If you are just curious about life in Norway or are considering a move to this beautiful country, below is a list of facts we have grown to know, some we love, since settling in Oslo.
Photo from Norwegian constitution day celebration, May 17
After being here a year I feel like I’ve gotten to know this place very well. That said, some days I also feel like I don’t understand it at all. While on the surface Norway can seem somewhat similar to Australia or the United States, I assure you that the culture is quite vastly different. I am constantly getting used to things here, which is, of course, the nature of the life of any expat. Though some of the facts listed have definitely been more challenging than others, none of what is listed below is neither good nor bad, just simply the way life is here in Norway.
1. The honesty policy
This is definitely one of the nicest things about living here for me. People seem to genuinely trust each other and sometimes I feel like I am living in a village instead of a city. Nowhere else in the world would I not hesitate to leave my bag at the table in a cafe while I go up to order a coffee. You can drop or leave behind scarves, hats, high end jackets, groceries, and even identification cards and go back two hours later to find it still sitting there. I have even heard a example of this via another expat, having paid cash at the dentist but the office not have any change. Instead of giving this person a hard time about it, the dental office just took the largest bill they had and let them pay the rest on the next visit.
2. Taxes everywhere
In Norway you will constantly be paying taxes whether you are aware of them or not. This starts with the 25 per cent value-added tax (VAT or moms; 14 per cent for food and drink). Then there are property taxes, death (inheritance) taxes, fuel taxes, luxury taxes, TV taxes, new car taxes, income taxes (at least 28 percent, well over 40 percent) and the wealth tax (1.1 per cent on worldwide assets).
3. It can be difficult to be economical.
Forget about buying staple goods in bulk. Price competition is rare and importing things is not always a solution because of the VAT (see above).
4. You will pay A LOT more for vitamins.
Norway has extremely restrictive supplement regulations. High-dose vitamins require a prescription and the prices for the ones that are sold over the counter are high. If you’re like me and take a lot of different vitamins, it’s going to hit your pocketbook. A normal sized pack of 200 mg Vitamin C tablets, for example, will cost around US$25. On a positive note, the quality of the supplements sold in Norway is tightly regulated. I usually request family or friends planning on visiting to bring them for me in bulk.
5. EVERYTHING associated with cars and driving is expensive.
From exchanging your licence to the price of a car, to the taxes and fuel costs, driving is expensive in Norway. You have the annual motor vehicle tax, periodic road-worthiness tests, different tires for different seasons and large fines for speeding. Despite having a good income, we have decided that it’s too cost prohibitive to purchase a car given the unknown amount of time we will spend here. Plus, the public transportation here is legit amazing and we really have found no use for a car other than for far a way ski trips, which then there is the option of renting.
6. Things can be very efficient here.
While some processes will seem slow, especially when dealing with government, many are fast, efficient and electronic. Norway was one of the first to implement the chip card and is quickly becoming a cashless society, where electronic banking and debit cards are fully integrated for easy bill payments. Because of the high cost to businesses when hiring employees, you’ll find that many interactions are streamlined. A place where this efficiency won’t be found is at the supermarket, where you’ll often line up for awhile because there are so few people working the checkout counters.
7. You will want to learn Norwegian.
Many Norwegians speak English, but that doesn’t mean they all want to. You won’t have much trouble at the shops or when obtaining basic services, but you won’t get much further than that. Much will depend on where you work and the culture there – In such a closed culture, speaking English will keep you that much more outside of it. In a Norwegian company, such as Ben’s company, most of the employees will want to speak Norwegian in social situations, as well as in meetings. This is true even when the work is done in English.
Also, your mail from companies in Norway will be in Norwegian. You will also encounter other non-English speaking foreigners to whom you may only be able to communicate in Norwegian. If you attend parties and social events, many people will be speaking Norwegian even if there are large numbers of English speakers present. So be sure to try and learn some basics as this is normal life here.
Photo taken from Norsk Folkemuseum, at Bygdøy
8.Sunday is for rest.
Sunday has always been a day I look forward to, but since moving to Norway it is now my ultimate favorite. Almost no Norwegians work on Sundays, unless they work Downtown in the shops or restaurants. This is very much a day for relaxing at home with family or getting outside into the forest. Business hours are generally Monday through Saturday, but most places either close by 3pm or are completely closed on Saturdays. In our area, nothing is open at all on Sunday including grocery stores. Only the smallest supermarkets like Joker is open. This also goes for the Vinmonopolet (the liquor store,). You will only have until 3pm on Saturday to grab any liquor or wine you wish to have for the evening on Sunday.
9. Norway is a great place to be a parent.
As we are planning to start a family, I have been researching this and looking into the benefits more than ever. Basically, if you are paying taxes in Norway, the government will look after your children from the moment of conception. All your doctor’s appointments for pregnancy will be free if you see professionals in the public system. A variety of benefits are available, including the pregnancy benefit and the parental benefit that provides you with income during maternity and paternity leave. These are generous – 100 per cent for 47 weeks or 80 per cent for 57 weeks, and they can be shared between the parents. Also, family allowances help to pay for the costs of raising a child until he or she turns 18. If you look after your young child at home or they go to barnehagen (kindergarten) less than 20 hours a week, you are eligible to receive a ‘cash-for-care’ benefit. If you’re happy with public schools, elementary education is free from birth to age 16. University fees seldom exceed 500 kr per semester (that’s less than US$100). Additionally, a variety of free counselling, welfare, mediation and women’s services are available for those with children. Of course, if you don’t have children, you’ll be paying for these services anyway through your taxes.
