Living in Norway is fantastic in so many ways, but it's important to understand the whole picture.
In a previous blog, I wrote about 9 upsides of my first year in Norway. While it’s been a great experience, Norway isn’t all sunshine and roses. In fact, sometimes it seems like there’s hardly any sunshine at all.
So, to provide a balanced view, here are the nine most difficult parts of my first year here. More importantly, I’ve provided links and advice that I feel will be very useful for those who are interested in moving to Norway.
1. Finding work
It took me over 3 frantic months and almost one hundred applications to get an interview, and I have a pretty decent CV. That said, using Finn.no is not super effective and I have written more about how to go about the job search process in Trondheim.
Finding work in Norway can be extremely difficult. With such a highly educated and skilled population, it’s hard to carve out a place for yourself. In addition, Norwegian companies tend to “hire for life” because it is almost impossible to fire someone here, with the exception of extenuating circumstances.
This means that in order to hire you, companies will want to be very certain that you are going to stick around. Hiring and training new people is expensive and they need to be sure they’ll get a positive return on investing in you.
To add to this, if you are applying as a skilled worker, the companies must pay a minimum salary of NOK 412 600 if you have a Masters and NOK 382 900 if you have a Bachelors degree. This is to ensure that all immigrants receive equal pay for equal work on the same level as all Norwegians. This can be a huge obstacle since many people may only receive their first job offers from smaller companies or startups. For more info, check the UDI page.
In Norway, 32 percent of the population has a higher education. The competition for jobs is intense and although most Norwegians would deny it, this is a highly nationalistic country. This is often made even more difficult by the fact that extremely few of those foreigners seeking jobs here have any proficiency in speaking, writing and understanding Norwegian.
Simply put, if you can’t speak the language, it’s hard for most companies to hire you. Language is often the biggest barrier to finding work because even though English is spoken and understood by almost everyone here, Norwegian is the language used in business.
Summary: The odds are stacked against you but not unbeatable if you are committed: speaking norsk is an important skill, most people here are highly educated, Norwegians tend to hire their own and you must meet many UDI immigration requirements for employment.
Do your homework before you move here and be sure to maximize your chances by networking, attending events and volunteering. Make use of every possible opportunity to get in front of decision makers and hiring managers directly. I will try to write another blog soon about finding work in Norway, since this is a very common question topic from many people.
2. Getting a driving license
Ok, I’m just going to come out and say it… this one sucks. I have been driving for 15 years and I failed the driving test here… which means I now have to take a written test, a bunch of practical courses and then redo the driving test which will cost me a total of about $2,000 USD. That’s right, it is extremely expensive to get a license here. Ouch!!!
If you are not from an EU-member country, you generally have one year from the date that you receive residency to trade in your driving license for a Norwegian one… and you ONLY get one attempt. After that first year or first attempt, you must take some very expensive courses and a difficult theoretical written exam before trying again.
To start, you must first sign up with the Norwegian road service Statens Vegvesen and carefully review all pertinent information on their website. In Norway, driving is a privilege and not a right. You will be graded very carefully. If you take the test in an automatic car, you can ONLY drive automatic cars, which is problematic because most vehicles here are manual.
I failed mostly because I did not have enough practice driving manual vehicles, which led me to be a little nervous and forget some things. So, if you choose to take the test in a manual car, be sure that you are very proficient. There are also lots of roundabouts here, so practice driving on those often.
You can also practice with a local driving school. They are often familiar with people trying to trade in a license. It is worth the money spent for an instructor to pass the test on the first time. Simply google search for driving schools in your area and shop around for the one that suits you best.
Summary: Getting a driver’s license in Norway can be a very expensive ($2000+) and time consuming process if you fail on your first attempt. Practice plenty and if you are going to drive a manual car, ensure you are proficient. Driving schools can be an excellent place to get feedback and practice… remember, the real test is one-try only. Start getting your documents in order and begin to visit the Statens Vegvesen near you as soon as you arrive.
3. Clearing the UDI immigration hurdles
UDI is the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration and they are initially responsible for all immigration-related matters. To be honest, I have had nothing but great experiences with them. They are polite and helpful. However, they also have a job to do and they do not like to waste time. If you call or visit their office, have notes on what you would like to discuss and have all of your paperwork neatly prepared in a folder.
Moving to Norway is not easy; however, it is not necessarily difficult either. In fact, my first application for residency was denied due to a minor error on my part and it almost caused me severe problems.
All of the information you will need is clearly provided on the UDI website so be sure to review that thoroughly. If you need to contact and speak with someone, it usually takes about 20-30minutes of waiting but they are generally positive and helpful on the phone.
