Hungary is one of the more popular tourist destinations in Eastern Europe, receiving well over half a million tourists from the USA and UK alone each year, with the capital Budapest being by far the most popular destination. But just how widely spoken is English there? Can a tourist expect to get by there without knowing any Hungarian?
As a general rule, English is not widely spoken in Hungary overall, with around 20% of the population able to speak it to some degree. English is widely spoken in the capital Budapest, but it is much less prevalent in smaller towns and rural regions, where the population is older and much less proficient in English.
Therefore, if you’re going to Budapest, the good news is that you will have no problems being understood there and getting by in the main tourist spots. However, elsewhere in the country English is much less prevalent and you will struggle more to be understood in smaller towns and rural regions, where English is far less widely spoken.
A 2012 Eurobarometer report found that the overall percentage of the population in Hungary who can speak English came out at about 20%, which is actually quite low in world terms, coming in lower even than other European countries like Italy and Spain where English is also not considered widespread.
However, the vast majority of these English speakers seem to be concentrated in Budapest, which is where most tourists will visit anyway.
In general, whilst English is not widely spoken overall in Hungary, with around 20% proficiency across the country as a whole, it is widely spoken in the specific areas that matter most to tourists – the cosmopolitan areas of Budapest.
This is why English speakers generally report having no problems getting around, despite the low overall fluency in English among the general population in Hungary.
English has been taught in schools post the 1989 collapse of communism, so the younger generation especially can speak some English, but the older generation do have less fluency, with Russian being the language of choice for them under communist rule. German is also spoken by around 10% of the population.
Similarly, films and TV programs tend to be dubbed into Hungarian and not subtitled in English as they are in other countries. So young people do not have so much chance to pick up English this way, which explains why fluency is OK among the younger population, but not up there with Scandinavian countries like Norway which constantly receive TV shows in un-dubbed English and so have much more practice understanding and speaking it.
In Budapest You Will Be Fine With English
The universal opinion on this from people who have visited Budapest is that you can get by with just English with no problems there. English is widely spoken in the capital in all places that tourists are likely to visit, such as hotels, restaurants and larger shops. Menus will often be in English and almost all waiters in restaurants will either speak English or be able to call over someone that does.
Similarly in any kind of tourism job, people need to speak two or three languages to get hired, with English likely to be one of them in most cases. Doctors and pharmacists will also speak English, since it is a requirement of their training to learn it, so if you eat a dodgy meal and have an upset stomach you should have no problems going down to the pharmacy to get something! All signs on the Budapest transport system are also double signed in English as well as Hungarian.
Therefore English is widespread enough in Budapest at least for you to be able to get by without speaking Hungarian for short holidays. Some people even report living there for several years and being able to get by speaking either very little or no Hungarian. So you have nothing to worry about in the capital.
Here are some additional tips for English speakers navigating around Budapest and other Hungarian cities, from people who visit there a lot:
- At trains stations, printed departure boards are yellow; arrival boards are white.
- Toilets often don’t have signs on but letters – look for the “F” word for Men and an “N” word for Women on the doors.
- German is also sometimes spoken in parts of Hungary – if you are fluent you can try using this if you are struggling with English.
- Often the employees of public transport will only speak Hungarian – when getting tickets it is a good idea to write down destinations/tickets you need on a card and hand it to them to save time and confusion.
Elsewhere You May Struggle
As soon as you move more outside the center of Budapest, or to more rural countryside regions or other cities, you will find the prevalence of English falls away dramatically. Here you will have to rely much more on miming, pointing and gesturing combined with friendliness and some patience. You may bump into the odd English speaker but they are much rarer outside of Budapest.
You can try some Hungarian if you want, but it is quite a difficult language to pronounce correctly for people new to it so you may not be understood right away. You might be better sticking to the basic introductory words and then miming from then on. Hungarian people are generally quite friendly and you will find a way to muddle through where English is not spoken.
In addition the vast majority of English speaking tourists who visit Hungary go to Budapest anyway, where English is not a problem, so there is nothing to worry about for most holiday makers. English and a few basic phrases should get you by – let’s look now at learning some basic Hungarian tourist greetings and phrases.
Some Basic Hungarian Phrases
Given that English is not so prevalent in Hungary overall, though somewhat more widespread in Budapest, it will definitely come in handy to know a few basic Hungarian phrases when visiting the country. Locals will always appreciate even a few basic words like Hello, please and thank you, as they do in every country. In Budapest at least you can usually converse in English from there.
Hungarian belongs to the Uralic family of languages and is actually considered one of the more difficult languages to learn, with some very complex grammar and pronunciation rules which take a long time to master. However, just memorizing a few basic phrases for a short term stay is not too difficult. Here are some of the more common ones you might need.
|Nice to meet you||Örvendek||Urr-ven-dek|
|Good morning||Jó reggelt||Yoh rreggelt
|Good afternoon||Jó napot||Yoh-nah-pot|
|Good evening||Jó estét||Yoh-esh-tate|
|Good night||Jó éjszakát||Yoh-eh-sakat|
|Where is the bathroom/restroom?||Merre van a mosdó?||Meh-reh van a moshdoh?
|How much is this?||Ez mennyibe kerül?||Ez menn-yibeh keh-rule?
Here are the general pronunciation rules:
- A single s in Hungarian is pronounced as a “sh”
- A sz is pronounced as just an “s” sound.
- An r in Hungarian needs to be really emphasized as a “rrr” sound
- Vowels in general are not usually pronounced as they are in English – there are distinct accents that have to be learned.
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Travel Essentials For Visiting Hungary
- Essential stats on Hungary:
- Population: 9.7 million
- Time zone: EST +6 hours; GMT +1 hours (+2 hours in summer).
- Currency: Hungarian Forint (HUF) ($1 = 391 HUF; £1= 462 HUF at time of writing)
- International calling code: +36 (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.
- Banking – If you don’t want to get stung with high ATM fees, check out our article on the Wise Borderless Card, which allows you to open up balances in many different currencies (including Hungarian Forint – complete with local bank details) and spend for free on your card, plus draw out a certain amount of HUF for free at ATMs each month.