Finland is one of the world’s northernmost countries, bordered by Sweden and Russia. The capital Helsinki lies on the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland and is the most densely populated area, with 1.4 million inhabitants. The Finnish landscape is made up of thousands of lakes and islands and the geography and climate, with continuous daylight in summer and darkness in winter, creates a unique way of life for residents. The symbolic power of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) and Midnight Sun is entrenched in Finnish folklore, tradition and culture. Despite a somewhat turbulent history under Russian influence, Finland is staunchly proud of its place in the European Union and is so far the only country in the Nordic group (Denmark, Sweden, Norway) to have adopted the Euro.
Finnish culture shares many similarities with other Nordic countries, with a commitment to equality, liberalism and the creation of a highly-functioning society. Finns enjoy excellent living standards and are highly educated, thanks to heavy investment in free education for all. Finns are proud of their rich cultural heritage and folklore but Finland is also an ultra-modern nation with a flair for digital technology (Nokia is a Finnish company – despite most people thinking it is Japanese) and a long held reputation for advancements in scientific research. Culturally, Finnish people are known for being taciturn and having a ‘less is more’ approach to life, where honesty and diligence are held in the utmost importance. One Finnish proverb aptly describes this attitude: “Take a man by his words and a bull by its horns.”
Finns love being outdoors and many leisure activities are dictated by the extreme weather conditions. Popular pursuits include skiing, hiking, ice hockey, swimming (in icy lakes) ice skating and fishing. However, a national obsession with the sauna tops the list of leisure activities. There are over three million saunas in Finland, and many homes have their own private equipment. The sauna is a major facet of Finnish identity and its health benefits are considered sacred (until recently, many women gave birth in the sauna). Newcomers to Finland should familiarise themselves with the rules governing sauna etiquette before stepping in.
Finnish cuisine is heavily influenced by neighbouring Sweden and Russia. Staples include rye bread – a favourite in Scandinavia – potatoes, meat and fish. Finland’s verdant pastures, coastline and lakes offer up some of the freshest produce in Europe and the national diet is considered to be very healthy.
Popular dishes include silakka (pickled, smoked or marinated herring), and a type of heavy meat stew called a karjalanpaisti. Dairy forms a large part of the Finnish diet and comprises many varieties of yoghurt and homegrown cheeses, like the blue-veined aurajuusto. An abundance of homegrown berries – such as lingonberries and cloudberries – are also used to make soups, jams, chutneys and juices.
Vodka is the national beverage of Finland and famous brands include Finlandia and Kossu. There is also a wide choice of mild Finnish lagers and beers to choose from. Strict laws govern the purchase of alcohol in Finland and it is very expensive – in a Helsinki bar, you will pay around €7 (£6.05) for a small beer.
The two official languages are Finnish (Suomi) and Swedish, with Russian the third most widely spoken. Finland also has a number of minority languages which include Sami (spoken by the 1,500 Sami peoples), Romani and Karelian. English is taught from preschool onwards and is widely spoken, particularly in academic settings – many Finnish degree courses are now taught entirely in English.
Differences in accents and dialects are divided between the east and west of the country. Additionally, the Finland-based Swedish population speak a variety of Swedish dialects known as suomenruotsi as their first language. Despite differences in accent and influences from Russian and Swedish, most Finns speak a range of foreign languages and have a high level of English, which is helpful for new expats, as Finnish can be a rather difficult language to learn.
The Finnish climate is characterised by mild summers and intensely cold winters. Temperatures average around 13°C to 18°C in summer and can drop to as much as -30°C to -50°C in the coldest month of February. The extreme climate influences life and culture in Finland, with very heavy snowfall, continuous darkness in winter and continuous light in summer. New expats not used to these conditions may find them strange at first, however, the Finns take the weather in their stride and celebrate their unique relationship with the sun with numerous festivals, midnight BBQs and parties.
On the whole Finland is a safe country with very low crime rates, although alcohol-related crime is notably higher than in other Nordic countries. However, most international visitors to Finland will feel comfortable walking around cities, although it is advisable to stay with a group in the more raucous parts of Helsinki.
