(If you’re thinking of moving, read this post too: Should you move to Sweden?)
“Moving to Sweden” seems to have become the UK’s equivalent of “moving to Canada” – the threat made so frequently by US liberals under the Bush administration.
Predictably, as the results of the 2015 general election came in, Twitter filled with “I’m moving to Sweden!” declarations. I could only smile wryly. A few years ago I could easily have been among that horde. We middle-class lefties hold up Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular, as the ultimate model of doing things right. Gender equality, social security, quality of life: on paper Sweden appears a socialist utopia.
But like any utopian dream, the reality doesn’t quite match up to expectations. Despite our ostensible freedom as citizens of the EU to travel, live and work wherever we like, moving to Sweden can be fraught with challenges and reality checks. So much so that when I came across this article over the weekend, “20 things to know before moving to Sweden“, I read it with less of a wry smile and more of a glare.
Fools! I thought. How dare you suggest that the biggest difficulty an immigrant in Sweden will face is learning to keep their plastic bags from the supermarket.
So I thought I’d write my own list, drawing on my experiences and those of the other immigrants I’ve befriended. Here are a few things you should really know if you’re thinking about moving to Sweden.
1. You need a plan to get a person number
If you don’t know what a person number is, go back to square 1 of “researching moving to Sweden”. It’s no exaggeration to say that this ten digit number is the key to unlocking life in Sweden. You need it for everything: to get a phone contract, to get help from the job centre, even to get a loyalty card for your favourite shop.
Getting a job offer in Sweden before you move is far and away the best thing you can do to make the immigration process go smoothly. A job gets you a person number automatically. Of course, unless your skills are in particularly high demand, getting a job offer from overseas is no small feat. If it doesn’t look feasible, then at the very least you need a plan.
To get a person number, you need to be able to prove that you are either working or studying in Sweden, or that you have enough money in savings to support yourself for a while. The uncomfortable truth is that I bought my way into Swedish society. I was lucky that I had a decent amount in savings: without it, I would have been locked out of the system for months.
So if you’re really thinking about moving to Sweden, first figure out how you will get your person number – and don’t rely on a job offer appearing from thin air once you’ve moved!
2. Racism exists here too
Sweden is renowned as a land of tolerance and equality, and in a lot of ways it is, but it’s also a place where a UKIP-esque anti-immigration party polled at 13% in last year’s general election. Immigration has jumped in recent years and around 15% of Sweden’s inhabitants are now foreign-born, causing a lot of anxiety to Swedes who are used to a more homogeneous society.
As a white native English speaker I’m in just about the most privileged position an immigrant in Sweden can be, but broach the subject of racism with anyone who looks remotely foreign and they’re bound to have some stories for you. One of my colleagues on Korta Vägen, an Egyptian man, told me how one day he was helping a friend move into a new flat when one of the neighbours poked her head out of her door. “Are you moving in?” she asked. “No, no,” he replied, all deference and politeness, “just helping a friend.” “Good,” she said, and shut the door.
3. It’s oh so quiet
One of the first things that really struck me when I moved to Uppsala was how little people spoke to each other in everyday life. I had moved from London – not exactly known for its sense of camaraderie – but the difference was nonetheless palpable. If you hold a door open for someone, you may not get a thanks. If you are blocking someone’s way in the supermarket, they will say nothing but stand and stare at you until you move. If you try to start a conversation on the bus, they’ll look at you like you’re insane.
Swedish people are generally closed-off and keep themselves to themselves, which can be challenging when it comes to making friends in your new home. I’ve heard a Swede’s friendship compared to a bottle of ketchup: you can expend all your effort trying to get a single drop and fail, but wait long enough and it all pours out and they’ll open up to you completely. Apparently.
4. You are not entitled to benefits
If you’re thinking of moving from within the EU, you might assume that you get a certain amount of state support while you search for a job. Until recently there were very few hurdles for European citizens wishing to claim benefits in the UK (this, admittedly, changed under the Coalition government and is changing further under the Tories) so it can come as a surprise to find that Sweden, with its extensive welfare state, doesn’t make any exceptions for its European neighbours.
