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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.
Relocating to Finland
- Finnish people are known for their high regard for nature and outdoor activities.
- The capital Helsinki is the most popular destination for expats, as it offers many opportunities for work and leisure.
- Non-EU citizens — unless they hail from Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, or Norway — have to apply for a residence permit in order to work in Finland.
Finland, Suomi in Finnish, bridges East and West. Although it is part of Western Europe, its 1,313 km border with Russia and its Arctic climate make it quite distinct. Moving to Finland is both an exciting and promising choice for expats.
For a long time, Finland was an arena for both Sweden and Russia to flex their muscles in. Both neighbors ruled Finland for much of its history and Finland only became independent in 1917. Before that it was part of both the Russian Empire for 108 years and Sweden for 600 years. Ever since its independence, Finland has clearly shown the world that Northern Europe is much more than Scandinavia. If you are moving to Finland, this Nordic country surely won’t disappoint.
Helsinki, in particular, is a desirable expat location. The city offers competitive career opportunities, ample green space, and easy access to the wild wonderland that is much of Finland.
Blue and White: Finland’s Climate
The colors of blue and white decorate Finland’s flag. They also visually describe the country’s landscape. White represents the snow that blankets a fair share of the country come winter, while blue represents Finland’s lakes, all 187,888 of them.
The contrast between dark blue and soft white also summarizes the contrast of the seasons. Finland experiences the full drama of the four seasons. The 1,160 km that separates the very north from the very south means that the intensity of each season varies greatly throughout the country. Nonetheless, there are only a few other countries where people truly know just how dark winter can be and what it feels like when the sun doesn’t set.
Lapland is covered in snow for about half of the year. However, most expats who move to Finland settle further south where the snow season is much shorter.
The average temperature in winter ranges between 0°C and -35°C. Summer compensates for these cold temperatures with an average of 15°C to 25°C. Above the Arctic Circle, summer brings constant sun and further south in Helsinki, it barely sets. Twilight gives the sun a slight break late at night, but in summer you can expect sun in Helsinki even at 22:00!
Finland did not urbanize until the 1960s. This is one reason why Finns continue to be so strongly connected to nature. Moving to Finland is likely to increase the amount of time you spend in nature.
The concept of “Everyman’s Rights” (and every woman’s too) sums up the Finnish cultural attitude towards nature. This is an unwritten code that reflects a sparse population inhabiting a vast forested land. Essentially it means that everyone in Finland is welcome to use the land. As long as you aren’t on someone’s private property, wild berries are yours to pick and the forests are your playground for camping and canoeing.
Jokes and Food in Finland: An Acquired Taste?
In a survey conducted by the United Nations, Finland was ranked in the top five in the World Happiness Report 2016, underlining the high standards of living and social support that Finns are receiving. Those moving to Finland will discover both a dynamic culinary culture and a great sense of humor. When Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister of Italy, he made a few uncomplimentary remarks about Finnish food. In particular, he rolled his eyes at marinated reindeer in Finland. However, this particular dish is typical in Norwegian Lapland and even Alaska, but not in Finland.
The Finns did not forget. So when Kotipizza, the Finnish pizza chain, won the 2008 America’s Plate Pizza competition (and Italy came in second place), Kotipizza named their winning pizza after the Italian prime minister. Pizza Berlusconi has a rye and whole meal crust and is topped with mushrooms, red onion, and — much to Berlusconi’s chagrin — smoked reindeer. Look for it on menus after your move to Finland!
Finnish food, however, is much more than reindeer meat. It is very seasonal and it tells the story of being between Scandinavia and Russia. The sweet bread in the west and the rye in the east make it clear where Finland’s neighbors lie. The sea has been an invaluable resource for southern Finland and the woods and lakes for the north. Moving to Finland might introduce you to new foods such as wild Arctic berries, elk meat, and sweets like mämmi (an Easter pudding) and tippaleivät (May Day fritters).
