Ukraine has been picking up major popularity points from the expat and nomadic community lately. Why? Well when you combine the refreshingly low cost of living, soaring arts and social scenes, and close proximity to key destinations in Europe, Ukraine seemingly has it all. It’s no wonder more and more people are being drawn into the country at record levels.
As an American who recently lived in Ukraine, I can tell you first hand that living in Ukraine as an expat is a unique, transformative experience. Many people that are curious to move to Ukraine already know about things like super affordable prices, but maybe not so much about the unique nuances of daily life.
I love to share about how Ukrainian culture differs from anywhere else in the world. Here are 12 key pieces of info you need before you step off the plane in Boryspil Airport, and head for the adventure of a lifetime!
12 Insider Tips For Living in Ukraine (From an Expat!)
1. Drop the “The.”
In Western media and culture, we commonly, and mistakenly, say “the Ukraine.” I met some Ukrainians who cared deeply about this, and others who were indifferent. However, this term is technically a remnant of the Soviet Union and its condescension towards Ukraine. When I was living there, I met many locals who spoke fluent English. They never referred to their home nation as “the Ukraine.”
Many Ukrainians are kind, warm people that want to see more tourism. They seemed understanding when I would butcher beautiful words in their language, and, just like the rest of us, want to be understood for who they truly are on a global platform. I never met a Ukrainian that would become enraged at someone for saying “the Ukraine,” but this doesn’t diminish its harm to their culture, and who they want to be as a nation.
It’s like Facebook. Just drop the “The.”
2. You’ll see it spelled Kyiv, not Kiev
Most Americans and other native English speakers spell and pronounce Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv, as Kiev. Like I mentioned above, I met some Ukrainians that care about the distinction, while others do not. When you live in Ukraine, you will not hear locals pronounce the capital like it is commonly pronounced outside of the country. It’s good for you to know that up front, and avoid some confusion later!
Technically, Kyiv is named after one of the three brothers that founded the city. His name is Kyi (pronounced KEE), and the -iv suffix is to show his possession of the city. So, Kyiv means “City of Kyi.” In the Ukrainian alphabet, Kyiv is spelled “Київ.” Don’t worry too much about unfamiliar characters because many of the signs you’ll see around town also use the familiar Latin alphabet.
3. Here’s the low-down on grocery store etiquette
When you go to the produce or bakery section of a Ukrainian supermarket or grocery store, you’ll likely need to use a ‘tag printer’ before you head for the cashier. At home in the states, it’s the cashier who weighs and prices the produce on the spot, but in Ukraine you’ll do it yourself.
Let’s say you want to buy tomatoes. You will see they have a number on their sign; let’s pretend the number for your tomatoes is #33. Bag how many tomatoes you want and head over to the ‘tag printer’ machine, finding #33 while you put your tomatoes on the scale. The machine weighs your produce, applies the cost per kilo – much like the cashier does in stores back home. It will then print out a sticker with a barcode and price on it, which you can stick to your bagged tomatoes. Once you do it the first time, it’s easy peasy!
If you go to the cashier before doing this, he or she will send you back to the produce section to print out your barcode sticker. They may chuckle a little bit, and explain it to you. At least I made someone smile when I showed up with my broccoli and no sticker, giving away my ‘new to Ukraine’ status!
4. Bazaars are the place to be!
The bazaar is its own mini culture and one of my favorite parts of living in Ukraine. There are food vendors, clothing vendors, and everything in-between. People sell pets, fish bait, shoes, wedding accessories, beautiful scarves, fresh produce, and so much more. You name it, they’ve got it!
Going to the bazaar is a unique cultural experience, and you can often find fresher fruits and vegetables there than in the larger chain grocery stores. Plus, you’re investing in a Ukrainian family farm when you buy from them. I’m not big on bartering at these because the prices are already good, but it’s not unheard of.
5. Passing money up on marshrutkas is normal
Living as an expat in Ukraine means getting really familiar with the local transport. Your first time on the marshrutka, or minibus used as public transportation, you will likely see people get on at the back door and pass their fare up to the driver through a chain of other passengers. If they need change, then they’ll tell you how many people they’re paying for.
The idea is that you repeat that up the chain of people until it reaches the driver, and then pass their change back. If you’re leaving a larger city to a village or smaller community, then prices will likely vary. You’ll need to tell the driver the name of where you’re going, so that you get correct change.
6. You need YakTraks
Never in my life have I experienced a winter quite like those in Ukraine. The powdery snow provides for a winter wonderland. The ice that comes with the snow, however, provides a natural skating rink for your daily commute. That part’s not so pretty!
Of course, Ukrainians handle this with much more class than a Tennessee girl like me. But, they’re used to it. They know how to walk on solid ice – foreigners, not so much. I would have greatly benefitted from traction cleats like YakTraks, and highly recommend bringing either those or some other type of ice picks to put on the bottom of your shoes.
