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Sweden represents an ideal expat destination. For one thing while major cities such as Stockholm can be crowded in rush hour, you’re never far from the wilderness. As the EU’s third largest country you’ll find that Sweden boasts a very low population density. Indeed, vast swathes of the country are filled with mountains, forests and wildlife, making it the perfect country for outdoor pursuits.
Sweden is also a wealthy nation, benefitting from the 8th highest per-capita income in the world. Relatively high levels of taxation means plenty of money churning into public services. As a result, whether it’s the rail system, schooling or healthcare you’ll find the country to be uniformly clean, efficient and punctual. This can make living here a truly pleasurable experience.
Lastly Sweden is a very politically-stable country, with a strong history of human rights and equality. They have an official policy of neutrality and actively welcome immigrants and expats alike. At the time of writing, Sweden has accepted more political refugees than any other European country.
So whether it’s how community-minded the country is, how beautiful and well-run the major cities are, or the seemingly never-ending miles of countryside, its little wonder that Sweden is persistently touted as one of the very best countries in the world for expats.
It can be tempting to assume that all Scandinavian countries are very similar to one another; typically cold, snowy and mountainous. But in Sweden you might be surprised to hear this isn’t necessarily the case.
Let’s start with the temperature. While the country can get cold in winter, summers can be positively balmy. Indeed, benefitting from the Gulf Stream, Sweden in summer can often be warmer than the UK. The highest ever recorded temperature here was a brow-melting 38’C; not quite the year-round ski resort many people expect.
That said, snow is commonplace in winter, especially in the north of the country. Roughly 15% of the country falls within the Arctic Circle, where the majority of the snow falls. This brings us neatly to the mountains, which are almost exclusively confined to the sparsely-populated, forested north. The main mountain chain here – known as “Skanderna” – neatly separates Sweden from its neighbour Norway and it is at such altitudes that the coldest of weather can be experienced.
Overall, excluding the mountains, Sweden enjoys a temperate climate.
Perhaps surprisingly, away from the northern territories, much of Sweden is surprisingly flat. This can make for stunning views, particularly in the summer months when the sun doesn’t set for weeks on end.
Sweden’s culture is surprisingly wide-ranging, having impacted everything from the cars we drive to the phones we use. Just a few of the household names that Sweden has given the world include ABBA, IKEA, Volvo and Skype.
One of the most noticeable national traits is just how family-friendly the country is. For example workers in Sweden receive generous maternity and paternity entitlements, and can reduce their workload by up to 25% at their request, right up until their children reach school age. So child-friendly is the country that even some trains have toy rooms to entertain bored youngsters. For expats with families, therefore, there can be few better destinations.
No talk of Sweden’s child-rearing benefits could be complete without mention of the schools which, like the hospitals, are some of the very best in the world. That said, these high quality establishments do come at a cost; taxes in Sweden are exceptionally high, with the average Swede paying 42% tax. It is not uncommon for higher wage earners to receive less than half of their pay once taxes have been deducted.
In essence, therefore, living in Sweden can be far from cheap. The flipside of this situation being that public services are exceptionally clean, efficient and progressive.
Sweden also has an enviable reputation for sexual equality, with large numbers of women benefitting from senior positions. For example, fully half of cabinet ministers are female, a figure that is almost unrivalled on a world scale.
The official language is Swedish which, while separate from Danish and Norwegian, retains enough similarities that most of these nationalities can understand each other. This is especially so in the south of the country, which was formerly part of Denmark.
Besides Swedish, a large proportion of the country speak excellent English as a second language. Being a compulsory subject in schools, surveys suggest that 89% of Swedes are fluent in English.
Alongside these two core languages there are a number of minority languages which one might encounter. These include Finnish, Meankieli, Sami, Romani and Yiddish.
As with all public services in Sweden, the transportation network is a thing of beauty. Trains and buses are typically immaculately clean and punctual, while road surfaces are excellent. Indeed, excluding the effects of winter snow, one of the real benefits of moving to Sweden is just how easy and pleasant getting around this sizeable country can be.
For long distance travel there are numerous options. Firstly, a number of airlines run internal flights at reasonable costs, especially when booked well in advance. However it is the national train service which deserves particular plaudits. With sleeping cabins for long-distance travel, family rooms and even cinemas on some trains Sweden is one of the few countries where train travel can be thoroughly enjoyable. In addition, the views alone are worth the cost of the fare, with many tourists consciously opting to use the rail service as a great way to explore the country from the comfort of your centrally-heated cabin.
For short term visits consider investing in one of the rail passes available from stations. These offer unlimited train use for a designated period of time, and can often work out better value for tourists than buying individual tickets for all the journeys they plan on making.
