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Country Facts – Iceland

This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).

Iceland Country Guide

Welcome to the land of fire and ice.

Here in Europe’s most sparsely populated country nature rules supreme. From boiling geysers blasting hot water into the air to glaciers of epic proportions, visiting Iceland can feel very much like walking through a movie set.

For the outdoor enthusiast Iceland represents one of the best destinations in the world for hiking, exploring and nature-watching. Here, for example, you stand one of the best chances in the world of seeing whales; an experience that will stay with you for life.

Icelanders take their unique vistas seriously; three huge national parks ensure the wilderness is protected for future generation, driving off-road has been banned to prevent damage and Iceland also now produces most of its power from renewable resources.

Combine this with a long Nordic history, of which the Icelanders are duly proud, and it becomes clear that Iceland is one of the most beautiful and intriguing countries in all of Europe.

Climate

The name “Iceland” may conjure up images of snow-capped mountains and monumental glaciers but scratch below the surface and there is much more to this impressive island.

Europe’s second largest island (after Great Britain) Iceland is bathed much of the year in the same Gulf Stream which helps to keep the British Isles so temperate. While winters – especially at altitude – can be fierce, many visitors are surprised by how mild the weather can be in other seasons.

The south of the island in particular experiences these warming currents, producing a noticeably warmer and wetter environment than one will find up in the north.

This is perhaps helped yet further by Iceland’s many active volcanoes. Geysers also prevail in the country’s three national parks, creating localized areas of natural warmth even in the coldest weather. Impressively, this considerable volcanic and seismic activity is harvested by the Icelandic people, enabling them fulfil 85% of their power needs with renewable energy sources.

Iceland experiences four clearly-defined seasons, where summer is most popular with visitors. It is between June and August where the warmest weather is experienced, where the sun never drops below the horizon and where the majority of tourists make their pilgrimage to the island.

Whilst Iceland benefits from jaw-dropping natural beauty, it is rather less well-represented by local wildlife. The cold, dark winters mean that few insects have made their way here, while the country has just one native mammal (the Arctic fox). Wildlife fanatics are likely to find the greatest interest from the multitude of bird and marine life to be found here – with a particular emphasis on whale watching.

Culture

Iceland has a fascinating culture, which can make visiting the country an immense and thoroughly unique experience.

Icelanders are known for their liberal attitudes and equality in all aspects. Despite the unfortunate banking crisis of 2008, the country has become known not just for its strong financial services industry but also for being one of the most productive countries with the world with a GDP well above average. With low levels of taxation and a highly-regarded universal healthcare system no wonder that studies rate Iceland as offering one of the highest “quality of life” scores in the world.

It is an interesting perk of Icelandic life to note that most Icelanders, rather than inheriting a family surname, instead take their second name from either their mother or father. So it is that the celebrated Icelandic television presenter Magnus Magnusson’s name essentially translates to “Magnus, son of Magnus”.

For this reason, tracing family lines can be rather more problematic in Iceland than elsewhere, and so for this reason the Icelandic telephone book presents its listings in first-name order. Additionally it is normal to refer to Icelanders by the first name, even in highly formal or ritualized situations.

Language

The official language in Iceland is Icelandic, an ancient language descended from Old Norse. To non-speakers Icelandic is not an easy language to pick up and so only the most dedicated travellers will likely succeed in conquering any more than a few choice words.

Fortunately, both English and Danish lessons are mandatory in schools across the country. In light of this English is widely understood and spoken across the country. Communication is therefore unlikely to be too problematic.

Transportation

Roughly two third of Iceland’s population live in or close to the capital, Reykjavik. This means that transport systems within this area are strong. Outside of this more populous area however your options are somewhat more limited.

While no publically accessible rail services are present within Iceland, a reliable public bus system exists within the Reykjavik area. Taxis are also available, though can prove expensive. Outside of the main cities it is advisable to book taxis ahead of time to ensure that one is available when you need it.

In reality though, most Icelanders rely on driving as their primary source of transportation. Pleasantly, visitors from Europe can drive on Icelandic roads using either their EU or UK driving license, though there are a number of rules you should be aware of.

Firstly, dipped headlights are compulsory at all times, as is the carrying of an emergency triangle. In the winter months – classified as those between November 1st and April 14th – winter tyres should also be fitted to aid with traction on icy or snowy roads.

Drivers in Iceland should be aware that the roads tend to be narrow and winding, while the speed limits tend to be low to compensate for this. Combine this factor with the size of the island and (particularly in winter) some potentially treacherous driving conditions and it is important to leave suitable time for your journey. Many visitors find that reaching their chosen destination on Icelandic roads takes considerably longer than they expected.

Individuals renting a car should also take note of the situations which are, or are not, covered by their rental car insurance. The British Foreign Office reports that some insurers do not cover environmental damage – such as from soot or volcanic ash on the road – and that some tourists have ended up paying an expensive repair premium at the end of their rental. Pay close attention to the fine print and treat your rented vehicle with care to avoid such situations.

Lastly be aware that in order to protect the pristine wilderness, it is illegal to drive off-road in Iceland. That said, in fair weather bicycles can hired, which can make exploring the many paths and tracks both easy and enjoyable.

