Oslo, Norway Report of what it's like to live there - 05/08/13

Personal Experiences from Oslo, Norway

Oslo, Norway 05/08/13

Background:

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

No, I have lived in a number of cities in Africa and Asia.

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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?

From the USA, there are a few non-stop flights out of New York (United, SAS, Norwegian), with all other destinations requiring a stopover somewhere in Europe. Non-stop flying time about 8 hours.

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3. How long have you lived here?

3 1/2 years.

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

Academic.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Mostly apartments, generally much smaller than in the USA. A few houses on the outskirts of town, but these are VERY expensive. There are lots of different locations to choose from. The west side of town (Frogner, Bislett) is where the embassies and a lot of expats/well-to-do folks live, and there are lots of gourmet shops and restaurants. On the eastern side (Grunerlokka, Torshov), it is more bohemian and younger, with more bars and artsy stuff. Gronland is very multicultural, with tons of ethnic food stores.

Apartment rents do not vary much between areas, maybe within 1000 NOK/month or so at most. The market for flats is tight. Going prices are about 12000 NOK (just over $2000) per month for a 1 BR apartment of about 50-60 m2. Each additional BR adds about 3000-4000 NOK to that. Landlords can be reluctant to lease flats to foreigners. Usually, landlords will have a sort of open house ("visning" in Norwegian) to show the available unit, and interested parties will put their name on a list from which the landlord can choose. The criteria used by the landlord is generally arbitrary, and foreigners can be low on the pecking order, so it might take a few visits before you get a place. If you don't have an identity number or bank account ready, it can be A LOT harder.

Electricity costs depend a lot on how new the apartment is. Older flats tend to have higher ceilings that result in higher power bills. My flat averaged around 500 NOK/month, but it was very efficient.

Commute time from the locations mentioned to the center is 20 minutes or less by bus or tram. I usually walked to work in about 20-25 minutes.

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

Supermarkets are everywhere - you can't walk 100 meters without running into one! However, they are typically small, and brand selection is poor. Think former Soviet Union in terms of variety. Costs depend on the item, but groceries are probably about 30-50% more costly than in the USA. Meat, milk, and eggs are about double the price.

You can only buy beer in the supermarkets---and only until 8pm on weekdays, 6pm on Saturdays; no Sunday sales. A six-pack of lousy Norwegian beer is about 120 NOK. Wine and liquor have to be purchased at the Vinmonopoliet, open until 6pm on weekdays and 3pm on Saturday. Their wine selection is not bad, but prices are high. The lowest price for a bottle of wine is about 90 NOK. Because the tax on alcohol is on alcohol content (not price), Vinmonopoliet tends not to import many low-value wines, but at the $20-25 range, you can find a pretty decent selection. Liquor is prohibitive, witness the bum-rush at duty free after flights!

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

Maybe a few comfort food items from the USA, but generally everything is available here, though at a cost. I do my shopping for big-ticket items in the UK or elsewhere.

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

Lots of restaurants of all types. Costs are high. The cheapest options are local kebab shops that will offer a large kebab and soda for about 45-50 NOK ($8-9). A main course at a regular restaurant will range from 120-180 NOK. Alcohol is very expensive - about 50-60 NOK for a 0.4 liter lousy beer. Even soda in restaurants costs about 39 NOK and no free refills!

Prices for restaurants, other than at the really high end ones, are not an indicator of quality. You can pay 150 NOK for a great Pad Thai in one place and then have a terrible pizza for the same price at another place. Restaurants are generally not good value, but there are a few exceptions.

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

None.

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Daily Life:

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

Regular mail, though packages from overseas valued over about $30 could attract duty!

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

Sure, lots. Prices about 400-500 NOK/mo.

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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?

Card machines are ubiquitous, but Norway, like the rest of the non-USA world, uses pin/chip technology, so if you try to buy things with a card without a chip, you might have problems. A few local shops only accept Norweigan-issued cards.

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4. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Newsinenglish.no is an English-language online news source that is good and free. You can get cable from a variety of providers; prices similar to the USA.

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

Almost none. Norwegian is not that difficult a language to learn, but there are many dialects, so you might understand one person and not another. It can be very hard to practice if learning, because once a Norwegian knows you are not a native speaker (or once you make any mistake), they will immediately switch to English.

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

Generally OK, but the city is hilly in spots.

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Transportation:

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

Yes. Taxis are not affordable though - it costs about 80 NOK to enter the taxi (about $14) and a short 3 km ride will cost about 150 NOK.

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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?

