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Interview with Jenny – an American expat living in Chile

Updated 21 Feb 2014

Jenny is an American expat living in Chile’s capital, Santiago. Originally from Minnesota, she moved to Chile to take up a position as an ESL/EFL instructor in 2010. Besides the long work hours and absence of family, Jenny is enjoying her expat experience in Chile and offers some great advice to other expats considering a move to this South American country.

Learn more about Chile in the Expat Arrivals Chile Guide, or read more interviews with expats living in Chile.

About Jenny

Jenny - An American expat living in ChileQ: Where are you originally from? 
A: I am from the Twin Cities, MN, USA.

Q: Where are you living now? 
A: I live in Santiago, Chile

Q: When did you move to Chile? 
A: I moved to the 7th region of Chile in August 2010, and up to Santiago in September 2012.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family? 
A: I moved here alone.

Q: Why did you move to Chile; what do you do? 
A: I am an ESL/EFL instructor, and wanted to see Chile (and pad my resume).

Living in Santiago

Q: What do you enjoy most about Santiago? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the States? 
A: I enjoy people-watching, meeting new people, seeing new things and having new experiences. There are plenty of things to do in the city as well as the surrounding area, so things are pretty convenient. I am finally living my life, even though I am busy working a lot. Much of what I learn and experience is through my job as well.

If I try to compare the quality of life between the US and Chile, the simplest I could say is that I have developed a different kind of life and lifestyle here and that my life has mostly changed by my own design. This city – and country – is so diverse that you can easily take from it what you want.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home? 
A: Besides my family? For starters, the typical workday is nine hours with a one-hour lunch, and a one-hour “commute” both ways makes it almost impossible to do anything else during the week.

There are several food items that are hard to find, but not impossible – besides cheddar cheese and molasses. I’ve learned to make peanut butter and salad dressings, but I really miss steak sauce and barbecue sauce. They can be found in upscale grocery stores, but a pathetic selection, in both senses of the word.

The main thing I miss about home is centralised climate control. It exists in certain office buildings, but we don’t even have it at the university. On a related note, silent classrooms are not the norm here. Noises permeate from the outside, at times turning into one cacophonous echo, with our voices bouncing off the walls.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Chile? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: I experienced the most culture shock when I started working at the university. The grading, exams, and other systems are completely different here, as well as the typical expectations for students and faculty alike. The problem is that you – and others – don’t realise what you don’t know until you’re already entrenched in a problem.

My eating habits are probably what changed the most arriving here. Everybody lunches at the same hour at my university, so the lines at the cafeteria are ridiculously long. To frustrate matters more, there is no teacher’s lounge or even a refrigerator to keep your lunch. I’ve learned to keep my office stocked up on fresh produce, nuts and other semi-perishables.

Q: What’s the cost of living in Santiago compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular? 
A: Life is pretty expensive here. Anything that is plugged in, worn or needed for the home is almost double in price (and the salaries here are not higher). Anything of high quality is completely outrageous (if you can find it). Little things I’ve brought here from the US include my garlic crusher, my can opener, and of course my 1,800-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets found in an outlet shop.

Locally produced goods (wine, produce) and services are less, however. I can get someone to clean my home for less than 20 USD/hour, my hair cut for less than 20 USD, and a mani or pedi for similarly low prices.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Santiago? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: Public transport is definitely one big advantage of Santiago, and Chile in general. Buses go all over the country, including many small towns. Taxis are everywhere, but of course are not the least expensive option. The colectivos have fixed lower prices. These are basically collective taxis with short, specific routes, and allow (shared) use of their boot. The metro (subway) costs a little over a dollar, but does not go to all points of the city. The micro (city bus) goes almost everywhere and is the least expensive of all. Like the subway, it is completely packed (think sardines) during rush hour, and there are times you cannot even board. On several occasions, I’ve ended up hoofing it several blocks due to the packed buses, so I’ve learned to allow extra time, especially when going into Vitacura, Nuñoa and Las Condes.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Santiago? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: Healthcare is pretty good here, in my experience. The doctors are not overly prescription crazy as in the US, and I have found it quite affordable—including medications. The only hassle is that you must purchase a boleta beforehand, which you turn in upon arrival at your appointment. However, it is now paid for and there are no surprise bills or rejections after your visit. The doctors will also send you around town for different tests or X-rays, so it can involve a lot of legwork.

