Expats Living in New Zealand

New Zealand – roughly the size of the state of California

New Zealand is renowned for its scenic beauty, and being an area that is roughly the size of the state of California means that it is all quite accessible. New Zealand’s 15,134 km (9,404 mi) of coastline, lined with many beautiful beaches, offers plenty of access to the ocean and its bounty, while features that vary from deep fjords in the far south to subtropical kauri forests in the far north, the Southern Alps that dominate the larger South Island, and the volcanoes accompanied by their steamy thermal pools that define the North Island present a surprising amount of natural diversity to enjoy.

With a population of just four million people, even with a booming tourist industry that draws outdoor lovers of all types year round, you will not feel the crush of humanity anywhere in New Zealand. The pace of life is slower here, the “Kiwis” as the locals are called, are laid back, and the lifestyle, refreshingly simple. Along with the famed sheep farming, wine cultivation has become a big part of New Zealand’s culture and economy, and a growing film industry is another a boon to the economy.

The weather is often characterized as “mild,” but at the same time, it is fast-moving and therefore unpredictable. Winter means chilly temperatures in parts of the country. This past winter was exceptionally cold, bringing icy winds and snow to areas in the north that had never seen it before. But other than the rare extreme weather event, the mountains get enough snow for skiing and snowboarding in the winter, while lower altitudes only occasionally get snow in the south. If you have Dogfunk’s snowboard jackets, you can take advantage of these conditions. The north enjoys a climate that is more typical of subtropical islands, and the eastern parts of New Zealand are generally milder than the west, where springtime tends to be windy and rainy. Summertime is sunny and warm throughout the island nation.

Although housing costs and taxes on imports do not place New Zealand at the bottom of the cost of living scale, what you get in return is a high quality of life in terms of outdoor pursuits, a low population density, a low crime rate, a society that values time spent with family and friends, and an excellent health care system with very reasonable costs. In fact, the nation’s largest city, Auckland, is consistently rated at the top of the surveys of the most livable cities in the world for these very reasons.


Wellington Harbor

Wellington, at the far end of the North Island from Auckland, is the capital of New Zealand, although it only comes in third in population size. It also appears in the top range of quality of life listings. The city center is compact but replete with a lively arts and cultural scene. It’s standing as the most remote capital city in the world highlights New Zealand’s isolation, which could be seen as both a blessing and a curse. For anyone trying to “get away from it all,” you can’t get much further out of the way than this while still enjoying a world-class cultural experience. On the other hand, the distance can be a major issue for those who need to stay closely connected with loved ones.

Sharon is an experienced expat, having lived in Wellington for fifteen years. She offers some great insights into a few of the difficulties that expats can experience. But she got through it all and lives to tell us a little about her experience:

J.B. : Where did you come from originally?

I’m originally from Indiana, but moved around a bit after finishing my Master’s in Clinical Psychology. I move to New Zealand after finding my now husband (New Zealander) while living in Juneau, Alaska.

J.B. : Why did you choose to live in New Zealand?

Blame the Internet. My husband and I both have the same last name. So, no, we didn’t met via internet dating sites. Back then I did a Google search of my last name and around 15 responses came up with the same name. To do the same Google search today I would get millions of responses. I wrote to a few of the Rumsey’s listed and my husband and I just continued writing. Quickly it resulted in daily emails and regular phone calls. He came to Alaska for a month’s holiday and then the rest is history. We are both very happy and have a beautiful 10 year old son.

J.B. : What do you like about it?

It was hard at first – for the first 2 years here I found it difficult. People may speak the same language (for the most part) but customs and attitudes are not the same and as the person relocating I had to do the changing and adapting. I think that for a person to move overseas they really should have an open mind and hopefully some experience of at least taking holidays overseas as well. I think if you move to any new country with set ideas and with a small minded attitude – a person will probably fail in adapting to any new setting. Some American ‘ideals’ and ‘attitudes’ are very toxic outside of American borders and rightly so people are very put off by this type of behavior.

J.B. : What don’t you like about it?

I miss the convenience of one stop shopping – not necessarily at malls, but just going to Walmart and knowing I can get all I need in one shop. Also, in the beginning you miss things you can’t get in NZ. But slowly over time you either forget those items and find replacements you like or you just enjoy them when they are found and overindulge when home. But I’ve been in NZ since 1996 – and to tell you the truth, now I see American things more and more and I will smile fondly at them and just walk by. About the only things I obsessed about was having Cherrios sent over so I could feed them to my son as a toddler. Odd – but a behavior I just couldn’t seem to shake. Nowadays you can actually buy a few varieties of Cheerios – but now I don’t even buy them. I guess I’ve just gotten over them. And have moved on and feel more at home.

J.B. : Although English is spoken and the culture is not radically different, have you encountered any difficulties in adjusting to life in New Zealand?

English is spoken, but the slang is all different. Even some American slang is used differently here – so you should never assume it’s taken the same way. Like saying something is “Mickey Mouse” – in American that means it’s easy as in an easy A class. Here it means horrible or bad – not taken in a good light.

I would say that the culture is very different from the States. I had to do a lot of adjusting – and it wasn’t easy. It drives me crazy how kiwis seem to not notice other people in their vicinity in the supermarket – just leaving their carts (trolleys) in the middle of the isle and even standing there in your way oblivious to someone trying to get around them. It still bugs me. Kiwis are more English in background – so in working here, I would have to drop names of people to get people to speak to me nicely – or they would be abrupt and quite rude to me. Until I figured that out, I would come home from work in tears.

J.B. : What has surprised you about New Zealand?

