Helsinki, Finland Report of what it's like to live there - 10/12/18

Personal Experiences from Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki, Finland 10/12/18

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Prior expat experience in Russia and the Middle East.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Direct flights between Helsinki and NYC (8-9 hrs); connections via Germany, Netherlands, and U.K. with all major US cities.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Work.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Finnish housing is smaller than U.S. housing, but of very high quality. Typical commutes in the Helsinki area can range from 10-15 minutes for apartment-dwellers in the city center, to over an hour for those in stand-alone houses in the suburbs of Espoo, Vantaa, and Kauniainen. Row houses in the Lauttasaari and Kulosaari areas offer a nice in-between option for both size and ease of commute.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

There is an abundance of excellent grocery stores, including several large 24/7 supermarkets. Prices are higher than the U.S., but quality and selection are excellent.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Nothing; just about everything is available locally.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Helsinki is a "foodie" destination. Almost every variety of ethnic or eclectic food is available. Finnish food is a little tame by comparison, but very fresh and relatively healthy. Finland is a lunch culture, with literally hundreds of excellent, casual lunch buffets around the city. Dinner, on the other hand, is a somewhat more formal affair for Finns.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes are problematic during the summer, and screen windows are not as common in Finland as they are in the U.S.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Local mail is equivalent to, or better than, USPS.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Household help is rare and expensive. Finland is an egalitarian country and even wealthy people seem to take pride in cleaning their own homes.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are plenty of gyms in Helsinki, including 24-hour gyms, women-only gyms, cross-fit gyms, etc. Prices are slightly more expensive than the U.S.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Helsinki is almost a cashless city. Credit cards are accepted in probably 99% of vendors and service providers, even food trucks and other "mobile" businesses. Consequently, ATMs are becoming more scarce.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

English-language church services are available for Catholics and Protestants at a handful of churches, but they tend to be crowded due to an recent influx of expatriates.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Finnish is not needed at all, as the vast majority of Finns speak near-fluent English. Local language classes are available for the brave.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Helsinki is fully handicapped-accessible.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Finnish public transportation is safe and effective. Helsinki is served by a comprehensive network of buses, trams, subway, and light rail. Taxis are expensive but of high quality.

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2. 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?

A good winter car is advisable. Sports cars and convertibles are not practical, due to severe winters and the prevalence of cobblestone streets in the city center. Finns use studded tires in winter, although U.S. mud/snow-rated tires are also legal. Because Finns use winter and summer tires, tire storage can become an issue for those with no garages. Mechanics offer tire storage services for a small fee.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Internet access is easy and inexpensive. Instant access is available via pre-paid cards available at R-Kioski and other convenience stores. Well-priced internet and bundled-service contracts are available from several major telecommunications providers.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Pre-paid SIM cards for mobile phones are cheap and convenient. Finnish phone plans are actually less expensive than their U.S. equivalents.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

Finns are pet lovers, so there are plenty of good veterinarians in Helsinki, as well as a world-class animal hospital at the University of Helsinki. Kennels are somewhat rarer, and tend to be located outside of the city, but quality levels are very high.

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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?

Local salaries are comparable to the U.S., but jobs can be scarce. Most jobs on the Finnish economy require fluency in Finnish, although there are some jobs available in multinational companies where the operating language is English. Finland also has strict requirements for work permits.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Finns are slightly more casual than Americans. Among business and government professionals, open-collared shirts and sport-jackets are much more common than suits. Jeans are even acceptable in many workplaces. However, Finns have a formal streak when it comes to dinners and special events, which are often black-tie, whereas in the U.S. they would only be suit-and-tie.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The security situation in Helsinki is excellent, and substantially better than in the U.S. However, expatriates would do well to abide by the same common-sense security practices that they use in their home communities.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

The Finnish winter brings a wide array of respiratory infections and influenza. Walking pneumonia seems more common here than in the U.S. However, medical services are excellent, and there is a wide array of private clinics that cater to expatriates in all areas of medicine.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

In the spring there is a so called "dust season," when the snow has melted, but the gravel used to treat the roads remains (along with fine particles of asphalt churned up by studded tires), which can cause respiratory ailments. Otherwise, the air quality in Helsinki is the best in the world for a major city, according to recent studies.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Seasonal allergies in Finland can be severe, due to the shortness and intensity of the growing/blooming season. You may not know you're allergic to birch until you move to Finland.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Finns grapple with long, dark winters. Vitamin-D supplementation is recommended year-round for the entire population. UV-light lamps are also recommended for daily use in winter, to improve mood and increase vitamin-D absorption.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Helsinki has a long but somewhat mild winter, with frequent melting and re-freezing, and even some rain during winter. Summer, on the other hand, is sunny and pleasant, but short.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are a handful of schools offering an international or I.B. curriculum, foremost among them the International School of Helsinki (ISH). Expatriate parents seem to be relatively content with ISH.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Helsinki offers a full range of special services, but capacity is limited. There are private clinics that serve almost all special and psychological needs, although it may not be possible to receive treatment at the desired times or intervals.

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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?

Helsinki has several private preschools that serve children up to the official school age of 7. Some preschools take children as early as age 2, but most only accept children beginning at age 3. Helsinki city day-cares (päiväkodit) take children from age 1, but parents must qualify, usually by proving that both parents work full-time, and pay the necessary taxes.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Helsinki youth sports operate on the club system, which can be difficult for expatriates to navigate. Hockey and soccer are the most popular club sports, although sports as esoteric as lacrosse are available. American football and a Finnish version of baseball are also available. However, sports offerings through schools are more limited, and may not meet the needs of very active families.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The expatriates number in the tens of thousands, and form a vibrant and diverse community. However, at the same time, since Finland is such an easy place to live, there are not really any closely-knit sub-groups. For most Westerners, life in Helsinki is scarcely different from life back home, with no pressing need to seek out one's own countrymen for support.

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2. 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 some active groups, such as the Finnish-American Association, or Suomi-Amerikka Yhdistys (SAM), and those inclined to rally around their home flags should be able to find at least a few like-minded people for socialization.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Helsinki is a great city for singles, couples, and families. Each demographic will be able to find plenty of people and activities to meet their needs and interests.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Helsinki is a very egalitarian city with a high level of acceptance for the LGBT community. Pride Day is one of the biggest events in the city every year.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Helsinki seems to suffer from some anti-immigrant sentiment, especially after the migrant crisis of 2015, and Finland's first terror attack (by a Moroccan asylum-seeker) in 2017. It also feels as there is a low-level but pervasive anti-Russian sentiment. Regarding gender equality, Finland has one of the highest rates of gender equality (as measured by presence in executive positions, salary, etc.) in the world.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Finland is a terrible place to visit and a great place to live. It's not an extravagant city that makes for great stories or photographs, but it's an extremely well-engineered city that makes daily life easy.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Finns are too internet-savvy for any "hidden gems" to survive, but one fun thing is to partake in the traditional Finnish sauna. A popular seaside sauna, Löyly, is a must try!

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Finnish handicrafts and design are world-renowned, with Iittala, Arabia, Pentik, Aarikka, and others represented on Finland's main shopping street.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Clean air, clean water, district heating (instantaneous, unlimited heat and hot water for all residences), comprehensive public transport, and a decent arts and culture scene.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Nothing.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Non-waterproof winter clothing. You need outerwear with a rating of at least 8,000 mm. waterproof.

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4. But don't forget your:

Nothing, as everything you need is here.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

"Drifting Clouds," a film by Aki Kaurismäki.

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