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OPINION & ANALYSIS

My first visit to the Swedish tax office: What’s the fuss about ‘personnummer’?

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

My first visit to the Swedish tax office: What's the fuss about 'personnummer'?
Getting your Swedish personal identification number from the Tax Agency is an important rite of passage. Photo: Kenny Bengtsson/SvD/TT

Even before I had started my new job in Sweden, HR strongly urged me to go to the Swedish tax office, Skatteverket, on my first working day. So right after I had my picture taken for the company ID, I was on my way to their nearby offices.

It soon became clear what the fuss was all about: my personal Swedish ID number or personnummer. Moving as an EU citizen, I had not given the formalities of immigrating to Sweden much thought. Free movement of labour, and all that. In reality, as many will have experienced, life without a personnummer is not as straightforward as the European flag in my passport suggests.

I guess technically I had the same rights as everyone else but at every corner of the internet and behind every counter I turned up at, there was someone asking me for that dreaded number. And when I could not provide it, nothing really worked. Need a doctor’s appointment? Personnummer. Need a mobile phone plan? Personnummer. Need a proper bank account? Anyway, you get the idea.

Although Skatteverket felt it knew me well enough to withhold taxes from my salary from day one, it took them six weeks to send me the hotly anticipated number which turned out to be my birthdate plus four digits added. What on earth had taken them so long to produce that? Not to mention the six months my husband had to wait which seems to be the normal waiting time at the moment.

A similar waiting time applies for Swedes returning from having lived abroad and who want to re-register with the folkbokföring, the population registration arm of Skatteverket. I appreciate that I’m a guest in Sweden and chose to move here. My quest for the personnummer will end up as a funny “when we moved to Sweden” anecdote (#stockholm #discoversweden #swexpat). But if I were a Swede returning home from a stint abroad in the middle of a pandemic and I had to wait several months for the government to be registered again so I can more easily book a doctor’s appointment, I would likely be using some different hashtags.

Apart from just handing all your personal information over to the internet, the biggest side effect of having a personnummer was a benefit. It gives you the golden ticket to life in Sweden: the mobile bankID. I don’t think people in Sweden appreciate enough the miracle of having an app on your phone that gives you universal access to all governmental and any other imaginable service and allows you to identify yourself electronically.

Swedes will never know the maddening frustration of having to keep track of a multitude of always expiring passwords and control questions and having a drawer full of tokens giving you access to different bank accounts but that are always out of battery when you need them.

Whenever I’m picking up a package at the post office PostNord and I identify myself in the queue using the bankID and facial recognition on my phone, I truly feel like the future has arrived.

I guess the future is something worth waiting for.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Signing up to move to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. “But if I were a Swede returning home from a stint abroad… and I had to wait 24 weeks for the government to give me my personnummer back…”
    As I know once you get your personnummer you will never loose it even if you move abroad and even if you are officially not registered in Sweden. Your personnummer will not be taken from you. Here is the link:

    https://www.skatteverket.se/privat/etjansterochblanketter/svarpavanligafragor/flyttfolkbokforing/faqfolkbokforing/vadhandermedmittmedborgarskapochpersonnummeromjagflyttarutomlands.5.64a656d113f4c759701125a.html

    So I wonder what exactly you mean talking about Swedes coming back from abroad and applying to get their personnummer back?

    1. I was wondering the same. A Swede will always keep their personnummer if they move from Sweden to another country. The number is even in their Swedish passport! They may also retain things in Sweden while living abroad that require their personnummer, like a bank account or insurance policy or even a summer cottage etc. So you certainly do not have to “get back” your personnnummer when returning to Sweden. It never leaves you.

      The normal time to get things rolling again through the folkbokföring system after returning to Sweden from abroad used to be about two weeks, but I saw a notice on Skatteverket’s website not long ago that says that the processing time for most cases is now four weeks, due partly to the corona pandemic.

      1. Thank you both for your comments. My understanding is that the waiting times at the Folkbokföring arm of Skatteverket have been increasing at the same time as the waiting times for getting a Personnummer and it now takes a couple of months to get re-registered. The column did not reflect that correctly and has been updated to clarify that point.

