Living in Nepal as a foreigner
I usually end out a longer term stay in a country by writing about what it’s like to live there. These are my experiences and opinions. It’s a diverse world we live in. While some people “live in Nepal” as diplomats or Aid workers others work in regular jobs, are married etc.
While it’s not really possible to relate all my experiences into one all-knowing article I will try to cover the main tangents. If you’ve been following my journey then you’ll know what I am looking for and how I go about it. So if you’re interested in what it’s like to live in Nepal? Here’s my take …
Nationalities & people who live in Nepal
There are a surprising number of foreigners living in Nepal. Beyond the dwindling number of yearly returning aged western hippies and smatterings of youthful volunteers quite a few people actually live in Nepal that were not born here.
Predominantly I mainly see Indians, Asians and Europeans living here. Including these there are also high numbers of Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, French, Swiss, German and British. North American’s are around in many capacities but not overwhelmingly. While Indians are hard to tell apart from Nepalese they are here in large numbers and have been for many years. The largest change in recent years is the regional influx of Chinese and Koreans.
Mistakes foreigners make when moving to Nepal
Leaving refugees and asylum seekers out of the equation in terms of “wanting to live in Nepal”, many foreigners come to Nepal looking to stay from medium to long periods. From this group, in general, there are some common mistakes people make when moving to Nepal. Let’s take a look at some of the most common mistakes …
Thinking you will find a job here
Forget it! Yes, you will need a source of income. But the chances that you will get this by working for someone else, let alone a local, is very slim. Yes, there are some niche jobs. High end hotel management, engineering, hydro electricity companies, aid work and so forth. But the reality is most of those jobs come from overseas to begin with. I’m discounting missionary work here and voluntary work in Nepal.
If you do manage to hawk out a local job the salary certainly won’t be enough to keep you in living standards you are accustomed to. It’s a land where there are countless unemployed and Nepal is increasingly a land that favors their own.
Those doing “remote work” should know that doing so is illegal in Nepal unless you have a business visa.
Chances are you’ll have more Nepali people asking you for a job than finding one yourself.
Still interested in working in Nepal? Check out my article on jobs and working in Nepal. Your best option? Get a job working in Nepal before you arrive or become self-employed.
Thinking you will find true love here
I’m dropping all forms of political correctness here. If you are a foreign woman you will easily find a husband here. If you are a foreign man you will not so easily find a wife here, but it is possible.
By way of culture it’s far more permissible for a Nepali man to pursue a woman than it is for a Nepalese woman to pursue a man. No matter their citizenship.
It’s well-known that many Nepali men will actively pursue single women of all ages from abroad.
Not only is there a prestige in having a “foreign” girlfriend or wife. There’s a clear route to financial stability and a passport to a new life. While the opposite is also true it’s harder to find due to cultural boundaries and it usually ends up with a foreign man making a request to some local friends to help him find a suitable local wife.
Bottom line: finding a spouse in Nepal can be easy – finding genuine love is another thing. The number of failed marriages here is staggering. Ditto even if the married couple moves overseas.
Next up you’ll want to think about children. It’s complex. A foreigner married to a local who has a son, no problem. A foreigner married to a local who has a daughter … well your daughter may not be entitled to Nepali citizenship … Yes, while Nepal recently received publicity for allow gay marriage, the rights of everyday people are still lacking. Why? Think about the publicity and tourism numbers … simple as that.
Thinking that you can buy land here or find a way around the law
You stand no chance. The law in Nepal is very clear. Foreigners cannot own land in Nepal. Period.
Yes you can give your Nepali wife/husband or business partner a bucket load of cash to buy land. But it will never be in your name. A failed marriage or business relationship means you as a foreigner have little ground to stand on. No matter how much legal paperwork you filled out beforehand. The chances are you will come away with nothing.
Even Nepali people themselves are constantly being done over by property deals here. Constantly changing governments, bribe taking local law makers and a lack of property rights mean that big money can buy anyone’s land.
Example: I have a Nepali friend who bought some titled land. Sign sealed and delivered. Five years later and a local road was just built through it. They lost it all. No compensation. If a local can’t win – a foreigner certainly never will.
You can own a house or an apartment on land or lease land and then build a house on it. But the bottom line is that the land that you built on will not be yours. Leases have a habit of being changed and unless you have a vast sum of cash to keep things in the courts. Without having some cash in hand it’s not going to work out in your favor.
Starting a business will be easy
If you want to do this legally you better have a nice start-up fund. For USD$300+ you can get a business visa in Nepal for one year (here’s more on the different types of visas available in Nepal). That’s just one obstacle, but it’s quite simple to solve for some cash.
After that you’ll also need a license to invest in Nepal. That’s before you can even begin to register your business for which you’ll need proof of a hefty investment. Of course if you have one million US Dollars it’s all a lot easier and you can invest away with ease. You could also be a silent partner in a Nepalese company. But of course you lose all your legal rights that way.
The good news is that you can own 100% of your business. Though you’ll need a lot of capital to get it kick-started. There are however a lot of foreigners working without all this hassle. Some simply come over to buy goods and ship them out. Others come over during the trekking season as guides and simply don’t declare this. Others do “remote work” but can face expulsions, bans, and large fines if caught.
