We are asked questions about our move all of the time. We are happy to assist others. I am glad that Jean had the forethought to refer you to us. We will be more than willing to give you our take on things here in this grand city.
Just for some info, we moved here in Dec. 2001. We had been here once before for less than a week at that time, while also traveling to the Czech Republic, Poland, Vienna, and Berlin. We left CA in August of 2001 with the intention of traveling for a year or so, then settling down on the Northeast coast in the Boston area. That was the hope at the time.
Now let me preface all of the rest of this with the fact that Hungary will be joining the EU in May of 2004. All rules and laws will be different by then, but until then and most likely after that they will continue to change daily.
When we arrived and still after the EU, U.S. citizens can stay for up to 90 days without a Visa. E.U. regulations are such now that U.S. citizens can only stay in the E.U. as an entity for 90 days every six months. That means after 90 days in any E.U. country/countries, we must leave for 6 months before re-entering. They are beefing up their inter-country passport control computers systems to make this much more of a hassle than it has in the past, Hungary included. When we came, we just crossed a border to have our passport stamped. This was not a problem at the time as we had U.S. friends living in Slovakia and Croatia, so we could take mini-vacations.
Investigating things with other Americans and a lawyer, we were told that if we started a corporation here, we could be managing directors and not need Visas to stay. We found an attorney and did do this. The cost was $300.00 (at the exchange rate then, which was 280 Huf to the $). The day we had our last Notary stamp put on the papers, the attorney received a call from his office. His researcher told him that a law had just passed stating that we as corporation owners would still need Visas for staying in Hungary. Going from inflated to deflated in minutes, we then checked out that process, something the attorney said he did not do.
We found an agency called Business Umbrella (since has gone out of business). They for a hefty fee, arranged Work Permits, which was necessary first and then our temporary Visas. At the time, they were the best deal cost wise around. We were constantly running around getting paperwork for them to submit our papers. The clincher was that the new law made it impossible to get your Visa without returning to the States. This was a cost that we did not want to deal with, but there was no choice. Up to January 1, 2002, you could go to any other country, go to the Hungarian Embassy and have your Visa issued. This right was taken away from Hungarian Ambassadors with a change in government. The law is now that you must apply in your country of citizenship for part of the process.
Ron was newly retired in the States, giving us the time to travel, so he had to get a work permit to get a Visa. To get a work permit, you have to be accepted for employment from a Hungarian company. He found a language school to hire him as did I, but we both shortly thereafter, found university teaching positions. We flew back to NYC to the Hungarian consulate and submitted our applications. They were less than helpful and did not know the rules and laws that we were assured of from the agencies here. As public employees of universities, we did not have to pay the $50.00 fee for applying. We left with such bad feelings, that I was sure we would be denied and I was sick about it for weeks. Finally, they sent a letter to our NJ address that our Visa was ready. We had to UPS our passports to our friends in NJ who had to send them with a certified check to the consulate as if it were us doing it. The check was to cover certified mail to send our passports back to NJ. We were then in Hungary illegally during this time and without passports. Our friend then had to Fed Ex our passports back to us here. Unfortunately, the Visa was for less than a year due to some crazy system of how they calculate. Business Umbrella had since gone under during this time, but we followed our worker to the Ex-Pat Relocation Center (www.erc.hu) to finish the job. These darlings charged us $75.00 each just to register us with the local police, which is a legal requirement. If we had realized this ahead of time, we could have paid a Hungarian $20.00 to do it for both of us, but we were dumb in the ways of the land.
We got along fine until this year when we had to renew it. ERC is just about the only game in town and the small others charged just about the same fees, so we bit the bullet and continued with them since they had all of our files anyway. We just got our bill and it was $1,700.00 for both of us. That was about 700. more than anticipated, but too late now. During the first year, we needed a physical for the Work Permit. Very simple, in and out. For the Visa renewal, we had to have a chest X-Ray for TB, HIV test, stool sample, Salmonella test, full physical exams. This was not covered by my Hungarian health insurance or Ron’s stateside insurance.
The jury is still out on how things will go next year when they join the EU. Although our Visa was renewed in June, ours expires the beginning of May due to the EU. No one seems to know yet if this will be more complicated or less.
We do not know of any ex-pats who are living here without working for that almighty Work Permit, which is needed for the Visa. That is not true, there are some, but they are of Hungarian origin- children of Hungarian emigrants and the rules are different since they qualify for a Hungarian passport.
Yesterday, I read in the Budapest Sun (www.budapestsun.com) that the law currently is that if you leave the country for 90 days, your Visa becomes invalid and then you must start the whole process again. The exception is if you have to travel for business and can prove that you needed to be out of the country for legitimate business reasons. This still has to be approved by the Ministry of Immigration.
Now on to your specific questions:
Are there any social groups for retirees? Although we have not looked, we do monitor the social events in the Budapest Sun weekly. There have not been any listed. I doubt that there would be a sufficient number of ex-pat retirees to make up a group.
Being a gay couple, unless you speak Hungarian fluently, your gay options will be limited also. We do not have a gay network other than three friends who speak English. We are isolated from much/most of their social functions since we cannot communicate with the crowd and it is a burden on them to continually translate when they want to socialize.
The gay scene is almost exclusively Hungarian speaking. There is one bar owned by an American (U.S.), but he speaks Hungarian. It is a drag bar, not exclusively gay, and definitely not our cup of tea. We rarely go to the bars. We did have an older friend who had been here for 4 years, he worked for the U.S. Embassy. He went to the bars all of the time and never had a good thing to say about them. He continued out of loneliness, but claimed that he never met one person there.
