Amsterdam, The Netherlands Report of what it's like to live there - 10/04/14
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?
We lived in Antananarivo, Madagascar for two years.
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?
Travelling from Schiphol Airport to Dulles, Virginia, or other major East Coast airports is usually direct about an eight-hour flight.
3. How long have you lived here?
We have lived in The Netherlands for 2 years.
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?
In Amsterdam proper, it is mostly apartments. As you move out from the city center and into the suburbs there are stand-alone single family homes and townhouses. Expats with families and pets tend to gravitate to the Oud Zuid and Amstelveen areas - which are also closer to the international school. Almost all Dutch housing is characterized by small bedrooms, steep, open staircases, and very limited storage. Commuting time varies, but the Metro, tram, and bus system is excellent and provides complete coverage of the entire area. There have been recent (last 1-3 years) news articles and government inquiries into leasing companies, private landlords, and expat relocation services gouging expats by charging exorbitant rents and routinely keeping deposits at the end of leases without justification.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
We spend US$200-300 per week on groceries and household supplies for our family of four. Groceries (dry goods, produce and meats) are very expensive here.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More rain gear, OTC medicines, salsa, Tostitos, snacks for the kids and quality cleaning products.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC are the only fast food options here. They're more expensive and tailored to the Dutch. A Big Mac will cost about US$3.75. You won't find anything grilled. This is a fried food nation. Dominoes pizza delivery is also available. Restaurants are plentiful in every cuisine and price point. Home delivery is available for most types of food too but it is expensive.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitos are the biggest problem and only for about a month.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO through the U.S. Embassy. UPS, FedEx, DHL are available, but are a bit pricey. A lot of expats use Amazon UK for online purchases to avoid shipping costs from the U.S.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
10 to 12 Euro per hour. Available but check the person's residency status and right to work in the EU if you want "legal" help.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, and they run the spectrum from discount, no-frills industrial settings up to those including child care, spas, massages, cafes and juice bars, etc. We pay US$100 per month for a very nice gym, somewhere in-between the bare bones and spa-like facilities. Some cost as little as US$20 per month with no membership fee - they tend to have no child care and have a younger crowd.
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?
They're a cash society, mostly via a PIN debit card (not a credit card) with a chip in it, issued by a European bank. American Express is used in some places in Amsterdam proper and the major department stores. Having a chip is your credit cards are highly recommended.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
English services are limited. Churches that have English services are mostly targeting the large immigrant populations in The Netherlands.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Almost everyone speaks English here except for the very young, and very old. Speaking Dutch is helpful, and will help with a first impression but is not necessary. The Dutch will seamlessly transition to English as soon as they realize you are not a native speaker. Most restaurants have multiple menus because of the volume of tourists here and virtually all retail workers and restaurant employees speak English. Most Dutch also speak another language besides English so you may find a common language outside of Dutch and English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
This is a walking, biking and local transpiration society. It would be difficult to live here with a physical disability but scooters and small electric cars used by handicapped persons are permitted on the bike paths and are prevalent. Stairs and brick/cobblestone streets would be the biggest impediments for persons of limited mobility.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The national transport system is all integrated (bus, tram, metro, and train) can all be paid for with the same fare card. They are well-maintained and seem very safe.
We use the anonymous OV-chipkaart, it has a one-time cost of roughly US$9.39 and can be purchased at sales machines at stations, various tobacco specialty shops, at many supermarkets, and at GVB Tickets & Info. The card is valid for four to five years. You can load and use a card immediately.
Most people purchase a personal OV-chipkaart. On OV-chipkaart.nl. You will need a digital photo, a Dutch mailing address, and must pay via iDEAL. The personal OV-chipkaart has a one-time cost about US$9.51 and is valid for five years. The card will be sent to your home. A travel product or e-purse balance must be loaded on the card before you can use it to travel. The advantage of the personal card is that it is less likely to be used if lost or stolen, and reduced fares for children under 12 are available.
