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Interview with Nina – A British expat living in Santiago

Updated 29 Oct 2019

Nina is a writer and lifestyle blogger based in Santiago de Chile. Born in the UK, she has lived in many countries, including Angola, Switzerland and Syria. She writes The Expater, a lifestyle blog for expat women. Featuring all things life and style, including beauty, travel, well-being, health and relationships, The Expater is the go-to guide for globally minded women. Also, follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to keep up with her life in Chile.

Read more about expat life in our Expat Arrivals Chile country guide and our Santiago city guide.

About NinaNina

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

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

Q: When did you move here?
A: January 2018

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: No, I’ve lived in many countries before, including Angola, Switzerland and Syria. 

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here with my spouse and our family (three children now aged one, four and six).

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I’m an expat blogger and freelance writer, so I can work from wherever I want in the world. I switched careers from public relations for a more independent, mobile lifestyle. 

My husband was offered a great opportunity in Santiago de Chile, and we jumped at the chance. 

Living in Santiago

Q: What do you enjoy most about Santiago? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the UK?
A: I love the weather. Locals moan about the horrible winters here, but as a sun-deprived Brit, I still think the weather is glorious. We’ve had a total of four days of rain since we moved here two years ago. 

I love the people, the surrounding landscapes, the mountains and the sunshine. I have a great friend tribe of locals and expats, and feel very at home here. I’ve found it incredibly easy to make great friends.

I also love the opportunity to practise my Spanish and, of course, I love the wine. 

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about the UK?
A: I find the pollution here difficult to live with. I’d been warned about the smog before I moved, but I thought it was just paranoid millennials getting worked up over nothing. In fact, pollution really affects your daily life here. Grey skies can be quite depressing and, worst of all, it affects my family and my health. Last year, I had pollution-related pneumonia, while my newborn baby suffered bronchitis and my middle child a chest infection.

Even worse, though, is the cost of living. Average salaries here do not compensate for the high cost of living. Compared to the average Chilean, our household income is great, but it’s still very hard for us. Almost everything is privatised and very expensive. Chile is the only country in the world with privatised water. On top of this, the devaluation of the peso to the dollar has really hit home. For this reason, we will be leaving Chile as soon as the pandemic dust settles. We love Chile but not enough to warrant spending so much.

With this in mind, I also find the classism difficult to stomach. I’m very aware that inequality exists in every country, but in Chile, the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality is very striking. There are deep-rooted, complicated social injustices in Chile, and I’m not sure how the country will untangle itself. 

Like much of Latin America, crime can be an issue, although it’s safe to walk in most neighbourhoods, and you don’t have to worry when carrying a handbag. Having said this, in 2019, we were under military curfew due to protests which turned very violent in many parts of the country. 

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: I have moved to a new country nine times now. I’ve lived in some challenging environments such as Syria and Angola, so I’ve been ‘vaccinated’ to mild culture shock. I understood some Spanish already, so that also helped me integrate much quicker. However, our company support was limited and as I was heavily pregnant, I really struggled. 

Santiago is sometimes criticised for being sterile and characterless. I think this is unfair, but it is true to say that it is a very developed country. On the whole, things work. The wealthier parts of Chile are very modernised, the water is safe to drink (even if it does taste a bit gross) and the roads are smooth. So, on a practical level, it’s not a tricky country to adapt to. 

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Chile?
A: Imported goods are very expensive compared to the UK. There isn’t the same level of market competition; there is a blatant monopoly among supermarkets and larger stores here, and home furnishings and groceries are badly priced for their quality. 

Also, while there are some wonderful raw ingredients, especially fruit and vegetables, restaurants can be overpriced. There are some gems dotted around the city, but a simple pizza out will cost you much more than in the UK. 

Overall, everything – except maybe for avocados! – is a little bit more expensive than in the UK. Many expats end up leaving for this reason. I spent less on groceries in Switzerland than I do here in Chile. 

Rent is cheaper than in London, but then Santiago is nowhere near the size of London, so you can’t really compare. It’s also cheaper to hire staff for household help. Having said this, the minimum wage here is too little for people to live on.

The standard monthly minimum wage is 320,500 Chilean pesos (about USD 380). When I employed someone to help with cleaning at the time of the birth of my third child, we paid nearly more than double this for fewer hours and supplemented the purchase of medical essentials. 

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Santiago? What is your most memorable experience of using the city’s transport system?
A: The metro used to work very well until the protests in 2019 in which much of the network was reduced to ruin. I used to make use of the metro system occasionally, but now at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, I haven’t left my home.

The public transport system is a microcosm of all the country’s injustices. A hike in the metro price was the catalyst for the nationwide protests last year. Santiago has to be the first city in which I’ve lived where the property value decreased when the metro arrived.

Some of the chicest areas of town do not have metro access as more affluent people have cars, and arguably many of these people do not want the less fortunate coming to their neighbourhood. Most expats I know have one or two cars per family. You will find life a lot easier with access to a car here, though ride-shares such as Uber and Beat work well, and taxis are fine too.

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 public health system is almost crippled. Yes, there are some shining examples of subsidised care, but on the whole, it is very bad. Doctors and health workers do their best, but there are simply not enough funds to manage.

All expats I know have private health insurance. Private health insurance is expensive and so are the clinics, but they are generally of excellent quality. If you have an ISAPRE, private insurance scheme, and your scheme covers treatment in a good clinic, you will be very well taken care of. 

