Amsterdam does not equal the Netherlands. Here are some things that might surprise you and save you some cultural shock. Plus basic tips for expat life in the Netherlands and things you didn’t know about Holland, like the fact that tulips aren’t actually native to the country. They were imported from Turkey back in the 16th century.
Once you’re well aware of general rules for visiting Amsterdam as a tourist, you might want to know what to expect from your expat life in the Netherlands.
Things to Know About About Living in the Netherlands
1. It’s a Flat Country.
You’ll miss mountains a lot. The most mountainous landscape you’ll see will be the sand dunes in Katwijk. The highest point is in Vaalserberg, and it has only 323 m.
2. It Rains a Lot and It’s Usually Windy.
It’s almost never sunny in the Netherlands. If it doesn’t rain for 4 days in the row it makes the news. Expect 2 months of sun, the rest is rainy and windy (hence there are over 1,000 windmills still standing from 1850). Be mentally prepared.
On the bright side, despite the rain, there aren’t any floods as the infrastructure is great.
3. The Netherlands Loves the Orange Color.
The national color of the Netherlands is orange (the Dutch royal family is officially called ‘the House of Orange-Nassau’). For King’s Day, the whole country dresses in orange clothes and decorates everything in orange with outdoor parties, picnics and parades.
The Dutch also introduced orange carrots to the world back in the 16th century. At the time, carrots were a range of colors, from pale yellow to purple.
4. Weed Isn’t Legal.
Cannabis isn’t legal in the Netherlands (but decriminalized for personal use), but most foreigners don’t understand or know it. Coffeeshops are not technically legal, but they are granted permits to trade weed. Coffeeshops are allowed to store a maximum of 500g of cannabis on the premises at any one time, but you as a private person can’t have more than 5g on you.
Many Dutch people will get angry at you if you ask about weed and ask that it’s just for tourists. I only had a few locals friends who smoked, most did not.
5. Rules Are Everything.
The Netherlands has rules for everything and rules apply to everyone with no exceptions. For instance, if you’re sitting in a part of the train that’s meant for silence, it means that you have to stay silent even if you’re the only one there. People will tell you off if you don’t follow the rules.
6. People Bike Everywhere.
Cycling is not a lifestyle in the Netherlands, it’s a form of transportation. This is why there aren’t that many buses or trams and they aren’t super reliable even in Amsterdam. People will bike regardless of the weather and you’ll see many biking with an umbrella in one hand, heading to a party in suits or high heels, or dressed in raincoats and rain-pants to get to the office.
That said, learn how to bike properly and accept the rules. You’ll have to deal with cycle traffic (people will yell at you if you try to cut through the traffic or make a mistake, or worse – if you walk on bike paths as a pedestrian) and constant lack of parking at train stations.
You can’t park anywhere outside of designated spots, if you park in the wrong place the police will take your bike and you’ll have to buy it back for them for 30 Euros.
The Netherlands has a VERY low crime, apart from bike thieves. Bikes getting stolen happens over here to everyone, so get a bad looking bike. I had 5 bikes in 2 years. A common thing is to get a front wheel stolen (so always lock a front wheel), or a seat (you’ll notice some people bringing their bike seats into the office).
7. Schiphol Airport is Amazing.
Schiphol is one of the best airports and offers more direct flights than any airport in the world. It’s super easy to get to (15 minutes on a train that run every few minutes from Amsterdam), which makes flying anywhere super convenient.
8. Trains are Not as Reliable as They Seem at First.
Most expats tend to say that trains are great as they’re cheap and usually run on time. When they run at all because if they stop working, they stop working. I had stroomstoring happen to me pretty much almost every Friday when I had to go to work and there were never any replacement services. Quite often trains are delayed for hours because of leaves on the track, or because tracks are too wet.
9292.nl App is your new friend. It will tell you how to get anywhere and if there are any delays.
9. Dutch People are Very Honest and Straightforward.
It’s hard to make friends as an adult in the Netherlands, most people have a closed group of friends from their early 20s from sororities and clubs and aren’t really interested in acquiring new friends. They might even tell you that they think you’re nice, but they have enough friends.
Get used to people openly talking about topics that could be taboo in your home country. It’s normal to talk about sex with people you just met. Be prepared to have some interesting chats on your first dates as well. The most important, Dutch make it easy as if they have a problem with you, or if they don’t like you, they will tell you.
It may appear rude, but it’s awesome – I love it. It was actually hard to switch back and be less direct again in other places when I moved away from the Netherlands.
10. Birthdays are Huge.
If it’s your birthday you are expected to treat all your colleagues to cake. If it’s your mom’s or friend’s birthday, people will wish you happy birthday for someone you know (they’ll say ‘Gefeliciteerd!’) and you’re expected to thank them for it. Even if they don’t know the person related to you whose birthday it is. It’s really strange.
Most importantly, you must never forget another Dutch person’s birthday, but don’t worry – you’ll need to get a birthday calendar to put everyone’s birthdays in it. Traditional location for a birthday calendar is the toilet.
11. Prepare to Schedule Appointments With Your Friends.
Be ready to make appointments for everything (this includes with your friends) and keep an agenda. People expect you to be exactly on time. If you say 9:30, it’s not 9:32.
It’s not normal to just call someone and say ‘hey, what are you doing today?’. Leave alone show up uninvited.
12. People Aren’t Interested in Wealth.
There are no remnants of the class system or hierarchy at work. A CEO will happily interact and drink with junior employees. There’s much more equality and people tend to be respected no matter their job is. No one is judged for taking a break from work for a year to pursue their passion.
One thing I really liked about the Netherlands, especially in comparison to the US, is that Dutch people are much more interested in family and quality of life than status and wealth.
