We just moved back to the Netherlands. After living in Amsterdam, moving from the United States, we moved to Paris. It didn't work out and we're back living in the Netherlands hoping to stay permanently, now in Zuid Holland. Moving to the Netherlands for the second time has gotten me thinking in terms of stuff we didn't know when we moved here or that I wish knew how it worked, so I hope you enjoy this humorous (and a bit tongue in chic) guide to things to know before you move to the Netherlands.
Some housekeeping first:
1. Unless you're EU or Japanese, you can't just move to the Netherlands. Also, you can't get a work permit just by showing up.
You can’t just move here if you’re non-EU (or Japanese for some reason) and work. There’s a lot of people who message me that they want to move to the Netherlands trying to figure how to make it happen (good for you!), however finding sponsorship is hard. We tried and failed this year. It's not easy although it's easier if you're a specialist in your field and highly educated. A Dutch company needs to prove that you're uniquely suited for a job that they can't get a European for.
For my Americans and Japanese readers, a reader has mentioned the Dutch-American friendship treaty. This means that you're allowed to start a business in the Netherlands, however it requires at least 4,500 euros in savings, a viable business plan, some other requirements, and an application. However, this does not give you the right to work besides as an entrepreneur, so if you're dreaming of a proper job here in the Netherlands, it's not happening and you have 1-2 years to show that your business is viable...and to convince the Dutch government that you have a viable business. Good luck with that. ;)
I think it's honestly easier to come in as a highly skilled migrant, which means that you're sponsored as a highly skilled/educated worker sponsored by a Dutch company. It's certainly not easy to get sponsorship with a highly skilled migrant visa, but if you have a Ph.D or Masters degree, it's a good route to take.
As a legal immigrant who has dealt with a lot of visa nonsense in Europe (mostly not in the Netherlands), it really sours Europeans to immigrants when people come here and work illegally as tourists. The Belastingdienst (Dutch tax authority) is also wise to people coming here as tourists and working illegally or online as "freelancers." They want your money and if they find out that you didn't pay them taxes, you're in hot water. Also without a job, you'll struggle to find housing.
2. Your first month(s) here: The Cycle of Frustration
When you arrive, it’s a cycle of frustration. You need a work contract, you need a Dutch bank account, you need an apartment that you can register at ...but for you to get a bank account, you need an apartment. You also need a Dutch phone number once you're tired of getting prepaid numbers, but you also need a Dutch bank account/address.... In order to get an apartment, you need a Dutch (or European) bank account. I’ve been asked if there’s a proper order to solving the cycle of frustration; I don’t know it.
3. Dutch Directness...
“Dutch people are direct.” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this. On a scale of British to being so honest it hurts, I don’t find the Netherlands that bad. Things are more casual here and people believe in honest criticisms. I do believe that some people use Dutch directness as an excuse to say anything they want, but in general, people are polite, honest, and straightforward. At work, it’s quite refreshing to outright say what you think of a project without beating around the bush. If you've always been the kind of person who tells people exactly what you think, you'll fit in well.
4. Health Insurance in the Netherlands isn't free (Where did you think you were moving?)
Health insurance in the Netherlands works a bit differently than some other places in Europe. You are required to have insurance. No, it's not free. That said, it's regulated by the government. You'll typically pay 100 euros per month per person for "basic health insurance" without a discount (maybe 90 euros with a discount).
There are private insurance carriers and you can choose between Dutch insurance carriers before you make a decision. I’ve had a very Dutch carrier where all the correspondence was in Dutch and a more expat friendly one. Both were fine, but I’d recommend one that gives you documents in English if your Dutch isn’t great as contracts aren't fun to read when you're dealing with a serious injury. (Zilveren Kruis is an expat health insurance favorite for this reason). Your deductible for the year is typically around 350.
Typically, you need to go to your general practitioner every time (even if you want to go to a specialist) and it’s very important to find your GP as soon as possible. Not all GPs are accepting new patients and some are a bit less used to having foreigners as patients. Dental insurance is not typical as most people pay out of pocket when needed, but if you’re prone to dental issues, it’s worth having the insurance (which is 5-10 euros per month extra). Hospitals by default are low-cost (besides your deductible) if you’re admitted for an emergency, but the follow-up visit at that specific hospital may not be covered depending on your insurance. (You can pay extra for all hospitals to be included on your plan.)