My daughter was born here and the service and care were second to none. My second child had a life-threatening allergic reaction, and it’s thanks to the excellent care we received that he’s still with us today.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Santiago or Chile? Are there any areas expats should avoid? 
A: I don’t like to badmouth a whole area of the city, as it feels a bit disrespectful. Even the richer neighbourhoods can be dangerous at night. 

Generally, in the daytime, it is safe to walk, especially in the more affluent areas such as Vitacura, Las Condes, Lo Barnechea and La Dehesa. 

Taxis and ride-hailing apps such as Uber are safe. At worst, you’ll be scammed to pay more than your journey. 

Last year the country was witness to large protests and in some areas, these turned very violent, with cars torched and shops looted. Having said that, no one I know was harmed. As always, it’s wise to listen to locals and follow the necessary precautions.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Santiago? What different options are available for expats?
A: For security reasons, most expats prefer to live in apartments with shared communal gardens or houses in gated condominiums. Some like to live in larger detached homes. 

We rent a four-bedroom apartment with shared garden space. There is a great community among the neighbours, I feel very safe and although it’s hard living inside with three kids during the lockdown, I do like the sense of belonging here. 

The biggest bugbear among us gringos is the kitchens. Kitchens in any rented accommodation are horrible. The reason is that most Chileans employ a nana or housemaid to do the cooking. 

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Most expats tend to gravitate towards Las Condes, Lo Barnechea and El Golf.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular group? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Santiago?
A: I’ve never experienced any discrimination here. The most obvious discrimination is based on class. Lots of expat friends lament being put into a box based on where they live, their child’s school, and so forth.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: I found it very easy, but I speak a little Spanish. I made friends through expat groups on Facebook, through my sons’ school and through chance encounters. 

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 have local and foreign friends. A lot of my foreign friends are migrants, married to Chileans and here for the long term. If you’ve just moved here, check out groups on Facebook, join an exercise class or try a hobby. I’ve heard that Chileans are very reserved, but in my case, this just isn’t true. I’ve been made to feel very welcome here. 

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: Yes and no. We have a consultancy helping us on our behalf, so it was fairly straightforward. On top of this, I was pregnant, and pregnant women are treated like royalty here. Having said that, the visa process has been horrendously delayed. I’m still not 100% sure where we stand at present. The coronavirus situation has complicated things even further as public offices have been shut. 

Q: What is the economic climate in Santiago like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? 
A: Alas, here in Chile it’s all about who you know, not what you know. Network, network, network. Reach out to professional groups in your industry and be sure to get a job before you move. LinkedIn is widely used, but it helps to know someone in the company, I’m afraid to say.

Q: How does the work culture differ from the UK? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Santiago or Chile? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to the local business culture?
A: I work on a freelance basis from home, so I’m not part of the business climate in Santiago. 

From what I hear, it can be hard for working parents to find a job that will allow them time to care for their children properly. It can be hard for mothers to find part-time work, and it is often assumed that fathers have a wife, or nanny that can take care of the kids. 

On the plus side, if you can find work, it is relatively easy to get a work visa, I understand. 

Family and children

Q: How has your spouse or partner adjusted to your new home in Santiago? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: I am an accompanying spouse and I think the key, be it living in Santiago or elsewhere, is carving out your own identity. This can be through work, socialising or hobbies. 

If you speak Spanish, you’re at a huge advantage. Otherwise, you need to learn, but Spanish is not an impossible language. 

Life as an accompanying spouse is always a challenge though, and I've written about my personal experiences of it on my blog. It’s a full-time job. 

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: Yes, we arrived in summer and our temporary apartment had a shared swimming pool, so it was one big holiday for them. Within a couple of months, they were speaking Spanish among themselves.

My middle child found adjusting to the nursery quite tough. The kindergarten was very much focused on free play, and my kid needs more structure in his life. He struggled but then when we moved him to school, he flourished. 

I was pregnant when we arrived and was very sick. This meant I didn’t have much time or patience with my kids and, like any mother, I felt very guilty. Nevertheless, they only have fond memories from the move, so I shouldn’t panic. 
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Santiago?
A: We love going to parks, taking a trip to the vineyard, and generally just hanging out with our friends in the sunshine. 

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: Expensive, and difficult to get into. The school admission process is crazy – even four-year-olds must take an exam. Some school admission processes take place over three days! 

The main international school, Nido de Aguilas, is a popular choice among expats and is crazily expensive. I do not know anyone who is paying for the school fees here themselves – it is always funded as part of an expat allowance. On my blog, I also give more suggestions. I love our children’s school. It is perhaps the number one thing I love about Chile. 

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Santiago or Chile?
A: I share all my top tips and advice from a long-term resident on my blog but here are some.

  1. Don’t take part in protests – it’s illegal for foreigners.
  2. Wear sunscreen – the sun can be deceptive.
  3. Life in Santiago is great for small children, but the rest of Chile is much less so. A lot of Chile is very hostile territory in terms of the landscapes and not suitable for small children like mine. I thought I’d be travelling across Patagonia and the deserts, but in truth, travel is expensive and just too much hassle for our three young kids.
  4. Reach out before you move. Chile is all about contacts on the ground. Finding work, a school, sorting paperwork… it’s all so much easier if you know the right person.
  5. Be sure your salary will cover your stay. Chile is surprisingly expensive, and most foreigners I know leave because it’s just not worth being so far away from home on a financial level.

► Interviewed May 2020

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