Expat life in Denmark: The pros and cons of living in Denmark
Vibrant cities, stunning nature and high quality of life make living in Denmark an enticing choice.
It’s hard to fathom these days, but it wasn’t too long ago that picking up stakes and moving to a foreign country to live and work was unimaginable for the majority of people. Unless you were a CIA spy or you had a fat trust fund to fall back on, that option was pretty much off the table for most folks until fairly recently.
But with increasing global connectivity, high-speed internet, and travel getting so much cheaper and easier, more and more average people are looking into working and living in a foreign country. And one of the most appealing expat options for moving abroad is living in Denmark.
And no wonder: there’s so much more to living in Denmark for the expat than simply polishing up the old resume with a unique job posting you can brag about to future employers back home.
For one thing, the standard of living in Denmark is world-class. Its cosmopolitan, youthful cities, incredible and diverse natural areas, cleanliness, and low crime rate combine to put this Scandinavian nation high on the list of possibilities for many would-be expats considering a move. Who could argue against cultural exchange with a populace that consistently ranks in the top tier of happiness and quality of life surveys? And given the fact that emigrating to Denmark comes with excellent healthcare, social services, high social cohesiveness, high stability, and great financial and job security, taking the plunge and living in Denmark as a foreigner seems like a no-brainer.
But before you pack your bags and hop on the next plane to Copenhagen, it might be wise to take a closer look at the pros and cons of living in Denmark. This guide is designed to give you some basic understanding of what you need to know about living in Denmark long-term, as well as introducing you to some of the challenges and joys facing expats who are currently living in Denmark.
A little background
Denmark has been settled since the Stone Age, and indeed it boasts of being the world’s oldest monarchy. But it’s the country’s Viking heyday from about 700 AD to 1100 AD that resonates most strongly when people think about the outsized history of this tiny nation. Throughout the centuries, one of the benefits of living in Denmark has been its central location, perched as it is just north of Germany and southwest of Sweden. This ideal spot gave both raiders and traders access to the European continent, the Baltic region, England and even Turkey and North America.
Despite Denmark’s cultural and language similarities with Norway and Sweden, wars and royal intermarriages have come and gone in an ever-shifting series of alliances and conflicts for about as long as the trio have existed as nations. For a time, Denmark was the most powerful of the three, and controlled its much larger neighbour Norway as a subject nation before renouncing its claim to the Norwegian throne in 1814. Also of note, during World War II, occupied Denmark’s underground resistance fiercely battled the Nazis and succeeded in rescuing the vast majority of Denmark’s Jewish citizens, secretly spiriting them away to Sweden on fishing boats and other small craft.
While Denmark proper has the smallest land area of the three Scandinavian countries, when you consider that Greenland is an “autonomous constituent nation” within the kingdom of Denmark, suddenly tiny Denmark dwarfs its northern neighbours. Many people unfamiliar with living in Denmark may have first learned of this unique relationship when a certain nation’s president recently offered to “buy” Greenland and caused an international brouhaha when the Danish government rejected the proposition as “absurd.”
These days the three Scandinavian countries are often allied on most matters, though one of the great benefits of living in Denmark is that you get to learn about the cultural differences between them as well. You’ll find that the citizens of each country do have fun tweaking their neighbours over what outsiders perceive as minuscule differences.
Quick facts about living in Denmark:
Total population of Denmark: 5.8 million.
Capital and largest city: Copenhagen (other major cities: Aarhus, Odense and Aalborg).
Currency: Danish krone (DKK or kr).
Land area: Denmark proper is 42,933 sq km while the entire kingdom is 2,220,930 sq km.
Official language: Danish, but English is widely spoken, as well as some French and German.
Climate: Average July temperature is 63ºF (17ºC) while in February the average is 32ºF (0ºC).
Total expats: 2018 government figures say 770,397 people of “foreign heritage” live in Denmark. Of those there are about 10,000 U.S.-born residents, 15,000 from the U.K., and just under 3,000 from Australia.
