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An Expat's Guide to Living Abroad in Mumbai, India

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Tatjana Chen
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Mumbai - maximum city, India's financial capital and home to Bollywood, a city of contrasts - and my home for six years and counting.

The first reaction of many of my family and friends upon my announcement that I was moving to Mumbai was shock. Even Indian friends were asking why on Earth I would move to Mumbai.

Looking back at the last years here, let me tell you: living in Mumbai rocks!

Finding a Place to Live in Mumbai

Mumbai is made up of 7 islands and is from the East, South, and West surrounded by water. So ever since the beginning of … well, Mumbai, the city has only one way to expand: from its origin in the South further North.

Running from North to South are the train tracks and the inner-city highway, dividing the city into East and West.

All of that makes a huge difference when considering where in Mumbai you'll be living since traffic is bad.

It might very well take you 2 hours to get from work in the South home to North Mumbai. Planning your movement in the city will save you lots of time and money.

Hence when searching for an apartment, consider your necessary daily trips to the office, school, etc., and look for a place as close by as possible.

Other factors to keep in mind when looking to rent in Mumbai are:

  • When coming by yourself, renting may be more complicated as not all apartments (blocks) are open to singles
  • You may be asked for your diet as there are homes only open to vegetarians
  • Budget a significant amount for rent as Mumbai is the most expensive city in India, and rent will be a significant chunk of your cost of living.

The view from a Western apartment building in Mumbai
A high-end apartment block in Mumbai

Best Neighborhoods to Live in Mumbai

Many expats in the city are staying in Powai or Bandra.

Powai

Powai is a beautiful neighborhood, self-contained and with wide and empty sidewalks for a comfortable walk - and no, that is not common in Mumbai at all. However, as it is quite far in the northeast it's a little out of the way for those needing to go into other areas.

Bandra

Bandra is one of the most central neighborhoods and has a lot to offer especially when it comes to dining and going out. For that reason plus the fact that many Bollywood stars have made it their home, it definitely does not come cheap.

Other Neighborhoods to Consider

If you are looking for something a little less pricey, Andheri West is a great option and there are more localities being developed all the time.

Other locations you may hear of are Lower Parel, one of THE shopping and dine-out neighborhood, and SoBo (South Bombay) with its artsy quarter, Kala Ghoda.

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Settling into Life in Mumbai

a street corner in mumbai with a rickshaw out front
A look at your daily shopping spots

Mumbai is ... a lot! I personally love it since I am an absolute city person. But with a growing population of already more than 20 million people, Mumbai often falls among the 10 most populated cities in the world, a few places behind bustling Shanghai, China.

As the economical capital of India, Mumbai attracts people from all over India and the world, all having, it seems, the same goal: work hard, play hard. 

Overcoming the Language Barrier

Once you decide you're ready to move abroad, you'll be happy to know that the language barrier won't be an issue while living in Mumbai. Mumbaikars are open and helpful people. Getting around only speaking English is not a problem as even most rickshaw drivers, maids, and plumbers would know enough English for you to get your message across.

Making New Friends

In general, it's quite easy to connect with people and make friends in Mumbai, depending on your circumstances: Are you coming with an office job? Great, your colleagues will become your new family as work times usually include Saturdays and loooooong hours.

Or are you a digital nomad? Especially now post-Covid there is a host of fancy, hip, and down-to-earth coworking facilities to choose from, as well as a thriving start-up scene to connect and collaborate with.

Are you moving abroad with kids? Most schools have a huge network to include not just the kids but the whole family.

If none of this applies there are still enough ways to get in contact with people. What works for expats all over the world, applies just as much to Mumbai: try to find people who have similar interests. Start with the expat clubs in the city, ACIW for women only or Mumbai Connexions. On Facebook, you can also find groups of expats or even perhaps your nationality. Many of those offer regular offline meet-ups as well.

Otherwise, look at your hobbies: join a gym, go to Yoga class (where better to do some Yoga than in the country of its origin?!), try to learn Hindi, or go to painting classes. For me, it was my love for reading that helped me make my first own Indian friends by joining local book clubs. I actually started my own now, the Susegad Book Club.

Safety in Mumbai

a busy street view in Mumbai
Photo by Vijit Bagh.

The biggest concern, especially for women coming to Mumbai / India by themselves, is usually safety. After six years of making my own experiences and talking to other expats, I have never once encountered a situation I felt threatened in.

Mumbai specifically is a really safe city as long as you operate with common sense. In no city in the world would I be walking alone through dark alleys at night, and that goes for Mumbai as well.

