A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Finland
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- Francois Bertrand
I found a former Helsinki expat who had recently moved back to Brazil, so we swapped all the important need-to-knows.
Life in Finland
- Finland’s education system is highly regarded worldwide and open to expat children.
- There is also a choice of international schools for expats’ children.
- Finding accommodation is best done online, with rent taking out a good chunk of your income.
- Finland is well-connected by buses, trains, and planes, as well as high-quality roads.
- When it comes to public transportation in the cities, though, only Helsinki offers a metro and tram system.
Education in Finland: A System Recognized Worldwide
If you are planning for life in Finland with small children, you should sign them up for daycare as soon as possible. This is because in some cities and neighborhoods there might be a queue. All residents have the right to send their kids to a municipally run daycare until they are old enough to start school. In addition to municipal daycare, there are also private centers (although they cost more).
In general, if you have children, you are lucky to be living in Finland. It is an excellent place for them to attend school. In fact, there are few other countries with such an impressive education system. What language a child should study in is, of course, a case by case question. However, if your child (or children) is young enough and if you are living in Finland for a while, it is recommended to enroll them in a public (i.e. state) as opposed to an independent institution.
Remarkably, kids attend school for fewer hours in Finland than in any other developed country. Living in Finland, they have more time for play, and they do not have to complete any standardized tests before their last year of school. And yet, this more relaxed approach to education yields some of the best results worldwide. The Finnish education system believes that life in Finland for children should be playful and relaxed. There is no need to stress them out at such a young age.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), continually reveals just how good Finnish institutions are. The assessment ranks the performance of schoolchildren in science, literacy, and math. In this triennial test, Finland has continuously scored very high (first worldwide in reading in 2000, first in reading and science in 2003, first in science in 2006, and second in science in 2009), with a slight dip in performance in 2012 (twelfth in math, sixth in reading, and fifth in science). This has made Finland’s education system a subject of study worldwide.
Education and Equality: Highly Valued Traits
Living in Finland, it is easier to get into medical school than it is into a master’s program in education! This reveals the elevated standards that are in place for teachers, and that, unlike in most other countries, society values teachers just as much as medical and legal professionals. The curricula that teachers have to follow are short; only two to three pages, and other than that, they can do what they want. In other words, the education system trusts them to teach.
In public schools, children learn the two official languages of Finland, Finnish and Swedish, plus English. This means that many Finns have a very good command of two foreign languages. They are also well fed as every child receives a free warm lunch. Living in Finland is sure to be enriching for expat kids!
With the exception of a handful of independent institutions (such as international, religious, and Steiner schools), there are no private schools in Finland. This is in part because equality is a governing concept for life in Finland.
Children start school the year they turn seven. Education in Finland is compulsory and the duration of comprehensive school is nine years. Classes are small with the average size of around 20 students. Finnish education recognizes that children learn differently and at different paces; so, teachers give students individual support.
A study by the OECD revealed that the differences between the strongest and weakest students in Finland are the smallest in the world. The Finnish education system aims for equality, and so, no matter where in Finland and no matter which school, the quality of education is the same. Thus, living in Finland can be extremely beneficial for expat children.
Enrolling Your Children in International Schools
There are international schools in several cities in Finland where English is the language of instruction. There are also institutions with instruction in French and German.
In Helsinki, a popular option is the International School of Helsinki. Kids are allowed to attend starting at the age of 3 and the school is divided between a Lower Section (for grades 5 and lower) and an Upper Section (from grades 6 to 12).
Also in Helsinki, Ressu Comprehensive School offers instruction in both English and Finnish, and it does not charge tuition. The English School also provides instruction in English and Finnish, but it does have tuition fees. École Française Jules Verne provides instruction in French and Deutsche Schule Helsinki in German.
Outside of Helsinki, some other international schools include Turku International School, the Finnish International School of Tampere, the International School of Vantaa, and Oulu International School.
Higher Education in Finland
Living in Finland comes with many opportunities for higher education, provided by universities and polytechnics. The former take a more academic and research based approach, while polytechnics are more vocational. However, only universities can award doctorate degrees. Neither charge tuition, with the exception of specific master’s programs. Expats living in Finland can access university programs in Finnish, Swedish, and English.
Helsinki is home to six universities and eight polytechnics. Many of the universities are specialized, such as the Hanken School of Economics, the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, and the Theatre Academy. The University of Helsinki ranked number 96 in the world according to the 2015/16 QS World University Rankings.
Finland: Housing, Healthcare, Wellbeing
Finding Accommodation in Finland
The internet is always a good starting point for house hunting. Some recommended websites for finding accommodation in Finland are Lumo (in English and Finnish), Etuovi (in English and Finnish), Jokakoti (in Finnish), Oikotie (in Finnish), and Vuokraovi (in English and Finnish).
Another resource are local newspapers in Finland; however, you need to understand Finnish.
It is more common to buy as opposed to rent housing in Finland. Most Finns own their homes and there are no restrictions on foreigners buying property (with the Province of Aland the only exception). Cities in Finland also administer rented housing. This option is often cheaper than renting privately. However, the city does not own enough apartments for everyone, so not everyone is eligible for this option.
In general, housing is expensive in Finland and even more so in Helsinki. The average household in Finland spends 22% of their income on accommodation.
Rental prices usually do not include electricity or gas, so the tenant often pays these directly. Sometimes water is not included in the rent either. When you’ve found your dream rental home, you have to pay a security deposit. The maximum amount is the monthly rent for three months.
One plus of living in Finland is that many apartments and houses have access to saunas. If you want to sweat it out in the sauna, you normally have to make a reservation in advance. Winter may be long in Finland, but the Finns certainly know how to handle it!
