QUICK SUMMARY- Dos and Don'ts In Bulgaria
The language can be intimidating, the culture strange, and the alphabet stupefying, but Bulgaria is still fantastic. Whether you plan to move to Bulgaria for the low costs, delicious Balkan cuisine, or tour the ancient Roman ruins, this article will help you avoid awkward social goofs.
Use this list of Bulgaria Dos and Don'ts to learn more about Bulgarian etiquette and culture to ease your transition to expat life in Bulgaria.
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Quick List of Dos And Don'ts In Bulgaria
Don't use Euro. Bulgaria has their own currency, the Lev. Save money by using Wise to transfer money and make payments in Bulgarian Leva. Wise offers you the best exchange rates and lowest bank fees.
Do Get Travel Health Insurance. Your home insurance will not cover emergency healthcare overseas, but you can find affordable travel insurance for less than $50 that will cover your medical bills in Bulgaria.
Do learn some basic Bulgarian phases. 25% of Bulgarians speak English. Learning some basic Bulgarian language helps. Get a FREE Language Lesson using the same learning technique used by the US State Department, FBI, and overseas military.
Do watch out for Bulgarian Income Tax. Staying more than 183 days in Bulgarian may trigger tax residency. Get a FREE consult with an expat tax specialist to understand how taxes in Bulgaria can impact you.
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Bulgarian Cultural Dos and Don'ts- Social Etiquette And What Not To Do Or Say
1) Do shake your head for "yes" and nod for "no"
In the US and most Western European countries, you would nod your head if you mean "yes" and shake your head from side to side if you mean "no." People in many Balkan countries do the opposite. This one confuses many expats for years, especially when a vigorous headshake comes with a verbal "Da" (yes).
2) Don't call it the Russian Alphabet
To Bulgarians, it's the Bulgarian alphabet, as two Bulgarian saints developed the script in the 9th century. The country even celebrates every May 24th as The Day of Cyrillic Alphabet and Bulgarian Culture.
3) Don't show up empty-handed
If a friend invites you to a party or dinner at their house, it is Bulgarian custom to bring a present for the host. You gifting some liquor, wine, chocolates, or flowers is perfect- no need to splurge on an expensive gift.
INSIDER TIP : If you bring flowers, be cautious about your choice. Some flowers have traditional Bulgarian meanings. Roses, Bulgaria's national flower and symbol of friendship, is a safe choice. Just make sure there is an odd number. You only give an even number of flowers for sad occasions like funerals.
4) Don't make the fig fist.
This tip is a bit old school, but my Bulgarian roommate warned me about it. A 'fig fist' is when you put your thumb between your pointer and middle finger while making a fist. At best the fig fist is a rude way of saying no. Sometimes the fig fist can even be considered obscene way of saying "screw you."
5) Do take your shoes off when visiting a Bulgarian home
Bulgarians have a particular quirk about floor cleanliness; all floors are considered filthy. When entering a Bulgarian friend's house, immediately take off your shoes. You'll usually see a line of shoes as your enter the doorway.
Bulgarians know they are overly sensitive about floors. Your host may say foreign guests don't need to remove their shoes but trust me. They really prefer you take off your dirty shoes.
INSIDER TIP : Don't plop down and kick your feet up on a table or chair, as that transfers the floor cooties to the table, you filthy barbarian.
6) Don't expect great customer service
Coming from the US, where the "customer is always right," what classifies as customer service in Bulgaria is severely lacking. Simple business transactions like getting your internet installed may require an appointment weeks in advance. Especially if dealing with any government bureaucrats, don't expect prompt service. Don't be surprised if you have to make several phone calls to get their attention at times.
7) Don't take conversations too personally
Bulgarian friends will speak with a level of feedback that is more direct than you might be accustom to hearing. After you achieve a certain level of respect, your local friends will start saying precisely what they mean and feel, to the point of being blunt.
8) Do respect Bulgarian traditions
People here are proud of Bulgarian culture and heritage and care a lot about their traditions. Bulgaria has a rich history. Even a history buff wouldn't guess that the oldest European city is Bulgarian? Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city traces its roots back 8000 years.
9) Do get some exercise
Staying in shape is important in Bulgarian culture. I can't find any specific statistics, so take this as anecdotal, but similar to Brazil, Bulgarian women and men value physical fitness. When I lived in Sofia, every weekend included acroyoga jams in the park or day trip hikes up Seven Rila Lakes mountain.
10) Do celebrate both Name Days and Birthdays in Bulgaria
Two things about this tradition that confuse expats: First, what the heck is a name day? Second, what is the gift-giving etiquette on name day?
Name days are a Bulgarian tradition that is as important, if not more important, than celebrating your birthday. It is not uncommon for Bulgarians to have a name day party and a birthday party. Your name day is based on the Eastern Orthodox Saint you are named after.