5. Almost EVERYONE speaks English.
Most people speak English. It's mostly elderly people in rural areas who aren't fully comfortable responding in English (although they often understand it well) and/or fellow immigrants who only speak Dutch.
You should still learn Dutch, but speaking it in a big city like Amsterdam will be hard unless you’re in a language course. Most Dutchies dealing with native English speakers just want to make it easier by switching to English as their English is probably better than your Dutch. It’s not worth getting offended when people don’t reply back in Dutch, but with perfecting your grammar/accent, it might go better in a year (or three).
Although people certainly speak English and many expats in the Netherlands go YEARS never learning any Dutch, people will judge you as you live here for more than a few years--and don’t learn. There’s something to be said for trying even if people switch on you. You can do your entire daily life in English if you’re working an English speaking job, but you’ll also miss out on so many fantastic subtleties of Dutch culture.... A lesson for you is coming.
Important things you’re missing out by not learning Dutch:
6. DIY culture is alive and well in the Netherlands.
When we first moved here and my bike tire got a hole in it, I asked my Dutch roommate where I could get it fixed in the neighborhood, he refused to tell me and decided to show me how to fix it using a bucket of water and a patch. Needless to say, I definitely have paid bike shops to fix my bike because it seemed like a lot of work to save 10 euros. The good part about this is that it's acceptable to turn your house into a construction site if you dislike something, even if you're renting.
When I was at looking an apartment without floors (more about this soon!), I remember my former colleagues telling me that it wasn’t that difficult to install floors yourself. Similarly, others told me that I should even buy the flooring and take it with me when I moved. Needless to say, I gave the floors to the next tenant who was happy to rip them up after receiving my apartment while doing major renovations to a rental apartment, including installing a whole new wall. Most apartments don’t even give you something to hang your lights from; you just receive the wires in the ceiling and you install the lights yourself! It's a guarantee that you'll end up at a Gamma or Action at some point.
7. Salaries aren't super high and you're lucky if you only get the 30% ruling
Salaries are better than some places in Europe, but don’t expect salaries on par with North America. I estimate that we make about 50% less than what we'd make in the US in an average city, but I love that I don't need to worry about going into medical debt if one of us has a bad medical accident.
You’re lucky if you receive the 30% ruling, which means that you only pay 30% of your gross income as tax. This is a specialty ruling intended for expats moving to the Netherlands, so before you say it’s a lot of tax to pay, you’re getting a steal by receiving this. You still need to file taxes, but it’s actually pretty easy and someone with A2 level Dutch can figure how to pay the Belastingdienst as they do most of the work for you. If you donate to charity, you get a tax deduction, so consider helping the poor if you’re not already donating.
8. The Dutch have their own banking system: IDEAL. Also, your credit cards are useless.
Online banking is LIFE. If you don’t have IDEAL, things are about to get a lot harder for you as many Dutch businesses don’t accept credit cards. IDEAL uses Maestro, which is generally not used anywhere else, so unless you take out cash, you’re going to have a tough time finding shops in residential neighborhoods to accept your credit cards. Even then, they might not accept cash. Coming from the United States where electronic banking doesn’t have the same level of sophistication, my mind was blown when people expect money to instantly transfer money.
On a related note, you give your bank account number to everyone. It’s unsafe to give your bank account number to anyone in the US, however in the Netherlands, you send it to random strangers on the internet telling them to give you money. If they scam you, you have their bank account info and last name to give to the police.
9. The Dutch postal system is...unique
The mail here in the Netherlands...is interesting. The privatized mail system, PostNL, works well enough most of the time, but I still cannot believe that the official way of delivering mail in Netherlands includes giving your packages to anyone on your street if you're not home without your permission. Beyond the mail deliverer signing a note notifying you that they gave away your package to a stranger who might not ever give you your mail, you have to trust that your neighbors will actually give you your packages. (Still haven’t received some of my 2015/2016 Christmas gifts from good friends...)
