‘It’s every man for himself’: A foreigner’s survival guide to the Swedish winter

The Swedish winter is not for the faint of heart. But Alison Allfrey from the UK explains how she learned to embrace the frozen north.

'It's every man for himself': A foreigner's survival guide to the Swedish winter
There's no bad weather, etc. Photo: Martina Holmberg/TT

An expat posting to Sweden is perhaps like no other.

Here, images of swimming pools, cocktails, home help aplenty and frequent forays to tropical isles are redundant. More relevant are snowsuits, studded tyres, requisite muscles to dig out your drive with vim for up to six months – and a good dose of courage and humour.

Living on the same latitude as St Petersburg isn't for everybody, but the Swedish winter has a definition to it which is challenging and can be hugely rewarding.

Unlike endless months of fog, mud and dim light in England or perhaps the Netherlands, Sweden offers a very distinct proposition. It's whether you accept the challenge and whether you're going to be warm enough that count. As the Swedes say, “There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

So, armed with a really good winter coat or snowsuit, heavy duty boots, a resilient snow shovel and plenty of determination, the Swedish winter can work for you. What's more, Swedish houses are actually warm, unlike their draughty English counterparts. So as the days shorten, take heart, even if you're from a non-skiing nation.


It's true that non-Swedes may lack the innate balance which makes shuffling along ice-packed pavements without catastrophe hazardous and brings a wobble to the legs when stepping onto vast expanses of frozen lake ice. But all that incredible space, bracingly crisp air, pristine nature and Scandi determination to get outside, get fit and revel in the extreme dice thrown when Sweden was given its climate are so invigorating.

Where else do you see families, from babes encased in sheepskin rugs in prams to grannies being pushed on makeshift chairs with a skating blade on the back, out in force on the ice? Where else do octogenarians speed round cross-country ski tracks as if they could go on forever? Not to mention, the solitary man patiently twisting a massive corkscrew through the ice so he can fish the freezing waters below?

How ever cold it gets, there's always time for fika afterwards – reassuring vats of hot chocolate, pepparkakor and kanelbullar. Hot coffee. That fantastic aroma of cinnamon, cardamom and saffron lacing the air. The satisfaction of having got something out of the climate, rather than it insisting on dominating you.

Alison Allfrey moved to Sweden in 2012. Photo: Private

Admittedly the stakes rise as the force of winter hits, as the snowy existence has more of a direct impact on the individual than in Switzerland or Canada, where roads are pristine every morning, however the weather has vented its spleen.

Here it's every man for himself, with neighbours nodding sagely at each other over the morning dig out of their drives, the elderly teetering perilously along lethal pavements, Stockholmers competing for rare parking spaces as the weekly clear out of snow ensues.

But, in true Darwinist style, Sweden has adapted to its lot and there's every possible accessory to ease your path and every sporting temptation to seduce – one trip to XXL will reveal all.

Perhaps that's just it – the contrasts and extremes which make Sweden so different. There isn't really any middle ground and it's difficult to do such an extreme climate by halves.

Sometimes it feels as if the rest of the world has abandoned you, as you persist in a seemingly forgotten realm far above the southerly latitudes of warmer climes. On those really foggy days, the horizon seems to have vanished, as whirling snowstorms merge with a closed sky.

But waking up to a morning which seems to say, “try me, ski, skate, dog sled to your heart's content”, is like nothing else. It's an invitation to succumb to nature as it used to be. The frozen embrace of Sweden. 

Alison Allfrey is an avid linguist and traveller from the UK. So when she and her snow-loving husband were posted to Sweden in 2012 with their sons Tom and Ben, the stage was set for adventure. Her first book, SO SWEDEN – Living Differently, is now available in paperback and Kindle form on Amazon. 

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Sweden’s foreign residents report confusion over booking Covid-19 vaccine without a personnummer

UPDATED: Some foreign residents without a Swedish personnummer have told The Local they are unable to book a Covid-19 vaccine, despite being eligible and despite assurances from authorities that this would not be a barrier.

Sweden's foreign residents report confusion over booking Covid-19 vaccine without a personnummer
Access to the Covid-19 vaccine should not require a personnummer, but some foreign residents have been told they can't book a slot without one. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Everyone who is living or temporarily staying in Sweden is supposed to be eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, including for example students, new arrivals, and others without a personnummer, Sweden’s ten-digit social security code which is a prerequisite for access to many public services.

This has been made clear both by the authority representing Sweden’s regions (SKR) and the Public Health Agency, but when The Local asked regions in February how they were ensuring these people were reached, most said plans had not been finalised.

The experiences of The Local’s foreign readers show that vaccine access for people without the number varies across the country.

The numbers are only available to people who can prove they will be in Sweden for at least a year, so as well as new arrivals and people who run into bureaucratic difficulties, many students or people on shorter term work contacts are without the number.

