I’ve been living in the Netherlands for little over a year and it has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences. While I’m definitely still getting the hang of things and mastering others I have come to reflect on my journey and lessons learned. Here is my account on the reality of being a new expat in the Netherlands.
Not Everyone Speaks English
The Netherlands is rated as the best country that speaks non-native English. Unless you’re moving anywhere in the Randstad area (Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague) you’ll soon find out that not everyone speaks English. Yes, the Dutch speak fairly good English and can switch languages when speaking to tourists and expats. However, this will not always be the case if you’re moving to a smaller city, village or town that is not quite international. Basic situations such as reading street signs, getting directions, communicating with landlords or personnel who only speak Dutch can prove to be a continuous issue. This is why it’s always a good thing to familiarize yourself with the language of the country you are migrating to before relocating.
At least try to learn the basics by keeping a language app on your phone, taking a class or doing some self study. Personally, I would not count on speaking English alone because not everyone can accommodate you and that’s the truth. Integrating into a new country and culture requires learning the language. Knowing even the slightest bit of Dutch can get you a long way.
There is No Vacation Mode When You’re a New Expat in the Netherlands
When first arriving in the Netherlands one cannot help but think of all the beautiful architecture, museums and canals to visit and take photos of and post on Facebook. Try saving this later because being a new expat in the Netherlands means a number of things. Have you gotten registered at the municipality, opened a bank account, picked up your residence permit and the biggest headache of them all, found housing?
When I first moved here I had just started a full time internship, was working on a thesis & doing all this plus finding housing (which was a nightmare). After relocating to three countries I’ve found these factors to be the same wherever I’ve gone. Don’t stress about being able to soak it in when you’ll have more than enough time if you’re living here long term. Focus on the important (and legal) aspects of getting settled in and then get lost in your beautiful place of residence.
You’ll Never or Rarely Use your Credit Card
If you’re American you might as well place your credit card at the bottom of your wallet or say goodbye to that Visa because they’re not typically used here. In the Netherlands the Dutch have a completely different banking system. It might sound frustrating at first but once you have your Dutch bank card you might even end up preferring it. Have you heard of IDEAL? It’s a Dutch online banking method that consists of utilizing your debit card instead of credit. You get a device called an identifier and just have to use your pin code to pay for things. It may be strange at first but you’ll come to realize that it makes transactions safer and much easier!
Additionally, if you got out for drinks with a friend and they cover the cost you can pay them instantly with the famous Dutch app called Tikkie. It uses IDEAL and you can easily make a payment request via SMS no matter how small the amount. On that note, expect to get tikkie requests for just about anyone you hang out with even if it is splitting 10 euros. Being a new Expat in the Netherlands this did and still does make me scratch my head.
You Won’t be Prepared for the Weather Since it’s Unpredictable
Being from California I’d have to say that the weather is one of the only unfavorable things I find about the Netherlands. Located by the North Sea coast the climate is quite ‘moderate’. The forecast ranges from rainy and cold to drizzling and cold and grey and cold. It all sounds the same but there is quite a variation when you mix in hail, showers, and even snow. During the summer temperatures are quite enjoyable and the days are much longer than back home in the States. You can spend hours on end drinking on the terrace, having picnics and taking a dip in the lake.
However, this is not always the case because not too long ago we had a heatwave of 34C (93 F) for two weeks with humidity over 60%. It just goes to say that Dutch weather is unpredictable but in the long run it’s mainly gray and rainy so I suggest to bring a good raincoat and waterproof boots. However, nothing I say will prepare you more for Dutch weather until experiencing it yourself.
Riding a Bike Will be Difficult for the Most Part
As an expat you’re aware that cycling in the Netherlands is a major mode of transport that you will most likely be taking part in yourself. Whether it’s for heading to the shop or commuting to work on a daily basis, I suggest studying the road beforehand. Don’t expect to get on your bike and wing it so easily. Biking in the Netherlands can be quite overwhelming (and frightening) for new expats. There are rules, traffic lights and regulations for cyclists to adhere to. For instance, you can only pass each other on the left and it’s now illegal to use your phone while cycling, which will set you back €90 for a fine.
Don’t forget to signal when you turn and if you forget, don’t be upset when someone yells a slew of curse words your way. Keep your eyes open for tram lines and if you must cross them go perpendicularly instead of parallel or else you’re in for a possible trip to the hospital. I cannot tell the amount of times my anxiety increases every time I approach tram lines even to this day. Study the road and rules as best you can to better avoid collisions and accidents.
