Expats are often overcharged by locals, but sometimes it’s the other way around

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Abu Dhabi

One of the common annoyances of living in a foreign country, especially one where you are assumed to be wealthier than the locals, is constantly being overcharged for everyday items and even transportation. Growing up in a shopping-mall society it’s already a hassle to rarely see price tags on things in much of the world, and that seems to be at least partly caused by the fact that the price can be different for each customer.

Something I never would have expected is that there’s at least one part of the world where it’s the expats who are overcharging the locals on a regular basis, and that’s in the United Arab Emirates. Reading an article about how many Emirati get charged several times higher prices whenever they go shopping in their traditional white kandura, it again shows that it’s human nature for people to try to take advantage of other people when given a chance.

The UAE is Bizarro World for expats

Particularly in the biggest cities in the UAE of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the number of expats outnumber the locals by something like 10 to 1. The local Emirati are assumed to be part of oil families and be millionaires, and it’s true that many of them are, but not all of them. Some live on middle-class (or maybe upper-middle-class) incomes, so they find it especially annoying when they are quoted astonomical prices for things like clothing that foreigners are charged regular prices for.

According to the article, some of them have taken to shopping in Western clothes instead in order to be quoted foreigner prices. It’s hard not to smile at such an odd situation where expats actually have the upper hand, but still it’s obviously discrimination and some people are suffering because of it.

A local price and a foreigner price

Having been all over Asia for the last couple of years in addition to previous trips, I’m used to the phenomenon where foreigners are assumed to be rich, and therefore will be quoted higher prices for things. In most cases I personally don’t mind it much, especially when the “foreigner price” is still quite cheap to me. In other words, if I have to pay $1 for a large bahn mi sandwich in Vietnam, I don’t mind too much, even if locals only pay half that.

On the other hand, it can get upsetting when you are living in a place where prices aren’t terribly cheap, and then you are asked to pay double from there. A few months after I got to this town in Turkey I bought some socks for a bit under US$2 a pair, and a couple weeks later a different sales clerk tried to charge me twice as much for the same exact socks. I pointed out the problem and eventually got the new ones for even cheaper than the first ones, but most foreigners certainly just pay the high price and then walk away wondering if they just got ripped off.

Learning the language and the people is the best strategy

I admit that I’ve done a poor job of learning Turkish and making friends with shopkeepers here, but at least they recognize me and give me decent deals because they know I might come back. Having talked to many who’ve learned Turkish and also befriended the shopkeepers, I’m told that prices on many things suddenly drop that way.

It’s not surprising to hear that when two people enter a shop and ask for a price in English they’ll be quoted one thing, but when one of them replies back in Turkish asking if that’s the real price they’ll usually get something like the “local price” right away.

Learning languages isn’t easy, especially when you don’t really have to, but this is yet another situation where it seems like it actually has financial rewards in addition to social ones.

Do you get the local price abroad or do you feel like you are always paying the foreigner price, like the locals in the UAE are?

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5 Responses to “Expats are often overcharged by locals, but sometimes it’s the other way around”

  1. Emily
    March 24, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    I live in Chiang Mai Thailand and I am constantly getting over charged when trying to buy fruit. The sign at the fruit stand will say 35 baht for a kilo (in thai), but when I ask for a kilo, all of a sudden the price is doubleā€¦The stall owner says its 35 for a half kilo. Oh sure!

    I refuse to pay out of principal.

  2. Tom
    March 26, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    Emily, I also lived in Chiang Mai for a while and I guess since I mostly shopped at the Lotus Express I didn’t get ripped off as often. I did buy that spicy sausage and pork rinds from the outdoor market every week, so they probably doubled that price without me even realizing it. Fortunately, it still seemed pretty cheap. -Tom

  3. Rachel
    April 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    We used to have the same issue in Kenya, which I found irritating until a wealthy Kenyan friend pointed out that she viewed it as her version of philanthropy. She bartered things down to a reasonable level, but was happy to play slightly more, simply because she could afford it, and to the stall keeper, it made a huge difference.
    She also pointed out that the stalls usually charged much lower prices than the supermarkets where we would otherwise have shopped, but also (usually) rewarded us with better service for repeat custom.
    Having said that, she was very clear when people abused her ‘system’ and would happily tell them so!

  4. Tom
    April 11, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    Rachel, I think that woman had a good style. It’s nice to know when they are trying to take advantage of those of us who they assume to be “rich” and I don’t mind paying more than a local in most cases. It can be annoying when they play like we are stupid, however. -Tom

  5. Roy
    August 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    I have lived in Harbin (China) since January 2012 and I COMPLETELY understand, so much so that I stopped going to street vendors. It is insane how much they try to overcharge here. For example, I tried to buy a laptop this week, the shop keeper at the electronics store in the electronics city didn’t know that I had window shopped at his store last week at the SAME laptop with the SAME specs for the hardware and I saw the price tag last week. This week the same laptop was still there, but no price tag. I went to purchase it and the shop keeper tried to charge me DOUBLE!!! YES, DOUBLE!!! So I said in Chinese “I am not a tourist and you have disrespected me and in turn you have lost face with me and my friends”. He hung his head and then offered to give it to me for cheaper but he had already damaged that chance so I left and let him stew over his screw up :)

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