Buses are plentiful both for long-distance and more local travel, and are cheaper than trains, though are typically slower and less frequent. Be aware that bus travel tends to be most popular on Fridays and Sundays. On such days not only are buses typically crowded, but the ticket fares can rise dramatically.
Taxis are commonplace is urban areas, though fares are not regulated. For this reason it is often wise to agree a price before setting off on a journey, lest the eventual fare is considerably more than you consider reasonable.
It is worthwhile noting that Sweden as a country is split broadly into the northern and southern halves. Public transport in the south, where most Swedes live, tend to be excellent. In the north, however, as the population density drops considerably so too does the prevalence of public transport networks.
Under such circumstances it may be necessary to hire a car. Fortunately driving in Sweden also follows the national theme of efficiency. Roads are generally excellent and, save for rush hour in the major cities, roads are almost empty by European standards. With considerable emphasis on safety (drink driving limits are some of the least generous in the world) driving in Sweden can truly be a pleasurable experience.
Expats and travellers may drive in Sweden upon production of their home driving license; in most cases an International Driving Permit is unnecessary. Note that drivers are obliged to keep their headlights on at all times when driving, and that snow tyres are compulsory between December and March.
The vast swathes of wilderness still present in Sweden make it a haven for wildlife, including large mammals like moose. For this reason, drivers should keep their eyes peeled, particularly in rural areas, as collisions with beasts of such sizes rarely end well for animal nor driver.
Like the rest of Scandinavia, the Swedish government puts considerable emphasis on the presentation of universal healthcare for citizens. The results have been impressive, with a generous life expectancy among citizens, and one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.
Expat residents will gain access to the same level of care afforded for nationals, meaning that one can look forward to exceptional standards of healthcare. In order to access the system as an expat one will need to provide a personal identification number (“personnummer”) which can be garnered from local tax offices.
That said, there are a few disclaimers that need to be made. Firstly, healthcare in Sweden is rarely “free” – rather heavily subsidized. Expect therefore to pay small sums of money for most healthcare services. That said, the Swedish government places annual limitations on annual contributions, where after individuals will benefit from truly free healthcare.
In addition, expats should be aware that they will need to be paying into the Swedish system for at least a year before their coverage includes dental care. Until then it will be necessary to pay for routine dental care out-of-pocket.
If there is a downside to the Swedish healthcare system it is that waiting times can be extensive, which is why some nationals and expats alike opt for private healthcare. The standards of care are likely to be identical but you will receive your treatment far sooner. Private care is most commonly paid for using insurance, which is frequently provided by employers.
The situation is rather different for short-term visitors who do not have the benefit of a residency visa. Under such circumstances the provision of an EHIC card will facilitate free emergency care, though more routine care will need to be paid for by the patient.
For this reason, tourists should seriously consider the implications of healthcare costs in Sweden, and invest in overseas health insurance to help pay for necessary care. Expats may also want to consider such an activity, at least until their dental coverage comes into effect.
Lastly, note that in Sweden many otherwise freely-available medications are only available with prescription. Visitors to the country may therefore want to consider bringing with them medications if their visit is only to be short-term.
The emergency services can be accessed in Sweden on the standard European emergency number of 112.
Sweden is one of the few EU countries that has opted to retain its original currency, instead of opting for the Euro. The currency is known as the Krona (sometimes Anglicised to the “crown”).
Sweden has a strong banking infrastructure, with ATMs found in many urban areas, currency-exchange offices plentiful and many businesses accepting credit cards bearing the Visa or Mastercard logo.
Education standards in Sweden are considered very high quality, as evidenced by numerous expat life surveys over recent years. Compulsory education exists between the ages of 7 and 16, with lessons typically being taught in Swedish.
As with other countries, there also exist a range of private schools (known as “firskolor”) as well as a limited number of international schools in and around Stockholm. The lower population densities outside the capital mean that international schools can be much harder to encounter here.
Note that waiting times for entry into the few international schools can be considerable so expat parents will likely need to plan well in advance. The school year runs from mid-August through to the beginning of June in most establishments. This means that pupils benefit from long summer holidays when the weather is at its peak each year.
Traditional Swedish food typically comprises meat or fish, together with vegetables (in particular potatoes) and a hearty sauce. Such meals are often described as “husmanskost” – meaning “homely fare”.
Sweden has a surprisingly diverse culinary history, with a large number of dishes which might be considered national institutions. Meat-based dishes often prominently feature meatballs, herring or reindeer. Black pudding (“blodpudding”) is also a popular dish, often served with a dash of the ubiquitous lingonberry jam.
It is from Sweden that the world has adopted the word “smorgasbord”. As the name suggests, a smorgasbord is typically a selection of warm or cold hors d’oeuvres presented in buffet-style.
