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Poland Expat Country Guide

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).

The stereotypical image of Poland – year-round snow and excessive vodka drinking – could not be further from the truth. Indeed, summer temperatures consistently hit a comfortable 25°C. Seaside cities, such as Gdansk, benefit from stunning beaches visited by tourists and locals alike in the summer months.

While Poland will always be remembered for the atrocities suffered during World War II, the country has moved on. Rich in medieval history, resplendent in cultural history, and benefitting from chocolate-box landscapes in more rural areas.

Couple this with the warm and friendly people, delicious cuisine, minimal crime and low cost-of-living and its little wonder that Poland is growing in popularity among travellers.

Climate

Poland has a temperate climate, with warm summers and cold winters. Snow covers the mountainous area in the south of Poland and rain falls throughout the year. Poland’s weather is greatly influenced by its location. Oceanic air currents from the west, cold polar air from Scandinavia and Russia, as well as sub-tropical air from the south, all affect Poland’s climate.

Winter runs from December to February in Poland. Polar-continental fronts can often dominate, bringing cold, frosty weather and heavy snowfall in places. Temperatures can dip anywhere between 0°C and -20°C. March, April, and May is Polish springtime. Temperatures during this time hover between 5°C and 15°C and these months are typically very wet.

Many like to visit Poland during June, July, and August. The average temperature during the summer is 25°C and there is little rain. Early autumn is also favourable, when the tourist season is over. As warm September gives way to October and November, temperatures drop and vary between 5°C and 15°C depending on location. Nights are also much cooler, with temperatures creeping down to 0°C as winter draws closer.

Unlike the four seasons of the UK, Poland also recognises early spring and early winter. Seasons in Poland hardly ever conform to the calendar pattern and you may experience almost every type of weather imaginable throughout a Polish year.

Culture

Poland’s culture has emerged as a fusion between Latin and Byzantine influences. As time has progressed, the makeup of Poland has been carved by its history. Polish customs and traditions display a diverse mix of the East and the West – a colourful cohabitation of the vibrant Eastern ornamental style and the sombre Islamic influence.

Poles are expressive in character and love to show affection during interactions. The first few minutes of any meeting is spent greeting each other and shaking hands. Familiarity is expressed with embraces and pecks on the cheek or hands. To the unaccustomed eye, it may appear to be disconcerting at first, however it is nothing but an example of Eastern fervour.

Due to this warmth, visitors never feel uncomfortable in Poland, or in Polish company. Visitors who  attempt a few Polish phrases or words are immediately considered friends. In cafes and restaurants, Polish people will often spark up conversations with visitors.

Literary and artistic figures have played a major role in Poland’s growth and history. Poles are reputed to be avid readers and are said to have a keen interest in the arts.

Polish writers and filmmakers are internationally renowned. Four Polish writers have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Meanwhile, Poland’s most famous director, Roman Polanksi, is responsible for Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Oliver Twist and The Pianist. Poland has a lively cultural scene with around 280 arts festivals taking place across the country covering all types of music, film, video, theatre and the visual arts. Poles are particularly keen on jazz music with around 30 jazz festivals taking place each year.

Understandably, World War II has had an impact of Polish culture over the years. During the war, over 90% of Polish Jews were murdered. Poland lost 6 million citizens, half of them Jewish and half of them of different ethnic minorities. The war not only took lives and destroyed the country physically, it also brought terrible economic loss. Poland struggled and this has deeply affected Polish culture.

Language

Polish is the official language of Poland and it is a Slavic language. However, there are large polish speaking communities in Argentina, the UK, Belarus, Canada, Germany, and Russia, amongst many others. Polish is one of the hardest languages to learn (along with Chinese and Hungarian) as it has a complex gender system, seven cases, and tongue-bending pronunciation.

Other than Polish, English is a widely spoken language, with Russian and German following closely behind. However, Poland is the most linguistically homogeneous European country, with 97% of Poland’s citizens declaring Polish as their mother tongue.

Visitors need not fear language barriers when they visit Poland, particularly in cities or on tourist trails. English is ubiquitous, and many locals know some of the language whereas others can speak it fluently. However, learning a few phrases can be useful and crack smiles from locals.

English PhrasePolish PhrasePronounced
PleaseProszeProsheh
Thank youDziekujeDsyenkooyeh
ByeCzescCheshch
HiCzescCheshch
I don't speak PolishNie mowie po polskooNye movyeh poh polskoo
YesTakTahk
NoNieNye

Transportation

As a country located at the cross-roads of Europe, Poland is a nation with a large and increasingly modern transport infrastructure.

The road networks in Poland are well maintained and, for many, the option of hiring a rental car is an attractive one. There are a multitude of local rental opportunities, as well as all the major international companies, which are open around the clock. The majority of international hire companies can be found in cities and at airports.

Most stock a variety of different car models and hire costs range between £20 and £75 per day, depending on the length of hire, and the make and model selected.

Taxis are widely available in Poland. Fares are relatively inexpensive, but prices do escalate between 10pm and 6am, on Sundays, or on journeys outside the city limits. The number of passengers or amount of luggage does not affect the price. There are a number of unmarked taxis operating in Poland, so it is best to book a taxi over the phone.

