Life as a foreigner in Ukraine

It seems that a lot of people are curious about what life is really like in Ukraine, especially as a foreigner. Call it what you like: expat, digital nomad, tourist, immigrant, token British girl who is destroying the Ukrainian language one word at a time… Ukraine isn’t the first destination for most British people, so here’s what you can expect from staying a while in this amazing country.

It’s cheap. So very, very cheap. My modest 20 something lifestyle in London (rented room, bus to work, bills, occasional dinner or night out) used to cost me around £1.2k per month. In Lviv, Ukraine, the same lifestyle (but better- with a whole flat instead of a room, regular meals out and frequent day trips), costs me around £300 per month. Our flat is hideously expensive by Ukrainian standards, but still only sets me back £125 per month for an incredible central apartment. You can eat out for between £1-3 per person including beer and pretty much anything you might wish to eat, even in really, really nice restaurants. Quite frankly, you won’t find anywhere cheaper to live as an expat or freelancer. You can live in Lviv cheaply for around £200 per month, or live the life of a king for well under £500. To put things into perspective, in London, a haircut (cut and blowdry) cost me around £60. In Ukraine it is £2. A pint in London would be around £4, whilst in Lviv it is normally under 50p for a half-liter, even in a fancy bar.

But, not everything in Ukraine is up to our standards. Girls,you might understand what I mean when I say some feminine products don’t really live up to expectations. At all. There are also some everyday products we take for granted that aren’t all that great in Ukraine. Toilet paper tends to be cheap and scratchy, washing up liquid is watery and useless, pasta can be starchy and sticky, jam is really liquidy and overpriced. And the infrastructure is also kind of lacking. Roads outside the cities are atrocious. I highly recommend you avoid driving in Ukraine as some roads are worse than non-existant and will probably damage your car. There is very little public illumination, even in the city center. Oh yes, and you can’t drink the water (although I do and it hasn’t done me any harm… I think). Our boiler in our flat works sporadically at best, so our shower is often freezing and sometimes the water is cut off completely. But other things generally work ok. Electricity and gas are reliable, there is a local rubbish collection point, and contrary to popular belief, there are police around.

You can get some pretty cool stuff in Ukraine that you can’t get elsewhere. My favourite thing is that you can buy just about any medication from the pharmacy for peanuts. In the UK, every time I have a minor illness I have to make an appointment, miss work, wait several days if not weeks, get a prescription and eventually pay £7 for a small packet of antibiotics. In Ukraine, I pop into the pharmacy, say the name of the medication and they simply hand it over (as many packets as you want, in case you want to stock up…) for about 70p per packet.

ukr

The language is tough, but once you learn the basics it starts to make sense. Once you can read cyrillic (Ukrainian is slightly different from Russian but not too much), you can start recognising shop names, food on menus, street signs and so on. Then, make sure you pick up absolute basics such as numbers (for haggling in the market), food and drink names and polite greetings such as dobry den (good day), vybachte (excuse me), djakuyu (thanks) and bud’laska (please). That’s enough to get you around day to day. Then it’s certainly advisable to have some lessons. I did a 5 day intensive course for 100 euro at the local university (Ukrainain for Foreigners) which taught me to greet people, introduce myself, buy products in a shop, get a table in a restaurant and so on, and gave me the basics of grammar. There are 6 cases in Ukrainian which are pretty shocking at first, but other things are quite easy, such as tenses, as there are only three and they’re all pretty simple.

A language map of Ukraine. Blue is predominantly Ukrainian, yellow is Russian.

Only around 20% of people (in Lviv at least) speak English, so if you can’t handle the basics you’ll be really lost. You can get around with Russian, but people will really prefer you to speak Ukrainian. (This is the case in the West but not elsewhere. In Kyiv people speak much more Russian). Some people may speak a few words of English but not much more. However there are a handful of people speaking really excellent English. If you want to meet other English speakers, try websites like Couchsurfing to meet people. There is also a weekly English meetup in Lviv.

