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Expat Insider - The World Through Expat Eyes

Northern Europe: Life Is Good, but Making Friends Is Tough

While the quality of life and the clean air in this region are noteworthy, expats are not too impressed with the leisure options. And many struggle with making friends.

Top Findings 

  • None of the Northern European countries rank in the top 25 worldwide. 

  • The top-ranking destination in the region is Estonia (28th); Sweden ranks lowest (49th).  

  • Expats enjoy the quality of life throughout the region, with Finland even ranking 4th worldwide. 

  • It’s easier to feel at home in Estonia than in the other countries in the region. 

  • Digital services, such as cashless payments, are a highlight. 

Comparing Life in Northern Europe

None of the Northern European destinations that have made it into the survey — i.e., Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Estonia — rank in the top 25 worldwide. Estonia (28th) ranks highest overall, and Sweden (49th) ranks lowest out of 59 global destinations. However, they all rank in the top 20 worldwide for quality of life, with Finland (4th) and Denmark (10th) leading the way.

Two factors of the Quality of Life Index are particularly worth noting here: First is air quality, with Finland coming in first, Sweden third, Norway fifth, Estonia sixth, and Denmark in seventh place. The second factor where all these countries shine is the ease of making cashless payments, ranging from Denmark in first place to Sweden in ninth place. A Brazilian expat in Sweden appreciates the “digitalization of government departments”. She adds: “If you need anything, it is really clear, easy, and digital.”

Expats seem disappointed with Leisure Options, however. All countries in the region rank in the bottom 10 for this subcategory, except Estonia, which fares slightly better at 44th place. A British expat in Norway puts it quite simply: “There’s not much to do.”

When it comes to working abroad, two countries stand out in particular: Denmark ranks 5th and Norway 11th, coming in ahead of Estonia (17th), Sweden (20th), and Finland (24th). Denmark and Norway are global leaders in the Work & Leisure subcategory: Denmark ranks first for both working hours and work-life balance, while Norway ranks second for working hours and fifth for work-life balance. Expats view their work-life balance far less favorably in Estonia, which ranks 32nd for this factor.

Across these five Northern European countries, expats have a hard time settling in. Denmark ranks 57th out of 59 destinations in this index, with Sweden (53rd), Norway (51st), Finland (50th), and Estonia (43rd) not doing much better. Whether it’s about Feeling at Home or Finding Friends, the performance in these subcategories is similarly weak in the Northern European countries. All have bottom 10 rankings, although the exception, again, is Estonia, which places 35th when it comes to Feeling at Home — substantially higher than its neighbors. But Estonia still only ranks 48th for Finding Friends, so social isolation seems to be a common theme for expats throughout the region.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Expat Life

While 63% of expats globally said COVID-19 did not disrupt their relocation plans, the share of respondents who said the same in this region was more pronounced at around seven in ten. When it comes to personal travel, however, the pandemic did have an impact on expats in this region, particularly in some countries. While globally, 28% of respondents say that COVID-19 disrupted their personal travel, in Norway that figure is almost 10 percentage points higher at 37%. The picture in Denmark (35%) and Estonia (34%) is similar. Two countries in this region also stand out for their pandemic-related communication: around four in five expats in Finland (82%) and Denmark (81%), respectively, were very satisfied in this area (vs. 66% globally).


Norway: Relaxed, Peaceful & Safe…

In the Expat Insider 2021 survey, Norway lands in a below-average 38th place out of 59 destinations. On the plus side, it has great results in both the Working Abroad Index (11th) and the Quality of Life Index (12th). Expats even give Norway the second-best rating worldwide for their working hours (84% positive responses vs. 66% globally). Only those in Denmark are even happier with this factor. “I love the work-life balance and the focus on family life!” says a British expat in Stavanger. Another 82% of respondents are satisfied with the state of the local economy (vs. 62% globally), although they feel less positive about the local career opportunities (47% negative ratings vs. 33% globally). About one in three expats in Norway (32%) moved there for a work-related reason (vs. 36% globally), but a larger than usual share (26%) relocated for love, compared to just 12% worldwide. This might be one reason why some expats are now struggling career-wise.

I love the work-life balance and the focus on family life in Norway.

With regard to the local quality of life, expats in Norway especially appreciate the underlying factors of the Quality of the Environment (2nd), as well as the Safety & Security (7th) subcategory. An impressive 99% rate the natural environment positively (vs. 84% globally), and another 96% feel safe (vs. 84% globally). However, Leisure Options (54th) leave a lot to be desired. Nearly one in four expats (24%) judge the available leisure activities unfavorably (vs. 14% globally), and only 51% rate their own socializing and leisure activities positively (vs. 67% globally).

…but Hard to Afford & Make Friends

The dissatisfaction with leisure activities might be connected to Norway’s poor performance for the ease of settling in (51st). Expats find it difficult to find new friends — 54% rate this factor negatively, compared to 32% globally, and another 59% say it is hard to make local friends in particular (vs. 36% globally). A further 31% of survey respondents do not feel at home in the Norwegian culture (vs. 20% globally), and 27% think the local population is generally unfriendly (vs. 16% globally). “Norway is not a very social country, and making friends is hard,” an expat from Ghana shares. It is definitely not a cheap country either: Norway ranks 48th in the Personal Finance Index, and a quarter of respondents (25%) are not happy with their financial situation (vs. 19% globally). Moreover, three in five expats (60%) describe the local cost of living as too high, compared to 34% worldwide.


