It’s been about three and half years since I moved to the Netherlands and until this time last year, I lived in Amsterdam. I’d like to think that this has given me a bit of perspective on what is unique about living in Amsterdam and what is more typical for the rest of the Netherlands. I came into this process fairly blind, so I hope that this can help others determine if living in Amsterdam is the right decision for them. I say this as someone who is a little less biased than the average Amsterdammer.
- Visas: HOW to move to Amsterdam
- How we ended up in Amsterdam
- Cultural differences between the US and the Netherlands
- Cost of living in Amsterdam
- The housing market in Amsterdam
- Things that nobody told me about living in Amsterdam
- What I loved about living in Amsterdam
- What I disliked about living in Amsterdam
- Would I chose Amsterdam again?
Visas: HOW to move to Amsterdam
The first question that I always get asked by people is how they can move to Amsterdam. The Netherlands is part of the EU and unfortunately, you cannot just move to the Netherlands unless you’re a EU citizen.
If you’re a non-EU citizen, you can visit for as long as your country’s visa allows you. (Americans and Canadians can visit the Schengen region, which includes the Netherlands, for 90 days per year per 180 days, however you cannot work.)
If you wish to move to Amsterdam, you need to get sponsorship or attend university after applying for a visa through IND (Dutch immigration). A South Africa friend of mine was able to work as an au pair and my husband works as a highly skilled migrant in the EU. It’s not so easy to get sponsorship, but you can read this list of professional jobs that might help you move abroad and for tips on finding sponsorship. If you’re an entrepreneur, you might also be able to apply for a Dutch visa this way!
How did we end up in Amsterdam!?
We’re both non-EU citizens. My husband got an offer to work in Amsterdam as a highly skilled migrant after completing his Ph.D. Our first move to the Netherlands was easy in terms of sponsorship as my husband was recruited from abroad.
Our attempt to stay after our visa was about to expire, we were unable to find sponsorship in Amsterdam. We ended up accepting a job offer in Paris, however we ended up moving back to the Netherlands about one year ago. Our story well reflects how tough it can be to find sponsorship in Amsterdam, even if you’re well educated.
What makes Amsterdam special
Amsterdam is a stunning city. What strikes me about Amsterdam is that it’s a city where traditions aren’t set in stone although it’s still Dutch at its heart. Compared to many other Dutch cities, including the Hague, it’s far more international and it’s more readily embraced English as a second language in many parts of the city. For many new arrivals, this is a relief.
Beyond that, the canals just make it so lovely. Beyond the stereotypical canals, I love the parks, fantastic museums, numerous festivals, and constant events. Amsterdam is really the hub of culture in the Netherlands and you definitely feel it when you’re at events, whether it’s art related or simply out at a concert. I found that I rarely left Amsterdam while living in Amsterdam as I always felt like there was so much to do and see. (I’ll come back to that later!)
Cultural differences between the US and the Netherlands
A lot of people love to go on about Dutch directness as a cultural difference. We’re both blunt people and it was very pleasant for us to put aside pleasantries in favor of speaking our minds. I don’t consider this a shock, but more a pleasant surprise!
One of my favorite differences between the US and the Netherlands is the work culture. I find that Dutch work culture is so much healthier with a focus on having a balance between life/family. It’s okay for parents (even dads) to take off one day a week to focus on having quality time with their children. Similarly, I love the fact that so many companies are flexible in regards to family obligations and commutes, which means that it’s more common to work from home.
Something that I dearly miss about the US is the customer service and the 24-hour mentality that you see in New York. I really enjoy living in the Netherlands, but in the US, we’re taught that the customer is always right and if you complain, someone will try to rectify the situation as much as possible.
This standard of customer service is not the case in the Netherlands and some of my interactions with customer service representatives have not gone like I expected. I’ve definitely lowered my standards when it comes to expecting prompt service at restaurants and cafes–and go to the front to order/pay if I’m impatient. (I did this while I was in the US, which people found to be pretty weird!)
Another different, which relates to Dutch work culture, is that things aren’t 24/7. Many errands can only be done between 10-5pm and not every day. People keep tighter calendars as they try to keep work separate from home, which I appreciate about the Netherlands. However, it means that you often need to take off in order to do errands and things aren’t open late. This drives me a bit crazy and things are improving with many Albert Heijns now open until 10pm. However, you still need to be mindful of Dutch holidays when doing your shopping and errands.
Cost of living in Amsterdam
The cost of living in Amsterdam is the highest in the Netherlands and is continuing to go up, especially for expats. It used to be that an apartment could be found for less than a thousand euros, but this is not the case anymore unless you know someone. As a new expat to Amsterdam, you’re likely to be paying at least 600 euros for a room or 1,250 euros (and more) for a flat.
Although there are street markets in Amsterdam, you can reasonably expect for two people to spend around 500 euros a month, including some take-out and eating out. This includes shopping at Albert Heijn and being fairly budget conscious. You can click for my full post about the cost of living in Amsterdam.
The housing market in Amsterdam
The housing market in Amsterdam is the worst in all of the Netherlands. The bubble surrounding the Amsterdam housing market seems to grow and grow as more foreign money drives up the prices rendering “starter” apartments unaffordable for many couples in their 20s/30s. I suspect this will worsen as Amsterdam becomes a new hub for businesses after Brexit.
