LIFE ON SAIPAN : Cost of Living
Your perspective as to whether or not the cost of living here is high or low, will depend on where you are moving from, and what you are used to. Because of the cost of shipping, many items are more expensive than you would find in the US, such as food, gasoline, clothing and electronic items. However, we have found that such items tend to be less expensive here than in Hawaii. Because of the lower minimum wage in the CNMI ($5.05/hour), many services are much less expensive here than in North America. Also, the tax structure here is significantly lower than in the US, with the highest effective tax bracket around 15%. There is no sales tax or other city, state, or county taxes. In general, because of the simpler lifestyle and lower taxes, people find that they save a significantly higher portion of their income than they would have saved in North America.
One of your first priorities will be to locate suitable housing. There is a broad range of options available. One can find studio apartments, which generally start around $400 per month, to one and two bedroom apartments in the $600-$800 range, to luxury condominiums in the $1,000 and above range. Additionally, there are single family homes available that typically run about $700 per month and higher. Most of these apartments and homes are usually furnished. Availability is highly variable. There are a few apartments within walking distance of Brilliant Star. Two of the commonly used real-estate companies, who can help you get an idea of some of the housing, even before your arrival, are Pacific Rim International, and Alexander Realty. Most rental properties require one month rent and a security deposit.
Many of the long term expatriate families on the island eventually end up “buying” a house. The CNMI constitution limits ownership of land to people of CNMI descent, i.e. Chamorros and Carolinians. Other individuals can lease land for up to 55 years. So, buying a house is a bit different, in that you are actually leasing the house for a maximum of 55 years. It takes a while for most people to become comfortable with this type of “ownership”. But most expatriates are very happy with their decision to lease land and build a house, or to lease a home for 55 years.
To obtain water and electrical service you must apply to the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation (CUC) and pay a refundable deposit of $150 for electricity and $30 for water. Many apartment buildings will apply on your behalf. Monthly bills will be sent to your mailing address.
Voltage is 110, the same as the US. However, the electricity is not as reliable as in the US. There can be voltage fluctuations, and frequent power outages. It is definitely advisable to have surge protectors and line conditioners for your major electronic items such as computers and television sets.
The tap water is also not up to US standards. Depending on the area of the island you live, the water can be quite salty. One cannot drink the water from the tap. Most island residents have drinking water delivered to our homes by one of several water companies on the island. The water is delivered in 5 gallon jugs.
Telephone and Internet
Once you have found a place to live, you will want to make a visit to the island’s only telephone company, Verizon. It usually takes a week or so for the phone lines to get connected. This process can be sped up if you know the previous phone number from that unit. The cost of activating a phone line is typically around $120. Monthly charges for basic phone service are around $30.
The CNMI became part of the North American Number Plan on July 1, 1997. This means that the islands no longer have a separate telephone country code and expensive international charges. Instead, the CNMI now has a regular area code, (670), just like every other part of the United States, Alaska, Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Long distance rates through local carriers are around 11 cents per minute to the US, though rates as low as 3.5 cents per minute are available through various calling cards. Toll free numbers can also be dialed from the CNMI, which makes mail order shopping and customer service convenient.
There are several Internet Service Providers on the island. The usual connection rate is around 42,000 bps. There is now DSL and cable modem available. The typical rate for unlimited high speed access is $30-$60 per month. The public library has a very nice technology center available, with 20 or so computers, and free internet access.
Since there is no public transportation, you will need to purchase a car or other vehicle fairly soon after your arrival. The roads are hazardous for bicyclers. Most car dealers sell Japanese vehicles although American and European makes are also available. The Japanese cars and trucks include Mazda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki and Honda. The more adventurous may prefer a 4-wheel drive for off-road exploring. These vehicles are readily available and popular.
Reasonable used cars and jeeps are also available at prices ranging from $3500 (entry level) to $12,000. Late model automobiles are available at stateside prices. Shipping a vehicle from the west coast will likely cost between $1,500 and $2,000. Rust can be a severe problem here and all cars prior to 1988 must be inspected. Saipan has many auto repair and service shops and their prices are reasonable. As many of the back roads are in poor condition it pays to keep your car in good repair.
Automobile registration costs $25/year. Insurance is mandatory. Gasoline runs about 20% higher than in the US mainland. It is the opinion of many who are already on island just to buy a car in the states and have it shipped over since the selection is greater and the prices are more competitive.
You will need a CNMI driver’s license. It is imperative to get the license as soon as you are on island, as you cannot open a bank account without a local form of ID. It costs $17.00. You need a valid driver’s license from elsewhere and must pass a vision screening test. No written test or road test are required if you have a valid driver’s license from the U.S. However, non-US citizens are required to take the written test and a road test. The license is valid for 3 years and expires on your birthday. Take your passport with you when applying for your driver’s license.
Banking and Currency
Another of your first activities will be to open a bank account. The U.S. dollar is the currency in the Commonwealth. Stateside-style banks include the Bank of Guam, Bank of Hawaii, First Hawaiian Bank. On your arrival in the CNMI, it is easier and more convenient to bring credit cards or traveler’s checks in US funds for immediate use. Cash is best. Some banks will not cash cashier’s checks or money orders; if they do, there is likely to be at least a two week “hold” on the amount even if the draft is of U.S. origin. A purchase receipt may be needed to cash traveler’s checks. To open a bank account you will need a U.S. Social Security number and you will need a local form of identification, such as a driver’s license.
You are advised to obtain a major credit card that gives Northwest or Continental frequent flyer bonus miles before you arrive in the CNMI. Bank of Hawaii offers an American Express card that accumulates Continental miles.
It is possible to bring your pet to Saipan, but it is expensive and requires a 4 – 8 week quarantine in a facility is not air-conditioned, and that does not allow you to spend much time with your pet during the quarantine period. It will cost several hundred dollars and require extensive paperwork. The reason behind the expense and strict requirements is easily understood. The CNMI is a rabies free area and the intent is to keep it that way. Details can be obtained by writing to: Natural Resources Department, Animal and Health Industry, Caller Box 10007, Saipan, MP96950, USA. (670) 234-6169; Fax (670) 235-9001.
One option is adopting a “boonie” dog or cat. Many are wandering on the island. P.A.W.S. is a non-profit organization to turn to if you need information and assistance in adopting cats or dogs.
There is one veterinarian on the island with an office that is centrally located.
Incidentally, there are no highly poisonous land creatures of any kind in the CNMI, including snakes.