While not quite as popular as other European countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy, Bulgaria is still a popular holiday destination for English speakers, with great weather 6-8 months of the year, good food and cheap cost of living. It’s great to visit for holidays, but could someone actually live there more permanently and get by only speaking English? Is Bulgarian required to live long term in the country?
It is possible to live in Bulgaria only speaking English, plus a few basic Bulgarian words, especially in Sofia and Black Sea resorts. However, language barrier issues will still sometimes present themselves in daily life living there long term. Having a strong network of both fellow English speakers and people who can speak Bulgarian will make living there permanently much easier.
Parts of Bulgaria do have an English speaking expat community, so long term living there is demonstrably possible without speaking Bulgarian. But it’s a good idea to plan ahead and learn some basic Bulgarian phrases before moving there, and then network once you’re there, to make your transition easier.
How Widely Spoken Is English In Bulgaria?
Figures suggest that around 25% of the overall population in Bulgaria can speak English, but most of these people are centered around the capital Sofia, plus the Black Sea coastal resorts like Sunny Beach, plus the younger population who are now taught English in schools.
Here are some places where you can expect English to be widely spoken:
- Sofia – As the capital, does receive a good number of tourists and English is reasonably widely spoken in the central parts.
- Varna – decent levels of English spoken in the central parts, and as a Black Sea coastal city, does have some expats.
- Sunny Beach – A huge UK tourist destination, so English widely spoken all along the main strip that leads from the center to the beach, especially in summer. Less so though in nearby Nesebar, and even less in quieter Ravda.
- Holiday complexes – those apartment complexes on the Black Sea coast especially that are usually full in the summers, but quiet in winter. Always someone there who speaks English because of the large UK tourist market. Plus a good place to meet and network with fellow expats.
- Burgas – Again, decent levels of English, but not as good as other European cities. Enough to get by though ordering food and is spoken in some shops
- Plovdiv – As a university town, you can find a lot of younger people who will speak English here. Also increasingly popular with digital nomads.
- Pharmacies – You can usually find at least 1 person in most Antekas (pharmacies) who does speak some English.
See our full article on spoken English in Bulgaria for more information.
Scenarios Where You Can Struggle Only Speaking English
Although English is spoken in the places most tourists go, which is primarily Sunny Beach on the east coast, plus Sofia and the center of other cities, in most other places though, especially in more remote parts and/or with older people, do not expect very much English to be spoken. Even if English is spoken in the main parts of the city you’re in, be ready to proficiency levels to drop off sharply as you move into smaller towns/villages, and into the countryside.
Here are some other places where English proficiency is either patchy or not very common:
State Bureaucracy – Again when sorting out visas and other paperwork, can be hit and miss. You may be able to assigned to a person that speaks English, but don’t expect many people in the state system to speak much English. Having a local friend who speaks Bulgarian will be very helpful here to decipher paperwork.
Shops – phone shops, other smaller shops, tech stores etc, – again, in the central parts of tourist areas like Sofia/Sunny Beach, you should be fine. But walking into a random shop anywhere else, do not expect much English to be spoken, if at all. There might be one person in a store who does speak some English, but you might have to go in only on the days they are in to get things sorted, since none of the other staff speak much English.
Banks – Again hit and miss – you might have to shop around a bit for a bank branch which has a good English speaker in it, so you can get accounts set up. This can also be an important first step to getting the correct residence visas. But with a little work, you can find someone to help you get it done – there’s lot of expats who’ve managed to get Bulgarian bank accounts set up fine.
Bus stations – Again, I’ve had trouble with this even in Sunny Beach and Burgas. The staff there may only speak very little or broken English, so don’t expect to be able to have detailed conversations. Or perhaps only one person works there who speaks decent English, and you’ll need to come back when they’re in. Same for many of the people that run the coach booths offering trips to other neighboring countries – sometimes they speak English, but often not.
Post Offices – Especially in places further out like Ravda, don’t expect great levels of English when dealing with the state sector, and this includes post offices. I’ve had this problem myself. If you’re wanting to collect a parcel (or just find out if they have it in that office), sometimes you can be struggling to communicate and get your point across if no one there speaks English. You have you hope someone nearby steps in and helps translate a bit, or use Google Translate on your phone.
Small villages/countryside – The vast majority of English in Bulgaria is spoken in the big cities and popular UK tourist resorts like Sunny Beach. Elsewhere, expect English to be quite rare, and very broken and basic if it is spoken.
Regardless of where you’re going in Bulgaria, short term or long term, it’s also strongly recommended to learn some basic Bulgarian greetings/phrases, even if you’re not going to learn the language in depth. See the section further below for some basic words.
You Can Live In Bulgaria Only Speaking English
That said, despite all these struggles, expats that only speak English still get by living in Bulgaria. They just have to muddle through these awkward language barrier situations as best they can. It’s better to be prepared though for not nearly everyone to speak English when dealing with both commercial companies and government agencies in Bulgaria.
The main things to get sorted are buying the property and getting all the paperwork sorted so you own the property “lock, stock”, and getting any long term residence permits sorted so you have the correct permissions to stay there permanently. You often need to demonstrate proof of property ownership plus proof of a Bulgarian bank account to get those visas.
Once you get these core things sorted, you’re pretty much free to live your life, with occasional language barrier issues in some shops you visit, but great food, weather and cheap cost of living to offset that.