If they’re totally unable to give your mail away to a stranger or you use a tracking service which requires your signature (and they can’t deliver your package), your package will end up at a Primera, random bookshop, or even a lottery store. I actually prefer this as I can just pick it up at my convenience instead of low-key stalking my neighbors to see if they’re home. I typically get packages delivered to work addresses where someone is at the desk to sign for it/store it OR a shop where I can pick it up when I choose.
10. Buy your own blinds/curtains
I like privacy in my house and the idea of people from the street being able to peek into my home via a window with no blinds is insanity to me. A lot of houses on the first floor have a "privacy panel" of opaque glass in the middle of the window that is supposed to give you privacy. Except, you can see in via the rest of the window.
We lived in an apartment where you could see 75% of my neighbor's apartment if you were on the balcony. The person who lived in the apartment before me installed a wooden panel in the middle of the apartment, so that HE couldn't see the balcony from where the bed was although you could perfectly see in from the balcony. I told him that I still wanted blinds and curtains, but he told me that I could DIY myself. (I did!) That said, I LOVE the window display of creepy dolls in rocking chairs that this woman who lives by me has put by her window. No blinds.
If you're home during the day, you’re going to become the block package person. For the record, if you keep your blinds open and you're on the ground floor, it’s really awkward when the postman stares at you trying to inform you that he’s trying to deliver a package to your neighbors and you’re refusing to open the door.
11. People LOVE calendars and you need to schedule everything in advance. No last-minute-surprises.
People love calendars and your life will generally be planned at least two weeks in advance if you’re someone with a busy social life. Toilet calendars are a thing. Too much? Maybe, but I’ll meet you here in two weeks at 2pm to discuss this further. I’m booked up until then and also, I’m only free for an hour until I have my next appointment. Sound familiar? If not, it will soon!
12. Apartments ... seem a bit incomplete
Your apartment might come without floors….and 90% of what some of us consider a finished apartment to be. It can be a bit of a shock when you see your first Dutch rental. I remember my first one and the real estate agent told me how it was so nice of them to paint the walls and install the floors. I was just stumbling around for words while asking where the rest of the kitchen was. Needless to say, you can often get a place with floors that is “unfurnished” if you negotiate with the previous owner (if there is one) to buy the floor before they leave. (More about how to find an apartment in the Netherlands here.) Also, you're not going to have air conditioning.
13. Your neighbors will be friendly
Your neighbors will be friendly. I was a bit unprepared for how friendly my neighbors were coming from New York City, but it’s very considerate to invite your neighbors over for coffee as a nicety. It’s a bit old school to say to invite your neighbors over for coffee AND cake, but it’s a good gesture for older people. That said, you’re going to need to interact with them just for the sake of getting your packages. ALWAYS say hi, even if you're not a fan. Do not break this cardinal rule...or face the consequences.
14. Zwarte Piet.
I’m not going to get into the Zwarte Piet discussion (don't worry Dutchies!), but if you move here to the Netherlands, you’re going to have feelings about Zwarte Piet. If you're sitting here wondering what Zwarte Piet, feel free to google it.
15. Work/life balance; vacations are sacred
Work/life balance IS an important part of living in the Netherlands and the reason why you should consider moving to the Netherlands. It’s magical and fantastic. People take their vacations and weekends very seriously. If you have young kids, many people (even men) work 1-2 days at home during the week to be able to take their kids to school. Similarly, many people do four day work weeks with one day off to do errands, relax, and be around their kids.
Vacations are everyone’s favorite subject to discuss at parties and Dutchies LOVE vacation. People get about one month of vacation and many people save up three weeks to use at one time. This means that during the vacation months (May, July and August), you might have difficulty getting ahold of people whose responsibility something is.... In the interim, work goes on and their colleagues cover for them to the best of their abilities, but don’t expect answers to your emails over vacation. Many people leave their inbox untouched until they return.
16. Customer service in the Netherlands... Yeah.
Complaining is normal and fine. Just don’t always expect it to fix anything. Things work well enough here in the Netherlands. Most of the time, things work fine, however when something goes wrong, .... yeah. The customer is not always right, it's probably your fault and you should have planned for the worst case scenario. If you have bad luck, just focus on fixing your problem. Don't try to get anything to make up for the inconvenience; you will get nothing. If you're lucky, your problem will get solved or the damage for fixing the problem on your own isn't too expensive.