As an example, if your name is Alexander, you are named after Saint Alexander, whose Saint's day is November 23rd. The gift-giving tradition is the big twist. The person celebrating name day buys their friend's lunch, drinks, or some sweet treats. That's right, on your name day, YOU have to buy everyone else presents.
What's Your Name Day? Check out this list of Bulgarian Name Day Dates.
11) Don't crack Jokes about the country
Bulgarian's often make self-deprecatory jokes about themselves, the country, old traditions, or the government. Laugh if they laugh, but DON'T pile on. People here are a proud bunch. While they see the humor in Bulgarian politics or culture, they won't appreciate it if a foreigner and guest in the country makes the same joke.
It's like having a little brother, you can make fun of your little brother all you want, but you will fight anyone that picks on your sibling.
12) Do learn a little Bulgarian
The Bulgarian language is complex, but learning even a few phrases helps move you from a tourist or traveler to a part of the local community. Whether ordering food at a restaurant or trying to woo a Bulgarian woman (or Bulgarian man), dropping a few choice words can show you are at least making an effort.
Making friends and acclimating is always easier when you learn the local language. You don't need to be fluent. If you learn a few phrases, locals will appreciate the effort.
I understand more than anyone that learning a new language when you are older isn't easy. Here is the "Secret" method that the US State Department, FBI, and overseas military uses to learn new languages quickly and effectively- The Pimsleur Method
Avoid hours doing mindless repetitive vocabulary. Pimsleur focuses on quick, easy-to-digest organic learning to get you conversational as fast as possible.
Financial Dos and Don'ts- Tipping, Scams, and other Money Matters in Bulgaria
13) Do leave tips at restaurants for good service
While tipping in Bulgaria is not customary, restaurant staff's expectation of tips is growing. Especially in posher restaurants in Sofia or Black sea resort towns like Varna. Personally, I do not feel inclined to tip on subpar service. Unlike the US, restaurant servers get a regular (albeit low) salary in Bulgaria, complete with all the insurance, sick days, and pension afforded by "normal" employees.
However, if you are happy with your service and want to show appreciation for it, most waiters or bar staff will appreciate a tip of 10%. If you have special requests or receive exceptional table service, leave an additional 5%–10%.
14) Don't call Bulgaria cheap
Bulgaria has an extremely low cost of living, but when conversing with locals, avoid saying things like, "I love living in Bulgaria because the prices are so cheap." The average pre-tax (gross) salary in Bulgaria in 2020 was ~$823 per month. While prices are low to you, costs are not cheap to locals. Emphasizing how cheap the prices are to you indirectly calls a Bulgarian poor.
15) Don't use fake taxis without meters
"Be wary of taxi companies" is a standard tourist travel tip in almost any Eastern European city (I'm looking at your Bucharest). Bulgarian taxi scams are a legitimate gripe, even among locals. If you don't see the fares or a meter, don't take that taxi. It's not worth the risk. If you are in the city center, finding another cab is simple in most major cities. Otherwise, call a legit taxi using an app.
Even with a meter, there are common taxi driver scams such as
- Saying the meter is broken
- Metered rates are well above normal- By law, a taxi cab should have the fares displayed on the window.
- Forgetting to turn on the meter
These are just a few of the taxi scams you will find. When I was living in Sofia, I used the TaxiMe app to avoid the risk.
INSIDER TIP : Airport Fake Taxis- When you arrive at Sofia airport taxi drivers will swarm around you. Be careful, fake taxi companies have logos very similar to legitimate tax cabs, but with fares 10 X normal rates.
Ignore the swarming taxi drivers (they will be persistent) and use the official airport taxi counter to avoid getting overcharged.
If you prefer a less stressful ride from the airport, use this private shuttle company. Prices from the airport to the city center are reasonable.
16) Don't expect to use Euros
Bulgarian currency- though in the EU, the country uses the Bulgarian lev, not the Euro. At the time of this writing, the exchange rate is 1 US Dollar (USD) to 1.64 Bulgarian leva (BGN). For reference, 1 EUR is equal to 1.96 lev.
International Bank Transfers For Living Expenses
Wire transfer fees can quickly add up when you live abroad. The cheapest banking solution I have found to move money from my home bank to an overseas bank is Wise.com.
Receive money as if you were still at home.
You don't need to hassle with multiple bank accounts. Receive your rental income, salary, pension, etc., using your Wise banking details.
Move your money between countries.
You can send money to more than 70 countries, always with a low and transparent fee. With Direct Debits in the US, UK, Europe, and Canada, paying your bills and subscriptions across currencies is easier.
Travel Tips, Dos And Don'ts, and Places To Avoid in Bulgaria
17) Do know that Bulgaria is in the EU, but is not a Schengen country
The difference confuses many Americans. Bulgaria is in the European Union, but staying in Bulgaria does not count against your Schengen Visa-Exempt days. This tidbit allows you to maximize your 90 days in a Western European country (Spain, Italy, Greece, etc.), then jump over to Bulgaria (or Romania and Croatia) for another 90 days to "reset" your Schengen visa.
