Moving to Svalbard is an enticing thought for many, but the reality can be a real challenge. Let's take a detailed look at what living on Svalbard in the High Arctic is really like.
One of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas, much of Svalbard is true wilderness. The functional town Longyearbyen is surrounded by freezing fjords, glaciers and frozen tundra, and it attracts people with a true sense of adventure.
Perhaps then it's no surprise that over the last few years I've had several readers contact me about moving to Svalbard. I understand the appeal! I have long been fascinated by the remote archipelago.
Once I started to focus my publishing business on Norway, I knew I had to visit. I've now been to Svalbard three times, once in the darkness of winter, once when the sun returned, and once in the summer.
Table of Contents
Living in the High Arctic
On all three visits I had my journalist hat on and spoke to many people who live and work in Svalbard. Some of those people have since moved on, but their advice remains useful.
I've also pulled together a lot of information provided by the Governor of Svalbard and the Community Council in Longyearbyen, all of which is essential to know if you are even considering a move here.
That's because there are considerable challenges to life in such a remote area. But before we move on to that, let's take stock of where exactly we're talking about.
An Introduction to Svalbard
Svalbard, a group of islands in the High Arctic, represents one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas. Human life is concentrated in just a handful of settlements on the biggest island, Spitsbergen.
This remote wilderness of icy fjords, glaciers, and frozen tundra, is a place for true adventurers, but there are major challenges, not least the climate. Summer brings continuous sunlight, while winter is dark, with frequent snowstorms and avalanches.
Another unique aspect of Svalbard life is its polar bears, which are close enough to necessitate keeping doors unlocked for emergency shelter. People are required to carry a firearm when venturing outside Longyearbyen.
Governed under the Svalbard Treaty, the islands enjoy commercial rights extended to 46 signatory nations, with Norway appointing a Governor who acts as Chief of Police. Svalbard is a visa-free zone, but self-sufficiency is key due to limited job opportunities, and living here doesn't count towards residence in Norway.
It's good to understand the history of Svalbard, which defines much of everyday life today. Although whaling and sealing are distant memories, and coal mining has now all but ceased, all the previous industries have left their mark on Svalbard.
Today, the archipelago's economy is driven by a combination of science and research, and tourism. Most people moving to Svalbard will fall into one of these two categories.
Challenges of Life in Svalbard
The biggest challenge faced by anyone living on Svalbard is adjusting to the harsh climate.
While summers can be mild and snow-free, they come with permanent sunlight for months. In contrast, winters are permanently dark with snowstorms and avalanches common problems.
As a resident on Svalbard you are merely a guest of the islands' true citizens: polar bears. Although they do not commonly roam the streets of Longyearbyen, they do come close and many residents leave their doors unlocked to allow anyone to quickly get to safety.
Unless you are visiting as part of an organised tour, it is a requirement to carry a firearm – and to know how to use it – whenever leaving Longyearbyen. That's quite different from the rest of Norway!
Why Does Norway Govern Svalbard?
The first thing to understand is how Svalbard is governed. The islands are part of Norway but are covered by the Svalbard Treaty, which gives equal rights to engage in commercial activities to the 46 signatories.
The Norwegian Government appoints a Governor who also acts as Chief of Police. This role performed by this office of more than 30 people encompasses various responsibilities including overseeing rescue services, environmental issues, firearm licenses, and residency matters.
The governance of Svalbard, therefore, combines Norwegian authority within an international framework, making it a distinctive geopolitical entity.
How to Move to Svalbard
Technically, it's easy to move to Svalbard. That's because the archipelago is an entirely visa-free zone and you do not need a residence permit to live on Svalbard. But the reality is quite different.
The remote nature of the islands and limited employment opportunities mean that unless you have a job offer, you must be able to support yourself with your own funds.
It's also important to understand that time spent living in Svalbard does not count towards residence in Norway. That means that if you've lived in Svalbard for two years, those two years will not count towards a permanent residence application in Norway.
Longyearbyen: The Northernmost Capital
As the biggest settlement on the archipelago, Longyearbyen is where the majority of residents of Svalbard live, work and play.
Approximately 2,000 people live in the town, although the population fluctuates because of the large student population and the seasonal nature of tourism.