The culture is really different in Ukraine. In some ways it’s good, in others it kind of sucks. Imagine how the rest of Europe might have been 50 years ago and you might get the idea. People are very homophobic and also quite racist. Clubs have a scary thing called ‘face control’ which is a euphemism for ‘if we don’t like your face, you can’t come in’. There are very, very few black or other minorities here, so please be warned that Ukranians can be somewhat unfriendly to non-whites. They also have a very backward view of gay and lesbian people. People here are still extremely traditional. If you’re not married by the age of 25, you’re officially on the shelf. I thought it was funny at first, but babushkas will often accost you and demand to know why you’re not married, or start lecturing any men you are with on the importance of marrying you. If you don’t want to be hassled by men or babushkas, I recommend wearing a ring on your wedding finger for an easy get-out clause. This leads to quite a strange attitude among many girls around my age. For a start, they all go everywhere dressed up to the nines. I get stared at in the supermarket because I go wearing jeans and pumps with no makeup, whereas they are all in 6-inch heels and 3-inch skirts with full makeup and blowdry. Girls are outrageously image obsessed and will openly stare and judge if you’re a more casual girl like me. Nowhere else will you see girls dressed like they’re going to the Ritz or Fabric just to go and buy some bread. They also have a very old-fashioned (or Eastern European) dating culture. Men are expected to pay for everything, and many girls are absolutely desperate to find someone to marry. So keep that in mind if you’re looking for good times in Ukraine!

Socially speaking, I generally find Ukrainians to be fun and easy going. If you find the English speaking ones (or you speak great Russian or Ukrainian), once you meet someone they will introduce you to their friends, show you around and generally welcome you into their social circle. I met some really cool people in Lviv, and it’s not too hard to make friends once you work out where and how to meet people. I found it best to meet people via websites like Couchsurfing and then hopefully they will introduce you around to other friends. As for social life and entertainment, I suppose it varies across Ukraine. Kyiv is a really fun city with plenty of cosmopolitan clubs and social places. Lviv is smaller and more limited in that respect. The clubs are quite fun and there are some nice restaurants and other bars etc, but you might begin to find them repetitive after a while if you’re used to a big city like London. You will also start to find yourself bumping into the same people over and over again. This can be really nice as you make friends easily. But people are gossipy and you can’t do anything without someone mentioning it to someone else. If you’re not behaving in a nice, traditional Ukrainian way, trust me, it will quickly get around! Also, keep in mind that Lviv is quite isolated. It’s a pain to cross the border to Poland, there are few if any links by plane to other places, and other major cities like Kyiv and Odessa are minimum 5 hours away by train. Around Lviv there is basically nothing except a very dirty lake (Vynnyky) and a much nicer one (although also full of litter) – Yannitsya. There are a couple of castles an hour or so away, but they’re not especially great compared to elsewhere in Europe.

Finally, food! Food in Ukraine is typically Eastern European – the food of a poor country. Everything is heavily based around cheap carbs – bread, potatoes, dumplings and buckwheat. You’ll find cabbage in almost everything. Some nice typical dishes include borsch (beetroot soup, often with a small chunk of pork meat and/or a dollop of sour cream), holubci (cabbage rolls), hrechka (buckwheat, which you can eat with just about everything), chicken kievs and varenyky (dumplings which resemble pierogies). Another peculiarity is ‘salo’ (lard) which comes on bread, with potatoes or maybe in borcsch. It’s nicer than it sounds. Actually, that’s about 80% of Ukrainian cuisine right there. I liked most of those things two months ago, but now to be honest I could live without ever seeing varenyky again. Almost everything is flavoured heavily with cumin, and you won’t find anything remotely hot or spicy anywhere. If you fancy something different from the Ukrainian stuff, your best best is Georgian food. There are a few excellent Georgian restaurants around serving amazing khachapuri (heavenly cheese bread), shashlik (grilled chunks of meat on a skewer), grilled vegetables and khinkhali (dumplingy things). Otherwise most ‘foreign’ restaurants are all Italian, which gets old quite quickly. If you’ve got a bit more money than the average Ukrainian, you can afford some of the really good grilled meat places such as ‘Trout, Bread and Wine’ (one of our faves) where you can order all sorts of barbequed meat. Beer, of course, is amazing and very cheap. In Lviv, the local brew (Lvivske) is delicious and costs very little. Wine is another matter. Almost all the cheap wine here comes from Crimea and is sickly sweet and terrible. You have to pay a few hryvnya more for foreign wine which is of course decent.

