Skip to main content

Interview with Noëlle – an American expat living in Chile

Updated 24 Nov 2014

Noëlle has lived in Santiago with her Chilean husband for more than a decade. She loves her expat life in Chile, and busies herself with teaching private English classes and doing market research on a freelance basis. Noëlle says that the job market in Chile is tough for foreigners to break into, and adds that a crucial part of enjoying living in the country is to learn the language.

About Noëlle

Q: Where are you originally from?

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

Q: When did you move here?
A: 2002

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse?
A: Alone

Q: Why did you move to Chile?
A: I had lived here once before in the mid-90s to learn Spanish. After a visit in 2002, when I was considering a change in my life, I decided to move back. Currently, I am self-employed. I give private English classes, do translations and consult on market research projects. I’m also attempting to launch two new ventures, a real-estate business geared towards expats and an assistance service for new arrivals or tourists.

Living in Chile

Q: What do you enjoy most about Santiago?
A: In general, I am happy here. The climate is relatively mild, with short winters. I live in a very nice area of the city with lots of parks and trees, so it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly urban. I am within walking distance of many amenities, and I can also walk to the Metro in 20 minutes. The restaurant/bar scene has improved immensely, and it is possible to try a lot of cuisines, wines and microbrewed beers.

Q: What do you miss most about home?
A: I have been here so long, I don’t really miss much. I used to miss certain foods, but these days you can find a greater variety of restaurants and ingredients to make these dishes at home. On some expat sites, people have lists as long as their arms of things they miss, and they really seem to focus on that. I think those are people who are least likely to successfully adapt. Part of living in another country is getting used to the fact that things are different from home.

The smog in winter is a negative, especially since I have respiratory issues. In a few years, my husband and I hope to move a bit out of the city in part due to this. Also, houses here generally don’t have central heating. I guess one more thing that is somewhat of a drawback is the distance from everywhere else. Flying to Europe, for example, requires long flight times and is expensive. As a result, I have mainly travelled in South America since moving here. You do have to be alert about your personal safety, especially in crowded areas where crimes like bag snatching can occur, but it is similar to any big city, I think.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Santiago?
A: I had lived here in the mid-90’s as well, so I feel like I knew what I was getting into for the most part. One thing that can be frustrating is the job situation. Who you know is very important when looking for a job, the so-called ‘pituto’ system. I was fortunate to find a stable freelance situation within three months of moving here, but I lost that in 2011 due to cost-cutting and a change in how the company did business. Since then, I have focused on developing my own sources of income because sending in résumés to job ads rarely even yields an interview, even though you constantly hear about the lack of bilingual professionals here.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to the USA?
A: I haven’t been to the US since 2007, so I am not sure about the cost of living there right now to compare. I moved here from San Francisco. When I moved here, I was earning about half of what I made in San Francisco, but the cost of living was about a third of what it was in the States. Housing is one thing that was a lot less expensive here than San Francisco, and basic food ingredients were significantly cheaper. Imported/packaged food can be expensive. However, we’ve had significant inflation in the time I’ve been here, and I don’t think salary increases have kept up with that for many people.

Housing prices in the nice areas of Santiago (both rent and sales prices) have seen steep increases. The price of many food items has also gone up significantly. Many crops have been affected by drought and frosts, so produce prices have seen steep increases. Due to taxes, gas is extremely expensive. Electronics used to be a lot more expensive than in the US, but prices have come down. Clothing is relatively cheap, but it’s not always the best quality.

You can get very good wine inexpensively. Personal services in general are a lot less expensive – everything from a house cleaner to haircuts. Medical care and veterinary care is less expensive than in the USA. However, regular health plans do not give much coverage for prescriptions. Fortunately, my husband has supplemental health insurance through his work, and that reimburses a significant part of our prescription costs.

Q: How would you rate the public transport?
A: On a scale of one to five, I’d give it a three. Santiago public transit was reformed as the Transantiago in 2005. That was supposed to improve and professionalise service. However, it is not without its problems. Certain routes, including one I need to use often, have low frequencies, and you can end up waiting 20 to 30 minutes for a bus. On these occasions, the bus is usually crowded when it finally arrives, and sometimes it is not possible to board due to the crowding. Sometimes the bus drivers simply do not stop. They are controlled by GPS, so they drive the route to meet their goals, but they don’t pick up passengers. Other routes are better, though.