Longyearbyen Lokalstyre (Community Council) operates the school, kindergarten, cultural centre, cinema, sports hall, gallery, library, youth club, fire service, and the energy company.
It is also responsible for roads, water, waste management, sewerage and town planning. The Council is elected every four years.
Science and Research in Svalbard
Students and researchers make up a big proportion of Longyearbyen's population these days. The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) has become a global centre for Arctic research.
UNIS specialises in Arctic Biology, Arctic Geology, Arctic Geophysics and Arctic Technology. Everyone studying on Svalbard also takes training in Arctic safety at the UNIS Arctic Safety Centre.
Almost 750 students are based at UNIS, of which approximately 50% are affiliated with other Norwegian universities. The remainder are from international universities, with 43 countries represented.
Elsewhere on the arhcipelago, scientists from 11 countries are based at the Ny-Ålesund research centre.
Employment and Tax on Svalbard
Employment opportunities in Longyearbyen are limited, especially since the recent closure of most mining activities. Major employers include the Governor's Office, the Community Council, the University Centre in Svalbard, the school, and of course the tourism industry.
It is worth checking the job listings from the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) or contacting the above employers directly. Employment is always offered on a contract basis.
As a general rule, income tax on Svalbard is much lower than on the Norwegian mainland. It's just 8% for the majority of income, although very high earners do pay more. However, this tax saving is offset by a much higher cost of living.
Foreign citizens working for a Norwegian employer become members of the Norwegian National Insurance scheme just as if they worked in Oslo. An additional contribution of 7.9% is payable.
It's critical to fully understand these rules especially if you are a European citizen, as the EEA Agreement does not apply in Svalbard. This means certain benefits accrued here cannot be transferred to other EEA-countries. However, as a member of the Norwegian social security scheme, pension benefits are accrued.
If in any doubt, consult with an immigration lawyer in Norway, preferably one that specialises in Svalbard matters.
Starting your own business in Svalbard is possible. However, you must contact the Governors Office and Community Council in advance to understand the requirements, as they differ from mainland Norway.
Family Services & Healthcare on Svalbard
The school teaches lessons in English and Norwegian through to upper secondary level. There is also a kindergarten for children aged 1-5.
The community council's child and family welfare service provides support and assistance to children, young people and families who are having a difficult time at home.
Longyearbyen has a hospital staffed by professionals including GPs, nurses, a surgeon, dentist, physiotherapist and more. Stays are free for residents of the Nordic countries and for anyone covered by the Norwegian National Insurance scheme.
Everyone else will need comprehensive private insurance, or will need to pay for treatment. This will not be cheap!
Housing in Longyearbyen
Like what you read so far? Well, hold your horses, because there's a major hurdle to leap over first. Finding a house—or more realistically a room—is a big barrier.
Longyearbyen is a former mining town. As such, the majority of accommodation was built for mine workers and people providing services to them. Nowadays, the vast majority of homes are owned by the mine company, the local government (for their employees), or the university.
Very little private accommodation exists. What little there is gets rented very quickly, and often at eye-waveringly high rates. When I visited earlier this year, I spoke to people who had to share rooms or even sleep in storage rooms for weeks until accommodation became available.
The recent opening of large new UNIS student accommodation blocks has relieved the pressure on the private market to a certain extent. However, finding a place to live in Svalbard remains the biggest hurdle to moving there for most people.
Leisure Services in Longyearbyen
For such a small, remote community, there is a surprising amount going on in Svalbard, much of it managed by the Community Council.
For example, the modern kulturhus (Culture House) opened in 2010 and plays host to a cinema that shows more than 100 movies every year. It also houses a sizeable library, and a popular cafe.
Touring bands also appear from time to time in Longyearbyen! I was surprised to learn during my research that of Norway's best-known rock bands, Motorpsycho, had a gig planned.
Another key leisure facility is Svalbardhallen, where swimming, squash and gym training are all made possible.
A wide range of sports and social clubs operate throughout the year, covering such interests as ice hockey, photography, model planes, sailing, Irish dancing, and loads more.
The local newspaper Svalbardposten is produced weekly, with some articles in English. A print version in magazine format is available from the main store and select other outlets, while the online subscription remains popular with former residents.
