I’ve been living in Cluj-Napoca, Romania for about eight months now. How I wound up as an American expat living in Romania is a fairly complicated tale. I first took an interest in Romania when I was planning my long-term travel throughout Europe with my dog, Andre. My original intention, when I left the USA in January 2020, was to spend anywhere from one to three months in a country before moving on (ensuring I didn’t overstay my Schengen rights).
How long would I be gone? No one could say for sure. Where would I go? Again, I didn’t have it all planned out yet. I knew I would arrive in Italy, since I’d already spent an extensive amount of time there and I was comfortable enough with the language to get Andre his EU pet passport from a local vet. I quit my job, sold my belongings, and began preparing Andre for our indefinite travel plans.
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Deciding to Move to Romania
Neither Andre nor myself are particularly good on a plane. The older I get, the less I can deal with the turbulence, and Andre is afraid of everything, from trash bins to a gentle breeze. I knew that train travel would be our only option once we’d arrived in Italy. So from there, it all came down to planning a doable train journey.
When perusing travel groups on Facebook, I realized that Romania seemed to have it all – great cost of living, widespread and reliable internet availability, friendly people, safe cities, and accessible (albeit, not easily so) by train. Not to mention, despite being an EU member state, it’s not part of the Schengen Zone, allowing 90 days visa-free for American tourists. It was everything I was looking for in a destination.
The original plan was to spend two months in Sibiu, and a month in Brasov, two adorably charming, small Transilvanian cities. But…. It was early 2020. And to say things didn’t go according to plan is an understatement to say the least.
After nearly getting denied at the Romanian border due to spending the past month in Italy, Andre and I were reluctantly let in. We arrived in Sibiu on March 4, 2020, making it just about a year since we’ve been living here. During the global lockdown, my boredom had me spending my nights with copious amounts of Romanian red wine and Tinder (what can I say, there was very little to do, and no matter how much wine I indulged in, Andre never replied when I spoke to him).
Settling Into Life in Cluj-Napoca, Romania
I ‘met’ a guy on Tinder who lived in Cluj-Napoca, the unofficial capital of Transilvania, a city just about two and a half hours away from Sibiu. When the restrictions on movement between localities finally lifted in mid-May, I went up to Cluj for a couple of nights to experience a new city and hang out with my local crush (Szilard, whose name took me forever to pronounce correctly).
Fast forward one month later – Andre and I moved to Cluj and found an apartment in the city with my now-fiance. We adopted a second dog in August, got engaged in September, found out I was pregnant in January, and the rest, as they say, is history (what can I say, I move fast). Romania, originally meant to be a very short chapter in my life, has now become my home.
Getting a Visa to Live in Romania
Figuring out how to stay in Romania was tricky, but not impossible. Initially, my right to stay in the country kept getting prolonged due to the extension of Romania’s State of Alert. One can’t depend on that forever, though, and though my best option was to get married and gain residence.
There are other fairly straightforward ways to obtain residency in Romania. The most common is to start a business. The entire process, including lawyer fees, is less than $1000 USD with very few requirements. Essentially, anyone can do it. Prior to Szilard and I getting engaged, this was my plan.
Living in Romania as an English Speaker
Adjusting to life in Romania hasn’t been as difficult as I’d anticipated. While I still don’t speak the language, I can communicate enough to understand what people around me are talking about, speak to people at restaurants and stores, etc.
Romanian is a Romance language, and, having a working knowledge of Italian, most of the words are at least somewhat familiar. The pronunciation is super-difficult, for me, however, as there are a lot of unique and odd vowel combinations that I still can’t properly say. There are also a couple of additional letters and one sound in the Romanian language that we don’t have in English. This makes pronunciation even more difficult.
In the main cities, you’ll find that most people under 45 speak a decent amount of English. I think that’s why it’s been so challenging for me to learn Romanian, because everyone just speaks English with me! I’ve found the locals to be eager to practice their English skills, and filled with intrigue as to why I chose their beloved country.
Finding a Place to Live in Romania
Since being in Romania, I’ve lived in three different apartments in two different cities. I’ve found one thing to be consistent in all three – nosy neighbors! Your neighbors, particularly if they are older, are very interested in what you’re doing.
I even notice Szilard peeking over the fence or eavesdropping on our neighbors’ phone conversations. I always tease him by saying “You’re so Romanian!” This is a joke in Romania as well! Szilard’s mom often sends me funny memes on Facebook about nosy Romanian neighbors.
