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STUDYING IN SWEDEN

Seven things you need to know before coming to Sweden to study

You’ve been accepted to university in Sweden, accepted your spot, and applied for your residence permit. Now it's time to prepare for your move. Maybe you’re wondering what life in Sweden will be like? Here are some tips based on my first year living in Lund, where I'm currently studying.

Seven things you need to know before coming to Sweden to study
Newly arrived students enjoying the Swedish autumn at Uppsala University. Photo: Liam Karlsson/Imagebank Sweden

Buying new is so passé

Need a winter jacket? Bedroom furniture? Maybe a new baking sheet for whipping up something from Sweden’s never-ending list of seasonal pastries? Whatever you do, don’t buy it first-hand. Sweden is teeming with second-hand stores, selling everything from wine glasses and patio furniture to boardgames. On my walk into Lund’s city centre, I pass a second-hand shop which frequently has bras hanging in the window – undergarments is where I draw the line, but to each their own.

Some shops are well-curated; others appear to be a dumping ground for anything and everything cleared out of junk drawers and closets after a long cleaning hiatus. But the search for the perfect formal dress for a sittning (one of Lund’s popular formal dinners) or a ball is half the fun – so grab a friend, and get browsing!

Want a drink at home on a Sunday? Plan ahead

Sweden’s Systembolaget shops have the monopoly on alcohol sales in the country – you won’t find anything over 3.5 percent anywhere else. And these shops aren’t open 24 hours. They close early on Saturdays, and don’t open at all on Sunday. If you fancy something other than a warm beer from your local supermarket on a Saturday night, plan ahead and pay a visit to your local Systembolaget. If you’re in a student-filled area, you’ll find plenty of your peers doing the same, walking out with cases of beer, boxes of wine, and whatever liquor they can afford. Be warned: drinking in Sweden is not cheap! Downing a pint at home instead of at a bar will save you a few kronor.

Failing a class…isn’t as bad as it sounds

So you’ve failed a class. Now what? Well, not much. You can take the exam again and again until you pass, so long as the material on which the test is based is not changed. If that happens, you may have some new topics to learn. In my media and communication studies MSc programme at Lund University, professors provide three deadlines for submitting the essays that we must write in place of exams. If I don’t submit my paper by the first deadline, I know I’ll have two more penalty-free opportunities to get it done. And if I receive a failing grade, that grade will not go on my academic record – instead, my record will not be updated until I submit a passing paper. While I’ve yet to take advantage of this system, knowing that missing a submission or failing a class is not a disaster is a welcome change from the strict, deadline-driven American environment in which I completed my bachelor’s degree.

Getting a bank account is a long process

Don’t bring cash with you. You’ll never spend it. I’ve still got some cash sitting in a drawer, because I keep forgetting which ATM near me will let me deposit cash into my account – my bank branch is cashless, and won’t help me there. Make sure to let your bank at home know you’ll be using your card in Sweden.

I moved to Sweden at the end of September. I didn’t open my bank account until mid-January. Opening an account entails a lengthy journey through Swedish bureaucracy, beginning with an application for a personal number, or personnummer. You can apply for a personal number at your local Skatteverket, or tax agency, office, provided that you can document you will be in Sweden for more than one year. I’m lucky enough to attend one of the universities piloting a two-year student resident permit, so proving the length of my stay was easy. While I got my personal number within 10 days, the process can take up to 18 weeks.

So you’ve got a personal number. The next step is to get an ID card, also from Skatteverket. There are three offices that issue ID cards: in Malmö, Gothenburg, and Stockholm. And appointments book up fast. I waited six weeks for mine. I got my ID card quickly, within two weeks – a friend waited months for hers to be issued.

Finally, with what I thought was sufficient documentation in hand, I walked into a Nordea bank to open my account. I was sent home account-less that day though, with the bank requesting statements from my Pakistani accounts. Armed with even more paperwork a few days later, I finally completed my application for a bank account. About a week later, my account was open. And finally, I had BankID – the magical Swedish eID that opens all sorts of doors, including, finally, digital access to my Covid-19 vaccination records. Swedish bureaucracy is a multi-layered beast, each layer tightly entwined with the others, and it took me months to unlock all the layers, starting with my personal number and ending with my digital ID.

Stock up on candles

The winters are dark. And long. And depending on where in Sweden you are, either delightfully snowy, or constantly slushy. In Skåne, there’s slush. So when you get home and peel off your jacket and scarf and hats, and it’s 3 pm and dark and dreary, you light a candle. Or two, or three. Preferably scented. Candles have gotten me through dark Scandinavian winters before when I lived in Copenhagen, and they continue to do the trick. I brought a favourite coffee-scented offering from a small Pakistani company with me, that I’m still rationing. If you don’t have a favourite to bring with you, you can browse through the selections at IKEA and Lagerhaus. Some friends of mine opt for fairy lights to brighten up their apartments, but I prefer the warm glow of a candle’s flame. Perhaps I just like fire.

Don’t worry if your Swedish is stuck at a basic “hej”

Almost everyone can communicate in basic English. That said, learning the local language is never a bad thing. After all, if your hope is to stay on in Sweden, you might soon need to prove a basic level of Swedish proficiency before getting permanent residence.

