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Living In The United Arab Emirates, A Guide For Expats

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

The bright lights of the cosmopolitan UAE cities, particularly Dubai, attract British expats for many reasons, with zero income tax, exceptional living standards, a highly developed modern infrastructure, and some of the best career opportunities in the world.

Each Emirate is different, but the warm subtropical temperatures, peaceful and respectful society, and focus on family qualities can benefit both families and ambitious professionals.

While the UAE is a hub for investment, business, tourism and innovation, the way of life differs significantly from that of the UK. Foreign nationals must understand the culture and visa application process before making long-term relocation decisions.

The UAE – Quick Facts

  • The UAE flag – علم دولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة
  • Population: 9.365 million
  • UK expat population: 240,000
  • Capital: Abu Dhabi
  • Main cities: Dubai, Ajman, Al Ain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah

Visas And Residency for Living In The UAE

Any UK expat hoping to live or work in the UAE must have a residency visa to open a bank account, enrol children in schools, apply for a driving licence or use state health services.

Most foreign nationals can only apply for residence visas from within the UAE and require an entry permit as an initial step. Unless you are purchasing property or investing, you must have a sponsor to apply on your behalf, usually a family member or employer, unless you are buying property or investing.

The General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs is responsible for issuing visas and provides an Emirates ID valid for the same period.

Proof of vaccination

Covid-19 testing and vaccination requirements are no longer in place.

Passport validity

Travellers should have at least six months remaining on their passports to enter the UAE. If you have a residence permit, your passport must be valid for three months or longer to travel.

Taking medicines into the UAE

Prescribed medications must meet specific rules, and anything considered controlled, or a narcotic must have approval from the UAE authorities before you travel.

You can use the application form on the UAE Ministry of Health website to seek approval and need to leave at least five working days for a response to be processed.

Police certificates

Foreign nationals applying for a residency or work permit may need a certificate from the ACRO Criminal Records Office and have the certificate legalised to support their application.

Safety And Security

The UAE is generally considered safe, but sensible precautions are necessary. Expats should never accept lifts from people they don’t know and must only use public transport or licenced taxis.

Sexual attacks are rare but do happen, and the victim bears the burden of proof to evidence the attack. If successful, perpetrators can face the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Female foreign nationals should avoid drinking spiking, travelling alone, or walking at night.


UK expats applying for residency can use their UK licence until the permit is approved, and then they need to apply to the traffic department immediately for a UAE licence.

Speeding is common, and there are many traffic accidents, although drinking any alcohol and then driving is strictly illegal and can mean your insurance coverage is invalid. Making rude gestures to other drivers can result in imprisonment, deportation and fines, but flashing lights is a request to make way and is not offensive.

Rules following accidents vary between Emirates. In Abu Dhabi, where there are no injuries, drivers should move their vehicles to avoid blocking the road – in any other instance, they must not move them. It is a criminal offence to leave the scene of an accident before the police arrive, regardless of whether the collision is minor.

Cost Of Living In The United Arab Emirates

The estimated monthly budget for a single person living in the United Arab Emirates is AED 3,362 (£764) per month and AED 11,580 (£2,630) for a family of four, excluding rent or accommodation costs.

Property rental prices are roughly 13.6 per cent higher than in the UK, but overall living costs are 2.5 per cent lower.

The UAE is not considered a cheap place to live, although prices vary between Emirates. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are among the costliest cities globally for expats to live in, but everyday expenses such as transport, entertainment, restaurant dining and groceries are inexpensive.

Many expats have a housing allowance paid by their employers or are allocated an apartment or property in a residential community as part of their employment terms. They also require proof of private health insurance to apply for a visa, but employers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi must provide health coverage for their staff.

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Buying Or Renting A Home

You can rent a property in any Emirate if you live in the UAE under a residence visa. Rental contracts usually run for one year, and you or the landlord must give between 60 and 90 days’ notice if either party wishes to cancel the agreement.

