Bordering Norway to the west and Finland to the north-east, Sweden occupies the central swathe of the Fennoscandia region. With a 7,000 kilometre coastline on the Baltic Sea, Sweden was once the centre of a dominant northern European empire, but has been famously neutral since its last conflict with Norway ended in 1814. Today, under a democratic parliament and largely symbolic monarchy, Sweden is part of the European Union and enjoys a high standard of living.
From early Germanic settlements through the Viking age and beyond, Sweden has been a culturally fluid country and continues to attract inward migration well into the twenty-first century. Up to 15% of the population is believed to have been born outside Sweden, yet the country retains a strong identity of its own. The Sami traditions of the north sit alongside the modern cities that are now home to 85% of the population, contributing to a diverse and vibrant Swedish culture.
With Sweden’s sparsely populated countryside and beautiful scenery, it’s understandable that many people there like to spend time outdoors and enjoy the natural surroundings. The most popular sport to play and watch in Sweden is football, but equestrian sports, ice hockey and numerous other winter sports are also enjoyed by this highly active nation. Sweden has a proud history of exporting music from all kinds of genres, so fashionable festivals and varied nightlife abound, while museums and heritage sites attract tourists and academics alike.
Food and drink
Traditionally hearty and warming, Swedish cuisine comes from a fairly simple style of cooking, although top chefs have developed modern interpretations that embrace more sophisticated techniques too. Historically there was something of a north/south divide, with game meats common in the Arctic regions and seafood more readily available in the south. Today, the staple foods include potatoes and different breads, with favourite dishes like meatballs, herring and crayfish popular across the country along with a number of sweet treats. Coffee is widely consumed, while fruit soups are a Scandinavian tradition that can be served hot or cold. Beer or snaps are usually the alcoholic drinks of choice.
While Swedish is the official language in Sweden, it is widely considered to be mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Danish. This has led some scholars to debate whether the three should be considered separate languages or different dialects of one language. However, neither Norwegian nor Danish are officially recognised languages of Sweden. The next most widely spoken first language is in fact Finnish, while Sami, Meänkieli, Yiddish and Romani Chib are also recognised as minority languages. English is widely spoken as a second language.
Those who imagine Sweden as a frozen landscape are often surprised to learn that much of the country enjoys a temperate climate despite its latitude. In fact, it is only in the very extreme north of Sweden that the arctic climate really takes hold, with long cold winters and brief summers. Central and southern Sweden actually have a climate more akin to that in Britain, with cool winters and warm summers. However, the longer summer days and longer winter nights do tend to change people’s perception of Swedish weather.
Safety and security
Sweden is considered a very safe place to live and work, with the vast majority of reported criminal acts recorded as minor offences. Road safety is also very good, and while wintry conditions can make some areas treacherous, the country generally deals with snow and ice on the road very efficiently. As driving laws are quite strict in Sweden, foreign nationals should ensure that they are familiar with the rules of the road – particularly the tough legislation relating to drinking and driving.
In Sweden, attendance at primary school is compulsory for nine years between the ages of 7 and 16. Students can then choose to take a further three years at secondary school before potentially moving on to higher education. Public school is free for the children of all residents until the end of the compulsory period regardless of their nationality, however as teaching is usually in Swedish many expats prefer to send their children to fee-paying private or international schools. This choice can be costly, but depending on the child’s residency status they may be eligible for state-subsidised fees.
The academic year in Sweden is typically divided into two semesters, the first running from the end of August until mid-January with a short break at the end of December, and the second from mid-January to the beginning of June. The school day begins around 8am and ends at approximately 3:30pm, although some international schools keep different hours.
Sweden has around 50 higher education establishments including public universities, public university colleges and a handful of independent colleges. As higher education is well-funded by the state and attracts investment from businesses on top of this, enrolment is high and teaching and research standards are very good. In Sweden, your degree as a whole is referred to as a ‘programme’ rather than a ‘course’, and the segments which other countries might call ‘modules’ are known as ‘courses’. A degree programme consists of a combination of compulsory, recommended and optional courses.
Public universities in Sweden are fully-subsidised for Swedish nationals as well as students from the EU/EEA and Switzerland. Students from other countries will usually have to pay tuition fees and depending on the institution, application fees and student union membership fees may apply. Students in Sweden are also able to access funding in the form of grants and loans to fund their time at university, while a number of scholarships are also available for those wishing to remain in the country or for Swedish residents who study abroad.
