The pros and cons of living in Finland as an expat
The pros and cons of living in Finland, and why you should consider life in the most-forgotten Nordic nation.
The vast majority of people from the English-speaking world don’t know a whole lot about Finland. If you’re not from there, Finland is likely to be a place you may have one or two vague ideas about, but it’s probably kind of hard to pin it down.
To lots of people, Finland is something like one of those character actors who appears in hundreds of movies and television shows in supporting roles, but who never lands the leading man gigs that Denmark and Sweden always seem to get:
“He’s that one guy? You know. He was in that movie with…um…whatshername…”
But far from being relegated to a second-fiddle role, people living in Finland will tell you that the nation has quite a lot to offer on its own. Especially for adventurous folks from the U.S. and U.K. who are considering a change.
If undertaking the expat life is possibly on the menu for you, considering the potential benefits of living in Finland is worth your time.
Living in Finland: From wild beauty to world-class cities
One thing you always hear from people who have decided to take the plunge and try living in Finland as an expat is that the country has abundant nature and is simply gorgeous for the outdoor enthusiast.
Fully two-thirds of Finland is forested, and there are 40 national parks there that cover lakes, the coastline of the longest archipelago in the world, forests, and meadows. The possibilities for enjoying hiking, biking, boating and camping in the great northern outdoors are nearly endless.
But it’s winter when Finland’s wild and mysterious beauty is truly on display. There are tons of ski areas as well as places for snowshoeing, and of course viewing the legendary Northern Lights is an ever-popular destination trip even for people who have been living in Finland their entire lives.
Lapland in the far north is where you’ll find the Sami people and learn about their ancient reindeer herding traditions. You can even try your hand at driving a husky sled up there!
And what’s more, Finland, like its Scandinavian neighbors Denmark, Sweden and Norway celebrates its own version of “Everyman’s Right,” the presumption of the openness of the land for all to enjoy.
The way it works is this: as long as you treat the land respectfully, and don’t stay in one spot for more than one night running without the landowner’s permission, you can pretty much traipse across most of the open, uncultivated spaces in Finland.
Thus camping, hiking, and enjoying the waterways without fear of consequence is one of the best benefits of living in Finland for people who love the outdoors.
But lest the expat looking at emigrating to Finland think the country is just one giant wilderness, don’t forget also that Finland is home to a number of treasured, world-class cities like Helsinki, Turku, Espoo and Tampere.
The capital Helsinki and smaller Turku two hours away boast the cleanliness and orderliness associated with Scandinavia and the other Nordic countries, as well as historic districts and centuries-old structures.
Helsinki, which weirdly has a psychological condition named after it, is home to Michelin-starred restaurants, a well-developed club and bar scene, world-renowned music festivals, and more.
And in both Helsinki and Turku you’ll also find historic castles, fortresses, cathedrals, and numerous examples of Scandinavian/Nordic architecture that will take your breath away.
Quick facts about living in Finland
Finland is a northern European country that borders Sweden to the west, Norway to the northwest, and Russia to the east. It sits on the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia, and to the south across the Gulf of Finland you’ll find neighboring Estonia.
With a population of just 5.5 million in the eighth-largest country in Europe, Finland is one of the most sparsely-populated countries in the world, a perfect place for the expat looking at emigrating to Finland for some peace and quiet.
But don’t let the thin Finn population fool you; there have been people living in Finland since long before it was ever called that.
Dating back to 9000 BC, just after the last Ice Age started receding, there is evidence of several distinct groups of people already living in Finland. They’ve been in contact with other nearby cultures since the Bronze Age.
But Finland’s history is probably most bound up with that of Sweden.
Starting in the late 13th century, Finland was incorporated into the Swedish kingdom, and the southern coastal area was extensively colonized by the Swedes.
This colonization project was so thorough that Swedish to this day remains one of the official languages of Finland, along with Finnish and Sami in the north.
Finland was later incorporated into the Russian empire in the early 1800s, and only became an independent nation after the 1917 Russian revolution.
