Living in Copenhagen: Your essential guide to expat life in Copenhagen

It’s impossible to look at a quality of life index without seeing Copenhagen or Denmark near the top. The Danish capital has received significant international recognition for being one of the world’s most liveable cities in recent years, and that’s well-warranted; living in Copenhagen is glorious.

This ever-evolving Nordic outpost has a significant international community and is a hub for creativity and innovation. For many foreigners, trying their luck in Copenhagen makes complete sense; it’s a great place to enjoy a fulfilling career while not needing to work yourself into the ground.

But despite the numerous pros of relocating to Denmark’s largest city, expat life in Copenhagen can be rough in the beginning. To reduce the learning curve, it’s worth doing significant research beforehand.

That’s why you’re here, though — right? Keep reading, and we’ll reveal everything you need to know about moving to Copenhagen, from finding accommodation to building a network of friends.

What is Copenhagen like?

Copenhagen is Denmark’s largest city, and over one million people live in its metropolitan area. It’s the second-largest city in the Nordic countries, with Swedish capital Stockholm taking the top spot.

Copenhagen is a hub for many international companies, as you might expect from a capital city. Some of the world’s largest companies, including IBM, Microsoft, and Deloitte, have offices here.

Copenhagen is also home to many of Denmark’s most prominent businesses. Logistics giant Mærsk has a huge headquarters in the city, while Danske Bank’s main office is also in the capital.

Many people assume that Scandinavia is homogenous, but that’s not necessarily true in the major cities. Copenhagen is a prime example of this; over 25% of the population has a foreign background.

73% of people in Copenhagen are of Danish descent. Many foreigners living in the Danish capital come from Western countries, such as Sweden, the UK, and the US. You’ll also find plenty of people from elsewhere in the world, though; there’s a large Turkish population, along with people from Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Despite being the largest city in Denmark, Copenhagen isn’t too big. If you’re in the city center, you can get pretty much anywhere in 30 minutes at most by bike.

Over the past few years, Copenhagen has evolved dramatically. Architects have been busy putting together new districts and housing in former industrial areas to accommodate continued population growth.

The food scene has also become one of the world’s most envied, and few cities can look to the future as optimistically as the Danish capital.

What is life like in Copenhagen?

Like elsewhere in the Nordic region, life in Copenhagen is generally laid back. The Danes work some of the fewest hours in Europe, and it’s not uncommon for offices to be empty before 4pm on a Friday. It’s also not unusual for people to do things on weekdays with their friends, such as go for coffee or a walk.

You shouldn’t have too many worries living in Copenhagen in terms of safety. Crime does exist — but generally speaking, it’s on a much lower level than most other cities in the world.

The Economist’s Safe Cities Index ranked Denmark’s capital as the safest city globally in 2021, with Toronto coming second and Singapore finishing third. In terms of personal safety, Copenhagen finished first again; Amsterdam was the runner-up.

If you have children, you’ll be pleased to learn Denmark’s capital city is an excellent place to raise a family. The city has plenty of green spaces for you to roam around, and most attractions and restaurants cater to the little ones with glee. Moreover, the schools are very good.

Do I need a residence permit to live in Copenhagen?

The answer to this question depends on where you come from. Denmark is a member of the European Union, and as such, it benefits from freedom of movement. If you’re from another EU member state, you can work, study, and live in Copenhagen without needing to apply for a Visa — though you’ll need to register your residence when you arrive.

Although Switzerland isn’t a member of the EU or European Economic Area (EEA), you can also live and work in Denmark on the same grounds as someone from an EU member state.

If you’re from another Nordic country (Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Iceland), you can also move to Denmark without applying for a Visa. People from Greenland or the Faroe Islands are Danish citizens, and since both territories are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, they can move to Copenhagen.

For those not from an EU or EEA country, or a Swiss citizen, things are a little more complicated. To live in Denmark, you’ll need to acquire a residence permit. This includes US and Canadian citizens, as well as any Brit moving from the beginning of 2021 onwards.

Obtaining a Danish residence permit to begin your life in Copenhagen can be a time-consuming process.

However, you’ve got several opportunities, including:

You can apply to move to Denmark on the New to Denmark website. Here, you’ll find all of your possibilities — along with fees, expected waiting times, contact details, and so on.