When you have guest in town GVB passes are best. The GVB day or multiple day ticket provides you with unlimited GVB travel throughout Amsterdam - day and night - on the bus, tram, and metro, for the number of hours that best suits your plans. For example, the day ticket is valid for 24 hours starting at the first check in.
Taxis are very nice (Mercedes, Audis, etc. with drivers in suits) but are expensive, and usually require dispatching or going to a taxi stand at a major hotel or transport hub - flagging one on the street is difficult and uncommon. The biggest disadvantage though, within Amsterdam city center is the traffic and lack of flow for vehicles - pedestrians, bikes, and trams move faster than cars.
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 smaller, the better. The parking spaces are small here. In Amsterdam the roads can be narrow. We drive a mid-sized American SUV and it is one of the biggest SUV's I've seen here. Parking is a challenge and is almost never free. Replacement parts for U.S. vehicles will be very expensive if they can be found but more likely will have to be shipped.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
We use Ziggo. We have a package that is bundled with internet, cable and phone. We pay 69 Euro per month. KPN also offers internet. Most expats use the internet for Apple TV, Netflix, Slingbox, VOIP phones and other internet based entertainment and communication.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
It's Western Europe there are a multitude of plans and services at all price points with contracts or pay as you go. We use Dutch provider KPN with contracts. We pay US$110 per month for the full plan (data, phone, SMS, etc.). Bring an unlocked GSM smartphone with you and you'll reduce your costs. If not, you'll have to buy or rent a phone with your plan. Roaming within the EU is pretty inexpensive, and is being deregulated further in the next year. Then, it won't matter if your phone and contract are Dutch, French, German, etc. - the providers will have to charge a base rate in their contract without roaming charges - great for travelling!
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?
Pet's don't need to be quarantined. Check and double check before flying in that your paperwork is in order. Travel within Europe requires a pet passport. You can obtain this from your local vet. Pet care is very good here. The vets are better than people doctors! The Dutch love dogs, cats and horses.
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?
The unemployment rate is high. It's currently at 7.3%. Bilingual expats will have more opportunities to find jobs but local employers would likely hire a Dutch citizen before an expat. The U.S. Consulate and the U.S. Embassy have limited openings at various times.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There is an endless list of opportunities whether your interest lies in volunteering at a sports association, cultural events, working with nature and animals, working with youths, assisting the disabled or helping newcomers to the city find their feet.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Corporate dress is a little more relaxed than in the U.S. Outside of work they're a dressy jeans society. Like most European men, Dutch men tend to dress in a more tailored look. The women follow the European fashion trends but tend to be a little more utilitarian.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Nothing that you wouldn't expect in any U.S. metropolitan area or other European capital. Unattended (or not properly locked) bikes will be stolen; pickpockets are active in the city center and on public transport especially during holidays and heavy tourist periods. Our car window was smashed in a mall parking lot in an act of vandalism or attempted theft and we had a wallet lifted from a bag in a cafe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
One member of our family was sick every couple of months the first year we were here. We chalked it up to the new environment. We've heard the same from most expat families. They're conservative on medicating here. They take more of a wait and see approach. After two years we switched to an expat doctor because the Dutch practice basically refused to treat the symptoms. They are much more holistic and homeopathic here than in most other Western countries. Medical facilities are state of the art and doctors are well-trained though so there shouldn't be any fear if you have a serious illness or injury, just prepare to be frustrated if you have cold, flu, intestinal or allergy symptoms!
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?
It is very dusty here. The endless plants and flowers here may cause some allergies. My family had some sinus problems the first year.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Seasonal allergies are common. Bring your eye drops, they don't have them here. Also bring your own supply of OTC allergy medicine, and cold and flu remedies.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Rain, rain and more rain! Be prepared to spend 75% of your time in the rain. It rains almost every day here in the autumn and winter months. In Holland all you have to do is wait five minutes and the weather will change drastically. In the autumn and winter months it can be dark by 3pm. During the summer it's positively beautiful. This year has been unusually warm and sunny.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We have one child at The International School of Amsterdam, which is located in Amstelveen. She is in the lower school program. Overall we've had a good experience with the school. If you are not accustomed to the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, you should research it and become familiar with the theories and structure of it prior to your arrival, especially if your children have spent their entire lives in a U.S. system.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
The International School of Amsterdam has some programs. It depends on the need of the child.