Many regional foreigners (Chinese/Korean/Indian) marry a local and have them start-up the business in their name while maintaining a promise of wealth to a family. Then when a child is born (must be a son as a daughter doesn’t have the same rights if the father is a foreigner) the ownership is transferred to the child with the father having custody should said marriage dissolve. This works for owning land too.
Easy to start a business in Nepal? If you have money or ethics to spare yes.
As a sub-note many people often open up NGO’s under the guise of charities to front small businesses in Nepal. This often leads to a host of problems and I would not recommend it. But, many unethical people are involved in this side of thing. Including many volunteer agencies in Nepal (read more on this and on volunteering in Nepal).
You might also like my further reading on doing business in Nepal.
Thinking you can handle the fact that things will be “different”
Looking at Nepal from the outside or even after a year here things might seem rosy. Nice people, cheap things to buy, and nice scenery.
The reality is power shortages, random strikes/bandas (of which Nepal has many regional types), food shortages, language/cultural differences and of course everyday life which is much the same everywhere in the world.
It’s all relatively easy to handle in the short-term. A challenge maybe. But over the long-term such things can wear you down mentally.
I again use the same saying for Nepal as with many other developing countries:
“It’s great to ‘live’ here for a 6 months at a time, but anything longer than that and you could go mad”
The above excludes diplomats and high paid expat workers who live quiet plush lives.
Underestimating the cost of living in Nepal
Nepal is not as cheap as many people think. Yes, as a tourist the idea of spending $10 a night on a hotel and $10 a day on food seems cheap. Then again even the cost of traveling Nepal as a tourist is going up. But we are not talking budget travel here. We are talking living in Nepal.
Accommodation is not so expensive out of Kathmandu city central but you’ll be lacking in many amenities. In Kathmandu it’s not unheard of to be paying USD $1500 per month. A basic apartment outside the capital can run at $170 per month for something basic but good enough. You won’t be near very much so you’ll need to factor in public transport. Electricity bills. A generator plus fuel plus surge protectors for load shedding months. A battery inverter. Drinking water delivery. Internet fees.
In the center of Kathmandu apartment prices and conditions rise. It’s not unusual to see basic clean apartments run from USD$800-1500+ per month. The more money you pay the more “working” facilities you’ll get.
Now let’s move onto health insurance for Nepal which requires you to have insurance from overseas which is expensive to say the least. If you have children you’ll probably want them to attend a private school in Nepal which generally means a private school in Kathmandu all of which seem to have some really interestingly high prices. Home schooling might be a better option.
You’ll want to go to an expat hospital here and not a local one too. Again this limits you to Kathmandu in terms of location. And we haven’t even started on the fact that food prices in Nepal have doubled in the past few years and look set to continue. Cheap by western standards? Yes. Are the living standards the same? No.
Keeping up to your living standards from home will cost you a lot in Nepal. Living like a local long-term is really not advisable for the sake of your health, security and sanity. Don’t underestimate the cost of living in Nepal. It’s all doable but more expensive than you might think.
Not understanding the diverse culture in Nepal
Nepal is hugely diverse. It’s not just “Nepali people” living here. There are ethnic differences throughout the country that mean a lot. Not to mention the Nepali caste system. Then factor in the new generation of Nepali people who both hang on to tradition and are also trying to part ways from it. If you’ve been doing your research, and still don’t know about Newari, then keep on researching. Or, get one of my guidebooks to Nepal.
There’s also a huge difference between the way of life of say a diplomat, NGO worker and a local here. And even within Nepal there are huge differences between the castes. Not understanding this can lead to problems if you live here. Moreover ignoring it will work against you in the long run.
One lady who moved here with her husband seems to live in another reality. She talks about eating local food from her “help”. Then in the same breath talks of not being able to get good wines?! She ended by joyfully remarking that she once ate some of that “Dal Bhat stuff” and had a weekend in the loo. This is someone who’s “lived” here for years!
The saying “this is how the other-half live” couldn’t be more true.
Learning Nepali and understanding the culture here is a must if you want to survive the first year.
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Not knowing how to deal with racism & cultural integration
You are a foreigner. You always will be. No matter how much of the language you learn or how much you dress like a local you will always be a foreigner. If you are from the west you are presumed rich. If Indian you will be presumed to be here on business or taking jobs from Nepalese. If Chinese you will be irked as taking over the country. If “western” then you might also be considered as one of the last of the White Elephants.
Yes these are non-politically correct generalizations and as one older lady from the USA said “I’ve never seen any of this!” Outraged and shocked she dismissed the notion as she went back to her comfortable hotel with a pool where she had “lived in Nepal” for the past two months.
It’s easy to turn a blind eye here. I’ve met volunteers living in villages for months who speak fluent Nepali. They come to the big city and locals enjoy talking with them as it’s not that often they meet a foreigner who speaks their language. This is great. This is wonderful. But at the end of the day they are still asked to pay an extra charge because they are a foreigners.
It can get to you over time. The two-tiered pricing and the assumptions of wealth.
