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A Beginner's Guide to Moving to Sydney, Australia

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Interested in moving to Sydney, Australia, but not sure WHERE to begin in preparing for your big move? Well, the most obvious place to start with your actual move is with a reliable moving company but before we can get there, we first need to make sure that Sydney is the right city for you. This article is meant to serve as a guide to life in Sydney – every tidbit of info, but in simplified form (to make moving less of a stress-induced headache).

As many know, Sydney is the largest and most populous city in Australia – approximately 4,926,000 people live here (and about one-third are born overseas), as of 2020 (source: Macrotrends). Sydney is made up of a whopping 658 suburbs, 40 local government areas, 15 contiguous regions, and serves as the capital of the state of New South Wales (NSW). 

(Sidenote: Remember that Australia is divided into six states and two territories)

Residents of the city are known as “Sydneysiders.” While there is an infamous, obvious rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne (the second most populated city in Australia), Sydney stands out in quite a number of ways.

Sydney is known for having quite temperate weather, one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the world, 150 miles of stunning coastline, a vibrant arts and culture scene (which is slowly recovering at the moment), a wide variety of food that makes foodies green with envy, laid back atmosphere, and over 400 parks.

Sydney has been continuously ranked as the third most liveable city in the world and continues to shine on a yearly basis. According to current expats, some of the best Sydney suburbs for expats include Manly, Bondi, Surry Hills, Newtown, and Crows Nest. Use Domain to find a reputable listing that suits your needs.

Like nearly every other urbanized city in the world, the cost of living in Sydney is extremely high – but it is doable and affordable if you’re smart about planning.

A view of the famous swimming pools overlooking the ocean in Sydney
Once you move to Sydney, you can take a dip here!

Cost of Living in Sydney

Unlike many other cities, it’s quite easy to adjust to life in Sydney (especially if you come from a native English-speaking country). While the atmosphere is recognizably more chill than anything an average American, Brit, or Canadian is used to, there aren’t many culture shocks that one needs to prepare for.

Overall, the cost of living in most Sydney cities is notably less than that of Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, or London. To give you a general feel, it is often ranked as #11 or 12 on lists of the most expensive expat destinations in the world.

The business district (and area where most people hold jobs) is referred to as CBD (Central Business District), and the area with Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House is considered the harbour. Virtually no locals live smack dab in the middle of CBD, because it costs a fortune.

Just like in New Zealand, rent is paid per week rather than per month here. For a one-bedroom apartment in the city, you’re looking at $450 – $550 AUD per week, and increasing to $650 AUD/week for a two-bedroom place. You can find cheaper rent than this, but your accommodation would be much further from CBD, and in less desirable areas.

Internations does a fantastic job of summarizing the approximate cost of living in Sydney in number form. Remember to take into account utilities, mobile plans, grocery costs, public transport, and entertainment factors when planning your move as well.

The cost of a cell phone plan in Sydney is quite minimal compared to what I’m used to in the States – I currently pay $35/month for a heaping 35 GB of data with Optus, and I barely use any of it. Telstra is renowned as the best carrier within Sydney (but are the priciest); check out their SIM-only phone plans here.

Eating out and going out for drinks in Sydney is notoriously pricey (although not nearly as bad as NYC, or even LA). Remember that tax and tip are already factored into all AUD prices, and also consider the conversion rates back to your home currency. The same goes for groceries – I’m always sticker-shocked when I go back home. Groceries are supposedly more expensive here, but I’m either used to it or find that things are actually cheaper here when converted to USD.

While most are quick to say that Sydney’s dining prices are far pricier than what they’re used to, I’ve found that it’s actually cheaper to eat out here than back home when I lived in Orange County (although I haven’t lived there since 2013). There is such a wide variety of food options depending on your style, and YES, it’s possible to find delicious cheap eats here.

As far as health insurance, your best option is SafetyWing (until you get things sorted out with your job and accommodation).

Downtown Sydney on a sunny day with people out shopping
A glimpse of downtown Sydney

Visas and Documentation

NOTE: For all updated and relevant visa information regarding Australia, please visit the official Australian Government: Department of Home Affairs, Immigration and Citizenship website.

All of the following information I am providing is not an official source, but based on my experience alone.

The visas and documentation required for those who outright move to Sydney versus those who obtain a job beforehand and then move is obviously going to differ. 

