Moving to Svalbard is an enticing thought for many, but the reality can be a real challenge.
Over the last few years I've had a couple of readers contact me about moving to Svalbard.
While I have no personal experience of living there, I did visit earlier this year and spoke to many people who call the islands their home. I am also able to share some of the information provided by the Governor of Svalbard and the Community Council in Longyearbyen.
Before I get started, you can also read this interview with permaculture expert Ben, a resident of Longyearbyen, for some more insider tips.
Challenges of life on 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 gun – and to know how to use it – whenever leaving Longyearbyen. That's quite different from the rest of Norway!
Who runs 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. The office of 37 people has control over the rescue services, marriages and divorces, environmental issues, firearm licenses and residence.
Norway, but not
The archipelago is an entirely visa-free zone and you do not need a residence permit to live on Svalbard.
But due to the remote nature of the islands and limited employment opportunities, you must be able to support yourself with your own funds if you are not moving with a job offer.
It's important to understand that residence in Svalbard does not count towards residence in Norway.
The northernmost capital
As the biggest settlement on the archipelago, Longyearbyen is where the majority of residents of Svalbard live, work and play.
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.
Employment and tax on the archipelago
Employment opportunities in Longyearbyen are limited, especially since the recent closure of most mining activities. 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 on the Norwegian mainland at just 8%, but this is offset but 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 8.2% 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. As a member of the National Insurance scheme, pension benefits are accrued.
Starting your own business is possible, but you must contact the Governors Office and Community Council in advance to understand the requirements.
Family services & healthcare
The school teaches 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!
Finding somewhere to live
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. You can read more about the situation here.
For such a small, remote community, there is a surprising amount going on in Svalbard, much of it managed by the Community Council. The modern kulturhus (Culture House) opened in 2010 and plays host to a cinema that shows more than 100 movies every year.
Touring bands also appear and I was surprised to learn during my research that of Norway's best-known rock bands, Motorpsycho, will be playing here in September.
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 photography, model planes, sailing, Irish dancing, and loads more. The local newspaper Svalbardposten is produced weekly, with some articles in English.
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 (although as with the rest of Norway, you cannot buy alcohol on Sundays). Groceries are more expensive than on the mainland, with fresh foods particularly pricey.
Although alcohol is duty-free, residents of Svalbard are subject to a quota system. This 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. Perhaps the answer lies in carefully planned, sustainable tourism.