The Metro is pretty nice, generally clean and efficient. However, it doesn’t go everywhere. I use it mainly to go downtown. Rush hour on the Metro, especially in the summer, can be suffocating.

It’s not absolutely necessary to have a car. Many people get away without one, but it definitely is more convenient to have one. I bought a car about a year after moving here because my job required me to attend various meetings at factories on the edge of the city and public transit options to those places are limited. Recently, my husband and I replaced that car and were without a car for months. The worst part about not having a car is grocery shopping. We have a supermarket within walking distance, but it is quite small and doesn’t have the best selection. Not all supermarkets have reliable taxi services. Therefore, we were limited to shopping at places with a cab service. We’d take the bus there and a cab back. Sometimes you get lucky and a cab arrives quickly, but sometimes you end up waiting half an hour.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Santiago?
A: My experiences have varied. Through trial and error, I have discovered that it is better to go directly to a specialist. The times that I have seen a general practitioner, my condition didn’t improve, and I ended up going to a specialist anyway. My best experience has been with a pulmonary specialist that I see for typical winter respiratory ailments and my allergies.

People with a work contract have 7% of their salary deducted to pay for health care, and they can choose a plan through a private insurer or the state-run health service. Obviously, the more you make the better plan you can afford, although it is possible to request a higher deduction if you want better coverage.

Most doctors these days work through large medical centres, such as VidaIntegra or Integramédica that have specialists of all types and also offer tests and services. Private health insurers, called Isapres, generally have agreements with one or more of these centres, which will give you more favourable pricing. Most health plans don’t offer comprehensive dental insurance. The state-run health plan is called FONASA, but I don’t have experience with that.

Fortunately, I have never been hospitalised. I have only had to go to the emergency room a few times. Some of the private clinics (private hospitals are called clinics, public ones, hospitals) with the best reputation are Clínica Alemana, Clínica Las Condes, Clínica de la Universidad Católica y Clínica Santa María. For emergency visits, I went to Clínica Santa María and Clínica Vespucio and had good attention at both.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Santiago?
A: Petty crimes are probably the biggest risk to the expat; bag snatching and pick-pocketing on crowded public transportation or busy sidewalks are most common. I have had my car broken in to a few times, but that was the worst I have experienced. There is also a phone scam called the ‘cuento del tío’ that people should watch out for. There are armed break-ins at houses sometimes, but I don’t know anyone who has been affected by them. Apartments are considered safer than houses, since these types of robberies are generally limited to houses.

There have also been cases of bombings in the past few years attributed to anarchist groups. Most occurred at night in places where there were unlikely to be people, but recently, there was one in a mall attached to a Metro station at a busy time of day, which injured 14.

There are definitely neighbourhoods to avoid, but these generally don’t have much to draw the visitor. Most expats I have met live in the eastern part of the city, which is the most modern and safe part. A lot of the south, west and part of the north have parts that are generally unattractive and I think a bit less safe for expats, especially if your physical appearance makes you stand out as foreign. Most expats seem to live in and spend most of their time in neighbourhoods such as Providencia, Las Condes, Vitacura, Ñuñoa, La Reina, Lo Barnechea, as well as downtown.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Santiago?
A: There is a wide variety of housing options. Some areas, like Ñuñoa and Las Condes, have seen a boom in apartment construction, with apartment buildings replacing older houses. New apartment buildings tend to have a lot more amenities than older buildings, but the rooms are smaller. Amenities you typically see are rooms you can rent for parties, pools and gyms. New apartments also are more likely to have central heating. Most new housing developments are on the outskirts of the city and are typical cookie-cutter suburbs. You need a car if you are going to live there. They seem to appeal to families rather than single people or couples without children. If you are looking to rent, there is more availability of apartments than houses.

Many older houses aren’t well-kept up. In general, landlords don’t seem too interested in maintaining the properties and tenants are expected to handle minor repairs themselves.

Landlords will often ask for an ‘aval’ or co-signer to rent to a foreigner. If you come here for work, maybe your employer can assist with this. Or, you may try offering to prepay several months up front.