Finland is considered to have one of the best education systems in the world. Education is state-run and free to all children and adults, from preschool to university and beyond. Children do not start school until they are age 7 in Finland and education is compulsory up to the age of 16. The system comprises a non-compulsory preschool year from age six followed by a nine year ‘basic education’ between the ages of 7 and 16. Following compulsory education, school-leavers can choose to join the workforce or continue on to general or vocational upper secondary education. Both forms usually take three years and allow eligibility for higher education.
The academic year runs from mid-August to the end of July and is divided into four semesters or ‘teaching periods.’ In schools, the day starts at around 8am to 9am and ends at around 2pm. All children are provided with a free healthy lunch until they are 16.
Finland has a distinguished higher education system consisting of 14 universities and 24 Universities of Applied Sciences (UAP), with the University of Helsinki being the largest and highest-ranked. Admission to university is dependent on upper secondary school examinations known as the abitur and highly transparent, merit-based university entrance examinations. Higher education is regulated by the Ministry of Education and Culture, although Finnish universities enjoy significant autonomy over their finances and are classed as corporations in law. Higher education in Finland is funded by the state but universities are also expected to raise their own funds from external sources.
Tuition is currently free to all Finnish and EU/EEA students, although fees for non-EU/EEA students are to be introduced in 2017, along with a range of generous scholarship options.
Finnish degrees consist of three-year undergraduate courses followed by two-year Master’s degrees. PhDs take around four years to complete and are fully funded – doctoral students are either employed by the institution or receive funding from external sources. Finnish is the main language of tuition, however many courses are now taught almost entirely in English.
Finns believe investment in research to be vital to the country’s economic success. The research system is relatively decentralised, with the majority of activities based in universities, UAPs and 18 government research institutes. Funding is provided via the Finnish Research and Innovation Council and the Strategic Research Council, both branches of the Academy of Finland, a national organisation which provides specific grants and fellowships.
Primary and secondary education
The Finnish state education system is not divided into primary and secondary schools – children receive a nine-year ‘basic education’ which is compulsory from ages 7 to 16. The ‘primary’ part of the basic education lasts to age 12 and the remaining four years consist of ‘secondary’ education. Basic education is followed by voluntary enrolment in upper secondary school, divided into ‘general’ (academic subjects) and ‘vocational schools’ (technology, health, transport, social services etc.).
The success of Finnish education has been attributed to the fact that children start school later than in other countries (at age 7) combined with a focus on learning, rather than testing throughout education. Indeed, Finnish children only take one set of exams (matriculation or ylioppilastukinto) in their school life – at the end of upper secondary school – to gain admission to university. Admission to upper secondary school is decided on a student’s grade point average.
Preschool education in Finland is widely known as one of the best and most heavily subsidised systems in the world. Free universal childcare is available to every child under the age of 7, regardless of family income, in state-run preschools or day care centres. The pre-school or ‘kindergarten’ year (between ages 6 and 7) is not compulsory but over 97% of children are enrolled in the system, which provides four hours of structured play, meals and healthcare five mornings per week.
Like all other northern European countries, Finland has a high cost of living. However, its reputation for high prices is not entirely deserved, as rents and utilities are lower than Sweden, Denmark, the UK and France. Groceries, eating out and alcohol are very expensive, which inevitably bumps up living costs. Helsinki is the priciest area but costs are lower in other major cities, such as Tampere and Turku and in rural areas. Despite high living costs and heavy taxation (income tax contributions are around 35%), Finns enjoy an excellent standard of living comprising free education at all levels and top quality healthcare and public services.
Finland is a nation of homeowners and the rental market is small and competitive, particularly in Helsinki. There are no restrictions on foreigners buying property and the process is straightforward compared to other European countries, although costly property taxes can ramp up prices. Accommodation varies from apartment living in cities to houses and villas in the suburbs and rural areas. Most buildings are modern and fitted with saunas and state-of-the-art heating systems. For those looking to rent, the choice is limited to apartments (rented houses are rare). In such a competitive market, it’s definitely worth enlisting the services of a letting agent to help you with your search.
Almost all Finnish tenancy agreements are fixed term and require the new occupant to pay up to three month’s rent as a security deposit. This is returned after inspection by the landlord or rental agency on leaving the property.
A tax of up to 4% is levied on the purchase of homes in Finland, according to the value of the property. Both homeowners and tenants also pay a municipal tax, however this tends to be minimal, as local authorities meet the funding demands of their areas through income tax. Municipal taxes are means-tested according to income.