But fear not, intrepid would-be expat who speaks neither Swedish nor Finnish or even Russian for that matter: much like their Scandinavian neighbors, people living in Finland begin learning English at an early age, so you should have no trouble getting by if you’re thinking about migrating to Finland from an English-speaking country.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the other benefits of living in Finland, as well as some of the downsides.
The pros of living in Finland:
Living in Finland means free education
One thing people living in Finland always gush about is the fact that Finland offers free education to all. This extends not only to primary and secondary students, but also to university, meaning you get free tuition for bachelor’s, graduate, and doctoral studies.
Tuition isn’t the only thing that’s paid for. Finland takes education very seriously and has taken measures to ensure that students have the best chance to learn by also covering things that are considered peripheral in most other countries.
For instance, Finnish law guarantees that students will receive at least one hot meal per day, and all their books and other school supplies are free. Even transportation is free if you live more than 5 kilometers away from your school.
And this laser focus on education can work to the advantage of expats thinking about living in Finland as well, at least for those who are thinking about teaching as a way to make a living while traveling.
Such is the emphasis on education that in Finland teachers are revered. They receive top-flight training and ongoing education, and their pay is astronomical by U.K. and U.S. standards. You could do much worse than living and working in Finland as a teacher!
Salaries are high if you’re living in Finland
Speaking of pay, it’s not only teachers who rake in the big bucks when living in Finland. Finland is one of the best-performing countries in the world economically, and that is a big reason why it always comes in so high on happiness surveys.
What is a good salary in Finland? Well, the average salary in Finland rose to £49,104 per year ($64,078) in 2020, and the unemployment rate dropped to 7.2 percent.
Of course, as with any country, salaries vary wildly between industries for people living in Finland. As mentioned above, teachers do very well here, and if you’re in telecommunications you can also hope to find a well-paying job if you end up living in Finland as an expat.
Other big industries include car manufacturing and forestry, as well as paper products, since Finland produces more than 10 percent of all paper and paperboard in the world.
People are happy living in Finland
We briefly mentioned happiness in Finland but it merits going into in more detail. As of March 2019, Finland was ranked the happiest country in the world by the World Happiness Report put out by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network each year.
That’s the second year running that Finland has nabbed the top spot, and in previous years it has always come in in the top five.
The report’s authors query residents of countries around the world and ask for their input and for data from economists and psychologists, ranking countries on categories like income, healthy life expectancy, safety, trust, freedom, social support, and generosity.
With a strong cultural focus on family that extends even to strangers, living in Finland is a place where generosity is the norm, and small kindnesses abound as a matter of course.
An intolerance for corruption from people in power and a business culture of a level playing field also helps to ensure that people living in Finland feel satisfied with life there.
Living in Finland means great healthcare — and the American Dream
The Nordic countries in general all seem to come in for top marks on this report year after year, but Finland especially seems to do right by its citizens, especially in the arena of healthcare. Medical care is universal for people living in Finland, and getting sick or hurt won’t cost you a dime.
And if you’re planning on starting a family, the healthcare standard of living in Finland means it would cost you about 200 times less than it would in the U.S.
As Sanna Marin, the millennial prime minister of Finland recently said, Finland and the other Nordic countries are actually better-equipped at providing people the means of achieving the American Dream than America is.
What with the great healthcare, well-managed safety net, stupendous education system, and the care with which the country looks after and nurtures its children, you’ve got to admit she might have a point.
Finnish architecture and design is amazing
Finland has carved itself a striking niche in the world of architecture and design that resonates around the world.
One of the great benefits of living in Finland is you get to enjoy living in places where world-class architects have designed some of the most widely recognized buildings and parks, created with the intent of allowing human beings to thrive.
Starting in the early part of the 20th century, young architects like Eliel Saarinen and Alvar Aalto joined the growing Scandinavian architecture and design movement, creating works like Helsinki Central Railway Station, and the Paimio Sanatorium, both of which are big tourism draws to this day.
