Carlie: Welcome to another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. I’m your host, Carlie, an Australian living in France, and today on the show we’re talking about a country where the expat population is slowly but steadily on the rise: Estonia. My guest is Alina Akk, from expatinestonia.com. She’s Romanian, and this is her third year living and working in Estonia.
Alina’s going to give us the lowdown on three essentials: finding somewhere to live; learning Estonian; and finding a job in the country. If you have questions for Alina, or wanna share your own experiences, you can ask away in the Expat Focus Estonia forum at expatfocus.com, or, head to our facebook group.
Alina, just to start with, how did you come to be living in Estonia, and running your expatinestonia website?
Alina: Well, that’s actually quite a long story, it goes back about 8 years ago, when I moved from Bucharest, Romania, where I’m originally from, to Denmark. I went there to study, and that’s where I acquired my degrees, and that’s where I also worked for a while. But, most importantly, that’s where I met my now-husband, who is Estonian. So, to keep the long story short I would say that the reason why I moved to Estonia is love [laughs], so, we together decided that at some point it was time for new adventures, and no matter how much we loved living in Denmark we decided to give Estonia a shot, so we moved over here about 2 years ago.
And about my website, Expatinestonia, it all started actually with an Instagram page. It was used just for me and my friends, you know, to document my experience here as an expat in Estonia, and to show maybe my family and my friends what I’m up to. But then I was encouraged to start a website, and maybe help other expats like myself with some tips and tricks.
Carlie: I think you do that very well, your website is so informative. In your experience, is love what brings most expats to Estonia, or are there other reasons that foreigners move to Estonia?
Alina: If I think about other expats like myself, most of them have similar stories, and they moved here for, for their partner who is Estonian. But there are some other stories as well, such as purely work-related reasons. Tallinn is known as the Silicon Valley of Europe, to put it like that, the start-up environment is thriving, and companies here need a lot of talent from abroad. So, there’s lots of opportunity for expats to develop their careers here. So this is kind of a very good incentive for them to choose Estonia as, as their country. And besides that, I would say also studies. Estonia has quite a few good universities with interesting programmes, so I have quite a lot of friends who moved here to study.
Carlie: I was gonna say, I know a couple of things about Estonia. One being they have, I believe it’s like an e-passport programme or service, and that’s quite popular with entrepreneurs around the world, so you need to open foreign bank accounts, for example.
Alina: Yeah, the e-residency programme, this allows entrepreneurs from all over the world to be able to open bank accounts, yeah, exactly, and start their businesses, even if they are not physically here. So, it’s a really great opportunity.
Carlie: And, the other thing I found out about Estonia was actually through the Estonian wife of an Australian friend of mine, they live in Australia. And, she was saying, she was very confused when she came to Australia that you didn’t have to wear a reflector on yourself at night, like you must do in Estonia! And it took me a while to compute, you always have to wear a reflector, like, when, when it’s night time? But it makes actually a lot of sense.
Alina: Yeah, it does, actually, it saves lives. There are statistics on this, I don’t know the numbers exactly, but just this tiny little reflector that you put on your jacket when you go out at night really is very important to keep you safe.
Carlie: And you’re walking down a dark street or a dark road and, and people can see you! It’s, it’s brilliant! Such a good idea.
Alina: Yeah, it is indeed!
Carlie: So, Alina, how much did you actually know about Estonia before you moved? When you moved I, I suppose you were married, you had an Estonian husband, you’d visited a few times?
Alina: Yeah exactly. We actually visited Estonia quite a few times while we were expats in Denmark. So, I would say I had quite a good understanding of the Estonian life, the Estonian culture, I visited quite a few cities, and, you know, Estonia has simply conquered my heart, and I think that also helped me with my decision to move here permanently.
Carlie: Is there something that’s quintessentially Estonian that people may not realise?
