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Interview with Karim – a British expat in Chile

Updated 19 Feb 2019

Karim Coumine is a British expat living in Santiago, Chile. He has been living in the city since 2012 and shares his insights into how best to adapt to expat life in Chile. Read his interview below for more information on the local business culture and how best to meet people and make friends in Santiago.

About Karim

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: London, UK

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Santiago, Chile

Q: When did you move here?
A: June 2012

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: In a work context, yes. I spent a year in Paris as a university student.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: At first, I moved with my spouse and family. Now I live alone.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: My company in the UK sent me to Santiago, Chile. I work in marine transportation as a Senior Chartering Manager in the Dry Bulk sector for a Japanese shipping company.

Living in Santiago

Q: What do you enjoy most about Santiago? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the UK? 
A: What I enjoy the most is the better work/life balance, shorter commuting distance and predictable weather! London is a great city, but its very size can make commutes very long, and the weather is unpredictable. In Santiago, there is more of a focus on the outdoors because of the dry weather.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: The cultural vibrancy. Santiago is still far away for most acts and shows, and the market is very small. There are almost no musical theatres here that come for very long and any bands playing will just come for one night only and there are usually very limited spaces.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Santiago? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The main issue was the local language, slang and terminology. I moved here without knowing much Spanish and was lucky enough to work for a company that provided private Spanish lessons, which helped a lot. But not everything is in the book or classroom. Making local acquaintances or friends was also difficult.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to London? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Santiago?
A: There are variations in expenditures. On the one hand, you do get good value for money for what you rent compared with London. Apartments are generally larger than in London, and your costs per square foot are lower.

Petrol/transportation is also cheaper in Santiago. Eating out is just as expensive as in London, whereas the quality is often below average. London has a good collection of tasty cheap eats which are sorely missed here.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Santiago?
A: Public transport is okay here. There is an underground system and one of the best bus networks in South America, both of which are quite affordable. There are also taxis and bike-sharing schemes dotted around, which are also affordable.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Santiago? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regard to doctors and hospitals? 
A: The healthcare system is one of the best in South America, but again, it helps to speak Spanish, and it also helps if you have an insurance system that covers you well. If you are earning a good salary, then you can afford a good healthcare plan, however, those on the lower economic scale have to make do with the public system, which is variable.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Chile? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: There are some areas that are no-go areas, especially at night. Again, it's better to know the local language and not appear too “obvious” a target. Santiago is generally a safe city, but one should always be aware of their surroundings.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Santiago? What different options are available for expats?
A: There are various options, the majority being high-rise apartment blocks that have a porter and some amenities and are well looked after. However, this comes at a price, as service charges can be quite high.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Vitacura, La Dehesa, Las Condes at first. Once more comfortable, one could move to Providencia or out to Chicureo.

Meeting people and making friends in Chile

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular group? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Santiago?
A: They are tolerant and curious but may lose interest. It's hard to make a connection with the locals, as you are still viewed as a foreigner and not having gone to the same school or university or lived through the same experience puts you at a disadvantage.

It takes time for you to get to know the locals, and even then it’s difficult. I wouldn’t say they discriminate against me in particular.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: It’s not that easy to make local friends at first, and you must know the local language, but I have expat friends in the same industry, and that makes things easier! To make local friends, it is best to join a social or sports club and attend any events that you are invited to.

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: I would say my main friend circle is other expats in the same industry. See above for advice on how to make friends with locals.

Working in Santiago

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: My company obtained and arranged the necessary documents/permits and engaged with an immigration consultant. It is probably best to use the services of an immigration consultant, as the process can be lengthy and frustrating at times.

Q: What is the economic climate in Santiago like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The climate for jobs is relatively healthy (depending on the industry). While I was sent here as an expat and didn’t face the same hurdles as others, if one is coming here without a job in hand, it is best to learn how to speak Spanish, otherwise, it may be difficult to secure employment.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Chile? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to the local business culture?
A: It did take some time to adapt to the local way of doing business here. There are certain idiosyncrasies that you pick up while working with locals. The key is patience, understanding their point of view, and knowing that you cannot change an entire culture. You have to adapt to the local business culture in order to make sense of it.

Family and children

Q: Do you think there are any specific challenges in Santiago for a trailing spouse?
A: Isolation and language barriers are the main issues. It is important that the spouse has activities to do beyond their home.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: There are many private and international schools in Chile. It really depends on the parents where they want to send their children.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Santiago?
A: Do your homework on your financials, pension provisions, healthcare, tax liabilities, etc. all before you arrive. It is very easy to get caught in a trap with those things without a proper understanding of your specific situation. Make sure that you also have some Spanish or at least set up lessons prior to arrival.

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