Ryan, originally from the UK, does not have a personnummer, despite moving to Sweden in December 2019. He belongs to a Covid-19 risk group and although he had been anxious about accessing the vaccine, he says the process was easy and he has now been vaccinated in the Uppsala region.

“I rang the number as I don’t have a personnummer, told that I’m at risk; they said OK and booked both my jabs there and then,” he said. Ryan added that the process at the centre was relatively simple, with staff giving the vaccine able to speak to him in English.

Another reader in a Covid-19 risk group told The Local she booked her vaccine in Stockholm despite lacking a personnummer by calling her doctor’s office directly.

But others had been less lucky.

One 52-year-old British reader told The Local she has lived in Sweden since early 2020 and has ties to the country from several years previously, but only has a samordningsnummer (coordination number) and no personnummer.

She described how she had been sent round in circles by different health authorities while trying to book her vaccine, with her local doctor’s office saying she could not register without a personnummer and  referring her to online healthcare portal, who sent her back to the doctor’s office.

“I went back to the vårdcentral and they say that they can not register me or give me a vaccination without a personnummer and the number allocated to me by Skatteverket [the Swedish Tax Agency, which issued the coordination number] isn’t acceptable,” she said.

“They state that it is that must do the vaccinations for anyone who is in phase 4 and does not have any underlying health conditions. Although the information provided by states that you can get vaccinated without a personnummer, there is no way to be able to book a slot to get the vaccination. Am I the only person in this position?”

Her experience is not unique.

A researcher at Stockholm University contacted The Local to say she and her husband are both eligible for the vaccine, but were told when they called the phone booking line that they could not get an appointment without a personnummer

In Gothenburg, a pregnant woman who is eligible for the vaccinations due to risk of severe Covid-19, told The Local: “I don’t have a personnummer, so can’t use 1177 or register with a medical centre. Instead, my midwife sent me a letter that invites me to be vaccinated and provides a phone number to call at the local hospital. But it seems the phone is understaffed and after waiting over an hour on three occasions, I’ve given up for now.”

Another reader, Raphael, checked options for booking in three regions of northern Sweden: Jämtland, Dalarna, Västernorrland.

“At some point in the booking process it always required the personnummer that I don’t have. Calling the booking hotline provided on in Västernorrland I was told they can not do a booking for people without a personnummer. Nobody seems to be able to do anything. I gave up and will take a time off in my home country to get vaccinated, since Sweden clearly is not interested in making it possible,” he told The Local.

Sweden’s Public Health Agency, as well as the umbrella organisation for Sweden’s regions and municipalities (SKR) have recommended that the vaccine be offered for free to everyone in Sweden, including people such as students and new arrivals lacking a personnummer.

In February, The Local contacted each of Sweden’s 21 regions to ask how people without a personnummer could book the vaccine. Ten did not respond, and of the 11 that did, many could not offer details on the booking process for people without a personnummer at the time. 

The Local is in the process of contacting the regions where readers have reported problems to find out what people without a personnummer can do to receive their vaccine.

One reader, 54-year-old Anne in Stockholm, contacted The Local to say she was initially unable to book a vaccine but eventually had success. 

“It took numerous calls to different organisations,” she said. “I had already been to this centre [the doctor’s office where she eventually got her appointment] and they couldn’t tell me then what to do. I called them again and again and finally someone said they look into it and get back to me. The process seems chaotic and nobody knows, especially 1177 who were very nice and explained that they were as frustrated with the process as I was. Perseverance pays off so let every know that they should just keep on calling you will eventually find someone to help. It shouldn’t be so difficult and stressful.”

Another problem is that many of the booking systems — though it depends on your region — rely on access to a digital ID. This requires a personnummer, and even some people who have the social security code do not have the digital ID.

In most regions, it should be possible to book over the phone, but several readers reported busy phone lines and limited language options.

The difficulties booking vaccines without a personnummer or BankID follow similar issues with the Covid-19 test booking system.

In Sweden, the most common way to book a coronavirus test is using a healthcare app or website which requires a BankID, while people without one are expected to phone a doctor’s office directly. As with the vaccines, the experience varied between regions and individuals, with some readers of The Local saying they were easily able to book a test without a personnummer and others reporting struggles.

Outside the healthcare system, a personnummer is often required for access to services ranging from Swedish lessons to library membership to supermarket loyalty cards.

As The Local has reported previously, there is often confusion about what people without the ten-digit code are entitled to, and it’s common to be told different things by different staff members.

For example, EU nationals have a right to access state-subsidised Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) lessons even if they don’t have a personnummer, but many people in this group report being wrongly told they are ineligible. Similar confusion exists within bank branches, for example, where EU citizenship or a coordination number should legally be enough to open an account, but foreigners may still find they are told they need a personnummer.

Have you had problems accessing the Covid-19 vaccine without a personnummer? You can get in touch with us at [email protected], or fill out our vaccine survey. The survey is open to anyone who has received the vaccine in Sweden, who lives in Sweden but travelled overseas to get vaccinated, or who is eligible for the vaccine but has been unable to book.