Finns use a lot of electricity to heat their homes during the freezing winters (use of gas for heating or cooking is less common) yet utility prices are lower than some Western nations. The market was recently opened up, bringing prices down even further. There is a wide variety of suppliers, the largest being Helsingin, E.ON and Vattenfall. Water costs are usually included in the monthly rent. Finland is world-leading in digital technology and communications and offers an excellent broadband and mobile network in even the most remote areas at competitive prices.
The basic cost of utilities (gas, electricity, water and refuse) in an 85m² apartment in Helsinki is around €104 (£90) per month, with a combined broadband and phone package costing around €25 (£21) per month.
The Finnish TV licence was scrapped in 2013 in favour of a means-tested ‘broadcasting tax’ on income. This contribution funds the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE). The tax is capped at €140 (£117) per year and those on a low income are exempt. There are a range of digital and Pay TV services which offer programming in English, as do the main Finnish channels.
Finland has an excellent universal healthcare system which is publicly funded through a national health insurance scheme (NHI). Healthcare provision is de-centralised, with each municipality responsible for providing primary, secondary and tertiary services in their area. Although health services are free there are some point-of-entry costs or ‘patient fees’ that all residents must pay on using the health service. For example, a visit to a GP can cost up to €20 (£17) but this can only be charged three times in one year, any visits thereafter are free. To be eligible for free healthcare in Finland you must be an EU/EEA national or a permanent resident in the country. Therefore, it is advisable for non-EU visitors to take out a private health insurance policy until their residence status is secure.
There is a large range of shopping options in Finland, from department stores such as Stockmann, Sokos and Clas Ohlson (homewares) in cities to more traditional markets and shops selling fresh produce and unique craft items.
Food is expensive but you can cut costs by shopping at supermarkets, which range from small convenience stores to hypermarkets, the dominating chains being Kesko and S-Group. Most supermarkets are open until 9pm on weekdays. Shoppers should be aware that supermarkets only sell alcohol of up to 4.7% strength (so mostly beer) and all other alcoholic drinks are sold by state-monopoly off licence chain Alko (LINK http://www.alko.fi/en/), which can be found all over Finland.
Finnish sales tax, or VAT, is currently set at 24% for most goods and services, with reduced rates on food and educational materials.
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed July 2016)
One way to burn through money while living in Finland is to eat out or drink in pubs and bars. Restaurant meals and alcohol are very expensive, especially in Helsinki. The best way to save is to entertain at home and shop in discount supermarkets such as Lidl, Sale, Alepa and K Market. Another food budgeting tip is to shop in supermarkets at night, when many items have been reduced in price.
Driving in Finland is an enjoyable experience for those used to congested roads at home. Despite being the fifth largest EU country by land area, the well-maintained road network and small population means that you may find yourself totally alone on some Finnish roads, with only the stunning landscape and the odd reindeer for company. Speed limits are 120 km/h (75mph) on motorways, 80km/h (50mph) on major roads and 50km/h (30mph) in built up areas. Due to freezing conditions and heavy snowfall in winter, it is a legal requirement for vehicles to be fitted with appropriate winter tyres (studded) between October and March, when speed limits on all roads are also reduced to 80km/h (50mph).
All EU/EEA licence holders are permitted to drive in Finland. Those from outside the EU must exchange their licence for a Finnish one on becoming a permanent resident. You can find more information at the Police of Finland website.
Taxis (Taksi) are highly regulated in Finland, with maximum fares chargeable set by the government. However, this does not mean they are cheap, like most things in Finland taking a taxi is expensive when compared to using the much cheaper bus and train network. Taxis are widely available and can be found at designated stands. Drivers will accept payment in cash, although they prefer payment by credit or debit card. All passengers are legally required to wear seatbelts in a Finnish taxi.
Finland has one of the best bus networks in Europe. If you are not able to reach your destination by train, a bus will get you there, however remote. Unlike trains, buses are privately operated, with the two biggest companies being Onnibus and ExpressBus. Both companies offer reliable long haul coaches between cities and towns. Tickets can be booked in advance or you can pay your fare to the driver on boarding (for short journeys).