It is quite common to work part-time to enjoy their hobbies (4 out of 10 people actually do). You don’t live to work in the Netherlands, you work to live.
13. People Dress Casually.
When Dutch people say ‘dress up for this event’, it might mean put on some jeans and a clean shirt. Going Dutch is also true. It’s normal to split the cost of a first date (down to the last cent’s worth of what you ate and drank), or for the host to collect money for a dinner and drinks at the house party.
Dutchmen, in general, however hot, they’re not renowned for opening doors for Dutch women or taking their heavy bags. No one expects it.
Speaking of casual things, service in restaurants is often terrible with waiters not really carrying for you. At least you don’t have to answer the question ‘How’s your food?’ with an awkward nodding as soon as you stuff your mouth.
14. Bread is Everything and Lunches are Basic.
Dutch lunch will lead many to disappointments. It’s always bread with cheese, bread with hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles), or some suspicious spread referred to as ‘salad’ and ‘fillet’. Dutch people love their bread spreads with plenty of mayo.
The most popular would be kipsalade (basically chicken with peanut sauce) or Filet Americain which is probably the worst thing I ever smelled (never dared to try actually) made of raw ground meat.
15. Apartments Come Unfurnished Without Floors.
Consider that apartments and even student rooms come totally unfurnished. I mean like, completely unfurnished. Your apartment might come without floors and walls won’t be painted unless an agency does you a favor, so it’s common to bring your floor with you when move or negotiate with the previous owner to buy their floor before they leave.
Needless to say, you usually won’t find a fridge, washing machine, or stove in the rental apartment. Since Dutch strongly believe in DIY culture you might get instructed that it’s easy to put the floor yourself and you’ll see many people move furniture on their bikes or carry a sofa around town. I’ve done it myself a few times.
16. Curtains And Privacy Are Unknown.
Many Dutch houses are in a basement or on a ground floor and people don’t tend to put curtains or blinds in their windows. If you like privacy, you’re going to find this really strange that anyone can casually peak into someone’s house. Many windows are decorated with some strange dolls, figurines or flowers. The more the better.
It’s really normal for a family to watch TV, work, walk around in pajamas and let strangers see it all through the open – there’s nothing to hide. It doesn’t end on letting others watch what’s happening inside the apartment. When the sun is out many people put their sofas in front of the houses (in the middle of the city on the street) and chills there with beer.
17. Forget About Credit Cards.
Credit cards aren’t that well supported over here. You can’t pay for your groceries with a credit card and don’t even think you can swipe anywhere. Open a local account as soon as you settle.
18. Taxes Are High.
You’ll pay 21% VAT (6% for food and essentials) on everything. Your employer will deduct up to 52% of your salary, but you get good standard of living for it. Don’t complain to locals about it though.
The Dutch do not want to hear that the food, the weather, the healthcare, the education or taxes are better in your country. They’ll get mad at you and tell you to go back then.
You can read more about Dutch bureaucracy in my other post on moving to the Netherlands.
19. Shops Aren’t Open Late.
You’ll need to do many of your errands between 9-5 on weekdays and usually 11/12-3pm on Saturdays, with no exceptions even if you have a 9-5 job. Regular shops close at 5 pm and if you need to go to the ban or any governmental institution, view an apartment or anything, you’ll need to plan to go during the workday. Supermarkets are open until 9 pm, with an exception of Sundays.
Each city has a designated day of the week called koopavond (in Amsterdam it’s on Thursday) where all the shops are open until 9 pm.
20. There Are No Boundaries.
Dutch is a secular country (up to 40 percent of Dutch say they have no religion), which results in having some funny infrastructure like having a coffee shop next to a mosque. I actually worked in a church converted into an office. You can even get married at places like Bagels & Beans (popular chain with bagels).
21. You Can Often See Kids Walking Around on Their Own.
You often see children playing and biking around on their own without adult supervision, as Holland is very safe and apparently Dutch children are the happiest. Once some kids even brought my friend on the playground some beer from their dad’s party. Sometime later the dad came over for a few seconds to see where did the beer go, and came back home.
22. Public Urination is Common.
If you ever go to some public event in the Netherlands, prepare to get surprised by… toilets. Urinals either only slightly hiding the person going to the loo, or have the grey three-person urinals you can see the back of each person urinating into the hole. No one finds that weird.
23. Everything is Fried or Mushed.
Be prepared to eat a lot of fried food. So many things are mashed and deep fried that they even have Febo vending machines selling croquettes, loompia and bitterballen.
24. Licorice is Life.
32 million kilos of the black sweet in different forms are consumed each year. The most popular form is called drop. Your new Dutch friends will try to convince you to love licorice. Correction: they tend to force you to eat drop. I had some friends put some drops in my mouth saying ‘Eat it!’. Nope, these things aren’t good!
Every year, the Dutch people also consume around 12 million kilograms of herring. It’s raw and sprinkled with onion and once you pass the original ‘urgh’ feeling it’s actually very good.
25* You need to learn some Dutch.
In casual situations, if you can’t speak Dutch well, people will just start talking to you in English. Dutch people are extremely proficient in English (even though they always claim they only speak ‘a little bit of English’). Don’t be offended, the Dutch are very practical people, and they just want the conversation to be as easy as possible. I was proud of myself when people finally stopped answering me in English.
However, if you don’t speak Dutch your circle might be limited to only expats. Speaking Dutch is an ‘entry ticket’ to locals inner circles.
The Netherlands is a wonderful place to live and not so great to die. Getting buried in the Netherlands will cost you a whole lot more than elsewhere and you can only lease a grave due to a shortage 😉