The Expat Relocation Guide to São Paulo

January 3, 2024

For expats seeking a vibrant, multicultural place to call home, São Paulo ticks all the boxes. A destination of many accolades—Brazil’s largest city, the biggest city in South America, the center of the Brazilian economy—it’s home to a thriving international community, including members of the Japanese, Arab, and Italian diasporas, offering a warm and welcoming environment for newcomers.

Having such a diverse population has helped fuel a dynamic, active, and exciting cultural scene, ranging from world-class theaters and music venues to art galleries and famed museums, like the São Paulo Art Museum. The city is also known for its far-ranging, diverse cuisine, from traditional Brazilian dishes to global cuisines, making it a food lover’s paradise.

Furthermore, São Paulo’s robust economy and business opportunities make it an excellent destination for career-focused expats. As the economic hub of Brazil, it’s home to numerous multinational corporations, financial institutions, and startups, offering a wide range of job opportunities across various industries.

Finally, with warm summers and mild winters, São Paulo’s pleasant climate adds to its appeal, providing an excellent quality of life for those who choose to live in this vibrant Brazilian metropolis.

This expat guide to São Paulo covers everything you’ll need to know before setting up your new life in one of Brazil’s most exciting cities, from learning about the cost of living to figuring out how to navigate the health-care system.

São Paulo fast facts

  • Population: 12.33 million
  • Currency: Brazilian real (BRL; R$)
  • Language: Portuguese
  • Time zone: GMT-3
  • Climate: Humid subtropical
  • Emergency number: 192

Brazil work visas

In order to legally live and work in São Paulo, you’ll need the appropriate visa. For expats seeking to stay in Brazil for an extended period of time, there are a range of temporary visas and permanent visas related to different fields that allow you to live and work in the country.

For most work visas, your Brazilian employer will need to seek approval from the Brazilian Ministry of Labor. As they’re required to help you get a work visa before your arrival in the country, many companies assist expats and foreigners with navigating the visa process.

Newland Chase can help you learn more about the visa requirements to live and work in São Paulo, as well as offer assistance with the application process for a temporary or permanent visa. Contact us to learn more today.

The cost of living in São Paulo

Compared to major cities in Europe or North America, the cost of living in São Paulo may look like a great deal, but the reality is much different on the ground—as the country’s biggest city and economic hub, it’s one of Brazil’s most expensive places to live, alongside Rio de Janeiro.

The average monthly income in São Paulo is US$2,043, and for workers making a living in Brazilian reais, it can be an expensive place to live. Expats earning salaries in a foreign currency with a higher value than the Brazilian real, however, will be able to afford a far nicer lifestyle. Foreign currencies go much further here than in other metropolitan areas, like New York City, although as with most major cities, costs for things like housing tend to be pricier in the city center and more upscale districts.

This overview of the average monthly costs of essentials, including housing, utilities, and food, will help you get a better idea of what to expect financially while living in São Paulo. (Prices are listed in US dollars.)

  • Rent for a one-bedroom apartment: $676
  • Home asking price: $400,000
  • Cost of living for family of four: $2,452
  • Cost of living for one person: $760
  • Internet: $20
  • Utilities (gas, water, electric): $88
  • Transportation: $48 for a monthly transit pass
  • Basic meal out for one: $9–10

The best São Paulo neighborhoods for expats

São Paulo is a massive city, consisting of 32 boroughs divided into 96 wards. Within these wards or districts, neighborhoods are divided even further, distinguished by their character and offerings. So how do expats apartment-hunting from afar, or new to the city and still finding their footing, find the right neighborhood?

The following neighborhoods are a mix of cool, trendy districts that will appeal to young professionals and couples, and more laid-back areas with good schools that are ideal for families with school-age children.

Best for young professionals

Vila Madalena: A hotbed of international and Brazilian culture, this bohemian neighborhood in Zona Oeste (West Zone) is known for its artistic flair, outstanding street art, and vibrant nightlife. Expats are drawn here by the eclectic atmosphere, creative scene, cultural diversity, and wide range of bars and restaurants. It offers a more relaxed and casual lifestyle compared to some of the city’s upscale areas.

