Moving to Finland is a decision one should only undertake well-informed. This little post was written to give you a small overview what to expect and what to look out for. It is by no means comprehensive, but it covers the major issues that most expats will have to deal with, and is not just based on a single opinion.
Whatever your reasons for contemplating a move to Finland might be, I would like to make an educated guess that it is either of those two: work or woman. Finnish women have a strange tendency to acquire foreign boyfriends abroad and then import them to Finland. But more on that later. First you should know a bit about the place.
What to expect...and what not
Much to the dismay of the Finns, most people don't have a clue about Finland. Apart from Mika Hakkinnen, Nokia and the Moomins, people rarely know of anything Finnish, so they are left with assumptions. Here are some common ones.
Finland is "another one of the Skandinavian countries"While Sweden has been sitting on it long enough to warrant that assumption, Finland shares only some of the cultural associations with its western neighbours. For the most part though, Finland always has been, and still is, its very own thing. Its border location, harsh climate and unkind history have shaped it to be something entirely different from the pretty chilled out "Skandis" of Sweden and Denmark. Expect Finns to be a lot less light-hearted.
Finland is "another European state"Just like it isn't quite Skandinavia, Finland isn't quite Europe. It feels strangely disconnected, at times more Russian than European. Culturally and geographically it is Europe's borderlands, its untamed wilds. It's not cosmopolitan, despite having many foreigners (in Helsinki). It's not very refined, despite many cultural achievements. It simply hasn't been an integral part of Europe's history, and lacks the connection to the overall European context that permeates and resonates with the rest of the landmass, from France to Poland and from Sweden to Italy.
Helsinki is "like Copenhagen or Stockholm"It might look like a big place on the map and even Wikipedia, but in fact Helsinki feels like an overgrown village (for better or worse). Always being considered to be an outpost (or a holiday retreat, as far as Alexander II goes), Helsinki lacks a substantial amount of history and amenities to be on par with the other northern cities, and while it can be very pretty in places it's definitely not as cosmopolitan. Also mind that Finland hasn't been a modern economy for that long, so it lacks in services and established big name shopping options (again, for better or worse).
I'm heading there now permanently, anything I should know?
Once you have made your decision and you're moving, here's some details you might trip over. This list is non-exhaustive, so if you want to contribute, please let me know.
Where to liveFinland is big. Thankfully, the only thing you need to do is follow the Finns. With one in five Finnish people living in the same area, the choice is easy: Helsinki. Yes, Finns will tell you there are other cities. Don't believe them. There is only one city in Finland, and you don't really want to live anywhere else.
Now that we have established that, you should know something about Helsinki. It's a bit a mirror of Finland as a whole: there is only on place you want to live at and that is on the southern coast. You don't want to live in Espoo or Vantaa. You even barely want to live in Tölöö, to be honest. Central Helsinki including Kallio are where you want to be, and if you don't you will end up regretting it at some point. At the latest when you are queueing an hour for a Taxi at -20 degrees trying to get home.
MoneyA common problem among foreign professionals seems to be their lack of money. Many people get attracted by high salaries, and even if you run them through a tax calculator, they still seem substantial. And at the end of the month, they find themselves broke. Here is how I believe this happens: Finns are not spoiled by consumerist society yet. One of the reasons they often come up high in happiness polls is because they are simply content with less. For example, going out to eat is still not a very casual thing to do. If you don't fancy cooking a lot, you will find that you have to fork out a lot more for food than elsewhere. The same goes for clothes shopping, non-seasonal and foreign food and events, all of which are (relatively to your budget) more expensive compared to, say, Britain or Germany. Another big drain will be housing. Finding a flatshare is not easy, especially when you are a foreigner. Living by yourself (if you didn't before) in the central areas can easily double your expected monthly costs. Having a Finn handy to help you find a cheap place or share is not just useful, but essential. Often the landlords will prefer to have a Finnish speaker, as they are often older and not confident in their English.
Drinking in center is also expensive: at the time of writing, 7 Euro for a beer is not a rarity. Prices get progressively cheaper as you move to the outskirts. Head to Kallio if you are looking for cheaper booze still within party range. Tipping is unknown or only practiced in places frequented mostly by tourists.
HolidaysOkay, this one is as weird as it is important: Make sure you broker additional holidays for the year you are starting in. Otherwise your holiday allowance is determined by state law, not company policy. You gather holidays for your next year from April to April, at a rate of 2 days per month. So if you happen to start in February, you will get 4 days worth of holidays for this year. Read this twice to make sure you understand this, or you will hate yourself (or finnish legislation). Now here's the second punch: you will be gently forced to take your holidays in summer. Yes, it makes no sense, just accept that it's tradition and companies will want all their employees to be gone at the same time. It's not a hard law, just be prepared that that's what will be expected. After all, why would you want to follow common sense and flee to a warm place during the cold winter months?
There is a holiday bonus when you go on holiday, which is awesome. Holidays you don't take have to get paid out, which is also awesome. To put a bit of a unique Finnish twist on the awesomeness, if you don't take your holidays and have them paid out, your holiday bonus is deducted from that money. Don't ask.
BenefitsThis might be a (commonly accepted) English glitch, but the Finnish definition of a work benefit is what in other countries would be called a tax refund. For example, many Finnish companies issue so-called "lunch vouchers" which are accepted in most restaurants, canteens and some supermarkets. They are not actual free vouchers though. Their value is taken from your salary, with the employer paying the tax (usually around 30 %). Most benefits seem to work that way. So when you calculate your budget or prospective salary, be aware that benefits are not free giveaways in Finland.
