Last year, I went and lived for two months in Cebu City, Philippines, while working online. Overall, I had a good experience, and I’d like to return sometime—but honestly, it also had more downsides than other cities I’ve tried in SE Asia.
Below, I’ll share my personal list of 5 of the biggest pros and cons of living in Cebu City that I was able to gather during my two months there. I’ll also be comparing Cebu to Manila and some other SE Asia cities along the way.
Pros of Living in Cebu City
I won’t mention food or climate in these lists, since those are pretty subjective. But keep them in mind, as Cebu is quite warm, and Filipino food is not everyone’s favorite.
Also, keep in mind: I’m a single American male digital nomad in his 30s. I like big cities. I work online. I try to live a healthy lifestyle with no alcohol, a plant-based diet, and prioritizing my fitness. All of this affects my point of view.
Anyway, here are some of the things I liked about my time in Cebu City:
1. Low Cost of Living
This is probably the biggest benefit of living most places in Southeast Asia, and it certainly applies here. Basically, if you earn a normal American income, you are rich in Cebu City. And it’s nice to be rich.
Let’s talk specifics. I’ve heard of expats (and locals) getting monthly rentals for nice studio condo units in Cebu Business Park for about $400 USD per month when they sign a lease for 6-12 months.
For me, I only stayed two months for my first visit to Cebu City, and I got my place through Airbnb. So my deal was a bit more expensive, about $650 USD for a month, with no commitment beyond that.
That condo building was in a great location in a high-rise condo in IT Park, which is one of the nicest areas (along with Cebu Business Park). It had a nice pool and gym in the building, as well.
One of the other details that shocked me was how cheap the transportation is. Personally, I like taking the motorbike taxis (“habal habal”). These rides were 50 to 150 pesos for most places I went in the city ($1 to $3 USD).
Another thing that’s very cheap in Cebu City is haircuts. I got a haircut in SM City mall for 300 pesos (~$6 USD), which is already cheap in my mind. But later, I spoke with some locals who said that’s super expensive, and they get haircuts for 50 pesos (~$1 USD).
For food costs, as with most places in SE Asia, it’ll depend where you eat. If you’re eating local Filipino food from a little shop, it could be cheap. If you’re eating at fancier restaurants in the shopping malls, not as much.
I was shocked to see how expensive the “Healthy Options” store in the shopping mall was. I paid about $70 USD for vegan protein powder, and ~$12 for a bag of high-protein keto cereal, much more than it’d be in America. But the normal Metro Supermarkets in Cebu City are cheaper.
Overall, the Philippines may be more expensive than Vietnam and maybe Thailand, too. But it’s still a very low cost of living compared to most parts of the U.S. and many other countries.
2. Very Friendly People
Many countries in SE Asia are often praised for having friendly locals. This definitely applies to Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. But in my personal experience, Filipinos are the most friendly on average, by far.
During my first week in Cebu City, I remember one of my motorbike (“habal habal”) drivers, a middle-aged man, was so friendly. We had to pull off the road at one point because it started to rain hard, and he basically told me his whole life story.
Sometimes when strangers talk to you, you may raise your guard because you suspect they’re trying to sell you something or scam you. Certainly, that can happen, too. But many Filipinos are just genuinely friendly.
Probably, the English proficiency in the Philippines helps with this. In some other countries like Japan and Vietnam, locals are often too intimidated by the language barrier to just chat casually with you.
The friendliness of Filipinos also carries into the social life and the dating experience you can have. Particularly as a western guy, dating is easier and more fun in the Philippines than probably anywhere on Earth.
Compared to other Asian countries, more Filipinas seem interested in dating foreigners. At the same time, there are fewer foreigners in Cebu City to be your “competition,” compared to Thailand, for example.
Filipino dating culture is also less traditional and conservative compared to Vietnam, for example. So, things often move quickly, whether you want a serious partner in the end or just casual dating.