Universities in Sweden offer a full range of taught programmes in Swedish as well as a smaller number in English. To study a Swedish-language programme, students must pass the TISUS test – the ‘Test in Swedish for University Studies’. The typical programme structures and duration fall in line with the majority of European universities:
Undergraduate programmes – taught courses that typically last three years
Graduate programmes – combine teaching and research over a period of one or two years
Doctoral programmes – research degrees, usually involving four or more years of work towards a dissertation
The majority of doctoral programmes in Sweden are paid roles, with competition fierce for these much-sought positions.
With good funding and links with business, research is strong in Sweden. Access to funding and the top research jobs are hotly-contested between the best candidates from around the world. For more information, visit the EURAXESS Sweden website.
The post-16 secondary school period in Sweden lasts for three years and the vast majority of primary school graduates continue through this stage. With a choice of around 17 different programmes of study, it is the first opportunity for children to really specialise and focus on either preparing for higher education or taking a vocational qualification.
The nine years of compulsory primary education in Sweden follows a programme administered by the Ministry of Education and Research and is designed to provide a well-rounded education for children of every ability level. English is a compulsory second language from early in this period and a third modern language also becomes compulsory later on.
Preschool and childcare options
While preschool is not compulsory in Sweden, it is popular – an estimated 80% of eligible children attending between the ages of one and five. Part of the reason for this is a maximum-fee scheme, which caps the amount parents pay for preschool. Alternatively, private childcare schemes and day nurseries are available, but costs can be significantly higher.
Sweden has a notoriously high cost of living, although the standard of living is also considered to be very good so many foreign nationals find that the move is worth the expense. Alcohol prices are a much publicised marker of the cost of living in Sweden as they can be as much as double the average compared to central European nations, but in reality other goods show less of a discrepancy. Accommodation in Stockholm and other major cities is usually more expensive than in smaller towns, but in rural areas the cost of goods may be higher because of the logistics of supplying them.
Although there are no restrictions on foreign nationals purchasing property in Sweden, the majority of Swedes rent their homes and expats tend to follow suit. The property market in Sweden works differently to most European countries, with a much higher percentage of social or ‘public’ rental housing managed by local municipal authorities. Although this is the most affordable option for most, waiting lists for this type of property can be very long so private sector rental may be the best option for new arrivals in the country. Be aware that demand for housing outweighs supply in many parts of Sweden, so it’s wise to give yourself plenty of time to search for a good deal.
The rental market in Sweden is highly regulated and is generally regarded as offering a fair deal for both landlord and tenant. Deposits are not usually part of a contract and landlords do not ordinarily ask for references because they are able to check the tenant’s history via a government register. This system flags any unpaid rent or damage at previous properties, so it is in the tenant’s interest to avoid both.
Real estate tax
Property owners in Sweden are liable for a municipal tax charged at a percentage rate against the tax-assessed value of the property. Where rental tenants are not directly liable for this tax, landlords who own properties on higher real estate tax rates may choose to reflect this in the rent they charge.
Water and sewerage costs are state subsidised in Sweden so water bills can be surprisingly cheap – by law they cannot exceed the cost of the service provided. Mains gas supply is not widely used, but electricity, telephone and internet suppliers operate in a competitive market, so shop around for the best deal. Households are also charged for waste disposal, with some municipalities operating pay-by-weight schemes to encourage recycling – so don’t be surprised if you find your bins being weighed!
Sweden has a compulsory TV licence system, so every household that owns a television receiver must pay the annual charge. For the latest rates and payment options, visit the Radiotjänst website.
Healthcare and medical costs
Sweden’s healthcare system is heavily subsidised by the state and regularly ranks amongst the world’s best. The good news for foreign nationals living in the country is that once you have your personal identity number you can usually access the same level of services as Swedish citizens at the same costs. Fees are charged for medical services, but the total cost to the individual per year is capped. Although private healthcare services are also available, the majority of people in Sweden are content with the state provision.
Sweden has excellent choice when it comes to shopping, but prices are high almost across the board. Be aware that alcohol for home consumption is only sold through the pricey state-owned monopoly Systembolaget, and other everyday groceries can be very expensive too. Many shops close earlier than you might think, so make sure you don’t get caught without the essentials – especially at the weekend.
Value-added tax is charged at three different rates in Sweden. Most goods and services are covered by the general tax rate – the highest level – with a middle rate charged on foodstuffs and hotel rates. Sales of items such as newspapers, magazines and books are charged at lower VAT level, which also applies to the cost of some public transport tickets. For current rates and general tax information, visit the Verksamt website.
