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OPINION & ANALYSIS

My first visit to the Swedish tax office: What’s the fuss about ‘personnummer’?

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

My first visit to the Swedish tax office: What's the fuss about 'personnummer'?
Getting your Swedish personal identification number from the Tax Agency is an important rite of passage. Photo: Kenny Bengtsson/SvD/TT

Even before I had started my new job in Sweden, HR strongly urged me to go to the Swedish tax office, Skatteverket, on my first working day. So right after I had my picture taken for the company ID, I was on my way to their nearby offices.

It soon became clear what the fuss was all about: my personal Swedish ID number or personnummer. Moving as an EU citizen, I had not given the formalities of immigrating to Sweden much thought. Free movement of labour, and all that. In reality, as many will have experienced, life without a personnummer is not as straightforward as the European flag in my passport suggests.

I guess technically I had the same rights as everyone else but at every corner of the internet and behind every counter I turned up at, there was someone asking me for that dreaded number. And when I could not provide it, nothing really worked. Need a doctor’s appointment? Personnummer. Need a mobile phone plan? Personnummer. Need a proper bank account? Anyway, you get the idea.

Although Skatteverket felt it knew me well enough to withhold taxes from my salary from day one, it took them six weeks to send me the hotly anticipated number which turned out to be my birthdate plus four digits added. What on earth had taken them so long to produce that? Not to mention the six months my husband had to wait which seems to be the normal waiting time at the moment.

A similar waiting time applies for Swedes returning from having lived abroad and who want to re-register with the folkbokföring, the population registration arm of Skatteverket. I appreciate that I’m a guest in Sweden and chose to move here. My quest for the personnummer will end up as a funny “when we moved to Sweden” anecdote (#stockholm #discoversweden #swexpat). But if I were a Swede returning home from a stint abroad in the middle of a pandemic and I had to wait several months for the government to be registered again so I can more easily book a doctor’s appointment, I would likely be using some different hashtags.

Apart from just handing all your personal information over to the internet, the biggest side effect of having a personnummer was a benefit. It gives you the golden ticket to life in Sweden: the mobile bankID. I don’t think people in Sweden appreciate enough the miracle of having an app on your phone that gives you universal access to all governmental and any other imaginable service and allows you to identify yourself electronically.

Swedes will never know the maddening frustration of having to keep track of a multitude of always expiring passwords and control questions and having a drawer full of tokens giving you access to different bank accounts but that are always out of battery when you need them.

Whenever I’m picking up a package at the post office PostNord and I identify myself in the queue using the bankID and facial recognition on my phone, I truly feel like the future has arrived.

I guess the future is something worth waiting for.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Signing up to move to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. “But if I were a Swede returning home from a stint abroad… and I had to wait 24 weeks for the government to give me my personnummer back…”
    As I know once you get your personnummer you will never loose it even if you move abroad and even if you are officially not registered in Sweden. Your personnummer will not be taken from you. Here is the link:

    https://www.skatteverket.se/privat/etjansterochblanketter/svarpavanligafragor/flyttfolkbokforing/faqfolkbokforing/vadhandermedmittmedborgarskapochpersonnummeromjagflyttarutomlands.5.64a656d113f4c759701125a.html

    So I wonder what exactly you mean talking about Swedes coming back from abroad and applying to get their personnummer back?

    1. I was wondering the same. A Swede will always keep their personnummer if they move from Sweden to another country. The number is even in their Swedish passport! They may also retain things in Sweden while living abroad that require their personnummer, like a bank account or insurance policy or even a summer cottage etc. So you certainly do not have to “get back” your personnnummer when returning to Sweden. It never leaves you.

      The normal time to get things rolling again through the folkbokföring system after returning to Sweden from abroad used to be about two weeks, but I saw a notice on Skatteverket’s website not long ago that says that the processing time for most cases is now four weeks, due partly to the corona pandemic.

      1. Thank you both for your comments. My understanding is that the waiting times at the Folkbokföring arm of Skatteverket have been increasing at the same time as the waiting times for getting a Personnummer and it now takes a couple of months to get re-registered. The column did not reflect that correctly and has been updated to clarify that point.

  2. Based on both the comments and the article, there is apparent confusion regarding the personal number and the population registry. This is understandable, as the government links them in convoluted, yet strategic, ways. Whether one would choose #quaint or #frustration is conditional on a privileged POV, but #surveillance is beyond dispute. Another apt hashtag is #gatekeeping. Personal numbers are assigned for life, but to be a Swedish citizen and return from abroad and NOT have what the government decides is a legitimate address is to be cut out of access to resources (e.g., which health clinic to be assigned, etc.). To be an immigrant–even an EU national– and NOT have a legitimate address is to NOT be eligible to receive a personal number. This “catch-22” looping closes the door on all the services mentioned in the article, as well as on legitimate employment. What makes this enforced linkage insidious is the notorious housing shortage, and the government’s dictatorial stance on what constitutes a “legitimate” address: Own your own land and put up a mobile home? Nope, doesn’t qualify; A winterized holiday house? Nope, doesn’t qualify; A second-hand contract at twice the market rate? Maybe; A friend’s address? Could cause them complications. (But– nota bene: there are cases when circa 1 million kronor beach huts– no running water, and only community toilets during the summer months– qualify as a gov-sanctioned addresses for pop-registry purposes (one might guess: to ensure the wealthy who live abroad don’t have complications gaining resource access whenever they pop back into town).
    The Swedish government could easily–with the stroke of a pen–uncouple the lock-step bind of the personal number and the government-sanctioned address requirement. But to do so would mean giving a fair wage to the likely thousands of– mainly Eastern European– skilled laborers (carpenters, plumbers, electricians) whom Sweden desperately needs to build its way out of the housing crisis. Keeping them without personal numbers keeps them exploitable. This is but one example of how “gatekeeping” certain people out of the system proves lucrative for certain sectors and power elites, but is in fact an institutionalized discrimination blanketed under the rhetoric of “rationalized” governance.
    Just another hidden cost of mobile bank-ID. Yes, Big Brother is watching, but not everyone gets to be thrilled.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.

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