Studying in Sweden: a rough guide for international students

Moving to a new country as an international student can be overwhelming.

Studying in Sweden: a rough guide for international students
The Niagra building. Photo: Malmö University

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?

Read on to learn what Agnieszka Billewicz – who has just completed her first year of Malmö University’s Interaction Design programme – wished she knew during her first weeks of living in Sweden.

Getting around

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).


Personal number

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.  


Bank account

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.

Click here to find out more about studying at Malmö University

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.

Learn more about life as an international student in Malmö

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. 

Working out

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.

Interested in studying at Malmö University? Click here to find out more

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Malmö University.


‘They feel conned’: Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules

Sweden's top universities are to call for doctoral students to be exempted from Sweden's tough new permanent residency rules, arguing that it will damage both academic standards and national competitiveness.

'They feel conned': Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules
At Lund Technical University, a majority of doctoral students are international. Photo: Kennet Ruona/LTU

In a post on Wednesday, Astrid Söderbergh Widding, the chair of Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, said that Sweden’s universities had agreed to submit a joint letter to the government “very soon”, calling for parliament to put in place a special exemption for PHD students to make it easier to stay in Sweden after their studies. 

The parliament, she wrote, “should introduce an exemption for doctoral students and young researchers from the requirement to be financially self-sufficient”. 

Previously, doctoral students were eligible for a permanent residence permit if they had lived in Sweden with a residence permit for doctoral studies for four out of the past seven years. Apart from a slim set of requirements, this was granted more or less automatically.

But according to Sweden’s new Migration Act, which was introduced in July this year as comprehensive legislation to control the number of asylum applications, they now need to be able to additionally show that they can support themselves financially for at least a year and half.

The new law means that the rules for permanent residency are now the same for all categories of applicants, including doctoral students.

Stefan Bengtsson, the rector at Chalmers University of Technology, said that the change would mean as many as 400 to 500 doctoral students, many of whom have built up considerable expertise, might be unable to stay in Sweden.

“This makes for an uncertain future for those from outside of Europe who have applied to come to Sweden for an academic career, which is cause for great concern and disappointment among those who came here under other circumstances,” he told The Local. “Some of them may, of course, feel like they’ve been conned

But what was even more worrying, he said, would be the impact the change to the law might have in the longer term. 

“This change to the law could contribute to giving Sweden a bad reputation. This will create difficulties in recruiting internationally and damage our long-term skills supply.”


At Lund University, the majority of doctoral students in the science and technical faculties are from outside Europe, while Söderbergh Widding, who is also vice chancellor at Stockholm University, estimated that about half of doctoral students were international. 

Söderbergh Widding told the TT newswire that the change was “a devastating death blow”, which put to waste a “previously hard-won battle to make it possible for doctoral students to obtain a permanent residency permit after four years of studies”. 

She said in her letter that the change contradicted the research policy proposition from December 2020, which stated that the “number of foreign doctoral students who stay in Sweden should increase”, and said that giving residency to doctoral students was a good way to increase this.  

Ole Petter Ottersen, the rector of the elite Karolinska medical university, told the newswire that he thought the change in residency laws would damage Swedish competitiveness. 

“This is not good for Sweden. This will damage our ability to attract and recruit talent from other countries. For a country that lies on the periphery, the goal should be to make it easier, not harder, to recruit competence.”