In Iceland, a kennitala is the equivalent of a US Social Security Number. It’s a personal identification number, and everybody’s got one. Kennitalas are required all over the place – getting a cell phone plan, opening a bank account, getting car insurance, even registering a TV for its warranty.
An electronic ID builds atop that: it’s like a country-wide single-sign-on system that lets you authenticate for stuff and sign contracts.
Apply for a kennitala before you fly to Iceland.
You’re going to want to start this process at least a week before you arrive in Iceland if you wanna hit the ground running.
File for a kennitala via email – there are separate instructions on that page for different countries, and it’s pretty simple for US folks. Part of that process includes contacting an Iceland bank to get them to send you an email in writing stating that you need a kennitala to open an account. To do that, there are 3 main banks in Iceland: Arion, Bank of Iceland, and Landsbankinn. The kennitala instructions page I linked to insinuates that the bank’s chats will respond – that wasn’t the case for me, because they were all chatbots that didn’t understand the request, and I just had to email the banks directly and wait a business day for a response.
After filling out that form and emailing it in, wait 4-5 business days, and you’ll get an email with your kennitala – well, sorta. You won’t get a real kennitala: you’ll get a “system ID number” that works in place of a kennitala. A real kennitala confers benefits like health insurance. Your system ID number will just be used whenever someone asks for your kennitala. It has the same format.
Just because you got an email doesn’t mean your kennitala is in everybody’s system. Iceland has a patchwork of databases that don’t all sync instantly. For example, 3 days after I got my kennitala, the leading cell phone company still only had it in 1 of their 2 systems, and couldn’t set me up with a phone number.
After you arrive in Iceland, get an electronic ID.
There are two places to get an electronic ID – banks and cell phone companies – and as far as I can tell, both of them require you to go there in person in Iceland with your passport.
Cell phone companies are the quickest route because you can get a prepaid SIM card and an electronic ID all at once. The leading phone companies as of this writing are Siminn and Vodafone, and we went to Siminn because they apparently have better coverage in the more remote areas of Iceland where we planned to go.
The phone company will need your kennitala, and they’ll give you an Icelandic SIM card for your phone. If you cut the timing too close on getting your kennitala, and you’re not sure if your kennitala is in the phone company’s systems yet, save yourself a trip to the store by calling 800-7000 in Iceland. That’s Siminn’s main number. Explain that you’re a foreigner who just got a kennitala for the first time, and you want to make sure the kennitala is in their systems before you drive into a store and get a phone account. They can check for you in a matter of seconds.
Armed with your kennitala and your passport, visit the cell phone company’s store and explain that you want a prepaid cellular package and an electronic ID. In a matter of minutes, they’ll get you all set up.
Then, whenever Iceland web sites and banking services want you to log in, you’ll put in your cell phone number, and you’ll get an authentication popup on your phone:
Your kennitala and electronic ID will have some issues.
You’re not a real Icelandic citizen, and your ID won’t be as complete as regular citizens.
For example, in Akureyri I bought something that needed to be shipped in from Reykjavik. The Akureyri store clerk asked for my kennitala so they could hold the item for me when it arrived – but when he looked up my kennitala, he was completely confused at what came back. I get the feeling most non-tourist businesses don’t deal with these non-citizen kennitalas often.
Another example was trying to open a bank account online and buy car insurance online: both systems reported that I needed to talk to a human being first. (And yes, we’re buying car insurance, because we’re in the midst of buying a serious SUV to go roaming through the countryside over the coming months. More on that soon – stay tuned.)