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An Expat's Guide to Living in Northern Iraq

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In 2021, Zoë and Chris got the unique opportunity to live in a different country every two or three years. Zoë got a job working for the Dutch government. And since we both love to travel, we didn't hesitate at all about whether we should start this life-changing journey!

Chris started the travel blog Moving Jack where they share their stories. The crazy thing was, they didn't even know where they would live! After a few months, they knew their first destination. And so, now they live in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.

Iraq and Kurdistan and much of the Middle East haven't always positively been in the news. But what is it like to live there as an expat?

In this article, we will share our experiences about what it is like to live in Northern Iraq as an expat couple.

Cities to Live in Northern Iraq

First, where exactly is Northern Iraq and what is Iraqi Kurdistan?

Northern Iraq is everything above Baghdad within Iraq towards the Turkish and Iranian borders. The main cities in Northern Iraq are Duhok, Mosul, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk, and many other smaller towns like Shaqlawa. Iraqi Kurdistan (or the Kurdistan Region) is the semi-autonomous region within Northern Iraq where the Kurdish people live, which is also the safest part of the region.

The main cities in Iraqi Kurdistan are Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), Sulaymaniyah, and Duhok. We can only visit these places because these cities are part of Iraqi Kurdistan, a safe region. Other towns have negative travel advice. 


The old city center in Erbil

Erbil is a city that surprised us. In all honesty, we had never heard of the city before moving here! We knew about Iraq, of course, but not Erbil. After seeing a few vlogs, we became more enthusiastic about living there.

One of the first things we noticed is the friendliness, warmth (also in temperature!), and kindness of the Kurdish people. They are welcoming and willing to help with anything. Before we started to live in Erbil, we lived in China. In China, there's a bit more distance between Chinese and expats in my experience. But Erbil and Kurds in general are different.

These are a few examples of this kindness:

  • We went to a tailor to fix the zipper of a bag. The tailor told us, "OK, I'll fix it; come back the next day." So we returned the next day, the bag was fixed, and we asked, "How much do we have to pay?" He said, "It's free, it was only a tiny thing to fix."
  • If you want to tip a taxi driver, they will often not accept it! It's their pleasure to bring you to their destination; a tip is appreciated but unnecessary.
  • At restaurants, we often got a free dessert.

This kind of friendliness is just truly amazing!

Erbil is primarily famous for its old Citadel. They say it is over 6000 years old. The area of the Citadel and the bazaar below is a truly fascinating area to explore. It is one of the perks of living in Erbil.


An overhead view of Sulaymaniyah

Second to Erbil, the city of Sulaymaniyah is also popular among expats, although the city is a bit smaller. About 750,000 people live there in Sulaymaniyah, compared to Erbil, where 1.5 million people live.

What's nice about Sulaymaniyah is that the vibe in the city is more relaxed and progressive regarding equality. There is also a substantial beautiful lake in the city, unlike Erbil, where there is no water to cool off except at a hotel pool.

A con of living in Sulaymaniyah is the risk of drone attacks from Iran. While these attacks don't happen a lot, it is a risk. Erbil, on the other hand, has not experienced any drone attacks. A very small amount of drones in the past years have come towards the city, but none of them reached it.

When you're driving from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah, you enter a region ruled by a different party. Barzani rules Erbil, Sulaymaniyah is ruled by Talabani. You have to go through a check point where they might ask you to show your passport or papers. We've never had any problems driving through these checkpoints.

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Nature in Northern Iraq

Mountains safeen near Shaqlawa

One of the best things about living in Northern Iraq is the abundance of beautiful nature. At first, we expected only dry and sandy areas, but this is not true! There are mountains, rivers, lakes, caves, and wildlife like mountain goats and vultures, and it is even believed that there are a few wild panthers. Especially during spring, the surrounding mountains are incredible to explore.

One of the perks of living in Iraqi Kurdistan is hiking in these mountains. You can go on an organized trip or find other expats to explore with you.

Safety in Northern Iraq

Typical female Kurdish fashion

There are several safety precautions you should take into consideration when traveling to and in northern Iraq.

