quite chaotic when it comes to moving around the city.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Pakistan is an Islamic Republic. Therefore pork (bacon, etc) and alcoholic beverages are forbidden but diplomats are entitled to order their alcohol quotas on a trimester basis. In most of the expat parties there is alcohol, either imported officially or bootlegged from India (something that has to be avoided at all costs: Not only is illegal to buy unlicensed alcohol but it might be dangerous for your health as well, since the contents of a bottle not necessarily match what is mentioned on the label).
Generally, there is availability of groceries but the quality and variety fluctuates, it might be possible to buy an imported product, which 2 months later is not available any more. Extra care has to be taken for meat, poultry and fish, in order to minimize the chances of food poisoning. In certain venues you have to option to choose the chicken that you wish to buy alive - which is decapitated and skinned in a matter of a few minutes - at least this way you know that it is fresh, with no unwanted visits of flies or other insects.
Pakistani mangoes are probably the best in the world and so is the local rice. When in season, fresh aromatic lychees are available at rather low prices.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Definitely good quality cheese (is the rarest commodity in Pakistan - one can even find smuggled alcohol - but not cheese, so it is very expensive), wine, beer and spirits. European-style furniture is not available either.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Extra care has to be taken in order to avoid food poisoning. Therefore street food has to be avoided at all costs.
Pizza is of unacceptable quality by western standards - partially due to the lack of decent cheese at reasonable prices and total lack of sausages, ham, etc. There are some chicken/beef substitutes but again the result is disappointing.
There are venues of McDonald's and KFC whose food is edible - but not comparable to the one offered in other countries. Local food is spicy but quite tasty. On the other hand after a while it becomes boring, since there are a few certain dishes offered almost everywhere. With the help of locals you can find tasty and fresh grilled mutton and the Afghani/Persian/etc venues offer some variety.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Termites can become a very serious problem - in certain cases buildings had to be demolished to the ground after being attacked by them.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Regular postal services are not of very high quality, sometimes with long delays. There are a couple of courier companies whose services are okayish. Extra care has to be taken for packets sent to Pakistan without diplomatic clearance. The customs might open them and impose charges on the imported items. Sometimes the duties and tax might be higher even than the actual cost of their online purchase.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Usually, the expected standards of cleanliness and tidiness have to be explained beforehand and repeatedly. Apart from that, it is possible to hire inexpensive domestic help - and for those interested, even to have a helper or driver living within the premises of the house. This is very common for wealthy/upper-middle class Pakistanis but it is not recommended for non locals (helpers tend to be rather indiscreet and you wouldn't like to have them around you on a 24 hours basis).
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are reasonably decent gyms. In big hotels and in the Islamabad Club there are swimming pools too. Sex segregation is implemented (with separate timetables, etc).
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?
Generally it is safe to use plastic money.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are churches belonging to the Evangelical / Anglican / Pentecostal denominations but most of them are situated within the "Christian colonies", to which expats do not have easy access.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Pakistan is a former British colony and English is one of the two official languages of the country (even official documents are issued in original in English). Middle class residents of Islamabad speak English and even illiterate people might be in position to understand some basic English. Urdu, the other official language, is not an easy one and the bilingual teachers that offer courses at reasonable prices are not that many.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
The city, the driving habits of the locals and the way they park their vehicles, along with the building themselves are not particularly available to people with disabilities. This can be ameliorated to some extent by the cheap domestic help.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The urban bus service is not recommended for expats. There is a "metro service" which is overground and uses buses instead of wagons. It is helpful in order to reach Rawalpindi (the other of the twin cities) but there is only one line. Mind you, sex segregation is implement to the metro as well, women occupy the front part of the bus, men are confined to the back. The best way to move around is with the taxi service available through an online application and it is very cheap. Catching stray taxis is not advisable.
2. What kind of vehicle(s) including electric ones do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, infrastructure, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car or vehicles do you advise not to bring?
Most of the cars in Islamabad are second hand, imported from Japan. There are very few venues offering repair and maintenance for European cars (or even American ones), so they should be avoided. Japanese SUVs are the obvious choice, with RAV4 at the low end and Prados for those who can afford them.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is not particularly fast and not extremely stable but it is acceptable.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
There are a few companies offering internet services.
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?
Having dogs is strictly for the wealthy locals and the expats, only. Generally they are not particularly welcome for reasons related to religion and tradition.
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?