Polish cities offer excellent public transport. Every large and medium-sized city will have a comprehensive bus network. Some also have trams and trolleybus systems, but Warsaw is the only city benefitting from a metro service. Public transport usually operates from 5am to 11pm, with a reduced service at the weekend. Like any city or large town, rush hour is when trams and buses will be extremely busy. Visitors will notice that timetables are posted at all stops, but these must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Most cities have a fare system based on the duration of a ride. A standard 60-minute ticket costs around 3zl (60p). Tickets can be purchased for shorter or longer rides. There are no conductors on board Polish buses and trams, so you should buy tickets before boarding – plain clothed ticket inspectors are always on the prowl. Tickets can be purchased from newspaper kiosks like Relay or Ruch, or from street stalls around central stops. Many buy a few tickets at one time in case they are stuck in a destination without ticket purchasing facilities.

There are a number of airports in Poland, with international services flying to the majority of them. However, most tourists tend to land in Warsaw or Krakow. Transport and connections are much stronger from these airports, although the smaller options do serve their purpose.

Healthcare

Poland has a fully functioning public healthcare system that provides subsidised or free healthcare to both citizens and legal residents. Healthcare is completely free for young children, pregnant women, the disabled, and the elderly.

Many citizens and residents make use of private healthcare services to supplement the service they receive from the public system. Private services are not cheap, and many tend to use private facilities only during temporary periods, such as pregnancy. The long queues and delays in the public system mean that urgent cases are often rushed to private hospitals instead.

Temporary visitors to Poland can see a doctor by visiting a healthcare centre and asking for an ‘internista’. Visitors will only need an ID and the amount of money they require for a visit, usually under 100 PLN. Most doctors in Poland speak excellent English. To see a doctor as a tourist, you do not need to be insured by the National Health Fund or any private insurance company. Expats or Polish citizens will need to make sure they are covered by either the NFZ or a private insurance company.

With the correct insurance in Poland, prescriptions will not cost visitors any extra money. Drugs received in hospital, or any 24-hour care provider, will be administered free of charge. Visitors in Poland without health insurance will have to pay for all their medication.

However, whether you are insured or not, everybody has the right to free medical assistance in Poland. The decision as to whether to transport the patient by ambulance is made by the emergency service telephonists. They also assess whether the transport will be free of charge.

Money

Poland’s legal tender is called Zloty (PLN). 1 zloty is equal to 100 groszy. Denominations of zloty includes notes of PLN 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200, as well as coins PLN 1, 2 and 5. Groszy coins are available in 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, 1. Interestingly, to aid the blind, each Polish banknote carries a distinctive embossed shape to help with identification.

Money can be exchanged anywhere in Poland, from the big cities to the smallest towns. Visitors can use an ATM or visit a bank, currency exchange counter, or a hotel facility. All major foreign currencies can be exchanged for Polish money; these are usually identified by the name Kantor.

Visitors to Poland will benefit from easy access to banks and cash dispensers, particularly in the larger towns. Banks offer money exchange, collection of money transfers, or cashing traveller’s cheques. However, ATMS are the 24-hour option in Poland and offer far easier access to your money than banks.

It is hard these days to get by without a piece of plastic in your wallet, particularly while travelling abroad, when it is neither necessary nor convenient to carry traveller’s cheques or cash. In Poland, the use of credit cards is widely accepted, particularly in major towns and tourist attractions. For foreign visitors they have an added bonus, because they eliminate the need to exchange money before coming to Poland.

Schooling

The education system in Poland has changed dramatically in recent years, making an overall improvement in the standard of education. Expat children are welcome to attend public Polish schools free of charge, however the language barrier is often a hurdle and the curricula is different to that of other countries.

Education is compulsory for any child living in Poland between the ages of 7 and 18. Children can attend kindergarten from around the age of 3, however, it is not compulsory. That said, children must attend at least one year of formal education before entering primary school no later than the age of 7.

Primary school in Poland runs through grades 1 to 6, with students finishing aged 13. This is followed by lower secondary school, grades 7 to 9. At this juncture, students have the option to attend one of a number of different types of secondary schools.

A typical school day in Poland runs from 8:45am until 2:45pm. Due to large volumes of students, some schools may run the school in two shifts. The school week is Monday to Friday.

Most of the time, the admission to a Polish public school is determined by where the child lives, or it is up to the discretion of senior staff.

Private education was only introduced to Poland in the 1980s and, is still relatively new. Private schools are partly funded by the government, and partly by fees and donations made by parents and other organisations. Other schools are run by religious or social organisations. The language used to teach in these schools is often Polish. They also do not follow the national curriculum as they are independent of the government. Fees in these schools are high.

Most international schools are in Warsaw or Krakow, with a handful in Poznan and Wroclaw. These many schools cater to many expat nationalities, including: American, British, German, French, Italian and Japanese. The majority of the international schools follow the curriculum of their home country, but some do offer the International Baccalaureate programme.