7. Tea culture is king
Ukrainians love tea. They love drinking it, sharing it, and centering work meetings, social gatherings, and family snacks around it. They also have incredible coffee shops, so check those out! It is not uncommon for people to invite you for tea and treats, be it an entire cake, candies, or cookies. Many offices have a tea kettle, a couple boxes of tea, and some cookies available for coworkers to enjoy. Some of my favorite memories are sharing a warm cup of tea with some cookies in the winter, wrapped in a blanket.
8. There are extensive metro systems in major cities
City service within Kyiv is pretty extensive and uses a token system. Tokens are little plastic coins, and you can buy them from the machines or the teller in the station. The machines usually only take 10-hryvnia bills, and fare costs 8 hryvnias. If you only have bigger bills, then you’ll need to buy from the teller. I’ve never tried to pay with a bank card, and I never saw anyone else do so. Cash is king on the metro.
Tip: Just like in any other large city, you’ll want to pay close attention to your belongings. Pickpockets sometimes use the crowdedness of the metro to quickly rob passengers and then disappear when the doors open.
9. You must try these 4 foods
When I say “these 4 foods,” I mean borscht, varenyky, zrazy, and holobsi. Borscht is a soup or stew with a tomato or beet-based broth. Varenyky are dumplings that can be stuffed with potatoes, mushrooms, or meat. Zrazy are mashed potato cakes stuffed with cabbage or meat and is then fried in a skillet. And, finally, holobsi are cabbage rolls. I usually ate mine with rice, but others make them with meat.
Ukrainian food is some of the most delicious I’ve ever had! These four dishes are my personal favorites, but there are so many more to try as well. Just order a spread and enjoy; you won’t regret it!
10. Ladies, bring a scarf or hood to wear if you visit a Ukrainian Orthodox Church
I’m a sucker for architecture. One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to visit a cathedral or church and look at the art, if they open their doors to the public. My favorite to visit in Kyiv is St. Volodymyr’s, a yellow church with blue domes and stars. It’s like stepping back in time.
That being said, I think you should definitely visit one in Ukraine for the cultural experience alone. The ones I know of in Kyiv are free to enter, so don’t let the online tours fool you! Sure, a tour would be interesting. But, it is not required to have one in order to enter. To all the ladies out there, please bring a scarf or wear a hooded jacket to cover your hair inside. I never witnessed a woman being asked to leave for showing her hair, but it doesn’t hurt to be respectful as a guest.
11. Towel racks are heated, and it’s awesome
Because the winters are so cold, Ukrainians know how to be cozy. This translates to blankets in restaurants, and heated towel racks. I underestimated how nice it is to have a warm towel waiting after a shower. Now that I know, I might get one for my own bathroom in the States. Heated towel racks are one of those small things that make you smile after a long day.
12. You can ride the train all over the country
I absolutely love train travel. As a result, I was thrilled to find that Ukraine has a large intercity train network. You can buy tickets online or in-person at the station. Tickets are very affordable, as well. You can purchase a first-class cabin bed, which has two single beds in it. The other options are second class, which has four beds, and third class, which has either upright seats or multiple beds with no walls in-between. I usually went for a second-class bed or a third-class seat.
If you’re getting off the train in the middle of the night, then the conductor will come by and let you know it’s time to get up. You can order linens and a drink separately, or opt out. If you choose to get linens, then they will either already be folded up on your bed, or the conductor will come by with them shortly after departure. It is so easy to visit more of the country since you can go to bed in one city, and wake up in another. Take advantage of this opportunity to see more of Ukraine!
I hope these 12 tips inspire you to take a closer look at living in Ukraine, or even help you as you move or transition to this beautiful country! Your days in Ukraine will be filled with delicious food, warm tea, and endless new experiences. Enjoy!
Sarah is a writer and blogger from Music City, USA with an intense case of the travel bug. On her blog, Sarah L. Travels she writes about travel, veganism, and whatever else strikes her fancy. When she’s not writing, you can find her curled up with a good book or planning her next adventure. Follow her on Instagram and Pinterest
Friday 16th of October 2020
I'm going in May. 2 years ago I married a Ukrainian woman and have been saving up for the trip. Your article was really informative.
Thursday 11th of February 2021
I'm so excited for you! I'm sure you have the best tour guide out there in your wife. Thanks for reading!
Monday 2nd of September 2019
Great article. I would just add that the former spelling of Kyiv is Russian; hence why its important to reckognise the update. Secondly, foreign credit cards easily used on subway and many buses (the latter in Kyiv). One ride showed up as 40 cents CAD - after conversion and all.
Thursday 11th of February 2021
Very true about the distinction between Kyiv and Kiev! I did, however, meet some Ukrainians from Kyiv that did not care about the distinction, partly because some of them speak Russian primarily. It doesn't surprise me that you can use foreign credit cards on the Kyiv metro, but I never did (and never saw locals use anything but cash) and couldn't recommend it as a result. Thanks for your comment!