Living In Hungary
Author Leaonne Hall is an expert on the overseas property market and has written extensively for a number of newsstand titles. She previously produced three editions of the Red Guide to Buying Property in Eastern Europe, and has been writing in detail on the individual markets since 2003.
LIVING IN HUNGARY
Daily life and people
While Hungary has wholeheartedly embraced western culture and is a proud member of the EU, Hungarians are equally keen to maintain and promote their heritage as Magyars, the race who invaded from central Asia and founded the country back in the 9th century, and from whom most of the population are ethnically descended. However, due to their proximity to the western capitalist country of Austria, the Hungarian people have maintained a somewhat spilt personality. Consequently, you may well recognise distinct western and central European customs and practices blending freely with traditional Magyar tendencies, evidenced in Hungary’s move to reform state socialism and adopt democracy long before the collapse of Soviet Russia.
Free-spirited and sociable, yet stubborn, the Hungarian people have a tendency towards pessimism, probably thanks to centuries of enduring defeat and invasion. Nevertheless, there are no people more hospitable and they will go to great pains to make you feel welcome in their fascinating country. Today there are 9.5 million Magyars in Hungary, 1.45 million in Romania, 520,500 in Slovakia, 293,000 in Serbia, 170,000 in Ukraine and Russia, 40,583 in Austria, 16,500 in Croatia, 14,600 in the Czech Republic and 10,000 in Slovenia, highlighting the warlike expansionist tendencies which saw this race conquer most of Europe and even reach Spain.
Visas and residency
Nationals of European Union member countries do not need a visa to enter Hungary for a stay of 90 days. You can enter using a valid national passport or your national ID card. For a stay longer than three months, you must apply for a European Economic Area citizen resident permit. If you want to apply for residency, be aware that this process can take up to six months to organise and you must apply within 15 days of entering the country. If you are the director of a Hungarian company then you do not need a residency permit. Visit www.huemblon.org.uk for more information.
Now that government subsidies have been removed for gas and electricity, both utilities have become more expensive, costing almost–if not quite–as much as in the UK. Gas is mainly used for cooking and electricity for lighting and household appliances. The major electric utility is ELMU (www.elmu.hu/e). Bills are monthly estimates with meter readings taken only once a year and a bill sent out for any outstanding payments. The largest gas supplier is FOGAZ (http://english.fogaz.hu) and you can either apply to be connected online or by contacting your local customer services office; all these details can be found on the website.
Telephone services are offered by Magyar Telekom (www.magyartelekom.hu), who offer mobile phone and internet services, as well as residential landlines. The dialling code for the country is 0036. As telecommunications have been privatised, the services are efficient and the phone system mainly digital. The other main mobile phone companies include Vodafone, who have a Hungarian branch (www.vodafone.hu) and T-Mobile (www.westel900.net). If you have a GSM phone, you may be able to continue using your current mobile in Hungary. Visit www.gsmworld.com for more details. All your utility bills can be paid at the post office or through your bank.
Banking and currency
The official currency of Hungary is the forint (ft). You can get notes in denominations of 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, 500 and 200 forints, while coins come in 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 fillér. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are accepted in most places and in general, you will be able to use most internationally recognised credit cards at larger stores around the country, but not in more rural areas or smaller grocery stores and souvenir shops, which only accept cash.
Setting up a bank account is as easy as in any Western country. All that is required is for you to present your passport at your chosen branch and one other form of ID. You have the option of opening an account in euros, dollars or the forint–or even all three should you choose. A minimum deposit will be required–generally €100 for a foreign currency account and ft100,000 (£277) for a forint account–and in order to get a credit or debit card, you’ll probably be required to make a deposit of €200. Regular pre-authorised bank transfers can easily be set up to pay bills.
Most banks provide e-banking and branch opening hours are generally 9am to 5pm Monday to Thursday and 9am to 3 or 4pm on Friday, being closed on Saturday and Sunday. The Hungarian National Bank website is www.mnb.hu, while CIB Bank (www.cib.hu), Citigroup (www.citibank. com) and Hungarian Foreign Trade Bank (www.mkb.hu) are popular with expats.