10. Getting correct answers to your questions can be difficult.
I have endless frustration when trying to get answers, especially from government offices. This doesn’t always happen, but often I may get a answer from one person and, if this doesn’t sound right or make sense with the information I do have on hand, I might call back for a second opinion. This second opinion can often vary from the first; and sometimes it’s a completely different answer. I’ve also found, and this is very important, that you have to ask a lot of questions because people won’t automatically tell you things. You may have a question about one part of something, but there will be additional information that could be helpful. Unless you ask about that specific information, however, it may not be given to you. This is not an intentional slight or anything like that, I’ve just noticed that it seems to be a cultural difference. We are now used to working with a checklist of sorts when providing information and being as thorough as possible. That isn’t always thought of here in Norway so just be sure to be thorough yourself in your inquiries.
11. Trade unions and collective agreements make a difference.
Norway does not have a minimum wage. Instead, numerous trade unions exist across many professions and enterprises. They look after their members’ interests and fight for improvements in pay and working conditions by creating collective agreements. If your workplace is bound by such an agreement, you will generally get paid more and have a better work environment. If the agreement has been given general application, its provisions will also apply to foreign workers and non-members.
12. Going out is expensive
Moving to Norway was a bit of a shock to our wallets. To give you some perspective here are some percentage comparisons for U.S. based cities; living in Oslo is roughly 36% more expensive than Austin, TX, 42% more than Columbus, Ohio, 14% more than Oakland, California, and only 5% more expensive than living in New York City. Restaurants, alcohol, fuel, and accommodation seem to be the most costly. So for two 30 something’s with no children in Oslo, we learned fairly quickly that a night out for drinks and dinner can rack up quickly. The last time we went out for a meal of pizza and one beer each, we paid NOK 630 (USD $80). The meal was delicious and enjoyable for sure, but it was not any better than what I could make at home for a lot less. Fast food burgers at one of our favorite joints Munchies start at NOK 106 (USD $13) each, and a pint of good craft beer starts at about NOK 110 (USD $14). That’s high by anyone’s standards. Basically, you really cannot get a beer out for less than NOK 80 ($10). Going to the liquor store is a cheaper alternative, but not by much in the end. For locals, these prices are affordable with the wages on offer. People don’t seem too concerned with the costs going about their daily business and no one talks about how overpriced things are. This is just the way it is here and it’s best to just not think about it too much.
Hiking in the forests just by our home
You can roam and camp wherever you want, literally. In Norway, outdoor recreation has become a major part of national identity, and is established by law. The right to roam, also called allemannsretten (the right of access) is a traditional right, and since the 50’s it has also been part of the Outdoor Recreation Act. It ensures that everybody gets to experience nature, even on larger privately owned areas – as long as you pick up your rubbish and show respect for nature. The right to roam applies to open country, sometimes also known as “unfenced land”, which is land that is not cultivated. In Norway, the term covers most shores, bogs, forests and mountains. It does not apply to “fenced land”, which is private, and includes cultivated land. However you do have access to fields and meadows from 15 October to 30 April when the ground is frozen or covered with snow. And as long as you keep at least 150 meters away from the nearest inhabited house or cabin, you’re free to put up your tent anywhere.
14. Holidays are taken very seriously here.
Employees get five weeks of holidays per year, three of which can be taken consecutively over the summer period – forget about getting anything done in the summer because everyone will be on holiday. There are a few school holiday periods throughout the year and sometimes it can feel like there is a lot more play than work going on in Norway. They even stagger the school holiday periods from region to region so that the ski resorts don’t get overrun all at once. If anything else frustrates you about Norwegian systems, you’ll smile at how organized vacation is.
To really experience and enjoy life here in Norway, friluftsliv is a necessity (pronounced free-loofts-liv) – and one which I personally believe all need to incorporate into their lives to live most happily. This Norwegian word has come to embody Norway’s cultural enchantment with nature. It doesn’t translate easily to English, but the basic spirit of friluftsliv hides inside all of us – the word literally means “free air life” in Norwegian and it is a term that is used often to describe a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature. This word and getting out into nature is a prominent philosophy that plays a vital role in all Norwegian life as well as children’s education. There is some flexibility in friluftsliv, and one consistent tenet of the philosophy is that exploring nature shouldn’t be complicated. The free air life, therefore, doesn’t depend on expensive equipment or glamping accessories that can create walls between us and the wild. Whether it’s a rugged mountain hike or a lazy walk in the park, friluftsliv is a minimalist communion between humans and their habitats. And as with most kinds of cultural heritage, it only counts as culture if you pass it on. Since the U.S ranks 20 spots behind Norway in global happiness ratings, maybe it’s time to rekindle an American spirit of friluftsliv.