If you’re visiting Australia on a holiday (up to 90 consecutive days), you’ll most likely need an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) tourist visa, which is electronic and attached to your passport upon your arrival. The visa is free, but there is still a non-refundable $20 AUD online application service charge for it. You can look up visa requirements in regards to your country here.

Australia is unique in the sense that there are HUNDREDS of visa options – they even have an extension tourist stream (which I applied for and was granted earlier this year, due to the pandemic). 

However, you must note that you aren’t allowed to work on any tourist visas (or you can risk deportation). I would highly advise against flying here on a tourist visa if you’re hoping to find a job “under the table,” especially since the government is incredibly strict here. What flies in SE Asia does not apply here.

Because my partner is Australian, I made the decision earlier this year to stay in Sydney and lodge the partner visa application, which takes a period of at least two years to finalize (and a LOT of money, so you need to be absolutely certain that you’re both ready to take on this financial commitment and responsibility). If you’re in this situation, you’ll gain work rights once you are placed on a Bridging Visa (bridging the interim period in which you wait for your permanent partner visa to be granted).

There are varying other work visas and student visas that other expats have obtained once here, but be aware that you’ll need to do your research to try to land a job successfully. 

The most common visa amongst expats is the Working Holiday Visa (Subclass 417) for those 18-30 yrs. old, allowing you to work and live in Australia for up to one year (and sometimes allowing extension, dependent on your passport origin and whether or not you’re willing to engage in farm work). The visa costs $485 AUD and visa requirements vary dependent on which passport type you hold, so be sure to check before applying.

Compared to Japan and Thailand (where I’ve also lived), the process of moving to Sydney was extremely straightforward and efficient, especially due to the fact that things are pretty seamless here (and there are no language barriers for you to stress about).

Night time view of Sydney's Ferris Wheel
A beautiful night downtown

Job Hunting Tips

In 2014, I moved to Melbourne on a Working Holiday Visa and landed a job that same day I flew in, thanks to a temp agency. I had a much easier time finding a job in Melbourne than I did in Wellington (New Zealand), so be mindful of the fact that moving to larger cities will increase your chances of being employed quicker (if this is your main goal).

Social media is more prevalent now than it was when I moved, so I’d recommend using that to your advantage, whether you’re searching for a job in Sydney upon arrival or before moving. 

LinkedIn has also been one of the best resources for me as an expat, especially with the ability to filter based on company, suburb location, and more. I’ve also found a few job opportunities through Instagram while abroad, so I encourage anyone to utilize and leverage their professional branding to their utmost advantage.

You can also find jobs using sites such as SEEK, CareerOne, or reputable agencies such as Randstad, Robert Half, Michael Page, Hays, and Adecco.

One site to highlight is Sidekicker, which was founded in partnership with SEEK due to the pandemic. It serves as a job-searching platform for those wanting to transition to government roles. There are also job boards in this working for Australia Post.

If you really want to stand out, make a Prezi presentation. I made this before I left California, emailed and messaged this to LinkedIn contacts who were based in Wellington, and gained valuable insight into the workforce and job openings within the industry I desired. 

Everything is about networking – so try your best to stand out, especially if you’re moving abroad to a country that you’ll be brand new in.

A clear blue sky over the rocky coast in Sydney, Australia
The beautiful rocky coast- hard to say no to these views!

Transportation in Sydney

While Melburnians like to rattle up Sydneysiders about public transport, I happen to think that the ease of public transport here is stellar.

I’ve never owned a car when living abroad, and Sydney is an incredibly liveable city without ever needing a car. There are suburban trains, light rails, metro rails, public buses, and ferries that all run reliably, and all you need is an Opal card. For more info, see the official transport site from NSW government.

Additionally, Sydney uses the convenient tap-to-pay system, so you don’t even need to carry around physical cards; you can connect everything via Apple or Google Pay on your phone and scan on and off the trains that way. This also makes it seamlessly easy to pay for things in general, since cash is only ever used for outdoor markets (typically).

There are even regional trains that you can book from Sydney to other states (i.e. Melbourne and Brisbane), but these run quite pricey – you’ll need to check timetables based on availability. Keep in mind that the cost of one of these tickets could be just as much (or more) than booking a domestic flight, so if you need to navigate between states, flying via Jetstar is usually the cheapest and most efficient option.