Aalto also formed the design firm Artek, and his design of the Paimio chair has informed global furniture design all the way up to the present day.
Avanto Architects is probably the best-known of the modern Finnish architecture firms, and their work on the St. Lawrence Cathedral in Vantaa, Finland draws thousands of tourists and visitors as well as students of architecture every year to take in its clean lines, stunning use of natural light, and creative design.
Living in Finland means clean air and water
Again like its Nordic cousins, the government and the people living in Finland take great pride in being environmentally conscious.
Although they are the largest paper-producing country in the world, the forestry industry holds to exacting standards of sustainability. Over 17,000 sq km of forest is strictly protected, and the areas where logging is allowed are subject to strict oversight to prevent over-logging or other damage.
Over 80 percent of the country’s lakes have water that is rated good or excellent, and as one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, Finland has taken great strides in investing in a clean, green future.
The government has spent a great deal of money in cleaning up former industrial areas, and they have greatly reduced industrial emissions.
Emigrating to Finland means hitting the sauna
Finnish people love their sauna, and if you wind up living in Finland, you’ll quickly learn why.
Over the last 50 years the number of saunas in Finland has more than tripled, and when you learn that there are over 1.5 million saunas in the country, it’s almost hard to believe, considering that there are only 5.5 million people there.
And the Finns take their sauna culture seriously.
There’s an old saying here: “Share your tobacco and tinderbox, but not your sauna or your woman,” and although their notions of sharing have grown more open over the centuries, their love of sauna has not gone away.
It was once called a “poor man’s pharmacy,” and is still thought to cure everything from the common cold to sore muscles after a workout.
Not only are the health benefits of taking a hot sauna still being discovered to this day, in Finland there is also a strong social aspect to spending time in the tiny wooden boxes.
Starting at a very young age, children living in Finland are taught that the sauna is an almost sacred place, a social gathering spot where you share time together with your family or close friends, but in a quiet, thoughtful manner.
It’s not a place for silliness or loud voices, and although nudity is standard practice, sexuality is out of the question.
Unique natural phenomena are the norm when you’re living in Finland
One tremendous advantage of living in Finland is that in summertime the days last forever. Like, literally it can still be light out at 3 a.m.
This definitely lends itself to the music and festival scene in Finland, and people routinely stay up into the wee hours or just roll right into Day 2 of the festival.
Another renowned natural phenomenon that living in Finland gives you access to is the amazing Northern Lights.
The country is far enough north and the weather and atmospheric conditions are just right that there are many places you can go to take in the Aurora Borealis, and tourists flock from around the world to see the show.
Sometimes the lights are visible in Finland several nights of the week, a rarity in most other countries.
Safety and security living in Finland
Finland is regarded as one of the safest countries in the world. In 2017 the World Economic Forum report rated living in Finland as the number one safest place to be globally.
Parents routinely let even very small kids walk themselves to school, and even in bigger cities like Helsinki and Tampere, crime rates are vanishingly low.
Exercise normal caution as you would in any country if you decide migrating to Finland is for you, but be assured by the fact that you’re heading to a place where people leave their bikes unlocked on the street and rarely even lock up their houses.
The cons of living in Finland
Living in Finland means brutal winters
Did we mention that Finland is pretty far north? That means of course that winters are rough. It can drop to -50°C (-58°F) in the northern part of the country, so be sure to pack a parka or three if you are planning on emigrating to Finland.
But don’t worry; Helsinki’s temperature typically doesn’t drop below a balmy -30°C (-22°F).
Snowfall can be quite heavy, and raging snowstorms are common as well. Inland the snow typically covers the land mass completely from November through April, and even in Helsinki on the marginally warmer coast snow covers the land from December through late March.
Another aspect that takes some getting used to if you’re living in Finland as a foreigner is that the flip side of those long summer days is long winter nights. While at Finland’s northernmost point the sun doesn’t set for 73 days straight, in winter it doesn’t rise at all for 51 days.