Benefits of living in Denmark
So why is living in Denmark as a foreigner such an attractive proposition? There are lots of countries out there that are open to accepting foreigners looking to live and work away from their home country — what’s so great about living in Denmark as an expat? One big draw is that the standard of living in Denmark is remarkable for a variety of reasons.
As you’ll read in just about every published article talking about Danes and the pros and cons of living in Denmark, citizens, expats and visitors alike remark on how happy the people of Denmark are. The lifestyle in Denmark is very human-oriented, with an emphasis on culture, education, and social programs. All of these factors contribute to a very high standard of living in Denmark that is the envy of nations around the world. Denmark also offers plenty of opportunities for enjoying a buzzing, cosmopolitan city life, with 16 Michelin-starred restaurants and a hopping music and arts scene, especially in Copenhagen.
But the benefits of living in Denmark also include plenty of gorgeous, natural places to enjoy some quiet camping, hiking, and time at the seashore. In fact, the waters around Copenhagen are so clean that they have earned a coveted “blue” rating for cleanliness. Many Copenhagen residents enjoy a pre- or post-work exercise session by swimming laps right in the harbour. Indeed, health and fitness are also important factors to consider when thinking about emigrating to Denmark, with its bicycle culture and pedestrian-friendly streets. The Danish government and citizens are also rightly proud of a strongly green-oriented outlook that prioritises environmental as well as human factors as paramount considerations in city planning.
Social welfare programs
Less-informed western pundits often attempt to criticise Denmark and other Scandinavian nations for their “socialist” or “welfare” societies and perceived high rate of taxation, suggesting that these factors contribute to a high cost of living in Denmark, for example. But any unbiased analysis shows that when it comes to the benefits of living in Denmark, what people enjoy in return for their taxes is usually well worth what they shell out.
To take just one example, a 2019 study shows that the U.S. spent 17.8 percent of its GDP on healthcare, miles above the national average of 9 percent for other high-income countries like Denmark, Japan, Canada, Germany, Australia, and more.
An Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study showed Americans each spent an average of $9,892 annually on healthcare, 145 percent higher than the median rate for the 34 high-income OECD nations. That’s $2,000 more per capita than even Swiss citizens pay, despite Switzerland being one of the most expensive countries in the world.
The other figure to consider is this: in the U.S. more of that much higher rate of healthcare spending is coming out of the pockets of individuals. Whereas the average amount of private healthcare spending in nations around the world is about 2.7 percent, in the U.S. that figure jumps to a whopping 8.8 percent.
So, yes, while your rate of taxation may be higher if you’re living in Denmark, that money comes back to you and then some in the form of excellent healthcare that covers virtually everything, and you end up paying far less than you otherwise would, at least in the U.S.
And that’s not even counting the other benefits that Danish taxes go towards funding for the enjoyment of people living in Denmark. In addition to free healthcare for virtually all services, people living in Denmark also enjoy:
Child allowance up to age 18.
Extensive and well-maintained roads and bicycle lanes.
Comprehensive, clean and consistent public transport.
Tons of pristine parks and public spaces.
Great, well-maintained beaches and wilderness areas.
Work culture and living in Denmark
One of the biggest shocks that recently arrived expats migrating to Denmark notice is that the working culture there is strikingly different from that of most English-speaking nations. Danes are proud of their flat management structure, which values all employees and emphasises teamwork. All employees and managers address one another by their first names, and employee forums are the norm in which every worker gets a chance to offer his or her opinion on most decisions. Also embedded in Danish work culture is a healthy balance between one’s work and one’s life that is unrivalled around the world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this level of empowerment and such a strong sense of autonomy in the workplace, employees living in Denmark rank among the most-productive and hardest-working in Europe. Another one of the big benefits of living in Denmark from the worker’s perspective is that employers and the government work together toward what is termed “flexicurity.” This employment philosophy gives employees a sense of security because they won’t be summarily fired if they fall ill or another hurdle affects their ability to work. At the same time, management and ownership have the flexibility to make necessary adjustments in a fast-paced modern global economy. Another surprise for recent transplants living in Denmark is that income inequality is among the lowest in the OECD nations. This means that the high standard of living in Denmark is something that is shared across the board.
