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Your Guide to Moving to Chicago

View of Chicago Skyline from North Avenue Beach
Romeo Banias / Getty Images

Moving to Chicago at a glance:

  • Chicago is the third-largest city in America, with a population of over 2.6 million.
  • The cost of living is 21% higher than the national average, with an average salary of $50,755.
  • The city’s public school system is the third largest in the United States.
  • The Chicago “L” is the city’s elevated railway and is the foundation of its public transportation system.
  • Chicago is located on the shore of Lake Michigan, providing ample opportunities to fish, swim, or set sail.

Moving to Chicago: the basics

What’s the population of Chicago?

Chicago is America’s third-largest city with a population of 2,680,484 residents. The median age in the city is 35, making it a popular hub for young professionals. The population has a nearly even gender split, and about 63% of the city’s residents are single.

Chicago’s population has been mostly static. Since the last Census, the population has only dipped by 0.1%.

What’s the cost of living in Chicago?

Living in the Windy City isn’t cheap. The cost of living in Chicago is about 21% higher than the national average. The biggest contributor is housing, which is 56% more expensive than the rest of the country. Chicago’s median home price in the city is $210,700, and the median rent is $995/mo.

The average salary in Chicago is $50,755, which is less than the national household income of $61,937 per year.

The chart below compares Chicago with the country’s biggest city, New York, and the next two smallest cities after Chicago: Houston, TX, and Philadelphia, PA:

City Name Cost of Living (Compared to National Average) Average Salary Median Home Price Median Rent
Chicago, IL 21% $50,755 $210,700 $995
Houston, TX -4.10% $49,332 $177,300 $1,049
New York, NY 141.4% $53,996 $376,900 $1,272
Philadelphia, PA 11% $51,340 $147,300 $943

*Data sourced from the Council for Community and Economic Research’s Cost of Living Index. 

How’s the Chicago job market?

The Chicago job market lags behind the rest of the country, relatively speaking. The metro area job market grew just 0.8% from December 2018 to December 2019 — and that was before the coronavirus pandemic.

Illinois’ unemployment rate hit 16.4% in April 2020, up from 4.2% in March, due to the COVID-19 health crisis.

But if you’re on the job hunt, there are many exciting employment opportunities in the Windy City. Chicago is home to 27 Fortune 500 companies, including Boeing, Archer Daniels Midland, United Continental Holdings, McDonald’s, and Kraft Heinz.

Chicago’s biggest employers are in the public sector. The federal government, public schools, city government, and county government have the largest number of employees in the city, according to Crain’s. And some of the biggest local industries include trade, transportation, utilities, education, healthcare, and professional services.

What do I need to know about education in Chicago?

Chicago Public Schools is the third largest public school system in America, with over 375,000 students enrolled. The system serves students in grades K-12, plus Pre-K and other early education programs. The system is location-based, but students can also apply to attend a different school other than their neighborhood school.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, CPS started the 2020-21 school year off virtually.

The school system operates 642 schools, 92 of which are high schools. Chicago Public Schools has a graduation rate of 78.9%, about 10 points below the average national rate. The public school system has an overall B- grade from Niche, with the highest marks for diversity, teachers, and clubs and activities.

For those looking for an alternative to the public school system, there are about 125 charter schools, and just 21% of Chicago high schoolers chose not to attend their zoned schools.

Charter schools are approved by the Board of Education but operate independently. There are also more than 250 private schools in Chicago, giving parents plenty of options when it comes to their children’s education.

For those looking to continue their education, the Chicago area is home to about 76 colleges, universities, and career schools, including Northwestern University, University of Chicago, and Wheaton College.

What are the safest areas in Chicago?

Criminal activity in Chicago is typically concentrated in certain areas, and you will quickly find that some neighborhoods are safer than others. According to Neighborhood Scout, some of the safest neighborhoods are located on the north side of Chicago, including:

  • Sauganash
  • West Devon Avenue and North Central
  • North Western Avenue and West Grace
  • North Caldwell Avenue and North Lehigh

The safest neighborhood of all, however, is located in Beverly, in the southwestern section of the city near South Western Avenue and West 99th Street.

Overall, Chicago is about 7% safer than other U.S. cities. Chicago has an overall crime rate of 43 per 1,000 residents, which is higher than the average for similarly-sized cities, according to Neighborhood Scout. But these numbers only give a brief snapshot of safety in the city. For a more detailed look at crime by district, you can view statistics from the Chicago Police Department.

How do I get around Chicago?

Chicago is known around the world for its elevated train system, known by locals as the “L.” The Chicago Transit Authority operates the train system, which offers over 140 stations throughout the city and suburbs.

But there are many other ways to get around Chi-town, including taxis, rideshares, or bike rentals. Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are widely available, but they will cost you. Topping out at $3.00 per ride, Chicago is home to the highest tax in the country on rideshare services, with a tiered structure that charges based on where you get picked up and where you’re going.

Then, of course, there is always the option of owning a car — but be forewarned, the city has an average commute of 37 minutes. Chicago has a relatively high percentage of households that own cars, with only 27.5% of households going without.

What’s the weather like in Chicago?

Yes, it’s true: Winters are brutally cold in Chicago, and you may wish you could hibernate for a few months until the spring thaw in April. But, if you’ve got polar bear blood in you and love a winter wonderland, this is the city for you. On average, Chicago gets about 37.5 inches of snow each year. The coldest month is typically January, with an average low of 18 degrees and an average high of 32 degrees.

