Studying in Sweden: a rough guide for international students
Moving to a new country as an international student can be overwhelming.
But you are by no means the first person to do so. Sweden is a popular place for international students – so there’s quite a bit of experience to draw on when trying to figure out which way is up.
So who better to turn to for some helpful advice than a student who has not only experienced those trials and tribulations but has also spent a year blogging for Study in Sweden as one of its digital ambassadors?
Start with the basics! To get anything done you’ll need to move around. Public transport will probably be your best friend during those first few days. In Malmö, you can’t buy a ticket on the bus, so I had to buy a JOJO card from Skånetrafiken – a rechargeable card that you load with credit (they have similar systems in Gothenburg and Stockholm).
If you are staying in Sweden for longer than one year, the first trip with your shiny new travel card should be to the local branch of Skatteverket, the Swedish tax authority. There you can register for a personal number (personnummer). Having a personal number will come in handy during your time in Sweden more times that you can count – without it you can’t sign a phone contract, get a store’s loyalty card, or utilize banking services like a debit card or mobile banking.
Sometimes there are ways around certain rules, but believe me, life is just easier for those who have a personal number. However, if you came to Sweden only for a semester or two, don’t worry, you can certainly survive without those magic digits.
Next step on your to-do list: visit a bank, where you’ll be sure to experience a proper Swedish queue (although after a visit to Skatteverket you should already be proficient in the Swedish art of standing in line).
Theoretically, it should be possible for you to open a bank account without a personal number. Practically, it might be difficult, or even virtually impossible.
I know some people who succeeded with this challenge, and others who failed. My brief experience suggests success varies depending on the bank, branch, staff you meet at the counter, or – seemingly – the weather! If you are coming to Sweden for just a year my advice would be to ask yourself if a Swedish bank account is something you really need, there is every chance you can survive without one.
You might be able to live without a travel card, and you can certainly get by without a personal number or a bank account, but one thing that I am fairly sure you do need is a bike.
An odd necessity for living in a windy, cold, northern country like Sweden, but certainly the mode of transport of choice for many (especially in Malmö). As crazy as it sounds for people like me, who don’t ever bike in their home countries, bikes are the most basic mode of transportation in many parts of Sweden.
So get one and save some money on your bus tickets. Buying second-hand is the key (buy-sell site Blocket is a good place to start) to finding something a bit cheaper and far less likely to be stolen.
And just a tip, always lock your bike with a U-shaped-lock. And don’t leave it on the street overnight. Believe me, I learned that the hard way!
The next step in this whole Swedifying yourself affair is shopping. A key to feeling like a local is knowing your neighbourhood. In a loose student translation it often means: “Where can I buy cheap food and booze?”
A trick for saving money and staying healthy is buying your ingredients in the morning/early afternoon at fresh vegetable markets. Students in Malmö certainly should acquaint themselves in Mollevången, but every city has an equivalent!
Of course, when it comes to alcohol, you only need to know one word: Systembolaget. Yes, the Swedish liquor store monopoly is the only place you can buy ‘strong’ beer and liquor. The prices can feel outrageous, the opening hours rather inconvenient (closing at 3pm on Saturdays) – but the selection is usually good, and the iconic green and yellow sign is easy to find.
With your stomach full you can start worrying about filling your head. And my guess is that if you’re going to start studying you’ll need some books. First – check out your university’s library (here’s the one I frequented at Malmö University). The faster you do it, the faster you might grab some of the most desired copies of the obligatory literature.
If you have a prescribed reading list and you feel better having copies of the books in your home, try to buy books from a second-year student. Another option is buying books through an online bookstore, but make sure to check if doing so is really necessary – all of my course literature was accessible online.
Lastly, if you are a book-lover like me, take a stroll to the local city library where you can get a library card in a couple of minutes for free (take an ID or passport). It can give you access to mountains of books in different languages – plus movies, audiobooks, and a computer room.
The last step in your acclimatization process is...the gym. If you are not a gym-goer you might want to re-think your habits, as Swedes tend to lead a very healthy lifestyle. It can seem like there’s a gym on every corner – but to sign up for full membership, you’ll most likely need a personal number. If you don’t have one, however, chances are you’ll have to sign up for a year of half year and be forced to pay up front.
Another option is to check out one of the free outdoor gyms (like Malmö’s Pildamsparken) so you can enjoy some fresh air and take in a bit of nature while you keep in shape.
Some final thoughts
Hopefully, now you’ll be able to tackle your new city like a local. Cycling on a bike paid for from your Swedish bank account; heading to the gym you joined using your personal number; and with library books and market-fresh vegetables clunking rhythmically in your basket. And of course, you’ll probably be cursing about the weather – another favourite Swedish pastime.
Whatever you decide, remember that all the above simply reflects my personal approach on the ups and downs of my first weeks in Sweden. It’s just one student’s experience – take it with a grain of salt, and don’t be afraid to make a list of your own. That way you can pass along what you learned to the next crop of students that show up next autumn.
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