Everything you need to know about Norway’s visa-free paradise, Svalbard

Expat life
04 Jul 2023
10 mins read
Written by Team Instarem

Ah, Svalbard Island – the land of ice, polar bears, and…visa-free zones? Yes, you heard that right. The Svalbard Treaty of 1925, which defines Norway’s ownership of the archipelago, has some interesting fine print.

One is that anyone from a treaty signatory country can live in Svalbard without a visa. So, naturally, Longyearbyen has quite the melting pot of residents.

But before you start packing, just remember – it’s not all fun and games in the coldest region on earth. Here are some top facts you should know!

Where is Svalbard?

Oh, you want to know where Svalbard is? 

Well, it’s only a teeny-tiny little Norwegian archipelago located between the mainland and the freaking North Pole. No big deal, just one of the most remote and rugged areas in the world. You’ll find polar bears, Svalbard reindeer, and Arctic foxes, all fighting to survive in the frozen tundra and glaciers. Oh, and did we mention it’s technically a desert? Yup, it’s so dry and inhospitable that it falls under the category of ‘Arctic desert.’

But hey, don’t let that fool you, people still actually live there!

Svalbard population

With a whopping 2650 people calling it home, it’s practically a bustling city. Of course, most of those people live in Longyearbyen, which is apparently an “Arctic science hub”. Sounds thrilling.

But wait, there’s more! Longyearbyen is also home to the Svalbard Science Centre, where you can find such exciting organizations as the Norwegian Polar Institute and EISCAT radar. And if all that wasn’t enough, a few hundred students also take courses there in riveting subjects like biology, physics, and geology.

Svalbard airport

svalbard airport

The easiest way is to hop on a quick flight from mainland Norway to Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen. And what a unique airport it is! Built on permafrost, you can rest easy knowing that the runway won’t melt during those toasty summer months. The hangar is even frozen into the ground – talk about being cool as ice! SAS and Norwegian Airways both offer daily flights to Svalbard, so grab your winter coat and get ready for a polar adventure like no other.

Svalbard jobs

Looking for a job in Svalbard? Well, Facebook and finn.no are the places to be! But hold on to your mittens, because finding a job for the full year is about as likely as spotting a polar bear in the summer. You might have better luck during spring (aka high season), but come autumn (aka low season), you’ll be chasing job openings like trying to catch a puffin in a flurry.

Plus, the reality is that working in Svalbard still requires some sort of qualification. Come on, who would have thought that grabbing a shovel and starting to dig like a mad mole wouldn’t suffice? Apparently, operating heavy construction vehicles is now needed to take care of the white fluff that covers the land.

And if you are thinking about becoming a guide, they too, want someone who’s qualified to ensure their guests don’t become polar bear snacks.

Svalbard weather

svalbard weather

Let’s simplify everything by dividing the year into only three main seasons. Who needs spring, fall, or any of that nonsense? Svalbard just has Polar Summer, Northern Lights Winter, and Sunny Winter.

Polar Summer (17th of May – 30th of September)

Who needs a pesky day and night cycle when you can have 24 hours of pure sunlight? Is it breakfast time or bedtime? Who knows!
So, if you’re planning a trip up there, make sure to bring a watch that can handle 24-hour mode. Otherwise, you might find yourself wondering why the heck it’s bright outside at 2 a.m. But don’t worry, losing track of time is all part of the fun during the magical time of the Midnight Sun.

Northern lights winter (1st of October – 28th of February)

Are you ready for some serious darkness? Head to Svalbard during the polar night from mid-November to late January for a winter experience like no other. Forget about differentiating between day and night, because the sun won’t be making much of an appearance, if any. But fear not, because the northern lights will make a stunning appearance. So, grab your warmest jacket and get ready to witness a fascinating phenomenon that will leave you in awe. Just don’t forget your flashlight!

Sunny Winter (1st of March – 16th of May)

Oh, sure. Let’s call it spring, shall we? Don’t let the mainlanders fool you with their talk of budding flowers and chirping birds. In Svalbard, it is STILL winter all the way from March to mid-May. But hey, at least we can rely on a normal sunrise and sunset instead of months of perpetual darkness or sunlight. It may not be the warmest or most inviting time of year, but there’s something special about experiencing the rugged beauty of Svalbard in its icy, snow-covered glory.

Other things you should know…

Buckle up, because there is a whole lot more to it than just the constant cold and handful of people roaming around.

Svalbard’s weather is going to have an impact on you

You might as well toss your body clock out the window because it’s going to be all out of whack.