Sweden: Reserved Residents & High Expenses…

In the Expat Insider 2021 survey, Sweden narrowly escapes the bottom 10 in 49th place out of 59 destinations. It performs worst in the Ease of Settling Index (53rd), where it ends up among the ten worst-rated destinations in three out of four subcategories: Friendliness (56th), Feeling at Home (57th), and Finding Friends (59th). Sweden is the worst-ranking country for the ease of finding new friends. Three out of five expats (60%) find it hard to make new friends in Sweden, nearly twice the global average of 32%. “The local culture can be tough, with many unwritten rules and Swedes being notorious for being very reserved,” an expat from Guatemala shares. Actually, 34% find it difficult to get used to the Swedish culture, compared to 18% worldwide. These difficulties are not necessarily due to the language barrier: 79% think it is easy to live in Sweden without local language skills (vs. 54% globally), and about half (52%) speak Swedish quite or even very well.

The local culture can be tough in Sweden.

Moreover, expats are not exactly happy with the local cost of living and its impact on their personal finances. Sweden comes 48th out of 59 in the Cost of Living Index and 42nd in the Personal Finance Index. Half the respondents (50%) consider the cost of living too high (vs. 34% globally), and about one in five (19%) are not satisfied with their financial situation, the same as the global average (19%).

…with Work & the Quality of Life a Mixed Bag

On the plus side, Sweden does a lot better in the Working Abroad and Quality of Life Indices, placing 20th in each. Expats in Sweden appreciate the quality of the environment, the great digital infrastructure, the affordability of healthcare, and the transportation infrastructure. For example, the respondents consider the air quality to be the third-best worldwide (95% positive replies vs. 66% globally). They also vote Sweden into the top 5 for unrestricted access to online services (96% vs. 84% globally). Moreover, 92% rate the transportation infrastructure favorably (vs. 76% globally), and 76% describe healthcare as affordable (vs. 61% globally).

However, there are a few downsides. For instance, 22% of respondents are unhappy with the quality of medical care (vs. 14% globally). The results for working abroad are also a bit mixed. In the Work & Leisure subcategory, Sweden lands in 10th place with more than three out of four expats (76%) happy with their working hours (vs. 66% globally). Moreover, 72% rate the local economy positively (vs. 62% globally). However, only 47% are optimistic about the career opportunities, just a little more than the worldwide average (45%).


Denmark: Peaceful, Safe & Digitized…

Denmark lands in a below-average 37th place out of 59 in the Expat Insider 2021 survey. One of its strongest points is the quality of life (10th). It ranks among the top 10 in three subcategories of the Quality of Life Index, coming 3rd out of 59 for Digital Life, 4th for Safety & Security, and 8th for Health & Well-Being. Expats consider it the best destination for cashless payment options, with 97% rating this factor positively (vs. 83% globally). They also describe Denmark as peaceful (95% vs. 80% globally) and safe (95% vs. 84% globally). “I love the security and peace and quiet here,” says a US American expat. While respondents appreciate the air quality (88% positive replies vs. 66% globally), they are less happy with the natural environment: only 76% give it a positive rating (vs. 84% globally). Expats are happy with the offered healthcare, though: 85% consider it affordable (vs. 61% globally) — 63% even very much so (vs. 30% globally) — 78% are happy with its quality (vs. 71% globally).

I love the security and peace and quiet here in Denmark.

…with Generous Incomes & Great Work-Life Balance…

Denmark does surprisingly well in the Personal Finance Index (16th). About two in three expats (64%) are satisfied with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally), and 59% state that their disposable household income is more than enough to cover expenses (vs. 52% globally). This is surprising insofar as Denmark performs poorly in the Cost of Living Index (52nd): 58% are unhappy with the local cost of living (vs. 34% globally), but maybe their income is generous enough to make up for it. In fact, 38% of expats in Denmark have a gross yearly income of 100,000 USD or more (vs. 20% globally).

Denmark receives its best result in the Working Abroad Index (5th). It places first in the Work & Leisure subcategory for the fourth time in five years. Expats love their hygge and their work-life balance (80% positive replies vs. 66% globally). A further 87% rate the local economy positively (vs. 62% globally). Nevertheless, only 60% are happy with their job security (vs. 61% globally), while 65% are satisfied with their job in general (vs. 68% globally).

…but a Closed Culture, Too

It is the Ease of Settling In Index (57th) that drags Denmark’s overall ranking down. It ends up in the bottom 10 for Feeling at Home (55th), Friendliness (57th), and Finding Friends (58th). Denmark is the worst-rated destination for making local friends: 66% of expats find it difficult, compared to an average of 36%. Another 40% consider the Danish unfriendly towards foreign residents (vs. 18% globally), and 38% do not feel at home in the local culture (vs. 20% globally). Expats also struggle with learning the language (76% vs. 42% globally). In fact, 25% do not speak Danish at all (vs. 13% globally). “I dislike the very closed culture and the very difficult language. Danish society is not open to foreigners at all,” says an expat from Spain.