Are people in Copenhagen friendly to foreigners?

Expat life in Copenhagen is made easier because its inhabitants are a very friendly bunch. The locals can seem a little standoffish to begin with — but if you need help and ask someone, they’ll typically be happy to point you in the right direction.

The Danes have a reputation for not talking to strangers; it’s rare for them to do so, but it certainly isn’t unheard of. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to smile at strangers in the street, when entering an elevator, and so on.

Another nice thing about living in Copenhagen is that you can typically trust what someone says to you. The Danes are trustworthy, and they tend not to lie about things.

One thing worth noting is that the Danes can be pretty blunt — especially when it comes to things like customer service. Don’t take it personally; everyone gets the same treatment.

While the official language in Copenhagen is Danish, you don’t need to worry about a vast language barrier. Almost everyone here speaks excellent English, and you won’t have issues asking for directions and whatnot.

How do I make friends in Copenhagen?

One common complaint among expats moving to Copenhagen is that it can be tough to make friends here, especially if you’re moving on your own. That reputation has some elements of truth, but at the same time, it’s probably easier than you think.

Expat life in Copenhagen doesn’t mean having to feel lonely, and if you’re proactive, you’ll find plenty of like-minded people — both from Denmark and further afield. One useful starting point is MeetUp, where you’ll find plenty of groups dedicated to various interests.

The Expats in Copenhagen group on Facebook has over 50,000 members and is also worth joining.

If you’re on Instagram, the Expats in Denmark account is a great place to read the stories of other foreigners living in the country. On Reddit, the r/Copenhagen subreddit also provides a lot of helpful information.

You can also make friends in Copenhagen by focusing on activities and hobbies that interest you — and letting like-minded people naturally gravitate towards you. If you love photography, for example, you can post your pictures on Instagram and connect with people in the local area like that.

If you haven’t got any hobbies, picking up a new one will help you find like-minded people in Copenhagen. For example, you can blog about your expat life experiences in Copenhagen. Alternatively, why not try winter bathing? There are plenty of clubs in the city for you to get involved with!

What are the first things you should do when moving to Copenhagen as an expat?

Living in Copenhagen is a lot of fun when you’re all settled. Until then, though, it can be a little stressful. Many processes you need to follow are straightforward, but the waiting times can get a little irritating.

Our advice? Grab a cup of expensive coffee from your favorite local café and relax. Well, that and following the action points listed in the subsections below.

Register your residence

To register as a residence in Denmark, you’ll need to have an address in the country (we’ll talk more about that later).

If you’re an EU citizen, you’ll need to register in person at one of SIRI’s offices in the country. The closest to Copenhagen is in Valby, one of the city’s main districts. When you go for your appointment, you’ll need to bring your passport and/or national ID card, plus other documentation to support your grounds of residence.

As an example to the above, bringing your employment contract and printed documentation of your lease is a good idea if you’re coming to work in Denmark. If you’re coming to study, you can bring your offer from a Danish university.

If you don’t yet have a job in Denmark but are from the EU, you can apply and move on the basis of self-sufficient funds. You’ll need to have enough money in your bank account to show that you can support yourself financially during your stay, and this is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Any bank statements you use for documentation must not be more than 30 days old.

Self-employed EU citizens without a business registered in Denmark can gain residence on self-sufficient funds before changing their permit to self-employed later.

For EU citizens, you’ll usually receive your residence document during your appointment — unless the authorities need further information from you.

If you are from outside the EU, you’ll need to remember to have your biometric features recorded as part of your application. You can do this in several countries; you’ll have to receive your permit before traveling in most instances.

Get a CPR card

Once you’ve received the right to live in Denmark, it’s crucial that you get a yellow CPR health card. You can do this at the International House in Copenhagen, which is close to the town hall and will need to bring your residence certificate — plus the contract for your accommodation.

You’ll need to apply online to receive a CPR number; the International House will email you a few weeks later to invite you. The appointment won’t take too long, and you’ll receive your card in the post. Expect to wait 2-4 weeks for the card in most cases.

Get your NemID sorted ASAP

Getting your NemID sorted is crucial to living a more complete life in Copenhagen. Without it, you cannot sign up for a Danish bank account — and most of your other services will also be limited.