Leaving a lease early, without sufficient notice, can attract a fine equivalent to two months’ rent. Landlords normally ask for a cheque made out for the total value for the year, although some will accept cheques split into two or three payments in return for a premium.

Most British expats live in an apartment or rent a room in a villa, where prices include all bills and utilities. However, caution is necessary since unmarried and unrelated people cannot live together in a relationship.

Estate agents will charge around five per cent of the annual rent to help you find a home, and it is advisable only to deal with brokers registered with the government who have a trade licence.

Another option is to read classified ads in the local paper or to look for signs outside vacant properties.

Property ownership is allowed in certain areas and for homes purchased freehold. If you are an expat without permanent residency, you can buy freehold rights for up to 99 years.

Interested in buying a property, read our guide here.

Real estate sites where you can browse vacancies and properties for sale include Property Finder, Bayut, Houza and Zoopla.

Cost of renting and buying a home

Property TypeAverage Monthly Rent
One-bedroom city centre apartmentAED 5,770 / £1,311
One-bedroom apartment elsewhereAED 3,559 / £808
Three-bedroom city centre apartmentAED 7,418 / £1,685
Three-bedroom apartment elsewhereAED 5,399 / £1,226
Property TypeAverage Purchase Cost Per Square Metre
City centre apartmentAED 9,345 / £2,123
Apartment elsewhereAED 6,989/ £1,587

Where Do British Expats Live In The UAE?

British expats primarily live in Dubai, where the most popular neighbourhoods are:

  • Dubai Marina
  • Downtown Dubai
  • Palm Jumeirah
  • Jumeirah Beach Residence

Other foreign national communities are in Abu Dhabi, the capital and second-largest city.

Healthcare While Living In The UAE

The UAE healthcare system is state of the art and managed by the Ministry of Health and Prevention, although some aspects of healthcare are devolved to each Emirate. Pharmacists, dentists and physicians are highly respected professionals, and services have multiplied in recent years.

Facilities and treatment options are extensive, and medical tourism contributes largely to the economy, with around half a million foreign nationals visiting Dubai for healthcare treatment every year.

Nearly all medical professionals speak English, and although residents can access healthcare, non-citizens often require private insurance as the costs can be very high. UK expats can apply to the Ministry for a national health card, which offers a 50 per cent deduction, on par with UAE nationals.

The card costs AED 500 (£114) and is only available to use at selected facilities – comprehensive healthcare cover may also be mandatory depending on the terms of your visa. Many employers also offer generous healthcare insurance to expat employees.

Working In The UAE

British nationals cannot apply for a work visa without sponsorship from a UAE employer and cannot work on any other type of visa. If you receive and accept a job offer, the employer applies for a residency visa for you, and you can then apply to the Ministry of Labour for a work permit.

If you have a valid or expired Israeli visa in your passport, you may be unable to work in the UAE.

Expats make up around 84 per cent of the population in the UAE, so hiring foreign nationals and submitting residency applications is normal, and most bigger businesses will be very familiar with the process.

Competition for higher-paying executive positions can be fierce, so finding a post can be challenging. Employers are selective and have discretion over who they hire and for what reasons.

Some popular job search sites include Bayt, EfinancialCareers, Gulf News, Gulf Talent and Khaleej Times Jobs.

You can also attend job fairs as a networking opportunity. Further information about finding employment in the UAE is available through the Government Portal.


There is no income tax system in the UAE, which is a major incentive for thousands of UK expats who choose to live there. Businesses enjoy tax-free zones; there is no inheritance tax or system to levy corporation tax.

VAT was non-existent until January 2018 and is now applied at five per cent against some goods and services. Excise taxes are also charged on products the government believes to be harmful, including tobacco and energy drinks.

Individuals do not need to file income tax returns and have no tax deducted from their payslips, regardless of whether they are self-employed or working as employees.

However, Gulf Cooperation Council nationals pay a social security contribution of 18.5 per cent, with UAE nationals paying five per cent and the remaining 13.5 per cent contributed by the employer. Other employees may also be liable to make social security contributions, even if their employer is within a free trade zone.