The tax on cars is prohibitive, well over 100%, and fuel costs about 14 NOK/liter (nearly $10/gallon). There is no need to drive in Oslo - public transport is efficient, extensive, and affordable (about $120/month for an unlimited monthly pass).

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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?

Yes, I paid about 300 NOK/month. Generally good quality and fast.

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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?

They are everywhere and getting a pre-paid line is easy. Post-paid requires a job and a credit history.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

From what I have heard, yes.

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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?

See above. Good opportunities exist in research, academia, IT, and engineering, and will be in English language environments. For other careers, despite Norway's 3% unemployment rate, you will need fluent Norwegian. There is often a well-documented reluctance among employers to hire non-Norwegians, so it can be an uphill climb if you do not come here in advance with something lined up.

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

Generally causal, people actually dress up more for going out than for work.

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Health & Safety:

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

Not really, usual big city awareness.

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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?

No health concerns as such. The public system is pretty average. You pay the first 2000 NOK out of pocket, and then the rest is free for the remainder of the year.

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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?

The air is very clean, but very, very dry. I have never seen so much dust.

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

Winters are long. They are no worse than a Midwestern winter (temps down to about -20C or 0F), but they can be relentless, with snow starting in mid-November and lasting well into April, with the occasional flurry seen in May. The worst part of the winter isn't the dark or the snow, but the fact that Norwegians are too $%^*&@ lazy to shovel the sidewalks after storms, which means there is a layer of ice that is never treated and persists for months. They occasionally throw rocks on it to help with traction, but that is of limited use. Walk like a penguin, indeed!

Summer (Jun-Aug) alternates between majestically cool days (low 20s C) with bright skies and sun, and grey rainy days. Summer ends abruptly the last week of August (without fail) with temps falling 5-8 degrees C within a week. Spring and Fall are similar in pattern to Summer, just cooler.

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Expat Life:

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

Pretty large.

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2. Morale among expats:

Mixed. Norway can really wear people down. A lot (majority) of expats come here as spouses of native Norwegians, with high expectations of finding work. This often proves difficult, as most jobs require fluency in Norwegian, meaning a lengthy stay out of the job market while learning, frustration with the system, etc. The dark and cold can also get to people, and people used to things happening quickly or inefficiently can get frustrated with the slow pace here. You will see a lot of people stay 2-5 years and then leave - there aren't so many long-term expats unless they have some sort of family connection here.

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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?

Lots of dinner parties and a very active bar scene. Friday/Saturday nights can be crazy in places. The high cost of alcohol is not a deterrent.

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

Good for all. There is a good international scene with a number of expat-focused groups (New to Oslo, Norway International Network, Internations) that have regular get-togethers. Oslo is very family friendly, with excellent family-leave policies if you work on the local economy. It is maybe not the best place for relationships that are in trouble - I have seen a number of such relationships fall apart here. Not sure if it's the dark, or cold, or what, though.

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

Yes, it is very open.

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

Not really - Oslo is nearly 30% foreign born. There is occasionally some tension with immigrants assimilating into society, but the government tries really hard to integrate newcomers. There have been recent tensions with the Roma that are ongoing.

Having said that, Norway is a bit closed and it can take some time to get to know Norwegians. Language is really important in this regard to break the ice, but still some view foreigners with suspicion.

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

Preikestolen is excellent! Visits to cities in the western part of the country (Bergen, Trondheim).

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

Once you have seen the main sites in the city (Holmenkollen, Opera House, Vigeland's Park, Aker Brygge, Sognsvann), there's not a lot else to see, but the outdoors are right on your fingertips - the subway literally drops you off at the foot of the forest for skiing in winter or hiking in summer. Norwegian Air offers low-cost flights throughout the country and the rest of Europe. There is lots to see and do in Norway in general, as long as your pocketbook can handle it! The flights may be cheap, but hotels in Norway are a different matter!

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

Sweaters, reindeer meat, lutefisk (if you are brave!)

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

Oslo is a beautiful city, with an interesting culture and terrific opportunities for outdoor activities (of different sorts) year-round. The city is safe, relatively clean, increasingly multicultural, and laid-back.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes. But you have to adopt a non-American lifestyle. This means you cannot eat out 3-5 days a week, you can't have a car, you don't go buy frivolous things, and you don't go to the bar all the time. Personally, this isn't that hard to do. I have easily saved about $1000/month on a similar salary as I would have had in the USA.

Having said that, it would be harder to save with a larger family and/or if one spouse did not work.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

I am still there, so yes.

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