Hungary is not super cheap in every way, but the destination is a good value for people who want to live a good life for less in central Europe. Anyone moving to Budapest from a similarly sized city in Europe, North America, or Australia can easily cut their expenses in half. And the rest of the country costs less.
[Hungary cost of living post updated March of 2018.]
Estimates of how many expatriates live in Hungary range from 30,000 to 60,000 and there are enough in Budapest to support a business newspaper in English. So you won’t be all alone if you choose to move here. There are far fewer expats outside of the capital though, but that possible disadvantage is offset by a lower cost of living. Prices for rent, groceries, restaurant meals, and drinks rise 10-35% when in the big city.
Gary Lukatch was earning good money in New Mexico working in the financial industry, after having lived in a lot of other states before that. “When I moved to Budapest and began teaching English, my monthly net earnings after one year were around $600 per month, increasing to around $1,500 per month after, say, five years,” he says. “In short, I took a huge pay cut, but was 1000% happier.”
After teaching English in Budapest for eight years, he is retired, living a much better life than he could elsewhere on what he has to spend. “The cost of monthly house payments or rental, plus car costs alone, would be more than my monthly income, which is around $2,100 net,” he explains. “Here in Budapest, my monthly flat rental, plus utilities, averages around €400, right in the middle of town.” He says public transportation is excellent, so he doesn’t need a car. “I eat out several times a week and I still have enough money to travel wherever and whenever I want.: When I talked to him a few years ago, he had traveled to 53 countries and had 5 more trips scheduled.
Australians Karen and Neil D. came to Budapest because her husband got a job offer in his industry and they thought it would be a great adventure. They had already lived in Poland and the Czech Republic though, so they and the four kids didn’t have to make a huge adjustment going to Hungary. “Hungary has been the cheapest of the three,” Karen says. They’ve watched the city get easier and easier as the years have gone by, partly through them adjusting but also because the level of English fluency locally has gotten steadily better.
Hungary joined the EU in 2004, but the country still uses the forint, which is a volatile currency. Prices quoted here are based on 312 to the euro, but the exchange rate bounces around a bit compared to the euro, a lot compared to the U.S. dollar. So check the current rate before cursing my name when you read this because prices have changed.
The countryside of Hungary is very cheap, but few expats live in the rural areas unless they’re in the wine industry. Most choose to live in Budapest, around Lake Balaton, or in one of the smaller cities like Eger or Pecs.
Hungary got hit hard in the European economic crisis like many other nations on the continent, but has recovered much faster. The official unemployment rate was 8% in mid-2014 and as I write this has dipped down below 4%, which downright glorious compared to Italy, Spain, Greece, or Portugal. Even the youth unemployment rate is around 10%, compared to more than 30% in Italy.
This feels like a nation on the rise and the young are displaying something not seen much in the past couple hundred years of Hungary’s history: optimism. (There’s a dark cloud hanging over the country on a political level though, so run here if you’re trying to get away from racist rhetoric and inhumane immigration policies where you live now.)
Housing Costs in Hungary
When it comes to capitals in Europe, Budapest is one of the cheapest cities to live in. Most residents of Hungary quote their rent costs in hundreds, not thousands, and you won’t find many single people paying more than €600 a month, even in the capital. When you get into smaller towns, you can get a large house for that. When I was last in Budapest, I asked several true locals I talked to what they were paying per month for an apartment and the answers came in between €150 and €300. In the southern wine region I visited on my first trip a few years earlier, you can still find houses with a nice garden going for the same.
The site Numbeo.com says the overall cost of living in Budapest ranks 379th out of 550 cities in the world. So compared to New York or London, it’s a screaming bargain for sure.
Jennifer Walker, a long-time Budapest resident who writes for my Perceptive Travel Blog, laid out her housing costs for me. “I pay around 125,000 HUF (400 euros) a month for a 2-bedroom apartment. A friend of mine in a studio in the center pays around 90,000 HUF (€290) before utilities. Common costs in an apartment will usually run €32 – €96, which can sometimes include water, repairs, cleaning of the apartment block etc. Then heating can be €30-80, electricity around €16. I think 60,000 HUF in bills and common costs is quite standard.
In my case, in the winter I pay around €545 for rent + common costs + bills (heating, water, electricity, phone/internet, etc ). In the summer that goes down to €480 as I am not paying heating.”
