Living in the Netherlands as an American Expat: What You Need to Know
As an 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 of living in Holland.
In this article, you will find information about the Dutch way of life including the:
- People and Culture
- Jobs, Employment and Money
- Getting Around and Traveling
- News and TV
I hope they will help you on your Netherlandish journey!
Living in the Netherlands vs the USA
1. People and Culture
There are large expat communities.
There are many American expatriates living in Amsterdam, which, in my opinion, is the best place to live in the Netherlands (Rotterdam, Utrecht, and Eindhoven are also great).
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 generally have a good 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 - at least to my American standard.
Marijuana and prostitution are legal.
But don't think that everyone who walks around smokes weed and prostitutes themselves 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. the Red Light district in Amsterdam).
But in 2019 it seems like a lot of states are starting to legalize marijuana, so maybe this isn't such a big deal anymore.
The parties never end.
Many clubs don't close until the crack of dawn, and many don't charge a cover fee.
There are many unwritten rules and norms.
The Dutch love the phrase "doe eens normaal" which means "just do normal."In other words, it's best not to try to be too unique or stand out too much. Stick to the norms and you shall be accepted by the Dutchies. Deviate from the norms, and you'll look like a crazy fool.
I felt pretty suffocated with all of the unwritten rules and norms everyone expected me to abide by.
You have to schedule "appointments" to visit friends.
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.
There's not much spontaneity here.
Almost no two houses are alike.
Everything is so different, and the culture here is so rich—right down to the architecture. Say goodbye to boring townhouses that all look the same.
Most sinks have no garbage disposals.
It seems like most houses here were built before the 1900s, so you won't find many modern interior amenities.
This means you must 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 been 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. The Netherlands is a very safe country.
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.
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 and 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, which I found 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, you have a flat tire, or an asteroid suddenly lands 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.
2. Jobs, Employment, and Money
There are many expatriate jobs in the Netherlands for educated, English-speaking people.
I worked 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 hubs, as that’s where most large, English-speaking, multinational companies are located.
Moving to the Netherlands without a job can be tough, but by networking and connecting to multinational companies, you can get a job within 4–6 months.
If you're looking for a good place to start, Randstad is a Dutch multinational human resource consulting firm that helps expats get English-speaking jobs
Workers get a month of paid vacation days.
Companies in the Netherlands provide an average of 30 days paid time off. Add that 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!).
It's nearly impossible to get fired.
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 were laid off and they received 9 months of full-time paid unemployment.
People pay 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.
There are monthly road taxes.
Exorbitant road tax has to be 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 the roads.
Everything in Holland is done through online banking.
Paper checks are a thing of the past.
There is very affordable expat health insurance.
Since health insurance here is mandatory, there are many subsidies available for those with lower incomes. In the states, I paid $300 for minimum coverage health insurance; here I can get comprehensive coverage for as little as $95 euros.
There are high interest rates for credit cards.
It is almost impossible to get a credit card with no fees.
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.
I did notice 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.
Student life is great.
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? Whether you're Dutch or an American expat like me, life as a student in the Netherlands is never dull.
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 friends and I enjoyed many beautiful summer nights on restaurant terraces sipping wine and having a nice chat.
The bread is amazing.
There are dozens of bakeries in Holland that make fresh-baked, delicious, and affordable bread. Toast never tasted so good!
The dairy products are excellent.
The yogurt here is amazing, and so is the cheese. A lot of the dairy comes from organic farms, too.
The herring is delicious.
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-3s!
There's a 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 wallet.
The tap water is excellent.
The tap water is the 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 or waitress, that is!). You're obliged to pay for the expensive, bottled kind, which can run around 2–3 euros.
There are tons of 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.
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.
There are three health food stores around the corner from where I used to live that sell fresh, organic produce. There are lots of great farmer's markets too.
There are fantastic seasonal sales.
During the sale season, you can buy a decent-quality top from H&M for 5 euros - that is, if you're into fast fashion.
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.
To top it off, many stores are not open at all on Sundays.
Prices in the Netherlands always include tax.
The value added tax (VAT) is added to the price of pretty much any good or service you'll come across in the Netherlands. While the price is higher up front, it's nice to know exactly how much you'll have to pay right from the get-go.
Most people use reusable tote bags.
In the Netherlands, plastic bags are a thing of the past!
You have to pack your own grocery bags.
No one will pack your grocery bags for you here—you've got to do it all by yourself!
Grocery shopping on your bike can be a hassle.
This is especially true 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?
Do you want to live in the Netherlands?
7. Getting Around and Traveling
Everything is within walking distance.
This is especially so if you live close to the city center. It was about a 5-minute walk from my house to get to the movie theater and to all the shops in town.
Schiphol airport is incredible.
Schiphol airport is one of the cleanest, largest airports I've ever encountered. It also features the first airport museum (2002), the first airport library (2010), and the first inside "airport park" (2011), which makes for one of the best airport experiences you'll ever have.
More importantly, it connects you to almost every major city in the world, and it offers no shortage of cheap flights to and from the United States.
Dutch 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.
There is excellent public transportation.
There's no shortage of transportation options—trains, trams, metros, horses, etc.
Trains can be unreliable.
This is especially so during the winter. On one fateful autumn day, the train I was supposed to take to Amsterdam was cancelled because there were too many leaves on the track. I kid you not.
The paved roads are immaculate
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.
The parking is terrible.
The roads are small and narrow, so parking is a nuisance. If you're visiting a friend, good luck finding a decent parking spot that isn't miles away from their house.
Traffic fines are expensive.
Imagine getting a parking ticket that costs more than 100 euros. In the Netherlands, this is the norm.
Buying a car can be expensive.
It seems like nothing sells for less than 25,000 euros.
There is poor air quality in some spots.
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. Jogging in places away from busy cities is always the best option.
The country lags behind in terms of sustainability.
In 2014, only 5.5% 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 major cities in the United States.
In many cases, the cost of living in Amsterdam is actually a little higher. That makes sense, since it’s a large and densely populated city.
8. News / TV
Holland has 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 seems to be unbiased.
Now I’d Like to Hear From You
What do you think about living in the Netherlands as an American expat?
Make sure to comment below and let me know what you think. I will continually update this list to ensure it's relevant.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Do you have any advice for retirees who don’t want to work? I just want to collect social security/pensions and enjoy my “golden years”?
The Netherlands is the perfect place for this. They have great healthcare, and security for everyone.Helpful 135
What are the choices and cost of housing in the Netherlands?
Varies widely, depending on if you want to live in a densely populated city like Amsterdam, or something smaller like Leiden (20 mins by train to Amsterdam). I recommend choosing a smaller city, but it's your call.Helpful 71
I am retired and may only want to live in Amsterdam for three to six months out the year. Is that reasonable?
I believe three months is the maximum allowed stay for certain visas.Helpful 71
How do locals treat black Americans in Holland?
Pretty accepting. However, if you try to connect to the locals, it's much harder to become part of their "inner" circle, but that applies to most foreigners in Holland.Helpful 65
I have been thinking about where I want to live as a retired senior. Although I am not retired yet, would you recommend the Netherlands for someone who is looking to change career paths after retirement?
It all depends. Think about what you are hoping to do after you retire. The Netherlands can be a very peaceful, and secure place for retirees. They have great healthcare.Helpful 64
© 2010 Ella Moore