Living in Sweden: The pros and cons of living in Sweden
What you need to know before moving to Sweden.
In the modern world, travel and staying connected when you’re away from your usual stomping grounds has never been easier. Even going on vacation never really means saying goodbye, what with Skype and FaceTime always at your fingertips. Even if you’d rather lie low during your precious week of chill time, you might not have a choice if your mom or your boss is persistent.
The good news is, if you’re a person who is interested in trying out life overseas on a more permanent basis, there has never been a better, more interconnected time to seamlessly shift into the expat life. And as more and more people open themselves up to such possibilities, Sweden is a nation that often finds its way to the top of the list of possible countries where they might want to relocate.
Beyond the famed natural beauty of Sweden’s snowy landscapes, magnificent fjords, world-class cities, and the Northern Lights—not to mention the natural beauty of its gorgeous citizens—the benefits of living in Sweden also include its reputation for quality of life.
Add to that a well-deserved reputation for Scandinavian orderliness, pristine cities, great public transportation, world-renowned social care, a prosperous economy, and Sweden’s perennially high standard of living, and it’s understandable why people from all over the world are interested in the possibility of opening a new life chapter by living in Sweden.
But what do you need to know about relocating to Sweden before you take the plunge? It may sound like the expat’s perfect fairy tale destination on the surface, but as with everything in life, the devil is in the details.
For people hailing from other parts of the world, a transition to living in Sweden can come as something of a shock in several ways. There are some cultural differences you should be aware of before migrating to Sweden, as well as legal and practical considerations, as well as the cost of living concerns.
So here is something of a primer to get you started on your journey toward relocating to Sweden and to give you an in-depth look at some of the most vital information you need to know!
A history of arms and men
As you learn about Scandinavia before migrating to Sweden, you could do worse than to think of Sweden, Denmark and Norway as three loving brothers, yet they’re also a trio that’s highly competitive and constantly squabbling. Their collective history is one of perpetually shifting alliances and wars as they have fought and schemed and bargained for supremacy over the centuries.
Even today, one thing you notice upon emigrating to Sweden is that people from each of the Scandinavian countries like to poke fun at their neighbours for even the slightest cultural or language differences — “differences” so minuscule they often leave foreigners scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss is about.
But one thing all three Scandinavian countries have always had in common is the sea, and Swedish history is no exception. The earliest records referring to Swedish warriors come from the Roman historian Tacitus who wrote of them as far back as 98 A.D., calling the Swedes (to him they were the “Suiones”) a fearsome and mighty tribe known not only for their “arms and men, but for their powerful fleet” as well.
While the area’s mythology and stories of kings and mighty warriors go back to the pre-Christian era, when most people think of the history of Sweden, they probably picture the Vikings, who came along somewhat later. The Swedish Viking Age lasted from about 800 A.D. to 1100 A.D., but during that time they accomplished some amazing feats.
Sweden-based warriors and traders sailed as far away as Russia, Constantinople, and even Baghdad. A band of Swedish Viking warriors was so admired by the Byzantine emperor Theophilos that he invited them to serve as his personal bodyguards, and they became known as the Varangian Guard. The Hagia Sophia in what is now Istanbul bears graffiti carved in Old Norse runes that was probably left by one of these Varangian guardsmen, reading “Halvdan carved these runes.”
A nation is born
A true nation of Sweden only first began to emerge in the 12th century, forming out of the Germanic tribal peoples of the area who were known collectively as the Norsemen. After the Black Plague took out some 30 percent of the population of Scandinavia, an emboldened confederation of European merchants called the Hanseatic League threatened the independence of Scandinavia, prompting the leaders of Norway, Denmark and Sweden to work together. They put aside their fraternal struggles for a time and formed the Kalmar Union in 1397.
But as became a common theme among the trio of Scandinavian nations throughout the years, peace could only last so long before the bickering broke out again. Sweden left the Union in 1523, and within a century had grown mightily in power and stature, expanding its territory to the point where it became the 3rd-largest nation in Europe, trailing only Spain and Russia.
At this time, Sweden controlled land in Germany, Poland, Lithuania and all of what is now Finland. By the early 1700s, they made the error of attempting to invade Russia, which was the high-water mark of the Swedish Empire. Its borders began to recede soon after.
