Does packing up and going far, far away to a beautiful place sound like just what your life needs? Then you might want to consider moving to Iceland.
In the past few years, Iceland has seen a growing number of immigrants. Some people get pulled to Iceland by the stunning images of Northern Lights and quaint towns that circulate social media regularly.
But it gets even better:
Iceland also offers a progressive culture, fascinating people, and a thriving arts scene. Not to mention a natural obsession with being cozy, a feeling they refer to as hygge.
Ready to join Iceland’s immigrants by moving to Iceland yourself?
Moving abroad is easier said than done, but we’re here to help. Keep reading to learn how to make a smooth transition to this beautiful country!
So, You Want to Move to Iceland
“Neither mine nor other people's prospects seem particularly pleasing just at the moment, and I have fantasies of going to Iceland, never to return.”
Escaping is certainly one reason many people might choose Iceland -- but it’s far from the only reason.
Let’s delve into a few of the top reasons to make Iceland your next home.
When you think of America, you might think of vast forests and mountain ranges, just as much as you think of bustling cities.
But Iceland’s natural beauty can stun even the most well-traveled North American.
Like this geyser:
But beyond that, there's something else that is completely different:
The entire country has just over 350,000 residents. To compare, Denver and Portland both have populations about twice that size.
And in Iceland, that population is spread out over nearly 40,000 square miles.
Iceland has an incredibly low population density. With most of the population centered in Reykjavik, the capital city, vast swathes of the country are virtually uninhabited.
The volcanic island country has stunning bodies of water, mountains, glaciers, and more for the intrepid explorer to experience, free from crowds. This gives outdoor enthusiasts a compelling reason for moving to Iceland.
About that tyrannical time-clock
Feeling burned out from the stresses of home? Moving to Iceland could be the answer.
Although you can find natural thrills in the country, some people seek out Iceland specifically for its slower pace of life.
It might surprise you to learn:
Still, Americans tend to find it a more laidback place.
Here’s the deal:
Iceland lacks massive cities and all the stress they can bring. Even if you work similar hours as you did before, you’ll probably feel less pressure after moving to Iceland.
How safe is living in Iceland?
Now get this:
Iceland is one of the world’s safest countries.
For people living in fear of violence in the U.S., the appeal of Iceland’s safety can’t be overstated.
Even though many Icelanders own guns, the incredibly low violent crime rates mean people don’t live in fear of getting harmed by other people.
If you’re exploring the rural parts of Iceland, you’ll still need to take care that you don’t get injured, since you’re far from medical facilities.
The weather and nature itself can create dangerous conditions -- but you won’t need to worry about your fellow Icelanders causing you harm.
About the arts and culture scene
Did you know that Iceland has about 7,000 creative companies?
This small island nation is a haven for artists.
Whether you’re an artist or just appreciate the arts, you’ll love the music, theater, literature, and other art forms of the nation. Iceland’s culture supports creativity, making it easy for locals to express themselves with the art form they love most.
Perhaps author Eric Weiner put it best:
“There's no one on the island telling them they're not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write.”
Finally, some people simply want a fresh start, no matter where it is.
Sound like you?
Even if you weren’t specifically focused on Iceland for your next move, the reasons listed above might change your mind.
Iceland also feels physically removed from the rest of the world:
It’s 756 miles from Greenland, the next-nearest country.
Not only that, but the low population density brings a sense of peace and solitude that’s perfect for anyone who needs that fresh-start feeling.
Not only that, but the low population density brings a sense of peace and solitude that’s perfect for anyone who needs that fresh-start feeling.
Iceland’s Immigration Policy: What You Need to Know
There are two reasons behind Iceland’s small population: its geographic distance from other countries, and its strict immigration policies.
Ready to have your mind minor-league blown?:
Until the late ‘90s, anyone foreign who became an Icelandic citizen had to take an Icelandic name!
Today, however, it’s a little bit easier for immigrants to move to Iceland -- especially if they already live in Europe.