What you get for 500 euros a month in Budapest
You will pay a premium for a modern apartment with lots of amenities though. New transplant Cory Varga and his partner of the You Could Travel blog have been spending more than they expected. “We moved here a couple of months ago and we are still looking for a long-term flat. We find the market to be incredibly competitive. We are peculiar and have a lot of requirements, but we also find that good flats go from one day to another. Competition is fierce, especially during term time when university students are also looking to rent houses. The good news is that you don’t have to pay for a real estate agent, the owner does. If you want short term, best to agree on an Airbnb or a short-term letting agent, because most owners only rent for a minimum of 12 months.
We pay 800 euros for our 2-bedroom flat in District 6, right behind the Opera House. (2 minutes from the UNESCO Andrassy Avenue.) We searched in District 5, 7, 9 (much cheaper), and 6 (exclusively around Andrassy Avenue, but closer to the Inner City). The cheapest modern-looking apartment we found was 690 euros a month, for a one-bedroom apartment in District 6.
Katie and Geoff Matthews of Wandertooth moved to Hungary from Canada a year ago. “Most expats look for housing in Budapest’s city center, with the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 13th districts being the most popular. We live in the 7th district in a completely renovated, 2-bedroom flat (roughly 730 square feet) with high ceilings, wood floors, and an exposed brick wall. We pay €730 per month in rent, plus a building common cost of 15,000 forints (roughly €50) and utilities. Our housing costs totally roughly €805 to €850 per month. It’s certainly possible to find housing that’s much cheaper than this. Rooms in shared, modern flats can be found for less than €250 per month and studios in the city center run around €320 to €420 per month.”
Here are a few sites Katie recommends when looking for rentals and advises to use the Google Chrome translate function to decipher Hungarian. Keep in mind you may need to pony up a two-month damage deposit, so if you’re moving here broke you should probably look for a roommate or shared space on a Facebook group (first link).
If you decide to buy something eventually, which you can do freely as a foreigner, “a typical apartment in Budapest will cost between 90,000 and 130,000 euros for 100 square meters.” Karen said in 2014. It was a buyers market then for a very bad reason: a lot of Hungarians took out loans to buy property in the pre-EU days and did it in Swiss Francs because that was a stable currency. They owed far more than what the property is worth because of the Swiss Franc’s rise. She added, “So there’s a mass selling of properties because of exchange rate changes.”
Prices have definitely gone up since then as the inventory cleared out, but are still competitive in comparison to many other parts of Western Europe, roughly half the cost of Vienna. The purchase market is not nearly as hot as the rental market, but is not as good a value as the rents. Now you can expect to pay between 100 and 296 euros per square meter, so a 100 square meter apartment would run €100K on the outskirts to close to €300K in a prime area.
Like I said though, this is the big capital city. If you head an hour and a half away to Eger, the average price of a one-bedroom apartment in the center drops to 211. Three bedrooms is likely to cost you around €350. So the living is cheap in Hungary if you’re willing to make a different city your base. Numbeo lists the average salary outside the capital as being between 300 and 500 euros. So if you’re moving here with a couple grand a month going into your checking account, you will find Hungary to be one of the cheapest places to live in Europe.
Food & Drink
You can normally have a very fine cloth-napkin dinner with a glass of wine for €12. If you eat at more humble places, a soup will be a euro or two and main dishes range from €2.50 to €7.
“We typically spend between €16 and €24 on a meal out for two people in a restaurant, including a few beers or glasses of wine,” says Katie. “If you’re just going out for a drink, a half-liter of Czech Pilsner costs about €2, although local beer is cheaper. A glass of house wine is about the same, but you’ll pay more in a wine bar. Most restaurants offer set-meal lunch specials that are much cheaper than ordering the same meal at dinner, so if you’re on a budget and like to eat out, do so at lunchtime. Expect to pay around €4 for a 2- to 3-course set lunch.”
When you shop in the market, prices are at the low end for Europe. You can get rolls for 10-25 cents each or a huge baguette for a dollar or less. Get 100 grams (around 1/5 of a pound) of good cheese for less than a euro, 100 grams of good local sausage for €1.60, and a jar of pickled veggies for another euro or so. Fruit and vegetables in season are typically well under one euro for a kilo, sometimes half a euro.