What has surprised me is that you can love another country as much as your own if you come to it with an open mind and heart. NZ is a beautiful country and when you’ve lived here as long as I have you can come to love it and consider it home. Another surprise – is seeing your homeland from a different perspective. The grass is greener wherever you find happiness. America with all its brashness doesn’t own happiness and it’s not always in the right. I think Americans really need to learn to be citizens of the Earth and to embrace the diversity found in other countries.

Diane is another expat who has shared some thoughts on life in New Zealand with Escape From America Magazine. She lives in Wellington and writes the blog, American In Exile, which asks the question many a self-searching expat has asked themselves, “Out of the country, out of the hemisphere, out of her mind?” You can judge for yourself about Diane:

My name is Diane Morgan and I’m originally from Bergen County, New Jersey. I’ve been living outside of America for nearly 10 years now but have been in NZ for the past four of those.

Although there are at least a million good reasons to move to NZ, including the gorgeous scenery and the laid-back nature of the people, I’m actually here because my husband (then boyfriend!) is Welsh. As it turns out, it was easier for us both to get work visas in New Zealand than it was to migrate to each other’s countries, so rather than endure a long distance relationship across the Atlantic while sorting out immigration issues, we moved to the other side of the planet to live and date like normal people.

That said, New Zealand is fantastic, plain and simple. Every corner of the country is beautiful and we love exploring the varied landscapes. The mountains down south are breathtaking but the beaches up north give them a run for their money. As for Wellington, where we live, we’re always impressed by the unlikely combination of culture and wilderness. For a city its size, Wellington offers a great mix of restaurants and nightlife, yet there’s a surf beach just down the road from my house! It’s awesome.

For the most part, there’s very little to complain about living in NZ. However there are two things to be aware of should you decide to move down here. The first is that the quality of housing in NZ is generally lower than that in other Westernized countries, by which I mean that kiwi houses are very poorly insulated. It’s hard to imagine what this actually means until you spend a winter here, but there’s nothing like being in an un-insulated Wellington house when a southerly is blowing in straight from Antarctica. If you’re renting, this can mean very large heating bills in winter!

The other downside is that moving to NZ means you are very far away from, well, most other countries in the world. I know this sounds obvious but it means that going home can be both expensive and time-consuming. From Wellington to New Jersey, you’re talking three planes, 25 hours, and nearly $3000 (NZD) round trip. This could impact your decision to move here permanently if you are planning on starting a family, or have aging relatives back in the States.

As for integrating, there’s no real language barrier and the kiwis are just as friendly as the Americans so it’s not hard to make new friends and get involved in the community.

One thing that has surprised me about New Zealand is that the kiwis seem really willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. When I was looking for my first job here, I found that if you show the willingness and determination to work hard, they’re willing to give you a shot. They’re also really honest people. Not only can you leave your belongings safely at the front of the yoga studio, but it’s also not unusual to bring an item up to the register in a store and have the kiwi say, “Don’t buy that here… there’s a better one across the road – and half the price!” Such encounters restore my faith in humanity!


James Cook statue in Christchurch

Christchurch is the second largest city in New Zealand and the primary urban center on the South Island. It has long been known internationally as “The Garden City” for its expansive system of parks and public gardens, but after the earthquake of February 2011 hit the city center hard, plans for rebuilding will limit the height of buildings and increase the extent of parklands even more. As Mayor Bob Parker explained, “It’s about a safe, sustainable, high-tech, low-rise city in a garden.” While the city is focused on beautiful spaces within its interior, its location on the east coast of the South Island is set amidst a picturesque agricultural region and unmatchable natural splendor.

Whitney is an expat from Oregon who is currently living in Christchurch. Her blog is called Further Than You Think, and what I think is that it is a great read for anyone who is interested in learning about what New Zealand has to offer from the point of view of an inquisitive and engaged young woman with an interesting outlook.

J.B. : Why did you choose to live in New Zealand?

I lived in New Zealand for a few years as a kid and loved it. I always wanted to live here again, and when I started thinking about going to graduate school it seemed like a good time to make the move.

J.B. : What do you like about it?

Life in New Zealand feels a lot more laid-back than living in the US did. It’s hard to explain, but everything just feels much less stressful.

J.B. : What don’t you like about it?

I hate shopping here—this includes shopping for everything from groceries to clothing to furniture. Selection tends to be limited and the prices are high. Whenever I visit the US I usually bring an extra suitcase to fill with clothes.

J.B. : Although English is spoken and the culture is not radically different, have you encountered any difficulties in adjusting to life in New Zealand?

I’ll occasionally get frustrated when things aren’t as easy or convenient as they are in the US. But generally, it’s been a pretty easy adjustment.

J.B. : What has surprised you about New Zealand?

New Zealand gets a lot of credit for having really beautiful scenery, which it does, but you almost never hear about the urban areas and I was surprised at how cool the cities are. Wellington and Christchurch (pre-quake) are two of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to: pedestrian-friendly, clean and full of cool, independent shops, restaurants and cafes.

J.B. : Are you considering staying in New Zealand after you graduate?

I expect after I graduate I’ll go back to the US. I really like living here, but it’s just too far from my family for me to want to stay forever.

About the author: Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). Julie presently lives in the sunny wine country of Argentina, where she and husband, Jamie, edit Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.

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  1. Jenny October 22, 2011 at 1:47 am

    So great to read about other expats’ experiences here in New Zealand!

  2. Jackie Baumann December 21, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    I’m getting ready to visit a niece and her famiy who live near Wellington. We want to bring some gifts to them and thought perhaps some items that she might ‘miss’ from home would be appreciated. One site that I saw had several messages from ex-pats in various places who really missed Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. Any other itdeas? I would appreciate suggestions. Thanks.

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