Safety in Other Parts of India

When you travel out of Mumbai, I would recommend having your basics for every day planned, i.e. where are you going, how do you get there and where are you going to stay.

Keep in mind that not all cities in India are as safe as Mumbai and if you go into more rural areas, the language barrier is likely to be a challenge while people there might not be used to seeing foreigners so you will likely be asked for pictures. The latter is very common anyway, especially in tourist areas.

Food and Water Safety

Another aspect of safety is food and water. Here, I would recommend starting extra careful and then slowly easing restrictions.

Initially, you should stick exclusively to mineral bottled water to brush your teeth, drink in restaurants, and cook with. However, as your body (and gut most importantly) gets used to its new environment, you can start using tap water to rinse your mouth, cook with tap water, and in restaurants you can ask for regular water, which is filtered water and without charge.

When it comes to food, cook your own meals and cook it well (as in well-done re. eggs, meat etc.). When you go out, stick with hot foods in places that are busy. No worries, you will find out where you can eat salads etc. without having any issues after you've settled into life here.

Always remember though, no matter how long you have been in India, come monsoon it is best to be more careful again as the high humidity and standing water leads to more bacteria where you don’t want them. 

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The Reality of Life in Mumbai

a watermelon street vendor with 100s of watermelons stacked up around him
Typical street vendors with plenty of stock

Household Help

Life in Mumbai, while crazy, can be fantastic. For many, the fact that you have easy access to inexpensive house help like maids and cooks - so no daily cleaning chores - is a huge plus point.

Transportation

Getting around is easy, too. If you don’t have your own car (and it’s really not necessary) you can order Uber or the Indian version, Ola. You can also just hail a taxi on the side of the road or get a rickshaw (also known as tuk-tuk), which is cheaper.

Otherwise, there is the expanding metro network which is right now still quite small but if it runs along your route, it’s the best transport you can take. Buses and trains are only slowly being fitted with ACs so during hot days they are not only packed but boiling.

The Restaurant Scene

We love to eat out and Mumbai has an ever-expanding and vibrant restaurant scene. From amazing local food to Italian, Korean, and Mexican, from street food to 5-star luxury restaurants, from incredibly authentic dishes to the most outlandish fusions - you are likely to find something that speaks to you, no matter if you are looking for a new daily favorite or want to try something new and different. The quality is high and prices are reasonable, too.

Some places have come up with a clear strategy to market to the Instagram crowd. And FYI, while I'm on the note of social media, TikTok is banned in India just in case that is of importance to you. 

Things to Do

In terms of sightseeing, Mumbai does not have terribly much to offer. In other words, you can cover the must-dos in about a day.

BUT, it certainly never gets boring either! Even if you don’t want to go out for food, there are different museums and galleries, gorgeous temples and caves, the seaside as well as the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

There are theatres and opera here as well, yet what I love is that there are a lot of creative events happening all over the city, in all kinds of spaces and sometimes just simply on the road.

men in the street throwing colored flour at each other in India
Photo by Omkar Pandhare.

Indian Festivals

And then there are the festivals. The Indian calendar is full with festivals that paint every color of the rainbow on the streets. You may have heard of Holi, the festival of colors that comes along every March.

The biggest festival all across the country is actually Diwali, the festival of lights.

Here in Mumbai, something you should not and literally cannot miss is Ganesha. The festival that celebrates the elephant God Ganesh lasts more than a week, has make-shift temples pop up in every neighborhood, and ends when on the last days the biggest sculptures of the God are being immersed in the waters of the Arabian Sea. It’s days full of music, colors, and spiritual energy.

Being Mentally Prepared

Mentally, Mumbai and India in general can be quite overwhelming. Give yourself time to find your way but make an effort to meet people (start with the social expat clubs above) as that will help you get out of the home and build your social circle while exploring the city step by step.

Also, keep an open mind and go with the flow.

Mumbai is a study in contrasts: a super expensive car driving by the beggars on the road, street food and 5-star cuisine, shop your groceries either in the market at the butcher, baker, and fruit, and veg walla (man) or order it via mobile app and get it delivered to your doorstep.

If you just accept this reality as it is and go explore what the city has to offer, you will discover a Mumbai full of fun and opportunity.

Will Mumbai Be Your Next Home Abroad?

For me, living in Mumbai has given me everything I want in a home abroad, plus some. Mumbai's crept under my skin in a way most people can't fathom, especially those who have never given this city a real chance before.

If you're a fan of big metropolises and are eager to live in the midst of contrasts, Mumbai might just be the home abroad for you, too. 

Hero Photo by Balaji Srinivasan.

xx,
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