Annoyingly, you can’t get your NemID without the CPR card. So, it’s worth ensuring that you’ve got a digital bank to keep you going in the meantime; using something like N26, Revolut, or Monzo will help avoid foreign exchange fees.

To get your NemID, you’ll need to book an appointment; the office is in Valby. You’ll get some of the information there, and the rest will be sent in the post. Again, you can expect to wait a few weeks for all of this.

Open a bank account

Once you’ve received your NemID, you should strive to open a bank account as soon as possible. Without a Danish bank account, you cannot receive your salary.

In Denmark, you’ve got a broad selection of banks to choose from. Danske Bank and Nordea have plenty of services in English, as does Handelsbanken — a Swedish bank with offerings throughout the Nordic region.

You can also choose several Danish banks, such as Arbejdernes Landsbank, Sparkassen, and Jyske Bank.

Get a tax card

When you move to Copenhagen for work, you’ll need to get a tax card. You can do this online and in person.

If you’re self-employed, you’ll pay B-tax and do not need a tax card. However, you will still need to register your company with SKAT.

Start finding activities you enjoy

Making new friends is crucial to living a more fulfilling life in Copenhagen, and it’s wise to start networking as soon as possible. When you begin your job or studies, talk to people in your workplace or on your course.

Many Danes are members of societies and do voluntary work, so it’s worth looking around and seeing which ones appeal to you the most.

Buy a bike

Regardless of how long you plan to live in Copenhagen, you should strongly consider getting a bike. Cycling is the go-to form of transportation for many locals, and the city has well-maintained bike lanes throughout.

Investing in a good bike is a good idea; if you dip below 3,000 Danish Kroner, you’ll experience a notable drop in quality. You can find second-hand bikes for reasonable prices, though — many of which cost less than this.

You’ll find bicycle stores on most of Copenhagen’s major streets. To get started, you can also rent. Swapfiets is one popular choice, and Donkey Republic is another. Both have monthly memberships.

Join a gym

If you’re into exercise, you’ll be delighted to know that Copenhagen has several gyms. To join one, you’ll typically need to have your NemID.

Fitness World is one of the most popular gyms in the capital, and you can purchase a membership that permits access to all of their chains in Denmark. SATS is also widespread, with gyms throughout Copenhagen — as well as in Sweden and Norway.

Other good gyms in the capital include:

Do I need to learn Danish when living in Copenhagen?

You might find Danish challenging to learn if you don’t speak a Germanic language. As such, we understand completely if you’re wondering whether it’s even worth your efforts.

It’s very easy to live in Copenhagen for years and get by with English alone. However, you’ll find it challenging to integrate with Danish society and shall also miss out on multiple subtle cultural differences.

If you plan to live in Copenhagen for the long term, you should strongly consider learning Danish. And if you plan to acquire Danish citizenship, it’s non-negotiable. When you register as a resident, you can enjoy free classes; you’ll receive mail in the post with more information about this.

You will need to pay a deposit, but you can get this back once you pass the module.

Find out more about the Danish language basics here.

Finding accommodation in Copenhagen

Of course, you’ll need somewhere to live when you move to Copenhagen. Our advice? Start looking as soon as possible, because finding accommodation in the Danish capital can be a considerable challenge.

When narrowing down your search, try to stick within the Storkøbenhavn region. Amager has a good selection of housing, especially in Ørestad — though it’s a little further from the city center.

Finding somewhere to live in the city center is even trickier than other parts of Copenhagen, and you’ll typically need to have a large budget. Østerbro and Frederiksberg come with a huge price tag in particular, and Vesterbro and Nørrebro are also becoming more expensive.

If you don’t want to be in the city, it’s worth looking at neighborhoods like Kongens Lyngby, Hvidovre, and Søborg. Valby also has a good range of affordable accommodation, ranging from modern apartments to houses.

In the southern parts of the city, Sydhavnen’s waterfront area has been regenerated into swanky apartments in recent years. It offers the chance to disconnect yourself from the city while not being too far away, but also with prices that are a little lower than Nordhavn.

