Helsinki, Finland Report of what it's like to live there - 10/09/21
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?
This is not my first expat experience, but is my first in Europe.
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?
Unfortunately there aren't direct flights to Washington, D.C., but there are direct flights from Helsinki to Chicago, New York and LA. Many airlines transit in major European hubs like Amsterdam, London or Frankfurst and then fly direct to D.C. or other major U.S. cities.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is great! Finnish homes tend to be modern with sleek, white kitchens and saunas in nearly every house or apartment. U.S. embassy housing ranges from city-center apartments to townhouses and stand-alone houses in the suburbs.
The closer you are to the city-center, the smaller the housing. However, homes and apartments are well-designed and functional, so even small spaces are very livable. Nearly everyone is happy with their assigned housing, because all units have their own perks. Some have charming historic details (though updates to kitchens and bathrooms). Others are large and modern. Other have Baltic Sea access.
Note that appliances are European, so ovens and washer/dryers are small.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries and household supplies are more expensive than the Washington, D.C. area, although when you submit VAT for reimbursement, that gives you a decent amount of money back, and Helsinki also has a generous COLA currently. Luckily, prices aren't as high as some other countries in the region, like Oslo. A few examples:
1.5 liter bottle of soda: 2.89 Euro
Loaf of bread from grocery store bakery: 5 Euro
Small carton of strawberries: 6 Euro
Bunch of bananas: 2 Euro
Box of cereal: 5 Euro
Single serving of yogurt: 1 Euro
Restaurant and delivery food, however, are considerably more expensive than the U.S. For instance, a large Pizza Hut pizza is 25-30 Euro. As a family of four, when we order takeout (Thai, Indian, Italian, etc.), we usually pay between 60 and 100 Euro.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nearly everything is available. Even things that tend to be hard to find overseas can be found here, although at higher cost, such as peanut butter, chocolate chips, tortillas, bagels, etc. There are specialty Asian markets, and I've heard of though haven't visited a Mexican market, etc.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
This is a major international city with just about anything you could want, from fast food to Michelin-starred restaurants.
American fast food restaurant include McDonalds, Burger King, Subway and Taco Bell, plus there are number of European and Finnish fast food options. Hesburger is like the Finnish McDonalds, for example.
Delivery is widely available for fast food and mid-range options (usually with a fee) through partners like Wolt, Foodora, etc.
There are plenty of different cuisines available, including Nepalese (essentially Indian), Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Greek, etc.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The U.S. embassy uses both DPO and pouch. The local postal service is an option, as are international carriers such as DHL, FedEx, etc.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Finns are a very self-sufficient people, and even the wealthy tend to take pride in cleaning their own homes. Household help is not very common, though some embassy families have found part-time cleaners through services or word of mouth. Cleaning services advertise rates from 150 Euro for a half day of cleaning.
Nannies for young child can be hard to find, as this is not an option that locals need or use due to general parental leave that results in a parent usually staying home for the first two years of a child's life and then using government-provided childcare after that.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms and sports facilities are widely available, but outdoor exercise is the norm during every season. The U.S. Embassy has a small gym that employees can use for free. Hiking, Nordic walking, cross-country skiing, ice hockey, curling, tennis, sailing, kayaking, downhill skilling and running are some of the most popular sports. In the winter, many public parks and areas are turned into ice skating rinks that that the public can use for free. Participation in sports, especially winter sports like ice hockey and skiing, is less expensive than in the U.S.
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?
Credit cards are used but pretty out of date here. Pretty much all transactions are done by mobile banking. Apple pay works fine. U.S. credit and debit cards work at local ATMs. You will need to get a local bank account for some reasons such as VAT refunds, and local banking tends to be complicated and problematic for foreigners. However, most banking can be done with U.S. accounts and cards.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is widely spoken. Even outside of the capital, I have yet to find an adult who doesn't speak English well. Finns tend to be modest about their English ability and say they don't know it well, but then they will speak extremely proficiently.
The only exception is young children. Local schools seem to not start English instruction until age 7 or 8, so younger kids only speak Finnish, and older kids might know some English but most aren't yet fluent.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Finland is very accessible. It has strong protections and regulations similar to ADA in the U.S.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Helsinki has a wonderful public transportation system of metros, buses and cable cars that are clean, reliable and run very frequently. Cost varies by distance but starts at 2.80 Euro. Monthly and annual passes are available.
Finland also has a widespread rail network, including overnight trains and car carriers. Many use these to travel up to Lapland. There are also a number of private ferries which travel to Tallinn, Stockholm, etc.
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?
