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North America makes up a third of the 100 most expensive cities globally

  • 29 North American locations now feature in the top 100 most expensive cities globally
  • Concerns over slowing growth in China and the Covid-19 pandemic weakens the yuan and pushes Chinese cities lower in the ranking 
  • Cost of living in UK cities overtook many in Europe ahead of lockdown
  • Several locations drop in the rankings this year amid protests and political unrest, including Colombia, Hong Kong and Chile
  • Iran continues to struggle ahead of and during the Covid-19 pandemic, remaining the cheapest in the world

The latest Cost of Living report from global mobility specialist, ECA International reveals that US and Canadian locations make up almost a third of the world’s most expensive city locations; Manhattan New York ranked as the 16th most expensive in the world, while San Francisco and Los Angeles ranked 36th and 40th respectively. This time two years ago only 10 North American locations featured in the top 100. 

ECA International’s Cost of Living Survey compares a basket of like-for-like consumer goods and services commonly purchased by international assignees in more than 480 locations worldwide. The survey helps businesses to ensure that their employees’ spending power is maintained when they are sent on international assignments. 

Steven Kilfedder, Production Manager at ECA International, explained: “As the US and Canadian economies strengthened in the past year, the value of their respective currencies has been pushed up, and so too has the cost of goods and services for visitors and expats.”

A medium cappuccino in a café in London would cost USD 3.66, meanwhile in New York it would cost USD 4.56; a 100g bar of chocolate purchased in London would cost USD 2.18, and USD 3.63 in New York. 

Reporting the cost of consumer goods and services in locations around the world for over 45 years, ECA captured the data in late February and early March of this year (2020), when many countries were in the midst of battling the first Covid-19 peak, or about to be hit by it. 

Cost of living affected by Covid-19

The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is evident in the Cost of Living ranking for the locations that were first hit with a spread of infection and the uncertainty over the impact. Chinese locations have all dropped in the ranking, as have all locations in South Korea. Beijing dropped from 15th to 24th in the global ranking, while Seoul dropped nine places and out of the top 10 from 8th to 17th. However, in China, this is also reflective of a longer-term trend of slowing growth and the weakening yuan. 

Kilfedder said: “The Chinese economy was hit dramatically by the lockdown measures put in place at the end of 2019. Similarly, as Australia and New Zealand are heavily reliant on trade with China, we can see the rippling effect in the cost of goods and services in these locations. This is also a sign of consumer nervousness, which we are likely to see in other countries around the world in the coming months.”

Kilfedder added: “In the short term we expect to see inflation drop in various countries around the world as demand weakens and the lower price of oil filters through the economy. Exceptions may be seen in countries where currency falls push up import prices, or budget shortfalls mean subsidies are cut or taxes rise, like in Saudi Arabia which is tripling VAT to 15%.”

Central London re-enters top 20 most expensive cities in Europe

UK cities step up the ranking of the most expensive in the world due to the improved strength of the GBP against most currencies. Central London enters the top 20 in Europe and the top 100 in the world for the first time in four years (94th), overtaking several European cities including Antwerp, Strasbourg, Lyon and Luxembourg City, as well as most major cities listed in Australia. 

Kilfedder said: “Heading into the survey the UK was more optimistic over the economy than in the recent past, after a budget promising increased spending and clarity over Brexit which boosted the pound from previous lows. At the time the UK seemed well placed to avoid the worst of the pandemic but after 14 weeks of lockdown and facing the biggest recession in modern times and limited progress on Brexit trade negotiations, the pound has returned to previous lows. Although a lot can change, UK cities may well struggle to retain the higher place in the ranking in our next survey.” 

Switzerland continues to be one of the most expensive countries in the world, dominating four of the top five most expensive cities. 

Protests and political unrest affect cost of living in Hong Kong, Colombia and Chile

Months of protests in Colombia and Chile have made significant impacts on their economies, with weaker currencies causing cities in these countries to drop significantly in the ranking. Santiago in Chile ranks 217th, while Bogota in Colombia ranks a lowly 224th, for example. Hong Kong also dropped slightly in the global ranking from 4th to 6th after months of demonstrations in the city.