Boligportal is one of Denmark’s largest online portals for rentals, and you’ll find multiple listings in Copenhagen. When looking, make sure that you’re allowed to register your CPR number at the address.

Another option for furnished rooms in Copenhagen is LifeX. The rooms are pretty expensive, but deposits are lower than you’ll find elsewhere, and their locations are mostly central.

When you move here, it’s a good idea to plan for the future. Consider joining a waiting list like KAB; in the long run, you’ll find an apartment at a much lower rental price. You should also talk to your Danish colleagues, as you’ll have a much better chance of finding something worthwhile.

If you’re an EU citizen, you can also try your luck at finding accommodation in Malmö. Both Sweden and Denmark are in the Schengen Area, and many people commute between Copenhagen and Malmö daily.

The cost of living in Malmö is generally lower, but you’ll need to account for the price of transportation and travel times.

Do I need a car to live in Copenhagen?

If you live close to central Copenhagen or on one of the metro and S-train lines, having a car in Copenhagen can result in a lot of unnecessary stress. Owning a car in Denmark is expensive, with significant taxes playing a role.

Outside of the city center, having a car is perhaps more convenient. You’ll need to analyze your own situation and determine whether it’s worth the trade-off.

Work life in Copenhagen

If you’re coming to work in Copenhagen, you’re in for an excellent experience compared to many countries. Denmark’s working conditions are exceptional, and employees enjoy various benefits.

Generally speaking, salaries in Copenhagen are pretty high. The Danes also work much less than in other parts of the world; the official working week for many is 37 hours, but it’s not uncommon to work less than this. If you stay after hours, you’re more likely to be questioned for your time management than given a pat on the back.

Annual leave in Danish companies is also generous. You’ll get five weeks of paid vacation per year, in addition to a “holiday allowance” that is usually 12.5% of what you earn.

If you plan to become a parent, work life in Copenhagen is very accommodating. New mothers in Denmark get 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave, and both parents can split 32 weeks between them. Self-employed people can also get paternity leave if they meet specific conditions.

Nightlife in Copenhagen

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and you’ll have plenty of playing time if you live in Copenhagen. If you’re into nightlife, Denmark’s capital city will not disappoint; the Danes are partial to a beer, but they handle it pretty well.

Copenhagen has several places to drink, ranging from fancy bars to bodegas and everything in between. You’ll find many of these dotted through the inner city, while Vesterbro and Nørrebro are also excellent places to grab a drink.

Nightlife in Copenhagen usually starts late and finishes late; some places stay open until 5:30am. You can pick your own adventure, though — going for a pub crawl is a lot of fun, and you can always host pre-drinks at your apartment before hitting the town.

Drinking in Copenhagen will leave less of a hole in your pocket than Stockholm or Oslo. Expect to pay between 45 DKK and 65 DKK for beer in a bar; bodegas are much cheaper.

The cost of living in Copenhagen

“Is Copenhagen expensive?” and “Why is Copenhagen so expensive?” are two frequently-asked questions on Google.

We should probably cut to the chase with this one — the cost of living in Copenhagen is higher than most cities in Europe. On top of that, you’ve got an eye-watering tax rate to deal with.

With accommodation, your prices can range wildly. But for a one-bedroom apartment in central Copenhagen, Numbeo outlines that you can expect to pay 11,059.61 DKK ($1,665.35).

As for the tax, you can expect to pay between 37% and 53% depending on your income.

Groceries can be costly, too — and you’ll need to deal with 25% VAT on consumer items.

If you want to save money on your food shopping, Føtex offers the best value-quality ratio — though Netto and REMA 1000 are both cheaper.

Living in Copenhagen is fantastic, but it pays to do your research first

Living in Copenhagen is a huge privilege, but setting yourself up here as an expat can be a significant challenge. Finding a place to live and setting up your bank account are two of many challenges, and building a network of friends can also take a while.

For the most part, the steps to starting your life in Copenhagen are pretty straightforward; it’s the timescales that cause the most stress. You’re now well-equipped to deal with any adversities that come your way, though, and you can keep this guide handy for when you move to the land of Hygge and play bricks that are painful to step on.

If you move to Denmark, you’ll be living among some of the happiest people in the world. Why is that the case, though? You can find out in our full article outlining this.

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