Sydney is one of the most stunning cities on earth. Few other places match the drama and beauty of this geographically blessed location. Between the ocean, the harbor and its many inlets, and the countless hills, it seems like almost everyone has a great view. It's hard not to be seduced as you explore the unhurried, upscale suburbs by the beaches, the gritty inner city neighborhoods full of energy, or the areas farther afield, which offer country living with city access.
Like the Australia itself, this is a home to immigrants. The country's biggest city of almost five million people has been inhabited for 30,000 years. And since convicts first landed on its shores in the 18th century, Sydney's harbor – replaced by its airport in modern times – has welcomed scores of people from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. It boasts the largest Lebanese population outside of Lebanon. Irish, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Turkish, and Indonesian communities are also prominent; sometimes it seems like every ethnicity has a big presence here.
That diversity is to the city's benefit as it's created a cosmopolitan culture. Sydney has humble, hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurants that have lines of hungry diners out the door, expensive celebrity chef-led restaurants where you have to make a reservation months in advance, and everything in between. Nightlife is similarly varied, from laid-back pubs to hip speakeasies to ritzy casinos. Festivals throughout the year celebrate different cultures, food, the arts, music...everything really.
As you'd expect of a city so blessed by geography, the population is outdoors oriented. Regardless of the day, people will be in the parks working out, going for a morning or evening surf, or hiking at any of the incredible bushlands in and around Sydney.
With this sort of bounty, it's no surprise that Australia has been deemed "The Lucky Country"...and Sydney's certainly won big.
Read on to learn about the basics (housing, transportation, internet, and more!) of moving to Sydney and to find the perfect suburb for you.
One of the safest big cities in the world, Sydney does have some pockets of higher crime.
Public transit is great close to the city's core, but gets worse the farther out you go.
Australia beats all other countries when it comes to dangerous animals. If you were creating top ten lists of the world's most deadly species, this country would take three spots for its spiders, five spots for its snakes, and four spots for jellyfish. And don't forget about Great White Sharks, Bull Sharks, and Saltwater Crocodiles. Fortunately, you don't have to worry about most of these in Sydney, but it does have venomous spiders, some giant non-venomous spiders, and the occasional shark attack.
A lifelong Sydneysider once remarked that whoever designed Sydney's road system used a bowl of spaghetti as a blueprint. Freeways twist and turn over, under, and around suburbs; streets inexplicably end; and because of the dramatic geography, some areas have just one main road in and out. This all adds up to some serious traffic during commuting hours. And while the core of the city has excellent public transit, some of the suburbs farther out are car-dependent.
Most retail stores close at 6:00pm on weekdays and many are closed on Sundays. (This doesn't hold true for big box retailers or major supermarkets.) This may not be a shock for people from other countries, but for Americans used to a 24/7 retail culture it is definitely an adjustment. Forget shopping after work: if you need to get something done, especially when you first move and need to do things like get a mobile phone, you'll need to leave work early.
Because Australia has a small population most consumer-facing industries tend to have two dominant players. You'll certainly find this is the case with supermarkets (Coles vs. Woolworth's) and department stores (David Jones vs. Myers), but there are others as well. This can translate to limited choices and, sometimes, poor customer service since you really don't have other places to take your business.
"I moved here in 2009 without having visited Australia before and I have been in love ever since. Regardless of whether you stroll over to Circular Quay and the Opera House, take a ferry to Manly to catch up with friends, or just hang on your balcony and look out at the water, it feels like you are on holiday all the time here. Sydney's outdoor lifestyle, great climate, and proximity to the water – beaches or harbour – make it a unique city to live and work in!"
Sydney's population has been booming: it went from 4.28 million people in 2006 to 4.63 million in 2011, a gain of nearly 350,000 people. It's expected to hit 5.4 million in 2026. This has led to an acute shortage of housing, despite a boom in construction in some parts of the city. This shortage has translated into significant increases for housing. Between 2006 and 2016 the average home price doubled. Rents shot up as well. This has placed Sydney among some of the most expensive cities in the world and made finding a home a difficult tasks.