Competition for places at international schools is tough, and expat parents need to plan well in advance when it comes to their children’s education in Poland. International schools are also very expensive, with education for one-year exceeding PLN 65,000 (nearly £13,000).

Food & Drink

There’s much more to Polish food than just pierogi though the crescent-shaped dough parcels stuffed with meat and cheese are a firm favourite. Other popular fillings include sauerkraut, potato and onion, and even fruit.

A wide range of staples populate Polish kitchens. From dill, marjoram, and caraway seeds to wild mushrooms and sour cream. Soups play an important part in mealtimes, and are usually very rich and thick. A traditional soup of Poland is zurek made with stock, bacon, onion, mushrooms and sour cream. It is often accompanied by a hard-boiled egg or Polish sausage.

The most common soup served in Poland is rosol. It is perfect for cold winter days and is commonly served with homemade noodles. The ingredients needed for the soup are very simple; water, any piece of chicken, onion, leek, celery, parsley and cabbage.

Main courses often include fish or heavy-going meaty fare. Polish cuisine is not noted as a dieter’s friend, especially when it comes to pastries. Poland is laden with cake shops and patisseries with doughnuts, cheesecake, poppy-seed loaf, and seasonal cakes being extremely popular.

Beer is favoured in Poland but, vodka is the national alcohol of choice. Popular brands such as Belvedere and Zubrowka hail from the country. Liquors and mead are also a hit amongst locals. However, contrary to stereotypes, most Poles would rather quench their thirst with tea or coffee. Having a hot beverage after a meal is commonplace in Polish dining.

Safety

Poland has a low threat of terrorism and, in general, is considered a safe country with a low crime rate. Pickpocketing is one of the most frequently reported crimes, especially in Krakow’s Market Square and Warsaw’s Old Town, which are very busy areas. Stations are also affected by petty theft.

Credit card fraud is another issue in Poland, so visitors should be vigilant for ATM skimmers fitted to dispensing machines.

Physical attacks are rare in Poland, with the majority of these scenarios happening late at night after  too many drinks in pubs and bars. These crimes usually take place between 12 am and 6 am in busier areas.

Although still occurring, residential break-ins are declining. Generally, thieves enter homes through open windows and doors. Some more cunning criminals pose as utility companies to gain access to people’s homes and commit the crime that way.

Aside from drug-related crime and some violent confrontations at football matches, Poland is a safe country and nowhere is off-limits to visitors. As with any foreign country, it is best that new residents and tourists remain vigilant and use common sense.

Places to Visit

Poland is steeped in history, and this is reflected in the attractions and destinations favoured by visitors. For those wanting to learn about medieval Poland or World War II, there are some incredible destinations to visit and explore. However, there are some beautiful landscapes and picturesque towns to visit also.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

After occupying Poland in World War II, the Germany army gave Poland its own purpose. The country became home to 72 concentration camps, which witnessed the massacre of Jews and other groups, including Polish resistors and Roma people. The most notorious of these camps was Auschwitz, located in the town of Oswiecim. Over a million people lost their lives in Auschwitz over a four-year period. Now a memorial and a museum, much of Auschwitz has been preserved as it was during the war, allow visitors to learn about the genocide that happened back in the early 1940s.

Malbork

Bequeathed with a beautiful medieval fortress, Malbork is a quiet rural town in Poland. Other than the gothic castle, there is little to do in Malbork but visiting is a must. The structure is UNESCO-listed and was founded in 1274 by the Teutonic Knights, who used it to rule their northern Baltic territories. The castle was expanded several times to host the growing number of Knights until their retreat to Konigsburg in 1466. Today it is the most popular tourist attraction in the city of Malbork.

Krakow

Formerly the capital of Poland, Krakow is a happy exception in a country that experienced so much wartime atrocity. St Mary’s Basilica is a stunning gothic church famous for its unbelievable wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss. From the church you can also hear the bugle call from the high tower at the top of the hour. Its original purpose was to warn the townsfolk of a Tatar attack way back in the 13th century.

Krakow also boasts Europe’s largest medieval town square, the glorious Rynek Glowny at the heart of the city. Visitors can also stroll down the Cloth Hall, taking in the market hall and Polish art museum.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Also registered on the UNESCO list is the Wieliczka salt mine. While a salt may does not sound entirely enthralling, the eerie world of pits and chambers carved by hands into the salt is anything but boring. The underground mine is a labyrinth of tunnels 300 kilometres long and distributed over nine levels.

The salt-hewn formations include chapels with altarpieces and figures, while others are adorned with statues, monuments, and underground lakes. The show stopper is the ornamented Chapel of St Kinga, which is actually a life-sized church and lit by chandeliers.

Bieszczady Mountains

The Bieszczady Mountains are a perfect retreat for romantics and lovers of the outdoors. The soft green mountains peppered with traditional wooden churches are one of the most secluded areas in Europe. The extraordinary wildlife and picturesque landscapes make it an ideal holiday destination. Bieszczady is the most beautiful in summer and autumn, whereas during winter it is an ideal skiing destination.

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

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

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