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A PhD Student's Guide to Living in Finland

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Getting started

This article is a summary of things you should look into once you have your offer of admission, or even earlier in the decision making process. Once you’re in Finland, doctoral schools, where PhD students are trained, will offer support and advice to international students so don’t hesitate to contact them.

Universities should have welcome guides for international students so it is worth consulting them when you are choosing where to study in Finland. Equally, the city or region your chosen university is in will have a website (most of them will have an English version), so you can get information about local services such as public transport or sports facilities. The Study in Finland website has its own Facebook site.

In terms of sources of information, other students can provide a personal view of their experience in Finland. For formal information on visas, driving or legal issues, it is best to access official sources of information, but if you are looking for a general view of day-to-day living and studying in Finland, then student forums or blogs can be really useful.

The country

Does anyone outside of Scandinavia know anything about Finland? Other than that it is home to Lapland and that you can reach the Arctic Circle there? According to Visit Finland the top reasons for going to Finland are:

  • To see tourist attractions that are off the beaten track.
  • It's a good place to hide (only the Finns came turn this into a marketing message!)
  • To do something that your friends haven’t done.
  • To visit a land of four seasons.
  • That there are no crowded places.
  • To see Santa!
  • To use a sauna (there are 1.7 million of them for a population of 5.2 million!)

Still not convinced that the 'land of saunas' is for you? Perhaps playing in the snow, experiencing 'real' driving and discovering Finland’s wildness will be enough to sway you!

Cost of living and budgeting

Scandinavia, in general, has a reputation for being expensive. It is true that the high rate of taxation means the cost of living is higher than in other countries of Europe. By Northern European standards however, the cost of living in Finland is average. Finland is part of the Eurozone so the Euro (€) is the official currency.

As an indication of your budget for the duration of your studies, excluding education-related costs, students requiring a visa to study in Finland must demonstrate that they have at least €560 per month (€6,720 per year) at their disposal. This is a minimum and you are recommended to budget around €800 per month. This will depend on your individual living standards. If you are on a budget, remember that as a student, you can get discounts in university restaurants and cafeterias, on public transport, at cinemas, etc. If you are a self-funded student and planning your finances, it is best to exclude any predicted part-time employment income because it can be hard to get a student job if you do not speak Finnish or Swedish.

Banking

As a PhD student, you will need to have a Finnish bank account if you are under an employment contract or in receipt of a grant/scholarship from a Finnish organisation. There are several banks operating in Finland and the types of account they offer are not that different. In choosing a bank, you may want to consider convenience in terms of location and whether, as a non-Finnish resident, you can have access to online banking. To open an account, you need to visit the bank branch in person. Make sure you have the right documentation with you, including your passport for identification purposes and a proof of address.

Banks usually open Monday - Friday from 09.30 to 16.30 and close at the weekends, but ATM machines/cash dispensers are available 24/7.

Accommodation

In Finland, most students, especially international students, live in University-owned accommodation or in student flats which are managed by either student unions or a local student housing foundation. Regional councils and local authorities will sometimes manage dormitories for students. University accommodation is in short supply so start enquiring at your institution as early as possible, once you have received your letter of acceptance.

The Finnish Student Housing (SOA) provides a lot of useful information about accommodation as well as providing the websites of the student housing organisations in different locations in Finland.

It is possible to rent in the private sector but sharing with other students is not a well-established practice. In addition, it can be near impossible to secure accommodation before moving to Finland and in any case, you should always see the place you are planning to live in for yourself. This means you will have to find temporary accommodation until you find something more permanent.

How much does student housing cost per month?

Monthly rent varies from one city/institution to another and it also depends on the size and type of accommodation. The average monthly rent for a single room in a shared student flat ranges from approximately €160 to €340. Single apartments or family flats are also available, but the rent price is obviously higher.

The private sector can be considerably more expensive than student accommodation but it can be an option if you do not want to live on campus or share with other students.

Immigration and healthcare

Residence permits

If you are a non-EEA citizen, you will need a residence permit to study in Finland. The terminology in Finland can be a bit confusing so a little bit of semantic is needed here: In Finland, a visa (‘viisumi' in Finnish) is a short-term residence permit which allows you to stay in the country for a maximum of three months. It is therefore not suitable if you are going to undertake a PhD. What you will need is a long-term visa called either a 'student residence permit' or a 'research residence permit'. So the question is: as a PhD student, which one do you need?

If you are self-funded, you are considered to be a student. In this case, you must apply for a student residence permit. If you have been granted a scholarship or you receive a salary from your home country or from Finland, you are considered to be a researcher and so should apply for the research residence permit.

You can only start your residence permit application once you have received formal acceptance (letter of admissions or employment contract) from your Finnish university. It takes time so make sure you don’t delay. This is particularly important because you will need to visit a Finnish embassy in person. If your home country does not have a Finnish embassy, you will need to travel to a Finnish embassy in a nearby country.

What do I need to apply?

You will need:

  • A formal offer of admissions from your university or employment contract.
  • Proof that you can support yourself financially during your studies (see the budget section above).
  • Suitable health insurance.

For more detailed information, consult the website of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland or of the Finnish Immigration Service MIGRI. MIGRI will deliver the residence permit which is valid for one year and must be renewed at a local police station. You will have to demonstrate proof of your financial resources every year.

Registration

ALL non-Finnish students must register at the local police station, even if you are from the EU. For those requiring a residence permit, police registration is required for the annual renewal of your permit.

Healthcare

If you have an employment contract to do your PhD in Finland, then you will receive healthcare cover. If you are self-funded or a scholarship holder, you should make sure that you have suitable healthcare cover. You can organise this either through a reciprocal health agreement between your home country and Finland (this is often the case if you are from another European country), or through an international student health/medical insurance (which is compulsory for non-EEA citizens to obtain their residence permit). For information on international insurance, visit the website of the Student Insurance Programme (SIP).

As a rule, only permanent residents of Finland are covered under the Finnish National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme of KELA. However, student healthcare for those studying at universities is offered by the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS - in Finnish, the acronym is 'YTHS'). Check with your university whether this healthcare cover will apply to you.

Getting around

Public transport is well organised in Finland and it is relatively easy to travel in cities; Helsinki has buses, trams, local trains and a metro. To get around the rest of the country, trains, buses and flights are widely available. In the Northern part of the country, understandably, the transport network is less extensive.

Don’t forget that Finland’s location in Northern Europe means that you can easily access neighbouring countries such as Sweden, Norway, Russia and Estonia by road, rail, air or ferry. Although do make sure that you check your visa and other possible permit requirements/conditions before you travel.

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