Regarding complaining, you really need to work hard to complain in a way that your problem gets solved. You can ask for supervisors, call back daily, complain on their Facebook wall, but nothing might happen and you will need to keep this up for months to see a result. I was given a faulty router by my internet company who also forgot to turn on my wifi for a month. For almost two months, I had no internet and I called them every single day. That's how long it took to fix this.
17. Tipping kind of exists
For waiter service at a restaurant, you should be tipping 10% if you feel that service is good. However, not everyone tips and it's not always expected although it's nice. You won't see a tip section on most bills at restaurants unless it's fancy/caters to tourists. When you're brought the bill, it's for the amount of the services although you can tell them to add in a bit more for the tip.
Dinner is meant to be enjoyed with minimal interruptions. Don’t expect American style service. If anything, you’re going to work at making aggressive eye contact with your waiter to get them to come back. Better even, go up to the bar/waiter to inform them that you want to pay or order more. It’s the fastest way and if you wait for the waiter to come to you, you’ll be waiting a while.
18. The weather is terrible 80% of the year
The weather is generally not great and even when you’re sure that it won’t rain, it does. There's really no point in wearing a raincoat because if you're biking, you're going to get soaked regardless.
For the one warm week in summer, you'll see EVERYONE out at the beach. Similarly, when it's a beautiful sunny day on a weekend, every single terrace is filled. People here in the Netherlands appreciate good weather when it occurs. Generally, it's kind of cold, windy, and rainy. That said, it doesn't really snow much although if the ice freezes over in Friesland to a specific thickness.... it's time for Elfstedentocht and it's a BIG deal! (You can read more about Elfstedentocht here.)
Buienradar is the most popular weather app here and it’s a weather map. It’s generally good for the next hour (aka when you’re leaving work) and I personally don't understand the obsession with it where people ask you if you know it. I’ve found that Accuweather is better and far more functional as an app. It also informs you of the breaks in the rain in the upcoming hour....which is a very valuable insight.
19. Doe normaal (Be normal!)
If you’re frugal, you’ll fit in. There’s not a lot of keeping up with the Jones’ here. If you’re living in a normal house and living a normal life, you’re doing fine. Although you’re welcome to show off your new iPhone, I love that there’s no big pressure about keeping up with the latest trends. I love the fact that I can go to my favorite bars without ever worrying if I’m dressed up enough.
There’s a saying in Dutch that summarizes the Netherlands to me: “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg!” Translation: Just act normal; it’s crazy enough! This extends to the way that you dress and just the way that you interact with other people in public by not being a weirdo. Also, if you're doing something wrong, someone will inform you.
20. You don't need to dress up fancy for work
You don’t need fancy business clothes for many white collar jobs. I typically wore a t-shirt, a cardigan, jeans, and flats to work at my previous job. Even my husband wears business casual clothes to work: regular pants, a nice pair of shoes, and a black sweater. On a related note, a lot of Dutch guys have a work/life uniform including a nice pair of leather shoes, jeans, and a crisp white button-up shirt.
Sidenote: people love jeans here.
21. Biking is really that popular
You don’t bike? Well, you better start. Biking in the Netherlands is generally relaxing and easy as there’s ample bike lanes, cars actually look out for bikers, and there’s even bike stoplights. I absolutely love biking down a quiet street at night, especially while listening to some good music.
Unless you're in a small town, your bike is going to get stolen at some point. It’s just ticking time bomb until the thieves find it and take it. That said, don’t get an expensive bike and get an expensive bike chain lock (VIRO is my recommendation). You'll also need a wheel lock. A former roommate recommends 50% of your bike's value on the chain.
22. Amsterdam is niet normaal (not normal)
Most tourists who visit the Netherlands THINK that they've seen the Netherlands after they've visited Amsterdam. WRONG. Amsterdam is not a normal Dutch city due to the international nature of it AND the many tourists. If you want to see some typically Dutch cities, leave Amsterdam. Similarly, the housing prices in Amsterdam are high.
if you’re in Amsterdam, city biking in Amsterdam is a very different than biking in most other Dutch cities due to the fact that tourists that don’t understand how biking works and/or how sidewalks work. Centre is a giant biking obstacle course and when you add in the scooters, it’s certainly something to get used to.
