What life is like on Norway’s rugged Svalbard Islands, where anyone can move without a visa

Svalbard graffiti

  • Norway is consistently ranked among the happiest countries on Earth.
  • Thanks to the Svalbard Treaty, foreigners don't need a visa or any kind of permit to live and work in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.
  • Its capital, Longyearbyen, is home to around 2,000 people hailing from around 50 countries and is the northernmost town in the world.
  • Insider spoke to three locals from Svalbard's largest city, Longyearbyen, about what living there is really like.
  • Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Svalbard is closed to visitors from the US. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that "travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19."
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

From hygge to healthcare, Scandinavians seem to have put their well-being first, and it hasn't gone unnoticed.

Nordic countries are consistently ranked among the world's happiest countries, as well as among the best places to live.

Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland have all occupied one of the top 10 spots in every one of the last five World Happiness Reports.

If you've always wanted a taste of this Nordic joie de vivre, you're in luck: while there are a few places around the world that make moving there relatively easy for US citizens, none make it as simple as Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago that allows anyone from anywhere to move there indefinitely, visa-free.

Keep scrolling to learn more about what life in Svalbard is like.

Welcome to Svalbard, the easiest place to move to in the world once the pandemic is over.

Source: Insider

Svalbard is part of Norway, which is consistently ranked among the happiest countries on Earth. But it's the only part of Norway where you don't need a visa to move there.

Source: World Happiness Report

Norway enforces Svalbard's laws, regulates hunting, fishing, and housing, and is in charge of its infrastructure.

The archipelago sits about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

Svalbard has a population of about 2,500, and its capital, Longyearbyen, is the northernmost town in the world, per the BBC.

Source: Visit Norway, BBC, Insider

The human population is so small that polar bears outnumber people: The islands are home to around 3,000 polar bears, according to Visit Svalbard.

Source: Visit Svalbard

Three locals Insider spoke to all said that seeing a polar bear near town is actually quite unusual. But Forbes reports encounters with the protected species have increased as more tourists visit.

Source: Forbes

Because of the polar bears, residents usually carry firearms with them. "This is one of the few places in the world where it's not uncommon to see mothers pushing a pram while carrying a rifle on their back," Visit Svalbard reports.

Source: Visit Svalbard

Polar bear trapping, as well as whaling and other hunting, were historically big business in Svalbard. But the area now boasts a variety of nature reserves and national parks: Almost two-thirds of the islands are protected, according to Visit Norway.

Source: Visit Norway

Svalbard was first discovered by Willem Barentsz, a Dutchman, in 1596, who named it Spitsbergen, which is Dutch for "sharp mountains," according to Spitsbergen Svalbard.

Source: Spitsbergen Svalbard

Svalbard's snowy mountains, icy glaciers, and deep fjords make for stunning vistas.

In recent years Svalbard has been hoping more visitors and newcomers will explore the area's stunning and rugged landscape, the Financial Times reports.

Source: The Financial Times

Though its climate is a turnoff for a lot of would-be Svalbardians, with temperatures ranging from 6.8 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit in summer.

Source: Visit Norway

Matias Fuentes, 24, is a kitchen assistant and bouncer in Longyearbyen. Originally from Chile, he's lived on Svalbard since 2010, and admitted that "the cold in winter is unbearable."

Svalbard has only three seasons, according to Visit Svalbard: "Polar Summer, Northern Lights Winter, and Sunny Winter."

Source: Visit Svalbard

It's almost entirely dark for four months a year and entirely light for another four months.

Tamira Prytz, 31, who moved to Svalbard with her family from mainland Norway 2.5 years ago, told Insider that the dark season is no joke. "If the power shuts down you can actually not see the hand in front of you," she said.

She loves how peaceful life on Svalbard is, how friendly and laid back the locals are, and that everything is within walking distance. "We do not have any traffic jams," she said. "And if we do it will be because ducks or reindeer are blocking the road."

Fuentes loves Svalbard and spends his time playing sports, snowmobiling, dog sledding, and skiing. However, he admits that seeing the same people all the time because it's so small can be a grind. "Almost every day is the same routine," he said.

