Newbie Guide

Whereas most of my coworkers have spent much of their adult lives moving from country to country, this is my first time living abroad. When I first moved to Al Ain, it felt like every little thing was a challenge to figure out. Not all of these things were issues for my coworkers, and maybe some of these things are just the norm in other countries. But for me, an American that has never lived abroad before, these are the things I didn’t know I needed to know.

Things I didn’t know and felt stupid once I figured them out:

  1. The switch with a red light controls the hot water heater in the bathrooms and kitchen. Each bathroom and kitchen has its own water heater.
  2. The water never gets cold in the summer and hot water doesn’t last long in the winter. This doesn’t mean your water heater is broken.
  3. You have to get your fruit and vegetables weighed in the produce department – not at the cashier.
  4. Be prepared to spend a lot of time reading labels at the store your first few times grocery shopping. You will find many things in French and Arabic. You will find some things that you would find in the US, you will not find most things you want. You will learn to adapt in time.
  5. It is still a very cash driven society. Yes, you can use your debit card in most places, but people mostly still use cash. I have seen this changing somewhat just in the past few years but get used to carrying wads of cash around with you at least for now.
    1. Debit cards and ATMs have a daily limit on them. For example, UNB is 5000 aed daily max. Keep this in mind when you go to purchase furniture or other big ticket items.
    2. Merchants will not even blink an eye if you pay all in cash. I paid for my car in cash. I have seen people showing up at the schools and paying 100,000 aed worth of tuition in cash. This is seen as completely normal.
  6. You have to pick out your specific seats when purchasing a movie ticket. People will come late to the movie, they will talk throughout the movie, and they will leave early. Get used to it. You can not buy buttered movie theater popcorn like in the US.
  7. Using the phone was trickier than I expected:
    1. You have your choice between two cell phone providers; Du and Etisalat. There isn’t much difference between them.
    2. Pre-pay credit can be purchased at any market. This is (in my opinion) by far the cheapest way to do it. I can last the whole month on less than 10dirhams of credit – especially if using whatsapp for most communication.
    3. Incoming calls to your mobile are free.
    4. Although you may see phone numbers in a format like this +971 3 xxx xxxx, you don’t dial it like that for landlines. Instead, do this:
      1. Landlines in Abu Dhabi begin with a ‘2’, so you would dial 02 xxx xxxx
      2. Landlines in Al Ain begin with a ‘3’, so you dial 03 xxx xxxx
      3. Landlines in Dubai being with a ‘4’, so you dial 04 xxx xxxx
    5. To dial a mobile phone, you need to dial the zero
      1. Etisalat numbers;  050 xxx xxxx  or 056 xxx xxxx
      2. Du numbers;  055 xxx xxxx or 052 xxx xxxx
    6. Be very careful with adding data onto your mobile. For example, if you get a one month plan and leave on the data even for a few minutes after the one month is over, you will be shocked to see how much they charge you. I have done it twice on accident. Once it was on for 15 minutes, and I was not even touching my phone, and they charged me 90 aed. Another time, it was on for maybe 5 minutes and I was charged 35 aed.
    7. You will get asked your phone number for everything. It is treated almost like an ID number. Learn it.
  8. Car batteries only have a life expectancy of about 2 years, and they die without warning.
  9. You are supposed to use dishwasher salt with a dishwasher to make the water softer.
  10. You can fill the propane tank for the gas stoves at some of the gas (petrol) stations.
  11. Most people don’t own a dryer because clothes dry fast hanging up and because the dryers here take hours.
  12. The UAE uses Type G plugs. You will need lots of adapters as not all things are sold with this style plug (however, I am finding that more and more things are being sold with the correct plug, so it is becoming less of a problem). Even with an adapter, don’t try plugging in US stuff because the voltage is different. Unless it is something like a laptop which allows for the different voltage. Get a converter if it is critical or just buy electrical stuff once in the UAE instead of bringing it with you.
  13. You will eventually adapt to the weather. In the first year, when it is 60 degrees, you will think everyone is crazy for wearing jackets and scarves. By your third winter, you will be freezing when it gets down to 6o and wishing you had a heater in your house. Hot will always be hot, but you will learn to whine less about it after some time.
  14. When someone asks you for “your good name”, they just want whatever name they can call you. I could never decide if they meant first or last name…. either works.
  15. Your middle name will become important. Culturally the middle name is the father’s first name, and they use their middle name more than their family name. Get used to hearing your middle name.
  16. Most dining establishments don’t have “ranch” You may luck out at Fuddruckers or Cheesecake factory. *Extra word of caution* don’t even try asking for it while in a bar near a drunk British or Irish woman. This can lead to a bar fight.
  17. Women – just sit in the back of the taxi. If you try to sit in the front, it will just end up being awkward.
  18. Women – I hate to say this, but don’t make eye contact and smile with men as freely as you would in the States. You think you are just being friendly. Men will take it the wrong way. Trust me.
  19. Most people use a VPN. If you don’t know what this is, learn about it. If possible get it before coming here. It is possible to get it once you are here, but it will be more challenging.
  20. Although you have to leave your friends and family behind in your home country, you know you will see them during the breaks. It makes the distance a little more bearable. Once you live in an expat society, you have to get used to people leaving. I don’t know how to tell you how to do this. I am still figuring it out. The people that you meet here, they will become your family. Then they will leave, and you may never see them again. It is harder than I ever could have imagined.

This is my list. I am sure I will think of 20 more as soon as I publish this. I would love to hear if you have any suggestions you would like to add. Please feel free to leave them in the comments. We can all benefit from sharing our first experiences. So tell me…. what did you figure out after moving here that made you feel stupid for not knowing it sooner????

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10 Responses to Newbie Guide

  1. Clark Davis says:

    There’s a lighted switch in the kitchen that’s the water pump for all the water in the apartment. If it’s not switched, you’ll get drizzles.

    • Tori says:

      I am going to modify that comment to say “in some apartments”. This isn’t something I have experienced in either of my two apartments, but good information if a person’s apartment has this!

  2. Clark Davis says:

    If you happen to be here during Ramadan, be very careful that you don’t eat or drink anything in public.

  3. Tori says:

    The call to prayer can sound very loud in the beginning. May even wake you up when you first move here. You will slowly get used to it.

  4. Anissa says:

    Great Post! These are all good things to know before my arrival. Thanks!

  5. A.K. Maleeke says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve been considering a job in UAE and not sure where to go. I’ve been considering Abu Dhabi or Al Ain. Do you recommend one over another?

  6. Tara says:

    Any chance you can write a blog about what it’s like to be a woman and also the experience for girls / teen girls?

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