A comparison of food, clothes, shelter, transportation, and entertainment costs of the world's cities.

Author: Luca Ventura
Project Coordinator: B Pham

Would you rather pay $23 dollars for a movie ticket or just $8? Answering that question is not as straightforward as it seems at first glance. Although these are the average amounts paid respectively by moviegoers in London (United Kingdom) and Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) for a trip to the cinema, Brazzaville's cheaper movie ticket comes with additional risks: the central African nation has been plagued by years of wars and militia conflicts. On top of that, half of the population lives in poverty, and outbreaks of infectious diseases and pandemics are recurrent events.

What is surprising is that the two capitals are tied for 19th place in the 24th edition of the Cities Cost of Living Survey ranking compiled by global consulting firm Mercer. (Click here to see the full ranking.) Cost of living indexes measure the relative price levels for consumer goods and services compared against other local and international averages. They are also used to calculate wages, pension benefits and tax brackets. Many people may also glance at them when planning a vacation or when deciding on job or educational opportunities.

There are many—and often opposite—reasons why the cost of living in two cities can be similar. Steep prices often come with better standards of living, job opportunities, and infrastructure. On the other hand, because in some places a significant percentage of the local population lives under the poverty line, housing and other expense items can be very costly luxuries.

Cities are also more interconnected than ever and so external dynamics can lead to great spikes or dramatic declines in prices in very short amounts of time. Currency fluctuations are often a major cause for changes in the ranking and when tensions rise between two countries, investment, jobs and living standards can suffer greatly on both sides as a result.

Less clear is how the ripple effects caused by certain domestic policies affect other corners of the world. Trying to weigh all of the global, national, and local elements that enter into determining the price of a car, a pair of jeans or a movie ticket is mind-boggling.

Asia-Pacific

With land in short supply and property prices rising, Hong Kong emerged this year as the most expensive city in the world. Mercer's ranking includes 209 cities across five continents and measures the comparative cost of more than 200 items in each location, including housing, transportation, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment. Six out of ten of the most expensive cities are now in Asia, with Hong Kong followed by Tokyo (2), Singapore (4), Seoul (5), Shanghai (7), and Beijing (9). 

The reason for their surge? Stronger monetary regulation and a push to transform the yuan into an international currency nudged Chinese cities up in the ranking. While Tokyo moved up one position from last year despite a depreciation of the yen, all other Japanese cities fell in the survey. Australian locations have all dropped in the list too: cities that fall in the middle of the ranking, the folks at Mercer note, are at greater risk of experiencing changes in their positions due to the movement of other cities. 

Meanwhile, Indian cities remain cheap: Mumbai (up two spots at 55) is the most costly and the only in the top 100. Elsewhere, Kuala Lumpur (145) jumped 20 places from last year, while Bangkok (52) rose fifteen slots. To drink the most expensive coffee in the world, one must go to Seoul, up one place from last year: one cup will set you back as much as $10.

The Americas

No North American city ranks this year among the 10-most expensive worldwide: the highest-ranked city, New York (13) dropped four places while San Francisco (28), Los Angeles (35) and Chicago (51) dropped seven, 12 and 20 places respectively.

Does that mean that renting an apartment in Manhattan has suddenly become affordable? No: on average, renting a two-bedroom unfurnished apartment in the Big Apple still costs about $5,700 a month. Falling in the ranking in comparison to other locations does not necessarily mean that the cost of living in a given place has gone down too, and this is particularly evident in South America, where most of the cities dropped in the survey despite price increases on goods and services. In particular, Rio de Janeiro (99), Lima (132) and Bogota (168) plummeted 43, 28 and 15 places, respectively. São Paolo (58) ranked as the costliest city in the region despite a 32-place drop from last year, followed by Santiago (69). Caracas has been excluded altogether from the ranking due to the loss of value of the Venezuelan Bolivar.

Most Canadian cities fell in the ranking too: Vancouver (109) by two spots, Montreal (147) and Calgary (154) by 18 and 11. The exception is Toronto (109), the country’s highest-ranked city and a popular destination among expats, which jumped 10 places due to an increase in housing costs. 