However, peace, plenty—and the introduction of the potato—came with two predictable side effects: massive population growth and increased opportunities for trade. Both of these conveniently relied on Sweden’s grand shipbuilding tradition. Swedish traders sailed routes to the Far East and back, forming the Swedish East India Company, while ships bearing thousands of Swedish emigres sailed off in the opposite direction, heading for the U.S. The exodus was so vast that for a time, that up to 1 percent of the country’s population was shipping out every year.
Fast-forward to what is it like to live in Sweden today and you’ll find that the immigration tables have been turned, as up to 15 percent of the country’s population is foreign-born. Issues surrounding immigration and how best to assimilate new populations while at the same time respecting their beliefs and those of the native-born Swedes periodically complicate politics for people living in Sweden. Nonetheless, the standard of living in Sweden remains high, the country is quite prosperous, jobs are plentiful, and Sweden is known as one of the safest countries in the world.
Quick facts about living in Sweden
Total population of Sweden: 10,302,984.
Capital and largest city: Stockholm, pop. 972,647 (next largest: Gothenburg, Malmö, Uppsala).
Currency: Swedish Krone (SEK).
Land area: 173,860 sq miles (450,295 sq km).
Official language: Swedish, but English is widely spoken.
Climate: It depends. The south has mild winters and nearly balmy summers, whereas winters in the north are quite brutal. July avg. for the whole country ranges from 59º-63.5ºF (15º-17.5ºC) but summertime temperatures in the south in the 70s and 80s are not uncommon.
Benefits of living in Sweden
Beyond the joy of living in Sweden itself, which is one of the most beautiful countries in the world in terms of cleanliness and preservation of natural areas—not to mention being home to so many gorgeous, towering, blond-haired, blue-eyed people—there are a ton of other benefits that go along with relocating to Sweden. Perhaps the most logical place to start talking about the general benefits of living in Sweden is by talking about the, er, benefits of living in Sweden.
Cradle to grave care
Like all the Scandinavian countries, if you are living in Sweden you quickly find that this country prides itself on taking care of the health of its citizens — and its other residents as well. For those of us living in the English-speaking world, that most often gets translated as OMG TAXES!! whenever our politicians and media talking heads discuss Sweden.
But the simple truth is you genuinely get what you pay for here. Relocating to Sweden for most people from the U.S. is not only going to mean a bump in the quality and responsiveness of your healthcare but also that it ultimately costs you less than your private insurance currently does in the U.S.
It’s true, Swedish workers shell out a good chunk of their pay-check to cover healthcare and the other benefits they receive — up to a third of their pay in some cases. But as far as life in Sweden goes, what you get back in return more than makes up for it.
Considering that Sweden invests nearly ten percent of the nation’s GDP into healthcare, that makes sense. This means that everyone—including expats who have a legal residence card—gets incredible health coverage at a ridiculously low cost. Fees to see a doctor are nominal, and you have none of the maddening struggles we have in the States or other parts of the world wrangling with insurance companies to get them to pay for the care you need — and to which you are entitled. In fact, if you’re under 20, healthcare is completely free.
Beyond healthcare, there are also the benefits life in Sweden offers workers. Hey, new parents: how about 18 months of leave for both father and mother to take care of your newborn, with your job fully secured, waiting for you when you return? Can anyone from the U.K. or the U.S. even imagine such a workplace?
And that child you just had — you need not worry about paying for their education because your country and your fellow Swedes have your back: education is completely free.
Not only that, moving to Sweden gets you some of the most generous vacation time and sick leave in the world. So generous in fact that it can be inconvenient for visitors. You’ll find many businesses completely shut down for weeks at a time in the summer because everyone—from the boss to the lowliest stock-boy—is enjoying a month of paid vacation.
And that doesn’t even touch on what happens if you lose your job: labour unions are strong and the Swedish Work Environment Authority looks out for workers and has a strong hand in keeping companies from abusing their employees or firing them without cause. But if you still find yourself out of work for whatever reason, the state will take care of you comfortably until you can get back on your feet, no questions asked.