Some people assume they can arrive here and request a mortgage easily. The reality is that you would need permanent residency for some time and proof of Chilean-sourced income in order to purchase a property with a mortgage.

Q: Any suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: The nicer neighbourhoods tend to be in the eastern part of the city and these are where most expats tend to live. I have lived in Ñuñoa and La Reina and liked both. They both have Metro access and are quite walkable with areas of restaurants and pubs. Providencia is a traditional neighbourhood with tree-line avenues and a commercial district with many shops, restaurants and pubs, including a few geared towards expats. The most upscale neighbourhoods are Vitacura, Lo Barnechea and Las Condes, which also attract many expats.

Meeting people in Chile

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners?
A: Tolerance of foreigners varies depending on where they’re from. In general, people from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand are treated well. Chileans are curious and often want to get to know you and about where you are from. You can definitely meet Chileans rather easily. It’s not like some countries in the Middle East, where expats are expected to keep to themselves.

However, since Chile has a relatively strong economy, it has seen an influx of immigrants from other countries in the region, mainly Peru and Colombia. They have not been as well received and there have been some protests in Antofagasta, where many Colombians reside, against Colombian immigration. These immigrants are viewed as taking lower-skilled jobs from Chileans, and some women accuse Colombian women of stealing their husbands.

Most Chileans identify as Catholic, but many do not practice seriously. They baptise their children and generally want a church wedding, but don’t attend mass regularly. I haven’t noticed discrimination against other religions. There is a small Muslim community and some mosques due to Chile receiving Palestinian refugees.

There is some sexism towards women, but things are definitely changing. In younger couples, for example, women are more likely to work outside the home and there is more sharing of household/childcare responsibilities. The older generations are definitely more traditional, though. 

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: I didn’t have much of a problem meeting people. It definitely helped that I speak Spanish very well. It must be harder if you don’t speak the language, and expats that don’t have a good grasp of Spanish tend to self-segregate and don’t get to know more Chileans.

Now that I live in a house, some of my best friends are my neighbours. I live on a dead-end street, so you run into neighbours regularly. When I first arrived, I lived in an apartment and barely knew my neighbours.

I have also met people through work and through some classes I took. Many municipalities offer inexpensive classes in a variety of subjects like yoga, dancing and art. It’s a good way to get out of the house and meet new people.

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: When I first arrived, I did associate more with other expats, but also with Chileans. I met the expats mainly through an online forum for people living and travelling here. I haven’t become very involved in expat groups. I went to a meeting of one for international professional women, but it wasn’t for me. It was mainly wives of men that were sent here for work. Most of them were trailing spouses who lived quite separate from the culture. They used the meeting primarily to complain about life here. I am much more immersed in the culture and I didn’t like the negative vibe of it.

There are some pubs that are geared towards the expat crowd, such as California Cantina (American-owned), Black Rock Pub (Australian-owned) and Flannery’s (Irish-owned). They are located in Providencia and Las Condes.

Working in Santiago

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit?
A: Getting a visa was pretty easy. Here, if you are a professional with a university degree, you can apply for a temporary visa by showing a job offer. My situation was somewhat unique since the job offer was freelance (but stable) and the company was in the US. Therefore, I hired an immigration lawyer to help me navigate the process. Supposedly I should have gotten my degrees apostilled before coming to Chile, but in my case they accepted notarised copies that had been translated by the Ministry of Foreign Relations. It seems like immigration experiences can vary. Rumour has it that with the change in presidential administration, immigration has become pickier about applications and generally slower.

Another option is the subject to contract visa, which can be obtained with a work contract. This is less flexible than a temporary visa because you can only work for the company that issued the contract. If you want to change jobs, you have to apply for a new visa. There are some other options as well, such as visas for retirees or spouses of Chileans. The Extranjería website is the best source for information.

After a year on a temporary visa or two years on a subject to contract visa, you must apply for permanent residency. This gives you almost the same rights as Chileans, you can even vote after five years. After five years of residency visas, you can apply for Chilean nationality if you so choose. You are not required to give up your other nationality. I finally got around to taking this step last year and was recently informed it has been approved. This will allow me to travel in South America without the visas/reciprocity fees that are required for US citizens in many countries.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Santiago?
A: In a few fields, most importantly mining, there are good job opportunities available for foreign professionals. There is always teaching English at an institute, but pay is low and the scheduling is inconvenient. However, apart from that, the work situation can be difficult for foreigners. I have met quite a few expats who have had a hard time finding work. Some came down here because of a job offer and ended up quitting because the job wasn’t what they anticipated. They figured that since they found a job here once, it would be easy to find something else, but often this wasn’t the case. There are always openings for lower-skilled employment like retail, but the salaries are extremely low.