RENTING IN SYDNEY
As you begin your home search, it's important to know that rent prices here are listed per week, which is different than most parts of the world where the price is the monthly cost. As you plan out your budget, you have to be careful since monthly rent does not equal 4x the weekly rent. You'll need to multiply the weekly rent by 52 (weeks per year) and then divide by 12 (months per year) to get the monthly rent. For example:
On our neighborhood guide pages, the median rent listed is a monthly median since that's what most people are familiar with and it'll save you some math.
As mentioned, the rental market is Sydney is a tight one and you can expect to be competing with others for a home. Most available properties are shown in an open house format on the weekends for a short block of time. Most properties are managed by real estage agencies and they'll stagger their open houses in the neighborhood since it's likely the same agent running each one. For instance, one open house may be from 9:15-9:30am and the next will be 9:45-10:00am to allow the agent to get between the two.
Depending on the location and cost of the property, this means you could be rubbing shoulders with lots of other people looking at the property during this inspection time. In fact, you'll likely see the same crowd at each property if you're visiting several in the same area.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED TO RENT
Given the competitive market, if you like a property it's important you move quickly and have everything ready to go. You'll need the following documentation to apply:
There may be a modest, nonrefundable fee to submit the application. Also, you may be able to submit an application online.
Submitting an application does not obligate you to take the apartment, so you can submit applications for several properties.
If you get the property you'll need to sign a lease. At this time you'll need to pay the first month's rent and a bond (aka security desposit) typically equal to 4-6 weeks worth of rent.
BUYING IN SYDNEY
Buying a home in Sydney is just as competitive as renting. Most homes here are sold through an auction format: a floor price is set for the property and then people who want to buy the property bid up from there. Some unscrupulous agents will purposely set a low floor price to attract buyers to an auction. In some cases, there can literally be a line out the door. People have spoken about going to open houses every week for a year, bidding on many of the properties, and continually getting outbid.
To compound that frustrating process, homes here are incredibly expensive. Something that seemed affordable can quickly skyrocket out of your budget during an auction. You may need to lower your expectations about what you can afford unless you're a multimillionaire.
Two additional costs add to the overall expense of buying a house: stamp duty and, though optional, a buyer's agent commission.
Stampy duty is a required tax on any property sale and is based on the price of a home. A $500,000 home would lead to about $18,000 in stamp duty. A $1 million home would incur a $40,000 stamp duty.
Not all home buyers use a real estate agent, referred to as a buyer's agent for their role as an advocate for the buyer, not the seller. Still, many buyers do obtain the services of a buyer's agent to help navigate the murky world of real estate. A commission for a buyer's agent will be 1.5-2% of the purchase price, though some may charge a fixed fee.
Sydney has seen a lot of property purchased by foreigners, particularly Chinese, in the past decade. This has partially contributed to the housing shortage and home prices in the metro area and the government is cracking down. Foreign buyers will have to provide citizenship and visa information. You'll also need to be approved to buy a home by the Foreign Investment Review Board.
Foreign buyers will also have to pay a fee to the Australian Tax Office. The fee is $5,000 for homes under $1 million and $10,000 for those over.
HELPFUL REAL ESTATE WEBSITES
1form.com.au - This handy website and mobile app lets you set up a profile with all the information you'd need to apply for a rental property. Instead of pulling together documentation every time you want to apply for a property, you can easily submit everything with this app.
Stamp duty calculator - Calculate how much stamp duty you'll owe if you purchase a property in Sydney.
Owing to its unique geography, Sydney has a menagerie of public transportation options, including buses, trains, light rail, and ferries. If you're near the CBD or happen to live close to a train station or ferry stop then public transit is a great option. In some areas, particularly Central Sydney and its surrounding suburbs, you won't need a car. But the further out you get the more likely it is you will need one.