But ditch the Duolingo – or at least, don’t rely on it exclusively. One of the benefits unlocked by a personal number is the opportunity to enroll in SFI, or Swedish for Immigrant, language classes, offered by your municipality free of charge. You can choose to study in person or online, morning or evening. Do it! It’s a great way of understanding the language – wait until you hear about all the different ways in which adjectives can end – and as a bonus, you can also expand your social circle with the other students in your class.

Holidays and traditions are a serious business

If you’re currently waiting for your student visa, you may have already experienced how tough it is to get hold of office workers in July. Annual leave is taken seriously here, with workers taking several weeks off during the summers. No checking email, no answering work calls – pure vacation mode.

This commitment to time off for enjoyment also applies to holidays throughout the year. On Valborg, on April 30, I saw my largest Swedish crowds: about 50,000 people crammed into Lund’s city park, well on their way to total inebriation by 11am. The celebration, to welcome the coming spring, brings Swedes out of their homes after the winter, with massive bonfires burning bright in the evenings. Midsommar, the summer solstice, is also celebrated hard, with families and groups of friends bringing picnics into parks around maypoles, where they sing about small frogs and dance around, gripping onto their partners’ earlobes.

Member comments

  1. I agree that the American academic environment is not ideal. But as a lecturer, it’s difficult to accommodate the ‘omtenta’ system. If you don’t turn in an assignment or take the exam when we have planned for it, and then want to turn it in later – well, then I have to write a brand new exam and I don’t get paid for doing that. It’s also very disruptive when students get in contact a year later and want to turn in assignments. I think that everyone should have second (and third) chances. But your overworked and underpaid lecturers are having to deal with your late assignments during their weekends and evenings, so please try to be respectful of this.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Living in Sweden has changed me in the strangest ways

On a recent trip back home I found myself rolling my eyes at my parents as they went around the house closing all the curtains the second it got dark. It was at that point I knew: Sweden has changed me.

Living in Sweden has changed me in the strangest ways

My attitude to light has changed

You may have noticed while walking around Swedish towns or cities that few Swedish properties have curtains. This can be quite a sharp contrast if you, like me, come from a culture where curtains are closed the second it gets dark outside, so that passers-by can’t see you through your windows.

During my first few months in Sweden – which also happened to coincide with the Coronavirus pandemic – I realised while I was mindlessly looking out of my window one dark evening at the block of flats across our courtyard that I appreciated being able to see the small squares of light in my neighbour’s windows.

Like twinkly fairy lights, they were reassuring, a small window into the daily lives of strangers which made me feel closer to other humans in a time where we were encouraged to be distant and socialise as little as possible.

I still think about that feeling when I look out of the window and see those yellow squares with tiny figures moving from room to room, even more so during winter, where they’re decorated with Advent candles and Christmas stars.

Becky Waterton spends much of the winter in Sweden under a blanket. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT

I go into hibernation in winter

Another Swedish habit which I’ve adopted is going into hibernation in winter. Not literally, obviously, but more in a sense of taking part in fewer social activities and spending more time at home (usually under a blanket).

I’m not sure if this is due to arriving here just before the pandemic or the fact that I have a young child (so I don’t spend that many evenings outside of the house anyway!), but this hibernation period usually consists of eating comfort food, putting on warm and cosy clothing and spending a lot of time indoors looking out at the cold, grey skies that dominate Sweden for so much of the year.

There’s an old saying in Sweden, ingen dåligt väder, bara dåligt kläder (no bad weather, only bad clothes), but this doesn’t seem to apply in winter, where it appears perfectly acceptable to just stay indoors. 

On the other hand, as soon as the weather is nice (which usually happens some time around March), the pressure rises to go outside and make the most of the weather, even if you’d actually rather prefer to stay at home.

Becky Waterton now thinks nothing of eating a “macka” for breakfast. Photo: Claudio Bresciani / TT
 

Changing your eating habits

Obviously, there are some things you stop eating when you move to Sweden as you are no longer able to get hold of them. Pre-packed sandwiches for lunch, small bags of crisps and fish and chips on a Friday are a few examples of things I naturally stopped eating when I first moved abroad.

Other things grow on you slowly. Since moving to Sweden, I rarely eat a sandwich with two slices of bread, instead eating a macka, a slice of bread with topping. I would never before have eaten a sandwich for breakfast, but I regularly eat mackor, whereas previously I might have gone for porridge or just plain toast with butter.

There is one Swedish foodstuff I will never accept, though, and that’s bread made using sugar or syrup, such as the limpa bread which haunts supermarket aisles down here in Skåne. It may make me look a bit odd checking the ingredients of every loaf in the supermarket, but I will die on this hill, and I have accepted that fact.

You’re probably expecting me to say something about how Swedes only eat sweets on Saturdays, and that I have also adopted this habit.

Although lördagsgodis has also become part of my weekly schedule, I have quite cunningly combined this with my previous sweet-eating habits, meaning that I not only can eat sweets on whichever day of the week I want, I can also gorge on them when Saturday comes around. 

I have, however, entirely embraced the habit of fika. Any excuse to eat one of Sweden’s many excellent pastries with a cup of tea (yes, I’ve not gone full-Swede on the hot drink front, either) is welcome, in my book.

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