The ‘pituto’ system here is strong. ‘Pituto’ means connection. Having a contact at a company is very important to get your foot in the door. Many jobs are never listed on websites or in the papers because the job was given to the nephew of someone in the company, or similar. Or, they list the job but already know who will be hired; the listing is just for show. Other thoughts were that they make the assumption that we have a poor command of the language, or they think hiring a foreigner is going to be very complicated. The university system is quite different from the US, so that might play a role as well. Our degrees aren’t seen as equivalent and if an ad requires a certain degree, there is no flexibility on the part of the employer. You can have years of work experience in a certain field, but they only want to see that you have the degree. I find the US more flexible in that regard.

Given the difficulties in getting a job and the low salaries in many professions, I think that, if it is possible, an expat would be better off establishing some sort of business. The exception is, of course, if you are in fields like mining or tech or are sent here on an international transfer by a multinational company.

There are various websites where you can search for job listings. The most popular are Laborum and Bumeran. However, I applied to many jobs through those sites over about a year and only ever got one interview.

Economic growth has historically been quite strong here. However, we are currently entering an economic slowdown.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: It is definitely less efficient. Legally, the workweek here is 45 hours, although some workplaces operate for fewer hours. However, despite the long hours, often not much gets done. There is a lot of chatting about what you did over the weekend, going out to buy something for breakfast, etc. Meetings often start with prolonged conversation. Government offices are especially notorious in this regard. When you go to an office like the IRS or the Civil Registry to do something, things move at a snail’s pace.

Another aspect that can be frustrating is that if someone is out sick, on vacation or otherwise out of the office, no one is trained to replace them. So, nothing gets done until they are back. If you are depending on an answer and the person you want to talk to is out of the office, you will have to wait until they return. This can be especially complicated at certain times of the year when many people take time off, such as February, Christmas-New Year’s, Holy Week and the national holiday period in September.

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse have problems adjusting to their new home?
A: I married a Chilean I met when I already lived here.

Q: What are the schools like?
A: From what I know, public schools are terrible. You will need to pay to send your children to private school. It can be sometimes hard to get a spot, especially if you move here from the Northern Hemisphere, where the school year is different. Here it starts in March. Most private schools require an admissions exam and children in public, subsidised and private schools wear uniforms.

Subsidised schools are private schools where the family pays part of the tuition and the government gives a subsidy for the rest. I do not think expats would be able to put their children in such schools since it is a government benefit. The government is currently proposing widespread changes in the educational system.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Learn the language. I cannot stress this enough. I have met people who have been here for years who do not have a good grasp of Chilean Spanish and it really hinders their daily life. Not speaking the language means you may be taken advantage of or miss out on opportunities because you do not understand something. What it boils down to is that not many Chileans speak English or other languages, and those that do often don’t speak it well. Also, there aren’t enough non-Spanish speakers to make it worthwhile to offer bilingual customer service outside of the tourism industry. If you are going to live here, you need to be able to manage in Spanish. 

~ Interviewed in November 2014

Expat Health Insurance

Cigna Health Insurance

Cigna Global Health Insurance.

Moving your family abroad can be intimidating, but learning about medical options such as family health insurance early on can help you settle successfully.

  • Comprehensive Family coverage, wherever you go
  • Paediatric coverage for well-child visits & immunizations
  • Access to dental and orthodontic care
  • 24/7 multilingual Customer Service

Get a quote from Cigna Global

Moving Internationally?

Sirelo logo

International Movers. Get Quotes. Compare Prices.

Sirelo has a network of more than 500 international removal companies that can move your furniture and possessions to your new home. By filling in a form, you’ll get up to 5 quotes from recommended movers. This service is free of charge and will help you select an international moving company that suits your needs and budget.

Get your free no-obligation quotes from select removal companies now!