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – 6,619.94kr (≈£534.74) per month
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – 4,231.50kr (≈£341.81) per month
Price of apartment in city centre – 49,039.67kr (≈£3,961.31) per square metre
Price of apartment outside city centre – 28,679.55kr (≈£2,316.67) per square metre
Sweden has an extensive motorway and road network that covers even the extreme north of the country and connects Sweden with Denmark via the Öresund Bridge. Most roads are toll-free, but some cities operate congestion charges. In 1967, Sweden changed to driving on the right-hand side of the road. Those new to driving in Sweden should be aware that driving regulations are strictly enforced – you are required to wear seatbelts, keep your lights on at all times and use winter tyres from December to March. The maximum speed limit is 110kph (≈68mph) and the blood alcohol limit is significantly lower than in many other European countries.
If you are over the age of 18 and hold a driving licence issued outside Sweden, you are usually able to drive on it for a limited period. However, depending on where your licence was issued, your residency status and the duration of your stay in Sweden, you may need to exchange your licence for a Swedish version or take the Swedish driving test. For more information, visit the Swedish Transport Agency driving licence portal.
Taxis are readily available in most major towns and cities in Sweden, and can be pre-booked, hailed in the street or picked up at taxi ranks. Although taxi drivers in Sweden are required to pass advanced driving qualifications to gain their taxi licence, the industry is not regulated on price and fares can vary enormously between companies. Some firms work on fixed prices rather than meters, so make sure that you check with the driver before beginning your journey.
The major cities in Sweden all have good transportation links including reasonably-priced local bus services. For one-off journeys tickets are available to purchase separately, but many cities and regions offer combined travel cards for buses and other public transport services such as trams or local rail services – these are often the best value for money.
Coach travel is usually cheaper than rail travel in Sweden, although journey times can be longer. The best-known national operator is Swebus Express, whose fleet of modern coaches offer amenities such as air conditioning, power sockets and free WiFi. However, for those willing to pass on the luxuries, cheaper options might be found with other operators, like Svenska Buss or Nettbuss Express. Ybuss is a good alternative for travel in northern Sweden as rail services there are less comprehensive.
Sweden has an extensive railway network, although coverage is better in southern regions than in the far north and tickets can be quite expensive. The country’s railways were state-built and the government-run company SJ remains the largest operator of services today, running a mixture of high-speed, intercity and regional services and a ‘night train’ sleeper option. However, there are a number of smaller subsidiaries and local operators as well, so it’s always worth shopping around for options.
Trams and underground rail
Stockholm is the only city in Sweden that has a metro, but it is a fairly large system with seven lines and over a hundred stations. Tramways are enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity, with Stockholm and Norrköping expanding their light rail infrastructure in recent years and Gothenburg running one of the largest tram networks in northern Europe.
With a flight time of over three hours between the southern city of Malmö and Kiruna in the far north, it’s easy to see why domestic air travel is important in Sweden. The largest provider of domestic flights is SAS. Sweden’s largest international airport, Stockholm Arlanda Airport, is located around half an hour’s drive from the city centre, and also provides regular services to the majority of Sweden’s commercial airfields. Gothenburg Landvetter Airport, Bromma Stockholm Airport and Malmö Airport also handle significant amounts of national and international air traffic.
Other ways to get around
With large commercial ports at Gothenburg, Malmö and Stockholm, Sweden is an important maritime powerhouse for Scandinavia and has regular ferry links with much of northern Europe. Coastal ferries and inland canals can also be a great way to experience some of Sweden’s stunning scenery.
Sweden is among the most heavily unionised countries in the world, and working conditions are often governed by collective agreements negotiated by the unions on behalf of the employees rather than by private employment contract. Although the Working Hours Act states that regular working hours should not exceed 40 per week, collective agreements can supersede these laws. Paid overtime is available to many employees, but work/life balance is an important concept so flexitime and home working are very popular.
Under the Annual Leave Act, employees in Sweden have a recommended holiday entitlement of 25 days plus public holidays, but depending on the collective agreement, these conditions can be altered. Parental leave and sick leave are usually available to permanent employees, but check the terms of the relevant collective agreement (or your private employment contract) for full details.
Sweden has a relatively large number of public holidays, although not all necessarily equate to a day off work, especially where holidays fall on a weekend. Public holiday entitlement may be covered in your collective agreement or private employment contract. However, you can generally expect the majority of businesses in Sweden to close for at least Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. On other public holidays, Sunday opening hours may be observed.
Public holiday dates
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Epiphany: 6th January
Good Friday: 19th April
Easter Sunday: 21st April
Easter Monday: 22nd April
Labour Day: 1st May
Ascension Day: 30th May
National Day: 6th June
Midsummer’s Eve: 21st June
All Saints Day: 2nd November
Christmas Eve: 24th December
Christmas Day: 25th December
Boxing Day: 26th December
New Year’s Eve: 31st December
Visas and eligibility to work
EU citizens and some other nationalities may be able to enter Sweden without a visa for a stay of up to 90 days. However, depending on your nationality and whether you intend to work, you will need to register with the relevant authorities. Applications for entry and residence documentation are managed by the Migration Board and in many cases can be made online. Foreign nationals may apply for Swedish citizenship after a given duration of residency – typically around 5 years. Although Sweden has a National ID Card system, these are not yet compulsory.