A decade ago there where many more opportunities to spouses for employment in NGOs and international projects. Nowadays, it is something considerably more difficult.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Not that many, as far I am aware of.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
The climate is humid and very wet during the monsoon. Light clothes are recommended during this period but generally office dress code is mandatory.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Terrorism is much less a concern than it is used be, especially in Islamabad. Additionally, in the areas where the expats usually live, there are plenty of private and governmental armed guards, checkpoints and vehicles. Pakistan is a very conservative and religious country, so modesty is expected from women in order to avoid issues with the locals. Generally, showing prudence regarding big gatherings of people, avoiding dodgy neighborhoods, etc helps to avoid unnecessary complications.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Public hospitals are of low quality but there are options for private clinics. My wife gave birth in Islamabad. The cost was high but without any complications.
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 quality of fuel is low, something that affects the fumes. Due to regular power cuts, most buildings have generators which operate frequently and use diesel, something that further adds to the pollution. Finding accommodation close to Margala Hills helps to ameliorate the problem with fresh air coming from the "jungle".
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Food poisoning can be a serious issue. If you stay in the country for some time it is almost impossible to avoid gastroenteritis or similar complications.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Depending on the season there are outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
During the monsoon period (mainly from June to August) it is extremely humid and hot. In autumn the climate is quite pleasant.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are quite a few international schools, but several are cheaper ones. They offer (understandably) lower quality.
2. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are a few options with international trainers for football and swimming.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community used to be quite bigger in the past. Nowadays it has shrunk but still there are far more embassies than in other capitals around the world. Therefore the diplomatic community is quite huge. Arranging for BBQs in the garden, excursions or parties is technically the only recreation offered in Islamabad, so the expats generally stick together. Of course many prefer to abstain, focusing mainly to their work and families.
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?
Islamabad Club is rather expensive, without good value for money and its clientele is mainly consisted of locals. Nightlife officially does not exist (without bars, discos, etc). However, there is a vibrant under cover nightlife, mainly with parties in the houses of expats, rich locals, etc, where the usual crowd is recycled.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I'd rather say that it is a good city for families, with cheap and abundant (albeit not very qualified or skilled) domestic help, big apartments/houses with gardens, several parks and lack of noise and traffic (in the posh areas). For the couples there are options for trips to amazing domestic destinations with fortresses, shrines, etc. Single men will find living in Islamabad very boring. For single women it will still be boring but due to their scarcity they will have at least invitations to various events.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It is really very easy to make friends, many locals consider it an honor (or a status symbol) to have expat friends. Pakistanis are very hospitable people.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Theoretically homosexuality is forbidden by the religious leaders of the country. In reality there is a gay community participating to the underground nightlife of Islamabad.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Definitely there is religious and ethnic prejudice against various groups but it is a sensitive issue to be discussed. Modern Pakistani women are quite liberated but generally there is no real gender equality.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Visiting the huge fortress of Bahawalpur. An amazing experience with camel riding .
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Saidpur is a historic settlement that has been restored in order to look like as it was centuries ago. It is on the perimeter of the city, close to F6 sector. With many safe restaurants offering local kitchen, it is a must.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There are some options for local furniture and definitely a big variety of carpets. Do not buy local ones, even though they are cheaper. Instead you have the option to get Afghani or Iranian ones at very low prices. Your negotiation skills will determine if you will have a real bargain and do not hesitate to bargain hard. Even at half of the original asking price, the seller will make a profit, so don't be shy to give ridiculously low offers. The sellers wish to have expat customers who will advertise their merchandise, so if you are persistent, you will get really good prices.
There is one big shopping mall, the Centaurus. It has various shops and a food court. However, it is rather difficult to find variety of European style clothes in Islamabad (even more so for women).
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The city is very quiet - for better or worse. It was built from the scratch as the capital of Pakistan in the 50s and it is entirely inhabited by civil servants and members of the diplomatic community (Karachi remains the financial, commercial, etc center of the country). Therefore, it is not vibrant, seeing people (men only) walking in the night is a very rare spectacle. On the other hand, this provides a very settled life for families with small children. There are blackouts and there might be shortage of water, internet may not be steady, etc, but in general life can be easy with all these locals who are more than happy to help you for a few bucks.
Islamabad can be used as the base in order to visit destinations as diverse as the alpine lakes and the Himalayas in the north or the deserts of Baluchistan in the south and the Arabic Sea.
Visiting the Kalasha people, descendants of Alexander the Great still living in the highlands of Peshawar is extremely interesting from a historical and cultural point of view.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Nothing - discovering the secrets of the country is part of the experience.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I believe so.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Acute sense of danger in order to avoid unnecessarily dangerous situations.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
All the books of Tariq Ali (most were forbidden in Pakistan for some years). "Pakistan - a hard country" and the film The Reluctant Fundamentalist give interesting perspectives, too.
6. Do you have any other comments?
You might have a great time in Islamabad - or you might not. It's not suitable for all tastes.