So, that’s about all I can think of that you might want to know about life in Ukraine. Feel free to ask me anything though!

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33 thoughts on “Life as a foreigner in Ukraine

  1. Dear Author,
    Do not you really like Ukrainian food? And why do you think everything based around bread? I agree with potatoes. It is national vegetable an so on.

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    1. Hi! I liked it a lot at first but then I missed spicy and tasty food a bit! I love the beer though, and kvas to drink. Plus there are really nice desserts and I like some things like borscht, but I ate too many varenyky and now I can’t eat them anymore!

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      1. I do not want to offence you. But for me it sounds a bit offencive to hear that. Especially that ukrainian cuisine is a typical cuisine of poor country. it is not true that everything is based around cabbage, bread and so on. And finally you said I missed spicy and tasty food. It means our food is not tasty for you. So tastes are different

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      2. No offense intended. I like some things but others are not to my taste. It’s just personal opinion. I am just saying that cabbage and potato etc are quite common, as they are in polish and german cuisine as well.

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      3. I would like you to be more cautios in your sayings. Because living in Germany I cannot say as well that they eat cabbage and potatoes. Their cuisine is very various.

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    2. Lena, Alexa is totally right in her opinion (and it’s a proof-based opinion) about the food. Most of what she said is definitely true. People in Ukraine eat heavy food full of carbs. That’s natural and there’s nothing to be offended about. Ukraine is cheap, easy going, friendly (mostly), not too smart and quite lazy. I live here and i know it. Coz I observe.
      Wheteher u like smth or not – all u can do is have your own opinion about things but u can’t tell someone else that they offended u just because they are sick of smth.
      Learn to live with opinions)

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  2. Hi,
    I am traveling to Chernivtsi next month to meet a lady. Do you have a feel for the general attitude toward Americans in Ukraine ? Thank you.

    Lew

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    1. Hi Lew, thanks for commenting. In general in smaller cities they probably don’t meet so many Americans. In my experience people are curious about you, although many don’t speak English at all. However be warned that as a foreigner, especially American, people assume you’re made of money, and some girls might try to exploit that to gifts, dinners etc without much in return. It’s up to you what to make of that, just be aware of it. They also have a very different and old fashioned dating culture. Hope you enjoy this great country though!

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  3. That is so hilarious to read about food and “girl, you are 25 and an old spinster” attitude Ukraine. I am originally from Kiev and visited Lviv many, many years ago. I am residing in the south eastern state of the US now and see how my palates have changed over the years. Even though I never loved lard and other very fattening foods, I no longer crave salads with a lot of mayonnaise. I related it to warmer climate.
    Thank you very much for your article.
    All the best to you