Healthcare

Icelanders are considered to be some of the healthiest people in the world, with a recent survey finding 81% of the population to be in “good health”. This is hardly surprising when you understand the Icelandic healthcare system.

Iceland operates a universal healthcare system, primarily paid for through taxation, that all residents gain access to after six months of occupation. Standards within these medical facilities are considered excellent.

Until this six-month threshold is reached, alternative solutions for healthcare must be sought. For this reason, both tourists and expats are strongly encouraged to invest in a European health insurance policy before travel. The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) available to visitors from within the EU should not be considered a substitute as the EHIC covers only basic care.

Money

If Iceland has a downside as a travel destination it is the cost of living here. Like many of the Nordic countries is expensive, and you should be aware of this before travel.

The currency in Iceland is known as the Kronur, and many banks are happy to exchange currency for you.

Thanks to the strong banking sector present in Iceland, ATMs are ten-a-penny while credit cards are almost universally accepted. Visitors are therefore unlikely to have problems with the local currency.

Schooling

As with other public services in Iceland, the educational system is both free and of high stand. Broadly speaking Icelandic schooling is divided into four distinct levels, known as Pre-School, Compulsory, Upper Second and lastly Higher. Mandatory schooling is provided from age 6 to age 16.

Expats should be aware that the vast majority of schools teach in Icelandic; something that can create problems for children from other countries. Whilst there are international schools in Iceland, these are few and far between. Expats are therefore advised to do their research well in advance, so as to ensure their children will be welcomed into a suitable establishment in good time.

Note that education in Iceland is based largely on the Nordic system, as opposed to those which are prevalent within the USA or UK. This is a further reason why many expats choose to school their children in international establishments; the qualifications gained at such institutions make getting into universities “back home” much less problematic.

Food & Drink

Iceland’s climate is generally not conducive to the growing of crops. Short summers and cold winters mean that very few fruits and vegetables grow well here, and for this reason are seldom part of the traditional menu.

Instead, animal protein is the most common ingredient. While lamb is the most popular meat of all, many other forms of meat are experienced here, from shark to ram. In some instances one can even snack on puffin or whale. Note, however, that whale meat is generally illegal in most other countries, so attempting to take some home as a souvenir can land you in deep water with your local customs.

For a true taste of Icelandic cuisine order yourself a glass of Brennivin – a liqueur brewed from potatoes that has become something of a national institution.

Safety

Iceland is a pleasantly safe country, with very low rates of crime. As with anywhere else, the odd minor thefts occur from time to time in the capital – especially around bars and clubs. Generally speaking, though, Icelanders are law-abiding citizens and most visits to the country are without incident.

As a more temperate country few of the deadly viruses and pathogens found in warmer climes are present. This means there are no reported incidences of malaria, yellow fever and so on.

In terms of personal safety the primary risk in Iceland is from natural causes. Firstly, volcanoes are an ever-present danger, and regularly erupt. Visitors to the country are therefore advised to keep an eye on local news, especially when travelling to more rural areas, so to remain alert about any impending volcanic activity.

In winter the weather can make driving treacherous. The per capita death rate when driving in Iceland is roughly twice that of the UK, thanks to such risks as snow, ice and strong winds. Be aware of the gamut of driving rules put in place to try and reduce driving-related deaths; the penalties for driving without a seatbelt, breaking the speed limit or driving under the influence of alcohol for example are stiff. If in doubt, avoid driving in the winter months, or hire an experienced driver to transport you around the country.

Places to Visit

Iceland is a mecca for admirers of natural beauty and wide-open spaces. In truth, the entire country is ripe for exploration, and interest may be found almost anywhere. Extracting a handful of “must see” sites will therefore necessarily be incomplete, and risk omitting other breath-taking sites.

That said, after careful deliberation here are some of the many highlights that visitors to Iceland should aim to experience for themselves.

Hekla Volcano

Once known to European visitors as the “Gate to Hell”, Hekla is Iceland’s most active volcano. While care should be taken around it – on account of how many times the volcano has erupted, no visit to Iceland would really be complete without glimpsing what has become a national symbol.

Vatnajökull National Park

Vatnajökull is one of Iceland’s three huge national parks, and covers an incredible 14% of the whole of Iceland. Unsurprisingly, for such an expansive area, there are many unique features to be seen here, though it is most famous for its “ice caves”. In a few areas it is possible to actually explore beneath the glaciers, with just the diffuse light filtering through the ice above you to navigate your way.

Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations. With its deep blue water, this thermal spa is popular year-round among locals and visitors alike. There can be few odder experiences than sitting neck-deep in water up to 40’C in temperature, when all around you snow and ice lies on the ground.

Glaumbaer Museum

Glaumbaer is one of the best-preserved historic farms in Iceland, and provides an unrivalled glimpse into a bygone era. The area is particularly notable for the unusual buildings that were popular on the island until just a few decades ago. These timber constructions are turf-walled and roofed, helping them to not only stay warm in winter but also to merge into the surrounding landscape as if by magic.

Hallgrimskirkja

Iceland’s most iconic building, this Lutheran church in Reykjavik is unlike any other in the world. Stretching to 73 metres in height this is by far the largest religious building in Iceland, as well as having a design so unique that it really has to be seen to be appreciated. The organ itself has 5275 pipes and weighs 25 tons.

For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.

Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Iceland please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.

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