For a buck or less, you can generally buy 100 grams of any of these things in the market: raisins, peanuts, sunflower seeds, banana chips, or dried apricots. Or you can get a kilo of seasonal fruit or peppers, cabbage, potatoes, radishes, or carrots. I saw a big bunch of white asparagus for about a dollar when I was there. How much do you pay for that in your local Whole Foods?
“We probably spend €80-100 a week on groceries for two, not including wine,” says Karen. “In Australia we could spend three or four times that amount in a week easily.”
“For groceries it depends, but I probably spend around €20-40 a week for just me, but I tend to order prepared lunches for work, so that doesn’t eat so much into my shopping bills,” says Jennifer.
Cory has found that a special diet makes Budapst more expensive. “We are both plant-based and we invest a lot in organic whole food products only. Hence, our food bills add up to roughly €500-550 euros a month.
Hungarian wine should be known around the world, but the Soviet occupation days seriously hurt its reputation and the recovery will be a long one. So for now it’s one of the best quality-to-price values in the world. In many countries, expats complain about the difficulty of getting decent wine for a decent price, so if that’s a big priority, put Hungary on your list. (Along with Argentina and tropical duty-free Panama). You can find a decent table wine bottle in a store for €2, something quite good for €3.50 to €7. If you spend over €10 you might end up with something from a “winemaker of the year” who has adorned Hungarian magazine covers.
If you’re out with rowdy friends doing shots, you might end up downing the local brandy. “Palinka/brandy varies depending on where you drink and the quality,” Jennifer says. “A low-quality one in a cheap bar in the suburbs is probably around a euro or two, but can be five euros in nicer places.”
This once being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, you can get a killer coffee and pastry here just as you can in Vienna—but for literally 1/4 the price. After you do a double-take at your low bill in a wine bar, finish with a coffee and dessert for another nice surprise.
Health Care Costs
In this country the medical care is good, the dental care is great. With the rise of cross-border medical treatment happening in many places in the world, Hungary has jumped on the trend with both feet. Many Europeans come here to have dental work done or to receive good medical care at a discount. I was actually having some dental problems while in this part of the world two years ago and started asking around for prices to get a new crown. I ended up not getting it done because of timing, but prices I was quoted ranged from €200 to €350 all-in. (In the United States, this can easily top the equivalant of €900.)
Getting a cleaning and check-up at the dentist is around €25, getting a set of x-rays about that much again.
The one time Gary had to have serious medical work done, the total bill was about 1/10 the price of what it would have been in the USA. Legal residents have access to free or subsidized public health care, but many expats pay out of pocket for faster access or English-speaking doctors at private facilities. See more info here.
Getting around Hungary is relatively cheap by bus or train when you want to get out of town. Figure on 9 to 12 euros for a domestic trip of two hours, or €25 to go as far as you can possibly go within Hungary. Seniors and young children travel free. The longest ride on the suburban railway out of Budapest (30 kms) is a around €2.20. Rental cars are quite expensive though, so save that for the road trips that are worth it.
Budapest has a metro and while it’s no real bargain on a ride-by-ride basis (around €1.12), a monthly pass that also works for the trams and buses is a good value. Geoff and Katie pay around 28 euros a month each for those. If you’re of retirement age, you might squeak by for free.
Apart from the ride from the airport, taxis in Hungary are a bargain. In general you can get around the center of Budapest in a cab for €2.50 to €7. It’s around €1.50 to start and about €1 for each kilometer, so it’s hard to spend €10 anywhere unless it’s a long haul. Like much of Europe, this country is set up well for those on a bicycle and some expatriates use a bike as their main means of transport. In Budapest there are lots of dedicated bike lanes and in the countryside, there’s not nearly such an abundance of cars as you see in the capital.
Frequent promotions on the train system and Eurolines bus make international travel from here a bargain. If you plan ahead you can get to Vienna for less than €20 or to beach locations of Greece, Bulgaria, or Croatia for around €50. (I took the night train to Transylvania for 70 euros in a sleeper.)
Internet is $15 to $30 depending on speed and if you want a great connection, you can usually get it in Hungary. The lowest average speed in a Hungarian city is 15 mbps down, 5 up, while in Budapest the average is 30 mbps down, 15 on uploads. Mobile speeds are fast 4G.