Alina: I guess maybe going to sauna. Lots of people from abroad, or my friends from all over the world thought that this is a Finnish activity, and of course the Finnish sauna is well known all over the world. But, I would say that Estonians couldn’t really live without their sauna [laughs], it’s a really popular activity for families or friends together around at somebody’s place, because there is a sauna in almost every Estonian house, or apartment even. So, it’s a place where you kind of get naked of inhibitions, and you talk about life, it’s like a confession room really! So, I would say this is something truly quintessentially Estonian.
Carlie: I could deal with that, a sauna in my house! Just pop in whenever I, I feel like it, and chill out.
Alina: [laughs] Yeah. Actually, back home in Romania for example, my friends thought that this is, I don’t know, sauna is a spa activity, to put it like that. You go there to relax [unclear word 00:06:09], yeah.
Carlie: Yes. It’s very indulgent!
Alina: Exactly. But here it’s really not like that, it’s nothing fancy about it, it’s just a, it used to be actually a washing room back in the day, you know, in the old times, so this is how people washed themselves. So, it’s nothing fancy or spa-related, it’s just, it’s just a sauna.
Carlie: Very practical. Practical bathroom activity!
Alina: Yeah [laughs].
Carlie: Alina, today we’re gonna talk through three key essential areas for expats when it comes to living in Estonia, but it applies to any country really, and it’s really important topics to get your head around. And the first topic is of course housing. You’ve just told me that saunas are, are quite popular. What else is typical for an Estonian home, and how do you go about finding one to rent or to buy when you first move to Estonia?
Alina: Well, that’s a very good question. It of course depends who we’re talking about, are we talking about a family with kids, or a young couple, or a student? But, I would say that there are two options to go about it, either you want to buy an apartment or a house. Houses are more common somewhere in the suburbs of the city, for example. For instance, we bought a house ourself in the suburbs, but the cool thing about it is that the infrastructure is really really good, so these neighbourhoods around Tallinn are really well done, you have schools, you have kindergartens around, you have hospitals, stores, and even with all these things, if you really want to go to Tallinn, it takes 20 minutes from anywhere to anywhere, Tallinn is so small, and Estonia is so small as a country, it’s really cosy and you can navigate very fast and easily.
But if you would like to rent an apartment for example, or even to buy an apartment in the city, that’s also an option. Of course for a student, maybe it’s a better kind of deal to live close to the centre of the city, you know, close to maybe universities or the nightlife, even. So, it really depends who you are and what you’re searching for, there are options for, for anyone.
Carlie: It’s good to know that you don’t have to compromise location for space, if you do want a house over an apartment for example in Tallinn.
Alina: Mm-hmm, absolutely.
Carlie: And so what is in a typical Estonian house? Are you talking a few bedrooms, a garden?
Alina: Well, I think it’s more common to live in an apartment than in a house at the moment. But, I dunno, for families I would still say that it’s a house with three bedrooms, small garden. Estonian people really like to plant their own herbs, for example, or a couple of vegetables, so, for most of them it’s important to have even a small garden around. Nothing special, just cosy.
Carlie: And don’t forget the sauna! [laughs]
Alina: Oh yeah! Absolutely, don’t forget the sauna! Every house has a sauna, and even some apartments have saunas.
Carlie: What common mistakes have you seen expats make, or maybe you’ve made yourself, when it comes to securing a rental in Estonia?
Alina: Thinking about my story, you know, when I moved here from Denmark, I thought it’s going to be so easy and fast to find a place, because in Denmark it’s really crazy, it’s very difficult to find a place and it’s so expensive.
Carlie: And you have the benefit of an Estonian husband as well, so you had that insider knowledge.
Alina: Yeah, absolutely! But even with the insider knowledge it was really quite difficult, because, there are a couple of portals where you can search for apartments that are put to rent, or even to be sold, of course, or houses.
At that time we were searching for an apartment to rent. But the problem was that all the good ones were being booked right away, they, they went up and then maybe 5 to 10 minutes later, when we called the owner, the answer was that the apartment is gone, it just went away so quickly.