Itaim Bibi: Located in Zona Sul (South Zone), Itaim Bibi is a business-centric neighborhood with a growing expat community. Its proximity to the financial district, modern infrastructure, and a mix of international restaurants and bars make it a convenient choice for expats working in the corporate sector.

Pinheiros: Located in Zona Oeste, Pinheiros is known for its diverse population and thriving cultural scene. Expats appreciate its indie music venues, art galleries, and varied dining options. It’s also home to several coworking spaces, making it attractive to remote workers and entrepreneurs.

Brooklin Novo: This neighborhood in Zona Sul is known for its modern architecture, shopping malls, and proximity to the business district. Expats appreciate the convenience, upscale housing options, and access to international supermarkets.

Best for families

Moema: Located in Zona Sul, Moema offers a tranquil suburban feel with tree-lined streets and parks. It’s known for its safety, family-friendly atmosphere, and proximity to several international schools, making it an excellent choice for expat families.
Jardins (Jardim Paulista and Jardim América): Also located in the upscale Zona Sul, the Jardins neighborhoods are known for their leafy streets, high-end shopping, and dining options. Expats appreciate the safety, well-maintained parks, and proximity to cultural attractions. English is widely spoken in this area, making it easier for newcomers to adjust.

Chácara Flora: This upscale residential neighborhood in the Zona Sul attracts families with its spacious, luxurious homes, large green spaces, and peaceful environment. The neighborhood offers a sense of exclusivity and tranquility, making it popular among wealthier expatriates and families. It’s an excellent choice for expats seeking a serene and safe living environment with access to private amenities, like swimming pools, tennis courts, and parks.

Morumbi: Offering reputable international schools, top-notch medical facilities, and ample shopping and entertainment, Morumbi is a diverse neighborhood in Zona Sul. The neighborhood is home to the famous Morumbi Stadium and Morumbi Shopping Mall, offering a blend of entertainment and leisure activities. Because of all this and more, it’s a popular choice for both expat families and professionals looking for a well-rounded living experience in São Paulo.

Education in São Paulo

Expats moving to São Paulo with school-age children will need to figure out how to continue their education in a new country. Here’s everything you need to know about the school system in São Paulo.

Public schools

While São Paulo does have a public school system, most expats choose to send their children to international schools instead. This is partly because local public and private schools in Brazil conduct classes in Portuguese, which can be a challenge for expat children who aren’t proficient in the language, and partly because public schools in Brazil can vary in quality and resources.

International schools

Enrolling your child in an international school can provide continuity in their education and ease the transition to a new country. São Paulo offers a variety of international schools that cater to the local expatriate communities, with most following international curricula like the International Baccalaureate (IB) or American, British, or French educational systems.

Along with instruction in English or other romance languages, many international schools in São Paulo also offer Portuguese language programs to help students integrate into Brazilian society. These schools often have high tuition costs in addition to other fees, but the quality of education, international atmosphere, and language of instruction make them a popular choice for expats.

These schools have smaller class sizes and demand is high, so it’s advisable to start the admission process well ahead of your move. Some schools may have waiting lists, especially for specific grade levels, so early planning is crucial. Admission requirements may include entrance exams, interviews, and the submission of previous school records.

Some of the best international schools in São Paulo include the American School of São Paulo (Graded), St. Paul’s School, and the British School of São Paulo.

How to build community in São Paulo

Making new friends and creating a new social circle is always a big challenge upon relocation. Happily though, expats rave about the friendly, welcoming, and outgoing nature of most São Paulo locals, which can go a long way toward helping new residents feel comfortable while trying to form social connections.

Here are some ways expats can start becoming part of their new community in São Paulo.

