Should you move to Sweden?

The week of the Brexit referendum result, everyone in the UK was googling their way into a new life abroad. You can fact check this on Google Trends, which shows significant traffic spikes for terms like “move to Germany“, “move to Australia“, “move to Spain“, “move to Canada“. And, of course, “move to Sweden“.

Google Trends result for people in the UK searching "move to Sweden" over the last 12 months.

Google Trends result for people in the UK searching “move to Sweden” over the last 12 months. That peak where the search term was getting twice as much traffic? The 19th-25th June.

After the initial shock wore off, the trend subsided to normal levels – but as we draw nearer to March 2017, when the Brexit process is expected to begin, those who are still searching are probably more serious about the prospect of striking out to a new land for the chance to retain their rights as citizens of the EU. There’s a solid number of people out there contemplating the question:

Should I move to Sweden from the UK?

If you are one of them, welcome. Get yourself a cup of tea and let’s figure it out.

I’ve previously written about some of the things you should know before moving to Sweden, but from a practical point of view, those observations don’t really tell the full story. Taking the leap and moving to a foreign country can be a huge risk, and you need more than anecdotes to figure out whether it’s the right thing for you. So I’ve tried to identify some of the key challenges and questions you need to ask yourself in order to make this decision.

Do you speak Swedish, or will you be moving with someone who does?

Obviously for most people the answer here is no. That doesn’t mean that you should write off the idea of moving, but I want to emphasise that learning the language matters.

Everyone seems to have a friend of a friend who lived in Stockholm for 20 years without learning Swedish and got along fine, but the truth is that in a lot of ways s/he probably didn’t. Being able to communicate with everyone at your English-speaking office and integrating into society are two quite different things. Even though most Swedes do speak English to a very high level, that doesn’t change the fact that the language that surrounds you every time you leave your home is a foreign one. If you’re planning to move to Sweden, and not just taking a sort of Brexistential crisis gap year, learning Swedish matters.

Luckily, there are things that can help you! Newcomers to Sweden can attend the free language course SFI (Svenska För Invandrare / Swedish For Immigrants) and depending on where you live you may be able to access other programmes such as Korta Vägen. Duolingo is also available in Swedish so you have no excuse not to start early.

When I first moved here I was focused on applying for jobs that only required English, not Swedish, and I thought I would more or less stop my formal learning after I got one of these jobs. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise that that didn’t happen: nine months of learning Swedish like it was my full time occupation gave me the grounding that enabled me to ultimately get a job where I use both languages.

I mention moving with someone who does speak Swedish because, while that won’t help with any of the above, it makes a huge difference when it comes to handling paperwork, utilities, and of course any interactions that may crop up with Swedes who don’t speak English. My friend Jennifer has recently written a couple of blog posts that capture the difficulty of trying to navigate things like rental contracts and customer service phone lines in a foreign language (in her case, German). So if you’re bringing a Swede along for the ride, all the better.

Are your skills in demand?

Getting a job in Sweden as a foreigner is not impossible. Far from it. I know some Brits who have had jobs lined up before they moved, some who landed on their feet and got a job offer within a month of arriving; it took me a year, but I got there too.

A lot of the time it comes down to: do you have any valuable skills that are in short supply? You have to be really honest with yourself about this. Things that do not count as in-demand skills include speaking native English (most younger Swedes are essentially fluent) and having a TEFL qualification (you still need to learn Swedish and get qualified as a teacher in Sweden to do any proper teaching jobs).

I trusted too much in the idea that my university education and years of professional experience would make me employable. Swedish employers tend to be wary of both work experience and education that was acquired outside of Sweden – although the situation is much harder for foreigners who haven’t moved from a culturally similar country like the UK. For a lot of people, one of the quickest ways to enter working life in Sweden is to get into “the system” by doing an additional degree at a Swedish university. It’s frustrating to take that step back, but it ends up being a shortcut compared to sitting at home applying for job after job.

Alternatively, learn to code. Sweden (and especially Stockholm) is full of tech startups and the demand for people who can code is enormous. This turned out to be the solution for a friend of mine who got an internship despite the fact she only knew a little programming; they gave her the time and tools to learn on the job because they so badly needed someone with those skills.

Do you have lots of money?

Again, not a prerequisite, but if your answers to the above two questions aren’t looking good then this is something you may need to consider.

When you register as a new resident in Sweden you have to give details of the basis upon which you have moved. This could be for example “to work”, “to study”, “due to a relationship with a Swedish citizen”. The rules and processes that then apply depend on your reasons for moving. If you register as someone who is moving to look for work then you only get the right of residency for up to six months. One way around this is to move as a “self sufficient” person – in other words, show that you have enough money to support yourself for a year or so (if I remember correctly, it was around £10,000 when I moved, but the tax authority Skatteverket seems to avoid disclosing a specific number, probably so that they can use their own discretion).