And also, I would say that expats have to be aware of the fact that they should consider a broker fee. They should consider a one month deposit that they have to prepay, as well as one month of rent as a prepayment, to put it like that. So, technically it’s about three months that you have to be able to pay up front.
And, another mistake, I would say, is related to choosing an apartment in an older building. It’s quite common that these apartments have a cheaper rent. They have a very good location in the city centre, but the problem with this is that the utility costs go really high during winter, and of course Estonia is a cold country, and we need all the heat we can get in our homes during winter. So, it just becomes too expensive, it doesn’t make any sense to pay so much money for utilities, because you’re living in an older building.
Carlie: So what you might be saving in rent, you’re, you’re paying just in higher bill costs?
Alina: Absolutely, yeah. And, I dunno, at least for myself, I would rather pay more for the rent to live in a maybe newer place, or a little bit bigger place, than to spend all this money on utilities, on expensive utilities.
Carlie: What’s the average rent in Estonia like, compared to, say, when you were living in Denmark?
Alina: Mm. Well, of course Denmark is a very expensive country, salaries are also different than in Estonia. So, I would say in Estonia prices are a little bit [laughs] cheaper than in Denmark, but, however, if I have to compare everything, you know, the salaries and prices, the expenses and all that for all countries, I would say that Estonia is not really so much cheaper than Denmark.
Carlie: Is it manageable if you’re a student, for example, or on a single income in Estonia, to live somewhere quite decent, not paying through the nose in rent?
Alina: Yeah, I think so. I think in Denmark that would be a little bit more difficult. In Denmark it’s more common to share a place with a lot of other students. But I think in Estonia it’s a little bit easier to manage on your own.
Carlie: And when it comes to looking at housing listings, I know here in France it’s quite common for locals to use a buy, swap and sell site to list their homes for rent, or for a sale, and bypass real estate agents and the fees involved, basically. Is it a similar culture in Estonia, that people don’t always necessarily advertise their homes through estate agents?
Alina: Yes, absolutely. They also want to avoid such fees, and, the people who want to rent a house, or the apartment, want to avoid the fees as well, so it’s kind of a win-win situation here. There are quite a few Facebook groups, for example, where people advertise their properties. So, they avoid the fees, and they are quite popular.
Carlie: OK, so another essential when you’re moving to Estonia is of course the language. And it’s a biggie in any country that you move to, but I imagine especially there, because Estonian isn’t a language that’s spoken throughout the world very commonly. What makes Estonian especially tricky to learn?
Alina: [laughs] This has been one of my personal challenges, I decided that when I will move here to Estonia I will focus on learning the language. I haven’t mastered it yet. But I’m still trying! So, I haven’t given up yet. But indeed it is a very difficult language to learn, I think the grammar makes it really tricky to learn. They have about 14 cases, as opposed to four or five in other languages. So, I think the grammar is what makes it tricky to learn. The pronunciation is fairly easy, there are certain rules like there are in German, for example, so, once you know them it’s quite easy to learn to read Estonian, but the grammar, it’s killing me! [laughs]
Carlie: Have you had any advantage, Alina, being Romanian, and I assume having picked up a bit of Danish while you lived there, and then also knowing English? Do you think that that’s helped you at all in learning Estonian?
Alina: Actually not, not really, unfortunately. Romanian is a Latin language, so for Romanians it’s fairly easy to learn Spanish, Italian, French. But Estonian, it, it has nothing to do with Latin musical languages actually. It’s part of the Finno-Ugric chain of languages, so it’s similar to Finnish and Hungarian. And yeah, unfortunately I have no advantage, it’s quite difficult [laughs].
Carlie: So how are you approaching, yourself, learning Estonian?