Pump up on vitamin D like your life depends on it (which, let’s be real, it kinda does). And hey, while you’re at it, go ahead and invest in some of those good old dark curtains. You’ll feel like you’re living in a dungeon, but at least you won’t be woken up at 3 am by the blinding sunlight. Because let’s face it, when you’re living in the land of the midnight sun, your circadian or biological clock doesn’t stand a chance. But with a little bit of planning and a little bit of humour, you’ll be able to conquer Svalbard weather and all its quirks.

Life is expensive

So, you’re thinking of moving to Svalbard, are you?

Well, hold on to your wallet because life here isn’t for the penny-pinchers. Rent will cost you an arm and a leg, and don’t even get me started on the price of groceries.

Yes, grocery shopping in Svalbard can make even the most stoic Norwegian shed a tear or two. You see, most of the items have to be shipped all the way from Oslo, which means you’ll need to cough up some serious dough for that box of cereal.

If you plan on working remotely from this icy wonderland, make sure you register as “self-employed” to pay those pesky taxes. It’s not rocket science, but you should probably talk to the tax authorities to avoid any unexpected surprises.

And speaking of surprises, don’t forget about insurance costs. Oh, and let’s not forget the importance of having emergency funds tucked away for a rainy day. But hey, at least you’ll have polar bears and the Northern Lights to keep you company, right?

It is much easier to get a job than a house

So, you managed to secure a job in Longyearbyen. Congratulations, my friend! But hold up, don’t pop the champagne just yet. You still have to face the dreaded housing issue. Yes, I said dreaded, because it’s not an easy task to find non-employer-based housing in this quaint little town. Why you ask? Well, because mining companies, the University, and other big shots own most of the housing here. So, even if you do find something, brace yourself for some mind-boggling rent, which will probably suck out all your savings. And if that’s not enough, the cherry on top is that the Governor can decide to kick you out if you can’t keep up with the expenses. Sounds like a hoot, doesn’t it?

Polar bears exist you know?

Polar bears in longyearben

Yes, believe it or not, polar bears actually exist.

Crazy, right? And if you’re planning on venturing anywhere near their icy habitats, you’d better have a serious weapon in tow. But here’s the catch: not only do you need a gun, but you also need a permit for said gun.

I mean, come on, Svalbard, can’t you give us a break?

Oh, and don’t even think about leaving town without either shelling out some cash for a guided tour or showing off your hunting skills by taking down a bear. So, unless you’re a polar bear expert or have a serious death wish, you’ll be limited to exploring the few kilometres of roads within the city limits of Longyearbyen. And let’s be real, do any of us really have what it takes to survive in the Arctic anyway? Stick to the suburbs, folks.

Fluency in Norwegian helps

If you want to make things a little bit easier for yourself, it’s probably a good idea to learn a little bit of Norwegian. Of course, you could always choose to be a hermit and not speak to anyone, but where’s the fun in that? And let’s be real, without Norwegian, the simplest tasks can quickly become an uphill battle.

Ideally, travel to Svalbard first

You don’t have to immediately pack your bags and move to Svalbard to live that cool, icy life. You can dip your toes in the water first, quite literally.

Yes, my dear friend, you can choose to be a tourist before committing to the frozen tundra lifestyle. Take a tour, buy a souvenir and pretend you’re a researcher. You can even post pictures on your social media, captioning ‘Living the Arctic dream’ like a pro. And if the idea of polar bears knocking on your door doesn’t scare you, then maybe consider staying a bit longer.

But please, for the love of winter clothes, don’t go on the sled without a good guide. Trust me on this one.

Before you go…

So you’re thinking of moving to Svalbard, huh? You must be one brave soul. But hey, if you don’t feel like taking such a drastic step, that’s totally understandable. There are tons of other options out there for you – like moving to a neighbouring town or country, or even just down the street if you’re feeling particularly adventurous.

And if you’re considering becoming an expat, there are a whole host of different visa options to explore. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into – there’s nothing worse than packing up your entire life and realizing too late that you hate your new surroundings.

Oh, and when you do finally make the leap, make sure to use Instarem to send money overseas. You don’t want to end up spending all your hard-earned cash on pesky currency exchange fees.

Try Instarem for your next transfer.

Download the app or sign up on the web  now.

Trust us, your wallet will thank you.

*Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only. All details are accurate at the time of publishing. Instarem has no affiliation or relationship with products or vendors mentioned. 

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