We moved to Iceland in January to work remotely, and there’s a lot about it that feels like we’re living in the future.
It’s an easy transition for Americans. Cars drive on the right side, English is spoken by enough folks in enough places, but the dominant language is still Icelandic, so it still feels like a foreign country. English is spoken, but rarely written – store signs are almost always in Icelandic, which presents a bit of a problem during the pandemic. I often find myself standing at a door, looking at a sign with a big wall of urgent-looking text, and I have to bust out the Google Translate app on my phone because I have no idea if it’s warning me about something dire.
It’s a great place to mix work and play. We’ve been working for 1-2 weeks, then vacationing for 1-2 weeks. There are tons of things within an easy driving distance, so you can set up a home base in pretty much any part of the country, and then take day trips or long weekend trips around and see amazing sights. In one 2-week vacation stretch, we visited the Hverir sulfur vents, the opening scene of Prometheus, the black lava pebble beach at Djúpalónssandur, the columns at Reynisfjara Beach, so many glaciers and waterfalls, explored the plane wreck at Sólheimasandur, the Hofskirkja turf church, saw a lot of reindeer, ate the best mushroom soup I’ve ever had, held icebergs at Diamond Beach, and so much more.
There are hardly any tourists around. In all those links above, one thing you won’t see is a lot of other people. Because we’ve been here a couple times before and seen a lot of the touristy places, I can tell you that there’s a real Instagram-vs-reality meme here. You’ll see photos of Diamond Beach that look isolated – but to get ’em, someone had to get up at the crack of dawn to beat the tourists. Not so now! Erika and I rarely see any other tourists no matter where we go, no matter when we arrive.
If you want to live in a city, you can. Reykjavik’s population is about 120,000, so it’s not a large city by any means, but it has a fun, walkable downtown with a lot to do. We love the restaurants and shopping in Reykjavik. There are plenty of apartments available via AirBNB, and since tourism is down so much due to the global quarantines, it’s easy to find a match.
If you prefer small town life, that’s available too. Iceland is incredibly sparsely populated: the entire country would fit within the US state of Colorado, but where Colorado has over 5 million people, Iceland has about 350,000 (including those 120K in Reykjavik.)
Even small towns can get really, really fast Internet. It’s pretty easy to get fiberoptic internet connections here even in remote areas, and these aren’t slow connections, either. In the latest Post and Telecom Administration report, 38.6% of Iceland’s Internet connections have gigabit upload speeds, not just download:
Our rental house is out in the countryside, but our bandwidth is still phenomenal because we worked with our landlord ahead of time to make sure gigabit fiber was installed. (We paid for the installation charge because the landlord wouldn’t have needed fiber at their vacation house otherwise.) Just make sure your rental house has no data cap – you wouldn’t want to run out of data mid-Zoom-call.
Iceland is on GMT, the same time zone as London, making it easy to calculate the times of events. At the time I’m writing this, 9AM-5PM Eastern US time is 1PM-9PM Iceland time, which is easy enough. I sleep in, have a nice relaxing morning, take a nap, and then start work. When the Eastern US is having lunch, I’m having dinner. It feels like I get twice as much time in my day – but the relaxing is all done in the morning rather than after work. After work, I crash straight to bed.
It’s (mostly) open for business if you get a teleworker visa. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now around global travel, but US citizens (and many others) can get a 6-month teleworker visa pretty easily. At that point, you can fly over and do a 5-day quarantine. (Just please actually do the quarantine, unlike this asshole who caused an outbreak this week.) Iceland Air has nonstop flights from Boston, and United’s adding daily flights from Chicago.
There are drawbacks to teleworking from Iceland.
It’s tough to research Iceland before your arrival. While you can get around here pretty easily with English because a lot of folks speak it, that doesn’t mean they choose to write in English. Almost all Icelandic company web sites are exclusively published in the Icelandic language only, and most /r/Iceland discussions happen in Icelandic.
A lot of tourist-focused businesses are closed. The obvious drawback of COVID-19 is that many businesses are temporarily or permanently closed due to a lack of tourism. Check companies’ Facebook pages before you go – those are way more accurate than Google’s listings. We’re in Reykjavik this week, for example, and most of the high street shops (Laugavegur) are closed. Even visitor centers and restrooms are closed at national parks.
You could live more affordably elsewhere. I’m hesitant to say Iceland is expensive, because coming from California, it doesn’t seem that bad. If you’re looking to sock away a ton of savings while teleworking from a glamorous location, you’re probably better off in places like Thailand or Vietnam. (I haven’t been to any of those places – just going off what I read from others.) For relative comparison, we were spending about $5,000 USD per month on a new modern 2-bedroom, 2-bath apartment in downtown San Diego, and we’re spending about the same on a house of a similar size in the Iceland countryside. You can certainly find cheaper places, but I’m just mentioning that comparison because it feels like Iceland’s cost of living is about the same as Southern California. You shouldn’t come here to save money – come here for the experience, the incredible views, the social distancing, the people, etc.
Forget Amazon Prime same-day or next-day delivery. Even if you live in downtown Reykjavik, you can’t just pick and choose any ol’ item off Amazon and expect to get it instantly. Bring the stuff you need, or else be prepared to deal with long shipping delays and expensive value-added taxes. Drones were a good example – I looked at picking up a drone as an impulse purchase, and not only was the selection not as good as the US, but prices were about twice as high.
Your favorite American TV content isn’t easily available. If you watch shows on network apps like ABC, CBS, NBC, HGTV, Hulu, etc, you might expect to be able to get memberships to them abroad and watch the content. No can do: even if you’re a paying customer back home, you’ll be greeted with messages like this when you try to play content:
Workarounds include futzing with VPNs to fake your location (which doesn’t work well) or downloading your favorite shows illegally and streaming them with apps like Plex. Thankfully, we’re not into live TV or US sports – I can only imagine how tough it is to watch that stuff.
If you love it, you can’t just buy a house and stay. Technically, non-EU-citizens aren’t allowed to buy property here directly. You can lease property, but if you want to buy, you need government approval first. The application process alone requires you to already have a signed purchase agreement to buy a place! And yeah, the fact that I know that does tell you something about how much we’re enjoying Iceland, hahaha.
Nice reading as always Brent. Thinking of giving Thailand or Vietnam a try next? You probably need to do some defrosting on the way home from Iceland 😉
I’m going to guess that you haven’t checked how those countries are handling COVID-19 and whether incoming international travelers can get in. 😉
That’s a great point! My bad…. 🙂
That sounds too awesome. Iceland is on our short list to visit. It would be tough for me to live there though, I can’t stay away from a Mexican restaurant that long. How are you holding up?
$5K monthly in rent? That’s insane!
And I used to live in Washington DC, where I thought it was expensive 😀
Whatever you do, don’t look at the San Francisco Bay area.
Nice reading, thanks.
My question is more related to zoom or Google video calls using cars’ wifi modem or a local sim card. Is this something you can actually do?
I just need to connect every day to a couple of 30-40 minutes meetings but the internet speed should be good enough to simulate a house/office connection or similar.
Sorry, I have no idea – I haven’t tried that.