Current European citizens just need to register with the country’s officials to move in, as long as they’re from a country in the European Economic Area (EEA) or European Free Trade Association (EFTA). People coming from other continents must go through a more complicated process.
But don’t worry:
We have the information you need.
If you’re moving to Iceland from outside of Europe, you have three options:
- Go to college in Iceland
- Get a work permit
- Marry an Icelander
While the third option is difficult to plan for, the first two are a little more actionable.
If you apply and get accepted to an Icelandic college, you’re ready to move. Otherwise, you’ll need to prove to officials that you have special work skills, so you’re offering something Icelandic citizens don’t have already.
This means moving to Iceland may not be an option if you don’t work in a specialized field. We also have more on how to get your work permit later.
For now, let's tackle this beast:
The local laws combat unemployment by making it hard for foreigners to take jobs that locals could get. After Icelanders, European citizens take the next priority.
Moving to Iceland: Your Step-by-Step Guide
Ready to give moving to Iceland a shot?
Here are the steps you’ll need to follow.
Step 1: Paperwork...
Starting with this step is important. There’s no point in packing your stuff or looking for an apartment if you don’t have the required documentation for moving to Iceland.
Since applying to an Icelandic college or marrying an Icelander are more straightforward processes, we’ll focus on getting that work permit. You’ll need to start the application process before you actually head to Iceland.
Here's the good news:
If you’re a qualified professional with a specific skill set, you might get a work permit. The key is demonstrating that you have the training and experience to let you do the job best -- even better than a local Icelander.
These temporary permits won’t keep you in Iceland long-term, but they will let you experience moving to Iceland.
Step 2: About getting legal
Once you’ve secured your work permit, it’s time to get the permit that will let you actually take up residence in Iceland.
Any foreigner who will stay in Iceland for over three months needs one.
Again, European citizens don’t need these permits, but other foreigners do.
The requirements for your residence permit depend on the type of work permit you have. You’ll need to visit the Directorate of Immigration’s website to see exactly what documents to submit and how to submit them.
What if you can't get a work permit?
So, you can't get a work permit, but...
You might be able to get a different kind of residence permit instead.
The Directorate of Immigration allows permits for other categories, including:
- And au pairs.
Check out their website for details on each of these options. To apply, you might need to meet certain requirements, like being a specific age.
Obtain your kennitala
Okay, you have the permits to work and live in Iceland. Sweet. Now you’ll need a kennitala: your unique Icelandic identification number.
Think of it like this:
U.S. citizens have social security numbers, and Icelanders have kennitalas.
The kennitala lets you take important next steps, like renting an apartment. Without it, you can get to Iceland, but it’ll be hard to get much done once you’re there.
Registers Iceland handles kennitala requests. But as a non-European citizen, you can’t directly apply yourself. A third party, like your employer, will have to apply for you.
Now, to the fun part!
If your employer doesn’t provide housing, your next step is finding the best place to live in Iceland.
Don't worry, we’ve got more on the ideal places to move below.
But to get started:
You’ll probably want to look for an apartment before you touch down in an Icelandic airport. Many people get a temporary place through a service like Airbnb or Red Apple Apartments first, since these sites make it easy to browse living spaces from across the world.
That's not the only option:
And don’t forget the power of social media. If you can connect with local Icelanders before you move, they might offer advice for finding a great place to live.
Speaking of speaking
If you're a big fan of the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok, you're gonna love this:
The Icelandic language dates back to Viking days, if not earlier.
But don't stress it:
Many people in Iceland speak English, so if you don’t speak Icelandic, you won’t be lost. Still, moving to Iceland gives you the opportunity to learn a new language -- why not take it?
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Open your world up by learning at least a little bit of Icelandic before you go. You probably won’t find in-person Icelandic classes in your city, but you can buy language-learning software to get started.
However, don’t expect to be ordering coffee in Icelandic anytime soon. The language is notoriously difficult, and most locals probably won’t understand you when you try to speak it at first!
