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Expats moving to Sweden are unlikely to experience much culture shock. Sweden is very Western and similar to its modern counterparts worldwide. It's fairly easy to find most products, but if not, there will be an equivalent to get by with.
That said, there will inevitably be bumps in the road that any non-native will encounter. The country definitely has its quirks, but expats who embrace these will be able to immerse themselves in the culture without too much trouble.
Getting started in Sweden
Once in Sweden, new expats should head to the local Skatteverket (tax office) and apply for a personnummer (personal identity number). Without this number, a person officially doesn’t exist in Sweden, making applying for any type of service, job or account impossible.
After completing this, getting a National ID card is suggested, as using a passport for one’s main form of identity is risky and tiresome, whereas the Swedish ID card is easily accepted and much less stressful to carry.
Meeting and greeting in Sweden
Swedes are often described as reserved, introverted, serious, reticent and unfriendly. Small talk is rare, as is spontaneous laughter. There is a perceived coldness to social relations in Sweden that can be alienating and even upsetting to some.
To a Swede, however, this perceived emotional detachment is simply an accepted way of minding one’s own business, out of respect and consideration for the other person’s personal space. If this can be understood going in and is taken without offence, getting by will be easy. In fact, after being exposed to it for a while, one may find visiting other less reserved countries startling.
In a business context, Swedes tend to be formal, egalitarian and have little concern for status. They prefer to maintain strict boundaries between work and private life, so being invited to the home of a business colleague is rare. Small talk and gift-giving don't have much of a place in business in Sweden. Compromise, negotiated solutions and total honesty are considered to be important values in all business dealings.
Family life and raising children in Sweden
A good family life and healthy living are important to Swedes. With some of the most generous maternity and paternity leave laws in the world, Swedes take great pride in raising their children properly. Even after the maternity and paternity leave is over, Swedish daycare is ready to step in at an incredibly low price to take care of children full-time.
Swedish children, at ages considered far too young in places such as the US, are permitted much more freedom than may be considered normal in other countries. With a low crime rate and having been taught how to be independent from a young age, Swedish kids learn to take public transport, walk or bicycle where they'd like to go early on. It may be surprising at first, but young pre-teens can be seen travelling alone throughout town. Sweden's public schools are also among the best in the world and the country is home to several of the world's top 100 universities.
In addition to this, vacation time in Sweden is off the charts compared to its North American counterparts. Swedes have an average of over a month of vacation time each year, being legally provided with 25 paid vacation days and 16 paid holidays, with some companies providing as many as 50 days per year. With a focus on personal time, taking days off is actively encouraged by all – even bosses.
Language barrier in Sweden
Swedish is a fascinating language that, upon arrival, will sound incredibly strange. After a while, the cadence and fluctuations in noises will become far more lyrical-sounding and over a longer time, easier to understand. Expats should investigate their local Swedish For Immigrants (SFI) course, which is free for all foreigners and offered at varying levels, including specific programmes for academics and various careers.
In most cases, expats can get by with English, especially in bigger cities and tourist-friendly areas. That said, being able to speak Swedish is rather essential for getting a job in Sweden. Of course, jobs with international firms or in specific fields may bypass this. It is important for prospective expats to consider the market they want to enter before jumping in, to make sure it will be feasible.
Bureaucracy and doing business in Sweden
Sweden is serious about privacy and oftentimes this feels like unnecessary red tape. Things take a bit longer in Sweden, as a high level of identity documentation is often required.
Customer service in Sweden is notoriously poor and only worsened by the language barrier. Staff can be abrupt and seemingly rude, and there is no effort to enhance the customer experience so valued in more enthusiastic consumer cultures. Only being able to communicate with the company in English will, unfortunately, further complicate things. Even long-term expats tend to remark on this aspect of life in Sweden.
Time in Sweden
Swedes are punctual to a fault. Many jokes are made about Swedes standing outside the entrance to a party, checking their watches for the moment that the clock strikes the hour to enter. If a party is from 7pm to 10pm, arrive promptly at 7pm. Showing up late, even though quite normal in other cultures, is considered rude in Sweden.
Everything in Sweden is punctual and efficient and it is expected that this rule will be followed. Buses and trains tend to be very on schedule as well, so expats shouldn’t necessarily count on a 5- to 10-minute buffer when viewing a schedule.
Religion in Sweden
Christianity is the dominant religion in Sweden, though few Swedes appear to practise it these days. Many have baptisms and church marriages for tradition's sake, but view themselves as agnostic or atheist. Swedes are tolerant of other religions, generally following the system of keeping such topics to themselves.
Cultural dos and don’ts in Sweden
- Swedes are serious about recycling. Expats should take care to always sort through their rubbish accordingly and dispose of it properly.
Everyone should be considered an equal. Look up "lagom" and the "Law of Jante" online and learn them well. Swedes live by the theory that everyone is equal – especially men and women – and that all should strive for mid-level normalcy.
Try not to show too much outward emotion. Swedes are private people and rarely express emotion outwardly.
Take a number. People rarely queue in Sweden and Swedes have a special affinity for the "take a number" system, from banks to hardware stores.
►For first-hand accounts of expat life in Sweden, read some of our Expat Experiences in Sweden.
"The biggest thing was trying to get my life organised in Sweden. Everything is set up based on an identity number which takes a few weeks to get, and while you are waiting for that, you are in a sort of limbo. You cannot get a bank account, enter an apartment queue or do many things." Read more of Crista's expat interview.
Are you an expat living in Sweden?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Sweden. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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