“Although Hong Kong remains in the top 10 most expensive cities, this is largely due to being closely tied to the US dollar which is performing well. Hong Kong also avoided a form of crippling lockdown from Covid-19 experienced elsewhere in the world, which will have helped its economy despite months of political unrest in the city,” said Kilfedder.

Brazilian cities fall in the rankings as volatility continues

All Brazilian cities have fallen out of the top 200 most expensive in the world as the real has plummeted in value in recent years. Volatility is not new to the country, while three years ago Sao Paulo was 85th in the world the year before that it was 199th in the world. With the country already facing weak growth before the pandemic hit the country and oil prices collapsed it is likely that there is further volatility ahead. 

South East Asian countries continue to rise in the ranking 

Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam have all risen in the latest ranking. This continues to be a long-term trend as their economies have steadily strengthened in recent years. While locations in these countries jumped up five places on average in the past year, they have risen by an average of 35 places in the last five years, including a 64 place rise for Bangkok to become 60th most expensive location in the world.

“Emerging markets in South East Asia are becoming more expensive for many visitors and expats due to their appreciating currencies. Thailand in particular has become significantly more expensive for international business and tourism. As a result, Thailand’s central bank is actually attempting to weaken its currency, the baht, to keep the country as an attractive place for investors and visitors, with the currency having reached a six-year high at the end of last year,” said Kilfedder.

Iran cheapest in the world, while Israel is among most expensive in the world

Tehran, the capital of Iran, is ranked as the cheapest location in ECA’s global Cost of Living report for the second year running despite high levels of inflation. 

Kilfedder continued: “Already suffering from the sanctions imposed by the US in 2018 Iran was poorly placed to deal with one of the first major outbreaks of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the rial has weakened significantly, price rises of almost 40% in the year meant that despite remaining the cheapest country in the world, Iran has actually got more expensive for visitors and expatriates.” 

In contrast in Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are both in the top 10 most expensive global locations (8th and 9th respectively), after consistently increasing in cost in the last five years thanks to the long-term strength of the shekel.

Global top 20 most expensive locations for expatriates
2020 Ranking
Hong Kong
Hong Kong
Tel Aviv
Manhattan NY
United States of America
Korea Republic
Honolulu HI
United States of America


Notes to Editors

About ECA's Cost of Living Survey

ECA International's cost of living surveys are carried out in March and September using a basket of day-to-day goods and services commonly purchased by assignees. The data used above refers to year-on-year movements between ECA's March 2019 and March 2020 surveys. ECA’s Cost of Living Survey rankings began in 2005.

Cost of living indices are used by ECA clients to calculate cost of living allowances for assignees. The survey covers:

  • Food: Groceries; dairy produce; meat and fish; fresh fruit and vegetables 
  • Basic: Household goods; recreational goods; general services; leisure services
  • General: Clothing; electrical goods; motoring; meals out; alcohol and tobacco

Certain living costs such as accommodation rental, utilities charges (electricity, gas, and water), car purchases and school fees are not included in the survey. Such items can make a significant difference to expenses but are usually compensated for separately in expatriate packages.

This comparison of cost of living was calculated on a base composed of various developed countries and is used to reflect an international lifestyle. Other indices available from ECA reflect specific city-to-city comparisons and different levels of shopping efficiency.

About ECA International 

ECA International is the market-leading provider of knowledge, information and technology that enables businesses to manage their international reward programmes.

Partnering with thousands of clients on every continent, we provide a fully-integrated suite of quality data, specialist software, consultancy and training. Our unparalleled insights guide clients as they mobilise their most valuable resource: people.

We make the complex world of international mobility simple, providing clients with the expertise and support they need to make the right decisions - every time.

ECA International: Mobility solutions for a world that’s constantly moving.

For further information, please contact:

Jack Firth 
Tel: +44 0 20 7351 5000

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