Take care of business at home
At this point, you’ll feel so excited about moving to Iceland that you might start to forget the important things to take care of at home.
Before you go, you’ll need to dot some proverbial i’s and cross some t’s.
Packing, it's not as simple as you think
Now, you’re ready to get packed!
Packing itself takes some strategizing. You probably can’t take all of your belongings with you. You’ll need to decide if you want to get rid of what you can’t take, or if it’s worth it to get a storage unit.
Paring down your stuff is often one of the hardest parts of relocating. But here's some ideas:
You can use packing cubes to save space in your luggage. These neat containers organize and compress your clothes into their smallest possible shapes so you can bring more.
You can also make a capsule wardrobe to help you decide exactly which clothes and accessories to bring. Iceland stays cold and damp or snowy for much of the year, with lots of storms. Pack layers, sturdy shoes, and a heavy coat that will get you through every season.
Keep the essentials, like documents, medications, identification, and electronics, in your carry-on bag. That way, if your checked bags get lost, you won’t be in trouble.
The Best Places to Live in Iceland
Not sure where to live in Iceland? We promised we'd tell you.
So, let’s take a look at some of your best choices.
Do you love socializing and nightlife?
Then Iceland’s capital might be the place for you. Although it’s small, it offers all the perks of much larger cities, including music, restaurants, and an arts scene.
You might be surprised by how hard laidback Icelanders like to party:
On weekends, many bars are lively well past midnight.
Downtown Reykjavik is pricier than the outskirts, but it has lots of chic apartments that can make you feel like you’re living in a city twice the size. To get around, just hop on a city bus and go!
This East Icelandic city is much smaller (with less than a thousand residents), but the burgeoning arts scene can still keep you busy.
It’s known as a bohemian center for creative endeavors. And once you arrive, it’s easy to see why.
Seyðisfjörður sits inside a fjord and offers striking vistas of hills and water, sure to inspire your creativity.
Some people call Akureyri the “capital of North Iceland.”
With a population of nearly 18,000, it’s a big city by Icelandic standards. This is the ideal place to see Iceland’s famous mountains, while also enjoying city activities like dining and shopping.
Iceland’s third-largest city has over 28,000 people and a history that dates back to at least the 1500s when the first recorded inhabitants settled there.
Today, Hafnarfjörður is one of Iceland’s musical hotspots. It’s the hub of the country’s rock scene, with shows and festivals to keep you busy all year.
It gets better:
This city also has its own Viking Festival, where you can celebrate the local history in the local way.
Immigrants who don’t settle on Reykjavik might choose Iceland’s second-biggest city instead.
Kópavogur has about 33,000 citizens and sports beautiful architecture that’s famous around the world, as well as lots of other art forms.
Don’t miss the local art museum and the famous Kópavogur church.
Cultural Differences: What to Expect After Moving to Iceland
What’s the best thing about moving to Iceland?
For some, it’s the chance to experience a new culture deeply.
However, that experience can come with a healthy dose of culture shock. To help you prepare, let’s take a look at some of the cultural differences U.S. residents will encounter after moving to Iceland.
About the battle of the sexes
Although the U.S. is far ahead of some places when it comes to gender equality, Iceland still might make you question how far behind your home country is.
Check this out:
The country now offers a female political party, three months of parental leave for both parents, and of course, more safety for women than many other Western countries.
For people who aren’t used to this level of equality, that might seem shocking.
When we said progressive...
In addition to gender equality, Iceland also offers better gay rights than many other countries do.
This is incredible:
A third of Icelanders celebrate at Reykjavik’s Pride festival each year.
If you go to Pride, you might even get to see the city’s mayor dressed in drag!
But even if you’re not in the capital, you can expect to find a culture that’s warm and welcoming to the gay community. Iceland doesn’t have the sharp divide between conservative and liberal cultures that the U.S. does.
One reason many Americans see Iceland as so laidback is the lack of punctuality.