First, it is unsafe close to the borders of Turkey and Iran. Only go there with a local guide who knows the area. If you need to go there, always go in two cars in case anything might happen. It is unsafe there because drone and even missile attacks are coming from Turkey and Iran.

Second, when you go to the mountains, some areas are unsafe because there can still be mines from when Saddam Hussein ruled the region. It has happened that foreign tourists were victims of these mines.

Thirdly, traffic is chaotic and dangerous but more on that later on!

While these are issues not to be taken lightly, Northern Iraq, and especially Iraqi Kurdistan, is safe in terms of petty crime. There are no gangs, there is no drug crime, and there aren't even any strange folks hanging around at night. And if something may happen to you, people will rush to help you! It is in the nature of the Kurdish and Iraqi culture to help others.

Other things you should keep in mind are:

  • Always use a taxi from the Careem app; don't take any other taxis. When you order a Careem taxi, check the license plate to see if it is the same one as in the app. Download an image of the Arabic numbers on your phone because the app shows it in numbers, but the license plates are in Arabic symbols. Illegal taxis often try to pick up passengers, so take Careem. 
  • At traffic lights sometimes people, and even children, unfortunately, sell things like flowers, tissues, and cigarettes. In our experience, they have always been friendly, and there is no need to be alarmed. But we always keep our doors locked.
  • Society can be harsh. There are a few refugee camps, people and children trying to make a living on the streets, and street dogs are not being taken care of. This unfortunate, sad reality can be hard to witness. The gap between the rich and poor is enormous. While the street dogs are mostly just chilling in the street, it's best to keep a distance just in case.

More detailed info regarding safety can be found here.

Safety as a Female Expat

For female travelers and expats, in our experience, it is safe to walk around in the cities. People are very friendly and will not approach you in an intrusive way. But women need to be aware that the Kurdish and Iraqi society is a men's culture.

You'll see mostly men in the city. So, walking outside alone as a female is fine, but there is a chance you'll stand out, and people might look at you, which can be uncomfortable. It's not that they have bad intentions, it's just that there are few foreign female expats or travelers in the region so you tend to stick out.

You'll notice this more in local areas (such as the old citadel) than in, let's say, an expensive mall, for example.

Traffic in Iraqi Kurdistan

Probably the most dangerous thing about living in Iraqi Kurdistan is the traffic. Folks don't drive in a lane but go wherever they can. And because there is almost no public transportation, everybody uses the highway.

Don't be surprised when you see someone cycling on the street or a pedestrian crossing a road (that has a maximum speed of 120 km/hour!). You will have to look everywhere around you and be double as cautious when driving a car. There is no priority for any side or lane.

Every day we see crazy things happening on the roads: people going in reverse on the high road when they missed an exit, people sitting in the back of a pickup truck on the highway, U-turns causing dangerous situations and so on.

It takes some time to get used to the traffic and to adjust your driving style to survive the roads. So far we've managed to drive damage free!

Expat Community in Erbil

The expat neighborhood, Atconz

Since Erbil is the biggest city in Iraqi Kurdistan, most expats live there. Many of the expats who live in this region are workers for the United Nations, large international companies, and government workers, like Zoë, and their spouses, like Chris.

If you're moving to Erbil, making friends isn't too difficult. You'll most likely befriend your coworkers but if you want to stretch your web a bit farther, the bars and restaurants where most expats hang out are:

  • The Two Princesses (An Irish pub in Iraq!)
  • The Vinery (Amazing pizza)
  • Buffalo Wings and Rings (Sportsbar)
  • Gourmet Italiano (Great Italian restaurant)
  • Basillis (Bar, but on Thursday night, it's a club)
  • Gulan Mall

Areas Where Most Expats Live

There aren't really any bad neighborhoods in Erbil! But most expats live in certain areas in Erbil. In alphabetical order, these are:

  • Aram Village
  • Atconz
  • Diamond City
  • Empire World
  • Empire Royal Villas
  • English Village
  • Italian Village
  • Italian City 2

Fun fact: Many houses and neighborhoods in Northern Iraq don’t have any infrastructure for supplying gas to cook on. So, gas is being brought door to door by a truck playing a Kurdish ‘ice-cream-truck’ song.