In Sweden, coffee breaks have become something of national pastime. So much so that the term “fika” has been adopted to describe the pastime. Indeed, while fika translates literally to “have a coffee”, the reality is that typically an assortment of beverages are on offer, often accompanied by sandwiches or pastries. Kanelbulle – freshly-baked cinnamon rolls – are a particularly delicious accompaniment.
Expats in Sweden shouldn’t assume that “fika” is reserved only for social meetings either; even many companies stop once or twice a day for such an occasion, which can represent an excellent opportunity for networking and discussion.
In terms of beverages, note that alcohol in Sweden is considered exceptionally expensive. While weak beers are reasonably commonplace, drinks with higher alcohol limits may only be purchased from a small range of authorized retailers.
The tap water in Sweden is considered safe to drink across the country.
Sweden has a very low crime rate and is generally a safe destination for travel. Like most countries, there is a degree of petty thefts but these are in no way more extreme than other European travel destinations.
Due to the climate, Sweden does not suffer from the tropical diseases or parasites to be found in hotter countries.
Indeed if there is a danger in Sweden it is quite simply that winter weather can make travel rather more dangerous. Each year there are numerous car accidents thanks to snow and ice on the roads. The message is clear; visitors who plan to drive in colder months should take particular care and even consider taking advanced driving tuition to safely deal with the conditions.
One of the wonderful things about Sweden’s national identity is simply how much reverence is placed on ancient history. Visitors will be able to visit a range of monuments and museums which beautifully tell the story of Sweden through the ages. Here are some of the top destinations to consider during your stay…
VisbyIn many ways time seems to have stood still in Visby. This UNESCO-listed medieval city, complete with cobbled streets, historical buildings and ancient churches represents a thoroughly immersive experience. Take one of the many guided tours or simply follow your nose through the streets and imagine what life must have been like here in the middle ages.Vasa MuseumHistorically, Sweden gained notoriety around the world as a Viking nation. Vasa represents one of the most popular destinations in all of Sweden, and a perfect opportunity to learn more about the country’s Viking heritage.Most notably of all, stand agog before the most complete 17th century ship that has ever been discovered, complete with 64 cannons, which sadly sank on its maiden voyage.Skansen Open-Air MuseumReputedly the world’s first open air museum, Skansen provides an opportunity to experience the Sweden of days gone by. The 75 acre site has rescued over a hundred traditional Swedish buildings, which have been painstakingly reconstructed, transported to the site and then re-erected for time immemorial. Come to learn more about the history of Sweden, and to see traditional crafts from baking to glass blowing.Drottningholm PalaceThe private summer residence of the Swedish royal family, this UNESCO-listed tourist site offers visitors a glimpse into the world of the monarchy. Guided tours around the building provide unprecedented access to view the rooms. However just as impressively guests can saunter around the many gardens and parks which surround the palace – which are all free to visit.Ice HotelLocated in the village of Jukkasjarvi, the ice hotel is rebuilt every year from ice and snow. The subject of numerous photographs, not to mention serving as a location for numerous movies, enter this fairy-tail world to wonder at the many sculptures on offer here. Each room is unique, having been designed by individual artists, and even the beds and the drinking glasses are made from ice.
In many ways time seems to have stood still in Visby. This UNESCO-listed medieval city, complete with cobbled streets, historical buildings and ancient churches represents a thoroughly immersive experience. Take one of the many guided tours or simply follow your nose through the streets and imagine what life must have been like here in the middle ages.
Historically, Sweden gained notoriety around the world as a Viking nation. Vasa represents one of the most popular destinations in all of Sweden, and a perfect opportunity to learn more about the country’s Viking heritage.
Most notably of all, stand agog before the most complete 17th century ship that has ever been discovered, complete with 64 cannons, which sadly sank on its maiden voyage.
Reputedly the world’s first open air museum, Skansen provides an opportunity to experience the Sweden of days gone by. The 75 acre site has rescued over a hundred traditional Swedish buildings, which have been painstakingly reconstructed, transported to the site and then re-erected for time immemorial. Come to learn more about the history of Sweden, and to see traditional crafts from baking to glass blowing.
The private summer residence of the Swedish royal family, this UNESCO-listed tourist site offers visitors a glimpse into the world of the monarchy. Guided tours around the building provide unprecedented access to view the rooms. However just as impressively guests can saunter around the many gardens and parks which surround the palace – which are all free to visit.
Located in the village of Jukkasjarvi, the ice hotel is rebuilt every year from ice and snow. The subject of numerous photographs, not to mention serving as a location for numerous movies, enter this fairy-tail world to wonder at the many sculptures on offer here. Each room is unique, having been designed by individual artists, and even the beds and the drinking glasses are made from ice.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Sweden please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.
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