Living in Dubai as an American
10 February 2023
Dubai attracts many tourists from around the world, including India, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and of course, the US. In 2021, over 300,000 US citizens made the trip to Dubai, accounting for 7% of all of their tourists that year. Many Americans are also making the move permanently (or at least longer-term), with over 40,000 already living in Dubai.
It can be daunting to move, especially if you’re going halfway across the world, many time zones away from family and friends. Knowing what to expect in advance can help you make the adjustment that much easier. Continue reading to learn all about what you should keep in mind as an American in Dubai, including visa requirements, overall lifestyle, accommodation, employment, education, transportation, and costs (such as healthcare and taxes).
Assuming that you want to stay in the UAE longer than 60 days at a time, it’s essential to get a residency visa.
The main types of visas are:
- Employment visa - for an employee working in the private sector or a free zone (for a company registered in Dubai). Usually a 2-year visa.
- Student visa - for a student sponsored by an accredited university/college. 1-year renewable visa.
- Investor visa- for expats investing in a UAE company, either by buying shares in an existing company or establishing a company with an investment of AED 72,000 ($19,600) or more.
- Property owner visa- for real estate investors that own a property equal to or more than AED 750,000 ($204,190). 2-year renewable visa.
- Dependent visa- for expat residents to sponsor their spouse or children (can also sponsor parents with some restrictions). Must have a minimum salary of AED 4,000 ($1,090) or AED 3,000 ($815) with accommodation.
- Retirement visa- for retirees over the age of 55 who own a property with a value of AED 1 million ($272,255), have financial savings of AED 1 million or more, or have a monthly income of AED 15,000 ($4,080).
- Remote work visa- for employees that want to relocate and continue working remotely. 1-year visa.
To apply for one of the residence permits listed above you’ll likely need to provide:
- A recent personal photo with a white background
- Emirates ID Application receipt- all residents must get an Emirates ID card
- Housing lease contract (certified) or proof of owning a residence
- A medical fitness certificate* - for all applicants above 18 years of age
- Entry permit
- Medical insurance or health card
- For work visa
- Signed offer letter / job contract
- Educational certificates (attested by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MOFA)
Depending on which type of residency permit you are applying for, you may need to submit additional documents. It’s helpful to research the requirements in advance to see if you can organize some of your documents while still in the US.
Dubai also has a Golden Visa scheme that was launched in 2019 and gives expats the opportunity to get a long-term renewable residency for up to 10 years. This scheme is available to real estate investors, entrepreneurs, doctors, scientists, inventors, athletes, executive directors, and more, given that you meet specific requirements. As a Golden Visa holder, you can also sponsor family members. Learn more about eligibility criteria, documentation, and fees by reading about the Dubai Golden Visa scheme.
Arabic is the official language in the UAE, so you can expect to see various signage such as road signs and public notices written in Arabic. In the US, Arabic is also common with over 1 million people speaking Arabic in their homes as of 2019 (among the top 5 most common languages spoken other than English). However, you don’t need to learn Arabic to move to Dubai as most signs also have the English equivalent and English is used widely across business and tourism sectors. You shouldn’t have any major difficulties communicating with others in Dubai, but it’s always a good idea to learn some Arabic words to use when communicating with UAE citizens.
Depending on where you live in the US, the weather may or may not be significantly different in Dubai. If you’re from the southwest, then you’re probably already used to the desert heat, dry climate, and year-round warm temperatures. On the other hand, if you’re from the northern US, it may take some time to adjust to the vastly different climate. With the lowest temperatures in Dubai around 10°C (50°F) but more often hovering around 20°C (68°F), you don’t need to worry about bringing all of your snow gear. Summers in Dubai can get extremely hot, with average temperatures up to 42°C (108°F). For lovers of beach-front living that want to feel like they’re on vacation every day of the year, Dubai might be the perfect place.
You may have noticed from the temperature measurements, but Dubai, like the majority of the rest of the world, uses the metric system. The US is the odd one out using the Imperial system, relying on feet, inches, pounds, ounces, etc. However, Dubai used to readily use the Imperial system until not so long ago, only officially making the change around 2010. Because of this, you may still see measurements in both Celsius and Fahrenheit, and other sectors, like the real estate sector, may sometimes rely on square feet (instead of square meters) for property measurements. As an American, you might not have to make much of an adjustment.