Learn Portuguese or join a language exchange: Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, and learning to speak it will go a long way toward helping you connect. Joining a language-exchange program to improve your Portuguese gives you a chance to meet locals and other expats, as many Brazilians are eager to practice English or other languages. Tons of these classes and exchanges exist, but the weekly MultiLingo Meetup group and this list of people seeking language-exchange partners are great places to start.

Engage in sports culture: Soccer is a way of life in Brazil. By attending matches, joining local sports teams, or visiting bars or restaurants to watch games, you’ll get to experience the sense of community that soccer creates. Clube Atlético São Paulo is a great place to practice, find local teams looking for players, and learn about matches.

Join online expat groups: Social media is a fantastic tool to help you find and connect with the expat community in São Paulo. Some major groups to join include Americans in Sao Paulo on Facebook and InterNations.

Networking: Networking can lead to both professional and social connections in São Paulo, so be sure to attend industry-specific events, conferences, and workshops to broaden your social horizons.

Join sports or hobby groups: From gardening to sampling local Brazilian specialities, like caipirinhas, São Paulo offers a wide range of sports and hobby clubs for expats. Find a group that aligns with your interests to meet people who share your passions. Neighborhood associations: Some neighborhoods in São Paulo have active neighborhood associations that organize community events. Get involved in these local groups to connect with your neighbors and become part of the community. You can usually find more information about these during the renting or home-buying process, or at local community centers and schools.

Navigating health care in São Paulo

Figuring out a new health-care system can be one of the most stressful and difficult parts of moving to a new city or country. Luckily, São Paulo is home to some of Brazil’s top hospitals and medical facilities, ensuring that you and your family should have access to high-quality care whenever needed.

Types of health care

Brazil has both public and private health-care systems. The public system, known as the Unified Health System (Sistema Único de Saúde or SUS), provides free or low-cost health-care services to Brazilian citizens and legal residents but comes with challenges, like overcrowding and longer wait times. Many types of medication can be obtained even without a prescription at the many pharmacies (farmácias) throughout the city.

Because of the long wait times and variable quality of care at public hospitals and facilities, many expats opt for private health care, which offers faster access to medical care and a wider range of services. Expats are strongly advised to purchase private health insurance, known as plano de saúde, to cover medical expenses. Health insurance plans in São Paulo offer a range of coverage options, from basic plans to comprehensive coverage, and can be tailored to suit individual needs and budgets.

Another factor to consider is the language barrier. While some medical professionals in São Paulo may speak English or other languages, it’s advisable for expats to learn basic Portuguese or use the services of a translator or interpreter when seeking medical care. Private hospitals are more likely to have English-speaking doctors who have studied or worked abroad, so that’s another benefit of acquiring private health insurance.

Health-care providers

São Paulo is known for having some of Brazil’s best health-care facilities, with many private hospitals and clinics equipped with modern technology and highly trained medical professionals.

The city is home to several internationally accredited hospitals, such as Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, Hospital Sírio-Libanês, and Hospital Alemão Oswaldo Cruz, which provide world-class medical services.

Banking and money in São Paulo

Opening a bank account in São Paulo and understanding the Brazilian banking system are important steps for expatriates settling in the country. Here’s what you need to know about the process.

Opening a bank account

São Paulo has a variety of banks, both national and international, including Banco do Brasil, Itaú, Bradesco, Santander, and HSBC, to meet your banking needs. To open an account, it’s best to go in person. Basic options include savings accounts (conta poupança) and checking accounts (conta corrente).

Some banks may require an appointment to keep long lines down, so check online or call ahead to confirm. You’ll need to bring the following documents to open your account:

  • Passport or Registro Nacional de Estrangeiro (RNE) identity card
  • Proof of address (a utility bill or rental contract)
  • Tax Identification Number (Cadastro de Pessoas Físicas, or CPF)
  • Proof of income or employment, such as a work contract or pay slips

Banking in Brazil

Before you open a bank account as an expat, it’s important to understand more about the Brazilian banking system and currency.