CommunicationWork culture is heavily influenced by social culture, and consequently Finnish workplaces are quiet places. It is not customary to respond to email if you don't feel the need to, so expect no confirmations or replies unless they are really, really needed (and often not even then). Also expect to be the person talking in meetings - there's a reason why most of the PR jobs are taken up by foreigners. Finns would produce the cure for cancer and then hand you the details in the elevator, saying: "Here." and walk away. Also remember that you need to be twice as proactive connecting with people, as it will likely be a one-sided affair.
PromotionBeing proactive is not necessarily seen as a positive thing in Finland. Being the person who upsets the slow and steady going of things, even for good reasons, will not earn you much credit. You will realize that at the latest when it is time for promotion. Being promoted on merit seems to be seen as sort of...unfair and competitive. Loyalty and long-term employment tend to be a lot bigger factors when being considered for a higher position. But don't fret. In five years time it might be your turn to scoot up the ladder, so don't exhaust yourself, and deal with the fact that Pekka just has been here for longer.
Also, Finns are quite reluctant to praise, and that includes you. So if you feel under-appreciated, just remind yourself that if people were unhappy with your performance you'd definitely know.
Let's face it, every place on earth has its benefits and shortcomings. No place is completely bad or good. This is a little list of troubles you might encounter while living in Finland, and knowing about them beforehand might dampen the impact, so you can enjoy the good things even more.
Social DistanceThe Finnish definition of "being close" does not necessarily match your own. Even with people who are good friends you might experience you are still missing that "extra step" towards sharing emotions and thoughts. When Finns say you are a friend, they really do mean it. But to get to the stage where they let their guard down might take you years (four on average, I hear) and it might well never happen. They will likely not be seeing things that way, as they have grown up in a culture where "close" is still quite far by other nations' standards.
This is especially true for brief encounters of physical nature: do not expect more than just the mechanics, or you might be disappointed. On the other hand, if you do give signals that you are interested in more than that, you will find yourself in a marriage quicker that you'd think.
RacismIt might not be a nice thing to say, but Finns are on average pretty racist people. Sometimes they might not even notice. The range goes from open insult on the street ("Fucking Arab!") to the "little joke" ("Haha, you sound like an bloody immigrant!") or the downright bizarre ("Southerners like you don't know how to behave around women."). This is obviously to be understood knowing that we Germans are known to be hot-blooded womanizers the world over.
If you point out the issue, expect to be met with ignorance. Political correctness just isn't here yet, and is often seen as some "American bullshit fit for gay people and hippies". I don't think you would have to expect physical hostility, but the more foreign you look the more you will be met with
DepressionWhether you want to blame the perpetual darkness, the alcohol abuse or the coldness of the social culture, depression is a real issue in Finland. Although the statistics have become better, Finland is still a country with low mood rates. Remember that Finns are a proud and stubborn people and would not easily say they are being in a low mood. It was not even considered a medical condition for a long time.
If you find yourself wondering why you are doing all this (especially after a couple of drinks), make sure you get out somewhere sunny, at least for a while.
After all these warnings, you might ask yourself: why the hell would I want to live there? Finland has lots of perks, but whether they are worth the trouble is of course your decision.
QuietnessFinland just runs at half the pace of other Western countries. No one's in a hurry. Most things (except buses) run steadily and reliably. People speak quietly in public places. No one, not even the beggars, is gonna bother you. People just let you be. If you enjoy solitude and only deliberately connect with select people, it's great.
CountrysideFinland has some of the most pristine and unspoilt nature in Europe, and even better, it's never far away. Even "big" cities like Tampere feel like they are still in the middle of the forest. The air is clean and fresh. There are plenty of lakes around, and wild berries, mushrooms just waiting to be plucked from the ground.
SecurityFinland (despite some other claims made by more konservative Finns) is probably one of the safest countries on earth. No one's gonna wait to mug you at -20 degrees in winter.
Aside from that, you get free healthcare, free daycare and free education, all on a high level. Talking about social security.
No fuss cultureWhile it can sometimes be a bit tiring, the Finnish no-fuss-approach to life can also be really refreshing and make your life a lot easier. You don't need to (in fact, shouldn't) package criticism or desires to be more palatable. Just say what you want, for god's sake. Especially when you come from a traditionally more "polite" culture, such as England or Japan, give it a try. It will be quite liberating.
I find it especially pleasant with Finnish women, who have none of that helpless girl attitude so ubiquitous in other countries. a Finnish woman will probably never ask you to set up her stereo (to borrow an old gender cliche). Chance are she will do it for you.
So should you move?
In case you actually do have a choice (rarely the case if you move for a man or woman), ask yourself these questions:
Do you already have stable social surroundings (partner or good friends) in Finland?
Do you value security very highly?
Do you have kids?
Are you happy with spending a lot of time by yourself and/or inside?
Can you cope with long winters and total (read: day-long) darkness?
Are you happy about social interaction between strangers being kept to a bare minimum?
Are you happy about social interaction between sexual partners being kept to a bare minimum?
Do you enjoy quietness and being away from it all, including the rest of Europe?
Do you rarely feel like going out for good food or cultural events?
Do you love unspoilt outdoors?
Do you like to drink?
Are you happy with frequent casual sex without emotional attachment and large quantities of beer and/or Australian?
If you can answer the majority of these questions with "yes", then Finland might be just the place for you. If you find yourself answering most of them with "no", reconsider. I mean, seriously do. Many people who move make themselves miserable in the process.
Finland is a peculiar place, and just like Marmite or strong cheese it will find its lovers and its haters. You can easily have a good time there, especially if you just stay for Summer, but I have not met too many people (including Finns!) who can cope with permanent residence there for too long. It tends to make people weird.
As far as I am concerned, it has been a revealing experience in many ways, and while I met some great people, I have found that my nature does not resonate with the Finnish mindset at all. Make sure you think yours will, so that you can enjoy Finland to the fullest it has to offer.