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The top 12 international cities for software engineers

TechBeacon recently published its list of the best US cities for software engineers who are burnt out on Silicon Valley, but if you’re looking for international options, we've got you covered there as well.

Whether you’re planning to become a digital nomad, or you want to make a long-term move to another country, this collection of rankings should give you plenty of information to help pick a great city where you can practice software development outside of the US.

We've organized the list by several important factors, including purchasing power, cost of living, safety, pollution, Internet speed, the startup scene, quality of living, and traffic. Here's the rundown.

Continuous testing: A practical guide

Purchasing power

How far does your dollar (or euro, or pound, or yen, etc.) go in different cities? There are many ways to find out. One of the more lighthearted ideas is to look at The Economist’s Big Mac Index, which tells you how many Big Macs you could buy per year in a given country using that country’s mean salary. The most recent Stack Overflow developer survey conveniently uses the mean salary of software engineers for this exercise. Here were are results:

Source: StackOverflow 2016 Developer Survey

But you’re looking for cities, not countries. For that level of granularity, visit Numbeo, a database of user-contributed city data that includes cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime, and pollution.

For their purchasing power index, Numbeo uses a broader array of goods than just the Big Mac. You can find the purchasing power index rankings by going to their quality of life section.  Here are the latest rankings for international cities (including just the top seven):

  1. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  2. Canberra, Australia
  3. Zurich, Switzerland
  4. Hamilton, Canada
  5. Abu Dhabi, UAE
  6. Melbourne, Australia
  7. Geneva, Switzerland

Another helpful way to explore world cities based on the rankings in Numbeo is to use its map feature. Look for the green pins to see the best cities in the world for favorable purchasing power. You can also use the map for most of their other stats and indices.

Source: Numbeo purchasing power index map (zoomed in on Europe)

Cost of living

You'll need have a salary that’s adjusted for the cost of living in the area you want to live, so be aware of the rent prices, property prices, and the cost of goods in that metro area. The StackOverflow survey has some has some developer-specific stats in this area as well. They’ve taken rent prices from Numbeo and paired it with median developer salaries in each city to give you the percentage of salary spent on rent in each locale.  Here were the top ten:

Source: StackOverflow 2016 Developer Survey

Numbeo isn’t the only site with international cost of living data. Expatistan doesn’t provide sortable lists like Numbeo, but it’s a useful source that includes a map for quickly surveying different continents. This next list has several affordable cities that stood out from their surrounding areas on Expatistan’s map. The higher cities on the list are less expensive.

  • Lisbon, Portugal
  • Taipei, Taiwan
  • Madrid and Barcelona, Spain (same cost of living)
  • Montreal, Canada
  • Vienna, Austria
  • Berlin, Germany
  • Shanghai, China

If you’re looking to settle down in one of these cities, consider the property prices compared with incomes. Some of the places that stood out in Numbeo’s property prices to income ratio map included Reykjavik (Iceland), Dublin (Ireland), Antwerp (Belgium), Rotterdam (Netherlands), and parts of Spain, France, Germany, Norway, Greece, Turkey, India, and the Arabian peninsula.

Crime, safety, and pollution

Safety is a key concern when living abroad. You can’t be productive if you’re afraid in your own neighborhood, or if you’re getting sick due to pollution.

For measuring safety, Numbeo has a crime index and a safety index. The crime index is an estimation of overall crime in each city, while the safety index is a formula that includes numerous factors, including not just confirmed crimes but worries about different types of crimes, as well as fears about racism and corruption. Here are the top seven international cities for each of those indices.

Low crime

  1. Munich, Germany
  2. Singapore
  3. Zurich, Switzerland
  4. Taipei, Taiwan
  5. Hong Kong
  6. Tokyo, Japan
  7. Copenhagen, Denmark
  8. Vienna, Austria


High safety rating

  1. Abu Dhabi, UAE
  2. Munich, Germany
  3. Basel, Switzerland
  4. Taipei, Taiwan
  5. Arhus, Denmark
  6. Heidelberg, Germany
  7. Singapore


For pollution, Numbeo’s map shows that some cities in Africa, South America, and the US have pollution problems. The most pollution-dense regions include parts of the Middle East, India, China, and Southeast Asia.

Internet speed and startup scene

Another helpful resource for finding developer-relevant city data is Nomad List, which has been steadily growing its database (also user-contributed, like Numbeo) over the last few years. It’s more focused on stats relevant to digital nomads—remote workers who don’t need to go into the office, and don’t plan on living in an area permanently.

Nomad List has its own recipe for ranking the best cities for digital nomads, and its list brings a lot of uncommon cities to the fore. Here are its top seven cities for digital nomads.

  1. Chiang Mai, Thailand
  2. Bankok, Thailand
  3. Ubud, Bali
  4. Berlin, Germany
  5. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  6. Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain
  7. Pai, Thailand


Other helpful top-seven lists you can make with Nomad List's filters and collections include (US cities removed):

The best cities for startups

  1. London, UK
  2. Stockholm, Sweden
  3. Amsterdam, Netherlands
  4. Bangkok, Thailand
  5. Tel Aviv, Israel
  6. Tokyo, Japan
  7. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


The best cities for tech jobs

  1. Shanghai, China
  2. London, UK
  3. Stockholm, Sweden
  4. Singapore
  5. Hong Kong
  6. Bangalore, India
  7. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


Cities with the fastest Internet speeds

  1. Zhongshan, China
  2. Jeju Island, South Korea
  3. Juarez, Mexico
  4. Jena, Germany
  5. Anyang, China
  6. Nice, France
  7. Bruges, Belgium


And here’s a special filter, just for fun: Beach towns with fast internet. You can also filter on nightlife, weather, coworking, racial and LGBT tolerance, and Uber availability.

