Moving to the UAE, A ‘How To’ Guide

Emigrating to the UAE is a dream for many. This being a beautiful, tolerant country with an enviable lifestyle, year-round sunshine (and zero income tax!) means that expats flock to all of the seven Emirates year on year. But arriving in any new country is rarely without complication, red tape and bureaucracy and the UAE is no exception. We have put together this special series of features and guides to help you make the move, find a home and find the perfect school or nursery for your child.
Moving to the UAE, A ‘How To’ Guide
By Jenny Mollon
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LET'S GO

Moving to the UAE is a fantastic opportunity to expand both horizons and careers for many families. Before life settles into a comfortable groove however, there is the move itself to plan, some red tape, finding a home and of course, our speciality…finding the right school or nursery for your children. As a team of expats, some new to the UAE, some who have been here 20 years and more, we at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com have put our heads together to bring you the definitive guide to moving to the UAE, with a special focus on education and homes, the heartbeat of any family’s life.

Moving to the UAE…The Questions you Need to Ask

What is the UAE like?

There are many ways to describe this beautiful country, but as a first pass at answering this question, we would say this…the UAE is a place where ultra-modernity sits happily alongside traditional values and natural beauty.

The UAE was formed in 1971 and comprises seven emirates, each ruled by different royal families. The seven emirates are Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah, Ajman, and Umm al Quwain. The country has a long expanse of coastline on to the Arabian Gulf, and much of the land locked interior is stunning open desert. The cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi lead in terms of modern architecture and amenities but all the emirates have their own unique features and charm.


A group of proud young Emiratis!

In terms of population, UAE nationals are known as Emiratis. There are around 1.4 million Emiratis in the UAE out of a total population of 9.89 million. These figures tell you much of what you need to know about the diversity of this small nation, with it’s huge population of expatriates from right around the globe.

Click here for an in-depth UAE area guide, that drills down into the emirates, and then the communities within each.

Can I move to the UAE?

In short, yes! But there are some legalities you need to understand before taking that leap. Firstly, while the UAE allows expats to stay long term on renewable residence visas, there is no route to ‘permanent’ residency or citizenship. Some, highly specialised professionals (for example, doctors of certain disciplines) may be awarded what is know as a ‘Golden Visa’, valid for 10 years. For most however, your residency is linked to business ownership or the long-term employment of either you or a family member. Most expats will have to renew their residency visas every two years.

For passport holders from many nations, an initial 30-day visa (which can be extended for an additional 30 days) is available on arrival in the UAE, without cost. To ascertain whether you would be eligible for a visa on arrival this Visit Dubai page has the details.

This year, the UAE government has created a new category of visa, designed to attract entrepreneurs and remote workers. Valid for one year (and renewable thereafter), the new ‘virtual working programme’ is open to anyone who can meet a simple set of criteria. For more information click here for official details on the Virtual Working Programme.

Do I need a job to move to the UAE?

Looking at the visa options above, the answer is of course no, meaning that you can arrive without a job and begin looking for work. That said, our advice would be that securing work prior to moving to an expensive country like the UAE this is always advisable (especially if you are arriving as a family!). Savings are quickly drained by hotels, food and transport costs. In general: employment offer first, move second.

Will I pay tax?

There is zero income tax in the UAE, a hugely attractive perk to many expats. That said, the government recently introduced a 5% Value Added Tax on many goods and services. There are also many fees and charges, which add up. Lower taxation makes up for the fact that the UAE is more expensive in general than many cities around the world. 

Is the UAE an expensive place to live?

The UAE is certainly an expensive place in which to live, however there are significant variances between the seven emirates and of course, expenses are somewhat offset by the lack of income tax. Dubai is the most expensive Emirate in which to live, while Ajman is the cheapest.

Note: Dubai is currently ranked the 23rd most expensive city in the world; Abu Dhabi 39th, Sharjah on Mercer's 2020 Cost of Living Ranking.

In the past, many expats would receive comprehensive ‘packages’ to cover housing, schools, flights home, healthcare and more…But these packages are increasingly less prevalent and for many families there will be a need to set a budget for such costs from their salaried income. It’s not all bad news though, as options (and price points!) for schools and housing have broadened considerably in recent years. In short, these days there is far more choice when it comes to spending your money, but do your homework before you arrive to make sure that the money in your bank will buy you the lifestyle (and savings!) you had planned. Set a budget and a savings goal and stick to it.