Our Favorite Activities in Northern Iraq

Koya Town on the road to Sulaymaniyah

Northern Iraq is a vast region with very diverse landscapes and historic sites. These are some of our favorite things to do:

  • Visiting the Citadel and the bazaar in Erbil (Having coffee at the old Castle Cafe)
  • BBQ'ing on mount Safeen
  • Hiking on Korek Mountain
  • Visiting the ancient town Akre north of Erbil.
  • Hiking Koya Mountain
  • Hiking Barzan Mountain
  • Visiting the Christian neighborhood Ankawa In Erbil
  • Exploring Shanidar Cave

Things we still need to do:

  • Visiting Amna Suraka (Saddam's old Security Complex in Sulaymaniyah)
  • Skiing on Korek Mountain

Cost of Living in Iraqi Kurdistan

Inside the Bazaar in Erbil

The cost of living in Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively low compared to other regions in Iraq. The main factor is the relatively low cost of accommodation. Rent in the major cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah is significantly cheaper than other cities in Iraq, making it more affordable for residents. Another factor is the relatively low cost of food and groceries. Locally produced vegetables and fruit (such as delicious pomegranates!) are very inexpensive, which helps to keep the overall cost of living down.

However, the cost of imported goods and luxury items can be much higher due to transportation costs.

The currency that is being used is Iraqi Dinar. 200.000 Dinar is around 140 dollars. American dollars are also widely accepted, even in taxis or small grocery stores.

As far as we know, credit cards are only accepted in Carrefour and at the airport. Cash is king in the country. Even when you need to buy something big like a TV, you'll have to pay in cash. This will cost you several trips to the ATM, including paying the ATM, bank and sometimes conversion fee depending on your bank.

Obtaining a Visa

The entrance to the Old Citadel

Obtaining a visa to enter and travel in Northern Iraq is easy. It's important you realize though that since this is a semi autonomous region, you'll need a specific visa from the Kurdistan government/immigration to be able to enter. It is not the same requirements that arriving to other parts of the country might have.

The main airport is in Erbil, where you can get a visa on arrival for 72,26 dollars. Make sure to bring cash because the credit card machine often does not work, if there even is one.

Find out if you are eligible for a visa on arrival here. Most nationalities are given a 30 day tourist visa. If you plan to work in Northern Iraq, your work should secure the correct business/residence visa for you.

Pros & Cons of Living in Northern Iraq

The two of us on Mountains Safeen

There is so much to tell about living in Northern Iraq as expats! Here are a few pros and cons to summarize our experience:


  • Kurds are super friendly people
  • Beautiful mountains and nature
  • English is spoken quite well by most people.
  • Food order services are widely available.
  • There are plenty of international supermarkets like Carrefour.
  • Beautiful countries are close by like Jordan, UAE, and Oman.
  • Low crime rate. You don't have to worry about leaving anything in your car, or your bags getting stolen. Many people don't even lock their doors and leave them open.
  • During winter, spring ,and autumn, the temperatures are really pleasant.


  • Traffic! It's probably the most dangerous thing in the region. 
  • Air quality can be quite bad at certain times of the day. Diesel generators generate power and trash is being burned which causes a lot of air pollution. During the day, the air quality is really good. Around 7 pm, it gets much more worse is our experience.
  • Freedom of movement is limited due to certain cities that are not safe like Mosul and Kirkuk. Certain areas in the mountains are also not safe.
  • Everything can only be reached by car. There is no public transport. Unfortunately, it is not possible to take a bike for a ride around town.
  • Summers are scorching hot! Especially the months July and August temperatures rise to 50 degrees. Even at night it can still be 40 degrees.

Health Insurance & Healthcare Services in Iraq

The road to Sulimanyana

Healthcare is another important consideration for expats in Iraq. While the healthcare system in Iraq has improved in recent years, it may still need to meet international standards. We've visited several hospitals; the best one is the Maryamana hospital in Erbil. 

Final Thoughts on Expat Life in Northern Iraq

Living in Northern Iraq surprised us positively: the friendly people, beautiful nature and historic sites. We recommend visiting the area and working there will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Nevertheless, because of the limitations regarding freedom of movement we suggest not to stay longer than 1 or 2 years. We've been living there for two years. In 2024, we will embark on a new adventure in a different country!

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