And everyone – not just neighbors – are curious about how much money I make. I’m still not entirely sure if this is because I’m American or if this is true whenever Romanians meet new people.
Finding a Job in Romania
One thing I will say about Romania – for me, it’s a great cost of living and I’m able to live very well. However, I work online, running a website and teaching English, and earn money in USD. So, my money essentially goes four times as far.
Finding lucrative work in Romania is challenging. There are English-speaking call centers here, but if you take a job in Romania, you will not find the cost-of-living to be very impressive. Though, having a job here would be a great way to meet other people, particularly in the times of COVID.
Making Friends in Romania and Staying Connected to Those You've Left
Meeting people here hasn’t been without its challenges. I attribute this mostly to the pandemic, and expect that aspect to improve as restrictions continue to be lifted. One thing that has helped is expat groups on Facebook. This is a great way to make friends (particularly for us introverts), as well as getting insider tips. This is true of everywhere, certainly not just Romania.
There is a large expat community in Cluj. Cluj is mainly known for being a university city and ‘the Silicon Valley of Romania,’ with a dense concentration of IT companies. Both of these things contribute to the huge expat community in Cluj. In addition to the expat groups, there is also Cluj International Women’s Club, which is a great resource for female expats in the city. And of course, I’ve been unofficially adopted by Szilard’s friends and family as one of their own.
Despite that, however, I still don’t feel like a local. Granted, I’ve only been here a year and that is subject to change. The biggest challenge has certainly been making my own friends during the pandemic. That, coupled with my introverted nature, has been a hindrance.
It definitely contributes to homesickness, especially because I’m from the USA and going home isn’t really a smart choice right now. The homesickness really kicked in when I realized I was pregnant and unable to be with my family, with only a few friends here. Video chat has been the ultimate lifesaver.
Daily Life While Living in Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Most aspects of living in Cluj-Napoca (and Romania in general) are fairly easy to cope with. One thing I would strongly recommend, however, is to brush up on your Romanian history if you decide moving to Romania is a possibility. Romania has a very complicated history, one that is still fresh in the minds of its citizens, rather than forgotten in dusty old history books. It will save you a lot of embarrassment and earn you some respect from the locals if you’ve taken the time to educate yourself. Not only that, it will give you tremendous insight into the way things are in Romania today.
Cluj-Napoca is one of the larger cities I’ve lived in. After spending some time living in NYC, I realized I prefer smaller, prettier places. I love the pedestrian lifestyle and the lack of need of a vehicle. That isn’t necessarily the case in Cluj. Cluj is too large to be considered ‘walkable,’ at 179 square kilometers (that’s about the size of Brooklyn). Not to mention, it’s situated adjacent to the Apuseni Mountains, making for super-hilly terrain (but some epic day trips!).
Getting Around Cluj-Napoca
Many residents here have their own vehicles. We do not, and use public transportation. The bus system in Cluj is reliable and affordable (and definitely beats trekking up all of those hills in the middle of summer!). I walk when I can, but when I’m feeling lazy or the distance is simply too far, buses are a great option. If it’s raining and I don’t feel like walking to the nearest bus stop, Uber and Bolt are both widely used as well.
I always recommend taking a rideshare service in lieu of a taxi in Romania – taxi drivers will screw you over if you don’t speak Romanian. Hell, Szilard grew up here, but because we were in a taxi one day and speaking English, the driver took us completely out of the way of our destination. All of a sudden, Szilard started yelling at the driver in Romanian – I was completely dumbfounded until I recognized a few familiar words and realized what was happening. The routes on Uber and Bolt are fixed, so there is no way for them to take advantage of you.
Bolt is more widely available, and you can use cash as well as card. Not to mention, it’s cheaper! Unfortunately, my US bank, for some reason, puts a fraud alert on my card every time I try to use Bolt, so I generally stick with Uber. We live in a neighborhood that is a bit outside the city center, so I tend to use these services often.
Picking a Neighborhood to Live in Cluj-Napoca
There are a number of different neighborhoods in Cluj, each with their own personality. When I was moving here, I was still a few hours away in Sibiu, so Szilard was looking for apartments for us. I told him I wanted green space, not much traffic, more residential than city-like, but not far from necessities or things to do. That narrowed down my neighborhood choices to Zorilor, Bună Ziua, and Grigorescu. The Old Town is so beautiful that I also added that to my list, despite it being busy with less green space. I was warned to stay away from Mărăști, Mănăștur, and Iris – these places are definitely not pretty (think concrete, communist-era Soviet-style bloc apartments), very busy, less-desirable neighborhoods.