But if you can survive the harsh winter, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful and sunny summers. High temperatures soar to an average 81 degrees in July — perfect for frolicking along the lakeshore. The city gets an average of 108 days of sunshine annually, so don’t forget the sunblock.

What are Chicago’s fastest-growing neighborhoods?

In Chicago

Printer’s Row

Printers Row is a neighborhood in central Chicago, just west of Grant Park, in the heart of the Windy City. With a population of 3,729, Printers Row offers a dense urban feel with tons of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and outdoor space options. This is a great area for young professionals, and most people rent. The median rent is $2,061.

River North

River North has a population of 27,160 and, according to Niche, is one of the best places to live in Chicago. Most people in River North rent their homes, as the median home cost runs $464,456. Rents run about $1,945. Young professionals like the dense urban vibe in River North, and the fact that it’s packed with bars, coffee shops, and parks.

In the Chicago area

Clarendon Hills

Located in Dupage County, just on the west side of Chicago, Clarendon Hills was rated No. 1 by Niche as places to live in the Chicagoland area. The village, with a population of 8,711, ranks highly for its schools, jobs, housing and residents concerned with health and fitness. The median home price in Clarendon Hills is $561,700, and rent is just $985. The vast majority of people own their homes in the Clarendon Hills area.

Buffalo Grove

Buffalo Grove is a northern suburb of Chicago, in neighboring Lake County, with a population of 41,329. Buffalo Grove has an urban-suburban feel, but with average homes priced at $324,600, most residents own. While close to the bustle of the Windy City, Buffalo Grove itself offers many restaurants, coffee shops, and parks. Many families live in Buffalo Grove and residents tend to have moderate political views.

Living in Chicago, IL: The fun part

For the sports fan

Chicago has a reputation for some of the most notoriously rabid sports fans (Da Bears!). This is true whether its teams are winning championships or in a losing streak. Chicago has a wealth of professional sports teams including:

  • Chicago Cubs (baseball)
  • Chicago White Sox (baseball)
  • Chicago Bears (football)
  • Chicago Bulls (basketball)
  • Chicago Blackhawks (hockey)
  • Chicago Fire FC (soccer)

Come game day, you certainly won’t be without a team to cheer for!

For the culture-seeker

Chicago is the cultural epicenter of the Midwest, with some of the world’s best museums, including The Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The city’s distinctive high-rise architecture is also a highlight.

The city is also home to 200 professional dance companies including the Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

If you need to plan something fun for the kiddos, don’t worry. Chicago has a ton of fun, kid-friendly options, including the Chicago Botanic Garden, The Kohl Children’s Museum, and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. You can also take the whole family on a riverboat tour to see buildings like the Willis Tower, the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, and many more.

For the foodie

Don’t worry, Chicago cuisine is more than just hot dogs and deep-dish pizzas (even though those are FAN FAVORITES). Chicago is recognized as one of the top cities in the country for international cuisine. Its many ethnic neighborhoods make for a world tour of flavors, from fresh gyro in Greektown to tasty tandoori chicken in West Ridge. For a true Chicago experience, however, nothing beats a hot sandwich from Al’s Italian Beef or a Chicago dog from Portillo’s, and maybe a shot of Malort later if you’re feeling brave.

For the traveler

Flying in and out of the city is common, given that Chicago is home to five major airports, the busiest of which is Chicago O’Hare International. But you don’t have to go up in the air for a getaway. Chicago’s prime perch on Lake Michigan allows for ample cruises and private charters. You can even sail as far away as Montreal if you’re so inclined.

For the outdoor explorer

With more than 12,000 acres of parks (about 8.5% of the total area), Chicago is very outdoor-friendly. For a unique experience, check out the downtown climbing wall in Maggie Daley Park. Just outside the city, explore Skokie Lagoons, Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, Camp Bullfrog Lake, and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

What you probably didn’t know about Chicago

Chicago has a seemingly endless number of secrets to discover for the uninitiated. Here are just a few fascinating facts about the Second City that can make you sound like a local:

  • The name Chicago is derived from a Native American word, but which one is a matter of debate. The most generally accepted theory is that it is derived from shikaawa, a Miami-Illinois word for the native garlic plant that grows along the Chicago River.
  • Founded in 1868, Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest operating zoos in the country. It is also one of the very few zoos in America that you can visit free of charge.
  • Chicago might be called the Second City, but it’s home to many firsts, including the first brownie, the first skyscraper, the first softball game, and the first elevated railway.
  • You can walk underground. The Pedway is five miles of interconnected tunnels and bridges that make traversing the city during winter a much less arduous task. The Pedway connects more than 50 buildings and is used by tens of thousands of pedestrians every day.
  • Like Pinball? You’ll love Chicago. The city was once the epicenter of the pinball machine industry. Stern Pinball, the last surviving company in the world that still makes new machines. If you’re looking to clock a new high score, check out Logan’s Arcade (temporarily closed). It’s one of several trendy arcade bars in town, with vintage video cabinets to boot.

If you’re interested in moving to the area check out our city page on Chicago!

The bottom line

From its dizzying architecture to stunning lakefront views, Chicago really must be seen to be believed. While its icy cold winters might keep some folks away, Chicago offers such a bounty of career opportunities, entertainment options, and cultural attractions that the frosty temps are a small price to pay.

This guide is just a small glimpse of what this magnificent city has to offer. If you’re serious about calling Chicagoland home, take a deeper dive by reading some local publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Curbed Chicago, and DNA info. You can even stream WBEZ Chicago — the city’s public radio station — live from wherever you are. Learn more about services and local ordinances on the City of Chicago’s official website.


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