Hungary has signed a double taxation treaty with the UK so you can rest assured you will not be paying tax in both countries. As a foreign national living and working in Hungary, you’ll be considered a tax resident and have to register as a taxpayer. However, if you are only living and working there on a temporary basis, you will only be taxed on income and gains made in Hungary. If you own a property in Hungary, spend 183 days a year in the country, or if Hungary is the family place of residence, then you will be classed as a tax resident and liable to pay taxes there.
Income tax is levied at a progressive rate from 18–36%, with 36% payable on annual gross income of ft1,550,000 (approximately €5,960) and over. However, income is taxed at the reduced, flat rate of 25% if it is classed as capital gains or rental. Corporate tax in Hungary in 2006 was fixed at 16%.
Always seek independent advice on taxes, especially as things have recently been changed. Good websites to consult are PriceWaterhouseCoopers (www.pwc.com) which has a Hungary-specific website with publications free to download on tax; www.worldwide-tax.com is also useful.
The Hungarian Association of Insurance companies can be viewed at www.mabisz.hu and offers a list of accredited companies. It is recommended that foreigners living in Hungary take out private medical insurance, while house insurance is also available from a number of firms, as well as UK based ones such as John Wason Insurance brokers (www.johnwason.co.uk).
Mostly state owned, there are also a number of private hospitals and clinics, although these are generally in Budapest. The government is planning to privatise some of the health service, although the best option for foreigners is to take out private health insurance.
If you do need to be treated by the state heath service, be aware that there will be costs involved. While first aid and ambulance services are free for citizens of the UK, Scandinavia and most Western European countries, if you are not an EU citizen, follow-up treatment must be paid for, with a consultation in a doctor’s surgery (orvosi rendelõ) starting at ft2,500 and a home visit from ft4,000. As an EU citizen, as long as you possess an EHIC card, you are entitled to the same level of healthcare provision as a Hungarian citizen, and it is free. However, insurance is still recommended as, while treatment is of a good standard, emergency facilities can be unreliable.
The state currently subsidises healthcare for Hungarian citizens, but a resident of the country has to pay social security insurance contributions for the right to be treated by the state-run system.
Retirement, benefits and social security
It is perfectly feasible for you to retire to Hungary as a resident although it is not a hugely popular country with expats – maybe because of the language barrier, severely cold winter weather and the cultural differences. However, should you choose to retire here you can do so by applying for residency. You will be able to claim your UK pension in Hungary and your retirement pension will not be liable to tax in the country, whether they are paid in Hungary or from abroad.
If you are living in Hungary you will be required to make social security payments if working and you’ll be allowed any benefits that are a consequence of these payments. If you have been claiming job seekers’ allowance prior to leaving the UK, you will still be entitled to it in Hungary – you simply need to secure an E303 form and take this to the Hungarian employment service on arrival. This form can be secured through your local Jobcentre in the UK.
As with the UK, the private school system operates a school year which runs from September to June, but the local Hungarian schools adhere to their own system; consequently, the majority of expats send their children to private schools. All are situated in Budapest and offer a variety of different languages, but all are of a high standard. You can also attend university in Hungary and there are a number of English-language courses offered.
- American International School of Budapest (AISB) www.aisb.hu
- Greater Grace International School (GGIS) www.ggis.hu
- International Christian School of Budapest (ICSB) www.icsbudapest.org
- Britannica International School www.britannicaschool.hu
- The British International School of Budapest (BISB) www.bisb.hu
- SEK International School Budapest (SEK) www.sek.hu
- BME International Secondary Grammar School (founded by the Budapest University of Technology and Economics) www.bmegimnazium.hu/www.bme-intl.sulinet.hu
- International School of Budapest (ISB) www.isb.hu
- Lauder Javne Jewish Community School and Kindergarten www.lauder.hu
- Budapest French School (Lycée Gustave Eiffel) http://web.matavnet.hu/lfb
- Austrian-Hungarian European School (österreichisch-Ungarische Europaschule) www.europaschule.hu
- Japanese School of Budapest (Japán Iskola) www.hoshuko.hu
Hungarians drive on the right and as Eastern European countries go, they are fairly conscientious drivers and the roads are uncrowded. There are various road categories, the main being the motorways, which are easy to drive on. Be aware that rural and side roads are often poorly lit. Look out for pedestrians, livestock and railway crossings – many don’t have gates. City driving can be perilous thanks to the buses and trams which you need to watch out for.
