Home About the Netherlands The Basics Life in the Netherlands: Top 10 questions about being an expat answered
Last update on April 29, 2019
Written by Keith J Fernandez

Been to your first King’s Day and are desperate to know what being an expat in the Netherlands is like? Our handy guide has all the answers you need!

A tolerant, liberal democracy with a lenient drugs policy, a profusion of red light districts, gay marriage, more than 100 different beer brands, world-class museums, the best work-life balance… enough reason to move to Holland, eh? For starters, if you’ve thought that far, you already know the country’s actually called the Netherlands and not Holland, and while some Dutchies can get touchy about this not-so-minor faux pas, others will quickly set you right with a laugh. Quick pat on the back, then, before we move right along on our quest to understand what expat life in the Netherlands is like.

Expats held over 838,000 jobs in the Netherlands in 2017, according to Statistics Netherlands. That’s just under 5% of the population, or 8.2% of the 10.2 million jobs in the country that year.

Expatica - 10 questions about life in the Netherlands

That’s because the Netherlands is small country – only about 45,000km2 – with a limited internal market. As the sixth-largest economy in the European Union and the 18th in the world but only 17 million people, the Netherlands also faces a severe shortage of labor. More than a fifth of Dutch employers can’t find the staff they need, according to a 2018 report from the benefits agency UWV. Most vacancies are in technical professions such as construction, industry and technology, but employers in ICT, healthcare, logistics, pedagogical and agricultural professions, and service areas such as cleaning and catering, also need staff.

If you’re a skilled professional thinking about building a life in the Netherlands, this guide will answer the most important questions you may have. Read Expatica’s introduction to the Netherlands.

What’s it REALLY like to live in the Netherlands?

As someone new to Dutch society, you’ll often come up against the quirks of life in the Netherlands. Everyone pays their own way on an outing, which will be scheduled weeks in advance and will always start on time. Life here is structured down to the minutest detail, partly because the tiny country has a high population density – it ranks just above India with 506 inhabitants per square meter – but also because the nation’s Calvinist roots emphasize respect, integrity, acceptance, perseverance, efficiency, reliability and self-discipline. Solutions must work for everybody.

Along with the nation’s size, that goes some way to explaining why the Netherlands is so open and tolerant, yet oddly surprisingly normative. Soft drugs, for example, are freely available – but only legal in designated coffee shops on presentation of an ID. Again, you can smoke a joint in a coffee shop but may be fined for lighting up a cigarette or a spliff. All very normal to the Dutch, but mind-numbingly confusing for foreigners.

By and large the Dutch are friendly and always up for a chat – even with the cleaning lady – but take their time to welcome you into their homes and lives. Once they do, however, you’ll be treated as a member of the family. Thrift and normalcy are prized over extravagant lifestyles – the Prime Minister cycles to work and mops up his own spilt coffee in what is one of the safest countries in Europe – yet individualism is appreciated and expected. Again, the Dutch are also a nation of consensus builders. Meetings, for example, can last for hours because everybody will have a chance to speak.

They’re famously opinionated and their directness is legendary, but their often blunt comments are usually intended as constructive criticism. This means you can say what you think, but a value judgement could well be a step too far.

You’ll also find it easy to live here and the Dutch are surprisingly accepting of foreigners, especially in the big cities. Those living in the countryside may often come up against the small mindedness that has shaped the rise of anti-immigrant thinking in recent years, in line with similar attitudes elsewhere. Nevertheless, nearly 12% of the Dutch population are first-generation immigrants.

When it comes to language, you’ll find you can get by and even thrive without speaking Dutch – and indeed, many expats in the Netherlands believe there’s no point in bothering to learn, with English so widely spoken, even by bureaucrats – but as with any culture, you’ll get a lot further with making friends if you do learn the language. However, you will need to demonstrate your basic Dutch skills if you’re hoping to settle here permanently and want a Dutch passport. You’ll need to have worked in the Netherlands for a minimum of five years and taken the inburgering (or integration) exam before you can apply.