The Importance Of Networking As An Expat In Bulgaria
Because of these language barrier difficulties you will inevitably run into when dealing with the system in Bulgaria, it is very important to network if you’re going to live there long term as an expat. This primarily means connecting with other English speaking expats out there as much as you can.
You will find them, and it’s very important so you can ask them where to find certain things, how to get certain things sorted, and so on – those daily things that someone who’s been living there a while can help you out with. You can also go into shops/post offices/govt agencies together to get things sorted easier.
It’s also a very good idea make some local friends as well, people who can speak Bulgarian, to help you navigate language barriers issue as well. It can be very helpful to have native Bulgarians come along with you to meetings for visas, setting up of bank accounts, etc. to be able to interpret/translate and let you know exactly what you’re reading and signing. Same for renting or buying property, dealing with the health system, understanding any state paperwork that’s sent to you, and so on.
That said, Bulgarians are not the friendliest or most helpful of people overall in my experience, especially when you’re a customer. You will find some rude and unhelpful locals especially in certain shops, but like any country, you can still find nicer and more friendly Bulgarians who can help you out with things.
Sunny Beach on the Black Sea Coast is a great place to network – check out the Sunny Beach Life YouTube Channel (the couple that run that channel are an example of expats who live there knowing only the basic Bulgarian phrases), and there are also expat Facebook walking/meetup groups on there to meet fellow English speakers. The same thing goes for Sofia as well. Elsewhere, it can be a bit harder, but try to network with other people as best you can.
Could You Work in Bulgaria Only Speaking English?
Because of how few people overall in Bulgaria speak English, the answer to this is usually no.
In general, it is not possible to work in Bulgaria only speaking English, with possible rare exceptions such as working remotely or in person for an international company.
English is not really common enough in Bulgaria for you to be able to work there without speaking Bulgarian. There are some multi-national companies like Hewlett Packard, IBM, SAP and Deloitte that are based out of Sofia, so it’s always worth looking at opportunities, but in general finding jobs that can be done only speaking English in Bulgaria is going to be hard.
A possible exception would be if you set up in Sunny Beach resort on the Black Sea coast, with some kind of tourist/expat focused business. That part of Bulgaria does receive a lot of British tourists, and has some expats, so you could set something up which solely deals or caters for them and only speak English. But it’s going to be very quiet there from October to April in the off season.
It is also true that Bulgaria is increasingly becoming a bit of a hot-spot for digital nomads, because of it’s fast internet and cheap cost of living. So you can certainly work for yourself or do freelancing there if you want. Or you might be able to remote work if your employer lets you.
Pretty much anything else though, especially working for a local company and not for yourself, you’re going to need Bulgarian, which isn’t the easier language to learn…..
How Easy Is It To Learn Bulgarian?
The Bulgarian language actually belongs to the Slavic category of languages, but it’s still quite unique and idiosyncratic, but the bottom line is that it is quite difficult to learn fluently for a native English speaker.
If you’re not used to the Cyrillic alphabet (totally different to standard English), then it’s like learning a totally new alphabet as well as a new language. It’s not like some other European languages where there are sometimes enough similarities with English that you can guess from word roots what something means. It’s totally different.
The pronunciation of certain words is also hard to get right, and even harder to understand. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that Bulgarian is quite a small language, only spoken by around 8 million people.
See here and here for interesting articles on the difficulties of learning Bulgarian. It basically fits into a “Tier 3” category in terms of difficulty, meanings it’s harder than other European languages like French, Spanish, Italian, but at least easier than Chinese or Japanese.
But if you want to get truly fluent in Bulgarian, both speaking and comprehending, you will have your work cut out. But you’ll also have a rare skill versus learning the over-subscribed Western European languages, that you could put to good use.
Some Basic Bulgarian Phrases
Even if learning fluent Bulgarian is quite hard, it’s still quite easy to learn the basic phrases to help you through daily interactions.
See the video and table below for some general everyday Bulgarian phrases useful for greetings and buying things.
|English||Pronounced in Bulgarian||Bulgarian|
|Good morning||Dobro oo-tro||Добро утро
|Good day||Dobrr den||Добър ден|
|Good evening||Dobrr vetcher||Добър вечер|
|Do you speak English?||Govoriteh li angliiski?||говориш ли английски?|
|Excuse me||Izvineteh||Извинете ме|
|Excuse me, how much?||Izvineteh, kolko stroova?||Извинете ме, колко?
|The bill please||Smetkata molya||сметката Моля|
Useful Resources For People Moving To Bulgaria
Here are links to some useful resources for people thinking of moving to Bulgaria longer term:
- Learning Bulgarian – See here for a good Bulgarian language course with classes in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas
- Vlogs/blogs – The Sunny Beach Life channel is a great vlog on living in the Sunny Beach area, and a perfect example of an expat couple who’ve managed to move there without really speaking much Bulgarian (just the usual greetings). His Facebook page will also allow you to network with him and other expats in the area. See also here for a good blog on living in Sofia. See here for our own guide on living in Ravda – not so popular but does still have a few expats.
- Banking – Don’t use the blue and yellow ATMs on the street – they charge rip-off fees. For a good multi-currency card you can use in Bulgaria with zero purchase fees and zero ATM withdrawal fees up to EUR/GBP 200 per month, see our review of the TransferWise/Wise Cross-Border card (great option for Brits especially who go there a lot).
- Phones/SIMs – See here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad – Bulgarian couriers will almost never ring foreign SIMs – you’ll need a Bulgarian SIM when staying there longer)