We ultimately found an apartment on the OLX website in Zorilor. OLX is definitely your go-to for finding accommodations for living in Cluj-Napoca. Our street is mostly locals, but as a whole, the Zorilor neighborhood has a substantial amount of expats and international students due to its proximity to the major universities in the city. We live on a quiet street, a ten minute walk from the grocery store and the bus stop, where there’s a combination of houses and apartments. Including the 10 minute walk to the bus stop, it takes about 20-30 minutes to reach the city center, where you can find many museums, the charming cobbled streets of the Old Town, the Botanical Garden, Opera House, and stunning architecture.
Adjusting to the Food in Cluj-Napoca
My favorite restaurant in Cluj (Rod Restaurant) is about a 10 minute walk from our apartment, but otherwise we really like the restaurants in Piața Muzeului, which is in the Old Town. Szilard is a chef, so we eat in fairly often, but the food here is incredible at the restaurants as well.
Cluj-Napoca has a huge Hungarian population due to the history of the region, so in addition to the delicious, traditional Romanian foods, you’ll find a lot of Hungarian influence in the cuisine as well. Popular things to eat here include sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls), ciorbă de burtă (belly soup), tocăniță (a hearty, Transilvanian stew usually served over polenta).
If it weren’t for the pandemic, I’d go out to eat a lot more than I would back in the States. There is, thankfully, an awesome food truck park at the top of Cetățuia Hill, with two bars and 6-7 food trucks, perfect for social distancing. The cost:value ratio is so good, it’s hard to pass up. Still, since I am living with a local who gets paid in local currency, he doesn’t see it that way.
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The Cost of Living in Romania
Like I mentioned earlier, the cost of living here is wonderful if you get paid in Euro or US Dollars. Getting paid in Romanian currency leaves much to be desired, making Romania a wonderful place to live as a digital nomad or remote worker. Romanian currency is the Leu (plural Lei) which literally translates to lion or lions. So, if you are paying for something and the cashier says, ‘OK, that’ll be ten lions,’ don’t fret – you don’t actually need to pay in large cats. One USD is roughly equivalent to four Lei, making conversions pretty easy to do on-the-fly.
- Monthly rent, 2 bedroom apartment: 300-600 Euros or 360-730 USD. Very rarely will you see rent prices quoted in Lei – most places use the Euro. Some apartments may wish for you to convert Lei to Euro prior to paying. This is likely the only instance you will use Euros in Romania. We rent a 2 bedroom apartment with 1.5 baths, ample closet space, combination living room/kitchen, and huuuuuuge terrace for 430 Euros per month.
- Monthly bus pass (All lines): 138 Lei / 35 USD. There are cheaper monthly bus passes available that are only valid for certain bus lines, so depending on what you are using the pass for, this will vary. I work from home, so I purchase my bus tickets individually. One ticket is good for two rides and costs 5 Lei / 1.25 USD. You must validate your ticket on the bus! There are people who come to check your ticket or pass and will fine you if it’s not validated.
- Coffee: 8 Lei / 1.99 USD
- Local draught beer (400ml): 8 Lei / 1.99 USD
- Pizza, delivered: 30 Lei / 7.50 USD
- Mid-Upscale dinner for two, with drinks: 140 Lei / 35 USD
- Groceries for a week, for two (including wine and beer): 200 Lei / 50 USD
Final Thoughts on Living in Romania
While I never expected to be living in Cluj-Napoca, sometimes, life throws you curveballs. It wasn’t my first choice of cities to reside in Romania, but I’ve grown to love it over the span of my time here. It’s a seamless amalgam of family-friendly and hip, student city that I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone interested in taking the plunge into expat life.
Jade Laurenza is an American travel blogger and online English teacher. She quit her job as an environmental scientist in order to join the ranks of digital nomads in her quest for everlasting adventure. Jade runs The Migrant Yogi, a blog dedicated to travel, yoga, and the way each facilitates personal growth. She has been traveling extensively since 2006, and has had the good fortune to live in both Italy and Romania, as well as numerous US States. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest.
If you’re moving to Romania, currently living in Cluj-Napoca or just curious about travel and life abroad, leave your questions for Jade in the comments below.
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