So you want to move to Iceland? Reykjavik is the city of Sigur Rós, breathtaking scenery, and an innovative tech and culture scene. It is also home to geothermal pools, long midsummer days, and little pollution.
It’s the hip place at the moment, for tourists and expats alike, and every day more and more people are arriving to make Iceland their second home.
But wait—before you go ahead and pack your bags, remember that life here is no fairytale. Prices are exorbitant, many jobs pay poorly, fresh produce is a distant memory and, for citizens outside the EU, immigration laws are strict.
Here’s what you need to know before moving to Iceland!
What to Expect
Iceland has the benefit of being smack-dab in between the Americas and Europe, and you can see a lot of the influences from both sides. Icelanders love their burgers and the latest Apple gadgets but also their Nordic fashion. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts right across the street from a creperie.
So chances are, you’ll feel a bit at home already!
The Kennitala: There’s a magical personal number called the kennitala- this is your ID number, similar to a social security number. Every registered resident of Iceland, temporary or permanent, has a kennitala, and you need one to do practically anything—open up a bank account, go to the doctor, borrow books from the library, etc.
Climate: Iceland is up near the Arctic Circle, so this means long days in the summer and long nights in the winter. Summer is the best time to visit, as most shops and roads are open and the countryside is ripe for exploring–but winter can be cozy with the Northern Lights!
In general, the weather changes dramatically day to day, and even hour to hour, giving rise to the local proverb: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.”
It generally doesn’t rise more than 65 degrees F even in summer, however—so be sure to pack a lot of hearty clothes and layers to keep yourself warm! A windbreaker is a must if you are venturing anywhere outside of the city.
Read Next: Tips for Traveling Iceland in the Spring
Safety: Iceland is incredibly safe. As a solo woman I often walked around the streets at night with no worry whatsoever.
Pools: Each town in Iceland has a hot pool and downtown Reykjavik has three! The Icelandic swimming pool is unique in that it is heated with geothermal energy and most of them are outdoors. So you can enjoy a steam bath even when it’s snowing!
Icelanders love to bring their families after work here to sit in the hot water and chat about latest politics.
Language: If you don’t speak Icelandic—don’t worry! Almost everyone in Reykjavik speaks English and you can get by even if you’re monolingual.
That being said, don’t be afraid to try your hand at Icelandic—it’s difficult, but a fun and beautiful language. You can sign up for classes at a language school or the University of Iceland.
Cost of Living: Say goodbye to product diversity because Iceland, located in the cold North far away from nearly everything, has limited selection. Other than lamb, seafood and dairy, most things need to be imported and so fruits and vegetables can be scarce or sometimes poor quality.
Naturally, this also means hefty prices.
Electronics, furniture, alcohol, and restaurants are all going to be costly. There are also high taxes, foreign currency limits and crazy rental prices you should prepare yourself for. That said, the grocery tab is still fair—so you’ve got that going for you!
Visas and Immigration
The standard tourist visa is valid for 90 days—so if your goal is a summer in Iceland, great. If you want to stay longer than 3 months, take note that it is very difficult to immigrate for US Citizens into Iceland. Ideally, you have dual citizenship—problem solved and no questions asked.
Otherwise, you have to go through the lengthy process of either obtaining a work permit, applying for university studies, or getting cozy with a spouse from Iceland or the EU/EEA.
Securing a job in Iceland is a challenge, as there are laws put in place that prioritize Iceland and EU citizens first. It helps if you have a specialized skill—if you’re a programmer or brain surgeon, great!
You’ll have better luck than most.
If not, your only hope is basically networking and personal connections, if you have any. Move to Iceland for a few months on a tourist visa and try to find a sponsor.
If you’re lucky enough to score a job, you must get the company to sponsor your work permit and you must receive said permit without being in the country—that means the company has to be willing to wait for you no matter how many weeks it takes to process.
The student visa is the easiest option, but it takes a while to set up.
International applications to the University of Iceland close around February each year, so if you miss the cut off, you have to apply again next year! You find out if you’re in around March or April, then once you have your acceptance letter, you can apply with the Directorate of Immigration for your student permit.
This permit requires a bunch of paperwork, including a bank statement and FBI background check, and it’s only valid for 6 months, so you have to apply again at each semester (unless you’re a Ph.D. candidate that is).
How to Find Accommodation
Accommodation is a challenge in Reykjavik! There’s a housing shortage and you are always going to compete with locals, students and other immigrants. Everyone wants to live in the 101 district (city center) where all the bars and top restaurants are—so if you’re one of them, expect to pay top dollar.
Single rooms can price up as much as 80,000 ISK, if not more. Vesturbæjar, just west of the city center, is another somewhat trendy neighborhood. If price is a factor, opt for the nearby yet significantly less-cost neighborhoods like 105. The cost is not much regulated and landlords can charge whatever they want.
Most importantly—if you see something—grab it! It will likely be gone within the day.
In addition, landlords are turning their places into major profit through Airbnb, pushing locals out on the street. There have been some recent legislature set in motion to change this, but so far, that’s the situation.
Reykjavik is so small you can practically walk everywhere downtown. Of course, if you live in the suburbs—Garðabær or Kópavogur, for instance, pick up a bus pass or a bike.
In the winter, bikes and bus traffic can slow down a lot, so do take that into account. If you want to travel anywhere else in Iceland, you have to have a car or a lot of patience to deal with the near-non-existent intercity buses.
The short of it: if you’re living downtown, stick to walking!
About the Expat Community
The good news is that there’s a thriving expat community! Young people from all over Europe, Asia and the Americas move to Iceland to live a laid-back lifestyle and earn the mullah.
Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, the winters are cold, but any hearty expat can weather through.
I highly recommend joining the handful of Facebook groups—here you can ask questions to veteran expats and find out the best hairdressers. The Facebook group called Away from Home – Living in Iceland is a good place to start!
There are tons of concerts, organized meet-ups, and events like board game nights and poetry readings to keep you occupied.
Other Helpful Tips
Currency: Give up your cash and checks—Icelanders only pay with card, even for the smallest things. The only thing that still takes cash officially is the bus.
Grocery Shopping: Do all your shopping early—grocery stores close around 6pm or so, and everything closes up for the holidays or bad weather.
Get Outdoors: Take advantage of the outdoors and the beautiful scenery while you’re here—there are several gorgeous hikes just 30 min from downtown, some easily accessible by bus.
Weatherproof: Bring lots of weatherproof clothes, rain boots, a windbreaker, and layering options to protect you from the moody and unpredictable Icelandic weather. Of course you can buy these in Iceland, the quality is quite high—but so is the price.