Further south in places like the capital, living in Finland doesn’t mean literal pitch-black night all winter long.
However, you might think about investing in one of those sunlight-mimicking lamps if you plan on living and working in Finland, as full, bright sunlight is a rarity in winter no matter where you go, and the nights are quite long.
The cost of living in Finland
Another aspect of living in Finland as an expat that lots of people struggle with is living expenses in Finland.
While the salaries are indeed high, much higher than salaries in the U.K. or the U.S. typically are, that extra money you’re making largely balances out in how much you spend every day just living in Finland.
Indeed, living in Finland is more expensive than in nearly 80 percent of countries around the world.
Although one caveat that urban types should take note of: the cost of living in Finland, specifically in Helsinki, is 33 percent lower than that of New York, and 25 percent cheaper than London.
According to Expatistan, the estimated monthly costs for one person living in Finland is about US$2,416 (£1,845). If you’re living in Finland with a family of four, that figure jumps to US$4,500 or £3,436.
Renting a 900 sq ft apartment in a modest neighborhood will cost you US$1,200 a month, or £963, and even if you drop down to a studio apartment of just 480 sq ft in a modest neighborhood, the rent still averages US$842 or £642.
A basic dinner for two in a neighborhood pub will run you about $53 (£40) whereas just a beer will cost about $7 or £5.30.
Depression and alcoholism
Having read the numbers on how much does it cost to live in Finland, as well as hearing about the long, dark, brutal winters, it should perhaps come as no surprise that depression and alcoholism are perennial issues in Finland.
In all seriousness, the winter darkness has been linked to higher rates of depression in populations around the world, so it’s not unique to people living in Finland.
The fact of the extreme cold temperatures also means people have a tendency to stay at home and not socialize much in winter, which is thought to exacerbate the problem.
As far as alcohol consumption goes, annual drinking per capita for people living in Finland is estimated at around 12.3 liters or 3.24 gallons of pure alcohol. That’s the 15th highest in the world, and is up from 8.5 liters or 2.24 gallons just ten years ago.
There is a great deal of concern regarding these issues, and treatment and counseling are widely available and encouraged.
Also, Finns and the Finnish government are quick to point out that despite the rates of alcoholism, crime and violence of the sort that is often associated with alcohol consumption are still quite rare.
You might try living in Finland, but good luck with Finnish
One common complaint from people who have tried living in Finland is that learning the language there is difficult if not approaching impossible.
As one Russian expat blogger puts it, “Seriously, how could one come up with such a language? What was the purpose behind its difficulty? Make sure that no one understands local people?”
Putting aside her venting frustration about learning to speak Finnish, we can say for sure that the language is unrelated to the other Nordic languages, and it does have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to learn.
Unlike when an English speaker goes to learn Spanish or French or Italian, there’s no common root language for new learners to latch onto.
As a result, if you search for ‘Finnish language’ you’ll find a bunch of people talking about how hard it is to learn, and a bunch of other people defending it—mostly teachers of Finnish—and saying it’s not hard at all.
Luckily, as mentioned previously, the vast majority of people living in Finland speak English, so you might be able to get away without learning Finnish at all even if you are living and working in Finland as an expat.
There’s a high tax rate for people living in Finland
As is the case in all the Nordic countries, the rate of taxation in Finland is higher than what many people from the English-speaking world are accustomed to, around 31 percent on income.
But as is also the case, you get what you pay for.
Complete, across the board healthcare, great social support programs, tons of vacation time along with maternity and paternity leave, pristine streets, a responsive and uncorrupt government, high-functioning and clean public transport — given all that and more, it seems like it might just be a fair bargain.
Living in Finland: The bottom line
For the adventurous soul, living and working in Finland as a foreigner could be the experience of a lifetime. Sure, there are advantages and disadvantages to living in Finland, but that’s true of every country.
If you love the outdoors, enjoy winter sports and recreation, and don’t mind trading the dark of winter for ridiculously long summer days, living in Finland just might be for you!
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