Equality and freedom
Another co-linked set of benefits that come with moving to Sweden to live and work is that it is one of the most equal countries in the world. Sweden ranks high on almost every measure of personal freedom that there is (in 2018 Sweden tied with Norway for the Number 1 slot on the Freedom House index), and of course Sweden has strong anti-discrimination legislation in place preventing bias based on gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation or functional abilities.
But beyond that, what you’ll find once you’re living in Sweden is that these kinds of discriminatory behaviours and attitudes are not only illegal in the workplace and in government facilities, they’re frowned upon and seen as unacceptable by the vast majority of people.
For instance, when it comes to gender equality, you’ll find upon moving to Sweden that Swedish women have a reputation for being fiercely independent. There has been many a befuddled man from another country who has trouble grasping this essential truth about Swedish society, a truth that is simply accepted as the norm there.
Another aspect of the egalitarian nature of Swedish society that you’ll notice right away upon relocating to Sweden is that life there is very flat — not in terms of a lack of mountains or being boring, but in terms of hierarchy and societal rank.
You’ll quickly learn after emigrating to Sweden that doctors, bosses, professors and even politicians are typically addressed by their first names. And circling back to the workplace for a moment, Casual Friday in many offices occurs Monday through Friday, with jeans and no tie being the norm for many, unless a high-stakes meeting or other important event is on the agenda.
Cost of living in Sweden
Of course, one of the first questions you should ask if you are thinking about relocating is what the cost of living in Sweden is like. The Scandinavian countries have a reputation for being pricey in comparison to many other Western European and other English-speaking countries, and with good reason. Hey, all those benefits you’re going to enjoy after emigrating to Sweden don’t come for free you know!
But the good news is that everything is relative. Sweden is the 16th-richest country in the world, and while that means lots of prices may be somewhat higher than you are accustomed to, it’s likely that the salaries are higher too — even after the government takes its slice of the pie. Another interesting tidbit: Sweden is the nation with the third-lowest income inequality in the world, so everybody gets to share in the bounty.
The first question many would-be expats ask is what is the average salary in Sweden, in order to get some perspective on what they might be able to expect.
According to figures from 2018-2019, the average salary in Sweden is SEK509,000 or about US$65,000, so that goes a long way toward offsetting the cost of living in Sweden. The country as a whole and especially the major cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo have robust job markets, especially in the IT, energy and media sectors.
Furthermore, if you do a little research, you’ll find that even in the capital Stockholm, Sweden’s cost of living isn’t that outrageous — in fact, prices are generally comparable to those of major U.S. cities. For instance, according to Expatistan, a site that compiles reported prices of items ranging from a beer to an apartment rental submitted by real-world consumers, the overall cost of living in Stockholm is 10 percent cheaper than that in Denver, 13 percent cheaper than in Los Angeles, and a whopping 32 percent cheaper than living in New York City.
If you’re thinking of starting your expat life by relocating to Sweden and you’re a non-EU citizen, be aware that there are some hoops you’ll have to jump through.
In typically organized Scandinavian fashion, the country of Sweden’s official website provides step-by-step guides on all the essential things you’ll need to know about how to move to Sweden, from looking for a job (you’ll need a job offer before you can apply for a work permit) to applying for a work permit, to finding a place to live and more.
If you are moving to Sweden without having secured a job already, take the time to get registered with the national employment service Arbetsformedlingen right away. Other expats have reported that being persistent and proactive when navigating this bureaucracy is key — don’t wait around to hear from them; contact your case officer early and often and you’ll up your chances of landing a job sooner.
9 Things you should know before moving to Sweden
1. The importance of Fika
The Swedish tradition of fika has become more and more appreciated around the world as people from all over embrace this coffee break that is oh so much more. Yes, it consists of taking a break at work or at home and enjoying a typically strong, black Swedish style coffee and a sweet cake or cinnamon bun of some sort.
But fika is also more ritualistic than that — it also has to do with communing with others, socializing, catching up with friends and family, and really taking the time to fully embrace your connections with others.
(Fun fact: the word fika is said to originate in a 19th-century Swedish slang word for coffee — from kaffi in Swedish, inverted you get fika!)
