• Tokyo knocks Moscow off the top spot as the most expensive city for expatriates; Johannesburg is the cheapest
  • Asian and European cities dominate top 10
  • Significant currency fluctuations and strengthening of the dollar cause major reshuffling in the ranking
  • London drops 13 places to rank 16, New York joins top 10 list

Tokyo has knocked Moscow off the top spot to become the world’s most expensive city for expatriates, according to the latest Cost of Living Survey from Mercer. Osaka is in second position, up nine places since last year, whereas Moscow is now in third place. Geneva climbs four places to fourth position and Hong Kong moves up one to reach fifth. Johannesburg has replaced Asunción in Paraguay as the least expensive city in the ranking.

In Mercer’s survey, New York is used as the base city for the index and scores 100 points, all cities are compared against New York and currency movements are measured against the US dollar. Tokyo scores 143.7 points and is nearly three times as costly as Johannesburg with an index score of 49.6.

The survey covers 143 cities across six continents and measures the comparative cost of over 200 items in each location, including housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment. It is the world’s most comprehensive cost of living survey and is used to help multinational companies and governments determine compensation allowance for their expatriate employees.

A significant reshuffle of cities can be observed in this year’s ranking, mainly due to considerable currency fluctuations worldwide. The majority of European cities moved down in the ranking with Warsaw experiencing the most dramatic change, plummeting 78 places from 35th to 113th. London and Oslo, both previously in the top 10, have dropped 13 and 10 places respectively. The same trend can be seen in Australia, New Zealand and India. Sydney has dropped 51 places from 15th to 66th and Mumbai has slipped down to 66th from 48th place.

Cities in the US, China, Japan and the Middle East have surged in the ranking. New York is a new entry in the top 10, jumping from 22nd to 8th place, and so is Beijing, now in 9th place, up from 20th in 2008. Japan now has two cities in the top 10 and Dubai has climbed 32 places to reach 20th.

Nathalie Constantin-Métral, a senior researcher at Mercer, commented: “As a direct impact of the economic downturn over the last year we have observed significant fluctuations in most of the world’s currencies, which have had a profound impact on this year’s ranking. Many currencies, including the Euro and British pound, have weakened considerably against a strong US dollar causing a number of European cities to plummet in the rankings.”

She added: “With significant exposure to multiple economies and currencies, multinational companies continue to be greatly affected by the financial crisis. The cost of expatriate programmes is heavily influenced by currency fluctuations and inflation rates. Now that cost containment and reduction is at the top of most company agendas, keeping track of the change in factors that dictate expatriate cost of living and housing allowances is essential.

“It is important for multinational companies to continuously benchmark against their peers to ensure compensation packages are fair and in line with the rest of the market.”

Europe, Middle East and Africa

In third place and with an index score of 115.4, Moscow remains the most expensive city in Europe for expatriates. However, a dramatic depreciation of the rouble against the US dollar has led to a sharp fall in the city’s index score compared to 2008 (142.4). Accommodation costs also started to decrease at the end of last year after a sharp increase in the first part of 2008. The next European cities in the ranking are Geneva and Zurich in fourth and sixth place, up from eight and ninth respectively. Copenhagen remains in seventh, and both Milan and Paris drop one place to 11th and 13th.

European cities have experienced some of this year’s steepest falls in the ranking, with Warsaw plummeting from 35th to 113th and Glasgow (129th place) and Birmingham (125th place) in the UK falling 60 and 59 places respectively. German and Spanish cities all fell between eight and 11 places, whereas cities in Sweden, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary all fell between 36 and 48 places.

“As most European currencies have weakened against the dollar it has become more costly for companies based in this region to send expatriates and their families to US cities,” said Ms Constantin-Métral.

Oslo and London, both previously in the top 10, are now in 14th and 16th place respectively. “The decline of rental prices both in Oslo and London, coupled with the fall in the value of British pound and Norwegian krone against the US dollar, have caused these cities to plummet in the ranking,” said Ms Constantin-Métral.

