Traveling in Asia as someone who only speaks English, you’re bound to face some language barriers. Granted, most tourist areas will have a decent amount of English. But outside of those spots, it depends a lot on the country.
Personally, I’ve been living as a digital nomad in Asia for over two years, and I’ve been to over 15 different cities in Asia. In that time, I’ve noticed some countries are much better for English than others.
But in this post, I won’t just sharing my subjective experiences. We’ll also take a look at the best statistics available for English proficiency and percentage of English speakers in all these Asian countries.
So let’s get into the best English-speaking countries in Asia. After that, I’ll cover some of the worst English-speaking countries, too.
Singapore scores a 642 (Very High Proficiency) on Education First’s (EF) English Proficiency Index. It is the only Asian country to qualify for the “Very High Proficiency” category. (source)
Singapore also ranks #1 in Asia for the percentage of the population that speaks English. About 96% of Singapore’s population over 5 years old speaks English. (source)
In fact, as of 2020, 48% of people in Singapore report using English most frequently at home. Meanwhile, 30% use Mandarin Chinese, 9% use other Chinese dialects, 9% use Malay, 3% use Tamil, and 1% use other languages. (source)
Nomad List ranks Singapore as “Great” in the “English Speaking” criteria, as well.
Basically, you’ll almost certainly have no problems with English in Singapore. It is head and shoulders above the rest of Asia in English ability. There’s really no competition.
That said, Singapore is quite expensive. In most years, it ranks as the “most expensive city in the world” (or near the top of the list). So let’s check some other countries which are much more affordable.
2. The Philippines
The Philippines scores a 578 (High Proficiency) on EF’s English Proficiency Index. It is one of only 3 Asia countries that qualify for this “High Proficiency” category. (source)
The cities with the best English included Bacolod, Baguio, Davao City, and Cagayan de Oro. Impressively, Bacolod and Baguio qualified as “Very High” English proficiency. (Most Philippines cities were “High” or “Moderate” proficiency.) (source)
Depending on the data you look at, about 58% to 64% of the Philippines population qualifies as speaking English. However, English is not the “first language” for the vast majority of people in the Philippines.
In my experience, the English-speaking population in the Philippines seemed very high, as if close to 100% had basic fluency. But my view was probably biased, due to interacting mostly with younger generations in the bigger cities.
Nomad List ranks most cities in the Philippines as “Okay” or “Good” when it comes to their “English Speaking” criteria.
In terms of other languages spoken in the Philippines, the most common is Tagalog, and the next common is Bisaya. But there are technically at least 120 separate languages spoken in the Philippines. (source)
Along with Tagalog, English is an official language in the Philippines. Really the English level in the Philippines is a major advantage and makes it a convenient, easy country for expats and foreigners to navigate.
Coming in third place, Malaysia scores a 574 (High Proficiency) on EF’s English Proficiency Index. That’s not far behind the Philippines at all. (source)
The two cities in Malaysia with the best English were Kuantan and Ipoh—both qualified as having ” Very High” proficiency. Kuala Lumpur ranked well, too, but still just in the “High” proficiency category. (source)
Some sources have actually reported that Malaysia beats the Philippines when it comes to its percentage of English speakers, with 63% of the eligible population speaking English. (That is almost entirely non-native English speakers, though.)
According to Nomad List, most of the popular expat destinations in Malaysia are “Okay” or “Good” when it comes to their “English Speaking” criteria.
The official language in Malaysia is Malay. There are also numerous Chinese languages prominent in Malaysia. Tamil, an Indian language, is also prominent. In total, there are 137 languages spoken in Malaysia. (source)
From my personal experience, I had no problems with English when staying in Kuala Lumpur. The population is very diverse, but most can understand English just fine.
4. Hong Kong
Hong Kong scores a 561 (High Proficiency) on EF’s English Proficiency Index. That’s a considerable step below the Philippines and Malaysia, but still good for Asia. (source)
About 46% of Hong Kong’s eligible population are English speakers. Meanwhile ~3.5% of Hong Kong’s population uses English as their “usual” language. (source)
Nomad List ranks Hong Kong as “Okay” when it comes to their “English Speaking” criteria.
It’s not a big surprise that Hong Kong has pretty good English proficiency. After all, it was colonized by Britain for over 150 years. But how does mainland China compare?
China as a whole ranks as “Low Proficiency” in English, according to EF. However, some cities qualify as “Moderate” proficiency. Those cities include Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou. (source)
According to Nomad List, most cities in mainland China are “Bad” or “Okay” for their “English Speaking” ranking.