Getting a driving licence in Hungary is fairly straightforward, but you won’t need one for a short relocation period as you can use your present licence to hire a car or drive your own. For longer stays, you’ll need a valid international licence. There is zero tolerance for drink driving and using a mobile phone while driving, and the speed limits are as follows:
- motorways 130km/h (80mph);
- open roads 90km/h (55mph);
- towns 50km/h (31mph).
Petrol stations are open Monday to Friday, 6am to 8pm, although most multinational stations are open 24 hours a day. Unleaded petrol and diesel are available everywhere, with diesel, oil and LPG also available, and credit cards are accepted everywhere.
Budapest has a cheap and efficient public transport system, with a clean and regular metro service in operation and numerous trams and buses serving the city. Visit www.bkv.hu for all scheduling information.
The Hungarian railway system is fairly rapid and reliable, with little overcrowding and good quality carriages and track. MáV (Hungarian State Railways) serve most major towns and cities throughout the country and details of their services and fares can be found at www.elvira.hu. There are several types of service, including Express (‘Ex’ on the timetable), which require a reservation; InterCity (‘IC’) which is slightly more expensive; gyorsvonat (fast trains); and szemelyvonat or passenger trains – these stop at every village and hamlet and take a long time to reach their destination.
Buses can be unreliable outside of Budapest and so taking the train is a better bet. Volán are the main servers throughout the country (www.volanbusz.hu) and outside of major towns, rural services can be limited to one or two a day.
Learning the language
The origins of Magyar remain a mystery and its unfamiliar construction make it one of the more difficult Eastern European languages to learn, although it is believed to belong to the Finno-Urgic linguistic group.
While many foreigners living and working in Hungary are able to master the language, the lingua franca by which Hungarians communicate with foreign tourists is German, while many Hungarians also speak English. However, trying to secure a grasp of the basics will prove helpful and will be welcomed by the locals.
The general opening hours for shops are Monday to Friday 10am to 6pm, and 9am to 1pm on Saturdays. Some of the larger shopping centres are open on Sundays too. Outside of Budapest, you’ll be hard pushed to find many imported products, although in the capital itself there are many international brands to be found.
Tesco and Ikea supply most general household items and can be found in shopping centres, generally open from 6am to 9pm. Mammut is located in District II and is Buda’s biggest and most centrally-located shopping mall (www.mammut.hu) while there is also the Campona shopping centre in the XXII district, Lurdy Haz in the IX district, Pest’s oldest Plaza, Duna Plaza in the IV district and the Polus Center in Eastern Pest’s XV district (www.polus.com).
For some real bargains, check out the Nagy Vásárcsarnok (the Central Market Hall) in Budapest. The capital also offers some of Europe’s finest flea markets such as the Budapest Flea Market (Bolhapiac) in Petofi Csarnok and the Ecseri Piac market, in the Xth district – a great place for folk costumes and communist relics.
The postal service in Hungary is passable but fairly slow, although services are improving. As with most European post offices, you can also pay utility bills at the majority of branches, open a savings account or organise money transfers and arrange a subscription to a foreign newspaper. Most post offices are open from Monday to Friday between 9am and 6pm and more details can be found at www.posta.hu.
Crime, corruption and the police
Crime rates in Hungary are low compared with much of Eastern Europe, and Hungarians have a healthy respect for the law. Corruption is also fairly low compared with many neighbouring countries. Hungary holds a CPI corruption score of 5.2 (see www.transparency.org for more details). Countries are judged on a scale of 0–10 with 0 being highly corrupt and Hungary currently sits above the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Italy and Greece. However, that doesn’t mean foreigners aren’t likely to come across corruption, so be sure you surround yourself with experienced lawyers and agents who know the terrain, and never order or agree to buy anything without first looking at the price tag.