What’s more there’s a current insurgence of Nepali pride which does not like the idea of foreigners living in Nepal under the assumption that they will take their jobs. It’s not out in the open and certainly not in the tourism sector. However racism on many levels is alive and well in Nepal. The Great White Elephant in Nepal is simply just not spoken about out in the open.
Always remember, you are not Nepali and never will be. You’ll do better that way.
Not being able to cope with long-term frustration
If all of the above can seem a little frustrating then imagine what it’s like in real life. Every day. Can you handle it? Can you handle the constant assumptions of wealth and two tiered pricing? The barter system. The power cuts, pollution and traffic? It’s a very different thing to come to Nepal on holiday or even for a few months compared to living here.
“Frustration is not the word. Mind breaking is more like it” commented an expat here for 10 years.
Coping with frustration plays a huge part in living in Nepal – don’t underestimate it!
Kathmandu’s a shadow of its former self
One thing I’ve noticed on this return to Nepal is the decline of return tourists. The tourism slogan “Naturally Nepal, Once is not enough” may once have rung true, once upon a time. Today those returning travelers do not see it that way.
Kathmandu is business oriented these days. Ship them in, get them out. Mass package tourism is on the rise. Chitwan is becoming a package tour destination. While Pokhara is very slowly becoming too built up with hotels and guesthouses.
A horrified returning tourist in his 60’s couldn’t believe the changes they’ve seen in Kathmandu alone.
“Kids on motorbikes are everywhere!” he said shaking his head. “It’s dirtier than I remember. No one cleans up anymore. And the hashish sellers are selling prostitutes now too!”
He’s referring to the men that walk up and down Thamel who sell hashish and have done so for many years. Today they sell harsher drugs and male/female prostitution is rising. Sadly an unchanging fact is that child abuse still remains rampant in Nepal. It’s certainly not the Kathmandu of yesteryear’s fables.
Visit a bar in Kathmandu today and you’ll often see a few older traveler hippie types in a corner. Surrounding them are new modern travelers and locals in smart branded clothing drinking cocktails. The former look confused, lost and a little sad.
Today the new Nepali generation wonder why western tourists don’t dress better.
A well-known business woman catering to tourists said this to me, “We don’t make any money from foreigner tourists anymore. We make most of it from locals. They want the best quality and don’t mind paying for it. Western foreigners don’t like paying high prices!”
Last call for Kathmandu
Indeed even from my own first visit here in 2007 compared to today I can see a substantial difference. The city is simply not the same. Kathmandu is wavering …
Yes, for a first timer it still holds some charm. But if you saw it before, then it is a very different place today.
The idea of living in the Kathmandu of ten or more years ago simply doesn’t hold true anymore.
The curtains are closed on the old city and there’s a new Kathmandu in town.
Then again Nepal is a fantastic place
Is it possible to live in Nepal as a foreigner today? Yes, absolutely. Don’t let all the above put you off. Let it be a forewarning of what you may expect.
Be prepared for the above and you’ll be more than one step ahead of the rest!
However for all the above one must also weigh in the positives.
A beautiful environment that’s unlike any other in the world. Mountains, snow, lakes, wildlife, rain, sun etc – you name it Nepal has just about everything aside from the sea.
The Nepali people are warm, friendly and for the most part quite trustworthy. The food is wholesome, filling and varied. I have no issues at all with Nepali food!
It can be a wild and confusing place where nothing works. It’s maddening at times. But once you get over that then just go with the flow for the sake of your blood pressure and sanity. The reality is you can do more in Nepal and have more freedom than in most other places. Bus breaks down? No problem jump on the back of a truck filled with water buffalo along with everyone else.
Opportunity abounds in Nepal. It is still a unique place in this touristic world. It’s located right in the middle of two giant super-powers. With the right mindset and with perseverance you could accomplish a lot in Nepal should the winds of luck blow in your favor.
Is living in Nepal possible & do you want to live in Nepal?
It really all depends on what you want or for how long you want it. If I could overcome some of the above including having a larger income and a permanent visa to Nepal with constitutional rights I’d be very happy. Even if it would take years to obtain.
The reality is that it’s not going to happen. At least not overnight. Politically Nepal is a mess for such things to become a reality. Change in Nepal is like the well overdue earthquake that’s expected to flatten fifty percent of Kathmandu. The last big earthquake in 2015 was apparently a warm up. It’s overdue, but no one knows when it will happen.
Living in Nepal, once you factor in the above, is a game of chance, hard work, compromise and sacrifice. Already there are small tremors. When is the big one? Is it worth the risk?
For some the cost will be too much to live in Nepal. For others? Well they might be some of the very few who find their paradise.
If you’ve been reading here over the long-term then you’ll have seen what I’ve introduced you to from Living Goddesses and homeless children to amazing treks, hot jungles, ancient cities, majestic wildlife, fascinating people, bizarre sadhus to the practicalities of working in Nepal and so much more. There’s nowhere else on earth like Nepal.
Can you live in Nepal and call it home?
I’ll leave that up to you.
This is an additional feature article about Living in Nepal
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