Europe

European cities climbed this year's ranks due to the appreciation of the Euro. Paris jumped 28 places (34), Rome (46) is up 34 places and Madrid (64) leaped 47 slots. German cities in particular have become more expensive, with Frankfurt (68) and Berlin (71) both jumping 49 spots. Birmingham (128) and Aberdeen (134) in the UK jumped 19 and 12 spots, respectively, despite the Brexit-driven economic slowdown. 

A fast-food burger in Zurich, the most costly European city and the third most expensive place to live worldwide, now costs $15. 

Meanwhile, in Eastern and Central Europe, Moscow (17), St. Petersburg (49) and Kiev (173), dropped four, 14 and 10 spots. Why? If the US dollar has weakened, their local currencies have weakened even more.

The Middle East

Over the past decade, Tel Aviv (16) has been climbing steadily Mercer's ranking: it is now the most expensive city in the region. While currency appreciation played a role, significant factors are the very high cost of alcohol and the cost of buying, insuring and maintaining a car. Cairo (188) remains the least costly city in the Middle East and most places in the region surveyed by Mercer have dropped in the list due to decreases in rental accommodation. Tashkent (209), in Uzbekistan, is an exception, although while it rose 10 spots on a global level it remains the least expensive city in the region and in the entire survey.

Africa

Pop question: What is the capital of Angola? The answer is Luanda, and for many years in a row it topped the list of the most expensive cities in the world. Luanda is a perfect example of where the high cost of living is driven by massive income inequality: while the majority of its population is living in slums, expats and locals made rich by the oil industry live in luxurious housing compounds. War left Angola with barely any infrastructure for manufacturing and even agricultural activities: as a result, everything is imported, resulting in astronomical prices. Despite losing the top slot globally, the Luanda (6) remains Africa's most expensive city to live in. N’Djamena (8), in Chad, follows, rising seven places, while Libreville (18), in Gabon, moves up moves up 14 spots.

On the opposite end of the ranking, the beautiful Tunis (208) and the capital of Gambia, Banjul (206), are two of the cheapest cities in the world to live in.


