What if I told you I lived for 5 weeks in Iceland as a digital nomad?
It might sound weird, but it also has a huge dose of excitement attached to it, doesn’t it?
The point of this confession isn’t to brag about my digital nomad life but to show you how it’s possible. It’s not magic, and it had nothing to do with the “privilege” given to me by my family.
Is Iceland a good place to live?
Iceland is one of the best places to live in. But it’s also a matter of the type of person you are and what your personal preferences are when it comes to climate, comfort, society and infrastructure.
Therefore, each one of us will have to answer this question for ourselves since we are all different and have different expectations.
But let’s point out some of the things that make Iceland the place it is, and if these sound like something you would enjoy, then you would probably enjoy living in Iceland:
- Midnight sun and polar night. Iceland is close to the Arctic Circle, and it has almost 24 hours of daylight during summer and a lot of nighttime during winter.
- It’s cold during summer, not beach time. In winter, it’s even colder and snowy.
- It’s windy.
- There’s not a lot happening, especially if you live outside Reykjavik, the capital city.
- You need to drive to get anywhere.
- Social interactions are limited, and most people are very private.
- Most items are imported and are sold at a premium price.
- Rents are high, but electricity and water are cheap.
- There’s not a lot of infrastructure (highways, tunnels, public transport or parking lots outside the city). It looks empty for the most part. Some love it some hate it.
- There are not a lot of trees.
- The most popular activity is to go to a local swimming pool (and sit in hot tubs next to strangers). The second one is hiking.
These are just some things about Iceland from the top of my head.
How to be a digital nomad in Iceland
You can apply for a digital nomad visa for up to a year. The Directorate of Immigration is in charge of this process.
Some quick info about being a digital nomad in Iceland:
- Visa validity: If you apply for Iceland’s digital nomad visa from your home country, it’s valid for 180 days. If you’re in a Schengen country during application, the validity shortens to 90 days.
- No Extensions: The visa can’t be extended. To reapply, wait a year after your last visit on this specific visa.
- Perks of the digital nomad visa in Iceland: You’ll enjoy tax exemptions, exceptional internet connectivity, and mesmerizing landscapes. Plus, English is commonly spoken, and Iceland has a reputation for being friendly and safe.
- Eligibility and requirements: The income requirement is high at $7763 per month. You must also be a freelancer, entrepreneur, or work for a non-Icelandic company. There’s an application fee and a need for health or travel insurance.
- Tax-free living: You won’t pay taxes in Iceland but remain responsible for taxes in your home country.
- No path to residency: The digital nomad visa doesn’t lead to permanent residency.
- Paper applications: Online applications aren’t available; all paperwork must be mailed to Kópavogur’s immigration directorate. It takes about 3-4 weeks for a long-term visa to be processed.
- Families are welcome: You can bring your family; they will have the same rights under the digital nomad visa as you do.
- Tourist visa limitations: If you require a tourist visa for Iceland, you’re probably ineligible for their digital nomad visa. Also, you shouldn’t have had a long-term visa for Iceland in the past year.
- Stay regulations: To maximize your visa to 180 days, apply from your home country. Once the visa is granted, you can also spend up to 90 days in other Schengen countries. Any days spent in the Schengen zone before the visa issuance count toward your total Iceland stay.
My experience in Iceland
I decided to visit Iceland as part of my journey to visit all European countries.
Naturally, Iceland was one of the last few countries on my list due to the high cost of living.
Initially, I wanted to visit Iceland for a week. But given the fact that I adore nature sites and Iceland has so much to offer, I quickly realised that one week would not be enough.
As a digital nomad and traveller, I found out that travelling to a new place and staying for a month is often more affordable and less exhausting than trying to do everything in a few days.
I am also a big believer in the idea that if you want something, like truly wanting it, you will start seeing the opportunities that are laid in front of you.
In my case, I started researching apartments on Airbnb in Reykjavik, and it immediately struck me when I found this gorgeous apartment that a family was renting out while they were on their summer holidays.
