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Have you ever considered moving to Copenhagen, Denmark? You may have heard that Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest (if not the happiest) country in the world. That could be because Denmark scores very well when it comes to metrics such as: life expectancy, social support, economic security, freedom, work-life balance, and more. And Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark, seems like a great place to call home, right? At least that’s what I, and a few thousand other expats thought.
A couple of years ago I spent a year in Copenhagen as an international student. In fact, I moved during that time when Bernie Sanders wouldn’t stop talking about the great “socialist” Nordic Countries. What I learnt is that it’s not all good and it’s not all bad. There are advantages and disadvantages and in this article I will tell you about them.
Note: As a student I lived on my own in a student accommodation. I have limited knowledge and experience when it comes to relocating for work purposes, spousal visas, or childcare. These points are based on my own experience as well as the experience other foreigners have shared on various expats groups on Facebook.
Having said that, here’s the good and the bad about living in Copenhagen, Denmark:
Cost of living
You probably already know that life in Denmark is expensive, and Copenhagen is the most expensive place in all of Denmark. However, I found not everything to be expensive as I was expecting. In my opinion, groceries are quite affordable. This is going to depend on where you are from and what prices you’re accustomed to. For me, prior to moving to Copenhagen, I spent a decade living in Edmonton, Canada. Most groceries have to be imported from Mexico or Southern U.S. and that is reflected in the price. In Copenhagen I found I was paying about half (sometimes even a third) of what I was used to paying in Edmonton. Even if some produce are imported into Denmark, they only travel a short distance from neighbouring E.U. countries and that is reflected into their prices at checkout. For example, I found 1 Kg. of pears for 15 DKK (~ 3 CAD) and 500 g. of blueberries for 20-25 DKK (~ 4-5 CAD).
Having said that, everything else is significantly more expensive. And rent is the most expensive of all. I lived in a student dormitory so I didn’t struggle to find an apartment, but when I considered moving out, I was shocked! In addition to large rents, you also have to pay a hefty security deposit. In Edmonton you may (or may not) have to pay a security deposit before moving in. The deposit cannot exceed one month’s rent, which is very reasonable. You also get it back when you move out, unless you damaged the place (i.e. you broke windows or punched holes in the walls). In Copenhagen, you have to pay the first and last month’s rent as well as a security deposit which can be equivalent to as much as 6 months of rent. So you may have to pay up to 8 months of rent upfront! That’s a lot of money and worst of all is that you’re unlikely to get your deposit back. Landlords keep your money painting the walls and other small “repairs” that don’t cost as much as they claim. But it is perfectly legal for landlords to do this. In addition, you also have to move out 2 weeks before the end of your contract to allow for painting before the new tenants can come in. So you pay the last month’s rent in full but you can only live there for half the month. And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, there is so much competition that you may struggle to find an apartment even with an unlimited budget. Ultimately, this was the biggest reason for me why I decided not to stay in Copenhagen, even though it is a great city.
Taxes are also high, with a maximum tax of 55.9% on personal income! There is also a value added tax of 25% on the goods you purchase. Now incomes are also high enough that even a person making minimum wage could live decently (compared to Canada or the U.S.). As there is no minimum wage, most workers join unions (which negotiate for salaries and working conditions on their behalf) and that is an additional cost that you may not have back home.
Public transportation in Copenhagen is good. There are buses, which cover a significant area of the city, metro, which was recently expanded, and trains, which reach many suburbs and towns outside of Copenhagen. There are also some water buses. You pay for public transportation based on the zones you travel. The further out of the city you live, the more you’ll be paying in fares.
Owning your vehicle and driving is expensive in all European countries. However, in the Nordic Countries it is even more expensive. There are high taxes when buying a vehicle, and if you want to bring your car from abroad (even from a neighbouring country), there will be hefty import fees. Often times the import fees are much higher than the value of the car! In addition, streets are narrow, parking is a pain, and you won’t be able to drive very quickly as you’ll frequently get stuck behind a stopping bus on one lane streets. However, the bike lanes are very efficient.
Most people in Copenhagen get around on bicycle. There are bike-dedicated lanes everywhere in the city. There are also bike lanes outside of the city, and you could easily travel to another town on bike. So if you’re willing to go everywhere on bicycle, you could save a lot of money on transportation cots. But do note that most people will opt for buying a second hand bike. Bike thefts are very very common in Copenhagen. And if you place a bag in your bike’s basket, make sure you tie it well. Thieves will often get on a scooter, approach a cyclist, grab their bag and speed away.
