Text by: Agata Ryszkowska

Iceland might appear to lots of people as a country that’s perfect – high salaries, widespread tolerance and a beautiful nature. And that’s true! It’s a wonderful country to live in. But as you probably know, you get to know the other side of it once you decide to live here for longer. Something that might look ideal shows the uglier side once you get to know it better. I’ve asked a bunch of immigrants to share their point of view and I’m going to share them with you. Let’s dive right into the pros and cons of living in a country which has the most northerly capital in the world.

ADVANTAGES

THE NATURE

That’s an obvious, undebatable pro. There’s a reason why Iceland is called as a land of fire and ice. The nature is the main reason why people come here. It’s raw and beautiful with its waterfalls, mountains, volcanoes, fjords, northern lights, glaciers and incredible seaside. But it’s not all about the flora! It’s a wonderful country for birdwatching or whale watching. It’s not uncommon to spot seals sunbathing on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula or puffins on the Vestmannaeyjar islands. It’s a paradise for hikers and nothing beats the fact that it takes about 30 minutes to get out of the city to get deep into the nature. With the lava fields covered with moss it certainly looks like Mars.

FRESH AIR

Nothing beats getting out of a plane to get that first full breath of pure Icelandic air. It very rarely gets polluted, it happens mainly during the winter time when most of the cars are equipped with studded tires or when Icelanders get crazy with the fireworks over the Christmas and New Year’s Eve time. There is no pollution connected to the house heating as it’s usually heated with hot water straight from the hot springs. It’s really wonderful to take a short drive out of the city during the weekends to breathe in the fresh mountain or seaside air. It’s not only healthy for your lungs, but also for your mind.

WATER QUALITY

Yes, you can drink water straight from the tap! As long as it’s cold, obviously. The cold water is derived from glaciers and the hot one from hot springs. Both of them are extremely high quality but there’s one aspect you should know about. The hot water smells like rotten eggs because of sulphur. But you get used to it and the smell disappears once you get out of the shower. And trust me, there’s nothing better than coming back home after being abroad and taking a huge gulp of the ice cold, extremely clean tap water!

HIGH SALARIES & GOOD LIFE QUALITY

There’s no doubt that Iceland is one of the countries that can be proud of their high salaries regardless of gender. Even though that most of the things are quite expensive here in Iceland, including flat rental or health care, most people can afford it. There’s a really low unemployment rate but at the same time it’s hard to find a more ambitious job if you’re an immigrant. But even if you’re not working at the office, and you’re not a single mom/dad, it’s great to live and earn in Iceland. Another plus is the fact that if you go abroad for a holiday, basically every single country is way cheaper. Thanks to the trade unions you’re able to get multiple refunds and you get extra cash twice a year – for summer and winter holiday.

VEGAN-FRIENDLY

It really is! The Icelandic market is trying to follow the modern needs and it’s incredibly easy to be plant-based in this country. We’ve got a whole blog post about veganism in Iceland, which you can find here.

INTERNET CONNECTION

It really doesn’t matter in which part of the country you travel to, everywhere the internet connection is great! It helps a lot in getting around and finding landmarks to visit while you’re sleeping on the campsite. There are obviously some uncovered patches so I’d recommend downloading offline maps etc., but generally the network coverage is unusual.

SUSTAINABLE ENERGY

Electricity, hot water, cold water – they all come from natural sources. Most of the electricity is made thanks to hydroelectric power plants; hot water comes from geothermal sources and cold one usually has its beginning in glacial areas. It’s extremely sustainable and thanks to it Iceland is one of those countries that lead the way in eco-friendliness.

HOT POTS AND POOLS

Another natural wonders that Iceland can be proud of. Swimming pools are deeply rooted in Icelandic culture. There are multiple locations around the country when you can get soaked in warm water when it’s cold outside. Basically every single town has its own swimming pool! If you’d like to get the ultimate experience though, there is an uncounted amount of natural hot pots spread all around the country. It’s fun until you have to get out from the water and get dressed! 😉

WIDESPREAD ACCEPTANCE AND POLITENESS

It doesn’t matter if you go to Bónus in you pajamas, you’re queer or you have a very unique sense of style – you’re accepted by the locals and they don’t judge you. As long as you’re not harmful, no one is harmful to you. People are often very helpful and genuinely polite, which really helps you believe in humanity. You’ll obviously meet some exceptions on your way but in general you can expect tolerance and understanding.

EQUALITY

Iceland puts lots of pressure on gender equality and it’s very proud of it. It’s not only about the women rights though! It also refers to men, for example paternity leave which got basically as long as the maternity leave. It’s wonderful to see such conscious changes that make everyone feel worthy and heard.

BRIGHT AND LONG SUMMERS

There’s something exceptional about experiencing the midnight sun. There’s lots of events that celebrate the longest day of the year, including Summer Solstice Festival. It’s a wonderful time of the year that gives you a real opportunity to stock on vitamin D3 for the long, dark winter. It’s also a great time for traveling as you get about 21 hours of daylight, the nature is in its full bloom and the weather is usually not so miserable.