Another useful word to add to your dictionary before moving to Sweden is lagom, pronounced LAR-gohm. The sense of the word is about moderation, or “just the right amount.” It applies to just about every aspect of life, from the way you dress, to how your work performance is evaluated, to thanking people.
It’s a complex and subtle concept, one that takes years to fully grasp, but if you are relocating to Sweden it’s something you should be aware of, especially when your boss doesn’t heap effusive praise on you.
3. Winter is coming, and staying
Adapting to Swedish winters for expats from lower latitudes can come as something of a shock. Between December and March, temperatures regularly plummet to bone-chilling levels, and the sun behaves like a reclusive former celebrity, only showing itself reluctantly and rarely.
But the good news is the long winter and northerly location means you have plenty of opportunities to see the Northern Lights, hit the slopes, track moose and even build and sleep in an igloo!
4. The great Swedish outdoors
Tied in with getting outside in the winter when you’re emigrating to Sweden is the fact that Sweden is an outdoor playground. Fully 63 percent of the landmass of Sweden is forest, and outdoors opportunities abound.
And it’s not all about winter stuff either — Malmö on Sweden’s southern coast boasts some of the best beaches in the region. It’s not called the Scandinavian Copacabana without good reason!
5. Summertime and the living (in Sweden) is easy
As mentioned before, Swedes enjoy generous benefits packages that include what most people from English-speaking countries would regard as a TON of vacation time. They get a statutory minimum of 41 vacation days or five weeks.
And given the comparatively precious few days of real sunshine and warm weather you’ll get with life in Sweden, this means that lots of businesses shut down entirely for the month of July. This can apply to restaurants, shops and all kinds of businesses, so don’t be surprised to find shopping districts rather deserted in summer!
6. Punctuality is important
Perusing expat blogs about living in Sweden you’ll almost universally find references to times newbies embarrassed themselves by showing up late for something in Sweden — a huge no-no. From a casual fika to a business meeting, for Swedes, showing up early means on time, and on time means late. And
Odin help you if you show up ACTUALLY late…
Along with their penchant for punctuality, Swedes are also known for the delight they take in planning ahead. This cultural attention to detail is thought to be a driving factor in the success of Swedish businesses and transportation systems. If you’re moving to Sweden you’ll want to be well aware that it’s not uncommon for people to have their daily calendar planned out three or four months in advance, down to the last detail.
Also, you’ll find that group event planning is itself a group event, one that must take place in person, unlike what many in other English-speaking countries might routinely do in a casual manner via a Whatsapp group chat.
8. It’s easy to isolate
While reports of Scandinavian chilliness and emotional distance are probably exaggerated, there is some truth to the idea that it’s hard to get to know people there. Especially for a person who is thinking about emigrating to Sweden, it’s important to understand that integrating into Swedish society can be a challenge for an outsider.
Be sure to take advantage of meet-ups, seek out exchange groups on social media, and turn up at every social event you get invited to. Beyond the initial “getting to know you” phase, however, most expats find that once you’ve made friends with Swedish people, you’ll rarely find anyone more loyal, devoted and genuine!
9. Learn Swedish!
It’s widely known that in school Swedes learn English as a compulsory course. However, that doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to learning their language. Not only for politeness’ sake but also for more practical reasons. If you’re the only native English speaker in a group of Swedish people, you can probably expect them to speak their native language, naturally.
The more you know, the more apt you’ll be to feel a part of whatever is going on. Plus when it comes to connecting with people as an expat, communicating with them in their native language is kind of a necessary first step. Once you’re set on moving to Sweden and you’ve got an identity number, you can sign up for free Swedish classes provided by the government with Swedish for Immigrants (SFI).
All in all, embarking on a new life as an expat living in Sweden is a life-changing, epic journey. This unique culture and people are among the most interesting, innovative, and beautiful in the world, both inside and out.
And that doesn’t even take into account the gorgeous landscapes and seascapes that are everywhere in Sweden, nor the Northern Lights, the winter wonderland of the north, and the summer beaches to the south. Do yourself a favour and start planning your own journey and look into living in Sweden today!
Scandification: Discovering Scandinavia.
Scandification explores and celebrates the magic of Scandinavia. Stay tuned and we’ll bring the essence of Scandinavia to you.