In general, more conservative clothing is favored when out in public in Dubai. Locals may wear a hijab or a long tunic, as is customary for traditional Arab clothing. As a foreigner, it’s considered best practice to wear long pants, skirts, or dresses when you are out and about and you have something with which you can cover your shoulders if needed. At the beach, in nightclubs, or in the privacy of your home, swimwear and other more revealing clothes are more accepted. If you plan to go inside a mosque, you will need to be dressed modestly and, if you are a woman, cover your hair.
Dubai is mostly Muslim, but other religions like Christianity and Hinduism are also prevalent. The work week used to go from Sunday to Thursday in the UAE, in line with Friday as the main day of prayer for Muslims. However, as of 2022, they switched the work week to Monday-Friday to better align with international businesses. This may be preferable for Christians that worship on Sunday, but less ideal for Americans that are Muslim. Many sectors and businesses still offer half-days for their Muslim employees.
You should become familiar with the local laws, based on Islamic law, in the UAE. Most Muslims don’t consume alcohol as it’s forbidden by their religious text, and there are also stricter alcohol laws that affect all residents. Like in the US, the legal drinking age is 21 and it’s illegal to drink in public places. However, the sale and consumption of alcohol are also limited to designated, licensed areas such as hotels, bars, and specific restaurants. You can only purchase alcohol in separate stores as it is not available in general grocery stores. It is also illegal to be drunk in public and to drive while drunk no matter how little alcohol is in your system. It’s also important to know that public displays of affection (PDA), immodesty, and sexual relations outside of marriage are punishable under UAE law. As a married couple having your marriage certificate in Dubai is extra important. There can be harsh penalties, such as fines, imprisonment, or deportation, for those breaking any of the UAE’s laws.
In terms of the general cost of living, Dubai might be just a bit less expensive than other large cities in the US. There is a 5% value-added tax (VAT) on goods and services in Dubai, versus the US sales tax which varies by state anywhere from 2.9-7.5% (with many states imposing an additional 1-5% tax). The VAT in Dubai will probably be less than the US sales tax you’re used to paying. On the other hand, alcohol has a whopping 30% tax in Dubai, so you should expect to pay more if you like to enjoy alcoholic beverages while out or at home. Dubai, like other major cities, has plenty of luxury restaurants, bars, and shops where you can drop a significant amount of money. Their shopping malls are some of the largest in the world with plenty of attractions for the whole family and international brands you’ll be familiar with. The overall cost of living really depends on your personal choices and preferences. The currency in the UAE, the Arab Emirates dirham (AED), is pegged to the US dollar. This means that the exchange rate is fixed, which can be helpful when transferring finances from the US to Dubai or vice versa.
Find a place to call home in Dubai
The US real estate market is extremely fast-paced with increasing demand from millennials coupled with chronic under-building across the nation. Because of these factors, property sales have been largely restricted and it can be difficult for new buyers to enter the market. In August of 2021, 87% of homes sold in the US were on the market for less than a month. Buying a property in Dubai may be a breath of fresh air, as many large-scale residential projects are underway across the city. Since 2008, Dubai has continued to see more and more new property transactions each year. The government incentivizes new developments, creating an adequate supply that attracts foreign investors. Both Dubai and the major cities in the US have seen strong house price growth, but it’s impossible to benefit from this if you can’t even find a property to buy!
When it comes to property rental, Dubai and the US typically have pro-tenant laws that seek to protect renters. The US has strong anti-discrimination laws but only has rent control laws in 5 states. The Dubai Land Department (DLD) regulates how much landlords can raise the rent, depending on the current rental amount and the average market rental rate in the area. The rental market is also regulated by Ejari and requires all rental and lease contracts to be registered with the government. This system facilitates contract revision, openness, and transparency between landlords and their tenants. However, one difference you’ll find is that landlords often ask tenants to pay rent annually via a manager cheque, rather than on a monthly basis like in the US. However, you may also be able to pay rent with multiple cheques over the course of a year, such as 2, 4, or 6. This is something to factor in when considering the upfront costs of renting.
