Living in Bulgaria as an American Expat: San Fran to Sofia

Living in Bulgaria as an American Expat: San Fran to Sofia

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I first came to Sofia, Bulgaria in August of 2017. I stayed for a month when I was still traveling around the world full-time. Living in Bulgaria was a good fit because I needed a place to stay that was cheap, outside of the Schengen zone, yet located in Europe as I had upcoming projects in the area. 

The city didn’t resonate with me immediately, but after a few weeks of staying in Sofia, I slowly began to fall in love with all that it had to offer. While Sofia’s main sights can be seen pretty much within the time it takes to do the city’s free walking tour, there’s a lot more to Sofia beneath the surface that people don’t often get to see when they do a whistle-stop tour through the Balkans, spending just one or two days in Sofia.

I decided to come back in February of 2018 and have been living here since — making it about two and a half years now.

It’s definitely a big difference from where I’m from — I spent 17 years living in California (San Francisco to be precise) and 9 in New York City — but for now, it’s home!

living in bulgaria allison on mountaintop

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I’ll be forthright and say that Sofia is definitely not the easiest city to live in in Europe, and it’s not for everyone. Bulgarian is a difficult language, made more difficult by the fact that it uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The language barrier dealing with anything bureaucratic or institutional is frustrating, and the infrastructure is a little dated and needs a lot of love.

However, despite the flaws, living in Sofia has a lot of benefits. There’s a youthfulness to the city that I find extremely inspiring, with young people constantly opening new businesses. A new and exciting bar, restaurant, coffee shop, or boutique seems to be opening up in the center nearly every other day. New pieces of beautiful street art adorn the walls unexpectedly, discovered on your daily walks. And young Bulgarians are friendly and open, happy to chat with someone and always a bit curious why a foreigner is living in Bulgaria.

living in bulgaria sofia skyline
The skyline of Sofia's downtown residential district

The Ups and Downs of Living in Sofia, Bulgaria

I don’t see myself living in Bulgaria forever. While Bulgaria is developing slowly after rising up from its darker days of communism, the country still has a way to go in terms of being progressive. 

Unfortunately, racism (particularly against the minority Roma population) and homophobia are often expressed openly, and there’s a lot of corruption preventing the country from moving forward. Infrastructure (particularly roads and sidewalks) is bad, improvements to it are slow and slipshod, and these things which you overlook when you first move somewhere can grate on the nerves after a handful of years.

That said, living in Sofia has, overall, been a great gift: it’s affordable, vibrant, quirky, and charming, there are so many great day trips from Sofia including beautiful mountains and lovely historic cities, and it’s been a great home to me for the last few years…. Even if getting to live here was not an easy task!

Getting a Visa to Live in Bulgaria

living in bulgaria getting a visa

As an American, it’s really difficult, near impossible, to get a visa to live in Sofia unless you work for a company who sponsors your visa, study in the country, or start a business that hires at least 10 Bulgarians. The freelancer visa is nearly impossible to get, not least because it starts with speaking B1-level Bulgarian (which is hard to do unless you already live here.)

I was about to leave Sofia and try somewhere else in Europe, as I was so frustrated by the process of moving here, when I met the man who would later be my husband! So I ended up staying in Sofia for love, and we got married in 2019 after exhausting all the other possibilities to stay together in Sofia, since domestic partnerships are not an option here.

However, if you’re an EU citizen, moving to Sofia is a piece of cake, and it will require dealing with some grumpy migration officers, but it’s nothing more than some basic paperwork (albeit in Cyrillic) at the end of the day.

Adjusting to Expat Life in Bulgaria

living in bulgaria daily expat life in sofia

The expat scene in Sofia is small but tight-knit. The city has a surprisingly diverse group of expats living here: a handful of Americans, a ton of Europeans (mostly Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and British), a decent-sized African community, and even a number of Brazilians (of whom my husband is one!).

As an expat, I have to admit, living conditions here are a bit discordant. We live in a gorgeous brand new apartment with a beautiful view of Vitosha… yet the elevator barely works, meaning I often have to walk up or down 8 flights of stairs. We live by a beautiful park… that’s often filled with litter. In my neighborhood, cars park wherever they want to; you always have to look down or risk twisting your ankle on some busted piece of sidewalk. Yet in the city center, there’s a literal yellow brick road, fairytale-like cathedrals and churches, and beautiful architecture that wouldn’t be out of place in Moscow. Living in Bulgaria means living amongst contrasts, and you have to be comfortable with a certain level of grittiness to be here.