However, one important note to keep in mind is that with such an enviable atmosphere for people working and living in Denmark, the average job vacancy receives some 52 applications! For the expat determined to make a go of living in Denmark, it’s wise to carefully research each company you might potentially apply to, and to calibrate an appropriate sales pitch and CV accordingly. One great way to get a leg up on the employment market in Denmark is to take aim at jobs in employment sectors with worker shortages, especially if your work history is more closely related to jobs that are less in demand for workers.
FAQs on working in Denmark:
Do I need to speak Danish in order to get a job in Denmark?
Some jobs do require a basic command of Danish, but many do not. However, if you’re planning on emigrating to Denmark, it just makes sense to start learning some basic Danish as soon as possible.
What’s a good salary in Denmark?
According to an August 2019 salary survey, the average gross salary in Denmark is around US$ 84,000 or DKK 520,000.
Is it difficult to move to Denmark?
As with any country, there are some hoops to jump through in order to secure legal status to allow for living in Denmark long-term. However, Denmark is highly internationalised, forward-thinking and innovative. For the most part, Danes have a welcoming attitude toward foreigners, apart from the kind of vocal minority of people who are opposed to immigration one finds in every country. Thus, the government is eager to work with foreigners who are interested in emigrating to Denmark, and has set up a variety of programs for gaining legal status with varying requirements depending on where you’re from:
People from other Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland) are free to live and work in Denmark.
If you’re from another EU country or the U.K., the rules are similar, but you’ll need to get a registration certificate within 90 days of coming to Denmark.
For U.S. citizens and Australians it gets more complicated, but there are programs to allow for long-term living in Denmark for students, employees, people who are spouses and partners of Danes, and expats who can prove a certain level of income.
Although visitors from most nations are eligible for a 90-day tourist visa, it’s wise to access the official government website and begin researching the status of your country’s particular visa requirements well before booking a flight.
Other benefits of living and working in Denmark:
Legally mandated vacation pay for 30 working days a year.
Childbirth benefits in which both parents can trade off childcare duties while the other one works.
Paid sick leave.
The work week averages 37 hours.
Unemployment insurance for union workers nets you 90 percent of your pay for up to two years after leaving a job.
And people living in Denmark enjoy that famous healthcare, so losing or changing your job doesn’t mean losing your health coverage.
The cost of living in Denmark
So how much does it cost to live in Denmark? One big hurdle for lots of prospective ex-pats who are considering living and working in Denmark is they’ve heard that the cost of living might be out of control compared to that of their home country. Indeed, for anyone considering taking their career and life in such a drastically different direction and emigrating, living expenses in Denmark are usually right up at the top of the list of concerns.
And while it’s true that like most European nations and especially Scandinavian nations the cost of living in Denmark is somewhat higher than that of many other OECD countries, it just isn’t the case that living expenses in Denmark are all that different from most other developed countries. Consider too that if you’re planning on living AND working in Denmark, a nation where the average salary is over $80,000 per year, with a little luck and due diligence in seeking out employment you should be able to offset a slightly higher cost of living in Denmark in comparison to your home country.
Take the capital, Copenhagen: according to Expatistan, as of August 2019 Copenhagen is the 26th most expensive city in the world and only the 10th most expensive in Europe. For example, renting a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre of Copenhagen will run you about €800 to €1100, while living outside the centre is more like €600 to €900, depending on which cost comparison index you use. Living in Denmark’s other cities or towns will likely yield lower prices for things like rent or entertainment, but other costs like food and necessities are likely to stay in line with what people pay in the capital.