Alina: To be fairly honest with you, I could do better. But what I do for now is basically following a language learning app, it’s called Speakly. I follow the programme, so I do a couple of language exercises for about 15 minutes to half an hour every day, or at least I’m trying to do them every day. I’m trying to read the news in Estonian, and I also try to have some kind of basic conversation with my husband, or with my work colleagues, you know, in order to practise. But this year I made it a New Year resolution for myself, to get better at Estonian, and to spend more time learning it, and I’m doing some research right now, I would like to find a course. I haven’t found an ideal one yet, but I am certain that I will find one.
Carlie: Are there many courses available?
Alina: There are a couple, yes. It was fairly easy to find some of them, I think the government is also doing a really great job trying to integrate expats. And they are also free of charge. Of course, they say that the spots are limited. So, you have to be really fast in securing your place in such a course. They are also open twice a year, once in the beginning of the year, so now in January, and then in September I guess, when a lot of students come to Estonia to start university.
Carlie: How easy is it to get by in Estonia with just English?
Alina: I’d say it’s fairly easy. When I moved here, actually, they said that everyone speaks English, and, to be honest I tend to disagree. I felt that in Denmark, but in Estonia I wouldn’t say it’s really like that, I’ve had situations where I really had to push myself to say things in Estonian, because there was no other choice. But, I think you can definitely get by. You don’t need to know Estonian to find a job, for example. There are lots of opportunities in English. Yeah, if you just want to live here for a couple of years, I think it’s fine to maybe tackle the basics of Estonian, you know, just to be able to say hello, how are you, thank you, and such terms. But, if you plan to live here for longer than a couple of years, or maybe to live here for good, I think it’s definitely important to learn the language, and this applies to any other country, not just Estonia.
Carlie: Do they translate signs and menus and that sort of thing around the city in any other languages?
Alina: Yes, they do. Estonia has quite a fair share of Russian-speaking people, and even at the cinema when you go, the subtitles are, well, the sound is in English, but the sub-titles are in Estonian and in Russian. It’s really common that people speak three languages here, Estonian, Russian and English. So menus and signs and stuff like that are generally translated to two languages, yeah.
Carlie: It always blows my tiny mind, coming from Australia where we don’t have such an emphasis on languages, unless it’s part of your personal family make-up, I suppose, and we’re getting better all the time, but we still don’t prioritise accommodating people and other languages. So, I’m always so impressed with especially European countries, and how much they accommodate other cultures.
Alina: Yeah, actually, that’s a very good point, and especially in Estonia, I think it’s really mind-blowing that people speak three languages, and fluently! It’s absolutely amazing. And they are also willing to provide information in these different languages, so that everyone can feel welcome.
Carlie: You mentioned earlier that it is possible to work in Estonia in English, and that brings us to our final topic of finding a job in Estonia. It’s not necessarily an impossible task as a foreigner to find work?
Alina: No, definitely, I wouldn’t even say, I wouldn’t even phrase it like that, I would say it’s really easy to find a job in English. I also work in English, I think I would never work in any other language, because after living abroad for so long I don’t feel 100% comfortable any more working in Romanian, for example. I don’t think I will ever master Estonian to that level where I could be working solely in Estonian, so, I, I’m definitely interested in working in English only, and I have worked for two companies now, and both of them have their corporate language, English. I have lots of friends, even Estonian friends, who work in English, so it’s definitely easy to find a job in English, plus Estonia is so small, and as I mentioned earlier, companies are really lacking talent, and they are willing to recruit from abroad, and that means that the corporate language has to be English.
Carlie: So what are the main jobs areas that expats go into when they move to Estonia to work?
Alina: I definitely say tech. There is a lot of need for engineering talent. Developers are really sought after. But, I wouldn’t limit it to that. I think there are lots of areas where anyone could find a job, you know, from marketing, to sales, to real estate, to, even other jobs, it’s quite common for example to move here to Estonia to work in the building industry. It’s a pretty big industry here as well, so lots of builders are needed, electricians, so it really varies.