You can buy property in any designated freehold area in Dubai as an American. If you decide to buy and rent out a property, you can usually expect a moderate rental income, similar to in the US. The average rental income in Dubai is 6.61%, whereas, in large US cities, they range from 4.5-9% on average. When buying an investment property in both places, you’ll see higher returns for smaller properties (studios and 1-bedroom apartments) in the city center. Property buyers can generally expect price appreciation over time, especially for villas in Dubai which have seen large increases in recent years.
Some popular areas in Dubai for American expats include:
- Dubai Marina - luxury apartments with waterfront views
- Arabian Ranches - a gated family-oriented villa community in a quiet suburb
- Downtown Dubai - luxury apartments in the center of Dubai near various attractions
- Emirates Hills - a gated luxury community near an 18-hole golf course (named after Beverly Hills)
- Al Barsha - mid-range apartments close to shops and schools
- Mirdif - affordable properties (apartments and villas) close to multiple American schools
- Business Bay - upscale mixed-use developments in the business center
If you don’t have the funds to put down a large down payment at the moment, but still want to start investing in a property, you can consider the off-plan property market in Dubai. Many developers offer attractive post-handover payment plans for their developments that are under construction, so there are plenty of options for expats that can’t afford to get a traditional mortgage right now. You can consider under-construction properties in Meydan, Dubai Creek Harbour, and the World Islands.
Also, peruse our property portal with thousands of properties in Dubai. You can search by location, price, property size, completion status, amenities, and more.
Those looking to buy a property will probably take out a mortgage loan to finance their purchase rather than pay it in cash upfront. It’s often a bit more difficult to find a mortgage offer as a foreigner, but there are still plenty of options in Dubai. A mortgage broker, like Kredium, has connections with the largest developers and banks in Dubai and can help you find the best option whether you are a resident expat or a non-resident. The mortgage process is similar to that in the US, but banks have specific conditions that are unique to the UAE (such as a maximum loan tenure of 25 years). Our mortgage brokers can help you from the beginning of the process all the way through closing your mortgage loan.
You should definitely become familiar with the following processes and terms you’ll encounter in the Dubai market:
- Property valuation - a property valuation is necessary when buying, selling, getting a mortgage, renting, or insuring a property.
- Homeownership service charges - annual fees that owners must pay for property maintenance and community upkeep.
- EIBOR - interest rates (for variable-rate mortgages) are linked to the Emirates Interbank Offered Rate.
- AECB credit score - the government organization Al Etihad Credit Bureau issues credit reports.
- Islamic mortgages - many banks in Dubai offer Islamic financing options in addition to or instead of conventional loans. These have specific terms and conditions.
Learn about the entire home-buying process in Dubai so you know exactly what to expect.
Job opportunities in Dubai
Over 1,500 US companies are present in the UAE, many using it as their regional headquarters in the Middle East. Among these are Uber, Microsoft, Starbucks, and multiple global companies like the Mayo Clinic, General Motors, and FedEx. The UAE has fostered a business-friendly environment by making 100% foreign ownership possible. It’s also much easier to establish a company in the UAE than in other countries, with an online process that takes only 4 days to complete.
American schools in Dubai
There are many schools in Dubai that follow the American curriculum, with state-of-the-art facilities available for kindergarten, as well as primary, secondary, and higher education. Their curricula focuses on a wide range of subject areas, co-curricular activities (such as sports, art, music, etc.), student-centered learning, and standardized tests. Many institutions help prepare students for the SAT and offer the IB curriculum. The annual admission cost is typically between AED 25,000-87,000 ($6,800-23,700).
Here are just a few of the top American schools in Dubai:
- GEMS Dubai American Academy
- Universal American School
- American School of Dubai
- Dunecrest American School
- Clarion School
- Collegiate International School
- GEMS Al Khaleej International School
- Mirdif American School
- Greenwood International School (GIS)
- iCademy Middle East
- North American International School
- Dubai National School Al Barsha
- Next Generation School
- American International School Dubai
- Al Mawakeb School, Al Garhoud
- Al Ittihad Private School, Jumeirah
- Al Mawakeb School, Al Barsha
If your child is nearing the start of their educational journey or you’re planning to move to Dubai, it’s best to start looking at schools early. Most schools have rolling admissions but can fill up quickly due to high demand. When searching, you should consider proximity to your (future) home, the latest school ratings from the KHDA, your preferred learning environment, and last but not least, cost.