All public transit can be accessed with the Opal card. This is a smart card, similar to a credit card, that you tap on a sensor when you enter and exit transportation. There are four versions:
Besides the four categories above, fares are also based on distance traveled.
HAVING A CAR IN AUSTRALIA
We all get attached to our cars, but you should think twice before you bring it with you to Sydney. Importing a used car into Australia will nail you with a $12,000 duty imposed by customs. (Note that this duty will go away starting in 2018.)
The flip side of this argument, if you will really need a car, is that cars in Australia are incredibly expensive. Luxury cars can be two or three times the cost of vehicles elsewhere. A 2011 report found that a Lexus LS460 that cost USD $66,000 in the United States would cost AUD $191,000 in Australia – and that was a time when the two currencies were at parity. Even with the fall in the Australian dollar, that's still a significant premium.
And even used cars – very used, undesirable cars – can be expensive. A clunker that would be a few thousand in the U.S. can be $7,000-9,000 in Australia. You'll also need to get handy driving on the the left-hand side of the road if you come from the majority of countries that drive on the right.
Still, having a car in Sydney does offer the freedom to shoot down the coast to places like Hyams Beach, west to the Blue Mountains, north to the Hunter Valley wine country, or any of the other amazing places close to the city.
HELPFUL TRANSPORTATION WEBSITES
Trip Planner - The official Sydney Transport site has a great planner that lets you select (or deselect) different modes of transport and shows you timetables.
Australia has modern banking institutions and is in many ways ahead of other developed countries, so you can count on conveniences like managing basic transactions through a mobile app.
Sydney has dozens of banks and credit unions, but as you walk around the city it's clear there are the "big four": Westpac, National Australia Bank (NAB), Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), and Australia & New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ). There more or less that same, but there are some slight differences.
Westpac offers online and mobile banking and charges a $5 monthly maintenance fee unless you deposit at least $2,000 a month, are under the age of 21, are a full time tertiary student, a pensioner, or during your first 12 months as an expat. You can apply for an account online before you arrive in Australia.
Commonwealth offers online and mobile banking. A $4 monthly account fee is charged, but will be waived if you deposit at least $2,000 per month (or $1,000 if you’re aged 21 to 24). They are the only major bank that does not support opening an account from overseas.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED TO OPEN A BANK ACCOUNT
To open a bank account you'll need to pass a 100 point check to prove your identity. Different types of documents are worth varying amounts of points (it's like a video game, but not fun). The points break down as follows:
For example, you could provide a passport (70 points), a credit card (25 points), and a foreign driver license (25 points) to get a total of 120 points and qualify to open a bank account. If you apply online to open a bank account, you'll still need to provide this documentation.
School enrollment and attendance is required for all children living in the Australia aged 5 to 16 and all students are entitled to a free education at a state-run school.
Basic education in Australia is divided into four phases:
Primary and secondary schools have four terms per school year. The first runs from late January or early February to the Easter holiday; the second runs from post-Easter holidays to late June or early July; the third runs from late July to the latter half of September; the fourth term runs from mid-October to mid-December. (The breaks in between these terms are referred to as 'schoolies'; around Australia travel costs will be significanly higher and destinations will be significantly busier as families take advantage of the break to take a holiday.)
These schools will also have certain admission criteria. The criteria could be based on having siblings at the school, living nearby to the school, religious affiliation, or meeting academic standards.
Australia has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. It has a universal public health insurance plan known as Medicare. For in-patient care, Medicare will cover 100% of the cost. For primary care or services like physical therapy (physiotherapy to Aussies), it will cover roughly 75% of cost. For medications there is a copay of up to $38.30 for each prescription (it's less for seniors) if the medication is covered under Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. If it's not covered you may be responsible for the entire cost. Medicare does not cover dental care, optometry, or ambulance transport.
While Medicare is very good, most citizens "top up" their insurance by also purchasing a private insurance plan.
