Everything you need know about the pros and cons of living in Norway
Norway, the land of fjords, the Northern Lights, and so much more!
With modern ease of travel, plummeting prices among budget airlines, and “always on” high-speed technology allowing people to stay connected to work, school, and family wherever they go, lots of people today from all over the world are looking at packing up their lives and heading overseas.
Seeking new adventures as an expat is becoming more and more popular as people discover that with high-speed internet and cheap travel options, immersing yourself in another culture while continuing to work or attend classes remotely is a very real possibility, and great for personal and professional growth.
One place that remains a top choice among people looking to relocate is Norway — and with good reason.
Given its quality of life, stunning geography, human-friendly cities, pristine outdoors, and environmentally-conscious policies, it’s no wonder that living in Norway has long been a top choice for people in the know from all over the world.
But what do you, intrepid traveler, really need to understand about possibly finding a new life for yourself in the Scandinavian north? What might living in Norway actually be like once you’ve got your boots on the ground, so to speak?
Read on, because here we’ve got your one-stop source for all things Norwegian that the savvy foreigner needs to know.
This guide will lay out everything that will help you decide for yourself how living in Norway, pros and cons, might play out for you personally.
Living in Norway: Quick facts
While it’s true that Norway may have leapt into the forefront of global consciousness a few years ago as a result of the popularity of a certain animated film about princesses in the frozen north, there’s so much more to this gorgeous Scandinavian land than fjords, the Northern Lights, and singing snowmen.
Norway is the northernmost of the trio of Scandinavian countries, sharing a long border with neighboring Sweden to the east.
To the north and east, Norway borders Finland and Russia, and the Skagerrak Strait lies to the south, across which you’ll find Norway’s other Scandinavian neighbor, Denmark.
Part of Norway’s territory crosses into the Arctic Circle, and it even lays claim to a section of Antarctica called Queen Maud Land.
But it’s to the west where you’ll find what most people think of when they imagine living in Norway: the rugged, glorious coastline on the North Atlantic and Barents Sea.
This is the home of many of the country’s legendary fjords, the massive inlets that were carved into the edge of the land by slow-moving glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, allowing the sea to rush in.
And Norway is also home to a ridiculous 239,000 registered Islands — no wonder the early Norwegians adapted so readily to a life of seafaring and fishing!
But even with all this stark beauty on display, the population of Norway is a mere 5.3 million or so, making it one of the least densely populated nations in the world. Some 628,000 of the people living in Norway reside in Oslo, the country’s largest city and the capital.
The second-largest city in Norway is Bergen, another favorite spot for expats researching the benefits of living in Norway, and home to about 428,000 residents.
Other cities of note include Trondheim and Stavanger, but smaller towns and villages stretch far to the north, well above the Arctic Circle, if that’s your taste.
Living in Norway: Pros and cons
Pros: The standard of living in Norway is unbeatable
If there’s one thing that is indisputable about life in Scandinavian countries in general and living in Norway in particular, it’s that the quality of life offered to citizens and residents is impressive by nearly every measure.
In 2019, the annual World Happiness Report ranked Norway at a solid number 3, bringing home high marks in categories like income, freedom, trust in government, social support, generosity, and more.
Life expectancy for people living in Norway is a whopping 81 years, exceeding the OECD life expectancy average and outpacing the U.K.’s life expectancy of 79.5, as well as that of the U.S., which comes in at a comparatively paltry 76 years of age.
Perhaps some of that Norwegian longevity can be attributed to the fact that people living in Norway and their government are very concerned with the environment, and they make tremendous efforts to minimize their carbon footprint and other polluting factors.
Even in the cities, the air quality is amazing, and Norway has over a dozen beaches and coastal areas that have earned a ‘Blue Flag’ rating for cleanliness, including a few right in the city of Oslo. Nearly 100 percent of Norwegians say they are satisfied with the quality of their drinking water as well.
And when people from OECD countries were asked to give themselves a life satisfaction rating on a scale from 1 to 10, those living in Norway gave themselves a 7.5, far above the OECD average figure of 6.6.