Transportation in Dubai
You’ll find that gas is a bit less expensive in the UAE due to plentiful oil reserves in the region. The average price is currently AED 3.05 per liter or $3.14 per gallon. You may find that driving standards in Dubai are a bit less disciplined than in the US, so you should definitely be alert as you adjust to driving in the city. Also, remember that drinking and driving is illegal no matter how little alcohol you’ve ingested.
For those of you that don’t plan to own a car in Dubai, you shouldn’t have much difficulty getting around the city thanks to its modern public transport system. Dubai has a system of buses, metro lines, trams, water buses, and a monorail system that connect all highly-populated areas. The Red line and the Green line are the two main metro lines, running east to west along the length of Dubai and on the east side near Dubai Creek, respectively. There are two transfer stations between the two lines. There’s also a tram line that operates in a loop between Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Beach Residence, and Al Sufouh, and the Palm Jumeirah Monorail goes straight along Palm Jumeirah from the Palm Gateway to the Atlantis Aquaventure Waterpark. All transport stations and railway cars are air-conditioned— essential for navigating the city in Dubai’s hot summers.
To use Dubai’s public transit including the metro, bus, tram, water bus, and the Palm Jumeirah monorail, you’ll want to get a nol card. The cost is affordable, especially compared to other large cities, with a single trip costing somewhere between AED 4-17 ($1-5). Dubai is divided into 7 zones and the more zones you pass through, the higher the cost of your trip. There are also 7-day, 30-day, 90-day, and yearly nol cards for those that plan to use public transit regularly.
Taxes and healthcare
You may think you don’t need to worry about taxes since the UAE has no income taxes, right? Unfortunately, even as an American residing abroad, you still have to pay taxes on the international income that you earn. You have to file a US income tax return unless you renounce your US citizenship or abandon your green card holder status. If you meet certain requirements, you can qualify for the foreign-earned income exclusion up to a certain amount ($120,000 for 2023). On the other hand, those that are self-employed still have to pay a self-employment tax towards social security and Medicare. Don’t forget that you’ll still need to pay regular taxes on any income you earn in the US (such as a 30% rental income tax for US rental properties).
As a UAE resident, you don’t have to pay taxes on income, capital gains, gifts, inheritance, wealth, and luxury. However, if you are buying a property in the UAE there are 2 types of taxes you must pay, a transfer fee and a registration fee. The property transfer fee In Dubai is 4% of the property price and the registration fee is AED 2,000-4,000 ($545-1089) depending on if the property is less or more than AED 500,000 ($136,127). For rental properties in Dubai, you’ll also pay a 5% municipality tax on the property’s annual rental income (or 10% for commercial properties). You’re still likely to save money on taxes, but it’s always best to look into your situation in advance and get professional help when paying your taxes as an American living abroad.
You don’t have to worry about the quality of healthcare in Dubai, as their healthcare system is held to an excellent standard with both public and private healthcare overseen by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA). Most healthcare workers also speak both Arabic and English. In Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC), a centrally located neighborhood, there are over 130 private healthcare facilities across many specialties. It’s mandatory for all UAE residents, including expats and their dependents, to have health insurance coverage. If you’re working for a UAE employer, they are required to provide you with health insurance but are not obligated to cover your dependents. Employees with coverage will receive a health card from the Health Ministry and will have 20% copayments capped at AED 1,000 ($272) per year. However, this coverage is not very comprehensive as it doesn’t have dental or vision coverage. Most expats get international private health insurance for themselves and their families, which of course varies by provider and coverage. You should be sure to carry your health card from the Health Ministry or your private provider at all times. Luckily, public hospitals in the UAE provide free emergency treatment even for people that don’t have a health card from the Health Ministry. Before you make the move to Dubai, you should check the UAE’s pharmaceutical regulations (prohibiting narcotics and psychotropic drugs) to make sure that the medication you use is legal.
Start your new life in Dubai
Accommodation is one of the most important factors to figure out when you move abroad. For those looking to buy a property in Dubai (either now or in the future), you can check out our property search portal to start considering your options. By registering on our website, you can get comprehensive information about each property, such as the closest schools, parks, hospitals, and more. Our real estate advisors at Kredium have in-depth knowledge on the market and can help you find the right property that fits your needs. We can also help you finance your property purchase and provide you with personalized offers from the top banks and lenders. As an international real estate and mortgage broker, we’re here to look out for your best interest, just contact us to get started.