As an expat on a 457 Visa you don't qualify for Medicare, so you'll need to get private health insurance that covers you and any family members. In fact, you'll need to prove you've got private health insurance to the Department of Immigration before your 457 visa will be approved.
There are a number of big insurers, including Medibank, Bupa, NIB, HCF, and GMBHA, offering this type of coverage. You'll typically see it referenced as Overseas Visitors Health Cover, or OVHC for short. You can have the coverage start once you'll arrive in the country. Once you've procured this coverage, the health insurer will send you a letter confirming your plan which you then provide to the Department of Immigration. It's worth calling out that pre-existing conditions will not be covered by insurance for the first 12 months of coverage.
Most care is still driven through a first visit to a General Practitioner (GP) when something is wrong. They may be able to treat you or they can write a prescription to see a specialist, but you can't go directly to a specialist.
The following countries have healthcare reciprocity agreements with Australia, so workers on a 457 Visa in Australia do qualify for Medicare. These countries fall into three categories:
For all of these categories you will still need to secure private health insurance in order to meet your 457 Visa requirements. Once you arrive in Australia you can enroll in Medicare and apply for an exemption for private insurance with Immigration. If the exemption is granted you can choose to discontinue your OVHC coverage, though it's recommended you still maintain some level of private insurance since it's more comprehensive than Medicare.
HELPFUL HEALTHCARE WEBSITES
HealthEngine - This handy website lets you search for doctors near you and book an appointment online. It also has patient reviews of doctors and it's even got an app for iPhones and Androids.
There are over two dozen mobile phone service providers in Australia, but most people are on one of the three big carriers: Telstra, Optus, or Vodafone.
Telstra was formerly a government entity before going private in three phases from 1997-2006. Thanks to its past it's enjoyed a monopoly on the old telecommunications network and is still considered the best provider today. That also means it's typically the most expensive, though that depends on the device you choose. For example, an iPhone 6s Plus with 128 GB of storage and 1 GB data on Telstra's 4G network will cost at least $84/month and has a 24 month minimum, for a total of $2,040. If you're a data hog, the monthly costs go up to $195. That's not much different than the other major providers. However, an HTC 10 smartphone starts at $81/month, which is significantly more than the others.
Optus is the second biggest provider and considered the second best network. The iPhone 6s Plus phone and plan reference above will cost $83/month. An HTC 10 is much cheaper than Telstra, starting at $62/month.
Vodafone the third largest provider and years ago earned the nickname "Vodafail" for its shoddy coverage. Since that dark time they've invested billions in their network and it is much improved. An iPhone 6s Plus with the same specs is $86/month. An HTC 10 starts at $64/month.
If you want to try a network before you get locked in, all providers offer prepaid plans, though you'll need to provide your own device.
For a phone contract, you'll need to meet the same 100 point identification criteria as when you open a bank account.
With the beginning of the rollout of the government's National Broadband Network (NBN) in 2011, dozens of internet service providers (ISPs) have sprung up, reselling bandwidth on the network. Some of them have just a few thousand customers. For the most part, however, internet service is still dominated by the big guys. The main mobile phone service providers, Telstra and Optus, are prominent players, but there are others, like TPG, that have been around for decades.
PCMag did a study in 2015 and identified the fastest internet service providers in Sydney:
We'll look at the costs for each of these providers for standard internet service:
HELPFUL INTERNET WEBSITES
iSelect - This website has a great comparison tool that asks you a number of questions (such as whether you want to bundle internet with television) and then generates the internet options available at your address, as well as monthly costs.
Sydney is generally a pet-friendly city, but it does have breed-specific legislation in place. The following breeds are not permitted to be owned in the state of New South Wales: American pitbull or pitbull terriers, Japanese tosas, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasiliero. If you already own one of these dogs you must have it spayed or neutured and registered with the city. As an expat you will not be able to import these breeds.