Cost of Living in Cities Around the World

Rank City Country
1 Hong Kong HKSAR
2 Tokyo Japan
3 Zurich Switzerland
4 Singapore Singapore
5 Seoul South Korea
6 Luanda Angola
7 Shanghai China
8 Ndjamena Chad
9 Beijing China
10 Bern Switzerland
11 Geneva Switzerland
12 Shenzhen China
13 New York City United States
14 Copenhagen Denmark
15 Cuangzhou China
16 Tel Aviv Israel
17 Moscow Russia
18 Libreville Gabon
19 Brazzaville Republic of the Congo
19* London United Kingdom
21 Victoria Seychelles
22 Noumea New Caledonia
23 Osaka Japan
24 Abidjan Cote d'Ivoire
25 Nanjing China
26 Dubai United Arab Emirates
27 Taipei Taiwan
28 San Francisco United States
29 Sydney Australia
30 Tianjin China
31 Chengdu China
32 Dublin Ireland
33 Milan Italy
34 Paris France
35 Los Angeles United States
36 Qingdao China
37 Kinshasa Dem. Rep. of the Congo
38 Shenyang China
39 Vienna Austria
40 Abu Dhabi United Arab Emirates
41 Nagoya Japan
42 Lagos Nigeria
43 Ashgabat Turkmenistan
43* Yaounde Cameroon
45 Riyadh Saudi Arabia
46 Rome Italy
47 Oslo Norway
48 Bangui Central African Republic
49 St. Petersburg Russia
50 Amsterdam Netherlands
51 Chicago United States
52 Bangkok Thailand
53 Helsinki Finland
54 Honolulu United States
55 Mumbai India
56 Washington United States
57 Munich Germany
58 Melbourne Australia
58* Sao Paulo Brazil
60 Miami United States
61 Perth Australia
62 Dakar Sengal
63 Accra Ghana
64 Madrid Spain
65 Beirut Lebanon
66 Dhaka Bangladesh
67 Brussles Belgium
68 Frankfurt Germany
69 Santiago Chile
70 Boston United States
71 Berlin Germany
71* Luxembourg Luxembourg
73 Djibouti Djibouti
73* Douala Cameroon
75 Montevideo Uruguay
76 Buenos Aires Argentina
77 Canberra Australia
77* Manama Bahrain
79 Barcelona Spain
79* White Plains United States
81 Auckland New Zealand
82 Dusseldorf Germany
83 Prague Czech Republic
84 Brisbane Australia
85 Dallas United States
86 Houston United States
87 Adelaide Australia
88 Hamburg Germany
89 Stockholm Sweden
90 Seattle United States
91 Yangon Myanmar
92 Riga Latvia
93 Lisbon Portugal
94 Amman Jordan
95 Atlanta United States
95* San Juan Puerto Rico
97 Morristown United States
97 Port of Spain Trinidad & Tobago
99 Abuja Nigeria
100 Rio de Janeiro Brazil
101 Wellington New Zealand
102 Minneapolis United States
103 New Delhi India
104 Pointe A Pitre Guadeloupe
105 Lyon France
106 Bandar Seri Begawan Brunei
106* Conakry Guinea
108 Struttgart Germany
109 Toronto Canada
109 Vancouver Canada
111 Cotonou Benin
112 Athens Greece
113 Bratislava Slovakia
114 Panama City Panama
115 Doha Qatar
116 Detroit United States
117 Jakarta Indonesia
117 Jeddah Saudi Arabia
117 Muscat Oman
120 Bamako Mali
121 Kuwait City Kuwait
122 St. Louis United States
123 Nairobi Kenya
124 Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
125 Cleveland United States
125* Pittsburgh United States
125* Port Au Prince Haiti
128 Birmingham United Kingdom
128* Casablanca Morocco
130 Guatemala City Guatemala
132 Portland United States
132* Lima Peru
132 Ljubljana Slovenia
134 Aberdeen United Kingdom
134* Lome Togo
134* Ouagadougou Burkina Faso
137 Hanoi Vietnam
138 Manila Philippines
138* Zagreb Croatia
140 Tallinn Estonia
141 San Jose Costa Rica
142 Phnom Penh Cambodia
143 Niamey Niger
144 Chennai India
145 Kuala Lumpur Malaysia
145* Nurnberg Germany
147 Montreal Canada
148 Glasgow United Kingdom
148* Vilnius Lithuania
150 Leipzig Germany
151 Budapest Hungary
152 Belfast United Kingdom
153 Limassol Cyprus
154 Calgary Canada
154* Warsaw Poland
156 Quito Ecuador
157 Mexico City Mexico
158 Brasilia Brazil
158* Colombo Sri Lanka
160 Ottawa Canada
161 Port Louis Mauritius
161* Winston Salem United States
163 Istanbul Turkey
164 Kingston Jamacia
165 Harare Zimbabwe
165* Havana Cuba
165* Rabat Morocco
168 Bogota Colombia
169 Kigali Rwanda
170 Bengaluru India
170* Cape Town South Africa
172 Tirana Albania
173 Kiev Ukraine
174 San Salvador El Salvador
175 Sofia Bulgaria
176 Bucharest Romania
177 Johannesburg South Africa
178 Santo Domingo Dominican Republic
179 Maputo Mozambique
180 Dar Es Salaam Tanzania
181 Belgrade Serbia
182 Kolkata India
183 Addis Ababa Ethiopia
183* Asuncion Paraguay
185 Lusaka Zambia
186 Baku Azerbaijan
187 Almaty Kazakhstan
188 Cairo Egypt
189 Gaborone Botswana
190 Islamabad Pakistan
191 Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzegovina
192 Kampala Uganda
193 Monterrey Mexico
194 Nouakchott Mauritania
195 Algeris Algeria
196 Windhoek Nambia
197 Skopje Macedonia
198 Yerevan Armenia
199 La Paz Bolivia
200 Managua Nicaragua
201 Tegucigalpa Honduras
202 Minsk Belarus
203 Tbilisi Georgia
204 Blantyre Malawi
205 Karachi Pakistan
206 Banjul Gambia
207 Bishkek Kyrgyzstan
208 Tunis Tunisia
209 Tashkent Uzbekistan

*Cities tied in Mercer's ranking.