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

Hannah McKay/ReutersLongyearbyen is a modern community.
  • Norway is consistently ranked among the happiest countries.
  • 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 about 2,000 people hailing from about 50 countries and is the northernmost town in the world.
  • Insider spoke with three locals from Longyearbyen about what living there was really like.
  • Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Svalbard is closed to visitors from the US. The Centres for Disease Control and Preventionwarns 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 placed among the top 10 in each of the past five editions of the World Happiness Report.

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.

Shutterstock.comThe small town Longyearbyen among snow-capped mountains of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

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 can move without a visa.

Getty ImagesNorwegians pride themselves in a good work-life balance.

Source: World Happiness Report

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

Johner Images/Getty ImagesSvalbard is 1,273 miles from Oslo, Norway’s capital.

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

Google MapsSvalbard is about 650 miles from 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.

MB Photography/Getty ImagesIt doesn’t get much warmer than about 42 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.

Source: Visit Norway, BBC, Insider

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

DANIEL SANNUM LAUTEN/AFP via Getty ImagesA sign warning of polar bears.

Source: Visit Svalbard

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

ShutterstockA polar bear in Svalbard.

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.

ShutterstockA local with a rifle.

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.

ShutterstockA whale bone in Longyearbyen.

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.

ShutterstockIt’s about halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

Source: Spitsbergen Svalbard

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

ShutterstockIt doesn’t get very warm in Svalbard, not even in the summer.

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

ShutterstockA tourist expedition on Svalbard.

Source: The Financial Times

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

John McConnico/APIrma Rymo outside Longyearbyen.

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 he described the winter cold as “unbearable.”

ShutterstockWinters on Svalbard are extremely cold.

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

ShutterstockThe midnight sun above Longyearbyen.

Source: Visit Svalbard

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

ShutterstockThe Northern Lights in Svalbard.

Tamira Prytz, 31, who moved to Svalbard with her family from mainland Norway 2 1/2 years ago, told Insider the dark season was no joke. “If the power shuts down, you can actually not see the hand in front of you,” she said.

ShutterstockLongyearbyen by night.

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.”

Kevin Schafer / Getty ImagesA reindeer wandering into Longyearbyen.

Fuentes loves Svalbard and spends his time playing sports, snowmobiling, dogsledding, and skiing. However, he acknowledges 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.

ShutterstockDogsledding is a popular activity.

He told Insider that crime in Svalbard was so low that there’s only one sheriff and that most people rarely locked their doors. He said criminal offences could get you “kicked off the island.”

Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty ImagesLongyearbyen’s main shopping plaza.

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

ShutterstockColourful houses in Longyearbyen.

Source: Visit Norway, The BBC

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

ShutterstockA pub in Longyearbyen.

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

ShutterstockAn LGBTQ march in Svalbard.

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.

Chris Jackson / Getty ImagesA Midsummer celebration in Longyearbyen.

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

Pierre-Henry Deshayes/AFP/Getty ImagesKids heading home from school in Longyearbyen.

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.”

ShutterstockSkiing is a popular pastime.

Longyearbyen may be small, but it’s culturally diverse. Its locals represent about 50 nationalities.

Chris Jackson / Getty ImagesPeople relaxing by a bonfire celebrating Midsummer in Longyearbyen.

Source: Visit Svalbard

That’s probably because of the Svalbard Treaty, which was signed into law after World War I.

ShutterstockA road sign announcing entry into Barentsburg, written in Russian Cyrillic letters.

Source: Norwegian Encyclopaedia

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

REUTERS / Gwladys FoucheFredric Froeberg in Longyearbyen.

Source: The Governor of Svalbard

The Svalbard governor’s website says that to move there “you must have the means to be able to reside on Svalbard.”

ShutterstockBarentsburg, one of the smaller settlements 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.

Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group/Getty ImagesThe Svalbard Church in Longyearbyen.

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.”

ShutterstockHouses in Longyearbyen.

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.

ShutterstockA remnant sign from a Russian coal-mining company.

Source: Life In Norway,Governor of Svalbard

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

Hannah McKay/ReutersA regular 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.

ShutterstockThe sign says ‘The world’s most northern fuel station.’

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.

ShutterstockThe hospital is mostly for injuries.

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

Hannah Mckay/ReutersA pre-ban cemetery remains.

Source: The BBC

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

Norsk Telegrambyra AS/ReutersWomen must head to the mainland three weeks before their due dates.

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

ShutterstockStray offspring of cats from before the ban exist in Barentsburg.

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.”

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty ImagesThe vault is not open to the public.

Source: Visit Norway

Hidden about 400 feet inside a mountain, it stores every known crop on the planet in case of a natural or manmade disaster.

NTB SCANPIX/ReutersIt is hidden deep inside permafrost.

Source: Visit Norway, Business Insider

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

ShutterstockThe Global Seed Vault houses every known crop.

Source: Business Insider

Dogsledding, snowmobiling, skiing, and snowshoeing are popular activities in Svalbard.

Ethan Welty / Getty ImagesStudents driving their snowmobiles during a training course in Adventdalen, Svalbard.

As is trying to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. “My favourite thing about Svalbard is seeing the Northern Lights. It’s something magical,” Fuentes said.

ShutterstockThe Northern Lights above Longyearbyen.

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

REUTERS / Bob StrongA local riding a push sled home with her shopping in Longyearbyen.

Source: Life In Norway

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

ShutterstockSvalbard is home to a brewery.

Source: Governor of Svalbard

If all this sounds appealing, you can move to Svalbard once travel restrictions are lifted: For now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not open to visitors from the US.

ReutersKV Svalbard’s crew playing soccer while protected from polar bears by armed guards.

Source: Visit Svalbard

“Once a Svalbardian, always a Svalbardian,” according to Visit Svalbard.

Chris Jackson / Getty ImagesChildren next to a bonfire celebrating Midsummer.

Source: Visit Svalbard

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