Year Round Outdoor Activities
Due to its abundance in nature, there is no shortage of recreational activities in Finland, no matter the season. The Finnish winter might be colder than what you are used to, but don’t expect to be cuddled up inside all winter long waiting for warmer weather. A move to Finland will force you to closely follow the cycle of the seasons.
If you are moving to Finland, remember to pack warm outdoor clothes! Winter sports are a great way to survive the coldest season. Popular winter activities that keep you warm include skating, skiing, snowshoeing, and dog sledding. The bravest of Finns even go swimming in frozen lakes! This might sound extreme, but remember that Finland is the land of saunas.
Before the harsh winters, the Finnish land generously spoils its inhabitants with wild berries and mushrooms. It is common practice to celebrate autumn by pillaging the forests of their blueberries and lingonberries.
Spring brings with it longer days and more sunshine. Although it is possible to still go skiing in Lapland in the spring, in other parts of Finland, people shed their winter layers and take nature strolls to replenish their Vitamin D.
Summer is officially cottage season in Finland. Expats who move to Finland easily get into this summertime tradition. In the Lakeland region alone, there are nearly half a million cottages! These summer homes are venues for unwinding, gathering with friends, and celebrating the long summer days by swimming under the midnight sun. Lakeland provides an ideal setting for canoeing, barbecuing, and fishing, too.
Finland: Expat Destinations
At the beginning of 2016, foreign nationals made up around 12% of Helsinki’s population, making Finland’s capital an extremely popular choice for expats. Work, study, and family are the primary motives that bring expats to Finland. Other than the Greater Helsinki Area, popular expat destinations are Tampere and Oulu.
More than Just the Capital: Helsinki
Finland’s capital, Helsinki, is also its largest city and, as of 2015, has a population of around 620,000. Its neighboring body of water, the Baltic Sea, lends a lot of character to the city. Helsinki is based on the mainland, but an equal amount of the city spills onto islands, making it very much a coastal city.
Founded in 1550 by the Swedish King Gustav Vasa, Helsinki (Helsingfors in Swedish) was not always as important as it is today. Turku was the capital of Finland until 1812 when that title was handed over to Helsinki.
Helsinki has excellent schools, a dynamic cultural scene, and a healthy economy, all making it an attractive choice for expats. It is big enough to offer countless entertainment options and small enough to allow you to quickly access the sea and forget that you are in Finland’s largest city. It is no wonder that Helsinki often does well in the livable city indexes produced by Monocle Magazine and the Economist Intelligence Unit.
In 2012, Helsinki was the World Design Capital, a prestigious position delegated by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, and was only the third city to receive this delegation. This was no accident as Helsinki is very much a design conscious city. Marimekko, the well-known Finnish design company based in Helsinki, even gave the paper cups and napkins on Finnair a makeover in 2013. This is a true testament to how seriously Helsinki takes design.
In addition to design and art, Helsinki is a very active city. Cycling is an ideal way to get around.The Helsinki Region Transportwebsite even has a route planner for cycling in the Finnish capital. Sports, both indoor and outdoor, are also popular. The XV Olympics were held in Helsinki in 1952 and the city continues to be obsessed with sports today, football and hockey being the most popular.
Expat Destination Number One: The Greater Helsinki Area
Finland’s second largest city, Espoo, is part of the Greater Helsinki Area. It has a population of just over 260,000 and because it borders with Helsinki, it is possible to live in one city and work in the other. Public transportation efficiently connects the Greater Helsinki Area.
A lot of people who live in Espoo do indeed work in Helsinki. Several technology companies are based in Espoo and so some make the commute the other way around. Vantaa and Kauniainen are also part of the Greater Helsinki Area.
The Greater Helsinki Area combines urban living with wild nature, thus giving its inhabitants the best of both worlds. The capital’s urban core meets bucolic towns to make up the area. The population of the Greater Helsinki Area is about 1.4 million which means that roughly one in five Finns live in or next to the capital. If you are moving to Finland, you are most likely to also live in this area.
Going a Bit or a Lot More North: Tampere and Oulu
As an expat, Helsinki isn’t your only choice, however. Besides the Greater Helsinki Area, Tampere and Oulu are among the largest cities in Finland. These two cities both have populations around 200,000.
