Living in the Netherlands as an American Expat
An American's Observations about Holland
My husband is Dutch and I’m American. Moving to the Netherlands and living there for almost four years was rewarding but sometimes challenging. Based on my experiences as an American expat, I put together a list of the pros and cons about living in Holland for your reading pleasure:
People & Culture
- Large expat communities. There are many American expatriates living in Amsterdam and other parts of the country for either work or study, and there are a variety of expat groups you can join to meet people and make friends. I found a bunch of cool groups on meetup.com where people meet weekly or monthly for a ‘borrel’ (i.e. meeting up for drinks and socializing).
- The Dutch have an amazing sense of style. You won’t see anyone here who looks like they just rolled out of bed. The fashion sense of Dutchies is quite impressive!
- Marijuana and prostitution are legal. But don’t think that everyone who walks around smokes weed and prostitutes for a living. In fact, the majority of the Dutch people I know don’t even smoke weed. And prostitution is very much regulated and contained to certain parts of the country (e.g. Red Light district in Amsterdam).
- The parties never end! Many clubs don’t close until the crack of dawn, and many don't charge a cover fee.
- Annoying etiquette and norms. For example, you must take off your coat when entering a building, otherwise it's considered rude. Also, to hang out with people you have to make an ‘afspraak’ (i.e. appointment) with them beforehand. Many have agendas where they plan everything out in advance - who they're going to hang out with that day, what they're going to do, etc.
- Almost no two houses are alike here. Everything is so different and the culture here is so rich. Say goodbye to boring townhouses that all look the same.
- Sinks with no garbage disposals. It seems like most houses here were built before the 1900s, so say goodbye to modern interior amenities. So make sure that food doesn't go down your kitchen drain, otherwise it might come back up through your shower drain. That happened to me several times in my apartment in Leiden. Gross much?
- The customer service is sub-optimal. Most waiters make much more than minimum wage, so they have less incentive to deliver the best possible service. I've gotten yelled at several times while talking to a customer service representative. Evidently, in Holland the customer is not always right.
- The crime rate is very low. Maybe it’s because much of what is prohibited in other countries is legal here and easily accessible. On numerous occasions, I’d find myself walking back home at night. Not once did I feel like I was in danger.
- Nearly everyone speaks English. This makes it easy to get around. Whenever I’d attempt to speak Dutch, people would respond to me in English. This was both good and bad: Good because I had no difficulty communicating with the locals, and bad because there was no incentive for me to learn Dutch other than to communicate with my husband’s non-English speaking grandma.
- It can be hard to blend in with the locals - if you don't speak Dutch. The Dutch tend to have closely knit communities of family/friends. Although they’re friendly towards expats, becoming part of their inner circle of friends can be quite a challenge. If you truly want to fit in, you'll have to learn Dutch. I learned Dutch primarily by using Rosetta Stone (and of course with the help of my Dutch husband). I found Rosetta Stone to be incredibly helpful as it uses pictures to convey Dutch words. I'm a visual learner so the program proved to be very intuitive and instrumental in helping me learn the language.
- People are very friendly. If you look lost on the street, or you have a flat tire, or an asteroid suddenly plummets on top of you, people will flock to you and offer to help. One time, I saw a man fall off his bike, and within seconds, strangers flocked to him offering assistance. Bystander mentality here? Not a chance.
Jobs, Employment, & Money
- There are many expatriate jobs in the Netherlands for educated, English speaking people. I used to work for Philips for nearly four years, and we primarily communicated in English. In fact, most of my colleagues were from Spain, Italy, England, India, etc and could hardly speak Dutch. If you’re seeking employment, definitely check out jobs in Amsterdam, Leiden, or other expat city hubs as that’s where most large, English-speaking multinational companies are located.
- A month of paid vacation days! Companies in the Netherlands provide an average of 30 days paid time off. Add to the national holidays, and you're looking at over a month of paid vacation time. Compare that to an average of 2 weeks of paid time off in the states...
- If you’re doing poorly at your new job, don’t fret! It’s almost impossible to get fired from a job in Holland because the Dutch system tends to support employees rather than employers. And even if you do get fired/laid off for whatever reason, you’ll receive unemployment benefits that can sustain you for months. When I worked at Philips, several of my colleagues got laid off and they received 9 months of full time paid unemployment.
- High income taxes. If you make around 80,000 euros a year, you’ll likely end up paying more than 40% tax. The higher your income bracket, the more taxes you’ll have to pay. Filing for taxes can also be a bit confusing as you have to go through the Dutch tax bureau (Belastingdienst) which can be time-consuming and frustrating. Consider getting expat tax services from a reputable company to save you the hassle. Or have a local walk you through the process.
- Monthly road taxes. Exorbitant road tax has to paid no matter if you drive or not - simply owning a car means you have to pay at least 50 euros per month for using roads (thanks Jericho for the tip!)
- Everything in Holland is done through online banking. Paper checks are a thing of the past.
- Affordable expat health insurance. Since health insurance here is mandatory, there are many subsidies available for those with lower incomes.
- High interest rates for credit cards. it is almost impossible to get a credit card with no fees. (Thanks Jericho for the tip!)
- There are many universities in the Netherlands and the education system is quite advanced. I actually got my graduate degree from Utrecht University, a top university in Holland, and found the program to be very well structured and educational. What I noticed though is that the competition level among students here is lower compared to the United States. Students feel less need to prove their worth and intellectual capacity to others.
