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Living on Svalbard

Snowscooter life in Svalbard

Moving to Svalbard is an enticing thought for many, but the reality can be a real challenge. We look in detail at what living on Svalbard is really like.

Over the last few years I've had a couple of readers contact me about moving to Svalbard. I understand the appeal! I have long been fascinated by the remote archipelago.

One of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas, Svalbard is true wilderness. The functional town Longyearbyen surrounded by freezing fjords, glaciers and frozen tundra attracts people with a true sense of adventure.

Life in the High North

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, check out this interview with permaculture expert Ben, a resident of Longyearbyen, for some insider tips. You can also listen to this podcast on Svalbard adventure tourism for more insider info.

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!

Polar bear sign under the northern lights in Svalbard

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.

Norway troll holding a flag

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.

Walking through Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard

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.

Read more: Flying to Svalbard

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 lessons I n 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.

Barentsberg in the winter
Barentsberg

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.

Leisure time

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.

Svalbard ptarmigan in winter coat
Svalbard ptarmigan. Photo: Omid Abolhasani

Touring bands also appear and 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 photography, model planes, sailing, Irish dancing, and loads more.

The local newspaper Svalbardposten is produced weekly, with some articles in English. You can also check out the English language publication, Ice People.

Shopping

Many shops in Longyearbyen cater to tourists. Svalbardbutikken, part of the Coop chain, is definitely one for the locals.

Coal miner sculpture and Lompen shopping centre in Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Lompen shopping centre, Longyearbyen

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. However, sustainable is the key word. Recently, the Norwegian government announced plans for a stricter regulation of the tour guide industry.

People gathering in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

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, try the University Centre UNIS.

Can you find me a job on Svalbard?

No.

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.

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.

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

37 Comments

  1. Hello! I’m Norwegian citizen living in UK. My wife have Indian passsport and she have EEA visa to stay with me in UK, do my wife need visa to travel with me to Norway?

  2. Living in Svalbard is a belt thighting situation & condition compare to the mainland of Norway. I am Jorey Terencio from Philippines, I am a graduate of Practical Nursing & a Professional Caregiver & i finished already my study on Basic Norsk. I am very willing & very interested to work in Svalbard as healthcare provider wherein i can use my Education, Training, knowledge & skills which is very needed to take care sick people & elderly. I would like to inquire how to apply a job in Svalbard & how can i get a job contract. Hoping to hear a good reply from you.

    Sincerely
    Jorey Terencio

  3. I am interested to move and to live in Svalbard
    what is the first step and how I and my family can be applied to live and to work in svalbard with a legal entery to Norway
    thank you

    1. Hello, my name is Aleksandar, I am from Serbia. I am pro basketball coach and I owned my private coffee. My wife is experienced nurse, so we would love to move and work on Svalbard. Is there anyone who can help?

  4. Hi, I’m looking for work on the island,someone can tell me a site where I can look for a job?
    I’m from Rome Italy and I would like to move to the island. Thanks.

  5. Hi, my business is online so am location independent and have no need of further employment. i am a british citizen from the UK currently residing in the tropics. i would like info on types of long term housing available and costs please?

    1. Most housing is company owned and there is very little in the way of a private market. For example, on Norway’s biggest property marketplaces there are currently no properties available to sale or for rent.

  6. Hello,

    I am a Deaf American looking for a way out of the United States. I have done my research, and it appears that Svalbard is the easiest region to relocate to. However, I have a few questions regarding the Svalbard island. What are prices of housing or apartment rentals there? What are Deaf rights like over there? Is there a job for someone like me, maybe in government offices or in a school? I have employment experience in Deaf education, and a degree in International Studies.

    1. Price of housing isn’t the issue (but they are expensive) so much as availability. Most property is company owned and private rental availability is rare. You have to appreciate that Longyearbyen is little more than a big village, albeit one with more public services than you would expect given that there isn’t a nearby city that offers them. Although there are jobs in Longyearbyen, I think you’ll find it very hard to find employment without an intermediate level of Norwegian, at the very least. However, you can of course try and all the information you need to get started is in the article above. I would suggest reading some of the articles in the local newspaper to get a feel for what life on Svalbard day-to-day is really like.

    1. Hi Harry,
      As per Norwegian Embassy Delhi , Indians must have C type Visa (Tourist Visa upto 90 days) to be in Oslo Norway (with that you may also travel in Norway or to other Schengen areas) and to Longyearbyen /Svalbard nobody needs any visa or permit. I believe , other people from rest countries need the visa to Oslo too (Exception – Norwegian citizens, EU citizens and other citizens like UK , US citizens etc. , who do not need visa to Schengen areas .
      All the best !

  7. Hello,
    I checked the official site (governor’s) but still wonder when I can take my cat with me to Svalbard. Could you please tell me when you know ?
    Thanks for reading me

  8. I visited Svalbard in August of 2018, landing in Longyearbyen and then taking a boat to Barentsburg and trekking back to Longyearbyen. I was utterly fascinated by Svalbard as it is like no place I have ever been…truly the edge of the world. On the boat to Barentsburg, I met a Russian man from Saint Petersburg who was there for the summer working as a tour guide. A seasonal job like this appeals to me and I am wondering how one finds themself working in such a position. Thanks for reading.

    1. Hello Ben…
      I’m indian and I have a indian passport.I want to go Svalbard and live there…please tell me all process….and tell me the ticket rate of flight of Svalbard from Norway….or the rate of ship ticket….Norway to Svalbard ..

  9. hi please anybody can advice me how to find a job in svalbard im working as a chef or sous chef any kitchen or restaurant job no problem thank you

  10. Hello am Emendack from Africa I came across this country Svalbard I really wish to visit as a tourist do I need a visa? and what are their immigration policy to enter as a tourist

  11. Hello am Emendack from Africa Cameroon I came across this country Svalbard I really wish to visit as a tourist do I need a visa? and what are their immigration policy to enter as a tourist

    1. Hello I am Moroccan. Can I go to Svalbard with a Moroccan passport and live there and work there?
      without visa??

    2. Hello, Farhan. I’m from Iraq, Sulaymaniyah, and the Norwegian authorities do not require a visa for entry to Svalbard, but if you have a visa requirement to enter Norway/the Schengen area, you must have a visa if you travel via Norway/the Schengen Area on your way to or from Svalbard.

  12. Hello am a Nigerian and I planned to move to svalbard and try to get a job there too,but as a Nigerian with my nigerian passport do I need to apply for a visa or not?

  13. I’m to establish a highest quality classical music festival in Svalbard. Know this kind as a hard boiled pro. and have some idea about Svlabarad, like the mines. Willing to settle down there with wy Russian/Jewish wife. Who would the people to contact? Please contact me at my e-mail.

  14. Great article, thanks. Like many others, I find Svalbard fascinating. I think it should be made very clear to readers that residence in Svalbard is not a pathway to residence in the EU. The Norwegian government has made that abundantly clear. I note that you did say that residence on Svalbard does not count as residence in Norway but I’d spell it out even more clearly.

  15. Hello sir/madam,
    May you please let me know if I am eligible to move to Svalbard or not with my Nepali passport? Many websites say that I can but how do I get the transit permission or the visa of Oslo, Norway as many told it requires? Do I really need to have visa of mainland Norway to get to Svalbard and to settle there?

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