There are no HMRC-approved Recognised Overseas Pension Schemes in the Emirates, so transferring a UK private pension to a local scheme is impossible. Expats can continue to receive a UK State Pension but will not be eligible for annual increases.

National Bonds, a savings and investment firm that offers financial planning products and services for UAE residents, including expats, introduced the Golden Pension on October 11, 2022. The Dubai government backs the firm, which aims to provide a diverse range of options for long-term savings and investments.

Local Laws And Customs

  • Importing any product containing pork is illegal.
  • Drugs-related crimes face heavy penalties and imprisonment. Drug trafficking can result in the death penalty, and even small amounts of drugs can lead to three months in prison and fines from AED 20,000 to AED 100,000 (£4,543 – £22,713).
  • Some e-cigarettes and skincare products contain ingredients prohibited in the UAE, including CBD oil.
  • Residents can drink alcohol at home or in licensed venues, but personal licences are not now mandatory in every Emirate.
  • Women are expected to dress modestly, covering their arms and legs in public, and swimwear is only permitted at beaches or pools.
  • Swearing and rude hand gestures can cause extreme offence, and result in imprisonment or deportation, particularly if witnessed by an official or police officer.
  • Consensual relationships between unmarried adults are generally allowed, but if an unmarried couple conceives in the UAE, they must get married to apply for a birth certificate. Medical insurance may not cover costs related to pregnancy and childbirth.
  • Homosexual relationships are illegal, and same-sex marriages are invalid in the UAE.
  • Photos of military and government buildings are not permitted, and tourists have been arrested for taking pictures of other people in public places.
  • Criticism of the UAE government or officials is a punishable crime, which can result in detention, prosecution or criminal convictions.
  • Failing to pay a bill is considered a financial crime, and you could have your bank accounts and assets frozen.
  • Some tech gadgets or recording devices need official permission and a licence from the UAE embassy before you can use them in the UAE, including radio transmitters, high-performance cameras and satellite phones.

Education And Schooling

The UAE is a popular place for expats to relocate, with low taxes, a high-quality lifestyle, and thriving cities with multicultural populations. There are several options for expat parents to enrol their children in schools, often using international or private schools teaching their native language.

There are three possible routes: public schools, private schools, and higher educational establishments.

Quality standards in schooling are very high, with schoolchildren in the UAE among the highest performing globally. Still, private schools can be expensive and have very long waiting lists and eligibility criteria.

Public schools have a staged education system:

  • Early education runs from ages three to five.
  • Basic level tuition is for children from six to ten.
  • Intermediate schools teach from 11 to 13.
  • Secondary schools enrol pupils from 14 to 18.

Taxpaying residents can enrol children in free public schools, which are mandatory for Emirati children, but these schools have classes separated by gender. Most schools teach in Arabic. Hence the prevalence of private schools, which normally teach in English but may help students learn Arabic as part of their schooling.

The Ministry of Education controls admissions standards, but each Emirate has an independent regulatory body.

Private schools cost from AED 2,700 (£612) for nursery spaces up to AED 66,000 (£14,966) for high school education. Some expats receive education fee coverage as part of their employment package – this is far from unusual, with 16 per cent of foreign nationals using employment benefits to cover private education costs.

Living In The United Arab Emirates FAQ

What is the UAE currency and exchange rate?

The currency is the United Arab Emirates Dirham, currently worth around £0.23.

Is the UAE a safe place to live?

The World Population Review ranks the UAE as the 60th safest country in the world in 2023, higher than France or Cyprus.

Is alcohol illegal in the UAE?

There have long been restrictions on the consumption of alcohol, as the UAE is governed by Sharia law, but the legislation was relaxed in 2022. You must be 21 to purchase alcohol and no longer require a licence.

What is the primary spoken language in the Emirates?

The official language is Arabic, but English is widely spoken.

What is the climate like in the UAE?

Weather conditions are arid and subtropical, with temperatures reaching over 50°C in the summer between April and September. Sand storms occur occasionally, and cold nights can dip as low as -15°C.

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