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      1. I’m Ukrainian by originality, however, I’ve been living and studying abroad for some time and I dislike Ukrainian cuisine honestly. Depending on the region, the nutrition of dumplings or any other dishes like borsch may vary so I wouldn’t claim everything contains carrot or a cabbage, these basically the vegetables that are widely grown on any harvest field. Still, I find my national cuisine much less attractive than any European one or Georgian as an example.
        I would also like to make a contribution stating that those people, who still believe that women should get married before 25 and all of that stuff you referred to as traditional Ukraine, they probably live in really remote areas or just have quite an obsolete mindset regarding today’s lifestyle. I was in Ukraine couple of years ago and can surely say that if you are not a redneck, neither from a village, you have reached at leat very specific vocational degree or bachelor’s diploma and you are below 45 years old you will probably not support early-age-marriages. As for necessity for men to pay for women, in my opinion, it is pure because of low purchasing power (especially considering the fact that it is much easier for guys to get the job unlike girls). And as for racism or sexism, it is also depending on the social layer you are encountering with. Unfortunately, the percentage of intelligent, modern people in Ukraine is incredibly low, but still you may find some good people who are pretty much tolerant to all of those things and can hardly be called racists. There are many guys from Uganda, Marocco and other African countries studying in Kharkiv, I’ve never had any contact with them and I do have any friend living in Ukraine who could eliminate how they survive there but looks like they are fine with what they are offered in Ukraine.
        My opinion might not reflect the true picture of Lviv as since I have not been there for a long time.

        By the way, what is the purpose of you residing in Ukraine?

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      2. I’m Ukrainian by originality, however, I’ve been living and studying abroad for some time and I dislike Ukrainian cuisine honestly. Depending on the region, the nutrition of dumplings or any other dishes like borsch may vary so I wouldn’t claim everything contains carrot or a cabbage, these basically the vegetables that are widely grown on any harvest field. Still, I find my national cuisine much less attractive than any European one or Georgian as an example.
        I would also like to make a contribution stating that those people, who still believe that women should get married before 25 and all of that stuff you referred to as traditional Ukraine, they probably live in really remote areas or just have quite an obsolete mindset regarding today’s lifestyle. I was in Ukraine couple of years ago and can surely say that if you are not a redneck, neither from a village, you have reached at leat very specific vocational degree or bachelor’s diploma and you are below 45 years old you will probably not support early-age-marriages. As for necessity for men to pay for women, in my opinion, it is pure because of low purchasing power (especially considering the fact that it is much easier for guys to get the job unlike girls). In my city of origin, Kharkiv, there are a lot of ‘international’ students coming from Uganda, Marocco and other African countries and seems that they are pretty happy with what they are offered. If you are lucky to encounter intelligent Ukrainians in Ukraine (which is, of course, the minority but not completely absent) you will probably recognize modern, tolerant individuals that do not have anything against people of different sex or with different skin.

        By the way, what is the purpose of you residing in Ukraine?

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      3. Hi, thanks for reading and commenting. I have a lot of Ukrainian friends, many who are young and modern, and of course also intelligent, but they still feel under loads of pressure to marry and have kids in early 20s. I think the older generation is very traditional and tries to push the traditional model of marriage, kids and house. This is what I’ve seen in Kiev and Lviv, not in remote areas. In Lviv I was approached on several occasions by strangers who made very personal comments about how I was with my boyfriend and that we should be married (I was 26). At least one old lady scolded my boyfriend and instructed him to marry me asap. I’m not saying everyone thinks that, but to me it seemed like a cultural difference.

        I am not currently in Ukraine, I just spend a lot of time there because I love it. I love the culture, cities, landscapes, people, food and much more. I am always having fun there.

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  4. To stay in Lviv I could not recommend any apartment more highly than this one. I needed to work in the mornings and the place is great for this (high speed WIFI and large room to combine rest and work). Location is perfect. From the two windows you can see the front door of The Opera and enjoy the magnificent atmosphere of the heart of Lviv. Oksana and Dmytriy were always in touch if I needed something. So I´m more than happy for my choice and recommend to all – rentandstay.com.ua.

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  5. Hi, am a retired US citizen and I met a Ukrainian woman from Borispol while I was in Kiev. She wants me to move to Ukraine. How do I get a Ukrainian Resident permit? Do I need a lawyer for getting a resident permit? Any suggestions?
    Thanks for your help.

