living

Icelandic society

A brief on Icelandic society

When an Icelandair plane touches down in Iceland, you will soon hear "Velkomin heim" announced. This is Icelandic for "Welcome home." We indeed hope that you will feel welcome here. 

We know moving to another country is challenging—and a bit stressful—but there are many opportunities for those who make Iceland home. If there is one unifying characteristic of Icelanders, they prioritize a healthy life-work balance that is family-centric. Perhaps this is not a huge surprise given the island's population of 360,000 and the almost algorithmic way Icelanders can connect to each other!

Culture

Today Iceland is one of the most modern, healthy, innovative, educated, and sustainable countries. Just imagine If you could turn back the clock one hundred years. The Iceland you would see would be almost unrecognizable—even to Icelanders! The population would have been about 1/3 of what it is today, and tourists would have been few and far between. Reykjavik was a coastal village, while most people were living on the land in self-sustaining farms. Houses would have been cramped, many still with turf roofs, and fishing boats would have been small and chiefly sail or rowboats. 

Compared to many nations, Iceland has progressed very far, very fast. What makes this transition unique is that the leap forward was inclusive. Iceland ranks high on life satisfaction, gender equality, a clean environment, and incredible nature. It has a Scandinavian-style modern welfare system, free education, and a low crime rate making it an excellent place to live. 

Even dating back to the times of first settlement in 879, Iceland has been a tight-knit society. The early Viking settlers would have arrived on a desolate wind-swept, volcanic island with no indigenous population (except for possibly a few reclusive Celtic monks) and few animals except for sea birds. The people had to work together in extended family networks just to survive. Isolation and distance from outside influences have led to a unique culture that persists today. One consequence of Icelandic family networks' tight bonds is that it has resulted in a remarkably non-hierarchal society. A stark contrast to many European nations back in the medieval period.

Perhaps because of these close family bonds and long-standing participation of everyone since settlement times for basic survival, Icelandic society is remarkably equal. Granted, great strides toward equality have increased in recent times, especially toward gender equality, tolerance, and inclusion. All of these contribute to making Iceland a more open, inviting, and approachable society. For example, it is common to see politicians, athletes, and entertainers at the swimming pool, in the grocery store, or looking exhausted while picking up their kids at daycare like everyone else!

The Multicultural and Information Centre has a lot of information on its website, which is useful for new residents.

Icelandic language

The tie that binds.

Icelanders are very keen to tell you that they speak the language of the Vikings. This is not an exaggeration. While Icelandic is the official language, it would be hard to find an Icelander that does not speak English. Or many other languages for that matter! The language proficiency of Icelanders dramatically simplifies the transition and integration into Icelandic society. However, the Icelandic language binds the nation together and is something they steadfastly work to preserve. There is an Icelandic language committee that actually devises new words in Icelandic to protect the language, rather than adopting the original word. The word "computer" is a classic example. Icelanders created the word tölvu, which translates as "number prophetess." Interestingly, there are not any regional dialects and only slight accents in Iceland. Some Icelanders may find it challenging to understand your speaking Icelandic as they are not used to hearing their language spoken with an accent!

While you can get along well without speaking Icelandic, learning the language will help you integrate and connect with society. Not to mention, it gives you tremendous street credibility! While it is not easy (for most) to learn Icelandic, it is not as daunting as some say. It is a Germanic language with plenty of gendered words and irregular declensions that will make your head spin. In general, most workplaces will be in Icelandic, so learning the language will definitely help you move forward.

A quick online search of "learning Icelandic" will reveal current options for you. 

The Red Cross of Iceland also offers immigrants a space to practice speaking with local volunteers for free in their "Tölum saman" program. 

Facebook Groups for expats

Icelanders enthusiastically embrace Facebook groups. There seems to be a dedicated Facebook group for everything—knitting, vegans, cat fanciers, sports practices, gardening Q&A, and used furniture deals. There is a Facebook group for all of them!

Here are some general ones focused on living in Iceland:

Away from home – Living in Iceland

Iceland Q & A

The Expat's Lounge Iceland

WOMEN in Iceland 

English speaking news in Iceland

The Reykjavik Grapevine

The National Radio

Iceland Monitor

Iceland Review

IceNews

Iceland Magazine

Driving and public transportation

There are no trains in Iceland, the public transportation system is made up of buses.

Public Bus

There is an extensive network of public yellow Strætó buses connecting city and select regional stops in Iceland. Check out their website or download the app for the current schedule, rates, and rules. Unfortunately, the late-night bus service is rare, and taxis take people home after a long night out.

Tourism Buses

To visit many tourist attractions, private tour buses are running in the summertime that provides access to many scenic places. Some of these buses are specifically designed for off-road travel and river crossings.

Iceland on your own

Iceland by bus

Trex

Tips for the road 

In many ways, there are challenges to driving in Iceland that you will not find elsewhere. Pavement that ends abruptly, one-lane bridges, livestock in the roads, and tourists so awestruck by the scenery that they feel it is necessary to stop in the middle of the road to take pictures! Not to mention, the weather while driving some roads can be harrowing with gale-force winds, snow, and thick fog. In July!

Here are some tips for driving in Iceland.

A short video from Iceland Academy about Driving in Iceland.

Here is everything you need to know about cycling in Iceland.

Valid driver’s license

If you are a citizen of the EEA, EFTA, or Faroe Islands, you may freely drive in Iceland with the same rights as your home country. Driver's licenses from other states may drive for one month after registering their legal domicile in Iceland. After this period, they must hold an Icelandic driver's license. Qualifying for an Icelandic driver's license will differ depending on where your original license was issued and the training you undertook. You may be required to attend driving theory classes, lessons with an instructor, and a written and practical driving test. The process and laws regarding driving licenses are found on Sýslumenn. For more general resources on driving, see Fjölmenningarsetur/Multicultural Information Centre.