The clinica is definitely preferable to public hospitals which are overcrowded, appear unsanitary and whose service is more impersonal.

The more you know about your medical problem, the more positive experience you will have when receiving care. So research your symptoms, ailments, and any related medications so you can explain your needs in very specific terms. I have heard stories of people being misdiagnosed, re-examined, etc., causing a lot of frustration as well as wasted time and money.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Santiago? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Santiago, and Chile in general, is very low on violent crime. In the city and any populated area, you must keep a close eye on your personal items, as well as on the people around you. Some can be very tricky in the various ways they swap purses, cell phones, wallets, etc. You can never be too careful and have to be a little tricky yourself in the way you safeguard your items as well. Busy bars and restaurants, or really any crowded area, are always rife with petty opportunists.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Santiago? What different options are available for expats?
A: The price of monthly rent seems directly related to closet space if not neighbourhood. Houses are a little more difficult to find in the city than apartments and seem to have just as much yard space (nothing). Whatever you end up renting (or buying) will probably need a refrigerator, if not cabinetry. Prices are comparable to a US city; the average two-bedroom apartment with moderate closet space and a quick jaunt to the metro will cost around 700 USD plus common expenses, as well as your other bills. However, the closer to Las Condes/Vitacura, and the more modern the building, the higher the average rent climbs.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in Santiago?
A: The Vitacura/Las Condes area is referred to Sanhattan. The buildings are modern with climate control, there is a Starbucks on almost every block, and it is the most expensive part of Santiago to live and eat in. Providencia is not as modern as the first, but for me, that is its charm. Nuñoa looks almost like any US suburb, with the most green grass I’ve seen in the whole city. I’ve also found the area near the Republica Metro to be appealing, although it is probably not close to where many expats work. I am also learning the Puente Alto area is expanding into a new suburb, although it is the furthest out you can get without leaving the city.

Meeting people and making friends in Santiago

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women, etc.?
A: As a foreigner, I am sometimes asked as to my nationality, but haven’t received any major anti-gringo attitudes. Very infrequently I am confronted by shouting, gesticulations and/or cave-talk as if I don’t know anything. However, once people realise I can communicate like a normal human, I am usually treated with respect.

As a woman, I have received a rainbow of come-ons and flirtation from street people, but as an educator, nothing but 100 percent respect. In all the private and public teaching situations I have been in for three years, there has only been ONE uncomfortable moment, which was quickly corrected. However, if the topic of homosexuality is raised in class, the whole room seems to change aspect and I feel sadly compelled to steer us in a new direction.

I have seen that Chileans have true respect for other religions and cultures… with the exception of immigrants from neighbouring countries, especially Peru and Ecuador. The Chileans do not hide their resentment, and feel they came for the free social services, etc. – not unlike the attitudes towards Mexicans in the US.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Santiago? How did you go about meeting new people? 
A: Meeting people is pretty easy here. People are open and helpful and will make small talk in any public setting. However, making friends with locals can be a challenge, especially in the city. Chileans are very family-centric, usually aren’t around on weekends, and don’t invite near strangers into their homes. Likewise, be wary of the motives of a Chilean you just met inviting you to hang out, especially to drink.

I met new people mainly through my work, and friends of friends, and I’ve even invited myself to social situations with people I already knew with quite positive results. Spend time and get to know people you see every day, and things should unfold naturally.

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? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: My social life has been cultivated for three years and mainly consists of people I currently or previously worked with, as well as a handful of previous students. They are Chileans, gringos and other foreigners.

Start with your place of employment to make friends. Getting to know your neighbours is the second. If you have children, concentrate your social focus on their classmates’ parents (I’m learning the typical private school here has umpteen opportunities and more to meet). Also, I believe there are a few places for language exchange, which is a good place to start.

The key to meeting people is in your attitude. Be polite, use the Usted form (at first), wait for the local to greet you with a kiss, and don’t turn your back to people. Don’t be shy about your Spanish, just dive in and make mistakes; if someone is friend-worthy, they will correct your mistake politely and try to use their English.