A benefit of cycling everyday is that it will keep you in shape. You probably won’t need to join a gym (and you’ll save money). Another benefit is less traffic pollution and better overall health. You’re less likely to develop type II diabetes or other lifestyle-induced issues.
Most healthcare is “free” as it is paid through taxes. However the system itself is not that great. I have read countless complaints from expats and Danes alike.
When you move to Copenhagen, your doctor will be automatically assigned to you. You can change the doctor when you move or if he/ she retires. Otherwise if you’re just unhappy with the doctor, you will have to pay to transfer to a new one. You don’t really have a choice of doctor.
Personally I never managed to try the system because I had a hard time getting an appointment. I get frequent sinus infections, and sometimes they’re quite severe. When I got my second one in Denmark, I tried going to the doctor. I was told I could only book an appointment by phone between 8-9 am. So I tried, but the line was always busy and after a week I gave up. My infection started to get better on its own.
I have heard from others that doctors in Copenhagen are very reluctant to prescribe medications. The solution is almost always to take a walk. I have also heard complaints of doctors being dismissive and failing to diagnose serious issues, and refusing to refer the patients to specialists. There are also the occasional doctors who refuse to speak to the patients in English, and if you get one of these doctors you have to provide your own translator. This of course varies from doctor to doctor. It is also important to understand that Copenhagen is very populated for its size and, perhaps, there aren’t enough doctors.
If you have a severe but non life-threatening issue such as a very deep cut and need to go to the emergency room, you will have to call the hospital before you go. Based on the information you give them on the phone, they decide whether to take you or not, and at what time you can go.
Visiting the dentist can be pricy, as is the case with most western countries. However, many people have had great experiences going to the dentists in other neighbouring countries such as Poland, and paid a fraction of the cost. It’s not the most convenient thing to do, but it is an alternative you don’t really have in the U.S. or Canada.
Copenhagen is by far the most popular choice for expats moving to Denmark. As an EU country with a great standard of living, many other EU nationals come to Copenhagen in hopes of finding any job. As a result, finding a job is incredibly competitive and exhausting. And if you are not an EU citizen, your ability to get a job will be further challenged by visa requirements. I have heard of many expats who have left the country after YEARS of not being able to find work.
To increase your chances of finding employment, you should: develop a unique but in-demand set of skills, set up a Linkedin page, learn Danish, and most of all, integrate and network. Networking is one of the most important things you could do. As a small society, many jobs in Copenhagen don’t even hit the market. They’re filled as a result of somebody recommending somebody.
Once you have a job, work-life balance is great. There are mostly positive work environments, however, if most of your coworkers are Danish, don’t expect them to communicate in English just for you. There are countries where the locals try their best to accommodate for foreigners. Denmark, and in particular Copenhagen, isn’t one of those places.
Language can be another source of struggle for expats in Copenhagen. The written Danish is not too difficult. However, the spoken Danish is a whole other story. Danish pronunciation is so challenging that even neighbouring Norwegians and Swedes don’t always understand it, despite the languages being very similar. But Copenhagen is an international city and you can live very comfortably only speaking English.
Danish lessons used to be free for foreigners, but that changed in the last few years. You now have to pay to attend Danish classes. I personally didn’t take any. When I first moved there, my schedule was so busy and I was trying to get adjusted to the new life that I didn’t really have time. I also wanted to spend my free time having some fun and studying for my university classes, which were graded. But then later, when I had more free time, I still didn’t take Danish lessons. Once I realized that life in Denmark wasn’t as rosy as Bernie Sanders promised me, I had doubts whether I wanted to stay there long term so I didn’t see the point in learning the language if I was going to move away.
However, if you want to learn the language, you can get started for free on a platform like Duolingo. Once you move to Copenhagen you can sign up for lessons. You may have to go on a waiting list because there are so many foreigners in the city. But there are many classes in many locations around Copenhagen. I believe there are also some volunteers who offer free classes where you can practice your Danish speaking skills. These change frequently, so you’ll have to research some Facebook groups for updated information.