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?
There are creches that are subsidized by the government, Dutch residents get a significant 30-50% discount (not applicable to diplomats because they don't pay into the Dutch tax system). My youngest attended one the first year we were here three days a week. We paid US$360 a month. The week she turned four she went into a local Dutch school. The school is free to residents of the Netherlands, including expats. It is completely in Dutch, of course, but there are so many young expats enrolled, that they offer Dutch language classes for non-native Dutch speakers.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
For outdoor team sports, they're a soccer and hockey (field hockey) nation. Most sports are offered for a fee by athletic clubs, outside of school, and are coached mainly in Dutch. There are also ice hockey, ice skating, baseball, rugby and swimming options. Horseback riding lessons are relatively inexpensive.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is huge, and spread out. The largest nationalities represented are U.S., British, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Indian and Israeli, and there are pockets or communities where they tend to gravitate to, and clubs and organizations to encourage socializing. The Netherlands is a convenient business hub, and tax haven that draws European, African and Middle East headquarters for international companies. The morale varies based on the level of experience abroad expats have, the benefits provided by the expat's employer, and ability to assimilate to a different culture. No big surprises here - some families want to be here and others don't.
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 several great restaurants, night clubs, music venues, movie theaters, and sports venues. Just being out and about in Amsterdam is entertaining!
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a good city for everyone.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
One of the best in the world. The Dutch were the first country to recognized same-sex relationships decades before other countries did.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Some Dutch have racial prejudices but would never admit it and there are fringe political parties that are less tolerant. The targets are recent immigrants from Africa and the Middle East and Dutch citizens descendant from the Dutch colonial past in the Caribbean and South America. This is not prevalent by any means among the majority of the population.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The highlights of living in Amsterdam have been visiting the Rijks Musuem, Van Gogh Musuem, canal rides, great restaurants and travelling to other countries.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The Rijks Musuem, Van Gogh Musuem, Anne Frank House, Herimitage Musuem, football (soccer) matches at AJAX Arena, Ziggo Dome and Heineken Music Hall for big musical acts. In the warmer months the beaches are great. Our favorite is Noordwijk Beach. It's 40 minutes from Amsterdam. Other popular beaches include Scheveningen, Zandvoort aan Zee & Bloemendaal aan Zee. Private open air canal rides in Amsterdam are always fun. We also enjoy going to Giethorn in the warmer months. It is known as the Venice of Holland. An outdoor cafe on the canals or Amstel river is a great way to spend an afternoon taking in the sights and sounds. Ouderkerk has a few great cafes on the Amstel river.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Dutch clogs, Gouda cheese, Delft pottery, and flowers.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The culture here is much different then we expected. The Dutch (on the street, in the service industry, retail, etc.) tend to be private and very direct people, which could be mistaken for rudeness, but this is really not their intention - they tend to warm over time. Living in Amsterdam gives you the opportunity to travel to many other great European countries by car, train or plane. While in-country, the opportunities are endless for eating out, visiting museums, music venues and taking canal rides. You will find that most of your money will be spent on travel, groceries, and eating out.
10. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
The rainy weather. Autumn and winter are dark and gloomy here. We also wished we'd known that the US$ was going to continue to fall against the Euro.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Standard size oven pans and cookie sheets and 110 voltage appliances unless you have transformers.
4. But don't forget your:
Bring multiple OTC medicines for everything. Don't forget your rain boots, umbrellas and attitude about life goes on in the rain. Beach chairs are great to have in the Summer months. With the exception of Christmas, bring your own holiday decorations. Baking mixes, cake decorations, and party supplies are recommended, too.