Greece is a hugely popular tourist destinations in Europe, with well over 30 million tourists visiting there in 2018, several million of them English speakers. But just how widely spoken is English there and is it possible to get by there without knowing any Greek?
According to recent statistics, around 51% of the Greek population can speak English, which is a reasonable proportion and one of the higher percentages in Europe. You will be perfectly fine using English in Athens and any of the other tourist destinations, though in more remote and rural areas some basic Greek will come in handy.
Official stats report that around half of the Greek population can speak English to some extent, which compares favorably to other countries in Southern Europe like Spain and Italy but is slightly less than the prevalence in Germany for example.
You Should Be Mostly Fine With English
All children start learning Greek at school very early on now, so anyone under 40 will have some command of English and anyone you deal with in the tourist industry will almost always speak decent English as well as a few other European languages.
The language barrier should not be a problem for short tourist stays, especially not in the larger holiday hotspots like Athens, Crete, Rhodes, Zakynthos and Santorini. Going further afield or dealing with the older generation you may have some problems but a grasp of some basic Greek phrases will cover you here – see our section further below.
Similarly, almost all road signs, menus and metro stops in Athens are double written in Greek and English, as are museum and other attraction signs. Greece receives around 3 million tourists from the UK and US combined each year and so is ready to accommodate English speakers in any tourist hotspot.
Looking round the various forums and blogs on this, tourists rarely ever report having problems with using English even traveling all around the country. It is never too hard to find an English speaker nearby wherever you go and the Greek people are very friendly and helpful on the whole.
The universal consensus on this is that you will be fine just using English when on holiday in Greece. No one reports any significant problems – if ever you run into someone who can’t speak English, someone close by always will. However it is still always good manners to learn the basic hello/please/thankyou phrases in Greek which are very easy to pronounce anyway – see further down.
Spoken English in Major Tourist Areas in Greece
Let’s be a bit more specific and break down the prevalence of English by some of the more major tourist areas of Greece. Here is an overall summary of the reported prevalence of English speakers in the major cities in Greece most frequented by tourists.
Athens – A very international city and huge tourist spot, so English very widely spoken. Metro signs also in English. No problems reported at all by any tourists, and some people even report being able to live there long term without knowing Greek. Having a few Greek words always helps with the locals though.
Santorini – Popular tourist spot so English quite widely spoken in the service sector. No problems reported at all staying in Fira or Oia. Restaurants, shops, bars, cab drivers all speak English and menus are in English as well.
Zakynthos – English widely spoken on the island. No language issues reported. Helpful to learn some Greek if living there longer term, especially during winters when many seasonal tourist staff aren’t there.
Rhodes – Popular tourist spot so English very widely spoken along with other languages. Even some much older people locals speak English as well. People here are very friendly and have an uncanny knack of spotting you as English before you even speak! The locals always appreciate a few Greek greetings though – see further below.
Corfu – English widely spoken – no language issues ever reported, especially in places like Perama and Benitses. Will be fine using English in restaurants, shops and bars. Corfiots will respond well to you trying a few words in Greek though.
Crete – No language issues in the major towns and resorts. Staff at restaurants, shops and attractions are multi lingual as Crete receives a lot of tourists. Some English even spoken in more remote villages.
Longer Term Stays
If you are planning on moving to Greece longer term, either for work, extended vacation or to retire, then it can also be possible to get by only speaking English depending on where you are based. As with moving to any country though it always opens up options and integrates you more into the society by learning the native language.
In Athens however, several people report that it is totally possible to move there more permanently to work in certain industries for example and be able to get by with just English. Many startup and big tech companies in Greece for example usually require English fluency to work, and English will be widely spoken in many university departments as well.
In some of these more modern or high tech industries, it can be possible to even get a job without speaking Greek as long as you have fluent English, since it will be widely enough spoken in these circles for you to not need Greek.
As a general rule of thumb, if your line of work and immediate circle involves dealing with people under the age of 45, then you have a decent chance of being able to get by just using English. If you are dealing with a lot of people over 45, then you will probably need to learn some Greek as English proficiency is less in the older generations.
Similarly, if you are retiring to a remote Greek village, then you will likely need some basic Greek since the prevalence of English in rural areas will be much less than in the major cities and tourist spots.
Another difficulty longer term visitors may run into is dealing with the public sector – government visas, permits, fines and so on. In this area foreigners are not accommodated nearly as much as in tourism and you will ideally need some Greek or a Greek speaking friend to help you out whenever you are dealing with government admin or paperwork. Public sector staff tend not to be so willing to help out foreigners.
Another problem here is that government documents are always written in Greek and will not be translated for you. The same may hold true for setting up bank accounts and mobile phone contracts, and also receiving mail through the post. It is important to know what you are signing or agreeing to and so knowing Greek or having some one who can translate documents to English can be a help for longer term stays.
This is where making some Greek friends and learning some basic Greek can really help you here. You can also very cheaply get documents translated online as well these days on freelancing sites like Fiverr.
Learning Some Basic Greek
For longer term stays and even for tourists if they want, it is always handy to learn some basic Greek phrases to help endear you to the already friendly population. It also opens up more social and work opportunities to learn the native language anywhere, and integrates you into the culture better, though Greece does have some of the higher rates of English speakers compared to other European countries.
Greek is considered one of the easier languages to learn, at least in spoken form, with many expats reporting that they picked up Greek without even formally making an effort learn simply by being there and interacting with Greeks on a daily basis over a number of months or years.
Of course the entire written form of Greek is totally different to other European languages, with a distinct alphabet which has to be learnt from scratch. However, learning some basic spoken Greek is not too hard. Here are some of the more common phrases.
|English||Pronounced in Greek as||Greek|
|Nice to meet you||Harika||Χάρηκα|
|How are you?||Tee kanis?||Τι κάνεις|
|I'm fine thankyou||Kala, ef-hareesto||Καλά, ευχαριστώ|
|Do you speak English?||Mi-lah-tey Agglika?||Μιλάτε Αγγλικά|
|I don't understand||Den kata-laveno||Δεν καταλαβαίνω
|Where is the bathroom/restroom?||Poh-ee nayee tua-lay-tah?||Πού είναι η τουαλέτα|
|A beer please||Me-ah mpira parakalo||Μια μπύρα παρακαλώ
|Cheers! (drinks)||Yamas||Γεια μας|
|A coffee please||Enan kafe parakalo||Έναν καφέ παρακαλώ|
|The bill please||Ton logga-ree-as-mo parakaló||Τον λογαριασμό παρακαλώ|
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Language & Travel Essentials For Visiting Greece
- Essential stats on Greece:
- Population: 10.4 million
- Time zone: EST +7 hours; GMT +2 hours.
- Currency: Euro
- International calling code: +30 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- If you want to learn some Greek prefer verb based learning, check out our Michel Thomas course page – there are beginner, intermediate and advanced courses in Greek using the Michel Thomas method.
- Banking – If you’re using a foreign bank card to draw out euros at an ATM in Greece, you’re likely to get stung with high fees. Especially avoid the blue and yellow branded “Euronet” ATMs in the street – they charge rip-off fees. See our guide on some good multi-currency card options to spend in euros for free, and also withdraw money from ATMs cheaply.