It wasn’t cheap, but it was much cheaper than what other apartments cost in Reykjavik.
It so happened that the owner was also looking for someone to rent it for a longer time, and it was a match made in heaven. She gave me all her tips for what to do, what to see around and vegan spots to check out in Reykjavik.
The second issue was renting a car.
Car rentals are not cheap in Iceland. If you’re renting for more than a few days, it almost feels like buying a second-hand car when you add all the extra insurance (gravel, ash, tyres etc.).
Luckily, the owner had their car at home and offered to rent it to us at a much more convenient price than what the rental companies were offering. This is where I got truly lucky, I know.
If the owner hadn’t offered to rent their family car, my other option would have been to rent a car for a couple of days at a time and carefully plan all my road trips. It would have been a lot more stressful, and I wouldn’t have been able to see so much.
Given the unpredictable Icelandic weather (Vedur.is is your best friend), it’s great to have a car at your disposal and use it when the sun comes out and go on a half-day trip.
Why did I stay one month in Iceland?
Actually, it was about 5 weeks in Iceland. There are two reasons for this longer trip:
- want to have flexibility in choosing when to visit different parts of Iceland and not feel rushed
- It’s cheaper to stay longer
When talking about Scandinavia, it’s actually cheaper to stay for longer because getting an Airbnb for a month is not going to be much different than in any other big European city. Also, cooking food at home, having time to relax, working, and getting proper sleep is so important when travelling as much as I do.
The downside of travelling to a new place for a week or so is that I might feel the urge to see as much as possible, which inevitably leads to spending more money (tours, restaurant food, gas) and leaves me energy-drained, which will take me a few days to recover from when I get back home. This kind of routine makes me enjoy these new places less, and it doesn’t make me happy or fulfilled.
At first, I didn’t realise just how big Iceland is and how much it has to offer.
It was only after getting there that I realised the many places there are to visit, natural wonders, outer-worldly landscapes, and breathtaking scenery that make you addicted to it.
Having a car at my disposal makes my entire experience so much more enjoyable. Flexibility is one of my core beliefs and an integral part of my digital nomad lifestyle.
I would wake up in the morning, have my coffee, check on work stuff, finish my work, and then go exploring around the city if I felt like it or the weather was nice. I need to add that June was mostly rainy, and I spent a lot of time inside. I love rain, but there’s not much to do in Iceland on a rainy day because everything is outside.
But July was almost cleared-skies only, and there were almost 24 hours of daylight, which meant that even a day trip that started at 3 p.m. was doable, and it was not an issue to get back home after midnight (it was not dark). Another advantage was that most tours start early in the morning, and by the time I reached those popular places in the late afternoon, most tourists were gone. July is crowded in Iceland, but that wasn’t an issue for me.
I also chose to visit Iceland during summer for two reasons:
- I am not a winter girl
- 24 hours of daylight means longer day trips and more time exploring
Tips for first-time visitors to Iceland
I have already written an extensive list of Iceland travel tips, but here are some things I did expect but still caught me a bit off guard.
- It’s windy. Everywhere. Even if it’s sunny outside. It’s so windy, my ears would hurt. I have more sensitive ears, but this was extreme. I would end up limiting my time exploring at a certain location because it would hurt my body. Having a windbreaker, buff, and winter hat is not negotiable. I had all this and was still hurting. It’s acceptable in the beginning, but after hours of this weather treatment, you’ll get to feel this.
- Sleeping with an eye mask during summer is a must. The daylight is piercing through every little space it can find. Luckily, I am already used to the eye mask, so it wasn’t a thing for me, but my boyfriend had to learn to sleep with that. But he didn’t complain too much.
- Book hotels well in advance. I am a spontaneous traveller and usually book my stays just a few days before reaching a new location. However, don’t do this in Iceland. The limited room numbers in peak season made me go crazy. There was no accommodation on the South Coast available last minute at a reasonable price. Don’t be like me!