Tax and social security
The majority of foreign nationals working in Sweden are required to pay tax on their income. Exceptions to this rule include employees working less than 183 days a year in Sweden, provided that their employer does not have a fixed operating base in Sweden. If your employer has a commercial site in the country you must pay tax even on short-term contracts lasting less than six months, but you may be taxed at a lower rate. Similarly, foreign nationals working in Sweden for less than a year are normally exempt from social security payments, but after a year these become compulsory as for Swedish citizens. Anyone planning to stay in the country long-term should register with the Swedish Population Register to obtain the personal identity number they need to pay taxes correctly.
Pensions and benefits
Sweden takes great pride in its social care system and foreign workers who contribute social security payments from their wages are entitled to many of the same benefits as Swedish citizens. These include a number of tax-free benefits, as well as a pension and insurance against work injury and health issues. To find out more about your eligibility and how to apply, visit the Swedish Social Insurance Agency website.
The rights of people with disabilities to fully participate in society are clearly laid out in Swedish law. Disabled workers may be entitled to funding for workplace aids and can apply for special dispensation to have the cost of any sick leave covered by the government, ensuring that employers of disabled workers are not financially disadvantaged in the event of any absences from work relating to their disability.
Swedish culture is generally egalitarian and the lack of hierarchy in business is valued by companies and employees alike. Although individual responsibility is important, it is just one aspect of the team effort. Even if final responsibility rests with a senior manager, employees at every level are usually consulted within a lengthy decision-making process. This consensus approach is based on trust and mutual respect within the workplace and people are encouraged to put forward their opinions so every scenario can be analysed before final strategies are agreed
With such a flat organisational structure, the role of a manager is to harness the talents of their employees. As such, expect managers to regularly invite feedback from their team and delegate tasks to the people they feel are best placed to develop or implement ideas. Managers often take a back seat in discussions, intervening when they wish to support a good idea or refocus attention on a new topic. Most prefer to praise and celebrate the accomplishments of the group rather than those of individuals.
Titles and status are not considered particularly important in Sweden, so business people tend to communicate on first-name terms relatively quickly. If in doubt you may wish to keep it formal to begin with, but usually you’ll find the informal approach more effective.
Day-to-day attire for workers in Sweden is often business casual, so don’t be surprised to see jeans and trainers in the office. Very few companies operate strict dress codes, but it is generally considered good form to be conservative and not too showy in your work attire. For business meetings with new contacts you may wish to dress more formally, but try to avoid appearing flashy.
In Sweden, you should greet both men and women with a firm, confident handshake. Swedish people are typically a little more reserved with their body language than people from central or southern Europe, so be respectful of personal space and try to keep hand gestures to a minimum. Maintaining eye contact will help you engage with people.
Adherence to schedules is important in Sweden, so punctuality is a must to do business there. People work hard to ensure that they fit all their work into the schedule allowed, so anyone who wastes time quickly loses the respect of their contacts. Rather than being a sign of dedication, working late can sometimes be taken as an indicator of poor time management or lack of organisation, so always try to hit your deadlines within working hours. If you can’t avoid being late for a meeting or deadline, always call to apologise.
Because of the need for consensus, meetings are commonplace in Swedish business culture and it can take many rounds of discussion to reach a decision. However, meetings can be fairly brief – small talk is usually dispensed with and discussions will run to the allocated timeslot, whether this results in a positive conclusion or not. Negotiations will be based around discussions of solid facts followed by a degree of compromise, so make sure you stick to the truth and remain calm during negotiations as emotional outbursts can be interpreted as a weakness. Don’t worry if the room falls silent at some points – this is normal in Swedish business dealings and you will find that people appreciate the chance to think more than any attempts to break the silence.
One concept that newcomers to Sweden often struggle to understand is the idea of ‘lagom’. Literally translated, it means ‘moderate’ or ‘just right’, but in business terms, it’s a concept that relates to value added. In effect, ‘lagom’ means to focus on doing the things that are necessary well – not too little, but not too much either. Where ‘going above and beyond’ might be seen as a positive thing in some cultures, in Sweden knowing when to stop and not waste resources is just as important.
Although Swedish is the dominant first language, the majority of people speak very good English too – albeit often with an American accent or influence. Some larger companies in Sweden recognise English as their business language, but even if you are dealing with companies that don’t, it is fairly unusual for native English speakers to require translation.