Stories about life in Denmark

Moving to Denmark, a Guide for Americans fleeing President Trump

Moving to Denmark as an American has become a hot topic since Donald Trump began his run for President. Now that he appears to have won, I expect to hear even more from Americans interested in immigration to Denmark.

Since I’m selling a book called How to Live in Denmark, you’d think I would encourage as many Americans as possible to look into Denmark immigration.

But moving to Denmark with a U.S. passport isn’t as easy as just buying a plane ticket and a lot of sweaters.

No visa-free resettlement
While being an American citizen offers a remarkable right to visa-free travel, it doesn’t provide for visa-free resettlement. As citizens of a non-EU country, Americans are legally on the same footing as someone from China, India, or the Ivory Coast when it comes to moving to Denmark.

(If you do have an EU passport, or can get one through a job or a relative, much of what I’m about to say does not apply to you.)

There are basically three ways for Americans to move to Denmark: as a student, as a worker, or as the partner of a Dane. Seeking asylum as a refugee, the other way non-EU citizens resettle in Denmark, is not available to Americans – no matter what you think of Mr. Trump.

Moving to Denmark as a student
Moving to Denmark as a student is my usual recommendation for Americans of any age. Student visas are easier to get than any other kind of visa, and living for a semester or two in Denmark gives you the opportunity to see if you like the lifestyle and can handle the ugly winter weather and long hours of darkness.

It’s also a good way to build up the kind of network you’ll need for jobhunting, and provides time to wrestle with the challenges of the Danish language.

That said, the ‘free’ college promised in Bernie Sanders speeches is not ‘free’ for you as a non-EU citizen – you’ll have to pay tuition of around USD2000 per course, plus your living expenses, which are substantial in Denmark.

Actually, university in Denmark is not ‘free’ for anyone – it’s financed by punishing taxes, and not just taxes on rich people. A person making $30,000 a year has an income tax rate of about 32% in Denmark, compared to about 15% in the US. There is also a 25% sales tax on almost everything you buy, plus an extra 150% tax on new cars.

The good news is that with a student visa, you’ll have the right to work a certain number of hours to help support yourself in Denmark – and start paying Danish taxes right away.

(Heads up: you’ll also have to file American taxes as long as you retain your American citizenship.)

Moving to Denmark as a worker
Moving to Denmark with the plan of getting a job is a little trickier.

Any company that hires a non-EU citizen has to go through a long song and dance with Denmark’s notoriously Byzantine Udlændingstyrelsen, or “Foreigners Directorate.”

Companies are sometimes willing to do this for people who have skills that are in high demand in Denmark, usually in the technology, engineering, or medical fields. And very large companies like Maersk and Novo have HR departments that can handle visa applications with ease.

Smaller companies, however, will probably flinch at hiring someone who needs help getting a working visa, particularly since the rules for doing so seem to change constantly.

In fact, they’re getting tighter all the time, largely because Denmark has its own version of Donald Trump, the Danske Folkeparti, or Danish People’s Party. It’s the second largest party in Denmark and hostility to most forms of immigration is a cornerstone of their platform.

(Recently the DF has been in trouble because of a corruption scandal, but an even more right wing party, the New Conservatives, has risen up to take its place. Interestingly, both the DF in its prime and the New Conservatives now are lead by women.)

Not speaking Danish limits your job possiblities
Not speaking Danish is a major handicap to employment in Denmark. It pretty much counts you out for any kind of government job, which account 40% of all full-time jobs in Denmark.

The government supplies free Danish courses to anyone with an approved residence visa, but even with full-time study it will take you at least a couple of years to feel comfortable speaking Danish.

Although English is Denmark’s de facto second language, just speaking English is not enough to get you a job. Danes speak excellent English.

Perhaps if you are an expert in linguistics there might be a role for you at a Danish university, or a job for you in advertising if you can demonstrate a long career as a copywriter. Even then, you’ll have to face competition from EU residents who don’t have visa hassles.

