Iceland has a low unemployment rate and a highly educated national job force, so while it’s difficult to find jobs in Iceland, it’s highly worthwhile. Iceland is one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of access to health care, education, clean water, and energy, and it is cutting edge in the development of geothermal energy. It’s a safe and comfortable place to gain international experience in most fields, especially for workers with computer and high-tech skills. Though Iceland’s economy suffered when its banking system crashed in 2008, it has largely recovered and is a place of prosperity and low unemployment today.
Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world, and at about 120,000 people it is the only thing that resembles a major metropolitan area in Iceland. Reykjavik is where most international workers find jobs in Iceland. Software and IT developers are always in demand, and there are jobs in the hospitality and tourism industries, especially for workers who speak multiple languages and have mastered at least a smattering of Icelandic.
It’s a compact city, painted in bright colors that offset the often-bleak weather. Relatively quiet during the workweek, chaos breaks loose on the weekends, with the runtur, a pub crawl that draws tourists, students, and natives alike. It centers on downtown’s main drag, Laugavegur Street, which turns into an impromptu music, arts, and food festival. Reykjavik is the jump-off point for everywhere else on the island and has become an international conference center by selling its location between North America and Europe.
The second-largest city in the country, Kópavogur, at about 31,000 is basically a suburb of Reykjavik. It is at least slightly less expensive to live in than Reykjavik though, making it a good place to commute from, but available jobs in Kópavogur are at the low end of the salary spectrum -- child care, work in hotels and inns, or in retail (Kópavogur happens to be the home of Iceland’s largest shopping mall).
Akureyri, on the north coast, has a population of about 17,000. It sits in a deep fjord, and because its harbor stays ice free, it is a center for the country’s fishing industry. It’s also a big tourism draw for skiers, fishers, and whale watchers. Most of the work in Akureyri is seasonal -- twenty percent of the workforce is in the service industry -- primarily catering to tourists. Cruise ships stop there in the summer, and there is also seasonal work in fish processing plants.
It isn’t necessary to speak Icelandic to live and work in Iceland – English is almost universally spoken, and many people also speak Danish. However, if you are fluent in Icelandic, you will find a wider selection of better-paying job opportunities in Iceland. Since English is widely spoken and taught in schools, there is not a huge market for English teachers or tutors, though some teaching opportunities do exist. There is a market for employees with highly technical and specific skills instead, like those relating to geothermal energy, in which Iceland leads the world in development. In Reykjavik especially, software developers and IT specialist are also in demand.
Otherwise, the best place to get a foothold in the job market of Iceland is in tourism, and much of that, too, is based out of Reykjavik. As fishing has declined with a share of the economy, tourism has grown, though there are still some seasonal fishing job opportunities in Iceland. In the last decade the number of tourists visiting Iceland has increased about six percent per year. Most of the jobs in the tourism industry are seasonal, from May to October. There are opportunities to work in restaurants, hotels, or bars, or you may find positions as excursion leaders, wilderness guides, or sales and promotional agents.
Iceland’s currency is the Icelandic Krona. Healthcare is relatively inexpensive in Iceland, but it’s about the only thing that is. The standard of living is high, and so are prices and taxes. Fresh food, drinks (especially alcohol), and gasoline are expensive. Salaries vary widely according to skill level, but budgeting for food and housing on a part-time or entry level job will most definitely be tricky.
As always, exchange rates vary, but generally one U.S. dollar converts to 120 to 125 Icelandic Kronas. There is no minimum wage for jobs in Iceland, salaries are set by negotiated wage contracts, but the average worker’s salary is about $3,950 a month. Salary is based on skill level, experience, and the specific profession.
There are plenty of housing options in Reykjavik, but none are all that cheap. In smaller cities, there are fewer options, but most towns have guesthouses, hostels, or small hotels for visitors. Except in Reykjavik, rentals are scarce throughout Iceland. Overall, about 75 percent of the housing in Iceland is privately owned, so foreign workers outside of Reykjavik often rely on renting rooms or small apartments in private homes. However, most individuals start in hostels or long-term guesthouses.
Employers that desire workers whose skills are deemed in great demand -- generally high-tech, scientific, research, or computer-oriented -- will often help international workers with the visa process and housing search.
Visas are required to live and work in Iceland on a case-by-case basis, considering the individual’s country of origin. Although, visas are not required for citizens of most European countries and the U.S. Citizens. Citizens of other Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, can move to Iceland and work without a visa or work permit. Citizens of the other 29 European Economic Area countries plus Switzerland can move to Iceland for up to six months while seeking employment. Otherwise, while getting a work permit won’t be too difficult, searching for a job in Iceland might be. It’s best to have a job lined up before traveling to Iceland.
- Expensive & Difficult Quality of Life. Iceland has some of the most rugged and beautiful scenery in the world, one of the highest standards of living in the world, and one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. But the weather is often challenging, winters are long, cold and dark, the taxes are high, and most employment is filled by natives or citizens of other Nordic countries. Working in Iceland can be isolating. The population is less than 325,000 and most of that is in Reykjavik. Therefore social opportunities are sometimes sparse and the population, though tolerant, is not diverse.
- Multiple Industry Leader. Since Iceland and its work force are both small, independence in the workplace is valued. Original ideas are less likely to get lost in a bureaucratic shuffle, and projects move forward quickly. Due to its isolation, and in response to its recent banking crisis and dependence on just a few industries, Iceland is in the process of reinventing itself as a leader in clean energy, software, and computer development, and as an international conference center. Iceland places a great value on forward-thinking workers.