Finding an apartment in Amsterdam to rent is probably one of the tiers of hell. There’s nothing like entering an apartment that you think is just okay only to have twenty other people jockeying for it–only to hear that people have already put in their documents.
Similarly, many apartments do not have the basics (by other standards). You might need to install your own floors, appliances, and even paint your own walls. You can click for my tips for finding an apartment to rent in Amsterdam.
Things that nobody told me about living in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is one of the easier places to live in Europe in my opinion. As someone who has now braved Paris, Amsterdam is super easy by comparison. Administration is minimal, everyone speaks English, and you don’t really need to worry about a lot of of things.
I find that it can encourage some bad habits as I’ve found that many expats who live in Amsterdam don’t bother learning Dutch, but it is nice to feel more comfortable in a language that you know well. I find that Dutch culture (especially in Amsterdam) is quite progressive, so if you’re used to a big city elsewhere in North America, I doubt you’ll find that much culture shock.
I must note that learning Dutch in Amsterdam is a feat of its own. I’ve definitely known people who have done so, however learning Dutch is harder in the Netherlands as so many people speak English and the bar for languages tends to be higher. When speaking Dutch, especially in Amsterdam, many people will switch on you if your accent isn’t great or they can tell you’re just learning. It’s frustrating and I’ve found speaking Dutch elsewhere in the Netherlands to be much easier on a daily basis.
I never really had feelings about bachelorette parties before, but I really am annoyed by them. There’s nothing like dealing with a shrieking party of 12 women in the morning before you’ve had your coffee. The tourists can really get on your nerves, even as a foreigner living in Amsterdam.
Bike theft is rampant. I’ve had two bikes stolen from me, which is low compared to some people. I’ve found elsewhere to be much more reasonable, so make sure that you don’t have U-lock (they’re terrible). (I recommend getting a VIRO lock. You can read more recommendations related to biking in Amsterdam here.)
It actually feels like a village in many places. Dutchies really take a lot of pride in getting to know their neighbors, which was actually quite a new concept to me. By the time that I left my last apartment, many my neighbors came to say goodbye to us and one even asked for my email to stay in touch. You might think that you live in a big city, but you’ll be shocked how often you run into the same people and see people you know at bars/cafes.
What I loved about living in Amsterdam
Amsterdam truly gets under your skin. There’s something about walking past a 16th century canal house and actually being able to step in for a coffee or a beer that makes the charm real. I am always struck by how special Amsterdam is when I’m cycling home alone at night along the canals. There’s something about the silence, the city, and its stunning canals that make you forget for a second that you’re doing something so routine.
As an expat, one of the biggest perks of living in Amsterdam is that everyone wants to visit you. I think that I’ve seen more people in the last few years than I saw while living in the US. It can drive you up the wall sometimes as not everyone is a good guest, but for the most part, it’s lovely seeing folks!
The diversity of Amsterdam is great, which means that you can find lots of international foods at the various markets. The mix of cultures is certainly different, but I definitely fell in love with Surinamese food and Indonesian food thanks to Amsterdam!
Schiphol is a fantastic airport and it’s amazing being able to fly so cheaply around the world from my local airport. I still fly almost exclusively from Schiphol Airport and seriously, it’s a huge perk of living in the Netherlands. The Dutch love travel, which means that budget airlines go all over Europe (and beyond).
What I disliked about living in Amsterdam
My husband likes to joke that Amsterdam is a donut. You can enjoy the outskirts, but the rest is a hole of nothingness. That’s basically Amsterdam Center.
You can read my related ramblings here. I was recently in the Red Light District and the feeling that you can’t relax sucks. The cafes have signs about the pickpockets–and the cafes have lost much of the charm in trying to cater to the scandalous.
Although this is improving, Amsterdam (and the Netherlands more generally) is still really bad about credit cards. You often need to carry cash or to have a Dutch Maestro card for many places catered to locals, including local eateries. It is good to be financially responsible, but it’s always a pain when I have visitors.
Biking in center can be really dangerous. I love biking in Amsterdam as mentioned above, however a lot of tourists do not understand the concept of sidewalks and bike lanes, rendering a cycle through center quite dangerous! In general, it’s just annoying biking through the center at night (before it’s very late) as the tourist crowds make it hard to get through certain areas.
The weather is definitely a minus point. 😉 The rain and cold, especially for Amsterdam in winter, is something that I could skip…
Would I chose Amsterdam again?
This time last year, we had the decision to make: to come to Amsterdam or to move elsewhere in Holland. This time, we decided to shake things up and live in The Hague. We got married in Amsterdam and it really is a special city to me.
I love Amsterdam, but I have to say that there’s something really lovely about being able to go to the city center. I definitely miss my wonderful neighbors and waking up to a canal-side view….but you have to sacrifice some things for space!
I still enjoy visiting Amsterdam regularly, but I finally feel like I’m more connected to the rest of the Netherlands at this point. When I lived in Amsterdam, I only spent time in Amsterdam. That’s a little of an exaggeration, however now that I’ve left Amsterdam, I routinely visit other cities during the week and on the weekend. I love it as I finally feel like I’m seeing more of the Netherlands outside of Amsterdam.