May’s monthly round-up of expat news; retirees to Spain denied free healthcare, English schools opening in once troubled Myanmar (Burma), Singapore isn’t as expensive as you’ve been lead to believe, UK visas set to become 4% more expensive, Facebook to thank for lack of homesickness in new expats, Houses cost too much (who knew!), The US relaxes restrictions for spouses of highly skilled workers, but first, the UAE grows in popularity.

Call of the Emirates

The appeal of the United Arab Emirates, as a destination for British expats, continues to grow.

The Federation of seven emirates – the two main players are Dubai and Abu Dhabi – has grown in popularity over the past two years, according to the latest annual NatWest International Banking Quality of Life Report, which was published in May.

The UAE shares an improved billing with Hong Kong, Singapore and China, while France, Portugal and Spain, among the most popular places until not so long ago, slipped down the scale. Respondents cited higher prices and taxes in European countries as one reason for their decline in popularity.

Australia continue to tops the list; Canada is second, with the UAE – now in third place – forcing out New Zealand, which slips to fifth spot.

South Africa is fourth on the list. The USA is next, after New Zealand, followed by Singapore.

One eye-catching detail is that none of the traditional European countries now holds a place in the top five. France is down in seventh spot, followed by Spain, Portugal, then China.

The NatWest report found that a remarkable 63% of expats in Europe were “considering” a return to the UK because of concerns of about job security, falling property prices and measures taken in those countries to counter recession. A third of expats in Europe said they were going further, and were actively looking at a return to the UK.

It is isn’t hard to identify the attractions of the survey’s big winner – the United Arab Emirates – which has risen rapidly from 10th spot in 2010.

Three quarters of those polled gave career opportunities as the main reason for their move to the UAE. But Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the other emirates are not seen as the place for a long-term stay – with only 8% thinking they might be there permanently. A decisive 92% felt they were only there on “temporary assignment”.

It’s understandable that the UAE and other culturally-disparate destinations might not be considered places to put down deep roots. But that same short-termism may now be spreading to Europe, where many expats used to look forward to a long future.

The report suggests that falling property prices, austerity measures and fears over job security are prompting 63% of expats in Europe to consider returning to the UK. Just short of 90,000 British expats reportedly left Spain in 2013 . However 150,000 people are still emigrating each year, and they seem to be going further.

Productive partners

The USA’s stated aim is to attract the brightest and best overseas workers. This month, as part of its policy to lure people in that category, it relaxes restrictions to allow the spouses of certain highly skilled overseas employees, principally in the high-tech and information technology sectors, to also be able to work in the country.

The relaxed restriction will apply to those married to people with H-1B visas.

An estimated 65,000 foreign highly-skilled workers arrive in the US on these visas every year. The Department of Homeland Security said it will publish details of the new rules soon.

A spokesman said the proposed changes only apply to spouses of certain highly-skilled workers. There is no suggestion that the permission to work will be extended.

High house prices

CanadaAustralia and New Zealand are experiencing the most overvalued property prices in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The annual report by the organization, published in May, also described prices in the UK is too high, by about 30%.

(The OECD is made up of 34 countries, mainly developed, which have come together to stimulate economic progress and world trade.)

Few commentators predicted such a rapid recovery in British property prices after the recession began in 2008. It had taken almost twice as long, around 10 years, for prices to recover after the previous big crash, in 1989.

The biggest rises by far are in London, where they are already 25% above the 2008 peak, rising at about 18% a year. The average home in the capital costs more than £450,000 ($760,000).

Things aren’t anywhere near as extreme in Spain, although the OECD report says the Spanish market is overvalued by around around 5%, compared with 12% a year ago.

Elsewhere in Europe, France was said to have “too high” prices. Portugal, Ireland and Germany were “undervalued”, while Japan presented the best bargains of all, with prices falling by nearly 2% in 2013.

Socially mobile

The NatWest International Banking Quality of Life Report has been a rich source of news on issues concerning expatriates.

One notable, if not unexpected, finding was the huge proportion of British expats who said social media enabled them to enjoy a better life abroad.

A remarkable 89% reported that they never felt far from home, because of the planet-shrinking virtues of new technology. 79% of respondents reported that social media apps improved their quality of life considerably.

