How to Thrive Living in Copenhagen as an American Expat

How to Thrive Living in Copenhagen as an American Expat

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In 2016, Mike was asked to visit Copenhagen for what we thought would be a short business trip. It was extended to three weeks almost immediately, and we thought it would be a great excuse for me to fly over for a short Scandinavian holiday. Little did we know it at the time, but within a few months we would be living in Copenhagen and finding our way through expat life.

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We lived in Philadelphia together before making the move to Denmark. In just about four years, Copenhagen has become our home. While we still love Philly, Denmark has crept into our hearts and we truly love living in Copenhagen. We are so committed to our new life that we made it official and bought a flat in the city with Mike moving to a permanent Danish work contract.

After Mike’s initial work trip, he was asked to take a temporary work assignment in Denmark and stay longer if it was a good fit. He received a fast-tracked work visa that was sponsored by his company. Denmark allows family reunification, which we qualified for as we had cohabitated for at least six month before relocating. That is how I was given Danish residency, although I arrived on a tourist visa and waited a few months for my residency application to be processed.

The Beginning of Living in Copenhagen

living in copenhagen american expat temporary housing
Our temporary apartment for our initial six months of living in Copenhagen

When we first arrived in Copenhagen, we moved into temporary housing – a nice, but sterile, two-bedroom furnished apartment. It was company-paid housing and a comfortable living space for our first taste of Danish housing. Scandinavian minimalism wasn’t too difficult of an adjustment and we added items to make it feel like our own place. One thing we learned in our first 30 days living abroad was that displaying photos and items from home made us feel easier during the transition.

After six months, Mike extended his expat contract for an additional two years. We were excited to remain in Copenhagen, professionally it was a great move for Mike and the future was exciting. This also meant that we would find a permanent apartment to rent.

From Temporary to Long Term Living in Copenhagen

It was exciting to extend our expat experience in Copenhagen and feel like we had a semi-permanent home. Life had been in limbo for some months, as is the case for many expats, so we were relieved to have a little permanence. Our focus became integrating into life in Copenhagen, laying down roots and making connections.

Finding an Apartment in Copenhagen

The sitting room in our second Copenhagen apartment

We were excited to search for an unfurnished apartment that we could make our own. Once again we had help from a corporate relocation firm that was provided by Mike’s company. We know that we were a bit spoiled compared to many expat situations where housing is left to the individual.

We found a great apartment in the city center near public transportation and a lot of restaurants, cafes, food markets and nightlife. The late 19th century building is fully updated in each apartment unit. The apartment was larger than a typical Danish apartment which are usually 100 square-meters on average.

Because we had our housing paid for from Mike’s company we took advantage of every bit of the budget. This is how we were able to find a large apartment with three bedrooms and three other rooms. We knew this was a special situation so we took advantage of the expat package we were offered and even shared the experience on the TV show, House Hunters International.

We loved our neighborhood and in time we got to know our next-door neighbors. Socially, Danes avoid small talk and it can be difficult to forge a relationship with neighbors. This isn’t because of a language barrier, the majority of Danes speak perfect English. They just prefer a deeper relationship and don’t often bother building that with neighbors.

The Expat Scene in Copenhagen

making friends while living in copenhagen

Making friends as an expat can be one of the toughest parts of the experience, even for outgoing individuals. We were lucky to make some connections on arrival from networking on social media. 

Making friends early on in the expat experience makes everything easier because you have knowledgable guides for the initial challenges. The simple things that you take for granted in your home county are suddenly difficulties abroad. For example, you have to get a new phone, bank and learn how to use the post office. These things can be vastly different in a new country and experienced expats can help you navigate your life abroad.

We continued making friends by attending expat events in Copenhagen. Some of the events we attended regularly were organized by Internations Copenhagen. They have a calendar full of events for networking, socializing and exploring local culture. 

We also joined Copenhagen’s LGBTQ+ Sports League, Pan Idræt, and continued our efforts to make new friends. We heard about the league from another expat friend and it helped us make new friendships with Danes. 

The people of Denmark get a bad reputation for being unfriendly, but it’s really not the case. Friendships with Danes take a little more effort to forge, but they build deep relationships with their small circle of friends.

Not to mention, if you don’t make the effort to involve yourself in Danish culture, it will be hard to make Danish friends. Mike and I didn’t walk around Philadelphia looking for foreign expats to befriend, but we did meet expats living in Philadelphia through our sports league back home. 

Learning Danish While Living in Copenhagen

living in copenhagen american expat learning danish

While learning Danish isn’t required to get by in Denmark, it does help make inroads with locals. Almost all Danes speak English at a conversational level and are aware that their language is difficult to speak and understand for foreigners. Still, learning a little Danish can go a long way to win over the people you meet.

We began Danish lessons a few months after Mike extended his contract for us to remain in Denmark. Learning the local language as an expat helps you acclimate to the culture, but it gives you new social connections with people living abroad. I guess you could say that we started classes hoping to learn the language, and while we did, we also gained a new friend group. The latter was more important and we still cherish those relationships and frequently spend time with our Danish classmates several years later.