Bottom line: Moving to Denmark by finding a job in Denmark will be tricky, although it helps if you have special skills that EU passport holders don’t.

Engineers and IT wizards have the best chance for Danish working visas.

Moving to Denmark by marrying a Dane
“Did you move to Denmark because you fell in love with a Dane?” I still get asked that question.

It seems many foreigners are in Denmark because they met an attractive Dane on vacation somewhere in the world and decided to start a family and raise children in Denmark. Denmark is a child-friendly society that is a great place for kids to grow up.

The good news is that when it comes to bringing a partner to Denmark, Danish rules are color-blind and gender-blind. No matter what type of person you fall in love with, the rules are the same.

The bad news is, the rules are strict and getting stricter. At the moment, both you and your partner must be at least 24 years old. Your partner must have his or her own home large enough for both of you to live in. He or she must also be able to put down a deposit of about US$8000 with the government to prove that she or he is able to support you.

You’ll also need to pass a Danish language test within 6 months of arriving in Denmark.

Custody laws in Denmark are tough
If you are considering moving to Denmark to start a family, keep in mind that local custody laws make it virtually impossible to take your children out of Denmark without your spouse’s permission.

(I meet a lot of broken-hearted divorced Dads sentenced to 18 or more years of career-on-ice in Denmark because their kids are here.)

Plus, simply having Danish children doesn’t guarantee you the right to live and work here – so could quite possibly find yourself thrown out of Denmark while your children remain with their other parent.

Moving to Denmark can be a difficult transition
Even when the official permissions fall into place, moving to Denmark as an American is not always an easy transition.

Your dollar-based savings will not go as far as they might other places in the world, and while you’ll be eligible for tax-financed Danish government services such as ‘free’ health care and ‘free’ university, you may have to accept a slightly less fancy standard of living.

People generally have less space here than in a spread-out country like the USA. Depending on where you settle in Denmark, you may have to downsize from a house to an apartment, or from an apartment to a room in an apartment.

A family that might have 2 or 3 cars in the U.S. will probably have one or none in Denmark. In Copenhagen, many families rely on bicycles and buses. Many locals don’t bother to get drivers’ licenses.

Fewer restaurant meals
Stay-at-home parents are unusual in Denmark, where the idea is that everyone who can work outside the home should do so, and children usually begin government-run day care when they are about a year old. Besides, the high income tax rates (up to 57% for earned income over US$65,000) make it difficult for one person to support a family.

Family meals at restaurants are unusual and are mostly saved for special occasions like birthdays, particularly outside of Copenhagen. Single people and couples do hit the dining scene more often, but usually no more than once a week, since high Danish wages make eating out expensive. In general, people cook for themselves at home, particularly in the winter.

(A personal note: I live in Denmark and make what would be considered a high-end income in the USA, but I share a one-bedroom apartment with my daughter, we have no car, and we rarely dine out or eat takeout food. My tax burden is around 45% of my income, not counting the 25% sales taxes on most things that I purchase.)

Good things about moving to Denmark
Still, Denmark has a lot to recommend it.

The pace of life is slower and less intense here, and people in general have a better work-life balance. Work begins at 8 and ends at 4 sharp, with no long lunches – Danes are focused.

Most jobs provide for six weeks of vacation per year, and you are not expected to be on call or answer emails during that time off.

And the Danish social safety net provides some relief when you are pregnant, sick, or unemployed.

The idea behind the safety net, however, is that people should pay into it before they begin taking out of it. The sense among Danes that some immigrants were not doing so is the reason Denmark immigration laws have become so harsh.

John F. Kennedy, generally a hero to the kind of Americans who detest Donald Trump, said it this way: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

If you’re thinking of making Denmark your country, what can you do for Denmark?


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Moving to Denmark

Want to read more? Try the How to Live in Denmark book, available in paperback or eBook editions, and in English, Chinese, and Arabic. If you represent a company or organization, you can also book Kay Xander Mellish to stage a How to Live in Denmark event tailored for you, including the popular How to Live in Denmark Game Show. Kay stages occasional free public events too. Follow our How to Live in Denmark Facebook page to keep informed.