18) Don't Spend All Your Time in the Sofia Bulgaria
As Bulgaria's Capital and largest city, Sofia has loads to restaurants, nightlife, and activities. I enjoyed living in Sofia. The Capital city always has stuff to do, but Bulgaria has even more to offer.
EDITOR'S NOTE : Plovdiv is my favorite city in Bulgaria- Are you a history buff? Any lover of ancient cultures will love spending additional time in Plovdiv's city center. The ruins of a massive 30,000 person Roman stadium are free to explore in the city center. At 240 meters long and 50 meters across, Plovdiv's stadium is one of the largest Roman ruins in the Balkans.
19) Do Buy A Vignette
The freeways in Bulgaria aren't free. Especially if you are an expat from the US, know that you need to pay to drive on the highway. However, you won't find traditional toll booths like the US; instead, Bulgaria uses an e-vignette system. Your input your car registration number online, and that allows you to drive on the highway legally.
Registration is only $25 per month, and if police catch you without a vignette, there is a 300 leva (~$182) fine.
20) Don't visit only visit Sunny Beach or Golden Sands on the Black Sea
Bulgaria's Black Sea coast makes for an ideal budget beach holiday. But avoid Sunny Beach and Golden Sands during holiday periods. These beach towns turn into the Balkan version of Cancun Spring Break. Yes, you will have some beautiful beach days, but you'll be surrounded by drunken 20-somethings tourists pounding cheap alcohol.
Instead, check out some of the wild beaches on the Black Sea coast. I made a promise not to reveal the secret location of some beautiful beaches we camped. However, if you make friends with locals or expats living in Varna, they may let you in on the secret beach spots, where you can spend beautiful beach days with no one else around.
21) Don't spend all your time on the Black Sea Beaches
Yes, I just mentioned the fantastic time you can have on the country's Black Sea beaches, but I'm not contradicting myself. I am simply saying beach lovers should also check out Bulgaria's stunning mountain landscapes.
Vitosha mountain is home to Europe's cheapest ski slopes. Even better, you can reach the ski lift using Sofia's public transportation. You can go from the city center skiing or snowboarding down the Bulgarian mountains in less than one hour by bus.
22) Don't forget your health insurance
Living in Bulgaria can be very affordable, but unexpected medical bills are never cheap.
INSIDER TIP : Healthcare Coverage Abroad- Most health insurance will not cover you for any injuries sustained outside your home country. To get protection while living abroad, there are two options:
- Travel Health Insurance- This will cover you for unexpected medical issues while overseas. However, the coverage requires you maintain insurance in the United States or your respective home country. I pay roughly $50 per month for complete coverage with no deductible.
- Expat Medical Insurance- If you retire abroad, expat health insurance is a more complete option. Expat Medical Insurance is the "normal" insurance you are familiar with to from home. Coverage is built for people who live in a country versus traveling. While more expensive than Travel Medical Insurance, premiums are still cheaper than the US.
Food and Drink Dos and Don'ts- Tips on Bulgarian Cuisine
23) Do try the Bulgarian yogurt
Creamy, tart, and delicious yogurt is another part of Bulgaria's rich history. Bulgarian's first cultivated yogurt 4000 years ago. Now, only yogurt made with a special strain of starter called (Lactobacillus bulgaricus) can be called Bulgarian yogurt.
Not simply a breakfast food, yogurt is a crucial ingredient to many Bulgarian dishes, such as Tarator, a cold soup made with Bulgarian yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and dill.
24) Do be careful with Rakia
Home distillation of Rakia is a time-honored tradition. Expect to be offered shot after shot of homemade Rakia when hanging out with locals. However, be warned that homemade Rakia can be up to 25% stronger than store-bought liquor you are used to drinking.
Bulgarians will pressure you to drink. If you don't want to drink, say no and stand your ground. It may take several saying no several times before the pressure lets off.
INSIDER TIP : How to "cheers" in Bulgaria- When toasting alcoholic drinks, say "Naz Drave" (nahz drav vee), which in the Bulgarian language means good health. Make sure to make eye with each person in the group.
25) Don't buy bottled water
Tap water in any of the major cities is safe. Sometimes older buildings will need a few seconds to clear the iron from the pipes, but the water is potable.
FAQs: Bulgaria Dos and Don'ts
While Bulgaria may be safer than some other countries in Europe, it still can be dangerous. The main issues are petty crimes such as purse snatching or pickpocketing. However, Eastern Europe gets an undeserved stereotype as having more robberies than other EU countries. Statistics prove differently. While pickpockets are a risk in any European country, you have a lower chance of getting robbed in Bulgaria.
While changing slowly, regrettably, LGBTQ public displays of affection are still not wholly accepted in Bulgaria. Things like the Sofia Pride need police protection to keep the community safe.