When it comes to other languages spoken in Hong Kong, Cantonese Chinese is the most prominent, by far. Mandarin and other Chinese variants are also present to some extent.
5. South Korea
South Korea scores a 537 (Moderate Proficiency) on EF’s English Proficiency Index. (source)
The cities with the best English are Seoul and Daegu—they qualify as “High Proficiency.” Meanwhile, Busan and Incheon have “Moderate Proficiency.” (source)
According to Nomad List, most cities in South Korea are “Bad” or “Okay” when it comes to their “English Speaking” ranking.
The South Korean population is not as fluent in English compared to the countries above… But you’ll still be able to find plenty of fluent speakers and you should be able to get around fine in most cases.
Of course, the main language in South Korea is Korean, which is a “Category IV” language, one of the hardest for native English speakers to learn.
India scores a 516 (Moderate Proficiency) on EF’s English Proficiency Index. (source)
Some cities in India with better English are Bhopal, Kolkata, Jaipur, Lucknow, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. Bhopal actually qualified as “High Proficiency.” Delhi and Hyderabad ranked lower, but still “Moderate Proficiency.” (source)
Statistics for the percentage of English speakers in India are not great, though. One statement by the Indian government put the figure around 15-20% of the population speaking English. Other estimates are even lower. (source)
According to Nomad List, most of the popular cities in India are “Okay” or “Good” when it comes to the “English Speaking” criteria. Notably, that’s better than South Korea.
The most prominent language in India is Hindi. Other prominent languages include Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, and Urdu. In total, there are a whopping 780 languages spoken in India. (source)
Vietnam scores a 502 (Moderate Proficiency) on EF’s English Proficiency Index. That makes it the last country in Asia to qualify for at least “Moderate” proficiency. The rest are “Low” or “Very Low” proficiency. (source)
Unsurprisingly, the cities with the best English include many popular tourist destinations: Hanoi, Haiphong, Vung Tau, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nha Trang. (source)
But overall, according to Nomad List, most popular cities in Vietnam are “Bad” when it comes to their “English Speaking” ranking.
Of course, the main language in Vietnam is Vietnamese. But it’s worth noting that the Northern, Central, and Southern dialects are quite different, to the point that speakers of different dialects sometimes can’t understand each other.
Personally, I’ve spent about half a year living in Vietnam. There is definitely a language barrier between me and many locals—but there are also plenty of fluent English speakers around. It just depends who you’re talking to.
Overall, I still found Vietnam to have much better English than Japan. And speaking of that—let’s cover some of the Asian countries that are the least fluent in English.
Worst English Speaking Countries in Asia
The lowest-ranking Asian country for English proficiency, according to Education First, is Laos. Other “Very low proficiency” countries include Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar. (source)
According to one source, only ~4.5% of the Myanmar population speaks English. That said, the same source said 27% of Thailand’s population speaks English, so that’s much better. (More on Thailand and my personal experience below.)
A separate source says that ~22% of the Cambodian population speaks English (source). So, it may be the case that Myanmar has even worse English proficiency than Thailand and Cambodia.)
Indonesia, Japan, and Sri Lanka all rank as “Low proficiency” in English by EF’s criteria—so that’s pretty bad, too. One source says only ~18% of Sri Lanka’s population speaks English.
For the most part, Nomad List agrees with these low-proficiency rankings. However, some specific cities in these countries pass as “Okay” for their English rankings. For example, Canggu in Bali, Indonesia, ranks as “Okay” in English.
Before I wrap things up, I’d like to address the situation with English in Thailand a bit, especially since I have first-hand experience with it.
How Bad Is the English in Thailand, Really?
I’d just like to add some caveats about Thailand. It’s a very popular expat destination in Asia, even though it ranks as “Very low” English proficiency. So, what’s up with that?
Firstly, the English proficiency in Thailand depends a lot on the region, city, and population. For example, the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai only ranked as “Low” proficiency, not “Very low.” (source)
Secondly, a robust tourism industry serves English speakers in Thailand. Accordingly, many expats live in Thailand, only speak English, and don’t have any big language problems. Especially if you’re staying in those popular areas.
Personally, I can speak from more than a year of experience living in Thailand: The popular expat areas in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya are very accommodating to English-speaking foreigners. You’ll be just fine there.
And really, if you’re patient and resourceful, you will be okay with just English in most common destinations in Asia. I think many first-time travelers to Asia are more nervous about the language barrier than they need to be.
That said, if you’re interested in trying to learn an Asian language before traveling in Asia, check out my post on “What Is the Best Language to Learn for Traveling in Asia?“