Fitting in as an Expat Living in Bulgaria

"In some ways I feel like a local, but in most ways I still feel like an outsider."

Allison, on fitting in while living in Sofia, Bulgaria

I will be the first to admit that a lot of my struggle here is because I haven’t acclimated here nearly as much as I should have: I still don’t speak much of the language, and I struggle to find new and creative ways to put the 500-odd words of Bulgarian I speak into new configurations without having to ever conjugate a verb.

I have a few local friends, but mostly I’ve stuck to the expat community, as my husband works with mostly Portuguese people and my business partner here is American. I joke that it’s bizarre that my circle in Sofia is an American, a Zimbabwean, and a Brazilian, but that’s the reality!

In some ways I feel like a local, but in most ways I still feel like an outsider. I like that I know the ins and outs of the best sights, restaurants, and things to do in Sofia, but I struggle with a lot of day-to-day interactions, like figuring out an issue with paying bills or handling paperwork at the migration office. I know a lot of this is due to my lack of learning the language, but I also know in my gut that Sofia is a temporary stopover when it comes to my life, and Bulgarian won’t be useful to me when I leave the city in a year or two.

Missing Home as an Expat

Staying connected back home is tough, and being an expat in Sofia during the times of coronavirus, it’s been a lot harder. I’m struck with homesickness a lot of the time, even though I know that home is a deeply broken place, and I’m terrified of what’s happening in America on a public health, political, and moral level. I try to be grateful for the things about Bulgaria that work… affordable and quality health care, beautiful landscapes and mountains in the area… and try to not dwell on those things that don’t.

Working in Bulgaria

I work entirely for myself the entire time I’ve lived in Sofia. I run several travel blogs, including one focused on Bulgaria and the Balkans, and I make a living for myself that way and by occasionally taking on freelance writing projects or other sponsored work. It’s what I was doing before I came to Bulgaria, but now, I have more focus and purpose being based in one place.

Registering my business in Bulgaria was a total headache. My business partner and I had to go to seven banks to even find one that would open a business bank account for a foreigner… and the only one that actually would open bank accounts for us had a manger who refused to give us information at first, likely because he thought two women couldn’t possibly be opening a business. 

There were a lot of tears and several meltdowns along the way, but eventually we registered our company in Bulgaria. It was a nightmare though, and my lawyers were really awful at helping me navigate it, so possibly I could have had a better experience with a different lawyer.

My husband works for an American company here in Sofia, helping their Portuguese team with customer support. Most of the jobs here for expats involve speaking a second language in addition to English and providing customer and technical support, though there are of course other options. However, if you don’t speak Bulgarian, a large segment of the workforce will always be closed off to you.

Day to Day Life While Living in Sofia, Bulgaria

living in bulgaria sites in sofia

Getting Around the City and Finding Housing

In Sofia, I largely get around by car and by taxi, since I now live a bit outside the center. But when I used to live in the center, I walked nearly everywhere. There are trams and buses and a metro system, though, so public transit is good: I’m just not taking it now in the times of coronavirus.

I rent an apartment for about 450 euro a month with my husband. It’s big, spacious, and brand new with gorgeous views, though the price is definitely on the high end for the city — we just were struggling to find a landlord who would let us have a dog, and we ended up having to go with a pricier apartment as a result of it. Our previous 1-bedroom apartment in the center had been 350 euro a month, and when my husband lived in a studio, he had a gorgeous one for just 220 euro a month.

One of the greatest things about living in Sofia is that if you’re working as an expat and earning in another currency, like I do as an American working mostly with American companies, you can really splurge on a lot of daily activities. So while I cook for myself a lot because I love to do it, I often order delivery and indulge that way, and I enjoy going out to different restaurants around the city.

Where Do Expats Live in Sofia?

I live on the western side of Sofia, halfway between Lyulin (the largest communist block area) and the center. My building is new construction across the street from old communist blocks, so there’s a bit of contrast in my neighborhood. From what I can tell, I’m mostly amongst other locals — I never hear English spoken in my neck of the woods. It’s mostly residential and for families, and I like it for living, but it’s nowhere interesting to go out in.