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    1. Hi Ben — I’m not really an expert on this, although I do know it’s actually quite hard to get a residence permit unless you have a job or company there. As far as I know, you can stay for 3 months at a time without a visa, then you need to leave for 3 months, or apply for a permit (this is what I do, I stay a few months each time). It’s harder than people think to get a permit – there are ways but they become very expensive when you add up all the different fees. Maybe it’s a good idea to go for another visit before you make a big decision about moving there. Check this site for more info: http://alpina.kiev.ua/useful-info/residence-permit/

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    1. To be 100% honest there are not so many black people in Ukraine as in some other places. So you might feel a bit different. But certainly in major cities there are a few people from different nationalities and as far as I know it’s not a big problem. Sorry I can’t help more.

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  6. Hellow Alexa your article its great and so accurate , I have been few days kiev and lviv and i want your advice which city do u think is more fun lviv is pretty but its too small but looks safer than Kiev , so the goal is to learn russian im on the basics right know, stay for cheap the 3 months that visa allows and meet friends and girls but no gold diggers girls , and easy to move around and safe, Hope hear from you 🙂

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  7. Hello Alexa, I’m looking forward to visiting Lviv and staying maybe the whole summer. I lived in Prague for 2 years, I’m also a freelancer. 2 things that worry me: I know Ukraine is not as developed as the rest of Europe, so I would be afraid of getting scammed, finding a place to stay and also meeting people.

    Where did you find your apartment?
    How did you move from the airport to your apartment?
    How did you move around in the city(all these questions have to do with the non-speaking Ukrainian problem.)

    Are there many young Ukrainians and foreigners speaking English? Where did you meet them?

    I ask this because in Prague, everything was fairly easy as most people do speak English and it had a lot of foreigners who spoke English, but like I said, it is central Europe and it is very developed.

    I’m sure that if you managed I can also manage but I just want to avoid surprises. I speak English, Spanish, French, Italian, poor German and some Czech, but absolutely no Ukrainian or Polish and I would just learn the very basics.

    Regards.

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    1. Hi, thanks for the comment! Here are my answers to your questions:
      I found my apartment on Airbnb. It’s probably not the cheapest way, but if you don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, that’s the easiest option. I didn’t fly to Lviv, I drove, so I don’t know how to get to the city from the airport, but I am sure there will be a bus. Otherwise, taxis are very cheap. The city is very small and you can walk everywhere. Alternatively there is a tram and bus, and you just pay a small amount (I think 4 uah) in cash for that. There are not soooo many people speaking English, but there are some. I met most of them using Couchsurfing. I did an intensive Ukrainian course with a company called Ukrainian for Foreigners (https://www.facebook.com/ukrainianlanguage/?pnref=lhc) with a very nice teacher, Larysa Shmakova, who I would recommend. I think it really helps to learn basic Ukrainian there. In any case I strongly recommend learning to read before you go. It’s a lovely place to live and there’s nothing to worry about. I didn’t get scammed there. Maybe taxi drivers or market sellers will overcharge a bit, but it won’t be a big shock. Ask me if you have any more questions 🙂

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  8. Hello Author, am an African,a Nigerian to be precise,coming to ukrain in a month time,don’t kbow how getting job is over there,kindly get back to me please…

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  9. I have been to Ukraine 5 times and love the culture and FOOD. I was quite surprised to hear negative comments about their food, as I love authentic Ukrainian cuisine and it is quite easy to find other varieties of food….and very good sushi is quite common. Ukrainian pancakes are wonderful. Borsch, okraskka, smoked salo, shashlik (shishka bob) are an amazing delight. Fruit infused vodka for 60 cents! And, of course, arguably, the best chocolate in the world….and coffee is second best to Paris (in my opinion). 4 and 5 star exquisite hotels range from $50-$125 a night, with a couple of exceptions exceeding this. $50,000 will get you a lovely flat that may be $300,000-$500,000 in the U.S.. Lviv is wonderful!

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    1. Hi Tim, thanks for commenting. The comments were not meant to be negative. I love Ukrainian food and there are other lovely cuisines there. Just it’s hard to get spicy food for example which I miss a bit after several months there.

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