Wait a minute, you might be thinking. The UK hasn’t left the EU yet, and as an EU citizen you have the right to live and work wherever you like, no? Well, not really. The process of registering as a Swedish resident is what gets you your personnummer (a unique ID number), and without that you will struggle to participate normally in Swedish society. You can’t access the job centre without a personnummer, you can’t get things like a gym membership or a phone contract; you’ll find many doors shut in your face without it. Swedish bureaucracy is in many ways very efficient, but it relies heavily on the personnummer system, and without one you are living in a kind of limbo.

So do some research about how you might need to register when you move, and if necessary, start saving…

Are you expecting a socialist paradise?

One of the main reasons British people are drawn to the idea of moving to Sweden is its reputation as a kind of progressive utopia. Sweden regularly scores high in league tables for happiness, equality, quality of life, etc, and it’s undeniable that Swedish society is less divided and more equal than the UK.

That said, newcomers expecting an all-encompassing safety net may be disappointed. As I mentioned in a previous post, EU citizens moving to Sweden aren’t generally entitled to out-of-work benefits, but what can be really startling for Brits moving to Sweden is that neither health care or dental care are cost-free. If you visit the doctor, you pay each time up to a certain annual cap, after which your costs are covered. For the dentist, conversely, you get a certain amount in subsidy each year, after which you pay for the rest of the cost out of pocket.

Because of Sweden’s glowing reputation people also have a tendency to see it through rose-tinted glasses. It’s not true, for example, that Sweden has “officially introduced a six hour working day”, although this is a claim you can find repeated in many corners of the internet. A few companies are trialling shorter working hour schemes, but the vast majority of us are working 40 hours a week just like you.

Sweden offers fantastic quality of life and a distinctly egalitarian society compared with the UK and many other Western countries. It provides almost unrivalled parental leave and affordable childcare. Gender roles are more relaxed. There’s plenty to be excited about from a progressive point of view; just don’t let your expectations get raised too high.

Can you cope with  a 2:30pm sunset?

On the whole, Sweden’s climate is similar to the UK’s, but more so. (Fun fact: this also applies to cultural differences!).

Winter is colder, darker, and longer. Depending on where you live, you may encounter a lot of snow. One plus side to living in a country that gets a lot of snow is that people are prepared for it and the infrastructure doesn’t fall apart as soon as the first flakes fall. You buy your snow boots and you pull on your thermal leggings and you change your car tyres and you get on with it.

To be honest, you should count yourself lucky that you’re considering moving from a country where the winter is already extremely tiresome. It’s just the same here, but a bit more so.

The flip side to this is summer. Summer may not be much warmer in Sweden than it is in the UK, but the abundant accessibility of outdoor spaces like lakes and forests, along with long, light evenings, makes it very special. Long days spent next to a lake with barbeques and fika make it all worthwhile.

Are you prepared to try?

At the end of the day, all the downsides and difficulties I’ve mentioned here are overcomeable as long as you’re willing to hustle. Regardless of the route that leads you there, building a life in a foreign country takes a lot of effort. And if you’ve done your due diligence and feel that Sweden is where you want to be, then the likelihood is that you can make it happen. Just be prepared for the setbacks and challenges and trying along the way.

The verdict two years on

I moved to Uppsala in October 2014, so I’ve had time to see the good, the bad, and the ugly sides to relocating to Sweden. In this post I’ve tried to provide a bit of a reality check for people who are just starting to consider their options. But would I do it again, knowing what I know now?

In a heartbeat.

Leaving London was a real wrench that took a big emotional toll on me. When I first arrived, thoughts of returning were never far from my mind. Moving back to London was a backup plan if things didn’t work out here, and the first thing that came to mind when I considered what we might do after Andreas’s five-year PhD ended.

That’s not the case any more. My lifestyle in Sweden is a world away from anything I could have dreamt of back home. When I think about the fact that I can cycle to work in 10 minutes, that we own our own flat – you’d have to be monstrously rich to achieve that in London. But it’s not just that. The whole culture feels more geared towards people. In a society which emphasises lifting everyone up to a decent standard of living, very few people are monstrously rich. And most people can realistically aspire to own their own summer cottage by a Swedish lake.

On top of that, when I cast my glance towards the UK in the midst of Brexit fever,  it looks increasingly hostile and backwards-looking. There’s a clear signal from the government and the media that EU migrants are not wanted, and that’s what Andreas (who previously lived for 8 years in the UK, studying, working, paying taxes) would be. I didn’t move away to escape the garbage fire of British politics, but it’s giving me plenty of reasons to stay gone. If we hadn’t moved away already, I’m certain we would be making those plans right now.

So Sweden is our home for the foreseeable future, and for me, that feels like the right choice.