If there’s one other concept you need to understand, it’s gezelligheid, one of those untranslatable –and unpronounceable – words that variously translates to fun, conviviality, coziness, gregariousness, a warm and fuzzy feeling that engenders human connections. Everything from an evening out to a supermarket will be rated on how gezellig it is, and you’ll hear the word a lot. The abstract notion underpins modern-day Dutch society and can be considered its greatest goal.

Expatica - gezellig - 10 questions answered about life in the Netherlands
Gezelligheid predates Netflix and chill

Read Expatica’s fact file on life in the Netherlands.

Can I afford expat life in the Netherlands?

Life in the Netherlands isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s possible to live here without breaking the bank. While the cost of living is 4.25% higher than in the US, rents are 13% lower. The average net-adjusted disposable income per capital lies at €25,813, lower than the OECD average of €27,410. Despite the country’s egalitarian society, there is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20% of the population earn four times as much as the bottom 20%.

While monthly rents in Amsterdam can easily range between €1,500-€2,000, depending on how close to the center you live, other town and cities outside the capital offer larger accommodation at a lower price, often with more access to green spaces.

Mercer’s 2018 Cost of Living Ranking, which examines the costs of over 200 goods and services in 200 expat-friendly destinations, ranks Amsterdam as the 50th most expensive city, 35 places higher than in 2017. For a comparison, Zurich ranks third, London 19th and Frankfurt and Berlin place 68th and 71st.

However, the Netherlands is generally cheaper than its western European counterparts in living expenses, particularly in terms of food, utilities and public transport – although jobs are slightly less well paid than in France, UK, Belgium or Germany. A pint of beer in the touristy areas of Amsterdam will set you back $6.10, as compared to $7.20 in London and $12 in Dubai.

 Expatica - 10 questions about expat life in the Netherlands answered - Price of a beer compared via visualcapitalist.com

As a welfare state, taxes are high – up to 52% – but several tax credits and allowances are available, including for single parents and low-income earners. Even expats are eligible for several social security allowances, from child benefits to unemployment. Expats in the Netherlands who are hired from abroad may be eligible for a tax rebate of 30% of their annual salary.

Read Expatica’s detailed guide on what it costs to live in the Netherlands.

Is it easy to find love in the Netherlands?

The Dutch run their love lives like they do everything else – directly and by stating what they want. Women are just as likely to approach someone they find interesting, whether on a dating site or in a bar. Neither sex is big on flirting or huge romantic gestures, preferring to pare things back to a focus on the emotional aspect of the relationship. Like in all else, assertiveness scores.

That the Dutch are open to dating foreigners is evident: Queen Máxima is Argentinian, every previous consort has been German. An estimated 11,000 Dutch people marry foreigners each year out of a total of 64,000 in 2017. Another 17,900 choose registered partnerships, which is virtually equal to marriage in the Netherlands; as of 2014, the male partner in a partnership is automatically granted paternity. Many millennials and younger Dutch people now prefer to live together rather than marrying at all.

Thanks to its status as the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage (2001) and one of the earliest to legalize homosexuality (1811), the Netherlands has long been a draw for those in search of alternatives to the heterosexual lifestyle. Check out Expatica’s guide to the Amsterdam gay scene.

What is it like to work in the Netherlands?

The Netherlands has the best work-life balance of 38 countries tracked by the OECD Better Life Index, with only about 0.5% of Dutch employees regularly working very long hours as compared to the OECD average of 13%.

That means you can expect to live relatively close to work. Expect to ride your bike to the office, or walk if you work outside the capital’s heritage canal area in the Zuidas financial district, for example.

With the excellent and reliable transport system, many Dutch people commute in to the major urban areas of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague (a conurbation together called the Randstad). More than 60% of employees commute to work, with a half-hour’s ride each way considered normal – sometimes even on the bike!

Wages tend to the average global industry range, though they skew lower than in the UK or US. The Dutch Central Plan Bureau puts the average salary at a yearly gross of €37,000, or €2,855 per month, but this can differ by industry, experience, skills and qualifications. As of January 2019, the minimum wage in the Netherlands was €1,615.80. Freelancing is easy; about 1.1 million people are self-employed with ZZP licenses.