Pros: Housing in Norway is pristine
In keeping with the famous Norwegian penchant for design, architecture, and attention to detail, Norwegian housing is known for the care landlords and owners take with regard to the needs of the humans living within.
In general, people living in Norway take great pride in their homes, and that is reflected in the quality of fixtures, furniture, windows, heating systems, stoves and other appliances. So, if you’re looking to buy, you can count on the newest and best-quality everything.
What’s more, most rental units you’ll encounter if you decide living in Norway is for you will come fully furnished — and not in a second-hand, gross, university town rental kind of way either.
For lots of newcomers to Norway, their first time seeing the interior of the apartments they’ve leased makes them feel like they’ve plunged head-first into the pages of an Ikea catalogue.
Be aware, however, that if you rent or buy something in a historic district, that same meticulous attention to detail that is one of the benefits of living in Norway will apply, perhaps in frustrating ways; there are likely to be restrictions on what kind of improvements you are allowed to make and so forth.
Pros: The outdoors in Norway is amazing
We’ve already touched on the wonderful scenic beauty of the fjords and coast, but there is so much more on offer in terms of enjoying the active life for those living in Norway.
For starters, the cities and towns are all well-equipped with world-class parks and bike paths, and there are tons of recreational football leagues, tennis clubs, hiking groups, bicycling groups, and etc.
(Hint: joining a league or team like this is a great way to get to know people when you’re a stranger in a strange land!)
Additionally, as mentioned before, there is a definite cultural affinity for all things water-related in the Norwegian character.
There may not be many bona fide Vikings sailing around pillaging anymore, but nevertheless you’ll find all manner of kayaking, boating, recreational fishing, and swimming on offer all over the place.
Even in the more populated Oslo, where decades of industrial neglect once blighted the harbor area, today you’ll find numerous waterfronts and beaches with a coveted ‘Blue Flag’ rating.
Many young professionals begin or end their workday with an invigorating (read: freezing-ass cold) swim right in the pristine Oslo harbor.
There are even nude beaches nearby for the more adventurous bather. Now, which column that particular fact falls under in the pros and cons of living Norway is up to the reader.
However, it’s inarguable that there are tons of wonderful boat tours available—fully clothed, most of them—taking visitors and locals alike out to hike on the picturesque nearby islands near the city.
Just a 20-minute train ride away from Oslo you can get lost in Nordmarka Forest, a gorgeous, wooded nature preserve with enormous pines and a scattering of small lakes and ponds.
Pros: The Norwegian fjords are epic
Sure, the fjords of Norway are technically a part of the outdoors, but in truth they are so uniquely important among the benefits of living in Norway that they really deserve a separate section of their own.
There are some 1,190 fjords in Norway, defined as inlets carved into the coastal land over eons by the slow, grinding movement of massive glaciers as they made their way downhill toward the sea.
And each fjord has its own personality. Although technically you can find fjords all over the world, from Chile to New Zealand, and from Alaska to Antarctica, Norway is like a one-stop shop for people who are struck by the epic, rugged beauty of fjords that come in all shapes and sizes.
Living in Norway means you have the freedom to take short trips to the coast where you can see the huge, touristy fjords like the tree-lined Geirangerfjord, a 15 km-long gash in the land that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as the granite-walled Lysefjord with its stunning vistas awaiting hikers and campers.
And then after that, you only have 1,188 more to go!
Pros: Allemannsrett rocks for campers
Speaking of camping, another top benefit of emigrating to Norway is the national law of Allemannsrett, or “everyman’s right.”
Also known more generally as the “right to roam,” this tradition is the understanding that all people should be free to access, enjoy, and pass through open land and waterways.
While Allemannsrett comes from an ancient understanding of the commons and the right of everyone to enjoy open space and is also accepted in the other Nordic countries as well as Scotland, Austria, Switzerland, Estonia, and others, a great advantage of living in Norway is that this right was actually codified into law in what is called the Outdoor Recreation Act.
The bottom line is that the law says that as long as people will be respectful to the land and the landowners, and follow environmentally sound practices such as respecting a ban on campfires between April and September, they are free to camp in most uninhabited places.