FYI: Social plans are NEVER in stone until the last minute, so always reconfirm the day of the event. If invited to somebody’s house, bring something, don’t ask what you’re eating, and everything is delicious. If invited for “once” or “tea” fill up on raw veggies before going because it’s mainly white bread and some form of caffeine. It’s acceptable (although unexpected) to ask your host for tap water.

Working in Santiago

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit for Chile? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I came at a moment’s notice, so I needed to do everything from Chile, and from scratch, which was a hassle. Thankfully, a law professor at the university was finally enlisted to help me. It’s not a difficult process, really, but you must have a specific kind of work contract in order to start the process of getting the right kind of visa to get a bank account, phone plan, etc. From the time I turned everything into immigration to when I finally got my RUT took about 10 weeks. My advice is to get your highest degree legalised with the Chilean consulate before leaving the US…. or marry a Chilean.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Santiago? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: I’ve seen a variety of foreigner-run successful businesses here, and work is not impossible to find, especially if you speak Spanish. If applying for a bilingual job, it’s best to have both a US and a Chilean version of your resume. Interviews are not much different here, but several companies include psychological evaluation as part of the hiring process. and are the most used websites for finding jobs, homes, and used items. is also good for house/apartment sharing and roommate searches.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Chile?
A: The main differences between cultures are the lower standards, especially in terms of customer service, and the three-tiered necessary confirmation in order to prevent no-shows for meetings. Service-oriented businesses seem to have markedly lower standards, and I still see vestiges of sexism in the workplace.

In Santiago, watch for tricky people pretending to be interested in your product or service while scoping for five-finger discounts. Even people who come recommended can be thieves.

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: I can’t imagine! Both partners should have Spanish proficiency. One suggestion for the trailing spouse is to get EFL certified before leaving the country. It is a relatively short and inexpensive course, and several provide assistance in job placement (if the preference isn’t too specific). It ensures some additional income and, more importantly, gets you out of the house. Enrolling in a university course is another idea for the trailing spouse, and it’s not too expensive.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: I’ve learned from other expats (from various countries) that their children really missed their friends and their lives, and the change itself was their biggest challenge. I think it’s important for them to stay in contact via social media, video chat, etc. with those friends and family back home, especially during the transitional time. They need a space to observe their changes and make comparisons, which can’t always be with the parents because at times that can be a conflict of interest.

Keep your home environment positive and stable. Develop a new schedule and system, and be consistent. Be sensitive and supportive towards the transition, and encourage your kids to be patient and to seek out new social experiences. If humans are adaptable, kids are doubly so, but they must be modelled and directed. So keep your own attitude in check, look at each new experience for what it is and nothing more, and your kids should follow suit.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions? 
A: Choose private. I don’t know one expat, and not many Chileans, whose children are in public school. In Chile, public schools are mainly for the poor.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Don’t come down if your work contract is for much less than CLP 1 million monthly, and with a trailing spouse and family, make that 2 million. Likewise, you will save money by paying the luggage differential bringing clothes, linens and small electronics and appliances, and even some HBA products. (I stock up at The Body Shop every time I go home). You can bring a shipping container for about 1,000 USD if you already have furniture, but rewire appliances for the Chilean voltage. I have burned several electronics with the wrong adapter!

Another issue here is finding people to work in your home—or office (nannies, housekeepers, redecorators, etc.). I was once recommended somebody and then robbed by them! So definitely pre-screen, listen to your instincts and get the opinion of trusted people before handing over your keys. Your concierge can be an excellent resource in this regard, as well as others.

Finally, my foreign friends and I have noticed that if you do or say something out of the norm, or if something odd happens to you, Santiaguinos will just look at you. Nobody comes out of the woodwork to correct you or explain what is wrong, so you must somehow figure things out. I have also noticed a completely unshared reality among Chileans, even about language. I once asked about a slang term to several different people and got completely different answers from each one. So it’s up to you to form your own sense of cohesion and coherence to the things around you, which ironically is one thing I really love about being here. 

~ Interviewed February 2014

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