Living in India as an Expat: Every Day Is a Fascinating Experience

Expats living in india

It was a chilly morning in November 2016 when we headed to the railway station near our house in the Netherlands. Our destination: Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. A couple of months earlier I’d signed an agreement that would allow us to live and work in the city of Pune in India, a fast-expanding city close to Mumbai. As we decided to keep our house in the Netherlands, we’d only filled a couple of boxes with some personal items which DHL would deliver in some weeks. With only limited personal stuff and clothes to survive during the first weeks in India, we boarded a plane that would bring us into the city that we would now call ‘home’.

Our first encounter with India: bureaucracy

Deciding to move to India was very easy. Unfortunately, the paperwork that followed wasn’t. Before we moved to India, we’d already traveled through the country on various trips. While we had always been very positive about this incredible country, we had also encountered one of the unfortunate elements of Indian society: bureaucracy. Luckily, we only had to deal with minor elements of bureaucracy during our holidays here. However, as an expat one would get the full portion of this and it starts by obtaining an employment visa. Every country, including India, should be very particular about this. Allowing foreigners to work in a country should never be an easy affair. However, India has really stretched the bureaucracy to the limit by creating an unpleasant experience for potential expats. In the end, after submission of unnecessary documents concerning one’s life and future role, most applicants will get the well sought after papers: the Indian employment visa.

In India: it all starts with paperwork and finding a house

After arriving in India from well developed countries most people will probably stay at one of the 5-star hotels in the city. We really enjoyed staying at the JW Marriott in Pune, one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. However, after arriving, I had very little time and comfort to acclimatize as lots of things needed to be arranged. I was very happy to be able to do all of this while being consulted by one of the few relocation offices in Pune. Having someone around you for the first couple of days is not only very convenient but it also saves a lot of time. Dealing with authorities in India is very unpredictable and some of the Expat agencies in Pune can really save the city newbies’ lot of time. One of the first authorities we had to deal with was the The Foreigners Registration Office, or so-called FRO. Every foreigner has to report him/herself at this police station and it’s also the place for the yearly extensions of the employment visa. Having a consultant on my side actually made me feel very privileged, because most of the foreigners – from neighboring countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand or other countries – were just standing in line by themselves without any signs on how long the process would take. Not long after the registration we also started with housing. We already had shared some of your requirements – a bungalow with a lot of surrounding greenery– and our consultant suggested a two-day trip with a lot of house visits. It took us two entire days and a lot of coffees on the way to come to our final decision. Although we’re still happy with our actual choice, I can still feel the pressure while visiting all these houses. We didn’t have a lot of time to make the decision.

Expat life in India: mingle with locals or with foreigners?

Becoming an expat was new for us, so we couldn’t roll out a previous ‘playbook’. However, we already had a basic idea on how we wanted to embrace our new ‘home’. One of the things that was very clear to us and we’ve never changed our approach on this: we wanted to hang out with locals and foreigners. We didn’t want to follow the often seen standard-expat plan to only mingle with (Caucasian) foreigners. Instead, we also wanted to make friends with local Indians. After having lived here for more than 3 years now, we actually have made friends with a lot of Indian’s and I feel very privileged to have a great number of friends on ‘both sides’. One of the advantages of a city like Pune is its size; although the population is well over 5 million, it’s generally easy to meet people.

Things to learn: don’t focus on learning Hindi, focus on improving your English

One of the most-asked questions by Indians is definitely about the food. I’m not sure, but the ‘Sir, you don’t mind spicy food’ question has been asked to me over a thousand times or more. No, I don’t mind. In fact, I really like the Indian cuisine. One of the other questions asked by Indians is about my ability to speak Hindi. Yes, I can tell the autorickshaw driver to go straight ahead and have created some general vocabulary for social situations. But further than this, the answer is a straight ‘no’. Coming from a small non-English speaking country, I actually decided to improve my English rather than to learn Hindi. Moreover: there are so many local languages within India and for more than half of the population, Hindi is not the primary language. Let me explain. Hindi is the primary language in a lot of northern states. However, In some of the other northern states and almost all of the southern states, a different language and script is being used. Pune, my hometown, is located in Maharashtra, a state with a population of over 110 million. The local language here is Marathi and they are using the Devnegri script, the same script that is being used for Hindi as well. Compare this to neighboring Karnataka, a state with a population of a little more than 61 million. The local language here is ‘Kannada’ and the script is completely different than others. A lot of the southern states have their own languages. Thus, for most of them, Hindi would be their second language if they know it at all.

Travelling from a to b: most expats are using a personal driver

Like most western expats in India, my employer has provided me with a full-time driver. Vishal, my ‘director of logistics’, as I like to call him, has been with me for over three years. He’s so much more than a driver to me: he’s my trusted guide and a reliable person who checks my house while I’m away. He always helps me find reliable vendors for work in and around the house. I’d never thought I would ever get a personal driver and I still feel very privileged. However, it’s very convenient and I can’t live without this.