Quality of living and traffic

Quality of living ratings combine of many of the ratings described previously. Organizations that provide these ratings use different attributes and weighting for the different attributes, so you might want to review a few of them. These general quality of life ratings from several sources should give you a broad range of methods for rating general livability in these cities:

A.T. Kearny Global Cities Index (GCI)

A.T. Kearny’s Global Cities Index ranks 125 world cities using 27 attributes grouped into five categories. The categories include business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience, and political engagement.

Source: A.T. Kearny Global Cities Index 2016

Numbeo quality of life index

Numbeo’s quality of life index combines stats from all of their top-level categories, which include cost of living, property prices, crime and safety, health care, pollution, climate, traffic, and purchasing power.

Source: Numbeo Quality of Life Index

Nomad List’s best cities to live in the world

Nomad List’s livability rankings focus on quality of life, safety, air quality, infrastructure, and internet speed. Top rankings for international cities include:

  1. Tokyo, Japan
  2. Taipei, Taiwan
  3. Tel Aviv, Israel
  4. Leiden, Netherlands
  5. Perth, Australia
  6. Wollongong, Australia
  7. Hamburg, Germany

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s cost of living and livability rankings

The Economist Intelligence Unit's ranking uses 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five categories (stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure) to determine livability rankings for 140 world cities.

Source: EIU Best cities ranking and report

Mercer’s quality of living rankings

Mercer's ranking evaluates local living conditions for more than 440 world cities using 39 factors grouped into 10 categories. The categories include political stability and crime, economic environment, limitations on personal freedom, medical services and pollution, education, public utilities and traffic, recreation, consumer goods, housing, and natural disaster record. The top 7 include:

  1. Vienna, Austria
  2. Zurich, Switzerland
  3. Auckland, New Zealand
  4. Munich, Germany
  5. Vancouver, Canada
  6. Dusseldorf, Germany
  7. Frankfurt, Germany

If you hate dealing with traffic, see where the cities you’re considering rank on Numbeo’s traffic stats. Out of the cities that ranked highest in several of the aforementioned livability ratings, Vienna, Taipei, and Wellington stood out as low-traffic options.

Combined stats that developers care about

StackOverflow and Nomad List have some good developer-relevant city rankings, but there’s one more site that’s worth checking out if you’re a developer looking to relocate: Teleport.org.

This site lets you compare your current salary and city against other cities, using granular filters that include job market, education, venture capital, business freedom, economy, taxes, tolerance, and a host of other options. Teleport recently created a formula for determining the best cities for developers. Its rankings accounted for crime, pollution, living costs, startup scene, rent cost, Internet speed, university quality, tech events per year, startup growth, and the number of coworking spaces.  The results:

Source: The best cities for software developers

Each color band above represents a different attribute. Read the article for details. Bottom line: Toronto, Berlin, Melbourne, and Singapore were the big winners.

TechBeacon's international city picks

These rankings are based on cities that we saw frequently in all of the lists cited in this article. Cities with low tolerance and high crime were not included, even if the cost of living was low. The number of English speakers in each country was also a significant factor.

Berlin, Germany

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • Low cost of living and rent
  • Good purchasing power
  • High livability score
  • English spoken frequently
     

Tokyo, Japan

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • High livability score
  • Low crime
  • Good purchasing power
  • Strong startup scene

 

Stockholm, Sweden

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • Strong equality and freedom of speech
  • Strong startup and tech scene
  • Good purchasing power
  • English spoken frequently
     

Munich, Germany

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • Strong equality and freedom of speech
  • Good purchasing power
  • High livability score
  • Low crime
  • English spoken frequently
     

Toronto, Canada

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • High livability score
  • Strong purchasing power
  • English is the primary language
     

Tel Aviv, Israel

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • Good livability score
  • Strong startup scene
     

Antwerp, Belgium

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • Favorable property price to income ratio
  • High internet speeds
  • Strong startup scene
     

Taipei, Taiwan

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • Low crime
  • Low cost of living
  • Strong purchasing power
  • Strong equality and tolerance
     

Melbourne, Australia

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • High livability score
  • Strong purchasing power
  • Favorable property price to income ratio
  • English is the primary language
     

Vienna, Austria

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • Low crime
  • Low cost of living
  • High livability score
  • Low traffic
     

Zurich, Switzerland

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • Low crime
  • High livability score
  • Strong purchasing power
     

London, UK

Nomad List scores
Reasons for inclusion:

  • High livability score
  • English is the primary language
  • Strong startup and tech scene
     

Ready to make a leap?

If you’re a software engineer above the junior level, you can probably afford to live comfortably in plenty of cities around the world. But don’t let this list limit your decision. If you’re determined to live somewhere, there is a way to make it happen. 

If you work 100% remotely, why live in just one city? Digital nomads can live in Vietnam for six months, then see what Berlin is like for the other half of the year. Even families with kids are making the nomadic lifestyle work.

Are there any cities you would put on this list—or remove from it? Have you lived in any of these cities? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Continuous testing: A practical guide
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