The high taxes in the Netherlands mean that pensioners have it relatively easy; any individual who has been living or working in the Netherlands is typically insured for the Dutch state pension Algemene Ouderdomswet (AOW). The retirement age is currently set at 65.

With 8% of jobs in the Netherlands held by foreigners, the lingua franca at most international companies is English, but expect watercooler conversations to be in Dutch. Companies have a relatively flat hierarchy in line with the country’s social egalitarianism. Managers are expected to be facilitators rather than omniscient authorities, and it’s common in Dutch business culture for an intern to speak directly to the CEO.

Expatica has a range of guides explaining how to go about finding a job in the Netherlands.

Can I afford to buy a home in the Netherlands?

Foreigners can freely buy a house in the Netherlands and the expanding home market has sent capital values soaring in recent years. Amsterdam has seen the most growth. Knight Frank estimates that home prices soared 63.3% over the five years to September 2018; the realtor put the Dutch capital at the top of its list of most unaffordable cities. Incomes over the same period only expanded 4.4%.

Average home prices hit a new record of €302,157 in January 2019, according to Statistics Netherlands and the Land Registry. A house in Amsterdam is 50% more expensive, at €448,000 on average. There’s hope for new buyers, however. While prices are expected to continue rising to 2021, they are now doing so at a slower rate, according to economists at ABN Amro.

However, mortgages are easy to obtain, with banks willing to advance 100% of the home’s value and interest rates topping out at 3.4% for a 20-year mortgage. Typically, you’ll need to be in permanent employment and have lived in the Netherlands for at least six months. Home buyers are eligible for several tax benefits, including mortgage advice and mediation fees.

What’s it like being a woman in the Netherlands?

Although the top job in the Netherlands was held by three women in succession from 1890 to 2013, Dutch society was divided along gender lines until well after the Second World War. Indeed, until 1956, there were no married women working in Dutch civil service positions, and women automatically lost their job as soon as they took their marriage vows.

Following a wave of protest against the traditional division of roles in the sixties, the Dutch government took the position that the state must support the free choice of an individual, and men and women were free to arrange their lives as they wished. By 1994, gender equality was enshrined in law and it is now illegal for employers to discriminate by gender, race or sexual orientation.

In practice, several differences remain. Women only hold 5% of senior executive jobs at listed companies, according to the management consultancy Berenschot. Fathers work five days a week, but mothers on average only three; in fact the Social and Cultural Planning Office found that only 7% of women in part-time work would prefer to work a 35-hour week if they could. And although men are shouldering their share of jobs at home, women still do nine hours’ more household jobs than men. In terms of salaries, there’s still a small wage gap; women earn 8% less than men on average.

When it comes to women’s healthcare, check-ups aren’t routine, in line with the standard approach in the Netherlands. Private health insurance is mandatory for everyone, and anyone who wants to see a specialist – including a gynecologist – must consult their registered GP first. However, pap smears are routine every five years and women over the age of 35 get a mammography by their GP or a specialist every two years.

The Netherlands is considered to be one of the safest countries in the world in which to give birth, despite a more unusual pre-natal and delivery system when compared to other European countries. Although pre-natal care can seem strangely lacking by some standards, with the Dutch medical establishment viewing childbirth as a natural process and not an illness, few new mothers have complaints with the high level of post-natal care, which can even include personal help at home. Public health insurance in the Netherlands covers most maternity costs as well as abortions.

What’s it like raising kids in the Netherlands?

The importance of home life means family is a bedrock of Dutch society. Employers don’t usually have a problem with staff taking time off to be with their kids and the government subsidizes childcare with benefits for those until the age of 18.

The Dutch raise some of the happiest children in the world, thanks to this supportive environment in the home and at school, and social attitudes that allow children to be children while involving them in the decision-making process. They rank low on scales for being overweight, having sex before 15, feeling pressure from schoolwork, and are also less likely than average to experience bullying. Children won’t usually be constrained by helicopter parents and there is a strong emphasis on outdoor and cultural activities. Some 50% of adult children continue to live within a 10-kilometer radius of their parents.