Dutch Directness as an Expat in the Netherlands
Depending on what country you’re hailing from Dutch directness may be one of the first aspects you recognize. The Dutch are not shy to voice their opinions nor express their feelings. In the workplace for instance, you may notice colleagues giving feedback that will seem unfiltered or even offensive. I remember one of my colleagues calling the other stupid for failing to ask a client the appropriate questions. He didn’t seem upset but the whole situation was too crass for my liking. Not all Dutch people are the same and there are exceptions to the rule; directness is something that I guarantee will not go unnoticed when first arriving as a new expat in the Netherlands.
Recognizing the Importance of Calendars
The Dutch make everything by an afspraak (appointment) and it will eventually grow on you. Drinks with colleagues, dinner with the family and even down time can be scheduled weeks in advance. The love of having an agenda is a part of Dutch customs and culture. If you ask to have a night out with your Dutch friend don’t get offended if they say they must check their agenda first. In the States this statement may come off as a bit offensive.
I have to admit that when I was a fresh expat in the Netherlands this threw me off. If the Dutch check their agenda and pencil you in then the event is 100% going to happen. The Dutch swear by their agendas and I think it’s a great way to stay organized. However, I encounter expats from other cultures who believe that the Dutch lack spontaneity when it comes to agendas. In Dutch culture, it’s a bit unheard of to show up unannounced and do something spur of the moment. It’s better to plan a specific time and date on your agenda.
The Concept of Groceries is Different (From in the States)
In Dutch grocery stores you must bring your own shopping bags but you can also purchase them here. You must pack your own groceries in your own bags whereas in the States the cashier does this for you. In some stores you will do self checkout where you need a receipt to open the door to exit. For self-checkout you can self-scan, weigh your own produce and place it all in your own backpack after payment. Lastly, you will never see liqueur for sale but you can get beer, wine or cider. As a new expat in the Netherlands this may be strange at first to grasp.
As a New Expat in the Netherlands the Service may be Surprising
When it comes to the service industry every country holds different standards. In the states the ‘customer is king’ as they say and it is totally true. Whether a restaurant, bar or calling a line to ask about your returning purchase the employees are typically punctual, helpful, kind and reassuring. That’s just the general rule of thumb back home. However, when first moving to the Netherlands you will have to keep in mind that this won’t be always be the case. Don’t bring the same expectations when arriving here thinking that someone will go above and beyond for you. Of course, this cannot be said for every employee or store but more so a reminder that what you are accustomed back home may not be the same. There are cultural differences that play a part here and tipping is not a requirement.
I have never been to Netherland, but reading through your article makes me feel as if I’m there, that is how beautiful your review of Netherlands is to me. I have never heard of the this kind of system of payment before and as strange as it may sound, I agree that with time I feel one will definitely get used to it. I live in Ireland and never thought there would be a more unpredictable weather as Ireland’s, well now I know. This was a great read for me.
Wow that’s crazy- particularly the “Dutch directness”. I’ve lived abroad before (not in the Netherlands) but I found loads of differences too. Things you wouldn’t even think were things until you see how other people do them.
Wow, I’m so used to using my credit and debit cards. I couldn’t imagine not using them. I’ve never been to the Netherlands, but your article is very informative.
Wow, sounds like you went through a lot of big changes going from a laid back California lifestyle to an Expat life in the Netherlands. I think the hardest part of moving somewhere new is not wanting to immediately start playing, exploring, and traveling around. But like you said, as an Expat, you are there to live and you need to set up that damn Tikkie thing, figure out how to bag your own groceries, and learn how to not die while riding your bike to work in the bizarre weather!
These are really real & practical tips for a new expat to suit in a new life environment, thanks for this & I had a good read
It’s always good to know the difference from our home country to wherever we are going to move to. Some are same here in the U.K. , what I’m kinda make it hard to get use to is bagging my own groceries and need it to be quick as much as possible.
Culture is really the number one thing that differs from country to country. But I’m sure that anyone can eventually adjust to it. These are really helpful tips!
This is a great guide for anyone who wants to become an expat. Do your research before you move.
I have a lot of expat friends in Netherlands and they all say fairly the same with you. I have traveled there and I totally loved it!
It’s always fascinating to read about different lifestyles across the globe. How interesting that grocery shopping is so different.
I’ve always wanted to travel there, these are great tips to know beforehand!
I love the Netherlands..great post
I can imagine Dutch directness might seem a little cruel especially to someone who’s just arrived. I am an expat in China, and here it’s completely the opposite: Chinese peopel tend to be indirect and never tell us what they really think. We have to guess the whole time. I don’t know what’s better Dutch Directness or Chinese Indirecteness, lol!
Great article on expat life and expectations. I’m an American expat in England, and have found many cultural differences here as well. I think in America we are trained to be a bit ethnocentric (“America is #1!” “One in 10 Americans…”) It’s been very nice to experience a new way of living, traveling has been SOOOOO eye-opening for me. There’s a whole wide world out there, and it’s fantastic! Keep up the great posts!