Monday Escape: Amsterdam, Netherlands

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Amsterdam bike canal

Since the topic of visiting Amsterdam as a tourist is so well covered in so many places I’m going to focus this Monday Escape on some different aspects of moving to Amsterdam as an expat. With a major university and many huge international companies in the area this is a popular destination for foreigners, but it can also be quite tricky if you are trying to do it unofficially.

I actually lived in several different apartments for a good chunk of a year in Amsterdam not that long ago, so I can document some of the first-hand struggles I encountered. It’s a beautiful city filled with friendly people who speak English as well as you do, but due to its popularity it’s not too easy for newcomers without paperwork from a school or local company.

Housing in Amsterdam

As an American one thing that struck me as odd in Amsterdam is that, unlike most major US cities where they say “rents are too expensive,” here they’d say “there is a housing shortage.” This is caused by the fact that most of the apartments in the city center are rent-controlled (so they aren’t terribly expensive) and they are doled out by the goverment based on a very long waiting list.

So what happens is that when a local turns 18 (I believe) they can sign onto the waiting list for a city apartment. Years go by and perhaps at the age of 23 they finally are given the opportunity to rent an apartment of their own, but by that time they are living with a partner and/or some roommates. Instead of turning their new apartment down they take it and maybe live there a month or two before putting it onto the gray market where it becomes a steady source of income as it’s rented at market price to a foreigner who can’t get on the list.

This well-meaning housing program has created a very corrupt system that probably drives real prices higher than they would be in a free-market system. You can easily find these apartments on Craigslist or with the many apartment agents around Amsterdam, but expect to pay around €1200 and up per month for even a small place. If you insist on being within the canal rings you’ll pay more, and if you find a place that is below €1000 per month it will likely be at least a kilometer outside the Prinsengracht ring.

So the housing market in Amsterdam is extremely competitive and it’s a longshot to actually stumble into a place close to the €600 or so that residents actually pay. Your best bet is likely to stay in a hostel while trying to make friends and asking around, and even then it’s cheaper and easier to be a new roommate at a larger apartment than find one of your own.

English isn’t enough to get settled

Another interesting topic to consider is the possible language barrier. The Dutch people (especially younger ones) famously speak flawless English and it’s actually a bit of an insult if you ask about it rather than just assuming they are fluent. However, when trying to get settled you’ll encounter quite a bit of Dutch, so things quickly get complicated.

I remember buying a mobile phone and then trying to add money to my account. I bought a phone easily enough from an English-speaking fellow at a shop, but the instructions and menus were all in Dutch only, and when I’d call the number to top off my account over the phone those audio menus were only in Dutch as well.

Similarly, when I went to open an account with the cable company for TV, phone, and internet, the helpful counter person was happy to do it all in English, but then I had to fill out a form that was only in Dutch. This same sort of thing happened over and over again, and it’s completely understandable that they’d not translate these things into English in such a crowded city that has problems with illegal immigrants.

The point is that going through all of that on your own is very difficult if you don’t have a Dutch-speaking friend at your side. Aside from those municipal dealings you can literally get by on English only just fine, but starting out will likely be much more complicated than it might seem before you get there.

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