One thing to keep in mind is that Sydney is an extremely walkable city. While CBD may just look like a much, much cleaner version of NYC, Sydney Harbour and its surrounding walkways are absolutely stunning. You can easily walk along the Rocks all the way to Glebe - use this Meetup event as an outline to plan your route.

Uber is also prevalent here, so you have options for staying out past midnight (when public transport services generally stop running).

The Sydney Metro, which opened to the public in May 2019, is Australia’s biggest transport project. No timetables or drivers are used - you just show up and go, and the rails are run completely by robots.

By 2024, Sydney will have 31 metro stations and more than 66 km of new metro rail, which will ultimately revolutionize the way that Sydneysiders travel.

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Life as an Expat in Sydney

Overall, life as an expat in Sydney is extremely straightforward and worthwhile. It’s a comfortable lifestyle and quite easy for anyone to get used to, especially if English is your native language.

For these reasons, Australia is often ranked on lists as one of the top countries for expats to live. Don’t let naysayers’ comments about the cost of living here deter you from pursuing your dreams – if you don’t research and just go, you’ll never know.

I’ve lived in five cities in four different countries since 2013, and in all honesty, adjusting to life in Sydney has been the easiest.

If you’re a first-time solo traveler, moving to Sydney is a safe option because it won’t be like plunging head-first into an environment where things are extremely different. Sydney is a large city, with much of the same comforts of home that you’ll have been previously accustomed to seeing.

It’s quite easy to make friends here because of the chill, laid back aura that all Aussies give off. Aussies are cheerful, welcoming, and friendly – so just be yourself and always be gracious, and they’ll help you out whenever you need. I was once standing on the side of a road, staring at my Google Maps screen, when a truck driver stopped, reversed, and rolled down his window to check if I needed directions somewhere. People are SO friendly here, which is probably why so many visitors never want to leave.

Despite Sydney being the largest city in Australia, the mentality of “working to live” and not “living to work” is very much relevant. For example, the work culture here is far more lax than anything in America or Japan. Mental health and the importance of balancing socialization with work life is regarded much more highly than in other countries (at least in my opinion).

Plus, the expat population is quite large, so you’ll probably end up meeting people from all corners of the world – Sydney is a widely diverse city (perhaps not as diverse as Melbourne, but still up there).

Living in Sydney is an incredible experience, as it is for any other part of the world – but remember that it is what you make of it. 

The iconic Sydney Opera House on a clear blue sky day
The iconic Sydney Opera House

8 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Sydney

  1. Learn some Aussie slang before you go! You don’t need to learn to speak another language, but you will need to get accustomed with the slang. Note that every state and territory of Australia may use slang differently. Here’s a little crash course video on the basics.
  2. The sun here is different – it will literally fry you if you don’t wear sunblock. Australia receives higher UV radiation levels (approximately 15% more) than Europe, which causes an alarmingly high rate of skin cancer in those who live here. Be prepared to pack (or buy) bottles of SPF 50+ when you move here – the months of October – February are notably when you should be extra careful.
  3. Sydney still has winter. Everyone makes the mistake of not packing enough warm clothing, since Sydney is associated with sunshine and beaches. But alas, remember that Sydney still gets cold (and the wind chill can bite!). Thus, you’ll need to pack your thick down jackets and at least a rain jacket or two.
  4. Realize that you won’t find a lot of your comfort foods here. Here’s an article on 30 American food-related things that you can’t typically find in Sydney.
  5. Pack binoculars (if you can fit them in your luggage)! Whale watching in Sydney is a thing, and June-August are the best months to witness many whales breach in front of your eyes. Click here for an article on the best whale watching spot in Sydney (for free!).
  6. Nothing is 24/7 here, so don’t expect that. Some say that things close abnormally early (I haven’t found this to be the case). Also, get used to seeing small shops that are often closed on Mondays/Tuesdays, rather than the typical weekends.
  7. It is extremely expensive to travel WITHIN Australia via domestic flights. Truthfully, a flight from Sydney to Perth costs just as much as an international flight (i.e. round-trip to Bali). Thus, most Aussies are well-traveled in the rest of the world, and don’t often travel their own country (if they don’t need to!). If you want to make the most of your time here (but stay on a budget), rent a campervan and road trip around the country – don’t fly.
  8. Insects will be in your apartment no matter what. Welcome to Straya! But if you come face-to-face with a huntsman spider (as I did), just take comfort in the fact that it actually isn’t venomous. 

For an Australia destination guide to study before you move, click here.

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