The Finnish rail network radiates from Helsinki and connects all towns and cities, even in remote areas. Trains are operated by VR, the Finnish state railway and are punctual, fast and comfortable. For long distance travel, VR operate ‘Pendolino’ trains with top speeds of up to 220 km/h, which are easily recognisable by their three main lines from Helsinki: Tampere (North), Turku (West) and Lahti (East). Local trains are assigned a series of letters and can be slightly more confusing for tourists. Tickets and discounted travel cards can be purchased online at VR, in stations or on board (although this will incur an extra fee).
Helsinki is home to Finland’s only metro network (Helsinki Metro) which comprises 17 stations and covers around 21km of track. The capital is also the only place in the country you will find a tram network, however there are plans to introduce tram/light rail systems in the cities of Tampere and Turku, although work has not yet begun.
There are 27 airports in Finland, the largest and main gateway being Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport, which connects the country to destinations around the world. Finnair is the national carrier, with major airlines such as Norwegian, SAS and Flybe also operating from Helsinki. There are domestic flights connecting major cities in Finland, however flying is an expensive and less convenient option compared with the well-connected rail and bus network.
Finland is home to miles of stunning coastline and over 187,000 lakes, which has earned the country the title of ‘The Land of a Thousand Lakes.’ Therefore, one of the best ways to experience the country’s watery landscape is by ferry, cruise ship, canoe or even rowing boat. Frequent ferry services connect Finland with neighbouring Sweden and Estonia and Helsinki is a general port of call on a Baltic cruise trip. The largest operators are Viking Line and Silja, which connect Helsinki with Stockholm. St. Peter Line also operates Helsinki to St. Petersburg services three times a week, as well as Helsinki-Stockholm services.
Finnish employees generally follow an eight-hour working day, or the equivalent of 40 hours per week. Overtime is paid at time-and-a-half. Private sector workers can refuse to do overtime but some public sector employees, such as the emergency services, are compelled to work extra if required. Increased pay is expected for night shift workers (11pm-6am) and Sunday shifts are usually paid at double time. Finland has one of the highest numbers of women in the workplace in the EU, with 73% in jobs compared to an EU average of 57%.
There is a strong emphasis on family life in Finland and as a result there are many public holidays available for almost all workers. Employees accrue two days of annual leave for each month of full-time work and most time off is taken at the end of June to coincide with the summer holidays. The majority of firms also close completely for at least a week over Christmas. Therefore, arrangements for business meetings should be avoided in mid-summer or at Christmas.
There are 13 public holidays in Finland. There are also up to eight more seasonal holidays which different regions observe, including the March Equinox and the December Solstice.
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Epiphany: 6th January
Good Friday: 19th April
Easter Monday: 22nd April
Vappu (May Day): 1st May
Ascension Day: 30th May
Midsummer Eve: 21st June
Midsummer Day: 22nd June
All Saints Day: 2nd November
Independence Day: 6th December
Christmas Eve: 24th December
Christmas Day: 25th December
Second Day of Christmas: 26th December
Expats who are employed by a company will usually need a residence permit which is based on gaining employment in Finland. Despite Finland being a Schengen country, whereby freedom of movement between borders is eased, workers will require a permit or visa granted by the Finnish government to stay in the country longer than 90 days. Nationals from Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland do not require a residence permit and are classed as ‘equivalent persons’. You may also be entitled to a permit if you have completed a degree or recognised qualification from a university in Finland. It is worth noting that the employment office in Finland gives priority to EU citizens or ‘equivalent persons.’ For more information, visit the Finnish Immigration Service.
Finland operates a progressive tax system, meaning that the wealthier pay more. Tax is controlled by the state, municipalities and the country’s two official churches, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and Finnish Orthodox Church. The Finnish Tax Administration is responsible for tax collection before distribution. All tax is automatically deducted and is generally around 35% of your pay.
Despite cuts to the Finnish welfare budget in recent years, the benefits system is still considered one of the most comprehensive in the world. Since 2015, the Finnish government has considered a radical overhaul of the system with one proposal being that the welfare state is replaced with an allowance of 800 Euros given to each citizen every month. Currently, the benefits system in Finland is covered by residence-based and earnings-based social security. Residence-based is funded through taxes and distributed by the Social Insurance Institution of Finland (Kela). To find out if you are eligible, expats must register with their local Kela office.
