Living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - A Guide for PhD Students
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Living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – A Guide for PhD Students

Written by Mike Davies

Located on the Persian Gulf, the UAE is a multicultural haven for international students. An abundance of natural resources has allowed this Middle Eastern country to boom in recent decades. Its high-tech cities, iconic skyscrapers and island-sized landscaping projects are just the start of what this country has to offer those who live and study there.

We've put together a short guide on what you'll need to know about moving to the UAE for PhD study. There is information on finding accommodation, living costs, part-time work, transport and opening a bank account in the country.

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Student life

Well-known for having some of the most extravagant cities in the world, life in the UAE certainly won't disappoint. From the city-sized mall in Dubai to the supercar-equipped police force, there's nowhere else in the world that's quite like it.

The UAE is also a diverse society. The population is predominantly Muslim, but the country is tolerant of other religions and in many cities, Dubai especially, expats make up a large percentage of the population. Combined with the abundance of modern amenities, you will find living in the cities quite familiar.

Culture and tourism

For such a forward-looking country, a suprising number of traditional features survive just below the surface. The culture of the UAE is rooted in Arabian culture although it has also picked up influences from other cultures such as Persia, India and East Africa. Many elements from these are incorporated into the modern building projects and maintained in the country's many museums.

You'll also find there is plenty to do and it's not all shopping and skyscrapers. Most cities in the country boast a thriving nightlife and wherever you're based you'll never be far from one of its spectacular beaches. You might also be happy to hear that, unlike some other Islamic countries, alcohol is available in most (though not all) areas of the country.

Sport and leisure

Motor sport, especially Formula One, is popular in the UAE and, as with nearly everything in the country, they have gone all in. The Yas Marina Circuit, the track that hosts the final race of the F1 calendar, is one of the most technologically advanced circuits in the world costing an estimated $1 billion and features a luxury resort hotel suspended over the race circuit.

Other popular sports in the country include football, where the local teams are long-time regional champions, and cricket, largely thanks to the expat populations from countries like the UK and Australia

Food and drink

Whatever your favourite dish is, chances are you'll find it in the UAE. There is a huge variety of cuisine in the country, from French to Chinese to local Emirati cuisine, and local grocery stores and supermarkets stock everything you would expect from UK supermarkets.

Local Emirati cuisine is a fusion of many regional flavours, and in any Middle Eastern themed eatery you'll likely find the nation's staples of lamb, goat, fish, beef and rice. Other local specialities include hummus, warak enub (stuffed cine leaves) and falafel. One thing you won't find on most menus, however, is pork, since this is forbidden in Muslim culture.


So long as you're not a Muslim, you can buy and drink alcohol in the UAE, apart from the region of the Sharjah, in designated areas. Usually these areas are found in bars or restaurants attached to hotels. Under UAE law you wll also need a licence to purchase and consume alcohol, which can be obtained from specially licenced shops.


Doctoral students in the UAE have a choice of accommodation; you can either apply for a university-managed room or rent privately.

University accommodation is often the cheaper option and is also generally more convenient, being on-campus. This type of accommodation is usually quite basic however, and does not allow non-students to stay overnight, meaning this won't be an option if you are moving with a partner or family.

Renting privately gives you far more options and student-focused accommodation is usually available near a university. This option can be more expensive, although the cost can be mitigated by house sharing.

It's important to remember that security deposits are often required for both university and private rental properties and these deposits can be quite high.

Accommodation costs

The cost of your accommodation in the UAE will vary greatly depending on the location and size of your room, but if you're organised you should be able to find somewhere that is relatively affordable. Typical costs are:

  • University accommodation — AED 5,000 (USD $1,360) per semester
  • Private accommodation — AED 6,000 (USD $1,635) per month (according to crowdsourced data from Numbeo)

Living costs

The cost of living in the UAE is similar to that of the UK and other European countries and slightly cheaper than cities like London and Paris.

On average you can expect to spend AED 3,400 (USD $952) a month on food, utilities and other bills on top of rent. Most univerities offer on-campus catering, although this tends to be more expensive than self-catering; a typical university lunch can cost around AED 32 (USD $8.50).

Student Cost of Living in the UAE - 2024
Restaurant Meal AED 35 (USD $9.50)
Cinema Ticket AED 45 (USD $12.25)
Monthly Travel Pass AED 300 (USD $81.70)
Monthly Utilities AED 640 (USD $174.20)
Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.

Working during your PhD

As a doctoral student in the UAE you are now allowed to take work part-time alonside your study. In order to take part-time work, you'll first need to apply for a working permit from the UAE Labour department. This application will need to be sponsored by your university, so this should be your first port of call.

To apply for this work permit you'll need to provide the following:

  • Passport
  • Letter of approval of the University
  • Student visa

You may also be able to get a position as a graduate research teaching assistant, with the university at which you're studying. This will then cover the cost of your tuition as well as provide you with a monthly income dependent on the number of hours that you work.


With a significant proportion of the population of the UAE being international, there is a well-established route for international residents and visitors to open a bank account. This can be worth doing as a PhD student, as it prevents charges being levied by your home bank on day-to-day purchases. Having a local bank account also makes it far simpler to set up and manage scholarship payments.

To set up a bank account in the UAE, you will usually need to have the following to hand:

  • Your passport
  • A letter of no-objection from your university
  • A copy of your visa
  • A recent utility bill as proof of address

Normally you will need to be physically present in the UAE to open a bank account. However, several international financial institutions that operate in the UAE may allow you to open a UAE-based account from your local branch.


The transport networks in the UAE are well-funded and highly developed. Most public transport systems are relatively easy to use and quite affordable. There are also excellent transport links with other countries in the region as well as flights to many cities around the world.

Studying in the UAE you'll get plenty of experience using the transport network in the country, as summer temperatures can reach 50°C, making walking and cycling unpleasant to say the least.

Rail travel

Within Dubai, the rail networks are considerable and well-organised. From the metro to the monorail and even tram, you'll find it easy to get across the city and avoid the opressive heat.

Currently the options for intercity transport are limited. Most major cities are currently linked by bus, although this is set to change in the next few years with the major rail network Etihad Rail currently laying a network that will connect all the major cities in the country. It has even proposed a hyper-rail that will link Abu Dhabi with Dubai in just fifteen minutes.

Air travel

There are three major international airports in the UAE, one being in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi, and the other in Sharjah. Combined they serve over 80 million passengers a year. Flights are available from these aiports to most major cities around the world.

There are also several smaller airports that seve domestic flights, including flights to the smaller tourist destinations like the islands off the coast of the country.

Inner city travel

Buses, taxis and the metro systems are all great ways to get around. All major train and bus services are air-conditioned, as are most taxis.

Taxis are the most convenient mode of transport in the country and all are metered so you shouldn't face any surprising charges. In the major cities you can use the smartphone app "Smart Taxi" to book a local cab. Alternatively, there are plenty of taxi stands and you can also hail a taxi on the street if you need one.

Find a PhD

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last Updated: 27 November 2023