You only get to stay one night at a time in one spot that’s on someone’s land unless you ask the owner if you can stay longer, and you can’t cross cultivated land unless it’s frozen and covered in snow.
But you are free to trek across the countryside, use the waterways for kayaking, swimming, boating, or other recreation, and generally enjoy the gorgeous Norwegian landscape.
Norway is by all measures one of the safest countries in the world.
In 2018 this nation of over 5 million only saw 25 murders total. If you extrapolate that rate to the population of the U.S., it would mean there would be just 1,650 murders per year, a figure that is an order of magnitude below the actual U.S. total (there were 16,214 cases of murder or non-negligent manslaughter in the U.S. in 2018).
Generally speaking, violent crime is extremely rare for people living in Norway, and even petty crime and crimes of opportunity aren’t all that common.
There are many places where you’ll see bicycles left unlocked and parked on the street, for instance, and most people allow their children to walk themselves to school. They often leave their homes unlocked as well.
Certainly, for an adult, male or female, walking most places alone, even at night, is considered common practice.
(*One big fat caveat: obviously the adventurer interested in living in Norway should exercise basic caution and common sense when learning about how things work here, and keep in mind that, as in the rest of the world, crime in the bigger cities is more common than in smaller towns and villages.)
Pro: Salaries in Norway are massive
One of the biggest surprises for people emigrating to Norway is that the pay here is much higher than in most other countries in Europe, even in OECD nations.
This is true even for workers on the lower end of the pay scale and working in lower-skilled jobs, which comes as a big surprise for many people who are considering living in Norway as an expat.
Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that there is no legal minimum salary requirement; businesses pay workers a fair wage with generous benefits not only out of the well-documented Scandinavian cultural sense of community, but also simply to retain the best workers.
Norway enjoys one of the lowest differentials between worker and boss pay, and there is a cultural leveling in the workplace which values the opinions of everyone, not just the executives on the top floor.
So, what is a good salary in Norway?
The average salary in Norway is about 46,000 NOK gross per month. That works out to around US$4,900 or £3,800. Keep in mind of course that this is gross pay, and that to an expat looking at living in Norway, taxes are likely to be higher than where you’re from.
The tax burden in Norway is around 40.2 percent, compared to around 33.3 percent in the U.K. or the 30.1 percent EU average. That’s because…
Pros: Healthcare and other social services in Norway are awesome
While in countries like the U.K. and the U.S. forces are constantly battling back and forth over how much of healthcare should be government-run and how much should be privatized and sold to for-profit companies, countries like Norway have quietly done their own thing — and succeeded wildly by most accounts.
Their single-payer system requires people to pay for their own prescriptions and doctor appointments, but only up to an annual limit of 2200 NOK (£182 or US$234). Once you’ve shelled out that much, you pay zero for all your healthcare needs for the rest of the year.
You get to choose your own GP, whom you can change twice per year, and all public hospitals are run by regional health authorities.
A common talking point among opponents of centralized healthcare is that wait times to see a doctor are out of hand in countries like Canada and Norway, but the New York Times reported on a study showing that wait times in the U.S. actually aren’t all that different from what you encounter in Norway.
And with only have to pay about $200 annually, it seems pretty clear where healthcare falls under advantages and disadvantages of living in Norway as an expat.
Another social service among the benefits of living in Norway is free education. If you decide to bring along or start a family as a legal resident of Norway, your children’s education is free right through university.
Both Pro and Con: The weather
Of course, with towns and cities approaching and even within the Arctic Circle, you’re going to have some extremely cold temperatures in parts of Norway.
Surprisingly however, it can also get quite warm, depending on where you are. In Oslo for instance, summertime temps can reach the high 20s ºC and even touch 30 ºC (86 ºF) now and then, making those nude beaches a lot more pleasant than you might expect.
The coastal areas including Bergen and Stavanger get a good deal of rain, especially in fall and winter, but the flipside of this type of oceanic climate is that the temperatures are always relatively mild year round.
Moving inland and further north, all that changes, of course, and you can get brutally cold winters and heavy snowfall.
