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How To Move From The U.S. To Scandinavia In 2021

How To Move From The U.S. To Scandinavia In 2021

Moving your family to Scandinavia is a challenge, but the potential lifestyle rewards are great.


As one of the most controversial U.S. presidential elections approaches its conclusion, Americans on both sides of the political divide are considering their future options. Earlier this year, expat-focused publication International Living reported a sixteen-fold increase in searches for relocation information by Americans.

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Scandinavia is attractive but not an easy option

Scandinavia—Denmark, Norway and Sweden—along with the rest of the Nordic region is frequently held up as the happiest region on the planet. Short working hours, healthy lifestyle habits, a comprehensive welfare system, a longer life expectancy and a societal focus on children are all sure to appeal to American families looking for a fresh start.

However, moving to Denmark, Norway or Sweden as an American citizen is not easy. Unless you are fortunate enough to fall in love with a Scandinavian, you’ll need to excel in your field to obtain a work permit and master the local language to stay long-term.

The full immigration rules for each country are long and complex, but here’s a summary of the key points.

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How family immigration works

In all the Scandinavian countries, a variety of family-based reasons for moving are grouped together under a family immigration permit. Generally speaking, it’s possible to join your partner together with your children in Denmark, Norway or Sweden if you are married, planning to marry, or planning to live together.

In those cases, your partner must be a citizen of the country or hold a permanent residence permit. In most cases, your partner must show proof of the ability to financially support you, although if granted a residence permit, you will be able to seek work.

None of the Scandinavian countries offer any kind of residence permit based on ancestry.

How to obtain work permit—and why it’s so difficult

Obtaining a work permit requires a concrete job offer, but that is easier said than done. Employers in all three countries can pick from a pool of more than 400 million people holding EU/EEA citizenship, none of whom need to start a lengthy work permit application process in order to start working.

Denmark requires the proposed job to be in a workforce shortage trade, unless the proposed salary is above $69,000. The process is a little easier in Sweden, where the proposed salary just needs to be commensurate with typical Swedish conditions.

In Norway, the applicant generally needs relevant higher or vocational education and the offer must meet a minimum salary requirement of up to $50,000.

Unlike much of the world, being a native English speaker is not much of an advantage. There is almost no demand for English teachers in Scandinavia, as most people are fluent by the time they leave school. It also means that native English ability won’t always be a standout feature on your resume, aside from some high-profile marketing and communications roles. However, an ability in the local language will almost always be expected.

Another hurdle is that you must be offered a job before you can apply for a work permit, but you cannot move until the permit has been granted. This means such permits are usually only a possibility for senior roles and for companies that are prepared to wait.

In Denmark, the fast-track scheme makes much easier for certified companies to recruit foreign employees with special qualifications. Inter-company transfers with American companies that have a substantial presence in the region are also common, although a work permit is still required.

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There are many other specialized categories of work permits in all three countries, such as for artists, athletes, au pairs, offshore workers (in Norway), visiting researchers or specialized chefs.

A foot in the door with a study permit

Studying for a master’s degree is a popular choice among American citizens. Because there are no tuition fees, competition for places at Norwegian universities is fierce. Fees do apply in Denmark and Sweden, but they are still significantly lower than fees charged by U.S. institutes.

Successfully applying for a study permit doesn’t guarantee you long-term residence in Denmark, Norway or Sweden. However, it does entitle you to work a limited amount during your studies. This gives you an opportunity to build up a network, learn the language and obtain a job offer in order to gain a work permit when your study permit expires.

If you complete a master’s degree or PhD in Denmark, you can apply for an establishment card, which entitles you to stay in the country to seek work.

Moving to Scandinavia as an entrepreneur

It’s straightforward for European citizens to move to Scandinavia in order to start a business, but much more challenging for everyone else. Denmark, Norway and Sweden each take a slightly different approach to budding foreign entrepreneurs.

Denmark does not offer a self-employed work permit to non-EU/EEA citizens. However, Start-up Denmark offers individuals or teams of up to three people a work permit in order to build a business based on an “innovative business idea,” which will reviewed by a panel of experts during the application process.

In Norway, you can apply for a self-employed work permit if you have bachelor’s level or equivalent vocational education in the field of your proposed business, and a provable first year income expectation of around $28,000.

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Permits are renewed annually, so you must have a feasible plan to hit the ground running. Before making a decision, the Directorate of Immigration consults the county you intend to move to when deciding whether the income level is achievable and if the skills are needed in that county.

Swedish authorities also set a high bar to get a self-employed work permit. Only those with access to significant funds, prove the demand for your product/service in Sweden and demonstrate that you have already built a network of business contacts will stand a chance.

Coronavirus impact on immigration

Earlier this year, immigration processing was delayed in Denmark and Norway due to the closure of most physical offices. According to anecdotal evidence, things are now mostly back to normal, but a backlog can be expected.

At the time of writing, Denmark, Norway and Sweden all have border restrictions in place that essentially ban tourism from the United States. However, people with a valid reason to enter the country—such as holding a work or study permit—can still do so. Those entering Norway are required to quarantine for 10 days.

For full details on the rules that apply to your personal circumstances, check out these websites: New to Denmark, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration and the Swedish Migration Agency.

How To Move From The U.S. To Scandinavia In 2021