Helsinki, Finland Report of what it's like to live there - 03/26/08
Personal Experiences from Helsinki, Finland
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I have also lived in Manila, Philippines for 2 years.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
7 hours direct flight from New York. About 4 hours from London.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I am a U.S. Foreign Service officer and work at the U.S. Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
If you live in Helsinki itself, you'll probably live in an apartment or townhome. In the suburbs like Westend or Espoo, you can get a big house. There is hardly any traffic in Helsinki, so commuting time is usually less than 30 minutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you get don't get pay in euros, yens or pounds, you'll suffer here because of the currency exchange rate. Average price of groceries for a family of 4 is like 200 euros a week. There are plenty of well-stocked grocery stores although American products like peanut butter, mac & cheese and chocolate chip cookies are virtually nonexistent.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
My kids would say more peanut butter, but I say nothing.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Subways. You can also find all sorts of cuisine here: Thai, Chinese, Russian, Lebanese, etc.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Embassy has APO. Finnish postal service is very reliable but EXPENSIVE.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help is almost unheard of here unless you are very rich or famous.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Everyone uses them and it's extremely safe.
4. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Finns are Lutheran, but all denominations are present. I know that the 2 Catholic churches in Helsinki offer mass in English twice a month.
5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There is one English-language newspaper.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Most Finns speak English and don't mind that foreigners don't speak Finnish. However, everything is written in Finnish and Swedish, so learning at enough to survive will not hurt.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
The only difficulty would be if you live in an old building (as in built in the early 1900's or late 1800's), it may not have a lift. Otherwise, sidewalks are well kept and all malls have elevators.
1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?
2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes. Finland has one of the most efficient, reliable and cheap public transportation systems in the world.
3. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Anything you want although repairs and parts for American cars can be expensive. All cars must meet European inspection requirements.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. Cost is about 45 euros/month for high speed.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
This is Nokia land, so any other brand is hard to find (including accessories for it). If you have a tri or quad band, it should work here. There are lots of options on Nokia models, it's the price that can scare you. But you can get a cheap one (but good) for 80 euros.
3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?
You can call directly from your home or mobile phone at an average rate of 12 cents/minute. Many people also use Skype or Vonage.
1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Yes and very good, but expensive, especially kennels. Many people when they travel tend to hire teenagers to look after the pets.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
It's hard if you do not speak Finnish. However, there is a growing demand for native English speakers in the field of teaching.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual. In public, everything goes. Young Finns tend to love goth and punk styles (lots of green, purple and orange hair). As a rule, people dress pretty conservative. No skimpy mini skirs or plunging necklines.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Good. Finland enjoys very clean air.
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
None. Crime rate is extremely low. Finns are very honest. There is a problem with alcoholism so just stay away from the drunks.
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Air and water is clean. There are no health concerns. Medical care is good. Finland has a social medical system but there are several private clinics that expats go to. I know 3 expat ladies who had their babies here without any problems.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It never really gets hot here. Humidity level is low. Winters are long, usually from November until March or April.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
International School of Helsinki is small but good. Itfollows the IB program. My 2 elementary school children attend it and I'm happy with it. Parents with high schoolers seem to complain about the school not giving enough homework and lack of communication. Espoo International and The English School are also an option but the expat community there is very, very small. There is always a French school, a Russian school and a German school; all 3 seem to be good.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
It depends on the special need. I know a child with Down Syndrome that attends ISH and the parents are happy. Another family, however, had to send their child to a boarding school in the U.S. because no schools here could accomodate his severe disability. The best thing is to contact the school directly and explain your situation.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are many daycares and preschools available and they are good. Nannies or babysitters, however, are extremely expensive (10 euros/hour)
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Medium size. But Finland is a small country.
2. Morale among expats:
As a general rule, it's high, although some people find the long, dark winters hard to deal with.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There are lots of restaurants, movie theaters( movies in English), bars, discos, etc.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes for all. Singles and couples have a great time with all the bars, nightclubs and travel opportunities. Families love it because there are tons of parks and green areas, many family-orientated activities and it's safe.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes. The Finns are very respectful of people's privacy and very tolerant.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not that I'm aware of.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
If you love outdoor activities, this is heaven. Finns love to exercise. Bicycling, Nordic walking and jogging are very popular. There are many indoor swimming halls, lots of parks, quaint little towns to visit and traveling throughout Europe is easy.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Finns are not big into crafts, but Ittala glass is very pretty (and expensive).
9. Can you save money?
It depends. If you get paid in dollars, the currency exchange will hurt you now. But if you don't eat out a lot and don't travel out of Finland too much, yes you can.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. It's safe, clean, easy to get around. Finns are nice and don't hassle you because your skin is darker or you don't speak the language.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Big, fluffy bed comforter as they don't fit in the much smaller European washing machines. Anything that has to be dry cleaned as it is expensive.
3. But don't forget your:
Winter gear; sport equipment (like bicycle, skates and skis), studded tires (or all-weather tires--for your vehicle and bicycle)and step up/step down converters for your 110 equipment (Finland is on 240 vltz).
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
7. Do you have any other comments?
www.finland.fi and www.helsinki.fi are good sites to check out and learn about Finnish culture and lifestyle.