Icelanders regularly show up late, and you’ll enjoy moving to Iceland more if you accept that fact early...
Soon, you might even see it as a good thing. It’s one of the reasons Icelanders seem to lead less stressful lives than many Americans.
"Business hours" doesn't mean what it means in the U.S.
Although some bars and restaurants stay open late, particularly on weekends, most Icelandic businesses close earlier than you might be used to.
Don’t be surprised if the grocery store shuts down by 6 or 7 p.m. Stores often don’t open until later in the morning, too, since few Icelanders are out and about early.
Commitment to the environment
Iceland puts much of the world to shame when it comes to caring for the environment. If you’re not used to this level of environmental responsibility, it might take some adjusting to.
But it makes sense why:
After moving to Iceland, you'll quickly see why the environment matters so much to its citizens. It’s hard not to care about the planet when you’re surrounded by some of its most stunning views.
The question of nudity
Want to visit one of Iceland’s famous geothermal pools?
You’ll have to shower naked, in the public showers, before you can get in.
For some Americans, the relaxed attitude Icelanders have toward nudity takes some getting used to. However, if you’re already comfortable navigating a locker room with no clothes on, you won’t have any trouble.
The formality question, and last names
In a city with so few people, last names aren’t really necessary. Instead, people go by their first names, even if they’re in a position of power. There’s no Icelandic equivalent to “Mr.” or “Mrs.”
American formality be damned!
However, people do still have last names -- they just work differently than American names. These last names usually combine the father’s first name with a suffix that means “daughter” (dóttir) or “son” (son). In the name of equality, the mother’s first name can now also be used.
And when Icelanders get married?
Forget about the practice of changing names: Icelandic women almost always keep their last names.
About small talk, and the "cold" shoulder
If Icelanders seem unfriendly, it’s probably just because they aren’t fans of small talk.
You might get a cold response if you try saying hi to strangers in the store or on the street. It can take a while to get to know people in Iceland, which can make your first few weeks in the country feel pretty isolated.
The Pros and Cons of Moving to Iceland
Moving to Iceland can change your life for the better. However, you’ll almost certainly face some challenges along the way.
We can help:
Prepare yourself by reviewing these pros and cons, so you’ll know exactly what to expect.
The Best Things to Do After Moving to Iceland
Ready to face both the pros and cons of moving to Iceland?
While Iceland’s not right for everyone, those who do move there get to tap into some unforgettable activities.
In addition to hot springs and Viking festivals, don’t miss these excursions.
Ever imagined hiking a glacier?
Iceland’s cold, yet temperate enough to make glacier hiking enjoyable.
Seeing a glacier up close fills most people with awe -- there’s nothing quite like these extraordinary ice giants.
Love untainted scenery, well...
The Westfjords area doesn’t attract many visitors, so it has a mystical appeal that’s not tainted by modern tourism. For centuries, this part of Iceland has played a role in myth and folklore.
It gets even better:
This little-visited part of the island offers some of the most stunning scenery anywhere on Iceland’s coast.
Abandon your vehicle, and see more
Icelandic horses are famously short and stout, with manes that grow long for warmth.
But they’re not just cute:
These sturdy creatures can take you through the terrain of Iceland to see views you could never access by car.
Just seeing these creatures is an experience in itself -- they offer a window into history.
Local laws have kept the Icelandic horse from interbreeding with other horses for the past 1,000 years. When you ride an Icelandic horse, you’re riding the same horses that ancient Icelanders did.
Congratulations -- You’re Ready for Moving to Iceland!
Moving to Iceland poses it’s own unique challenges, from getting documentation to facing cultural differences.
But you did it:
You’re now officially prepared for moving to Iceland and experiencing all the wonderful things this island nation has to offer. This comprehensive guide will make sure you don’t run into any unexpected difficulties along the way.
We’d love to hear your thoughts: Will you be moving to Iceland, or do you have other countries in mind? Let us know in the comments!