If you move to Copenhagen, make sure you sign up for Danish lessons. It’s a free service provided by the Danish government which only requires a small deposit. You’ll learn some of the language and most importantly you’ll make some new friendships.

Staying Connected to America While Living in Copenhagen

Making friends while living abroad makes things easier, but it’s still important to keep in touch with friends and family in the States. Even though we make a concerted effort to look forward and build a life in Copenhagen, we have regular phone calls and FaceTime chats with relatives and friends.

It’s especially tough leaving loved ones behind, but technology helps us to stay connected. We especially miss our nephews who grow up so much between our visits. In normal years we make at least two trips home to the States per year.

We’re lucky that many friends have made trips to visit us in Copenhagen and we’ve been able to travel with many of them around Europe. Our parents have also traveled to visit us and getting to travel with them is a wonderful hidden trade off for not living nearby.

For example, we’ve gotten to celebrate Mike’s parents’ anniversary with them in Amsterdam and I’ve been lucky enough to have Mother’s Day brunch with my mom below Prague Castle. Sure, we miss many day to day events and birthdays, but we’ve made the most of our expat experience.

Even while staying connected to our loved ones in the States, expat life can be tough. There are a lot of ups and downs, it’s almost like emotions are magnified – good and bad. At times I’ve even felt expat depression. I’m open about that so that others know to get help and when homesickness and the stress of living abroad evolves into something more serious. 

Working in Copenhagen

office working and living in copenhagen

Mike, of course, had no problem finding a job in Copenhagen – that’s how we ended up living in Copenhagen to begin with. For me, things were a little more difficult but I managed to get assistance along the way. I took a job search class through The International House, an office of the local government that assists foreigners living in Copenhagen. I also had a job coach provided by Mike’s company and received great advice from both sources.

My first job was with a Danish startup company. The Nordic countries have a vibrant startup scene and it’s very easy to start your own business in the region. This was a great way for me to break into the workforce because startups are more likely to hire foreign talent. 

I noticed some major differences working in Denmark compared to the United States. The management system is much more flat and employees are granted a high degree of autonomy. Decisions are also made with input from many levels of the organization and it’s a very fair work environment. Employees are treated very well and compared to American offices, work-life balance is much better. 

In fact, you could argue that working in Denmark comes with no work-life balance because the two parts of an employee’s life do not meet. During the work day you’re much more focused and productive and at the end of the day you shut things down and pick up the next day. It’s rare you would ever do work in the evening or on weekends. This leads to a much happier workforce and, in my opinion, a better life with less stress.

Tips For Finding a Job in Copenhagen

Copenhagen can be a tough place to find a job because it’s a bit of a saturated market. Many jobs will ask for applicants that speak Danish (or at least a Nordic language). It can be extremely frustrating for foreigners who sometimes have to apply for jobs for which they’re over qualified.

Here are a few tips to help in the Copenhagen job search:

  1. Use LinkedIn, it’s VERY popular in Denmark and just dropping a post that you’re moving to Copenhagen and looking to make connections can go a long way.
  2. Networking is extremely important when you move to a foreign country, especially in Denmark. Even attending expat networking events will help you make valuable connections.
  3. Enroll in Danish lessons right away so that you can at least list “beginner Danish” in your CV
  4. Join a few clubs, sports teams or volunteer organizations in Copenhagen to add to your CV and network.
  5. Stay positive, it can be discouraging to spend a lot of time applying to jobs that you feel overqualified for, eventually your persistence will pay off

Day to Day Life When You're Living in Copenhagen

Within a few months of living in Copenhagen we had the apartment, the jobs and the friends. It was time to just live in Copenhagen. Of course, we had a pretty good idea what to expect but here’s a little bit of what day to day life in Copenhagen is like for those making the same transition to a Danish hygge lifestyle.

A Typical Day Living in Copenhagen

On the surface, life in Copenhagen is pretty similar to our life in Philadelphia. We wake up, go to work, pursue our hobbies and interests outside of work and enjoy relaxing with friends.

One difference is that we have more leisure time and get to do more with it. In Denmark we get a minimum of five weeks vacation each year, but our employers give us seven weeks (which is also common). This means that we have more time to travel than we did while living in America. Copenhagen is also a great place to live for access to traveling Europe.

We had a company car at one point, but eventually got rid of it because we hardly used it. It wasn’t worth the side expenses and Copenhagen public transportation is so good that we often took a train instead of opting to drive and find parking. 

We also get around by biking more than anything, which is one of our biggest surprises moving to Denmark. Copenhagen is Europe’s most bike-friendly city and almost the entire city has a dedicated bike lane. 

Otherwise, we enjoy a lot of the same things we loved in Philadelphia. We have adapted, acculturated and evolved in some ways, but that’s how you make where you live home. And Copenhagen is now home.

Finding a Place to Live in Copenhagen

Copenhagen can be a difficult city to find a place to live. There’s high demand for apartments and there can be uniquely low supply due to rental laws. It’s common to find a place to live through Facebook groups and online asks through social media. The Accommodation in Copenhagen facebook group is helpful for those seeking a room or sublet option.