- Great student life. There are many groups to join, lots of activities all the time, lots of partying, lots of socializing, and did I mention lots of partying?
- The government takes good care of its students by offering them generous financial aid packages. You can take up to 10 years to pay off your loans, which generally have a low interest rate (think 3-5%).
- The weather can be unpredictable. One second the sun is shining, the next it's pouring cats and dogs – this drove me crazy! The number of sunshine hours in Holland is on the lower end compared to the states. That's because the climate there is moderate maritime, making the summers quite mild. You can expect clouds, rain, sleet, hail, sun, and wind – oftentimes on the same day!
- The summer days are very long. In July, it doesn't get dark until 10 pm! My husband and I enjoyed many beautiful summer nights on our terrace sipping wine and having a nice chat.
- Amazing bread. There are dozens of bakeries in Holland that make fresh baked, delicious and affordable bread. Toast has never tasted so good!
- Excellent dairy products. The yogurt here is amazing. And so is the cheese. A lot of the dairy comes from organic farms, too.
- Delicious herring, or 'haring' as they call it here. There are many fish trucks all over the country that sell haring and other fish snacks. Haring is eaten raw and it's amazing. It’s also full of Omega 3’s!
- Limited selection of decent Asian restaurants. Craving sushi? It’s way overpriced here and the quality is mediocre. However, there's a delicious Korean BBQ place in The Hague. If you're in town, you've got to visit Seoul Garden!
- Portion sizes are small – good for your waistline, bad for your pockets.
- Excellent tap water. Best quality in Europe, hands down. Plus, the Dutch don't fluoridate their water, which is a great thing if you're health conscious.
- You have to pay for water at restaurants. You can't simply ask for a cup of tap water - unless you want to get weird looks from your waiter/waitress. You're obliged to pay for the expensive bottled kind, which can run around 2-3 euros.
- Unique restaurants. You won't find a ton of restaurant chains in Holland. The Dutch celebrate local, unique restaurants that have a story to tell. Oh, and you'll never run into those fake candles that some American restaurants place on tables. The experience of eating at Dutch restaurants is always unique, and, as the Dutch say "gezellig"
- The Dutch have become more health conscious in recent years. There are 3 health food stores around the corner from where I used to live that sell fresh, organic produce.
- Fantastic seasonal sales. You can buy decent, quality top from H&M for 5 euros.
- During the non-sale season, clothes and shoes can be VERY expensive. Don’t expect to pay anything less than 40 euros for a good top. As for shoes, everything is at least 50 euros and above. If you opt for cheap and buy a pair of sneakers for 20 euros, I guarantee the sole will fall apart after a month of use. I bought a cheap pair of pumps and the heel fell off after the second time I wore them. I had to walk heel-less back home, which was pretty embarrassing to say the least.
- Unless you're in the Amsterdam shopping area, most stores close at 6 pm during weekdays and weekends. Many stores are not even open on Sundays.
- Prices in the Netherlands always include tax, which is great.. (Thanks to DB for this suggestion!)
- People use reusable tote bags when they go shopping. Plastic bags are a thing of the past!
- Pack your own bags. No one will pack your grocery bags for you here - you've gotta do it all yourself!
- Grocery shopping on your bike can be a hassle - especially in the winter. Unless you have a car, you'll have to carry your groceries back home on your bike. Think about it: bikes, icy roads, foggy, crazy drivers. Need I say more?
- Everything is within walking distance. This is especially so if you live close to city centers. It was about a 5 minute walk from my house to get to the movie theater and to all the shops in town.
- Cities are bike friendly. You’ll end up having to buy a bike to get around. A car is really not necessary if you have a bike and have access to public transportation. Riding a bike is also great for your health! I ended up losing weight and my legs got toned simply because I was riding my bike every day.
- Excellent public transportation. Lots of options - trains, trams, metros, horses, etc.
- Trains can be unreliable – especially during the winter. One time during an autumn day, the train I was supposed to take to Amsterdam got cancelled because there were too many leaves on the track. I kid you not.
- Paved roads everywhere! You don't have to worry about driving through a pothole in Holland - there aren't any! The country has one of the most advanced motorway systems in the world. The asphalt is porous, so when it rains the water will actually drain into the asphalt, thereby preventing the water from splashing up and distracting your driving.
- Terrible parking. The roads are small and narrow and parking is a nuisance. If you're visiting a friend, good luck finding a decent parking spot that's not miles away from their house.
- Traffic fines are expensive. Imagine getting a parking ticket of that's more than 100 euros (thanks Jericho for the tip!)
- Buying a car can be expensive. It seems like nothing sells for less than 25,000 euros.
- Poor air quality. Because it's oftentimes so cloudy here, pollution tends to settle over the land. It also seems like the Dutch have no regulations on moped or scooter emissions. As a result, jogging or even biking can be pretty unbearable - unless you enjoy the tingly feeling of car and motorcycle fumes permeating your lungs.
- The country lags behind in terms of sustainability. In 2011, only 4% of energy in Holland was produced from sustainable sources. Compare that to other countries like Sweden who derive almost half of their energy supply from sustainable sources.
- The cost of living here is comparable to other major cities in the United States. However, the cost of living in Amsterdam is a little higher. That makes sense, since it’s a large and densely populated city.
- Excellent, unbiased news channels. NOS Journal is Holland's primary news channel and their coverage of local as well as global news is great. It usually lasts for about half an hour, but trust me, you'll walk away with more knowledge about current global events than if you watched three hours of CNN. The NOS Journal focuses only on important news, and is totally unbiased.
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