Living Healthy and Secure in the North
Finland has universal healthcare provided by Kela, the Finnish Social Insurance Institution. If you work in Finland or live there permanently, then Kela covers you.
To apply, fill in the online application or go to a Kela office. Once you have been approved, Kela sends you your new health card by post.
Chances are Kela is going to be your go-to for most things you need in Finland. Kela takes care of everything from student financial aid to rehabilitation, and from national pensions to unemployment security. In addition to all these social services, Kela is also responsible for healthcare.
The municipalities take care of healthcare services, and so for anything health-related, simply make an appointment with your local municipal health center.
Private health insurance is also an option, but most Finns stick to public insurance. However, if you do have private insurance, it will typically cover anything outside of the realm of public coverage.
Healthcare around the Clock
The emergency help number is 112 and is free of charge. Should you require information about healthcare at any time in Helsinki, call the 24-hour number 09 310 100 23.
The pharmacy (Apteekk) at Mannerheimintie in Helsinki has 24-hour service.
Kela covers some dental work. Municipal health centers have dental clinics, with centralized booking and information services (e.g. if living in Helsinki call 09 310 51400 between 08:00 and 15:00, Monday through Friday). Alternatively, you can make an appointment with a private dentist. The latter is more expensive, so first check with Kela to find out about being reimbursed.
Saunas: A Finn’s Second Home
There may only be 5.4 million people in Finland, but there are 3.3 million saunas! This says a lot about the Finnish lifestyle and its priorities. Historically, children were born in saunas and the sick were healed in the hot steam. Today, a sauna is a place to gather with friends or to relax alone.
The heat is therapeutic as it is believed to help muscles relax and for mental stress to evaporate like the water when it hits the sizzling rocks. You might encounter bunches of birch leaves in saunas as it is common practice to lightly beat the body with the leaves. This is believed to stimulate blood circulation.
Even though saunas are blissfully relaxing, don’t forget to take breaks. It is a good idea to leave the sauna every now and then to cool off under cold water.
In Finland, it is common practice to go to a sauna weekly. Women bathe with women and men bathe with men with the exception of families and good friends.
Transportation in Finland
Buses and Trains: Easily Accessible
Finland is the fifth largest country in Western Europe and its relatively large area is well connected by trains, buses, and high quality roads.
Trains connect all urban areas in Finland as well as many rural areas. There are 5,919 km of railways in Finland. In rural areas where there isn’t a train connection, there is usually a bus that then connects to the closest train station. The state ownedVRoperates trains in Finland. VR has anonline mapof major train stations in the country.
Convenient Driving in Finland
Finland has excellent roads and driving is a good way of getting around the country. However, this is less true of Helsinki where parking can be challenging and the majority of locals opt for public transportation or bikes instead.
From December to February, it is legally required to have snow tires on your car. You must use headlights at all times. Because of the severity of the winters, it is recommended to also have engine heaters. Also, watch out for elk and reindeer, especially at dusk. The legal BAC limit is 0.5.
The minimum legal driving age in Finland is 18. If your driving license was issued by an EU or EEA country, or a country that is part of the Vienna or Geneva Road Traffic Convention (note that you’ll need an official translation or international driver’s license in the latter cases), then you can drive for up to two years after becoming a permanent resident in Finland. Within this time frame, you can also apply for a Finnish license.
This is done at the offices of the Finnish Transport Safety Agency’s contractual service partner Ajovarma Oy. In addition to paying a fee, remember to bring your national driver’s license, an authorized translation, and, sometimes, a statement from a doctor confirming that you are healthy. Best call ahead to confirm which documents you need.
Driver’s licenses issued elsewhere than in an EU or EEA Member State or a Contracting State do not entitle you to drive motor vehicles in Finland. You have to apply for a Finnish driving license before being allowed to drive.
If you have a car in Finland, you also have to register it with theFinnish Transport Agency(Trafi).
Getting to Finland via Plane
Finland is well connected by planes and there are 76 airports with paved runways and an additional 72 without. The Helsinki-Vantaa airport is by far the largest airport in Finland. Helsinki has a second airport: Malmi.
There are six airports in northern Finland, thus making Lapland quite accessible.
Finnair is the largest airline in Finland. It has been in operation since 1923, which makes it one of the oldest operating airlines in the world.
Finding Your Way through the City
Helsinki is the only city in Finland to have a metro and it is in fact the most northern metro system in the world. First opened in 1982, the metro network is currently being expanded due to theHelsinki West Metro Project. This project includes building eight new stations that cover nearly 14 km and are estimated to open in 2016, with an additional 5 stations and 7 km planned to be completed by 2020. Helsinki is also the only city in Finland where trams are still in use.
Public transport connects Helsinki to Kirkkonummi, Sipoo, Vantaa, Espoo, and Kauniainen in the Greater Helsinki Area.Helsinki Region Transport (HRT) consists of trams, the metro, busses, commuter trains and even a ferry. Single and day tickets for periods of up to seven days as well as travel cards with seasonal or value tickets are available for the various regions and cover all modes of transport provided by the HRT.
The Helsinki Region Transport’s website has ajourney plannerand it even provides assistance in planning routes that combine public transport with cycling.
Tampere and Oulu both have extensive bus networks.
Taxis of course are also a reliable alternative in the cities around the country. Fare rates are metered and regulated by the government, with prices comparable to those in other Western European countries.
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- Francois Bertrand
I found a former Helsinki expat who had recently moved back to Brazil, so we swapped all the important need-to-knows.
- Maria Loura
Some information on InterNations helped me a great deal, and I'm sure other expats in Helsinki feel the same way.