CULTURAL SCENE

There’s plenty of lively pubs around the capital area where you can listen to local artists. I wouldn’t compare it to the other European capitals but having in mind that Icelands population is about 364k, its quite vibrant. Besides that there’s lots of museums, art galleries or small cinemas like Bíó Paradís, where you can see many Icelandic movies that give you a bigger overview about the culture and lifestyle. 

SAFETY

It’s generally an extremely safe country. It’s very rare that someone commits any sort of crime. Keep in mind that it’s good to have your eyes open though, especially when out and about during wild weekend night. It’s necessary to keep the most basic rules of safety!

DISADVANTAGES

ISOLATION

Well, Iceland is an island. Some people might be used to it but it’s not that easy if you come from continental Europe where you can take a train and be in another country in 4 or less hours. If you want to go abroad you always have to fly (or take a ferry). You most definitely feel the lack of connection with neighboring countries. It gets even worse during winter time when snow or storms just cut out towns from the rest of the country. Sometimes it’s actually exciting but in long-term it gets frustrating, especially if you have experience in living in a country that has neighbors.

THE WEATHER

Iceland’s known for its unpredictable weather. There’s a saying “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes”. Snowfall, hail, rain, rainbow, sun, wind – it can all happen within one day. Even though the summer is long and usually sunny, the temperature rarely gets above 20 degrees Celcius. Icelanders usually play it hard and they wear short sleeves and shorts, but sun combined with an ice-cold wind even during summer isn’t that fun. Most of the locals like to spend their summer holiday somewhere that is REALLY warm, like Spain or California.

EVERYTHING’S EXPENSIVE

High salaries, high costs of living. Some of the products and services are incredibly overpriced, like health care or apartment rental. The locals know that there’s a deficit in flats to rent so they raise the monthly price to get more cash. Some people are way more humane but it’s common to see garages or basements turned into studios that cost around 1500$.

LIMITED RANGE OF PRODUCTS

Since it’s an island, it’s far away in the North, the market is quite difficult for start ups, it really has its impact on range of various products, like beauty, home decor or clothing. You can obviously aways ship from abroad but since Iceland is very protective of its own market, you have to pay high customs. The Icelandic Post Office is generally disliked because of that. You can get used to the fact that there’s not many stores and there are only two shopping malls in the whole Iceland but knowing that it can be different, sometimes it’s painful.

POOR QUALITY OF VEGETABLES AND FRUITS

Just like it’s said above – it’s and island located far away from any mainland. Shipping fresh fruit takes lots of time, they’re picked when they’re still unripe which affects their quality, taste and freshness. Iceland tries to produce as many veggies as it can. Thanks to the geothermal energy there’s lots of greenhouses where tomatoes, cucumbers or mushrooms are grown. But it also affects their quality; you rarely get a real, ripe, intense in color tomato.

DIFFICULT LANGUAGE

It’s not SO hard when it comes to grammar but it’s really difficult in its sound and pronunciation. Icelanders are used to speak English and they know it very well but sometimes they can get quite judgmental about your approach towards learning their native language. It’s understandable that they expect someone to speak Icelandic when they know that they want to permanently live here. But lots of us are here for just a couple of years and there’s no point in learning more than the basics of a language that’s spoken in only one country in the world with population of 364k. Some people also mention the fact that it’s actually difficult to practice their Icelandic as the locals automatically start to talk back in English.

UNSTABLE MARKET

The success of Iceland is tightly connected to the growth of tourism. The tourism industry is quite unstable and it’s prone to fluctuations. If the tourism traffic goes down or some big company is shut down (like WOW Air), the prices instantly go up and the currency value goes down. The other two factors that have the biggest impact on Icelandic market are fishing and aluminum industry and they’re quite stable but having in mind that Iceland is a highly touristic country, it has its huge impact on the market.

DRIVING

Icelandic people have their own rules of driving. There’s no doubt about it. They rarely use turn signals, they change lanes out of the blue, they squeeze in the gaps you’d never think it’s possible. And they don’t seem to be mad at themselves! It’s us, immigrants, who get frustrated. So keep in mind that you have to be careful not only because of the driving conditions, but also because of the people themselves.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT

Well, it exists. But it’s expensive, slow, badly connected and you spent lots of time on commute. That’s why Icelanders take their driving lessons as soon as they can, so they don’t have to sacrifice their money and nerves on the public transit. If you still want to use it, the company is called Strætó.

DIFFICULT TO MAKE FRIENDS

Icelanders are quite friendly and outgoing but it’s really hard to get into their friend circles. They usually tend to stick to their fellow-countrymen and even if they go out with you, it’s hard to get that deeper connection of true friends. There are some exceptions, obviously! But it’s often mentioned by the immigrants.

Even though that there’s lots of downsides of living in Iceland, it’s still a wonderful country to spend at least some of your lifetime. Hopefully this post drew a bit of a fuller picture of this small island placed far in the North! Stay warm 🇮🇸