Really, I’ve come to have a warm spot in my heart for Filipinos because of how quickly they tend to open up and treat you like a friend or family. Even in just two months, I made friends I’d definitely like to visit again, despite the fact Cebu City was not my favorite place overall.
3. English Is Easily Understood
Living in Asia comes with some level of language barrier, no matter where you live. However, of all the places I’ve been in Asia, the Philippines had the best average level of English proficiency.
In fact, English is one of the official languages of the Philippines. I even felt that the Philippines had much better English than Hong Kong, which was a British colony for over 150 years.
This means you’ll have an easier time talking to taxi drivers, restaurant staff, and landlords compared to Thailand or Vietnam. And as mentioned above, it helps with building real friendships and relationships with locals, too.
Of course, it may still be fun or useful to learn some Tagalog or Cebuano (Bisaya) for your time in the Philippines—but it’s really not necessary at all.
Even if you spent a full year learning Bisaya, the local language of Cebu, most locals would still be more fluent in English than you’d be in Bisaya.
The Filipinos you meet will likely still use some “incorrect” grammar or have an accent, but in my opinion, that just adds a certain charm. It’s not usually a barrier to communication.
4. Convenient Shopping Malls
Cebu City has several decent shopping malls, where it’s convenient to buy pretty much anything. If you compare the malls of Cebu to the malls of Bangkok, of course, it’s not quite as good. But the malls of Cebu City are still quite convenient.
Probably the best mall is Ayala in Business Park—but there’s also SM City, SM Seaside, Robinson Galleria, E-Mall, the smaller Ayala in IT Park, and maybe more.
The malls are also a decent place to just walk around or hang out, due to the air conditioning. It seems like many Filipinos just come and hang out at the malls regularly for this reason.
5. International Airport
Cebu City is not a really “big” city—it’s tiny in comparison to something like Metro Manila. But it still has its own international airport. This is a good thing if you like traveling or going back home to visit loved ones.
Granted, the Mactan-Cebu International Airport won’t have as many direct flights to everywhere around the globe compared to Manila, Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur, but it’s still a perk to have some international options when you’re leaving Cebu.
Cons of Living in Cebu City
Ok, now let’s get into the downsides of Cebu City, as I see it. Unfortunately, there are some considerable ones.
1. Unreliable Internet
The Internet can be a problem for digital nomads all around the Philippines. The wifi may be better in the cities than the provinces and beaches, but you’ll still get some buffering and lag.
Personally, I’ve stayed in the nicest neighborhoods of both Cebu City and Manila, in at least five different Airbnbs in total. Only one (in Manila) had reliable Internet for the full week I stayed. All the others had slow or unreliable Internet.
One of my Airbnbs in Cebu City actually came with 3 different wifi routers. So theoretically, I had two back-ups. But guess what? There were still times when none of them worked very well.
Of course, if you get a local SIM card with unlimited data, you can also set up a personal hot spot from your phone… But unfortunately, I found the phone Internet is inconsistent, too. (And I tried all 3 major brands: Smart, Globe, and DITO.)
Cafes in Cebu City almost never have reliable Internet, either. In my experience, they usually have “free wifi,” but when you try it, it doesn’t work.
Between the wifi routers in my Airbnbs and my smartphone’s personal hot spot, usually I was able to do most of my Internet activity while in Cebu City. Occasionally I had to watch YouTube videos or Netflix at a lower quality, or pause to switch to a different router.
The worst was trying to do video calls in Cebu City. Usually in any 30-minute video call, there would be a couple minutes of downtime, or severe lag that was distracting and made communication harder.
If you want consistent, high-speed Internet in the Philippines, there are two solutions I see:
- Join a co-working space that has enterprise level wifi, and do all your important Internet work there. Cebu City does have a few co-working spaces, such as KMC and The Company in IT Park. Their connections should be solid, with high speeds and back-up servers for greater consistency.