23. Dutch food
Many people feel let down by Dutch food as it’s not very spicy or exotic. If you like nice veggies, fried foods (FEBO!), sweet desserts, dairy, bread, and potatoes, you’re in the right place. However, if you’re looking for a place where every restaurant caters to your specific dietary restrictions, you will be disappointed although the Netherlands is improving in this regard in the big cities. If you want something exotic or spicy, go to your local Surinamese or Indonesian toko...or Schiphol for a flight.
Milk is everywhere. I’m lactose intolerant and it makes me really sad as the Netherlands makes AMAZING cheese. That said, I have mixed feelings about drinking milk with my meals as it just seems like it would clash with the flavours, but people sometimes do this and really love dairy. Sometimes, Albert Heijn changes the recipe for their chicken deli meat and adds milk to it!?
Also, people really love bread here. People go to the supermarket every morning for fresh rolls for their lunch. By dinner time, the bread bin is often empty. For lunch, you’ll see people eating various spreads or meat with multiple rolls of bread. Sometimes, this includes smooshing a croquette (a fried food) in between bread and putting mustard on it. It's surprisingly good.
On a related note, the Netherlands has some of the best supermarkets that you’ll find in Europe with amazing a price to quality ratio. Similarly, they’re everywhere. You can usually push a shopping cart in a random direction and find an Albert Heijn or Jumbo or Dirk van den Broek within a mile.
24. Work contracts are weird
Work contracts aren’t always what you think. I was really worried when I was first offered a contract that lasted six months, then one that lasted eight months...and so on. It’s just a formality as it’s quite hard to fire people and if it’s not working out within the first six months (or a year), many companies want flexibility. Similarly, it’s quite normal for many people to be employed by temp agencies for the first 1-2 years until they receive a permanent contract with the company. This is also for legal/logistical reasons although if you’re let go by a company while working for a temp agency, they’re required to pay out your entire contract to you if they cannot find work.
25. Some errands can often only be done 9-5
You’ll need to do many of your errands between 9-5 on weekdays. Many smaller shops are only open 9-5 and if you need to go to the bank, you’ll need to plan to go during the day. Similarly, government appointments are generally only 9-5. Real estate agents only work 9-5, so if you want to see an apartment, you need to go during the day on a weekday for viewings. However, you can expect that the supermarket(s) will be open until 9/10pm and the nightshops (avondwinkels) will be open until midnight if you get hungry after 10!
26. ******** Mosquitos.
The mosquitos here in the Netherlands are HUGE and vicious. There’s even a town in the Netherlands, called Muggenbeet, which I actually visited. This country was built from swamps....so expect to get bit up if you're prone to mosquito bites (like me).
There are NEVER screens on the window, so you’ll need to custom build your own screens if you live on the first 4 floors....or never open your windows. Some Dutchies swear by the mosquito net solution like you’re on safari, but the mosquitos just WAIT for you to get up and chasing out the last ones from your apartment is impossible.
Making your own custom fitted screens to keep the buggers out is surprisingly cheap (20 euros). All you need is a good wood frame (go to Gamma with your measurements), a hammer, nails, and screen netting (from Gamma).
27. Cats are beloved in the Netherlands
Dutchies love cats more than other place that I’ve been. It’s partially due to historic reasons as the canals have made mice an issue. However, you’ll find so many shops with cats. (I have a whole posts about the best shops with cats in Amsterdam.) Similarly, having pets isn’t that much of a big deal for most housing IF it’s a cat. Also, Dutchies believe that their cats should have the ability to come/go as they like, which is a foreign concept to me, as I worry about my cat getting run over by a car. Plus side: You’ll see tons of kitties out in summer!
28. Being a Dutch parent is great (I've heard).
If you want to be a parent, the Netherlands is ranked as one of the best places in the world to raise a kid. Dutch kids are consistently ranked as some of the happiest kids in terms of quite a few outcomes. The approach to parenting in the Netherlands involves being way more laid-back with letting kids be kids and a lot of trust.