ATMs: ATMs (caixas eletrônicos) are readily available throughout São Paulo and are the primary means of accessing cash. Be cautious when using ATMs, especially in isolated or poorly lit areas, to avoid potential security issues.

Banking Hours: Brazilian banks typically operate from Monday to Friday, with varying business hours depending on the bank and branch. Most banks close early on Fridays and may have limited or no services on weekends.

Online Banking: Online and mobile banking services are widely available, making it convenient to manage your accounts, pay bills, and transfer funds electronically. This also saves you a lot of time waiting in lines.

Interest rates: Be aware of interest rates associated with loans, credit cards, and savings accounts. Brazil’s interest rates can be relatively high compared to some other countries.

Counterfeit money: Counterfeit money is an issue in São Paulo, so you should only withdraw cash from safe, secure ATMs, like those in banks. Always double-check your banknotes and report any issues to the bank and police.

Getting around in São Paulo

São Paulo is a massive city, offering a range of ways to get around and explore.

Driving in São Paulo

Due to heavy traffic, complex roads, and aggressive drivers, driving in São Paulo can be challenging. Expats should be aware that traffic congestion is a big issue, particularly during rush hours. Parking in certain areas can also be limited and expensive, which can be a deterrent to using your car. Since car theft is another issue, it’s best to avoid displaying valuables in your car.
In order to drive legally in Brazil, expats will need to obtain a Brazilian driver’s license. The process may require taking a written and practical exam, depending on your nationality and the type of visa you hold.

Mass transit

Since driving in São Paulo can be a challenge for new and long-term expats alike, most choose to rely on the city’s mass-transit options. Fares can be paid in cash or using the Bilhete Único card, a rechargeable card that can be used for buses, subways, and trains.

Connecting many key areas, including downtown, business districts, and popular neighborhoods, São Paulo’s subway or Metrô system is one of the most efficient ways to get around the city. It operates from around 4:30 am to midnight on weekdays and slightly shorter hours on weekends. There’s also a commuter train line called Companhia Paulista de Trens Metropolitanos (CPTM), which services the broader metropolitan area.

São Paulo has an extensive bus network that covers the entire city. However, it can be crowded and subject to traffic congestion, especially during rush hours.

Along with buses and trains, expats can complement their transit options with taxis and rideshares. Taxis are relatively expensive compared to other modes of transportation, but widely available in São Paulo. Ridesharing services, like Uber, 99, and Cabify, are popular and typically more cost-effective than traditional taxis.

Things to know about living in São Paulo

Moving to a new country always comes with a bit of culture shock. Here are some cultural customs and practices you should be aware of to help ease the transition.

Time flexibility: Punctuality may not be as strict in Brazil as in some other cultures. People tend to be more relaxed about time here, so be patient and flexible when it comes to scheduling appointments and meetings.

Personal space: Brazilians are known for their affectionate nature and may stand close to others during conversations. Respect personal space, but also be prepared for a more intimate style of communication.

Coffee is king: Brazil produces a third of the world’s coffee, so it should come as no surprise that coffee culture is a way of life here. Prepare to encounter cafes everywhere you go, and when visiting someone’s home, they’ll likely offer you a cafezinho (small coffee).

Soccer reigns supreme: Brazilians are passionate about soccer (futebol), and São Paulo has some of the country’s most prominent teams, such as São Paulo FC and Palmeiras.

Meals: Lunchtime is the main meal of the day, with light breakfasts and dinners.

Be ready to party: Brazil is famous for its lively festivals and celebrations, such as Carnival, which is celebrated with colorful parades, samba music, and vibrant costumes. São Paulo also hosts its own Carnival festivities, with elaborate samba schools and street parties.

Preparing for expat life in São Paulo

Even though moving to a new city, like São Paulo, comes with the challenge of adjusting to a local culture and way of life, it pays off once you become part of an exciting multicultural city, full of heart, fun, and festivities.

In addition to offering visa assistance, an experienced immigration specialist can help you navigate the complexities of settling in and adjusting to expat life. Contact Newland Chase for a quote today.