Whether you are moving here for work, family, study, asylum, or other purposes, these are the folks who will handle all of that. There is a fair amount of paperwork for immigration so be sure to complete the checklists provided for your specific needs.
Summary: UDI is not bad at all, even though I’m sure many people have had some bad experiences from time to time. They are strict but law is law for a reason. Read properly, learn everything you need, prepare detailed questions, follow the instructions and keep all of your documents neatly ordered and you should have no problems.
4. Learning the language
Learning new languages is never easy. I’ve covered in the “finding a job” section above that norsk is the language of business here. Therefore, it will be important for you to study and learn as quickly as possible. There are several ways to do this.
Visit your local library. The libraries have a wealthy selection of language books, guides, CDs, and other resources. Even as a non-resident, it is easy to get a library card. Just bring a photo ID and ask the librarian. In addition, many libraries offer free “språk café” courses where you can come and speak norsk with other people who are learning. They generally split everyone up into beginner, medium and advanced groups. Norwegian libraries also offer free computers where you can use the internet or language software. The big benefit of this is that these courses are free; however, the drawback is that they usually take place during work hours.
NTNU offers a great online norsk course for free. Simply follow that hyperlink, browse around and begin learning. There are several chapters of material, vocabulary, exams, listening exercises, grammar and other useful tools. The upside here is that it’s free and you can do it from home. The downside is that without a personal instructor, your learning pace may be a bit slower.
The Norwegian Folk University offers language courses from beginner to intermediate and advanced for a variety of different purposes and skills. These are in-person classroom type lessons with instructors. Simply select your location, find the course appropriate for you, sign up and begin attending classes on your chosen start date at the location given. Courses generally cost approximately NOK 4750 in Trondheim or NOK 5500 in Oslo. If you want to find out which course is right for you, you can take this online self-assesment exam, which I highly recommend.
Summary: Learning the language doesn’t have to be expensive and it can fit into your schedule. It’s not the easiest language to learn, especially with all the different dialects, but it’s not the hardest either. Get out there and start doing whatever it takes to learn quickly. It will pay dividends in the long-run.
5. The high cost of living
Norway is an expensive country to live in and I’m not going to cover in-depth economics here. However, the disparities in income are also much smaller than in most parts of the world. As a co-worker of mine likes to say, “In Norway, everything you need is cheap and everything you want is expensive. In the US, everything you need is expensive and everything you want is cheap.”
A recent report shows that Norway has the second highest prices of food in Europe and the absolute highest prices for alcohol and tobacco. Norwegians commonly head to Sweden for things like candy, alcohol and tobacco or to other countries, such as the US, to purchase luxury items.
Nonetheless, some things, such as frozen salmon are usually as cheap as about a dollar per filet. So, if you choose wisely and plan healthy meals, it’s not bad at all. I believe that I spend about the same in a month here on groceries as I did while living in the USA but my food selection is much more limited also.
Keep in mind that salary wages here are generally pretty high to match the cost of living. Norway is well known for providing a “livable wage” but this also means that for instance a hair cut costs around $50. In addition, about 30% of the average paycheck goes towards taxes.
Going out for dinner or drinks or to the movies is rare, at least for my fiancé and I. But, we spend all of our time hiking, skiing, biking, fishing or otherwise out in nature exploring so it doesn’t bother us. Likewise, for most people who really enjoy dining out or other things, there always seems to be room in the budget somehow.
Also, I’m not a food critic by any means but it’s fair to say that Norwegian food is relatively bland. It’s hard to find really ripe fruits or vegetables year-round and the selection is smaller. There are some really tasty traditional dishes but there’s definitely a reason why half of Norway eats tacos every Friday.
Expensive food with a limited selection in most stores is definitely a downside to living here sometimes. In particular, alcohol and tobacco are notoriously expensive, but I’ll cover that below.
Summary: Yes, Norway is very expensive. However, the pay is generally quite good and the income inequality is much lower than in most countries. It is not at all hard to get by on an average wage but you will likely have to be a bit more careful with how many nights a week you go out partying.
6. It's difficult to make friends
I consider myself a pretty friendly guy… I talk to random strangers, sit next to people even when there are open seats on the bus and I pretty much always have an easy time making friends. It’s a bit harder in Norway. People here are not rude but they’re not outgoing around people they don’t know. It is a very conservative culture in social settings.
Luckily, my fiancé is from here and I have made friends with all of her friends and significant others. I also work at an awesome startup which easily netted me 16 new close companions. But, to be honest, that’s about it. Since I’m not out partying much, I don’t meet many people in town.
I’m not a student so I don’t make tons of classroom pals either. I don’t play a recreational sport and most of the things I do are kind of loner activities like skiing, biking and fishing. So, I would definitely say that making friends here has been harder.