29. Getting a Dutch best friend takes time
Making Dutch friends here is a long-time investment although the Dutch are very friendly. You’ll consider that person a friend and they’ll consider you one too, however don’t count to be invited over their house or to a party for at least a year. A lot of people have their friend group that stays fairly constant from high school, college, or graduate school as so many people move to the main cities at the same time. It’s definitely possible to make Dutch friends and worth it, but it’s a time investment. (Edit: Maybe I’m weird, but my husband manages just fine to make friends at work almost instantly.) Expat friends are much easier to make and you can commiserate about how hard it is to make Dutch friends together.
30. The Dutch trains are great... most of the time.
The NS trains are generally great, but a bit pricey. There are strategies to save money on the trains, but the furthest that you can take the train (3 hours) will cost 25 euros ONE way. Compared to some other train systems (e.g. France), the Dutch trains seem cheap, but when you also combine the weird unexpected delays that come with weekend/night trains, it can be a bit of a headache when they decide to do construction on the line that you intend when you decide to go. When you’re late because of train delays, nobody blinks an eye. I still am not over the sometimes bizarre train cancellation/delay excuses that you hear. My favorites so far: the tracks are too hot, the tracks are too slippery, and there’s leaves on the tracks.
31. The Netherlands is just so flat and you get home-sick for hills
It’s so damn flat. You can go to the sea/Texel to see the sand dunes or Limburg to see the famous hills of Limburg, but you might be disappointed if you spent time in a place with mountains or hills. There’s also a few national parks that have some varied landscapes or forest, but more generally, the Netherlands is cute, green, and flat. Luckily, it’s cheap to travel from the Netherlands to anywhere in Europe that has mountains, including France, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland. I start saying THIS IS SO BEAUTIFUL whenever we're road tripping anywhere with a rolling landscape now.... I still enjoy biking by the fields and many cute sheep, but you're not in Switzerland.
32. Bar culture is alive and well!
Bar culture and beer culture is very much alive. Dutchies love their beer and the “average” cheap beer here is good. If you are thinking of Heineken, Heineken actually tastes better here in the Netherlands! There’s so many great beers in the Netherlands and unique spirits in the Netherlands! If you just want to relax with a beer after work, that's a thing.
33. Schiphol is amazing.
Schiphol is the greatest airport in the world. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. To pronounce it like a Dutchie, say it like “Skip-hole” with a Sch-k as a quick sound.
34. Weed, tulips, prostitution.... that's for the tourists.
Whenever you travel ANYWHERE after you move to the Netherlands, people will tell you that they love marijuana, they can't believe prostitution is legal, or they love tulips. It's one of the above . These are tourist stereotypes about the Netherlands and seriously, most Dutch people don't smoke marijuana. Similarly, prostitution is legal/regulated, but most of the people going there are tourists. Ditto with Keukenhof: most of the visitors are tourists. If I had a euro for every time that someone told me that they'd LOVE to move to the Netherlands because of all the weed, I'd be so rich that I'd buy a canal house in Amsterdam! However, the tulip fields are absolutely beautiful and you can visit the tulip fields for free. ;)
34. You can go to most museums in the Netherlands almost for free...
The Museumkaart is one of the greatest parts of living in the Netherlands. It gets you into most museums in the Netherlands and if you're living in the Netherlands/visiting for a month, it's worth buying the museumkaart as just 3-4 museums will have you pay off the fee (60 euros for adults and 32 euros for children). Once you buy a temporary Museumkaart at a museum (or online), you have 30 days to register it to your name, BSN number, photo, and address. From there, you'll receive your museumkaart in the mail. NOT all museums are covered, but 95% of the museums that I've visited in the Netherlands are covered. It's just a fantastic way to be cultured.
35. Driving licenses aren't easy/cheap to get
Driving licenses are difficult to get and expensive. Generally, a car isn’t really worth having if you live in the city as parking is quite expensive and it can be hard to get a spot. However, if you have a family or live out in the suburbs/a rural area, it’s worthwhile having a car. That said, getting a Dutch license is an involved and expensive task, so if you don’t anticipate yourself driving, don’t switch your license.
36. Is the Netherlands safe? Yes.
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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