The survey found that 90% of British expats own three or more personal technology devices. 80% of those polled said they belonged to two social networks or more. Facebook came first (79%). Twitter was next (74%), with Google+ on 65%.

Being able to stay connected with family and friends was the main benefit of personal technology, according to 78% of respondents.

The poll found a big following (81%) for British TV as a means of keeping up to date.

The Quality of Life Report was carried out in conjunction with the Centre for Future Studies.

Visas: going up

People moving to the UK face a roughly 4% rise in fees for visas and immigration applications. The short term visitor visa, and most work, study and settlement applications are included in the price hike.

A more substantive change is that fees for all dependents will now be set at the same level as main applicant’s visa. The 25% discount to which “in-UK dependents” had been entitled has been removed.

The increases come with a non-specific promise to “continue to improve customer service” and to ensure that those who benefit most from the immigration and visa service meet more of the costs.

The 10-year long-term visit visa fee is frozen at £737, while a new registered traveller fee will be introduced when the new tariffs come into effect.

Singapore – not so expensive?

Do big, international cost comparison surveys tell the whole truth?

The question arose, again, after Singapore was named top of the list in a cost of living survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Its findings were published earlier this year.

We are familiar with the “basket of goods” approach, where the cost of certain staple products purchased in different supermarkets is compared. Usually the findings are pretty unambiguous.

But measure one major world city against another, and perhaps a little more analytical finesse is called for. As Sanjeev Sandal, a Deutsche Bank economist who works in Singapore, concluded.

He said an ex-pat’s costs can vary enormously, depending on his or her lifestyle choices. To start with, the cost of cars is exorbitantly high in Singapore. Remove them from the basket of goods and the country suddenly and becomes “actually quite affordable”.

Leave them in (a new VW Golf was found to cost five times more in Singapore than in New York), and add in living in some of the Singapore’s higher-priced property, and it does indeed become one of the world’s most expensive places in which to live.

Sandal noted that alcohol was also more costly in Singapore, than, say, Tokyo and Hong Kong. On the other hand, items as random as a bottle of Coca-Cola and an iPhone 5S costs less in Singapore than other cities, among several other commodities that are “surprisingly affordable”. Another thing, of particular benefits to non-car drivers, is public transport, said to be lot cheaper than several major cities. MBA business courses, too, were cheaper than other cities.

Perhaps the message should be for these comparison surveys: read the till receipt.

Schools for export

Until a few years ago years ago, the dearth of educational provision in Myanmar, previously known as Burma, would’ve been the least of the concerns of the expat looking for a suitable place overseas in which to work.

Following rapid and remarkable political changes, this once troubled country has restored itself sufficiently to attract foreign investment, and an influx of senior expat talent. If they bring their families, they will want English-language schools. It’s quite a measure of the country’s return to relatively normal life that it may soon be getting one.

The British Schools Foundation (BSF) has announced plans to open a school in Burma’s biggest city, Yangon, in August (2014). BSF, a non-profit international organization, expects keen interest on behalf of their children from expatriate workers who are being deployed to Burma by incoming multinational firms.

Yangon is one of the most interesting outposts in what has been a significant advance of British schools overseas over the past few years. A number have been set up as offshoots of famous name schools in the UK, such as Wellington College and Dulwich College.

Others have been established under the auspices of such bodies as the BSF. A good example is the now firmly-established British School of Marbella in Spain, founded in 2010. It caters for a student body of roughly 60% expatriate children and 40% Spanish nationals.

Be care aware

Time is running out for early retirees who moved to Spain and have been receiving, or were looking forward to, free medical treatment.

From July 1 they will have no further access, outside emergencies, to local medical services, under tough restrictions being imposed by the Spanish government.

Until now UK expats living in Spain, provided they had signed a “residual S1” form (the old E106 form), which showed they had been making UK national insurance contributions for the previous three years in the UK, were covered for treatment in Spain. UK government paid the bill under a reciprocal agreement.

Spain will honour forms signed before that date, but for no more than 30 months. Expatriates who have already reached retirement age will still have their costs covered.

People who miss out on Spanish care under the S1 form changes should check, too, that they will still receive free care from the NHS back in Britain. Some reports suggest they might not.