In the US, it’s common for everyone to go out for drinks together or hold a huge barbecue and invite 20-30 people or have a pool party or setup a beach volleyball tournament but that stuff doesn’t really happen so much here. Katrine and I try at least once a month to invite everyone over for a barbecue, camping trip, game night or whatever else we can come up with but we usually invite about 20 and end up with 4.
It can indeed be a bit lonely sometimes and I definitely miss striking up conversations with random strangers (that doesn’t work out well here). However, the friends that I have made are really great people of incredible quality and character. So, what more could you really ask for?
Summary: Don’t let Norway change you. Be outgoing, fun and spontaneous. Just like everywhere else in the world, people here want to make friends… they’re just a bit shyer about it. Don’t give up. Be kind, be genuine, share a smile, laugh a lot and it will all work itself out. You will quickly find that friends here travel in packs, much like grade school… so all you’ve gotta do is find some ones you like and slowly nudge your way into the circle. Bonus points if you like to ski, because that makes it much easier.
7. Adjusting to the rain and cold temperatures
Coming from warm and sunny California to Norway has been a bit of a change in terms of weather. It’s currently August in Norway and we’ve had average temperatures ranging from 7-23 degrees (45-73 degrees F) here in Trondheim for the month.
We get half a year of lots of sunshine and half a year with lots of darkness. It can be depressing in winter if you don’t keep on track with your fitness and with finding things to keep active. I’ve written before about my thoughts on winter in Norway. The summers can be equally unpredictable with some very warm and sunny days and sometimes weeks at a time with nothing but rain and cold. It seems like summer here never fully comes, it just kind of teases and then turns back into winter again.
For all of the rain and cold, Norwegians have a clever saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Part of the problem though is that clothes are expensive and you need just about one of everything. I’ve got 3 different rain jackets, several winter coats of different thickness, pants for every occasion and everything else you could imagine. When you live for the outdoors and the weather is unpredictable, it’s worth it to buy what you need and enjoy yourself rather than staying at home complaining because the weather sucks, but it sure gets expensive!
The worst time of year is usually late October to mid-December because it’s just non-stop freezing rain and if you bike to work like I do, that gets a bit old fast. The cold, to be honest, is usually a good thing because it means snow. Snow not only means skiing but it also means less darkness as the fresh white powder reflects light and creates a beautiful glow.
Summary: It’s always easy to bitch about the weather, no matter where you live. Get the right equipment and don’t let mother nature stop you from enjoying… well, mother nature.
8. The cost and availability of alcohol and tobacco
In the US, I loooove to drink good beer. So many selections, pretty good prices, who doesn’t like to crack a cold one? Well, in Norway it really does get expensive fast and although the craft brewing is on the rise here, the selection is still minimal.
A single 12oz cheap beer in the store will cost you about $2 and in a pub about $6. A nice beer will cost about $5 in the store and around $12-15 in a pub.
In addition, it is not legal to sell alcohol above 4.7% ABV in stores. Anything over that, you have to head to the vinmonopolet (wine and liquor store). The prices there are pretty high as well but the selection is usually decent. My usual work-around is to pick up 3 liters of wine and a bottle of scotch at the duty free every time I take an international flight.
On the upside, I drink much less beer in Norway and spend much less money on alcohol than I do in the states. On the downside, every time I go back to the US I feel like I’ve got a lot of catching up to do and usually make up for all the tasty libations I’ve missed out on here.
As for tobacco, smoking is relatively uncommon but snus (smokeless tobacco) is very common. I don’t do either and I’m not familiar with the pricing but I do know that it’s about half the price in Sweden.
Summary: Norway is the most expensive country in Europe to buy alcohol and tobacco. That’s not to say there’s not lots of drinking but it’ll definitely put a dent in your wallet.
9. Missing the USA
I’m often asked if I miss the USA… for the most part, the answer is no. I enjoy the slower pace of life and the focus on family and nature here. I could easily take a job back in the US if I wanted, but I really do appreciate Norway. It’s an incredibly beautiful country with almost limitless opportunities to get into the outdoors, which is very important to me.
I certainly don’t miss the politics, the big cities, the poor public transportation, the focus on making money or the seemingly constant divide between people of different beliefs or backgrounds.
However, there are certainly some things I miss. I miss the open social atmosphere, the warm weather, my truck, the beer and food selections, the diversity of people and landscape, being around my fellow Marines, and probably a handful of other things… but the reality is that I’m here in Norway for the foreseeable future and I intend to make the most of it.
Summary: I can certainly understand why many Americans miss the US after living in Norway but for me, the benefits far outweigh the costs. I’m thankful to be here and I look forward to each adventure that lies ahead.