Amsterdam, The Netherlands Report of what it's like to live there - 06/10/14
Personal Experiences from Amsterdam, The Netherlands
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Caracas, Venezuela--for government. Previously, for volunteer work and studies, Ecuador, Mexico and the Philippines.
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?
Washington, DC--8 hours, direct.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. 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?
Mostly apartments in the same neighborhood as the Consulate--5-minute bike/tram ride, or 10-15 minute walk. The neighborhood is great since it is residential (mix of Dutch and international residents) but with easy access to high-end stores, quaint cafes, grocery stores, pharmacies, etc. At the same time, you are in the same area as the famous Rijksmuseum, Stadelijk Museum and Van Gogh Museum and 15-20 minutes by tram or bike to the city center. However, make no mistake that the apartments aren't large. We had a 2 bedroom/1 bath for a family of 3--another bedroom would have been very helpful considering all the visitors we had--with limited closets. You may have to deal with narrow, steep steps.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
I spent about 70 Euros per week on groceries for a family of 3. The main grocery chain, Albert Heijn, has decent selection and prices and they are everywhere. Health/organic food can be found at BioMarkt, EkoPlaza, Marqt and other, smaller places. There are also weekly farmer's markets scattered across the city. We did go to the commissary (2 hours south) every few months to buy better quality paper towel and toilet paper and other food/products with brands that we preferred (e.g. Mexican food, cottage cheese, sour cream).
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Very little...basically just specialty items that are particular to our family's tastes. Maybe dog food since that can be expensive. Maybe high-quality paper towel, toilet paper and paper napkins if you don't have access to the commissary. Mexican or Chinese cooking supplies if those cuisines are important to you.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Yes (McDonald's, KFC, Dominoes, Hard Rock) but why eat there when you have so many good local options?
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Some mosquitoes in summer but nothing else to speak of. Actually, the bigger problem is mice in older housing.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Available but expensive.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, available. I didn't join one but my impression was they were expensive.
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?
If you can, ask your American credit card company if you can get a card with a chip--not just the magnetic strip that is typical in the U.S. Many locations in the Netherlands only have machines that accept cards with chips (e.g. parking meters). Also be aware that Albert Heijn, the main grocery chain, does not accept foreign credit cards. So, you either have to pay with cash or use a local bank's PIN card. I heard that they may change that policy, but they hadn't when we left in late 2013. Otherwise, it is very easy to use credit cards and ATMs are ubiquitous--just make sure you remember your PIN!
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
None. Almost all Dutch speak perfect English. I was in the country for 3 months before I met someone who didn't speak English.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Not too many. The trams/trains/buses are accessible. Some of the older sections of town might be difficult to maneuver with the cobblestones, but that's all I can think of.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
So safe, so organized, so wonderful! Taxis are pretty expensive, though, so we rarely took them (only late at night when the trams come infrequently). The OV-chipkaarts are awesome since you can use them on trams, buses, and trains.
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?
Many government staff did not have cars, and it is perfectly possible to live well without a car since there are so many public transport options. However, we did bring a car (VW station wagon, but anything is fine) so that we could take road trips to nearby countries with our family since it is cheaper and more comfortable than trains when traveling as a family. Gas is expensive, but--like I said--we only used our car for trips so we had good gas mileage driving on the highways. We almost never used a car in Amsterdam for our daily commute. We did have an issue with replacing our stereo (our car was broken into, which was pretty common for VWs and Audis that have GPS built into the dash). We had the repairs to the door and window done with Dutch parts but we shipped a replacement stereo from our dealer in the U.S. to the Dutch VW dealer to install it. However, no issues having our regularly scheduled maintenance taken care of there.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Available. We bundled our cable, phone and internet and I think paid around US$150/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I received a basic smart phone when I bought a local cell plan. It was fine. No particular issues to note. There is a large Apple store in Amsterdam, in case you're an Apple person.
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?
No quarantine, but you do need to get a European Pet Passport when you arrive. Lots of vets (including an excellent emergency vet center) but pricey.
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?