For your basic jobseeker’s allowance you have to have worked in Sweden for at least 6 months of the previous year. If you come to Sweden as a refugee rather than an immigrant, different rules apply and you’re entitled to a certain amount of financial support.
A couple of bright spots: you can get a small amount of financial support as a participant in certain programmes intended to make you more employable – like the course I’m currently enrolled on, Korta Vägen – and the Swedish For Immigrants language course is completely free
5. There is no Amazon
Amazon does not operate in Sweden. Can you remember life before Amazon? When you had to buy things from actual shops at their full retail price? That is how we live here in Sweden. I know. It’s messed up.
6. Life is harder if you don’t speak English
The original “20 things to know” list said learning Swedish helps with life in Sweden. This is self-evidently true, but a lot of highly educated, non-English-speaking immigrants find themselves locked out from job opportunities or academic courses even when they have mastered Swedish.
On the other hand, don’t assume that being a native English speaker will make you inherently employable or that you can teach English as a back up plan. You may be in for a shock when you realise that most English teachers in schools double up with another subject – usually Swedish.
7. No one who works for a government agency has the slightest clue what they’re doing and the only way to get anything done is to go and see them in person
Thought you could fill out your paperwork online, over the phone or by post? HAHAHA. Nope, off to the tax agency / job centre / immigration office you trot. And you’ll soon learn to accept “I don’t know” as an answer to any question you might have about the system, just like a real Swede.
8. Your work is your identity
Sweden has the archetypal Protestant work ethic and it’s taken for granted that everyone works, wants to work, and continues working after having children (once they’ve made use of their generous parental leave). For many of us this is nothing unusual, but I remember a middle-aged woman from the US describing the puzzled reactions she got from other parents at the school gate when she said that she was a housewife. That’s not really a thing in Sweden.
While we might be used to asking and answering the question “what do you do?”, somehow in Sweden it all seems to be taken a bit more seriously. I soon learned that brushing it off with typical British self-deprecation (“well, not much at the moment really”) didn’t get a great reaction. Here, what you do is considered a key element of who you are – it gives people a way to make sense of you. The sooner you can answer that question confidently, the more accepted you’ll feel.
9. “You can’t sit with us”: a Swede’s greatest fear
In Sweden, the consensus rules. You can trace this communal mentality back to the country’s peasant farming days, when villagers had to band together to help each other survive cold winters, infectious diseases, and other general dangers involved with being a peasant. In 2015 it manifests itself in a number of ways.
Take work. In a Swedish workplace, being part of a group that works well together is considered to be the most important thing above all else. It’s why many foreigners (including myself) spend a long time messing up cover letters for job applications. They focus on showing why they are the best possible candidate rather than showing what they can bring to the group. Similarly, a meeting at work is less likely to involve airing opposing points of view and resolving a conflict – instead it’s about maintaining consensus.
The difference is subtle, but once you have got your head around it, you can start to understand all kinds of things about Swedish culture. The worst kind of punishment in Sweden is to be excluded from the group.
It’s something that Swedes themselves struggle to see. After hearing this phenomenon explained in a lecture, I tried to paraphrase it for Andreas back at home. “I don’t know,” he said, unconvinced… until he recalled something he’d read in the news recently. A politician had gone against the party line in a vote and as a result of this, he claimed, his colleagues had been bullying him. How? By ignoring him in the fika room.
10. It’s a great place to live
I know this post has focused on some of the negatives of moving, but despite all the challenges, I still feel good about building a future in Sweden. That quality of life that we all envy from the UK is real. Living in Sweden means the opportunity to be part of a fairer, more inclusive society. Where once I assumed that I would be moving back to London as soon as possible, now I’m starting to feel settled and becoming more integrated here.
So if you are thinking of moving to Sweden, yes, there are a few things you should know beyond “they love their coffee!”. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. With the right skills and a solid plan you might just be able to find your own place in this beautiful, fika-loving, 450,000km² peasant village.