Scams are common for people finding apartments in Copenhagen. NEVER send deposit or other money for a place that you don’t see in person and meet the owner face to face. A frequent scam is for a “property owner” to communicate with you from their “overseas home” and tell you to wire money for a deposit – don’t do it!

Again, if you’re only renting a room or even looking for an entire apartment to lease, Facebook can be helpful. The Bolig Portal website is another easy place to find an apartment with no risk because property owners are screened before listing.

Finding a home to buy can be difficult as foreigners. We went through the process and it’s vastly different than in the States. The hardest aspect is finding a bank to lend you money as a foreigner. It’s also a requirement that the Danish Ministry of Justice signs off on your purchase if you have lived in Denmark for under five years. While it’s only a formality, this takes an extra week or so and costs about $350 in attorney fees.

Fitting in With Danish Culture

As our time in Denmark stretched on we bought into the cultural aspects. The people of Denmark are known for a minimalistic lifestyle, which we slowly bought into. We buy far less clothing and keep things simple with out home furnishings. 

Another aspect of life in Denmark is hygge  or coziness. It’s the idea of being comfortable and relaxed with friends, especially during the long, dark winters. We love this aspect of living in Copenhagen and enjoy nights hanging out with a few friends in someone’s home with drinks and board games.

Denmark is a much less materialistic and commercial society compared to America. It’s refreshing living in a country where we can’t buy anything we want at 3am by visiting a 24 hour Walmart. It took a little getting used to, but the lifestyle in Denmark is much preferred. 

How Life Has Changed Living in Copenhagen?

In Copenhagen life isn’t super different. Some little things have changed, for example, we cook more than we usually did in Philadelphia. This is because dining out is a little more expensive than in the States. We’ve also gotten used to the difference between American dining service and European dining service. In fact, we prefer the way things are here in Denmark, although it took some getting used to less attention from wait staff. It’s actually nice to enjoy a meal almost completely undisturbed.

In Denmark, it’s a society where you should avoid sticking out. This means dressing a little more plain – you see men in Denmark wearing mostly black all year. We don’t go quite as far, but we definitely wear less-flashy clothing. We’ve also gotten used to the avoidance of small talk and niceties. Danish society is unique, but it’s easy to fit in once you’re comfortable in it.

Other Copenhagen Expat Resources

Moving to Copenhagen didn’t come with an instruction manual, but there are a lot of resources that we found helpful along the way. Here’s are a few places to get more help along the way if you’re moving to Copenhagen. 

Facebook Groups: we joined a number of expat groups as soon as we decided to move over to Copenhagen. They helped tremendously as a place to find out all kinds of information from how to deal with a landlord to what grocery stores carry American foods. Some that are helpful include Americans in Denmark and Expats in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen International House: as mentioned above, the International House is a great resource for anyone moving to Copenhagen. You will likely have to go there for an initial appointment to get your CPR number processed and handle paperwork. They also have programming for foreigners in Copenhagen from job search programs to social gatherings.

MeetUp, InterNations and other Social Groups: Of course online groups are great for finding expat events and local social groups to join. Meetup and InterNations are two great sources for social events and other connections with people in Copenhagen.

Cost of Living in Copenhagen

restaurant copenhagen cost of living

Copenhagen is a notoriously expensive city in Europe. If you’re considering an expat assignment in the city, make sure to push for a significant COLA (cost of living adjustment). It’s the way to make sure that your salary keeps you to the same or a better standard of living. The cost of living in Copenhagen can slowly sneak up on you since you’re constantly calculating Danisk currency to Euro or USD. Here are some common costs to gauge your expenses with a Copenhagen cost of living. 

  • Monthly rent, 2 bedroom apartment: €2,000 or $2300
  • Cost of commute monthly (transit pass, car, etc): €53 or $62 with a monthly pass
  • Coffee from a local cafe: €5 or $6
  • Beer from a local bar: €6 or $7
  • Common take-away food (pizza, shawarma, noodles, etc): €12 or $14
  • Decent dinner for two (like for a birthday or if your mom is visiting): €115 or $125
  • Typical grocery bill for a week of shopping: €140 or $160

There are, of course, ways to keep your expenses down. Most people living in Copenhagen limit their expenses for dining out. The highest expenses for lodging and living expenses will be in the city center and decrease as you move out. You will also find that many Danes enjoy gathering at someone’s home instead of spending weekends at a bar or club. It’s not just a way to save money, but it fits in with normal Danish hygge culture.

Now You're Ready For Living in Copenhagen

Okay, so there’s more to it, but hopefully this post is a good start to prepare you for life in Copenhagen. Moving to Copenhagen is probably the best thing we ever did as individuals or a couple. We love our life in the city and as expats. It’s a wonderful community and if you’re lucky enough to become an expat in Copenhagen – make the most of it. I know we have!

If you’re moving to Copenhagen or have recently, please ask us anything! Expats help expats, so if we can save you some headaches along the way – please reach out in the comments or contact us on social media.

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Derek Hartman

Derek Hartman is an American expat from Philadelphia, currently living in Copenhagen, Denmark. His blog, Robe Trotting focuses on travel, expatriation and lifestyle topics.

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