Should I learn Arabic?

Arabic is a compulsory subject in the UAE’s schools, so whilst most adults do not learn Arabic, the country’s children should be acquiring the language in their daily life. We would love to see more expats to take on the challenge of learning Arabic, but it is certainly not essential and anyone with a good command of English will do just fine in the UAE.


Arabic is the national language of the UAE, but English and other languages are widely spoken

What is it like living in an Islamic country?

The UAE is a tolerant, open country which welcomes expats from all nations and religions from across the globe. The country plays host to churches, temples and, as of 2022, a synagogue, which is set to open in Abu Dhabi. That said, the Islamic faith is of paramount important here and all expat and visitors should take care to behave in a manner that is courteous, respectful and modest. Given the religious foundations of the country, there are laws which govern the consumption of alcohol, certain foodstuffs and the relations between men and women, and we would advise anyone new to the UAE to make themselves aware of these prior to their arrival.

How will we cope with the heat?!

Two words: Air. Conditioning! In all seriousness, the UAE is blessed with incredible weather from October to May each year. The summer months of June through to September can be extremely hot, but indoor spaces are generally kept comfortably cool. There is a huge array of indoor activities to keep you occupied as the mercury rises, and in the cooler months families can enjoy the UAE’s beautiful green parks, hike, camp, and indulge in some of the many fantastic water sports that the country’s beaches have to offer.


One of the UAE's clean and beautiful beaches

What is healthcare like?

The UAE has a small number of public hospitals, which expatriates and visitors can use for free, in the event of an emergency. For long term residents, health insurance is a must and it is now mandatory for your employer to provide this. Private hospitals and clinics are generally of an excellent standard.

Where shall I live?

If you have arrived with a job offer in hand, we advise you to consider first the distance you are willing to commute to work. This, plus your budget, will inform the viable areas for you to live.  Have a look at our recent interview with Luke Joyce, Founder of the property finder website, PropSearch.ae, for more information on finding a home in the UAE.

Can I bring my pets?

Yes! Expats can bring up to two pets with them to the UAE, however some breeds of dog are considered ‘fighting dogs’ and are therefore prohibited.

Will my electronics work?

That depends on where you are from! The UAE uses a ‘type G’ plug, which features three rectangular pins in a triangle shape. The supply voltage is 220v, so please take care if you arrive from a country with a different standard voltage.

I have a job and a home…now…how do I choose a school?

We might be a little biased, but we think our website is the best possible place to start in narrowing down your school selection. Search for schools by curriculum, price point, location and more and find out the ins and outs of each school in our detailed School Reviews and School Experiences. Interested in what other parents think? Our parent survey results for each school will tell you all you need to know.

Once you have narrowed down your shortlist, a listen to the most recent episode of The School Show, our podcast, will help you to narrow down your selection still further. Need more help? Drop us a line with your questions either via the site or through any of our social media channels.

What age do children start school?

Children must legally start school in the academic year in which they turn six. However, many children will start school from as young as three. The UAE has some excellent nurseries, which typically cater for children age 45 days to four-years-old.

Are schools in the UAE public or private, or both?

The UAE has both public and private schools, however the public, government run schools are only available to Emirati children.

What should I expect to pay for my child’s education?

That’s a big question! A quick scan of the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com site will demonstrate school fees ranging from under 5,000AED per annum to more than 100,000AED per annum. According to the Dubai schools regulator, the KHDA, the average school fees in the emirate stands at 29, 953AED per child per annum.

Does the UAE have universities or will my child have to go home for uni?

The UAE has a growing tertiary education sector, with many ‘big name’ universities opening branches here, notably in Dubai. That said, most parents will choose to send their children overseas for their post 18 education. Typically, students leave for universities in the UK, US, Canada, Europe and Australia.

Looking for a great school in Dubai?  Have we look at the Best Schools in Dubai...

Looking for the perfect school in Abu Dhabi?  Check out our Best Schools in Abu Dhabi feature...

Need a super nursery?  This Best Nurseries guide will have you covered...

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