- Gravel roads are everywhere. Don’t get alarmed. All cars can drive on those roads. Most often, these are just access roads to parking lots or accommodations. Nothing bad will happen to the car; most people are aware of the dangers of driving on gravel roads and will keep their distance and drive a bit more slowly.
- Always keep an eye on your tires. Given the condition of the roads, a lot can happen to the tyres. I happened to get a flat tyre from a nail on my first bigger road trip. Luckily, the main wheel service was still open in Akureyri on Saturdays (it’s closed during the evenings and Sundays). If necessary, check your pressure at any gas stop, and try to make it to a service. It’s cheaper to get it fixed than to call a tow truck/platform in the middle of nowhere.
- One month in Iceland is not enough. Iceland is a dream, beautiful wherever you look. And you can’t cover it all in one trip. Simply put, it’s too much; you’ll get tired at some point, and the best thing you can do is go back.
- Don’t speed in Iceland. There is police on the road (at any hour), and they will chase you (like in the movies) and fine you. It will not be cheap. It’s just not worth it. Every once in a while, you will see some cars driving slightly above the limit but don’t do that. If you don’t know the limit (you didn’t see the sign), then drive 50 km/h in cities and 70 km/h outside of cities. Iceland is not that big, anyway. Speeding is not worth it.
Things I didn’t like about Iceland
Iceland feels like the crown jewel for travellers and photography enthusiasts. And that is in fact true. The landscapes, the experience, the places are all worth it.
But the reality of travelling in Iceland hits a bit different than what you are expecting.
The truth is that everyone advertises Iceland as the most expensive place on Earth.
While Iceland is not cheap, I don’t feel like we have to keep on complaining about how expensive it is.
Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean, where almost nothing organic grows given the harsh climate, and everything must be important from Europe and the US. Food comes on a ship! And so does everything else needed for everyday life.
The fact that you have everything that you can think of available to you in Iceland is simply mind-blowing. There’s a huge shopping mall in Iceland, Ikea, huge chains of supermarkets, gas stations everywhere, and all kinds of shops.
And everything is of the highest possible standard. From housing, food, and even budget hotels, are all immaculate and of superior quality, as is the case with all Scandinavian countries.
Also, let’s not forget that this is a tourist destination for the privileged.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford to travel to Iceland, then don’t complain once you get there. The truth is that life in Iceland is more comfortable than the life I have in Romania (except for the weather, but that’s a matter of personal preference).
But what really annoyed me was the huge marketing campaigns done for tourists.
It feels like one of Iceland’s largest industries right now is tourism. Maybe it actually is.
From everything you read online to the moment you get there, everyone is selling something, some kind of experience, some kind of unique tour. This is all good, but the truth is that the car rental business is exploding. I’ve never seen so many car rental companies in such a small space. The prices are skyrocketing, even locals are left speechless.
And the reality is that it doesn’t have to be so expensive. Yes, if you only have a few days and want to fit a lot, then booking expensive tours will be the best way to see a lot, but it will also cause your budget to drop.
I feel like some places have been made famous by social media, and local tour agencies are not taking advantage of that, ripping off tourists. When in fact, all of Iceland is equally beautiful, and more often than not, there are free, closer, and more accessible alternatives to the locations promised by some of these tours.
I believe that we also need to set more realistic expectations when travelling to Iceland.
We all know that the photos we see on social media are edited and carefully crafted by skilled photographers. But the reality doesn’t quite have the same colours, and that’s OK. It’s still beautiful, and you can still enjoy it.
In the end, I encourage you to travel to Iceland to see unique places, have amazing new experiences, and observe a different Nordic lifestyle. Try to cross the barrier of simply being a tourist, and become a traveller.
One month in Iceland as a digital nomad: Conclusions
As I said already, one month (5 weeks in my case) was not enough.
What I’d do better for my next trip is to plan a bit more my road trips around Iceland (as always, according to weather forecasts). I would aim to discover more remote locations that not a lot of travellers reach, spend more time simply enjoying those places and be less in a rush.
The rush crisis is something I was born with, but I’m working on it.