Photo credit: Creative Commons

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  • Reply Lars Kjaergaard November 9, 2016 at 10:02 pm

    But do not forget: we have a big ethnocentric right wing party and our gowerment is based on their mandates. So if you want to leave Trump you will come to a whole party of Trumps. Nothing to burst about. Maybe also Sanders forgot that..

  • Reply Christa November 10, 2016 at 5:08 am

    Thank you for this wonderful post, it was just what I needed. As an American I’m making plans to move out of the country to find a better place to raise our daughter. I have a question: when you mention “government-run daycare” is this a free service or paid by the parents? The reason I chose to be a stay-at-home mother in the US was because paying $800 per month in daycare was just not worth it for us

    • Reply Kay Xander Mellish November 10, 2016 at 5:43 am

      The cost of under-3 daycare in Denmark depends on the municipality – in Copenhagen, it is DK3483 per month with hot lunch and DK2868 without lunch. It might be cheaper in some of the countryside municipalities – look up the name of the town and then “vuggestue pris.” Reduced prices are available based on family income.

      • Reply Leif Arildsen November 10, 2016 at 3:46 pm

        Outside Copenhagen you do not necessarily have to send you child to “vuggestue”.
        There are several options to have your child in daycare in a private home, cheaper than “vuggestue” but still controlled by the government.

        • Reply Kay Xander Mellish November 11, 2016 at 6:19 am

          Leif is right, and actually this “dagpleje” system is also available within Copenhagen. But in many countries, it is common for one parent (not always the woman) to stay home with the children until they are school age. This is difficult in Denmark due to the tax system. Full-time nannies are also uncommon, although wealthy families sometimes hire an au pair.

    • Reply Magnus Ø Heinesen November 10, 2016 at 1:25 pm

      If you need help finding the price, I’d gladly help you out.

  • Reply Stefano Borini November 10, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    I lived there 5 years. I’m glad I left. Oppressive State, asocial people with no empathy, low salaries, insane prices. The worst mistake of my career.

    • Reply Anders Wenzel Kyhl November 11, 2016 at 9:22 am

      I guess you hooked up with the wrong crowd! What you are decribing, does not sound like the Denmark I know and love!

    • Reply Autum Bredmose November 30, 2016 at 11:16 pm

      You are absolutely correct. If you come to Denmark as an outsider and don’t have an “in” with someone, you will be scrutinized and shunned. Danes do NOT like new people coming into their midst unless you are introduced by someone they know. I am married to a Dane, I have been to Denmark at least 6 times for extended periods of time. Danes in their homes are wonderful and warm people. Danes in public however, are rude and VERY judging. As an overweight female American, I was looked at like a I was a monster. If you don’t dress in clothes that are stylish (in Denmark) for the moment, don’t go out, for real. You will get looks like you wouldn’t believe, and people blatantly talking about you. Danes in stores don’t say excuse me (undskyld mig) and will cut in front of you in the store. They will forcibly push you out of the way. My husband is the ONLY person in Denmark I witnessed holding a door for someone. You hear about Denmark being this wonderful place, and it is, if you live there and were born there. Danish society as a whole are like sheep, and one out of the flock is not welcome. The Danish person is nice, but Danish people, in groups, left a very very bad taste in my mouth.