He told Insider that crime in Svalbard is so low that there's only one sheriff, and that most people rarely lock their doors. However, he said criminal offenses can get you "kicked off the island"

Longyearbyen is the islands' largest settlement, with almost 2,000 residents. While a few other settlements exist, roads between them are almost non-existent. Most of Svalbard is wilderness.

Source: Visit Norway, The BBC

Longyearbyen has shops, museums, art galleries, bars, restaurants, a library, and a cinema.

It also hosts a variety of festivals and events, from a blues festival to a beer festival to a pride parade.

Source: Visit Svalbard

"Longyearbyen has a lot of cultural arrangements for locals, so even though we have darkness 24/7 in the winter we still have a lot to do," Prytz said, citing going out to dinner, or meeting friends at a bar.

"It is an amazing place for children to grow up," Prytz added. "They are experiencing things that no kids on the mainland will experience."

Silje Marie Vaatvik, a local guide who grew up on Svalbard, agreed. "Longyearbyen is the greatest place on the planet. Such a small town, but everything to do and the northernmost city in the world."

Longyearbyen may be small, but it's culturally diverse. Its locals represent around 50 different nationalities.

Source: Visit Svalbard 

That's probably because of the Svalbard Treaty, which was signed into law after WWI.

Source: Norwegian Encyclopedia

The islands had no government until the treaty was signed in 1920. While it recognizes Norway's sovereignty, it also stipulates that anyone can live and work there visa-free.

Source: The Governor of Svalbard

The Svalbard governor's website says that in order to move there "you must have the means to be able to reside on Svalbard."

Source: The Governor of Svalbard

The governor can "refuse entry to or expel persons who lack sufficient means to remain there or who are unable to take adequate care of themselves," according to the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security.

Source: Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security

It is recommended that those planning to move to Svalbard should "obtain work and housing before they arrive."

Source: The Governor of Svalbard, Life in Norway

That's because employment is limited, according to Life In Norway, as is housing, which can be expensive and hard to find independently, as most accommodation is owned by employers and given to employees.

Source: Life In Norway, Governor of Svalbard

After Norwegians, Thai residents, of which there are around 200, make up Svalbard's second-largest ethnic group. There's even a Thai restaurant and a Thai supermarket in Longyearbyen.

Source: The Financial Times 

Svalbard is home to the northernmost, well, everything, including the world's northernmost airport, school, university, hospital, hotel, church, and even brewery.

Source: Visit Svalbard  

However, it has no facilities to care for people who are seriously ill or pregnant. Women must go to the mainland to give birth.

Burials have been forbidden since the '50s because of permafrost: If not buried deep enough, thawing permafrost can cause perfectly preserved corpses to burst through the surface, according to the BBC.

Source: The BBC

The dead are shipped to mainland Norway. In other words: You can't be born or buried on Svalbard.

Bringing cats to Svalbard has also been banned since 1992 as a way to protect the island's wildlife.

Source: Visit Svalbard, Svalbard Islands

Svalbard is home to the Global Seed Vault, which has also been called the "doomsday vault" and "'the Noah's Ark of plant diversity."

Source: Visit Norway 

Hidden around 400 feet inside a mountain, it stores every known crop on the planet in case of a natural or manmade disaster, according to Business Insider.

Source: Visit Norway, Business Insider

It can withstand anything from asteroids to nuclear bombs, and is buried so deep in permafrost it's meant to stay frozen for at least 200 years, even if the electricity fails.

Source: Business Insider

Dog sledding, snowmobiling, skiing, and snowshoeing are popular activities in Svalbard.

As is trying to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. "My favorite thing about Svalbard is seeing the Northern Lights. It's something magical," Fuentes said.

Generally, things are more expensive on Svalbard due to its remote location, but because it's a duty-free zone and has a lower income tax than Norway, prices are somewhat comparable.

Source: Life In Norway

Residents can only buy a certain amount of alcohol each month, as alcoholic beverages are regulated by quotas.

Source: Governor of Svalbard

If all this sounds appealing, you can move to Svalbard as soon as travel restrictions are lifted: Currently, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's not open to visitors from the US.

Source: Visit Svalbard

"Once a Svalbardian, always a Svalbardian," according to Visit Svalbard.

Source: Visit Svalbard

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