Living in Iceland - A Guide for PhD Students
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Living in Iceland - A Guide for PhD Students

Sitting at the juncture of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, Iceland is a country of dramatic landscapes and progressive attitudes. As such, it is the perfect place for an international student, especially those with interests in green energy or those wishing to study the fascinating geological features of the country.

We’ve put together a short guide with some of the key points about living in Iceland while studying for your PhD. You’ll find information on finding accommodation, living costs, part-time work, transport and opening a bank account in the country.

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Student life

Iceland is a country where society places great importance in the freedom and equality of its citizenry. It consistently ranks very highly when looking at quality of life, equality and democracy and is one of the highest-ranking countries in the world for healthcare and education.

As for nightlife, Iceland may be tranquil by day but come Saturday night the streets come alive. The cafes transform into bars and clubs playing everything from house to heavy metal, the entertainment lubricated with an abundance of quality craft beer.

You’ll find that living in Iceland makes for a vibrant and fulfilling experience. From the beautiful sights a short walk into the countryside can offer, to the friendly and welcoming communities of students and residents, there are many reasons international students love Iceland.

Culture and tourism

Iceland is a country of rich and varied culture, and the birthplace of many historical writers, responsible for penning the Icelandic sagas, the root of the country’s literary renown. These sagas are prose epics set during the Viking settlement of the country, as well as the settlement of Greenland.

The Icelandic people are proud of their history and are careful to preserve the traditions and language of their Viking heritage. Many of the words in the modern Icelandic language are still very close to the Old Norse spoken many centuries ago.

Tourism represents an important component of the Icelandic economy with the now booming industry showing little sign of slowing. Many are attracted to the country by its stunning landscapes, waterfalls and volcanoes as well as the opportunity for whale watching off the coast of the island or the possibility of seeing the northern lights.

Sports and leisure

Iceland is a healthy nation with much of the population participating in various types of sport or leisure activity of some kind. Football, athletics, handball and basketball are all very popular as are rock climbing, swimming and hiking.

As testament to their love of sport, Iceland became in 2018 the smallest nation in terms of population to reach the finals of the FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Food and drink

Although food is not what necessarily springs to mind first when you think of Iceland, it is nevertheless quite delicious. Traditionally Icelandic food was high in meat fish and cereals. Icelandic fish especially is superb although delicacies like rotted shark might be worth steering clear of unless you’re feeling particularly brave.

If traditional Icelandic foods aren’t to your taste, don’t worry as you’ll find everything from Mexican to Chinese inspired restaurants in the larger towns.

You’ll also find the cities and many of the larger towns have a definite café culture, with a good deal of Icelanders firmly hooked on coffee. In fact, in some supermarkets thermoses of coffee are provided for customers to help themselves.

If you’re in the market for something a bit stronger, you’ll find alcohol can be quite expensive, and, with the exception of beer, the only place to buy alcohol is in licenced bars and restaurants or state-owned liquor stores.

Accommodation

Most universities, especially private universities, don’t provide on-campus housing for PhD students. Where universities do offer on-campus living, such accommodation is in very high demand. Most students will therefore live off campus in privately rented accommodation.

It is worth bearing in mind that cities like Reykjavik can be expensive locations for rent and housing is often in high demand making finding accommodation tricky. Often students will use flat-share websites to find more affordable accommodation.

Renting outside the city centres may be a cheaper option especially if you are looking to move to Iceland with a family.

Accommodation costs

The cost of renting in Iceland will vary greatly depending on where you stay and the size of your room, but with a bit of careful research you should be able to find something in your budget. Expect to pay somewhere in the region of 100,000 ISK (€730) for a room in Reykjavik or between 60,000 ISK and 70,000 ISK (€440-515) for a room in the second city of Akureyri.

Living costs

The cost of living in Iceland is significantly higher than in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Monthly expenses, excluding rent, will come in at around 126,000 ISK (€925). The largest of these expenses will probably be food. This is especially true if you like to eat out, or if you prefer imported food to the traditional Icelandic staples.

Prices in Iceland

The following table gives an indication of the prices for some common expenses during a PhD in Iceland.


Student Cost of Living in Iceland - 2019
Restaurant Meal 2,500 ISK (€18)
Cinema Ticket 1,600 ISK (€11.70)
Monthly Travel Pass 12,300 ISK (€90)
Monthly Utilities 11,500 ISK (€84)
Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.

Working during your PhD

If you wish to work during your studies, you will need to apply for a work permit. This will allow you to work a maximum of 15 hours, unless you are employed during a break from study or the employment is part of some vocational training.

To apply for a work permit you will need a contract of employment from your prospective employer and fill out the application for work permit form for which you’ll need

  • Employer information
  • University and course details

After you make the application you will then need to wait for the permit to be granted before starting work, which can take several weeks.

Banking

As an international student, it’s often a good idea to open a bank account in the country you’re studying in, as this makes it far easier to process scholarship payments and manage day-to-day expenses.

Studying in Iceland, you’ll have the choice of three banks with which to open an account. All three banks also offer a range of student services.

To open a bank account in in Iceland you’ll need to have your Icelandic identification number (kennitala in Icelandic) which you will usually have to apply for through the Icelandic National Registry. The bank will then ask for a valid ID (your passport for example) and proof of your current address. You’ll also need to provide a valid student ID if you wish to access any of the student services offered.

Once you have opened an account you be issued with a Visa or Mastercard debit card to make it easy to make payments and withdraw or deposit money.

Transport

The public transport system in Iceland is fairly limited so it’s advisable to organise any travel in advance. There are no public rail services on the island, but the major population centres are linked by bus routes, or by local domestic flights.

Cross country travel

Bus routes between cities are often infrequent, running only once or twice a day, so it is well worth planning ahead. More information on routes and timetables can be found at Straeto, the company that manages most bus travel across the country.

Taxis are available in most larger towns and should be booked in advance as most cannot be hailed. They’re metered, so the cost of the journey will not come as a surprise – however, the cost of hiring a taxi in Iceland is quite high. Unfortunately, ride sharing services like Uber or Lyft don’t currently operate in the country.

Air travel

There is an extensive network of domestic flights in the country, which many locals use in a similar fashion to trains. In winter flights are often the only way to get where you want to go although don’t be surprised to find that even this mode of transport can be unreliable in particularly bad weather.

There are a number of airstrips across the island that offer domestic flights as well as Reykjavik airport (not to be confused with the international airport at Keflavik). The major carriers for domestic flights are Air Iceland Connect and Eagle Air. Reasonable prices can be found if you are flexible about travel times and book in advance.

International flights to and from Iceland go through the airport at Keflavik, which offers a regular, 45-minute bus service into Reykjavik.

Inner city travel

Straeto maintains an extensive bus network in Reykjavik that connects all the suburbs with frequent services. Night services also operate on some routes between one and four in the morning.

Find a PhD in Iceland

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in Iceland? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 01/11/2019

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