  • Reply Kasper Hermansen November 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    An advice i would give is to live in a smaller city or area. Areas like Copenhagen are extremely expensive, for danish standards that is. If you choose to move to a less central and populated area, you can get fairly cheap housing and as Denmark is really small it is easy to drive to the locations you want. It is common for students to get an apartment in the big cities (Again, danish standards). However it is really common for parents to move to a suburb of either Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense or Aalborg. Housing pricing are reasonable and the options for daycare are excellent, many excellent schools also exist in these small cities and it’s easy to take the bus to the city. Nearly every suburb has fairly decent day to day shopping options, while you normally have to go to the bigger cities to find a butcher or a decent restaurant. It’s kind of hard to find good and cheap restaurant in Denmark, however there are many excellent finds in the cities, most of them aren’t that expensive either, A good advice for a cheap but decent meal is to go to the outer parts of the central cities and find restaurant with a nice ambiance. The danish cuisine isn’t that excellent i Denmark (for foreigners), however we have a lot of options for Italian, Chinese, American etc. It’s all about knowing where to go. If you are an american wanting to go to Denmark, if you will find a severe lack of fast food chains, in Denmark we mostly eat McDonald’s and they are everywhere in the cities. However, we really lack diversity, there are a few dominoes, and burger kings. But, they are really scarce, instead we have something like sunset boulevard which makes fantastic sandwiches and burgers =D.

    And remember as long as you can speak english, most Danes will show great hospitality to you. Although, most will get offended if haven’t even tried to learn the language when you’ve lived here a few years.

    Sincerely, Kasper

    I apologise for any grammar mistakes.

  • Reply Mike November 13, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    What about people born in Canada who are of Danish descent? My parents are from Denmark and I live close to the US. A nuclear fallout would take longer to reach Denmark than Canada 🙂

    • Reply Kevin November 17, 2016 at 8:24 am

      Mike, what exactly do you mean with the nuclear fallout? – Canada is met with the same immigration rules as the US of A.

      Only citizens of EU countries have benefits in our immigration system. 🙂

      • Reply Kay Xander Mellish November 17, 2016 at 8:27 am

        He seems to believe there will be a nuclear attack on the US and that he would be safer in Denmark. Clearly he doesn’t know how close Barsebäcksverket is to Denmark.

  • Reply Michelle Lassen November 21, 2016 at 12:27 am

    I hope someone can help enlighten me a little more since I’m having some trouble finding information. I’m looking into living abroad and Denmark really interests me. Is it difficult to find a job in the medical field over there? I’m a x-ray tech here in the states, but I have no clue what the job market is like and if I would be able to support myself. Thank you!

    P.S. While I strongly dislike Trump, he’s not the motivator for me wanting to move. I would like to see more of the world and experience life outside of the US. Any suggestions/tips you have for me would be great!

    • Reply Erling Lorentsen November 22, 2016 at 9:11 am

      Well – I do know that there is a shortage of doctors in the more scarcely populated parts of the country. It’s been discussed in the media. On the other hand the city hospitals have been laying off support staff as a result of budget cuts. Mainly on the low education jobs such as cleaning. I don’t have any personal knowledge though.
      Greenland is always short on well educated medical staff so that might be an option. BUT – you’ll have to learn the local lingo. Danish – that is. Adding a lot of medical/technical terms won’t make it any easier.
      Best of luck.

  • Reply Susie December 11, 2016 at 9:06 pm

    My husband and young son are Danish citizens and I am an American. We three live in the US but we would like to try a year in Denmark to see how we all like it. Would I need to apply for a residence visa before we go, even if our intention is just to try living in Denmark, not the intention of definitely moving to Denmark. Or, would I go on a tourist visa, then apply for residency once we are in Denmark. My son is 10 and though we spend every summer in Denmark, and he speaks fluent Danish, we want to try enrolling him in school in Denmark for one year, with my husband working, and me studying Danish. Thanks in advance for the help…

    • Reply Kay Xander Mellish December 12, 2016 at 6:41 am

      I’m not an official source – check the official government site – but keep in mind that the Danish government has some onerous requirements for spouses of Danes if they hope to live in Denmark legally. The rules were originally designed to reduce forced marriages among “nydansker” – Turkish, Arabic and Somali immigrants whose Danish-raised daughters and sons were under severe family pressure to marry a cousin imported from the old country – but in practice, it means that just being married to a Dane (or having a child with a Danish passport) does not allow you to reside in Denmark. You will have to “earn” it with language classes and a long list of other requirements. Also, keep in mind that if your husband and child decide they want to stay in Denmark and you cannot, you will be powerless in custody terms when it comes to the Danish legal system.

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