Expats moving to the Netherlands will need to decide between an international or a Dutch school for their kids, who must start school by the age of five by law. In practice, Dutch children go to school from the age of four, but formal reading and writing lessons only begin at the age of six. Free primary and secondary education is available to everyone and Dutch schools are well rated on quality standards. A 2017 survey by the financial services company ICAP found that expats were twice as likely to send their children to a Dutch school as compared to an international one.

Parents looking for help with their children may only hire an au pair from an established agency; bringing someone who has previously worked for the family into the country is not allowed.

Couples who want to adopt children must fulfil a number of conditions, including being at least 18 years older than the child they want to adopt. The Netherlands has been at the vanguard of international efforts to ensure that all adoptions are done in the child’s best interests. Same-sex parents have the same adoption rights as heterosexuals. Over 700 children are adopted from abroad each year; the process can take anywhere between three to five years and cost €10,000-50,000.

What’s the healthcare situation in the Netherlands?

Talk to any expat and you’ll hear a barrage of complaints about a healthcare system that topped the list of 35 countries in the 2016 Euro Health Consumer Index. This is because Dutch healthcare is generally non-interventionist in nature and doctors will not hand out medications lightly – yet the Netherlands spends approximately 10% of its GDP on health, about €4,000 per resident.

The GP (huisarts) are responsible for gathering all your medical records and are the gatekeepers to all the other types of medical treatment, so will be your first point of contact when you have a health problem (unless it’s an emergency, of course). They can deal with routine health issues, perform standard gynaecological and paediatric examinations, and refer you onto other services, including hospitals, specialists, home midwifery and physiotherapy. Appointments are generally short, averaging 15 minutes or less.

Basic health insurance is mandatory for all residents, with a minimum co-payment (eigen risico) of €385 per year.

Large expat-friendly international health insurers in the Netherlands include:

What is the worst thing about life in the Netherlands?

Dutch people quite rightly complain about the weather. Amsterdam receives 1,662 hours of sunshine a year, more than London and Berlin and about the same as Paris and Prague.

More serious issues lie in the casual – but often blatant – racism often faced by Arabs and black people. Until 2016, government policy used the terms allochtoon (immigrant, literally born of foreign soil) for immigrants and their descendants and autochtoon (native, for people with ethnic Dutch heritage). Although intended to be neutral when they were introduced in 1989, they predictably came to be seen as stigmatizing, particularly since people from the Caribbean Dutch countries and territories were also characterized as allochtonen.

Each December, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) surfaces anew. The companion of Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) is usually portrayed by a man or men in blackface, complete with curly wigs and bright red lipstick. The costume alludes to the character’s Moorish origins in Spain, or by some accounts, his profession as a chimney sweep. A polarized debate surrounds the tradition, which some see as a racist celebration of the Netherlands’ colonial history and role in the slave trade, while others defend as a harmless children’s character. In 2015, the UN declared the tradition a vestige of slavery, while several municipalities have in recent years rounded out the character by adding helpers of other colors, such as Purple Pete, Rainbow Pete and so on.

Finally, expats looking for jobs and homes may well encounter discrimination with brokers often acquiescing to requests from clients; 10% of 620 human resources managers interviewed by recruitment agency Unique in early 2019 said they had denied an applicant an interview on the basis of a foreign-sounding name, while 40% occasionally refused an invitation for an interview to a candidate because the candidate was deemed too old. Another survey by the consumer affairs program Radar found that 90% of real estate brokers agree not to rent homes on their books to people with Turkish, Moroccan, Polish or Bulgarian backgrounds. The Dutch government prohibits discrimination on grounds of age, race, sexual orientation, religion, nationality and disability.

What is the best thing about life in the Netherlands?

Whether it’s the Dutchies’ egalitarian and tolerant approach, their friendliness, the fact that the country was the first to legalize gay marriage, the generally low crime rate, the expanding economy and great work-life balance, Dutch gezelligheid, the hash, the boats, even the windmills, depending on who you talk to, you’ll come up with different answers to what’s wonderful about being an expat in the Netherlands – maybe even as many answers as there are expats.

What’s yours?

Read more: 30 interesting facts about life in the Netherlands.