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Seven things you need to know before coming to Sweden to study

You’ve been accepted to university in Sweden, accepted your spot, and applied for your residence permit. Now it's time to prepare for your move. Maybe you’re wondering what life in Sweden will be like? Here are some tips based on my first year living in Lund, where I'm currently studying.

Seven things you need to know before coming to Sweden to study
Newly arrived students enjoying the Swedish autumn at Uppsala University. Photo: Liam Karlsson/Imagebank Sweden

Buying new is so passé

Need a winter jacket? Bedroom furniture? Maybe a new baking sheet for whipping up something from Sweden’s never-ending list of seasonal pastries? Whatever you do, don’t buy it first-hand. Sweden is teeming with second-hand stores, selling everything from wine glasses and patio furniture to boardgames. On my walk into Lund’s city centre, I pass a second-hand shop which frequently has bras hanging in the window – undergarments is where I draw the line, but to each their own.

Some shops are well-curated; others appear to be a dumping ground for anything and everything cleared out of junk drawers and closets after a long cleaning hiatus. But the search for the perfect formal dress for a sittning (one of Lund’s popular formal dinners) or a ball is half the fun – so grab a friend, and get browsing!

Want a drink at home on a Sunday? Plan ahead

Sweden’s Systembolaget shops have the monopoly on alcohol sales in the country – you won’t find anything over 3.5 percent anywhere else. And these shops aren’t open 24 hours. They close early on Saturdays, and don’t open at all on Sunday. If you fancy something other than a warm beer from your local supermarket on a Saturday night, plan ahead and pay a visit to your local Systembolaget. If you’re in a student-filled area, you’ll find plenty of your peers doing the same, walking out with cases of beer, boxes of wine, and whatever liquor they can afford. Be warned: drinking in Sweden is not cheap! Downing a pint at home instead of at a bar will save you a few kronor.

Failing a class…isn’t as bad as it sounds

So you’ve failed a class. Now what? Well, not much. You can take the exam again and again until you pass, so long as the material on which the test is based is not changed. If that happens, you may have some new topics to learn. In my media and communication studies MSc programme at Lund University, professors provide three deadlines for submitting the essays that we must write in place of exams. If I don’t submit my paper by the first deadline, I know I’ll have two more penalty-free opportunities to get it done. And if I receive a failing grade, that grade will not go on my academic record – instead, my record will not be updated until I submit a passing paper. While I’ve yet to take advantage of this system, knowing that missing a submission or failing a class is not a disaster is a welcome change from the strict, deadline-driven American environment in which I completed my bachelor’s degree.

Getting a bank account is a long process

Don’t bring cash with you. You’ll never spend it. I’ve still got some cash sitting in a drawer, because I keep forgetting which ATM near me will let me deposit cash into my account – my bank branch is cashless, and won’t help me there. Make sure to let your bank at home know you’ll be using your card in Sweden.

I moved to Sweden at the end of September. I didn’t open my bank account until mid-January. Opening an account entails a lengthy journey through Swedish bureaucracy, beginning with an application for a personal number, or personnummer. You can apply for a personal number at your local Skatteverket, or tax agency, office, provided that you can document you will be in Sweden for more than one year. I’m lucky enough to attend one of the universities piloting a two-year student resident permit, so proving the length of my stay was easy. While I got my personal number within 10 days, the process can take up to 18 weeks.

So you’ve got a personal number. The next step is to get an ID card, also from Skatteverket. There are three offices that issue ID cards: in Malmö, Gothenburg, and Stockholm. And appointments book up fast. I waited six weeks for mine. I got my ID card quickly, within two weeks – a friend waited months for hers to be issued.

Finally, with what I thought was sufficient documentation in hand, I walked into a Nordea bank to open my account. I was sent home account-less that day though, with the bank requesting statements from my Pakistani accounts. Armed with even more paperwork a few days later, I finally completed my application for a bank account. About a week later, my account was open. And finally, I had BankID – the magical Swedish eID that opens all sorts of doors, including, finally, digital access to my Covid-19 vaccination records. Swedish bureaucracy is a multi-layered beast, each layer tightly entwined with the others, and it took me months to unlock all the layers, starting with my personal number and ending with my digital ID.

Stock up on candles

The winters are dark. And long. And depending on where in Sweden you are, either delightfully snowy, or constantly slushy. In Skåne, there’s slush. So when you get home and peel off your jacket and scarf and hats, and it’s 3 pm and dark and dreary, you light a candle. Or two, or three. Preferably scented. Candles have gotten me through dark Scandinavian winters before when I lived in Copenhagen, and they continue to do the trick. I brought a favourite coffee-scented offering from a small Pakistani company with me, that I’m still rationing. If you don’t have a favourite to bring with you, you can browse through the selections at IKEA and Lagerhaus. Some friends of mine opt for fairy lights to brighten up their apartments, but I prefer the warm glow of a candle’s flame. Perhaps I just like fire.

Don’t worry if your Swedish is stuck at a basic “hej”

Almost everyone can communicate in basic English. That said, learning the local language is never a bad thing. After all, if your hope is to stay on in Sweden, you might soon need to prove a basic level of Swedish proficiency before getting permanent residence.