Luckily, there are multiple reliable options for traveling within India. My personal rule is to always take a flight when it’s possible because there will always be some long-distance that one needs to bridge with less faster transport. For transportation within cities I heavily rely on Uber, which is very big in India. The Indian equivalent Ola is also a good option. A ride in India will only cost you a fraction of what a similar ride would cost in the Western world. The cars are less flashier than in some western countries, but I would never complain: an 8 km ride in Pune generally costs me around 2 euro. If you want to cover longer distances without a personal driver, I like to take a bus or a train. It’s easy to create an Indian Railways account and with the help of Fintech app PayTM one could book any railway ride within Indian in just a couple of minutes. Traveling by train is time-consuming but an unforgettable experience. Book well ahead, because the fancier classes in the trains are often sold out.

Money, banks and the cost of living: apart from the imported wine, the cost of living is relatively cheap

A lot of things are very cheap in India. Everything which is produced locally is generally cheaper than in the western world. Onions, chicken, sugar, rice and other daily groceries are 30-60% cheaper than in my country, especially when bought in traditional markets. While most things are cheaper in India, one always needs to be aware of the costs and there is a reason for this: the Indian government is protective. They opened up the economy, but it’s very hard to get a foot on the ground. Imported goods are heavily taxed. As a result, things like Parmesan cheese, Italian wine, and some western fashion – and lifestyle brands are very costly. India is almost on the top of the Apple- or iPhone index. As a result, owning Apple products is something for the elite.

Opening a bank account is a one of the first things an expat should focus upon. There are ATM’s all across India and many of them accept foreign cards. However, most of the smaller shops in India are only accepting local cards. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as walking into a bank office with a passport. One should first obtain a so-called PAN-card, which is provided by the Income Tax Department. The next step is to submit a great number of forms which will be signed and stamped by the bank. My salary is still being transferred to my Dutch bank account, so I needed to identity the fastest and cheapest way to transfer the money to my Indian bank account. Funnily (or not), my Dutch bank is expensive and slow comparing it to the service that I’m now using: Transferwise.

Medical care in India: cheap, reliable and convenient

Unfortunately, I have had my fair share of hospital visits in India. Luckily, medical care is very good here. Apart from the government run hospitals and some local village doctors with long waiting lines and limited access to basic needs, the care is predominantly hygienic, reliable and convenient. It’s also very cheap. A doctors consult will not cost you more than 400 INR, which is around 5 euro’s. And there is another thing: one generally doesn’t need to wait. I can share many examples of specialists I’ve visited on the day of the booking. All of these visits can be managed by one of the best medical applications I’ve ever seen: Practo. This application allows users to search for a reliable doctor, based upon verified reviews.

Bringing your children to India: International schools, safety and cleanliness

As we don’t have kids, finding a new school and getting the little ones acclimatized was not a major concern for us. However, we’ve talked to many families with children and almost all of them have had interesting stories to share. Although I can counter many of the horror stories that I have heard, India is still perceived as a dirty and dangerous country and bringing your kids here could feel as something which encounters risks. I can totally understand the possible risks, but one should also keep in mind the huge upside of offering the kids an opportunity to live and play in an awesome country. Moreover: most of the (International) schools are very good, with a modern curriculum and a variety of activities. The health- or safety risks are relatively small, especially if you give your little ones some basic instructions about what to eat or not.

Climate in India: there is no such thing as ‘one climate’

Having spent here more than 3 years here, we’ve also traveled a lot and been to almost all large cities across the country. Traveling to any other place within India offers so much to explore. Beyond state borders, a lot of things are different: the food, language, landscape and even the rules. Moreover: the climate also changes and the differences within the Indian Subcontinent are huge. While Delhi has some really hot spring and summers, with temperatures of 46 degrees or higher, the winters in the capital of India are comparatively chilly. Compare that with the weather conditions in Pune, where the mercury hits 40 for approximately 12 weeks in a row but doesn’t get warmer than 25 degrees in the winter. The monsoon is seen all across the country, but the rains are heavier in the south than in the north.

Filing tax returns: I got a certificate for paying my taxes (on time)

The Indian government came up with a zero tax bracket for every Individual in India which earns less than 5 lacs a year, around 6.000 Euro. A large percentage of the 1.3 billion people in India will fall within this bracket. Most of the almost 700 million farmers in India are not earning more than 2000 Euro a year and most of the blue colour workers are also in this bracket. Thus, all of these people won’t pay to be liable to pay any tax.

If there is a tax agreement between your home country and India, one only needs to understand a simple rule: as a global citizen, one only needs to pay tax and the tax should be paid in the country where you stay for 182 days a year or more. My employer helps me with filing my tax returns. The local branch of Deloitte has been my go-to place to organise my yearly tax returns. Apparently, the Tax Department is very happy with my presence here in India because I’ve already got two beautiful certificates for making the Tax Department happy.

Conclusion: working and living in India is amazing

I could go on for a long time writing about living and working in India. Especially because there is so much more to share with you. One of the things that I haven’t spent any time on is the culture in a professional environment. I will probably write a bit more about my experiences working with Indian people in one of the upcoming blogs. I will also touch upon other topics in future blogs. For now, I want to finish this write-up by encouraging every Individual who’s considering moving to India for a short or long term to say ‘yes’. Despite the possible reservations. India is an amazing country. There obviously will be some setbacks and I can’t guarantee that you will be here ‘frustration-free’. However, the number of upsides is countless and every day here is an opportunity to learn about a different culture in the world.

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