The coolest neighborhoods in the city are the area around Lion’s Bridge (Lavov Most) near where the Kvartal festival is held, the neighborhood of Oborishte, and the neighborhood of Lozonets. Whenever I go out to a restaurant, it’s almost always in Oborishte! The area around ulitsa Tsar Simeon also has great nightlife, and that’s where I go out.

The Cultural Differences of Living in Bulgaria

Bulgaria definitely has several things that give you culture shock. I’ve mentioned Cyrillic quite a bit, and it can definitely lead to some funny misunderstandings… like seeing “HOBO” written everywhere and only later realizing that it means “novo” or “new”. Another thing that’s given me culture shock is how Bulgarians nod their ‘yes’ but mean ‘no’, and vice versa! It’s bizarre to see someone repeatedly shaking their head but actually agreeing with you, and it can definitely cause some confusion with locals.

I’ve made quite a few adjustments compared to living in New York… my apartment is way bigger and nicer, and I dine out a lot more. I shop in malls more often than boutiques, and supermarkets more often than the farmer’s markets and specialty markets I used to be able to find all over NYC.

The Safety of Living in Sofia

One thing that’s been a really positive change is that as a woman, I feel a lot safer in Bulgaria. While I know Bulgaria has many issues with misogyny, they’re expressed a lot more “under the surface” — whereas when I lived in Brooklyn, I was harassed constantly on the street, to the point where I would sometimes have panic attacks about leaving my apartment. 

It’s great that I can walk around Sofia wearing the clothing I feel comfortable in and not have to worry so much about men harassing me on the streets. While there is a lot that Bulgaria has to improve upon in many aspects of social justice, catcalling is luckily not a major issue, at least for me as a cishet white woman who can blend in easily here. I’m sure that women of color struggle a bit more with harassment, but I can’t make any generalizations to their experience, as I only know what friends have told me about living or traveling in the region.

The Cost of Living in Sofia

sofia bulgaria bakery cost of living

Cost of living in Sofia is the best part of being based here! You can live a pretty luxurious life without checking your budget too frequently without thinking too much about it. Bulgaria uses the lev (plural: leva), which is pegged to the Euro at roughly 2:1. So something that costs 2 leva is about one Euro. It makes calculating costs a breeze!

  • Monthly rent, 2 bedroom apartment: 700-1200 leva / $400-650 USD
  • Cost of commute monthly (transit pass, car, etc): 50 leva / $30 USD for a monthly transit pass, or 365 leva for the year / $220 USD for the year.
  • Coffee from a local cafe: 2 leva / $1 USD for espresso, 4 leva / $2 USD for a cappuccino
  • Beer from a local bar: 4 leva / $2 USD
  • Common take-away food (pizza, shawarma, noodles, etc): A kebab is generally around 4 leva / $2 USD.
  • Decent dinner for two: 40 leva / $25 USD.
  • Typical grocery bill for a week of shopping: 100 leva / $60 USD

Now You Know Everything About Living in Bulgaria

From visas to housing to the cost of a kebab – this helpful guide should give you a glimpse into expat life in Bulgaria. Living in Sofia is a far cry from San Francisco, but wherever you’re from and wherever you end up living – you can find a way to make it home.

allison living in bulgaria

Allison Green is a travel writer and podcaster based out of Sofia, Bulgaria. She spends her time running travel websites: Eternal Arrival, Sofia Adventures, and California Crossroads and co-hosting a weekly podcast about anxiety, I’m Anxious About. She’s obsessed with doting on her 8-year-old Bulgarian rescue dog, Rocky, and planning her next trip.

If you’re moving to Bulgaria, currently living in Sofia or just curious about living abroad, leave you questions for Allison below in the comments.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Jean

    Thanks for this post! I was curious about Bulgaria from an American perspective and I appreciate how thoughtful you are.

    1. Derek Hartman

      I hope it helped Jean, Allison did a great job sharing her experiences about life in Bulgaria 🙂

  2. Jason

    Nice article…thanks. I’m planning to move to Bansko in about 3 years.

  3. Cristina Ricci

    Hi Allison. I’m in a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend who works in Sofia, Bulgaria. I’ve visited Sofia (last August 2020) and will be going there once again in April 2021. Come April, we need to come up with a plan as to who will be moving (me to join him in Bulgaria or him moving back to California). I’m doing my due diligence in order to come to a sound decision. My biggest concern is finding a job with an American company there. Do you have any insight as to recruiters/headhunters or employment agencies there who specialize in this sort of thing?

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