Katie and Geoff use pre-paid SIM cards and pay about 6 euros per month for 1.5 GB—enough for the basics when out and about. Their home internet is 19 euros for high speed. Geoff pays the equivalent of 60 euros per month for 40 hours of access at co-working space. They estimate their total costs for two at $2,300 per month, which right now is around €1,850.
The land of Liszt and Bartok has an abundance of cultural performances going on at all times, from high-brow opera in the capital to an annual festival of wine songs in the south each year. Performances that aren’t free are very cheap by European standards. “The theater is amazing here,” says Karen. “The cost of going to a ballet or opera can nearly bankrupt you in Australia. Here it’s for everyone. Tickets usually start at €4. If you buy really great seats on a weekend for a popular show it might cost you all of €20.”
Visas in Hungary
Hungary is part of the Schengen Agreement covering much of the European Union, which means you can’t just stick around here on a tourist visa. You get three months upon entering the zone, but after that you have to leave the whole Schengen area for three months before returning. No problem if you’re only coming for the summer. Terrible if you want to settle down for longer.
To get residency without being tied to a specific employer, you generally have to show you’re doing work a local can’t do, like teaching English, or you have to show that you’re self-supported by income from abroad. You can see a sample of costs and documents needed at this site, which also warns you that requirements may change at any time: http://washington.kormany.hu/entry-for-long-stay
A work visa is good for a year and renewable. Expect to endure a lot of bureaucracy and if you don’t have a college diploma, it’s going to be even tougher. You will have to apply in your own country and will then have 30 days after entering Hungary to get the local paperwork sorted out.
Cory came from within Europe and the couple can therefore stay as long as they want. “Nowadays, the Hungarian government is trying to make it easier for digital nomads and foreign investors to come to the country,” he says. “However, Hungary is still a bureaucratic hell, where people have to run from one office to the other and get their papers notarized. We believe this will become much easier in the coming years.”
“We are both Canadian,” says Katie, “so we had to apply for a visa. As we work for ourselves and run our own business, we applied for an ‘other’ visa, which allows us to live in Hungary, but not to work beyond running our own business. We arrived in Hungary as visitors and then hired a lawyer to complete the visa application process for us. To get the visa, we had to provide financial statements proving we earn enough money to support ourselves (there is no set amount the government states is sufficient, although our lawyer suggested $2500 per month would be fine). We also had to write a letter of motivation explaining why we wanted to live in Hungary, demonstrate we had health insurance, and provide financial statements for our business. We had a clear plan and business reason for being in Hungary, and were told by our lawyer that a general reason, such as ‘Budapest is beautiful’ or ‘I want to learn more about Hungarian culture’ would not suffice.
You can also look at getting a student visa to study Hungarian. We’ve also heard of a visa that allows you residence if you invest €10,000 in a Hungarian business, although we don’t know anyone who has done this.
“Americans can only get residency for two years,” says Gary, “then they have to renew.” He says you can apply for permanent residency after being in the country for three years. This costs money for a lawyer and requires a lot of additional paperwork. Most of the items need to be translated into Hungarian as well, plus you have to show proof of health insurance or buy into the Hungarian health care plan.
Do you have Hungarian blood? If so, you could be on the fast track to residency. If you have ancestral roots in the country, you can get real citizenship without giving up your original one, making you one of those enviable people with two passports. You have to speak Hungarian, but you can take intensive language courses while you’re living there and collecting paperwork. This is a backdoor into the EU, which would give you the ability to live elsewhere too. The problem with that is, those escaping violence in Syria thought the same thing and it came to a crisis when the government wouldn’t even let them pass through. Which brings us to…
The political winds are blowing strongly to the right as I put this book together, with overt racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against minorities all rearing their ugly heads on a regular basis. Press muzzling, attempts to shut down an esteemed university, and defiance of EU rulings on immigration could come to a head at some point.
I wouldn’t count on it…
Budapest is also starting to show a few signs of overtourism in the summer when dozens of river cruise ships dock, so be prepared for big crowds in popular areas there.
Hungarian is an especially tough language to crack, but you’ll often need at least some basics when you get outside the capital.
Part of this article was excerpted from the popular book A Better Life for Half the Price, about cutting your expenses in half by moving abroad. Sign up here for updates on cheap living abroad.