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Revealed: the most expensive cities in the world right now

The Mercer Cost of Living Survey 2021 has named a somewhat surprising city as number one

Sarah Medina

Like much of the world in the past year, this year's ranking of the most expensive cities found the list turned on its head. 

According to the Mercer Cost of Living Survey 2020 – which included 209 cities across five continents and measures the comparative cost of more than 200 items like housing, transportation, food and more – the most expensive places to live right now is ... Ashgabat, Turkmenistan!

Following the marble-clad buildings of Ashgabat in second place was Hong Kong (last year's winner), then Beirut in third, Tokyo took fourth and Zurich in fifth. International capitals like Shanghai, Singapore, Geneva and Beijing also made the top 10, with Bern, Switzerland adding a third European destination to the pack. 

You'll notice that there aren't any American cities in the top ten this year. According to the report, cities in the US have dropped in this year’s ranking mostly due to currency fluctuations, despite the rising inflation of goods and services in the US. New York (#14) ranked as the most expensive city in the US, though it dropped eight positions since last year, followed by Los Angeles (#20), San Francisco (#25), Honolulu (#43) and Chicago (#45).

Meanwhile, UK cities saw minimal price inflation despite the pandemic and Brexit; London is up one place to (#18) and Birmingham shot up eight places to (#121) while Glasgow rose ten spots to (#131). 

And cities where you might think of life as being pretty costly – think Dubai, Paris or Miami – were outranked by Ndjamena (the capital of Chad), Shenzhen in China and Lagos in Nigeria.

(How come? Well, it’s partly because Mercer, a major US financial consultancy firm, aims its ranking at American companies sending their employees overseas. All cities are ranked by comparison to New York, and the ‘basket of goods’ that Mercer uses to calculate the cost of living in each city has in the past included American classics like blue jeans, burgers and Heineken beer. That means that countries whose currency has been overperforming against the dollar tend to zoom up the rankings.)

Here’s the full top 20 from the Mercer Cost of Living Survey 2021: 

  1. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
  2. Hong Kong, Hong Kong
  3. Beirut, Lebanon 
  4. Tokyo, Japan
  5. Zurich, Switzerland
  6. Shanghai, China
  7. Singapore, Singapore
  8. Geneva, Switzerland 
  9. Beijing, China
  10. Bern, Switzerland
  11. Seoul, South Korea
  12. Shenzhen, China
  13. Ndjamena, Chad
  14. New York City, United States 
  15. Tel Aviv, Israel
  16. Copenhagen, Denmark
  17. Guangzhou, China
  18. London, United Kingdom
  19. Lagos, Nigeria
  20. Libreville, Gabon 

See Mercer’s full ranking here.

And if you’re looking for the least expensive cities in the world? According to Mercer, those would be Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Lusaka in Zambia and Tbilisi in Georgia. 

Now check out Time Out’s own global rankings: the world’s best citiesthe world’s coolest neighbourhoods and the world's coolest streets

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