But ditch the Duolingo – or at least, don’t rely on it exclusively. One of the benefits unlocked by a personal number is the opportunity to enroll in SFI, or Swedish for Immigrant, language classes, offered by your municipality free of charge. You can choose to study in person or online, morning or evening. Do it! It’s a great way of understanding the language – wait until you hear about all the different ways in which adjectives can end – and as a bonus, you can also expand your social circle with the other students in your class.

Holidays and traditions are a serious business

If you’re currently waiting for your student visa, you may have already experienced how tough it is to get hold of office workers in July. Annual leave is taken seriously here, with workers taking several weeks off during the summers. No checking email, no answering work calls – pure vacation mode.

This commitment to time off for enjoyment also applies to holidays throughout the year. On Valborg, on April 30, I saw my largest Swedish crowds: about 50,000 people crammed into Lund’s city park, well on their way to total inebriation by 11am. The celebration, to welcome the coming spring, brings Swedes out of their homes after the winter, with massive bonfires burning bright in the evenings. Midsommar, the summer solstice, is also celebrated hard, with families and groups of friends bringing picnics into parks around maypoles, where they sing about small frogs and dance around, gripping onto their partners’ earlobes.

Member comments

  1. I agree that the American academic environment is not ideal. But as a lecturer, it’s difficult to accommodate the ‘omtenta’ system. If you don’t turn in an assignment or take the exam when we have planned for it, and then want to turn it in later – well, then I have to write a brand new exam and I don’t get paid for doing that. It’s also very disruptive when students get in contact a year later and want to turn in assignments. I think that everyone should have second (and third) chances. But your overworked and underpaid lecturers are having to deal with your late assignments during their weekends and evenings, so please try to be respectful of this.

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For members


Sweden’s student union warns that housing shortages are back this semester

Students in Sweden are facing acute problems getting flats and rooms this year, with shortages of student housing returning to pre-pandemic levels, according to a new report by the Swedish National Union of Students.

Sweden's student union warns that housing shortages are back this semester

The housing squeeze follows a few years of temporary relief during the pandemic, when more students were studying remotely and not moving to their university towns and cities. But according to the annual housing report from the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), as on-campus studies have returned to pre-pandemic levels, so have student housing shortages.

Of the 34 university or college locations where SFS maps the student housing situation, six areas received a worse result in this year’s report than it did last year.

The changes are tracked using a colour-coded system: green means students can receive an offer of accommodation within a month, yellow means that an offer comes within a semester, and red means a housing offer takes more than one semester. The report found that 61 percent of students live in a city that has been designated a red ranking.

International students are not insulated from this shortage. Hülya Bakca, a Turkish woman studying at Lund University, cancelled her student housing in Malmö, which she received through the university’s accommodation provider.

She had moved to Malmö late, because her classes in the first half of the autumn 2021 semester were online, and she could not afford to pay rent for an apartment she was not using.  While she then found a room in an apartment shared with two other people, she said her rent, at 5,400 kronor, not including wifi, is too high.

“I have the smallest room,” she told The Local. “The room is facing a busy road and it is noisy. I am not happy about it.”

There is no privacy, she added, as insulation problems mean that sounds from both outside and inside the apartment are audible, while the landlady lets herself in whenever she wants without prior warning. 

Bakca tried looking for a new place to live in the summer, when she expected it to be easier to search for an apartment as students left Lund and Malmö. She looked once more for shared accommodation to lower her costs. One apartment was covered in the toys of the prospective flatmate’s child.

“All the shared place was just his kid’s toys and stuff,” she said. “It was everywhere, you could just step on it. Legos, dolls.” Rent was 5,000 SEK, and did not include electricity.

Another potential flatmate was an older man, whose living room was strewn with alcohol bottles, and who told Bakca about his previous tenants, including a 19-year-old woman and a 25-year-old-woman. Rent here was 4,500 SEK, all included.  

After months of searching, Bakca gave up on her housing search, and now plans to move in with her partner when her current lease expires.

According to the report, student housing across Sweden was converted into other types of housing during the pandemic, when demand for student accommodation dipped. Rising construction costs are also contributing to the student housing shortage, as is the removal of governmental support for the creation of low-cost housing.

Meanwhile, a secondary housing market, in which first-hand leaseholders sublet their housing, pushes up rental costs further, eating into students’ already tight budgets.

As well as a housing shortage, students are also facing high rents.

“Students are among the societal groups who spend the highest share of their income, about half, on housing costs,” the report found. 

This year’s downgraded locations include Borås, Jönköping, and Eskilstuna, which have gone from green to yellow, and, Karlskrona, Malmö, and Uppsala which have gone from yellow to red. Lund, Gothenburg, and Stockholm have never received anything but a red rating since 2009, even during the pandemic, highlighting a persistent lack of housing in the three cities, all of which are popular destinations for international students.   

In its report, SFS demands action to address the housing shortage. This call for action is divided into three points: a reintroduction of government subsidies for new construction, a reform of housing allowances for students, and more streamlined checks to ensure that student housing is allocated to active students.