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Living in the Philippines

Your guide to expat life in the Philippines

Want to live in the Philippines?

With a reasonable cost of living, delicious local cuisine and an abundance of beautiful beaches, there are plenty of advantages to living in the Philippines.

Most expats find it easy to integrate into their local Filipino community. For expat families, there’s a good selection of international schools, and private healthcare is inexpensive by global standards.

You’re also spoilt for choice when it comes to travel opportunities. As well as exploring the many islands in the archipelago, you can use the Philippines as a launch pad for adventures across Southeast Asia.

Accommodation in the Philippines

Most expats in the Philippines live in the Metro Manila area, particularly in Makati City – home to many international corporations and the heart of the country’s diplomatic community.

From luxury condominiums to houses in gated communities, there’s a variety of accommodation to choose from. While furnished apartments are easy to find, most houses are unfurnished. The newer the building, the more likely it is to have air conditioning, which is a necessity in the country’s tropical climate. Be aware that some properties don’t have Western-style toilets.

Most landlords prefer 2-year leases, but short-term contracts are sometimes available. In addition to a deposit of 2 months’ rent, you may have to pay at least a year’s rent up front. Not all rental prices include utilities such as water and electricity, which can become expensive. You may also have to cover the maintenance costs for any air-conditioning units.

Local culture in the Philippines

Although Filipino culture has been heavily influenced by European and American traditions, most expats still take time to adjust to their new lifestyle. Expats are usually forgiven for making gestures that are considered offensive in Filipino culture, but it’s worth doing some research before you move. For example, you should avoid standing with your hands on your hips as this is a sign of anger – and staring or prolonged eye contact is seen as aggressive.

Filipinos love to eat and drink. When you’re invited to a meal or banquet, turning down any food offered to you is an insult to the host, as is placing your elbows on the table when you’re eating. In rural areas, it’s common to see locals eating with their hands. If you want to try this yourself, don’t put any food on your palms.

The custom of exchanging gifts is observed throughout the Philippines. If you’re invited to a Filipino home, it’s polite to take a gift for the host, but avoid giving food or drink. The exception to this would be a speciality from your home country. Presentation is important, so wrap gifts elegantly.

Filipinos try to disguise emotions such as anger or embarrassment, so they may smile or laugh at times you consider inappropriate. They also avoid conflict and it’s not unusual for them to say yes when they mean no. The custom of utang na loob, or debt of gratitude, is also very important. Filipinos don’t forget good turns and even the smallest favour is considered a significant gesture.

Education in the Philippines

Schooling in the Philippines has been shaped by its colonial history, and today’s education system is largely modelled on that of the USA. Classes are taught in Filipino and English at all public and private schools. The academic year runs from June to March, with the main holidays in April/May and December/January.

Public schools

Public schools are funded by the government. The quality of education is poor, classes are large, and resources are lacking, so most expats send their children to international schools.

Private schools

Many private schools in the Philippines started as Christian missionary schools. They follow much the same curriculum as public schools, but facilities and resources are usually a lot better.

International schools

Most of the Philippines’ international schools are in Manila, with many catering for American, British, French, German and Japanese nationals. Many follow the curriculum of their home country with classes being taught in that language, while others offer the International Baccalaureate, taught in English. Admission may depend on a personal interview and fees are high.

Keeping in touch in the Philippines

The main mobile companies in the Philippines include Globe, PLDT, Smart and Sun. Both contract and prepaid options are available. PLDT is also the main landline provider. There are sometimes problems making local and long-distance calls and services can be disrupted by severe weather. Most properties come with a line. If you need to install one, you may have to wait a few days.

Popular internet providers include PLDT, Converge, Globe and SKYcable. They all offer cable, ADSL and fibre packages at reasonable prices. Free WiFi is available at shopping malls, coffee shops and airports.

The Philippines has a good selection of English-language newspapers. The most popular include the Manila Bulletin and the Philippines Daily Inquirer.

State-owned Philippine Postal Corporation (PHLPost) has a reputation for being unreliable, so you may prefer to send important letters and parcels by courier.

Healthcare in the Philippines

Healthcare standards in the Philippines range from excellent to very poor. Hospitals in the major cities are generally of a high quality, but those in rural areas often lack infrastructure and investment. Emergency services are available in all major cities, but they’re limited in more remote areas. Although doctors at public hospitals are well trained, equipment and facilities aren’t always up to Western standards. Most expats use private hospitals and will travel to Hong Kong or Singapore for specialist treatment.

While citizens are entitled to free healthcare under the government-controlled Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), expats aren’t covered by the scheme, so you’ll need medical insurance, especially if you want to use private hospitals. Most expats choose an international policy, which has to be arranged before you arrive in the country.

You’ll find a good selection of private hospitals in the major cities. Although expensive by local standards, they’re cheap compared to most Western countries and the level of care is excellent.

Most pharmacies in the Philippines are staffed by well-trained pharmacists. Some local supermarkets also stock basic over-the-counter medications. Controls on prescription medicines are very strict, and scripts written in another country must be approved by a local doctor. Signs for pharmacies are in English and easy to spot.

In terms of health hazards, mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are endemic in some parts of the Philippines, particularly during the rainy season between June and November.

Getting around in the Philippines

Public transport in the Philippines is often crowded, especially during peak times, and most expats choose to drive or use taxis. Those that choose to drive should be aware that city roads are often chaotic, with drivers routinely ignoring red lights and stop signs – and overcrowded pavements mean that pedestrians also use the roads. If you’re staying in the country for more than 90 days, you’ll have to get a local driver's licence from the Land Transportation Office (LTO).

Most taxi drivers speak basic English. All taxis are metered, and you should ensure that the meter is activated as soon as you set off. It’s normal practice to give drivers a small tip. Ride-hailing apps are also available in the Philippines.

For public transport, the national railway service covers most of the country, and long-distance train travel between the major cities is becoming increasingly popular. Metro Manila’s regional service extends to its suburbs and outlying provinces, while the Bicol Express with air-conditioned sleeper cars is a good way to travel between Manila and Naga. Buses are also popular, although not all buses are air conditioned, and most are very crowded, especially in the cities. Their destinations are displayed on a large placard but getting off at the right place can be tricky because many bus stops are little more than a rundown hut.

Jeepneys are a uniquely Philippian mode of transport. These are converted military Jeeps left over from World War II. They’re a cheap way to get around and the colourful decorations embody Filipino culture. Jeepneys don’t have specific stops – you can hail them anywhere along their designated routes.

Boats and ferries are also popular means of travel in the Philippines archipelago. Traditional bangkas are the most common type of transport for short distances. Ferries are more comfortable, with several companies offering daily trips between the islands. The fastest option is a catamaran – many of these travel between the bigger islands. Expats can also fly between the islands. The national carrier is Philippine Airlines, which is the oldest commercial airline in Asia.

Cost of living in the Philippines

The cost of living in the Philippines is low compared to other Southeast Asian countries. Manila is a cheaper place to live than Singapore and Bangkok.

Food in the Philippines is relatively cheap, especially if you shop at local produce markets. Restaurants are also reasonably priced, and many expats eat out regularly. Imported Western foods in supermarkets are expensive. Cars are also costly because of high import duties, but public transport is a very economical way to get around.

Top tips for the Philippines

See what people responding to our Expat Explorer Survey think about living in the Philippines.

Use a range of social media to get in touch with people.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in September 2021. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information is purely for orientation and to inspire further research, it does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Always remember to ensure you're aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.

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