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Expat Life in the Netherlands

Today there are approximately 200,000 expats living in the Netherlands and most of these are concentrated in the capital city, Amsterdam. Although expats come from all corners of the globe, a large proportion are from the US and the UK. In Amstelveen (a suburb of Amsterdam) there is also an established Japanese community, thanks to a large accumulation of prestigious Japanese firms in the area. In fact, you’re almost as likely to find good sushi in Amstelveen, as you are a quality ‘broodje kaas’ (Dutch cheese sandwich)!

Why Choose the Netherlands?

Expats find it relatively easy to live and work in the Netherlands, mainly because English is spoken almost everywhere and many successful international companies have their head offices in the country.
The Netherlands also boasts an unusually high standard of living and its residents benefit from an enviable work-life balance, where the four day week and lengthy holidays are common place. This contributes to a high quality of life in general and makes the Netherlands an appealing destination, especially for workers from countries such as Japan and the US where employees are encouraged to work longer hours and take fewer days off.

The 30 percent ruling, which caps tax at a maximum of 30% for up to ten years for those expats who can demonstrate specialist skills (such as IT professionals), is another major attraction. And whilst the Dutch do pay a lot of tax when compared to the US or the UK, don’t forget that this is reflected in the high standard of amenities such as healthcare and public transport that are readily available in the country.

Adjusting to Dutch Life

Many expats arrive in the Netherlands without fully appreciating that it is a foreign country! This might sound strange, but often Brits in particular will be quite nonchalant about a move that is after all, only an hour or so away by plane and to a country where almost everyone including the Dutch supermarket cashier can converse fluently in English. Yet, even in cosmopolitan Amsterdam you will stumble upon significant cultural differences, so you should be mentally prepared!

There are a number of practicalities that need to be taken care of upon arrival too. For those fortunate enough to have a job already lined up with one of the big multinationals, life is usually more straightforward and your HR department will normally assist with obtaining a SOFI (social security) number or dealing with the infamous ‘belastingsdienst’ (tax service). If you don’t yet have a job or your company can’t provide that kind of help, then there are plenty of expat forums that will guide you through the mine field of bureaucracy.

Finding a Home

The first challenge in putting down roots in the Netherlands is to find a home, whether to rent or to buy. Again, some expats will get support from their employers and may even benefit from company accommodation. If not, finding a property can prove quite a challenge, particularly as Dutch estate agents (known as makelaars) are almost a law unto themselves. Don’t expect to view prospective properties in the evening or at weekends as most makelaars will only make appointments between nine and five pm, Monday to Friday – in other words, at their convenience and not yours! If you are considering a house purchase it is essential that you find a ‘notaris’ (conveyancing lawyer) that can offer a proficient translation service to steer you through the complex process.

Tackling the Dutch Language

Dutch is a notoriously difficult language to master and despite even the best intentions, most expats give up and rely instead on the fact that everyone can speak such good English. It can be incredibly disheartening when your first hesitant words are responded to in English by well meaning Dutch, but it is definitely worth persevering with the language if you plan to stay long term.

Learning Nederlands is not only rewarding, it is vital for full integration. Not only that, attending a Dutch course will put you in touch with other expats, instantly expanding your social circle and providing a valuable support network. There are a variety of ways to study ‘Nederlands als tweede taal’ (Dutch as a second language) depending on how much time, money and effort you want to put into it. In addition to private tuition and informal classes, Dutch universities and colleges offer cost effective study packages that can be fitted around your existing work commitments. Dutch employers also frequently encourage their expat employees to attend a Dutch course and may even send you to the nuns! Don’t worry – this isn’t some kind of extreme religious instruction, but rather a crash course in Dutch at Vught, an acclaimed and highly successful language school. Vught is an expensive option, but many students come away with not only an impressive grasp of basic Dutch which they can build upon in the real world, but a dramatic increase in confidence too.

Getting Down to Work

In these economically challenging times, Dutch employers increasingly demand a high competency in the Dutch language, which can rule out a number of positions for many expats. There are, however, a selection of international job agencies that specialise in filling foreign language positions and these are a great place to start your search.

Most expats tend to work for international companies, where English is the chosen language for business communication. If you work with predominantly Dutch colleagues though, you can guarantee that the chat around the coffee machine will almost certainly be in Dutch. This is the perfect opportunity to practice your newly acquired language skills. You’ll be surprised at how just a few basic pleasantries will impress your colleagues and earn you a new found degree of respect.

To welcome you to their team, your Dutch co workers may invite you to your first Dutch ‘borreltje’ – an after hours drink, where you will be able to enjoy some typical Dutch snacks and a few beers. In addition to the ubiquitous cans of Heineken you might also be treated to a glass of Dutch ‘jenever’ (Dutch gin) along with a selection of ‘borrel hapjes’ (nibbles) including ‘bitterballen’ (meat croquettes) and ‘vlammetjes’ (spicy spring rolls). Don’t take offence if everyone dashes away at 6.00pm though – the Dutch will always choose beating the rush hour traffic over networking with colleagues!

Fraternising With the Locals

The Dutch are known for keeping their work and social lives separate and it is precisely this that makes it so difficult for expats to win Dutch friends. The majority of Dutch form close alliances at school or university which is why they see no need to socialise at work. Yet, if you do make an effort with the language, you are far more likely to succeed in forging Dutch friendships, which once established will be lasting.

Alternatively you can visit the plethora of social clubs and expat forums designed specifically for foreigners. Many meet regularly in a local ‘eetcafe’ (bar/bistro) for a typical Dutch meal, washed down with some great Belgium beers, providing an opportunity to sample some authentic Dutch culture!

Go Native – Get on Your Bike!

One of the numerous advantages to living in the Netherlands, is that you can get around just as easily on two wheels as you can on four. This not only saves time and money, by avoiding both the Dutch ‘files’ (traffic jams) and their exorbitantly high petrol prices, it is incredibly healthy too. And getting on your bike in the Netherlands is a lot safer than you might think, thanks to an extensive network of cycle paths. Once you get accustomed to the hordes of commuting cyclists and are no longer intimidated by the swarms of ‘bakfiets’ (typical Dutch bikes with a large front cart crammed with Dutch children) whizzing by, you’ll never want to travel by car again. Buying your first Dutch bike is a momentous occasion, a truly liberating experience and of course, a real sign of integration!

Making the Most of Your Expat Years!

Moving to any new country is both exciting and overwhelming in equal measure. Settling down, finding work, grappling with the language all takes its toll and eats into your free time. Yet the Netherlands is a small, compact nation which makes it easy to visit its wide range of tourist attractions at weekends and on days off.

So, go explore the historic Dutch cities of Amsterdam, Maastricht, Delft, Den Haag and Utrecht and visit the picturesque islands of Friesland. Wander the green hills of Limburg and admire the breathtaking Hoge Veluwe National Park. Take full advantage of the impressive selection of world class museums and if you live in Amsterdam, make the most of the Anne Frank Huis, the Van Gogh and the Rijks museums right on your doorstep!

Experiment with typical Dutch food products and sample the nations favourite breakfast item ‘hagelslag’ (chocolate sprinkles) or acquire a taste for ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ (raw herring). Feast on delicious, fresh ‘pannenkoeken’ (pancakes) or warm up on a chilly winters day with hearty ‘erwtensoep’ (pea soup).

Embrace traditional Dutch celebrations by getting into the party spirit on ‘Koninginnedag’ (Queens Day) or celebrating Sinterklaas with your very own ‘chocolade letter’ (chocolate letter). Discover everything that makes this vibrant land so unique, a country that has so much more to offer than just Dutch cheese, clogs and windmills!

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