As with the language, integrating into Danish society can be tricky as an adult. Danish people tend to be very reserved and keep to their friend group. Children who start kindergarten get placed into a group, and stay in that same group as they go through school. So by the time they graduate from high school, they have already known each other their hole lives. As you can imagine, it’s nearly impossible to integrate yourself into one of those groups. This is actually a flaw in the society, as even Danish people who move across the country have a very hard time making friends and forming a new friends group.
That being said, there are so many expats in Copenhagen that you can easily become friends with some of them. Again, join some of the Facebook groups and see what events or get-togethers you could attend. Another downside is that some of these expats might move to another country or go back home. So you may find that your friend group is constantly changing and with all these changes, Copenhagen will always feel like a transient stay, never really like a permanent home.
Copenhagen is a very safe city to live in. I have not heard of any major incidents. However, it is illegal to walk around with weapons on you. Certain types of knives are also considered weapons. You do have to be aware of small petty crimes such as wallet thefts. But those are not Danish people committing such crimes. As a rich European capital that gets a lot of tourists every year, many small-time criminals are attracted to the city for some quick cash.
Most people are respectful towards each other. I have been in multiple places where people stand right in the back of your neck as you go to pay for your groceries. But in Copenhagen, most people will respect your personal space. That being said, you will have to bag your own groceries. You need to be quick because as soon as you pay, the cashier starts scanning the other person’s items right away.
There is way less bureaucracy than in other countries. If you are an employee your taxes are done automatically. You just need to log into the tax website and check to make sure everything is okay, and that’s it. If there are any issues, you then contact the tax authorities, otherwise no further action is required on your part. You will really appreciate it if you come from a country where taxes are unnecessarily complicated. And if you want to start a business, it is fairly quick and easy to register.
If there’s anything you need to look into, you can always check the government websites. They are easy to navigate and updated regularly. Despite English not being an official language, almost everything is translated into English. You can also do online banking in English, although I’m not sure if all banks offer that.
On the topic of banking, I’d like to point out there are also a lot of inconsistencies. When I tried to open a bank account for the first time I was told I could only do it online. Then I went to a different location (of the same bank!) and I was able to open an account after some questioning. The employee asked me some weird questions such as “why I need a bank account” after I told here I was LIVING there as a student. I thought that was an incredibly silly question from a bank employee in a mostly cashless country. Many other foreigners have also complained of weird inconsistencies in both banking and other sectors. Those who try to get a mortgage to purchase a property face even stranger inconsistencies. The most common issue is that foreigners have different employees at the same bank tell them they need different down payments.
Another issue is that some people are not necessarily qualified for their jobs. My friend called the tax authority once and some of the workers there didn’t even know the personal income tax brackets. I think the issue is either that not enough people speak Danish (and English) fluently, so anyone who meets that criteria gets the job. Or people get hired through connections and don’t have to work to get a job (the way those without connections do) so they don’t take their jobs seriously.
Lifestyle in Copenhagen is very down to earth and casual. There are multiple parks and beaches nearby. There are lots of canals and the water is clean enough for swimming. There are lots of festivals and concerts year round. The Christmas Markets are particularly nice. It is perfectly safe and acceptable to let children ride their bikes to school independently and no one will harm them. In fact, people frequently leave their babies alone outside to sleep. It really is a great place for everyone.
If you come from a North American suburb, you may find many conveniences while living in Copenhagen. As a large city, Copenhagen has lots of grocery stores scattered around, so you never have to travel too far to buy your necessities. There are also bakeries everywhere. If you want alcohol, you can just pick it off the shelves at the grocery store, and no, they don’t check your ID. You can also drink the alcohol on the grass in a public park (this is normal in most European countries but it’s prohibited in Canada and the U.S.). And if you want just one can of beverage, you just pull it out of the pack and buy the one can. Again, normal for European countries but not in North America where people buy the whole (4 can or 6 can) pack. The only time you’d buy just one can in North America is if you get it from the vending machine.
And if you like to travel, the Copenhagen airport can be easily reached by public transit and there are countless international destinations you can visit.
- Join an expats Facebook group before moving to Copenhagen
- There are many religious holiday, especially during spring, so make sure to check a calendar so you’re not taken by surprise when you find all grocery stores closed
- In addition to that, everything will be closed between December 24th and 26th. Even on December 23rd stores close early, so if you don’t want to eat sushi for Christmas do your shopping in advance
These have been my good and bad points about living in Copenhagen, Denmark. Do you have anything to add?