Finland: In the top 5 for Quality of Life…

Landing in 39th place out of 59 countries in the Expat Insider 2021 survey, Finland gets rather mixed results. Its ranking in the Quality of Life Index (4th) is excellent. Finland comes first in the Digital Life, Quality of the Environment, and Safety & Security subcategories. Most expats appreciate the unrestricted access to online services (95% vs. 84% globally), the cashless payment options (97% vs. 83% globally), and the easy-to-get high-speed internet access (91% vs. 79% globally). Moreover, 97% rate the air quality positively, compared to 66% worldwide, while not a single respondent (0%) gives the factor water and sanitation a negative rating (vs. 12% globally). Finland is also considered the most peaceful expat destination, as well as the second-safest one. An impressive 99% of expats feel safe in Finland (vs. 84% globally). They also benefit from a good transportation infrastructure (92% positive replies vs. 76% globally) and affordable healthcare (76% positive responses vs. 61% globally). However, Finland ranks among the bottom 10 for climate and weather (50th), and just 61% are happy with the local leisure options (vs. 72% globally).

…despite Few Career Options for Expats…

Finland’s results in the Working Abroad Index (24th) are less impressive, though it still does better than average. In the Work & Leisure subcategory (11th), it misses out on a place in the top 10. Still, three out of four expats (75%) are happy with their working hours and their work-life balance (vs. 66% each globally). They also view the state of the economy positively, with 79% giving it a favorable rating (vs. 62% globally). Despite this, they are pessimistic about the local career opportunities: 50% rate them negatively (vs. 33% globally). “I hate how hard it is to get a secure, well-paying job as a foreigner in Finland!” an expat from Estonia comments, while a respondent from Australia says: “If you do not speak Finnish, getting work is difficult, and you run the risk of being socially isolated.”

If you do not speak Finnish, getting work is difficult.

…and Struggles with Language & Culture

Finland ranks 50th out of 59 in the Ease of Settling Index, not just because of the language barrier. Actually, 75% of expats agree that you can get by without speaking the local language (vs. 54% globally) — which is fortunate, because 71% struggle with learning it (vs. 42% globally). Respondents also consider it hard to get used to the local culture (36% vs. 18% globally), and 57% say it is difficult to make local friends (vs. 36% globally). “The people are distant and not very friendly, though decent and kind once you get to know them,” says a Japanese expat. Lastly, Finland is infamous for its high cost of living (51st). Unsurprisingly, 54% consider it too high (vs. 34% globally). In the Personal Finance Index, Finland comes in a below-average 41st place.


Estonia: A Digital Society…

Ranking 28th out of 59 destinations, Estonia has the best results out of the five Northern European countries in the Expat Insider 2021 survey. It does best in the Quality of Life (16th) and Working Abroad (17th) Indices. Expats give Estonia especially high ratings in the Digital Life subcategory (2nd); only Finland (1st) ranks higher. For example, 92% are happy with the availability of government services online, 29 percentage points more than the global average of 63%. “From voting to signing documents online, Estonia implements a hassle-free approach to running errands,” says an expat from Hungary.

Estonia implements a hassle-free approach to running errands.

The respondents also enjoy the natural environment (97% positive replies vs. 84% globally) and feel generally safe in Estonia (96% vs. 84% globally). However, they are a bit less happy with the quality of medical care (71%, the same as the global average) — and definitely less satisfied with their travel opportunities: 71% rate them positively, compared to 84% worldwide. With regard to working abroad, expats in Estonia are happier with local career opportunities than those in other Northern European destinations. More than half (53%) rate them favorably, compared to 45% globally. Respondents are also generally satisfied with their working hours (70% vs. 66% globally) and the state of the economy (74% vs. 62% globally).

…with Salaries Too Low for Costs…

While Estonia does okay in the Cost of Living Index (23rd), especially compared to other countries in Northern Europe, it performs a lot worse in the Personal Finance Index (43rd). About two in three expats (64%) are satisfied with their financial situation, the same as the global average. However, just 45% think their disposable household income is more than what they need to cover expenses (vs. 52% globally). “The living costs are high in relation to the low salaries,” an expat from Austria explains. In fact, 75% have a yearly income of less than 50,000 USD, compared to 51% globally.

...and Unfriendly Locals & a Difficult Language

Just like the other expat destinations across Northern Europe, Estonia performs rather poorly with regard to the ease of settling in (43rd). About one in four (23%) do not feel at home in the local culture (vs. 20% globally), more than one in three (37%) agree that finding friends is hard (vs. 32% globally), and less than half (48%) describe the local population as generally friendly (vs. 69% globally). Only 16% of expats have mostly local friends (vs. 20% globally). This might be partly due to the language barrier: nearly seven in ten (68%) say the local language is difficult to learn (vs. 42% globally), and just 7% speak it very well (vs. 28% globally). “The language is hard, and there is a lack of materials to help adults learn,” says an expat from the UK.

Further Reading