Yes, but I wasn't locally employed so I can't speak too much about this.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Normal business attire at work, stylish in public. Even men are typically well put-together.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Very little, in comparison to other world cities.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
None. Very good medical care (especially if you're giving birth--one of the top 5 countries for mothers and babies; if you do give birth, look into getting a kraamzorg, which is like having your own Mary Poppins). But, they do have a different approach to medication and pain management (more naturalistic than in the U.S.) so be aware of that.
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?
Good--with so many people biking or taking public transportation, pollution is not an issue.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Summer is rarely hot (so, most housing does not have air conditioning). Some summers are beautiful and sunny and everyone spills out into the parks and cafe patios to soak up the sun...but others... you may be unlucky and get a cloudy, cool weather that leaves you unsatisfied and ill prepared to wait out the cold, dark winters. Because of Amsterdam's northern location, you get long days in summer (wonderful) but short days in winter (depressing) that are a bit difficult to deal with, especially if you go to and return from work in the dark.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is a British school in the same neighborhood as the housing or an international school in Amstelveen (a southern suburb). We used a local Dutch-English preschool, and we loved it.
2. 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?
Yes--many options. Many that are Dutch only, but some with English. Contact preschools early since it can be difficult to get a spot (especially for babies). If you are interested in Montessori method...keep in mind that the Association Montessori Internationale is based in Amsterdam, so you see quite a few Montessori options. We used one and loved it.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, but not as many as in the U.S. For example, we couldn't find a soccer program for our preschooler (the soccer programs typically start with older ages). I did hear later there was one in Amstelveen for younger kids.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small government expat community in Amsterdam (decent size in neighboring Den Haag), but a large overall expat community since it's a world city. Some aren't too happy living there (e.g. because of the rainy, cold, dark winters) but we absolutely loved it.
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?
Dine at any number of fine restaurants. Visit quaint, ancient bars and cafes. Go to a festival--there's always one going on. See a movie (maybe at the EYE film museum).
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great for everyone because there is so much to do--there's something for everyone. But, since we are a family, I'll speak to that. With easy, regular public transportation and kid-friendly bikes (i.e. bakfiets)...a multitude of parks...several kid-appropriate museums...it's an easy, fun, safe place to live with kids.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes. The Dutch are very open and have been for decades. Check out, if you can, the Dutch Pride celebration. It's fun for everyone.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There are some racial issues, particularly with immigrants.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Our family (including a young child) traveled to over 20 countries in 2 years. In-between those travels, we loved exploring Amsterdam which, although small and manageable, offered so many neighborhoods, sites, and activities that we discovered new and exciting things all the way up to our departure.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Oh geez, they are endless. I loved Negen Straatjes (try the hot chocolate and desserts at Pompadour, pancakes at Pancakes!) since every time I went there I found a new, fun, unique shop or restaurant. After you visit all the main museums, try out the smaller ones; I loved the purse museum and the canal house museum to see what it was like "back in the day." Explore hip Noord Amsterdam, over the Ij. Visit Haarlem or Utrecht for the afternoon, to be in a smaller scale, historical, quaint city than Amsterdam.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Great Dutch cheese. Stroopwafels (a dessert). Genever (a liquor). Tulips. Art.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Beautiful and many parks/green areas; amazing historical buildings/museums; easy travel by plane/train/car to all of Europe; well organized, safe and clean; easy to communicate since almost all Dutch speak English.
10. Can you save money?
Nope. But, it was soooo worth it.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
It's really dark (and somewhat depressing) in the winter. Invest in a "happy lamp" your first winter there. And/or plan fun trips to southern Europe during the winter.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. I wish we could have stayed longer.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Most of your hot weather clothes.
4. But don't forget your:
Rain gear (perhaps invest in a full rain suit when you get here if you plan to bike to work).
5. Do you have any other comments?
If you like clean, well organized, safe, beautiful, historical, fun cities, then move to Amsterdam. If you would like to travel all over Europe easily, move to Amsterdam. If you worry about learning a local language, move to Amsterdam (it's of course nice to learn some Dutch, but it's not necessary to everyday living). If you like good beer, cheese, frites and/or trying a feast of Indonesian food, move to Amsterdam. Better put...move to Amsterdam.