- Get a longer-term rental, and pay to have great Internet installed. Most of the wifi routers in my Airbnbs did poorly… but I’ve heard some expats rave about their “fiber” connections and some higher-end offerings from PDT.
2. No Awesome Parks
Personally, I like taking long walks outside. When I’m staying near a beach, I usually walk on the beach at sunset. In big cities, I often walk around a nice big park. But in Cebu City, I never found a great place of any substantial size that I loved to walk around.
Of course, there is plenty of great nature to go visit on the island of Cebu. But most of it would require traveling outside of the city.
If you’re staying in Cebu City itself, like Business Park or IT Park, there don’t seem to be any nice large green spaces. I didn’t find any nice places to walk by the waterside or anything like that, either. Maybe I just didn’t look around enough.
Of course, you can walk around the shopping malls, or you can walk around on the sidewalks outside. After all, some areas do look nice, as shown in this picture I took in Cebu Business Park. But personally, I found the issue with beggars sometimes made that annoying, too. So, let’s address that next.
I’ve traveled around quite a few cities in Asia by now, including various cities in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines. But Cebu City had the most beggars of anywhere so far.
In American cities, most beggars seem to be adult men. But usually the beggars in Cebu City are children, or occasionally old women or others.
In IT Park in Cebu City, I was confronted by several very persistent beggars, especially the teenage boys. One of them walked alongside me for a whole block, repeatedly asking me for money, somewhat rudely.
I was also approached by young children begging (around 5 or 6 years old), even while I was sitting at a cafe table outdoors.
From what I’ve heard, the children may not even get to keep the money you give them. Instead, they take it back to an adult who is basically using them for money. In some cases, these kids may even be victims of human trafficking.
Why are there more beggars in Cebu compared to elsewhere in SE Asia? Is it due to the amount of poverty? Or are locals just more comfortable approaching foreigners because of their English level? Or something else? I’m not sure.
Eventually, I decided I’d just give beggars a small amount, like any coins I had in my pocket, or a 20 or 50 peso bill. A small amount like that doesn’t make a difference to me, but maybe some of them will be slightly better off from it.
Interestingly, when I spent a full month in BGC in Manila, I was only approached by a beggar once. So, it’s possible that BGC in Manila may have fewer beggars overall. Or maybe I just got lucky when I was there.
Personally, I did not get robbed in the Philippines. So, I wasn’t sure if I should even list this point. However, I was cautioned by multiple locals about it. And in my view, that already suggests enough of a problem to count as a “con.”
I’ve heard the pick-pockets are especially common on the jeepneys (truck-taxi things). So be careful on those.
Also, a tip I learned in Vietnam, where phone-snatching is common: Don’t just walk around in public loosely holding your smartphone. Clutch it tightly while using it, then put it away in your pocket or bag.
In Vietnam anyway, most thieves will just grab your phone or bag from their motorbike, then speed off. So be especially cautious when crossing the street or walking right next to traffic. (But I’ve never been robbed in Vietnam, either—just warned about the risk.)
5. Long Lines in Stores
I’m not sure why this one is such a big issue, but it really is. Multiple times, I had to stand in line for about 30 minutes to check-out at the grocery store.
And it’s not just grocery stores. When I went to the Globe phone store in the mall, it was super packed and took a long time to see a representative. (However, the DITO store was quick.)
Personally, I hate standing in line, so this was a big “con” for me. My nomad friend told me it’s just part of the “relaxed, island lifestyle.” That makes it sound nice, but it’s annoying to me.
If you notice a particular store often has long lines, you may want to plan your day around visiting that store during less-busy hours. For example, I found I could avoid long grocery store lines if I went at 10 a.m. right when they opened.
Again, I found that BGC in Manila did not have this same problem. Usually I was able to buy groceries in BGC without waiting more than a couple minutes in line.
Overall, for me personally, Cebu City honestly had more downsides than most places I’ve visited. But the upsides are still strong, too. And if you want to explore the beaches and nature around the whole island of Cebu, it could be the perfect jumping off point for that.