High taxation means Finland has one of the world’s most generous welfare systems. The Finnish philosophy is that citizens should expect good living conditions and should be provided for in retirement. The actual age of retirement is flexible in Finland but you must be 65 to qualify for the state pension. Most private pensions are provided for between the ages of 63-68. The amount retirees are entitled to depends on the amount of time spent in Finland. Anything less than 80% of a person’s life spent in Finland will result in a reduction in state pension received. An earnings-related pension is normally 1.5% of an annual salary but this rises with the age of the worker. Pensions, which are protected under the Employees Pensions Act, are privately arranged contracts made through a pension insurance fund or pension insurance company.
Finnish law forbids discrimination against disabled people. The 300 or so municipalities are responsible for organising services for disabled people which are funded through income tax. Services include transport and assistance where required and people with residence permits are entitled to use disabled services. Finland has many organisations which protect the rights of disabled people, the most notable being the National Council on Disability and Hilma, the Support Centre for Immigrant Persons with Disabilities.
Finland is an industrial and technologically advanced country with one of the highest per capita GDPs in Europe. The business landscape combines traditional industry (paper, timber) with high tech digital communications companies such as Nokia. In terms of structure, Finnish companies follow a more hierarchical model than their Scandinavian neighbours, all workers are clear about their responsibilities and role perimeters. This is not to say that managers are dictatorial – teamwork and collaboration are important and companies work closely with communities and the public sector, particularly universities. Finnish workers possess a higher level of general education than many other countries, further contributing to business success.
Finnish managers take a low key approach – tasks are delegated and are completed by subordinates without much intrusion from above. Decisions tend to be made by a team of senior managers and information is disseminated in a highly organised manner, ensuring everyone is secure about their role in a particular project. Finns are taciturn people and less is more when it comes to communication. It would be uncommon for managers to deliver motivational speeches, pep talks and frivolous sales targets and prizes – workers are expected to just get on with the job in hand.
On initial meetings, Finns can seem quiet and reserved but once the ice is broken business is relatively informal. Titles are used in certain settings, such as in academia and the legal and medical professions, however most are dispensed with once colleagues get to know each other.
Finland is often considered to be a homogenous culture, with less outside influences than other countries. This, along with a reserved communication style, means that Finns can be hard to read. However, once you break through this exterior, you will find that your Finnish counterparts are humorous, warm and hospitable to outsiders. The key to building relationships is to adopt a subtle style yourself. Over the top sales tactics and showy behaviour would be viewed with suspicion. A good indicator of being accepted into a Finnish team is if you receive an invite to the sauna, where the general nakedness can be a great leveller in business relationships!
Finnish business dress is conservative and formal. Men wear smart suits in muted colours and women opt for smart trousers, skirts or dresses. Casual wear, such as jeans and t shirts are often acceptable in more modern industries. Newcomers should be prepared for the freezing Finnish winters, where temperatures can drop to below -30°C. Hats, gloves, shoes with rubber grips and padded outerwear are essential when venturing outside the office.
A firm handshake and brief nod of the head is the usual greeting for both men and women. Finns value their personal space so kissing and hugging is reserved for family and friends and would not be acceptable in a business setting.
Punctuality is very important in Finland, where meetings are highly organised. Being even five minutes late would be considered rude. If you are going to be late – always call ahead to let your colleagues know.
For those not used to Finnish culture, meetings may initially seem a little strange. They are generally quiet, brief and can be punctuated by long silences. Finns have a sparse way of speaking, so if you haven’t got anything significant to contribute then it’s best to keep quiet. This can be awkward for those from cultures where filling silences with small talk is the norm. Meetings are seen as being primarily for the dissemination of information rather than for debate. Therefore, speaking over others or engaging in heated discussion would be considered rude. Being a good listener is a highly respected skill, so show that you are listening intently and wait for your turn to speak.
Finland is a tolerant country with a commitment to equality in all areas of life. Any aggressive or discriminatory behaviour towards others is unacceptable. Finns disapprove of hard selling or sales patter so it’s best to get straight to the point in a direct and honest manner if you wish to win them over. It’s also a good idea to avoid comparing Finns to Swedes and bringing up Finnish-Russian relations, as this may irk your counterparts.
Finnish is the main language used in business, although most Finns speak English fluently and will switch languages seamlessly in the presence of international visitors. Indeed, in some companies and institutions, English is now used as the principal working language. Finns learn languages from an early age and most also speak a good degree of German, Swedish, French and Russian. However, learning even a few Finnish words and greetings will help you to break the ice and gain respect.
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