Shopping in Svalbard
Many shops in Longyearbyen cater to tourists. Svalbardbutikken, part of the Coop chain, is definitely one for the locals.
Groceries, kitchen equipment, fresh foods, cosmetics and alcohol are all available and the store is open daily. As with mainland Norway, the alcohol store has shorter hours and is closed on Sundays.
Groceries are more expensive than on the mainland, with fresh foods particularly pricey. Although alcohol is sold duty-free, residents of Svalbard are subject to a quota system.
This system limits the amount of alcohol they can buy within any given month. Despite this, there are concerns from local politicans about the amount of alcohol consumed.
The Future of Svalbard
A 2016 white paper from the Norwegian government emphasised that Longyearbyen should be an attractive place for Norwegian families. There should be good and secure jobs provided, preferably many small businesses, and it will no longer be a company town.
The closure of most coal mining activity has raised questions about the viability of the community going forward. But investment does continue.
Most recently, Norway announced the closure of the coal-fired power plant in Longyearbyen. Diesel generators will be used as an interim solution until a fully sustainable system can be put into place.
Perhaps some of the answer for Svalbard lies in carefully planned, sustainable tourism. However, sustainable is the key word. Recently, the Norwegian government announced plans for a stricter regulation of the tour guide industry.
Interviews with Svalbard residents
Over the years, I have interviewed several people who call Svalbard their home for my podcast, the Life in Norway Show. Some of these people have since moved on, but the interviews remain essential listening for anyone interested in life on the archipelago. Here they are:
Ep. 62: Life as a Researcher on Svalbard: Peter Betlem from the University Centre in Svalbard talks about the challenges of life on the archipelago and about working as a research scientist. Listen here.
Ep. 25: Growing Food on Svalbard: When I visited in 2019, I spoke to Ben Vidmar who worked as a chef. He also had his own business aiming to solve one of the biggest headaches of life at 78 degrees north: obtaining fresh food while reducing waste. Listen here.
Ep. 23: Adventure Tourism in Svalbard: Long-term Longyearbyen resident and tour guide Anna Lena Ekeblad talked adventure tourism in Svalbard on a scenic drive around the settlement. Listen here.
FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Living on Svalbard
As you can see from the comments, many people from all over the world research life on the archipelago. How serious everyone is, I can’t say. But they sure do have plenty of questions.
Now, while I have never lived on the islands, I have visited there and know several people who live there. So, I’m doing my best to answer as many of them as possible right here.
How do I get a job on Svalbard?
This is detailed in the main article, above. Try Nav, the local newspaper, and Facebook groups about Svalbard. If you are a scientist or a student, try the University Centre UNIS.
Can you find me a job on Svalbard?
No, sorry. This page contains everything I know about living and working on Svalbard, so I'm not able to provide any further help or advice.
How do I travel to Svalbard?
Realistically, air travel is the only way to get to Svalbard. Regular scheduled flights are available from Oslo and Tromsø on the Norwegian mainland. Flights are not cheap, and given the popularity in tourism, they should be booked as far in advance as possible. Cruise ships do visit Svalbard but there is no regularly scheduled passenger ferry service from Norway.
Do I need a visa to visit Svalbard?
No. There are no restrictions on entering Svalbard. However, as almost all air traffic comes via Norway, you may need a visa to enter or transit through Norway.
Do I need a visa to live in Svalbard?
As detailed in the article above, anyone is free to move to Longyearbyen. However, you must be able to prove an income as there is little in the way of state welfare. Starting a business is fairly straightforward, but bear in mind it’s hard to find accommodation without employer assistance. Also see the above answer regarding transiting through Norway.
What languages are spoken in Svalbard?
On my three visits to Spitsbergen, I have heard every language imaginable. Norwegian is the official language of the administration in Longyearbyen, but English is a close second. There are many people living in Longyearbyen who speak no Norwegian. Given the Russian settlements on Svalbard, there are also several Russian speakers.
How expensive is life on Svalbard?
The archipelago is extremely remote, so everything must be flown or shipped in. This means items that may be low priced elsewhere can be surprisingly expensive. Fresh food and vegetables are particularly pricey in relation to mainland Norway. Also bear in mind that given the present housing shortage, rental accommodation is much more expensive than in Norway.