We have built a community of friends, but mostly non-gays, non-Hungarian, or U.S. people here on Fulbright Scholarships, but they are all short-termers. Hungarians are very family oriented. It is difficult to get to know them well since they spend all of their free time with family. Even the gays are similar. Many gay men do not leave home until their late 20’s to early 30’s since they cannot afford to live on their own. Sharing an apt. or flat is not as common as in the States.
We are interested in information about medical plans available in Budapest. The American Clinic offers a medical plan that costs currently 60,000 HUF a year (current exchange is 230 HUF to the $). This covers doctor visits, labs, and I think x-rays, but not for routine physicals. It does not include hospitalization. I know that you could buy Hungarian health insurance through the State, but I do not know the cost currently. It was around $150.00 a month. Doctors and nurse here are highly underpaid and you do not want to be hospitalized here unless you have someone to give “tips” to the doctors, nurses, aides, P/T, etc. If you don’t, you will sit in the bed and rot. I have heard this from a number of my students as well as Hungarian friends who have had experience. We have not, but we don’t discount the information.
I have an Israeli friend who has insurance from London and pays 172 euros a month for the whole package. I am not sure what her coverage is, but do know that it covers hospitals. I think she has to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed with all services.
Suggestions on good areas in which to rent with various services available, i.e., shopping, food, restaurants, etc. which one could walk to and from? If you like the Buda side, you are asking the wrong people. We are down to earth people and our experience is that the Buda side attracts mainly for corporate employees, embassy folks, and others with money to burn. The rents and cost of buying on that side are highly inflated and they get is since most ex-pats are being cared for by their companies and not paying out of pocket.
If you are interested in the Pest side, we can discuss this further. As far as services go, we have 4 grocery stores within 2-3 blocks, a dozen restaurants, a post office, a department store, camera shops, bakeries, and an Indian clothing/food store. Within our one block, there are 3 convenience grocery stores, an Internet place, a dog groomer, a Spanish, Hungarian, and a Chinese restaurant., plus other assorted little shops. Businesses here come one day and are gone the next. The economy is not that stable for the Hungarians with the average salary about $400. U.S. a month.
Within our block they are building a new apt. complex. www.center-homes.hu They are supposed to be finished in 2005. It is in Hungarian, but on the left, click on Akacfa and you will see the proposed project.
We have a flat that is 114 square meters and was unoccupied for six months. Hungarians do not rent more than 70 sq. m. due to cost. If you are thinking of renting part of the year, you will need to think in terms of can you afford to have it vacant when you are not here. For foreigners to buy, at the moment, you have to have a corporation and the corporation has to do the purchase. This still has to have approval from some ministry or the other. We are buying our flat, but do not intend to rent it out for some time.
There are no mortgages for foreigners, so if you buy, you have to do so outright. When they find out you are from the U.S., the price inflates, so it is best to have a Hungarian do the negotiating for you for renting or for buying.
What would the average or range be for monthly living expenses in Budapest assuming we owned our own flat/condo? ADSL, satellite TV, cellphones service, gas, water, electricity, and other basic expenses. ADSL, IDSN, or Cable Internet connections are not available in all areas at this time. I have ADSL, but the only provider for this area was the phone company. I would have preferred Cable through the cable company since it would be cheaper. I pay about $50.00 a month depending on exchange rates, but the “business” pays it so it is a write off on Hungarian taxes. Mobile phone (cell phones is so American ; ) ) run us about $25.00 a month with a regular contract. To get a regular contract, you need a Visa or a corporation. The other alternative is a pay-as-you-go mobile. You buy the phone (you need a Hungarian to actually purchase it) and then you buy cards that give you talk time. It is now possible to do this through ATM machines. Gas has gone up twice in the last six months. It now runs us about $25.00 a month in the summer and more in the winter. We have radiators that are gas heated. Electric is about $30.00 a month. In our building, water is not metered, so we do not have a separate water bill. Every flat, whether you rent or own pays a “homeowners” fee to the building. In our building this covers water and building maintenance for the elevator, cleaning the halls, etc. We pay 10,000 HUF a month, but we understand that currently, it is 25,000 since they needed to do some work on the roof. In order to have a satellite dish, you have to have permission from your fellow building dwellers. No one in our building has one and we survive with BBC and CNN International and a few hours of Animal Planet in English. TCM is on at 9:00 pm every night in English. This is different depending on neighborhoods and cable companies. The company is pre-determined by the neighborhood. Our cable bill for our basic services runs about $9.00 a month. Phone bill is about $20.00 a month. You are charged the minute that you place a call and they answer, even for wrong numbers. There are no packages like the States. Most people hardly ever use their home phone and use mobiles instead. It is cheaper. Also, most people use SMS messaging on their phones since it is cheaper than a call on the mobile.
Oh, I forgot the HYPERMARKETS. These are Au Chan, Tesco, and Cora. All of them need a car to get to, so we don’t get there often without a car. They are similar to Costco, Sam’s Club, etc. with the exception that they make the largest of these look like small potatoes. I have never seen such large stores in my life. The prices are supposedly cheaper, but you still need to comparatively shop around. Food prices have escalated in the time we have been here. It was normal to spend $10.00 for about 3 days worth of groceries. Now, $10.00 will cover maybe two days. After the E.U. I have my fears that prices will soar. Projections are that property values will too!
This should give you some food for thought, but I am more than happy to continue a dialogue with you.
One more thing…Ron’s monthly retirement income is more than most Hungarians earn in six months, but that was not considered when he applied for the Visa. I know in some countries if you can show self-sufficient income, it is easier. Here is was not. What happens next year is anyone’s guess.