While the vast majority of European cities have fallen in the ranking, most Middle Eastern cities have experienced a reverse trend. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have risen significantly in the ranking, moving from 52nd to 20th and 65th to 26th respectively. This is mainly due to the UAE dirham being fixed to the US dollar. Tel Aviv remains the most expensive city in the Middle East, although it is the only one in the region to move down in the ranking, from 14th to 17th.

Most African cities moved up in this year’s ranking, although their index scores have decreased. Cairo jumps a substantial 44 places to 57th as the Egyptian pound fared well against the US dollar. The sharp decrease of the South African rand against the US dollar has caused Johannesburg to slip to bottom position.

The Americas

Due to the strengthening of the US dollar, all cities in the US have experienced a rise in this year’s ranking. New York remains the highest ranking city in the region and has also joined the global top 10 list this year, jumping from 22nd to eighth place. Los Angeles is up 32 places to 23rd and Washington is up 41 places to 66th.

Canadian cities have slipped down the index with its highest ranking city Toronto down 31 places to 85th. Ottawa drops 36 places to 121st and Montreal is now in 103rd place, down from 72nd in 2008. “The Canadian dollar has weakened substantially against the US dollar which means employees transferring from New York to Ottawa or Montreal now need less US dollars to enjoy the same purchasing power as last year,” commented Ms Constantin-Métral.

In 15th place and up 74 places from 2008, Caracas in Venezuela is the top ranking city in South America. Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro have experienced a reverse move, plummeting from 25th to 72nd and 31st to 73rd respectively, Similarly, Bogota has moved down from 87th to 120th place. Buenos Aires has climbed 26 to reach 112th place. “Although the Argentine peso has lost value against the US dollar, the high inflation rate observed on goods and services have caused Buenos Aires to rise in the rankings,” said Ms Constantin-Métral.


Tokyo moves up one place in the ranking to become the most expensive city for expatriates both in Asia and globally. The Japanese yen has strengthened considerably against the US dollar which also lifts Osaka into second place from 11th in 2008. Hong Kong follows in fifth place and Singapore has moved up three places to reach 10th. In 140th place, Karachi continues to be the least costly city in this region – up one place from last year.

The Indian rupee made a significant loss against the US dollar last year and all the Indian cities have moved down the ranking as a consequence. New Delhi moves from 55th to 65th place and Mumbai drops from 48th to 66th.

Chinese cities experienced the reverse effect as the Chinese renminbi performed relatively strongly compared to most other currencies. Beijing is in ninth place, having moved up 11 places to join the global top 10. Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou follow in 12th, 22nd and 23rd place respectively.

Australia and New Zealand

Cities in this region have taken a significant plunge in the ranking following a dramatic depreciation of the Australian and New Zealand dollars against the US dollar. Sydney remains the most expensive city for expatriates in this region but has dropped from 15th to 66th. Melbourne follows in 92nd, down from 36th. Auckland has moved down to 138th place from 78th and Wellington follows in 139th down from 93rd.

Top 10 Cities: Cost of Living

Base City: New York, US (=100)

The Cost of Living Indices below have been prepared specifically for the purpose of the press release. The indices are based on Mercer’s cost of living database and are modified to include housing and to reflect constant weighting and basket items. The results may differ from those calculated for Mercer’s clients who use the results solely for the purpose of expatriate compensation. We do not recommend that expatriates use the figures represented here to compare their own compensation packages.

Rank 2009 Rank 2008 City Country Index 2009 Index 2008
1 2 TOKYO JAPAN 143.7 127
2 11 OSAKA JAPAN 119.2 110
3 1 MOSCOW RUSSIA 115.4 142.4
4 8 GENEVA SWITZERLAND 109.2 115.8
5 6 HONG KONG HONG KONG 108.7 117.6
6 9 ZURICH SWITZERLAND 105.2 112.7
7 7 COPENHAGEN DENMARK 105.0 117.2
8 22 NEW YORK CITY US 100.0 100.0
9 20 BEIJING CHINA 99.6 101.9
10 13 SINGAPORE SINGAPORE 98.0 109.1

Source: Mercer (July 2009)