Car preference depends on housing location and family size. Expats drive SUVs, sedans, minivans, etc. All cars will require winter tires (per local law) which you can purchase when you arrive.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High-speed internet is available and less expensive than the U.S. While you wait for your permanent Internet to get set up, you can use a internet "puck" which is also high-speed and inexpensive. These can be purchases at any R-Kioski (which is a 7-11-like convenience store located all over). These pucks can also be taken with you to access internet on road trips, etc.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Data and local phone plans are inexpensive and easy to set up with any unlocked phone.
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?
Vets and kennel service are available and high quality but expensive. There are no quarantine requirements. Finns love dogs. Dog parks are widely available, and dogs can be seen hiking, in forests, etc. Cat owners should know that cats are not permitted outside, and Finns are very serious and strict about this.
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?
Many embassy spouses telework. I don't know of anyone who has found a job on the local economy. Per media reports, foreigners without Finnish language skills have great difficulty finding employment in Finland. The embassy has a limited number of family member employment opportunities.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
At work, Finns dress similar to Americans on the East Coast: business suits, professional dresses, business casual on occasion, etc. Outside of work, hiking and athletic attire are very common.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The quality of medical care is excellent but access can be frustrating for foreigners, especially diplomats, who are some of very few in the county not eligible for government healthcare. Most healthcare providers are confused by the administrative aspects of seeing embassy family members, though once those are overcome, quality of care is good. Medevac would never be needed unless someone simply felt more comfortable in the U.S.
2. 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?
Air quality is excellent.
3. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Finland has a very short summer (during which temperatures don't get much higher than 75 or 80 F), decent length spring and fall, and a long winter. Winters doesn't necessarily get colder in Helsinki than in places in DC or NYC, but winter lasts longer and is significantly darker. When snow is on the ground, that lightens things up.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most embassy and expat children attend the International School of Helsinki. Some choice for the International School of Espoo. Espoo is technically another city but essentially a Helsinki suburb. Some families with younger children also choose local (Finnish language) options.
ISH is a small school, with about 40 students per grade. It offers IB programs at all levels.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Special need services for expat families are not at the same level as the United States, in my opinion. Some embassy families have found ISH accommodating of minor special needs. Others have not been satisfied with the level of special need services available.
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?
The International School of Helsinki has preschool options that cost about $15,000/year. Local preschool options are highly subsidized and could cost embassy families as little as a few hundred dollars a month. These options are in Finnish, but several embassy families are happy with them.
ISH has some after-school extracurricular activities but no consistent before or after-school care.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Finns are very into hobbies, and sports and recreational activities are widely available. Some activities that embassy children participate in include: cheerleading, gymnastics, tennis, downhill ski lessons and teams, ice hockey, soccer, basketball, dance, sailing, wrestling, indoor climbing, etc.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is medium-sized, largely from Europe. There's also a decent-sized American expat community of private sector workers, students and scholars, and Americans married to Finns who have settled permanently in Finland.
Morale is good, though since Finland is such a comfortable and easy place to live, most expats integrate into life fine, and there's not a strong sense of community in expat circles.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Helsinki is an excellent place for anyone.
3. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Finns aren't particularly interested in befriending expats, especially those who will stay for only 2-3 years. They aren't unkind, but they also aren't super welcoming.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Finland has strong LGBT protections and a progressive, welcoming culture.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Finland is a largely homogenous (white) country still, and while on paper progressive and welcoming of all, in reality, bias and microagressions towards people of color absolutely exist. Same goes for minority religious groups.
Women, even young women, occupy positions of prominence in Finnish culture much more so than in the U.S.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Nature is integrated into every part of life in Finland, even in Helsinki. You're never far from the forest or the sea. Nature isn't something I thought I needed before moving here, but I've learned how much regular access to it enhances one's life.
Some say that Helsinki is a terrible place to visit but a wonderful place to live. That resonates with me. There aren't many international attractions or sites, but life is good and comfortable, and it's a wonderful city with everything one could want or need, from nature to culture to architecture to food to shopping to sports, etc.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Try winter swimming at Allas Sea Pool
Visit one of many public saunas (Loyly is popular with tourists)
Travel by sleeper train to Lapland
Sleep in a glass igloo and watch for Northern Lights
Try cross-country skiing
Join a curling league
Go to sailing school
Hike on a forest path with Baltic Sea views
Join a boat-share for summer months and (like a city bike program but for boats) and head out on the water
Visit Oodi, a public library unlike any library you've seen, with public 3-D printers, recording studios, workshops, etc.
Take an overnight ferry to Stockholm
Visit the town of Fiskars, home to Fiskars scissors
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There are no bargains to be had, but a few brands that Finns are very proud of and that would make for good (though pricey) souvenirs:
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Don't rent skis your first year; just buy them.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. But don't forget your:
Coats of every variety. You can never have too many coats. Every day has a slightly different outerwear need.