Tampere, essentially the third-largest city in Finland, is north-west of Helsinki about two hours by car. It straddles two massive lakes, which makes it feel like it is on the coast. Its industrial past has earned it its nickname: the Manchester of Finland. Industry is still important in Tampere and large companies such as John Deere Forestry, Nokia, and Metso all operate in the Tampere Region.
There are two universities and two polytechnics in Tampere, all of which collaborate with companies in the area. If you are a technology expert moving to Finland, Tampere might be a good destination for you. Tampere also has a lively cultural and restaurant scene and a large student population.
Oulu is the largest and most important city in Northern Finland. It has a university and a polytechnic and is quite well-known worldwide as a technology capital. There are two science parks in the area. This also makes it a popular destination with expats working in the IT sector. Oulu is just south of the Arctic Circle and it gives you a taste of Arctic life with wild berries in the summer and extreme darkness in the winter. Oulu also has some rock and roll edge to balance its status as an important IT center; it hosts the World Air-Guitar Championships every summer.
Finland: Visas and Registration
Note the Different Requirements for Visas and Permits
Planning a Short Visit of Up to Three Months?
Thanks to modern European mobility, citizens of the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein do not need a visa to visit Finland, and are even free to reside and work there for up to three months without a lot of paper work. Similarly, if you are a citizen of a visa-free country, then no visa is required to visit. On the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you can find a list stating which countries are visa-free and citizens of which countries are required to present a visa upon entering Finland.
If you do need a visa for your short stay, you will have to apply for it at your nearest Finnish mission or visa center. For more details on the application process, visa fees, et cetera, please refer to the visitor visa summary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Or Is It Going to Be a Longer Stay?
If you are a citizen of one of the European countries mentioned above and intend on staying in Finland for the long-term, then you need to register your right of residence at your local police during the first three months of your stay (see below). If you are a citizen of another country and plan to stay for more than three months in Finland and possibly even work there, then you have to apply for a residence permit.
There are several different residence permits available and which one you should apply for depends on the reason for your move to Finland. The following types of residence permits are available:
- self-employed person
- au pair
- working holiday
- other types of work that require a residence permit
- asylum seeker
- stable intimate relationship
You must pay a fee when you submit your application and these processing fees are relatively high. If you are applying for a resident permit for employed or self-employed persons, the fee is 500 EUR for a paper application and 450 EUR for an electronic application (as of 2016). Check the Finnish Immigration Service website for fees for other residence permits.
If you are self-employed, you can go ahead and apply for a residence permit. However, if your move to Finland is based on employment, then you need to have a job before you can apply for a residence permit.
Generally speaking, foreigners must apply for a residence permit at the Finnish embassy in their home countries. However, if you happen to find a job while visiting Finland on a tourist visa, it is possible to submit your application directly in Finland at a local police service point. The Finnish Immigration Service will then process it.
You can find all application forms on the Finnish Immigration Service’s website. If you submit an electronic application, you can check the status of your application on their website.
Permit A versus Permit B
Finland issues continuous residence permits (permit A) and temporary residence permits (permit B). It is possible to extend a temporary residence permit usually only a year at a time; whereas, one can extend a continuous residence permit for up to four years at a time. The nature of a person’s stay determines which permit the Immigration Board issues.
Registering in Finland
In Finland, everyone has a personal identification code. In order to get this code, you must register at your local register office. In Finnish it is called henkilötunnus and, in Swedish, personbeteckning. If you needed a permit to live in Finland, applying for your personal identification code can be done together with your residence permit application.
If you are staying in Finland temporarily but are working there, you also have to register for this personal identification code. If you plan to live permanently in Finland, you must register as a resident of Finland.
If you are moving to Finland with children, be sure to bring their birth certificates along. Also, if you are married, you need to bring your marriage certificate when you register. If you move to a new home, city, or even country, you have to inform the register office.
You must also apply for a tax card at your local tax office. Remember to bring your passport and residence permit with you.
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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.