Winters in Oslo also fall on this extreme end of the temperature scale and can get quite cold and snowy although the city’s managers are renowned for their efficiency and thoroughness when it comes to clearing the streets.
Con: The cost of living in Norway is high
The wages and salaries in Norway may be sky-high, but so is the cost of living. Groceries, dining out, alcohol, rent — pretty much everything a consumer needs is probably going to be more expensive in Norway than where you’re from.
Even Norwegians with their famously high salaries often cross over to Sweden to buy higher-ticket items like liquor and meat.
Just a hamburger in a restaurant might cost you $25, and as far as rents are concerned, a small room in a shared house will likely cost at least 3,000 NOK per month (US$320, £250).
A small bedsit might run you between 4,500 – 6,000 NOK ($640, £500), whereas a one-bedroom apartment can cost you up to 12,500 NOK (US$1,300, £1,040) a month or even more depending on location, and a family-sized apartment might be as much as 20,000 NOK (US$2,100, £1,600).
So, living expenses in Norway can be quite a shock for a visiting expat, at least when they first arrive. However, once you have a job in Norway and are making what is a good salary in Norway, or even an average salary, you really won’t notice.
Cons: The food in Norway is limited
Another shock for many people thinking about living in Norway is that food options here are severely limited compared to what you typically find in the U.K. or U.S.
They’ll have everything you might need, but for instance, where you might have 7-10 choices for a given item in the U.S., in Norway you’ll only see about 1 or 2 choices.
Also, some people living as an expat in Norway complain that the quality of the food is often sub-par in comparison to that of their home country.
Keep in mind that you’ll do best by sticking with seasonal foods, and that certain things produced in Norway consistently get high marks from expats living there, like the chocolate, bread, pastries and berries.
Cons: The VAT in Norway is huge
Another sticker shock item for most people thinking about moving from abroad and living in Norway is that the country’s value-added tax or Merverdiavgift is really high. Some items rack up a 25 percent tax, a rate that is only topped by Hungary, which has a VAT of 27 percent.
Food, transport, movies and accommodations have a lower rate of just 12 percent, but it still adds up.
Another heavily taxed item is alcohol. Depending on the strength of the beverage, the duty you pay on it can price you right out of having a party. All told, a half-liter of standard beer in a bar will cost you about US$9 or so.
If you bump it up to a craft beer, that can easily jump to 125 NOK (US$13), and that’s for a smaller glass.
It’s much cheaper to buy beer in the supermarket, but there you’re limited to no more than 4.7 percent alcohol, and for hard liquor the tax rate is even higher.
So, when you do decide to take the plunge and start living in Norway as an expat, make sure you stock up in the airport’s duty-free shop before you pass through customs!
Con: Finding a job can be tough in Norway
With free post-secondary education and a highly educated population, landing a good job can be a struggle for someone who wants to try living in Norway as an expat.
Plus, the country’s business culture and legal system make it prohibitively difficult to fire anyone, so once they’ve gotten a job offer, workers in Norway hunker down and hang on to that gig.
It isn’t uncommon for would-be workers to send out 100 resumes before landing a job, so just be sure you’ve got plenty of savings or other income to live on when you first arrive if you decide that emigrating to Norway is for you.
Cons: Adjusting to cultural differences can be difficult
It’s said that Norwegians never complain, ever, about anything. With this in mind, a typical person from the U.S. who is of the easily affronted “let me speak to your manager” type is going to horrify a lot of people.
There’s also a slower pace of life in general inherent to Norway, so don’t expect the hustle and bustle of a London or New York when you set up shop in Oslo, for instance.
Another cultural challenge for many expats living in Norway is getting used to the cultural norm of not self-promoting or trying too hard to stand out.
Instead of following the stereotypical American mode of bulling your way into the spotlight at every opportunity, it’s incumbent on anyone wanting to make a go of living in Norway as a foreigner to study up on Jante’s Law.
Even as complicated and subtle as this aspect of Scandinavian culture is, it’s important to try to wrap your brain around the notion of putting the group first and demurring from being perceived as a braggart if you want to make an honest go of living and working in Norway.
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