  2. Based on both the comments and the article, there is apparent confusion regarding the personal number and the population registry. This is understandable, as the government links them in convoluted, yet strategic, ways. Whether one would choose #quaint or #frustration is conditional on a privileged POV, but #surveillance is beyond dispute. Another apt hashtag is #gatekeeping. Personal numbers are assigned for life, but to be a Swedish citizen and return from abroad and NOT have what the government decides is a legitimate address is to be cut out of access to resources (e.g., which health clinic to be assigned, etc.). To be an immigrant–even an EU national– and NOT have a legitimate address is to NOT be eligible to receive a personal number. This “catch-22” looping closes the door on all the services mentioned in the article, as well as on legitimate employment. What makes this enforced linkage insidious is the notorious housing shortage, and the government’s dictatorial stance on what constitutes a “legitimate” address: Own your own land and put up a mobile home? Nope, doesn’t qualify; A winterized holiday house? Nope, doesn’t qualify; A second-hand contract at twice the market rate? Maybe; A friend’s address? Could cause them complications. (But– nota bene: there are cases when circa 1 million kronor beach huts– no running water, and only community toilets during the summer months– qualify as a gov-sanctioned addresses for pop-registry purposes (one might guess: to ensure the wealthy who live abroad don’t have complications gaining resource access whenever they pop back into town).
    The Swedish government could easily–with the stroke of a pen–uncouple the lock-step bind of the personal number and the government-sanctioned address requirement. But to do so would mean giving a fair wage to the likely thousands of– mainly Eastern European– skilled laborers (carpenters, plumbers, electricians) whom Sweden desperately needs to build its way out of the housing crisis. Keeping them without personal numbers keeps them exploitable. This is but one example of how “gatekeeping” certain people out of the system proves lucrative for certain sectors and power elites, but is in fact an institutionalized discrimination blanketed under the rhetoric of “rationalized” governance.
    Just another hidden cost of mobile bank-ID. Yes, Big Brother is watching, but not everyone gets to be thrilled.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The death of ice hockey legend Börje Salming last week touched the nation, partly because he broke the mould for acceptable Swedish behaviour, says David Crouch.

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The mood in the stadium was ugly that September night in 1976, as the USA and Sweden national teams prepared for battle in the world’s first truly international ice hockey tournament. The Toronto crowd booed the American national anthem and was indifferent to the Swedish one. 

Then a mean-looking Swede took to the ice and the entire stadium rose to its feet. The ovation continued for several minutes (you can watch it here). It is considered the greatest moment of all time in Swedish hockey.

The Swede in question was Börje Salming, a Swedish legend, who died last week from a cruel and terminal illness. It is no exaggeration to say that his death touched the nation, and beyond. How many Swedes can claim to have had an obituary in the New York Times

For Swedes, Salming was much more than an international sporting superstar. His rise to stardom in North America in the 1970s and 80s reflected a social transformation as Sweden moved away from the collective ideals of the folkhemmet (people’s home) towards a more individualistic, competitive and outward-looking society. 

Tributes to Salming describe how he blazed a trail for Swedish hockey players into the North American big time and challenged the stereotype of the “chicken Swede”, the soft European. But he also changed perceptions about acceptable behaviour. Without Salming, one could imagine that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the bad boy of Swedish football, might never have made his big break and left Rosengård. 

Salming was born in 1951 near the mining town of Kiruna in northern Sweden. His mother was Swedish while his father was a member of the indigenous Sami population. Salming’s Sami heritage made him a target of abuse, and he often endured racist anti-Sami slurs. In his memoirs, he attributes his toughness as an ice hockey player to his Sami heritage and the adversity he faced growing up.

Börje Salming wearing a traditional Sami kolt and Tiger Williams, one of his former teammates in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Photo Fredric Alm/TT

When Salming started to play professionally, the prevailing style of ice hockey was sossehockey (social democratic ice hockey), according to sports lecturer Tobias Stark from Linnaeus University. Sossehockey demanded that the team come first and no single player should stand out – an embodiment of the Jante law that celebrates modesty and uniformity over exceptional talent. Moreover, Salming was seen as lazy, troublesome, thuggish, and even un-Swedish.

But it was just these qualities that made him attractive to the Canadian scout who recruited him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1970s. They met in the locker room after Salming had been sent off for wiping out the referee.

In the NHL, he was an overnight sensation with his brave and combative style. After his first game, a Toronto Star reporter wrote: “Toronto is up 7–4, it is ten seconds left of the game. Then Salming throws himself to the ice and blocks a shot! Geez, this is the kind of player the Leafs need.”

He went on to play more than 1,000 games for the Maple Leafs and break all kinds of records for a defensive player. In 1996, he became the first Swede – indeed the first European – to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame. 

His reputation as a tough guy was enhanced in 1986 when an opponent stamped on his face, slicing it open with a wound that required 250 stitches. He was back on the ice two weeks later. 

Yet at first, Salming was scorned by the Swedish hockey establishment. They saw him as being seduced by money and joining the ranks of brutal American players with broken noses and no teeth. It took time for his achievements to be recognised back home, where he eventually became a national icon. 

After he stopped playing professionally in 1993, Salming became a successful entrepreneur with his own brand of clothing and cosmetics, and he wrote cookery books. He became a vocal spokesperson for Sami rights and the conservation of the wilderness, speaking out against mining in areas where reindeer-herding is a way of life. 

In August this year, it was announced that Salming had contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or motor neuron disease. The seriousness of his condition was obvious at his last public appearances in Toronto and Stockholm in the weeks before his death. 

When the Toronto Maple Leafs played a game the day after Salming died, their players wore shirts with BORJE written in yellow on a blue maple leaf with a yellow crown, reflecting the colours of the Swedish flag – and a reminder of Salming’s nickname: The King.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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