Have you moved to Sweden from the UK and want to add your own tips or insights? Comment below or contact me by email or on Twitter, and I’ll include your thoughts!

Fiona said:

Definitely agree with the troubles of not speaking Swedish and having legal shit to deal with. I had a lot of ~drama last year and it was a nightmare trying to deal with all the legislation shite. Be patient with all the forms and the fact that it isn’t always easy. In comparison to other places, there are a lot more people willing and able to help. Ask a friend to help you. Ask an expat in a Facebook group who has experience with it if you don’t have any friends yet. Offer them pizza and some drinks. And do your Swedish homework, it pays off in the end.

Personnummer – BE POLITE! I’ve heard so many horror stories of people being pissed at the system but then they tell me how they spoke to the people and it’s like, mate, you need to be polite. SO BASIC but omg i’ve heard so many shitty stories and I got mine in 2 weeks cause I was nice. True story.

Follow Fiona on Twitter, she is the coolest.

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14 thoughts on “Should you move to Sweden?

  1. Very interesting read. Thanks for sharing. As a Brit who moved to Sweden, (for love may I quote, not to escape brexit), I can see similarities in our stories. Especially around the point of needing to know Swedish or know someone that does… the bureaucratic systems are very complicated to navigate if your situation doesn’t follow the textbook examples.

    The eutopian dream that seems to be sold to the world isn’t exactly what it seems, but I’d still say life here is far more positive overall. My work life balance is vastly improved, and my optimism for being a working parent also has a breath of new life.

    One thing I would note is that this is coming from a white, relatively middle class male, from the home counties on the UK. I can imagine the experience would be very different for someone with “less privileged” traits.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Helen,
    It’s great to read your blog again. I’ve been in Sweden since August and my intention is to stay. I was a teacher in England for many years and was hoping to do some substitute work in an international school to get me out of the house now I’m in Sweden. I have been offered substitute work but because I haven’t been able to get my personnummer the school won’t give me any work as they can’t pay me. I also have enough funds to stay here independently but the UK won’t give me a S1 form and Skatterverget said the E111 isn’t any good. As you say without the number you are really shut out of society, I can’t even get Swedish lessons. Can you offer any advise?

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    • Hi Teresa, how frustrating. I have no idea what the process would be to challenge the decisions by the UK and/or Skatteverket (I got lucky with my application) but perhaps other people who’ve been in that situation will find this post and be able to help. I wonder if it is something the UK embassy in Sweden would be able to assist with?
      Would it be an option to take a university course and apply for your residency as a student? Or apply for residency as a jobseeker and then reapply as a worker once you start working at the school?
      Sorry not to be able to offer any more concrete advice! I hope you can find a solution.

      Like

    • Hi Teresa,

      I was in a similar situation, so maybe I can give you some tips.

      As a EU citizen (since Brexit is not yet effective) you have the right to take Swedish lessons for free. Check this website: http://www.kommers.se/In-English/EU-Citizens/Free-movement-for-EU-citizens/Without-a-Swedish-personal-identity-number-in-Sweden/

      In that page there is also some information that you can use to report to the EU commission about these issues.

      Also, even though you can’t get a personnummer, you can get a coordination number (a temporary personnummer) and with that the school can hire you and pay you. To get it you can go to Arbetsförmedlingen and ask to be registered as a job seeker. They will request that number for you at Skatteverket.

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  3. Thank you~ once again, a great article to read. My husband and I are retiring to Sweden (he’s a Swedish Finn) in 16 months from Northern California. I lived many years overseas (Spain), so know many of the aspects of making big moves such as this. As a bilingual (English-Spanish) language specialist, I am excited, though unexpectedly daunted, by learning Swedish, and my hesitation rather surprises me. We will be living in the countryside, and I hope that there will be access to classes somewhere relatively nearby. Your posts are read with much appreciation; I very much like the even-tempered approach to all you say. Keep writing! Cheers, Joana

    Like

  4. Interesting read! Just want to weigh in on one thing for anyone reading with a TESOL or TEFL certificate. I am not sure you can make a living on it but a TESOL certificate can get you work here. I worked as an English teacher a Folkuniversitet teaching adults and was also offered a job with Berliz teaching business English in Stockholm. It also helped in getting the job I have had for a year now as a librarian at a bilingual school. In short, you shouldn’t pin all your hopes on a million jobs lined up like you might in China or Eastern Europe, but having one of those certificates, as well as a few years teaching experience, can’t hurt.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi, Helen
    I am married to Swedish man and we are planning to move to Sweden, what company can you suggest are dependable and reliable honest to move our furnitures personal belongings

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    • Hi Theresa, unfortunately I can’t make any personal recommendations there as I didn’t bring any furniture and moved my belongings in suitcases on a few flights from the UK. I hope you can find a good solution. Good luck with your move!

      Like

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