And for the Yanks out there considering living in Denmark as a foreigner, a quick search shows that the cost of living in Copenhagen is roughly on par with a number of major U.S. cities, including Seattle, Denver, Miami and Los Angeles. In fact, to live in New York City will cost you about 22 percent more than living in the Danish capital.
So let’s drill down into some specific numbers, just to get a crystal-clear picture of what the cost of living in Denmark really looks like on the ground.
Exchange rate for krone as of August 2019:
€1 = 7.45 krone.
$1 = 6.73 krone.
£1 = 8.17 krone.
To put the cost of living in Denmark in perspective, here are a few sample prices based on survey information culled from over 1,000 specific prices submitted by over 100 people in Copenhagen during the month of August, 2019 (full list here):
Basic lunch with a drink in business district — kr188 (€19)
A dozen eggs — kr32 (€4.34)
Bottle of good quality red table wine — kr78 (€10)
Utilities for one person for one month in a studio apartment — kr831 (€111)
Litre of gas (¼ gallon) — kr11 (€1.48)
Monthly public transportation pass — kr463 (€62)
Pint of beer in a neighbourhood pub — kr55 (€7)
Basic dinner out for two — kr388 (€52)
Just one thing: for goodness sake, buy whatever jeans you might possibly need before emigrating to Denmark. The same study showed that a pair of Levi’s will run you around kr905 or €121! (That’s 133 buckaroos for those of you keeping track from the land where Levi’s were born…)
Finances and getting up and running
Denmark is of course a highly-developed, fully globally-integrated nation with extensive ties to the world economy as it has had for centuries. That makes it an appealing destination for travellers as well as expats who plan on living and working in Denmark for longer periods of time. It also means that setting up your finances there is going to be significantly more streamlined than in many places.
The government of Denmark is proud of how living in Denmark has been digitalized to the extent that almost all financial transactions as well as virtually every conceivable interaction with government including such things as signing documents or making a healthcare appointment can be done online. They have adopted a green, environmentally-friendly “digital by default” program that not only reduces paper waste, but makes life a whole lot easier for everyone living in Denmark.
After you’ve obtained the visa and permissions necessary for living in Denmark long-term, the first step to getting fully integrated into the the financial and governmental system is getting a personal registration number or CPR card (Det Centrale Personregister is its Danish name). Also known as the yellow health insurance card, this number is the lifeblood of official existence for people living in Denmark. These ten digits are not only your individual personal registration number and your healthcare ID number, it’s also the number you use to set up everything from a bank account to a cell phone to getting a gym membership when you are living in Denmark. While there are those who say that it’s possible for those migrating to Denmark to skip getting the card, that route seems to be way more trouble than it’s worth.
For starters, the majority of people living in Denmark use a mobile payment app called MobilePay, which was introduced by Danske Bank in 2013. Without a CPR number, you’re out of the MobilePay loop. For 3.7 million Danes and foreigners living in Denmark, business transactions both large and small—from banking to paying rent to buying groceries to splitting a lunch tab—are completed using the app. Also, setting up a mobile phone or wifi service for a your new home as an expat in Denmark will prove difficult if not impossible without a CPR number.
All in all, living in Denmark without a CPR may be conceivable (if technically illegal, as you are issued one after applying for a legal residency permit) but it certainly would make life a lot more complicated. Luckily, the official Denmark national website links to International House Copenhagen, a public/private partnership that helps people emigrating to Denmark manage the hurdles for getting legal status, as well as helping businesses link up with workers with needed skill sets. They have a great help page on getting your CPR number, as well as a free checklist to help you navigate all the steps you have to take to get yourself fully set up for living in Denmark.
Living in Denmark as an expat
All in all, living and working in Denmark can open doors to cultural exchange, new job opportunities, new friendships and new adventures you might never have even conceived of in your home country. For expats seeking a new chapter in their lives, what Denmark has to offer in terms of stunning natural beauty, gorgeous seasides, historic cities and towns, and modern cosmopolitan life could make living in Denmark the experience of a lifetime.
Who knows: you may never want to move back!
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