Carlie: When it comes to finding a job, I know for example I spoke to a careers coach, Kerry-Anne, a few weeks ago, about, ironically, finding a job in Denmark! And she said, when it comes to applications in Denmark, you’re expected to get a little personal about yourself, and to not be so formal in your cover letter, for example. What’s unique about how you apply for a job in Estonia?
Alina: I would say that in Estonia things are moving away from the traditional CV and cover letter type of application. Talking about the start-up world, I think there is an Estonian start-up which is basically a secret recruitment app, and basically you can make a profile there. Companies also advertise their jobs over there. And you are simply put in touch with the recruiter. So you start a chat, you talk about yourself, there is no cover letter or CV involved there, unless it’s requested of course. So it’s also quite informal.
And, I think the personal touch works very well here in Estonia as well. So it’s not only about the skills, it’s not only about what you can do, but it’s also about who you are, and what kind of character you bring to the team. Having a really nice team with really good vibes is very important for Estonian recruiters, so that’s why I think the personal touch is very important here as well.
Carlie: Are you expected to have a jobs profile in Estonian as well as English?
Alina: No, I don’t think so. Or, at least not to my knowledge. I only had my job profile in English, my LinkedIn profile is in English. So, I think it’s, I think it would be even a little bit misleading if you would have your job profile in Estonian, because that kind of, I mean, as a recruiter, I would assume that you speak Estonian. So, I don’t see the value in that, I think English is just fine.
Carlie: So you mention LinkedIn, and this secret jobs app that’s becoming very popular. What other jobs portals do people typically go to when they’re looking for work in Estonia?
Alina: Of course there are the traditional ones as well, there are two main portals, one of them is called cv.ee – very creative, I know! [laughs] And, the other one, it’s cvkeskus.ee. These are basically databases of available jobs, and you can just, you know, insert the area that you are interested in, for example let’s say marketing, then the location, let’s say Tallinn, and then you will get the list of available jobs. You can also filter of course by language, so, it’s quite easy. But these are more traditional ones. Then you will have to apply with a cover letter, with your CV, and you know, wait to see whether you pass the screening process, and if you are invited to an interview in town.
Carlie: You mentioned that Estonia is very focused on attracting talent. Does that mean that they’re very open to helping international applicants when it comes to securing work visas, for example?
Alina: Yes, I think so. There are quite a few places dedicated to helping expats, you know, to figure out their visas and their residence permit, and so on. Work in Estonia is also an organisation that is really focused on bringing talent from abroad and helping them with all the necessary bureaucracy. But there’s nothing really too complicated, so, it’s fairly easy to do things digitally here in Estonia.
Carlie: Yes, I have read that they’re quite a digital-savvy country, and you can do so much online.
Alina: Absolutely, yeah. Actually that’s one of my favourite things about Estonia. Even when we bought the house, everything basically happened online except for one signature in front of the notary. They say that you can do anything online except getting married and buying a house! So, you can imagine how convenient things are here, for me it was mind-blowing in the beginning. I, I was shocked, it’s amazing!
Carlie: Hearing this from France, where there is so much paperwork involved in every little thing you have to do, that is just a dream, to be able to live in a country where everything is just so streamlined and organised! [laughs]
Alina: Yeah, absolutely, I, and I really appreciate it. I was actually talking to an Estonian friend of mine earlier, and she was saying that yeah, that’s actually true, it’s really convenient, but you see we kind of take things for granted here in Estonia, so, yeah, for me it’s also really impressive. If I compare this to Romania, for example, there is a huge difference, and even in Denmark there are a lot of things that involve quite a certain level of bureaucracy. But here things are very streamlined and smooth.
Carlie: Alina, when you moved to Estonia you had the benefit of your husband and his family, and I suppose his friends network, as a ready-made community I guess for yourself to be welcomed into, and connect with. Have you also connected with other expats since you’ve been in Estonia?
Alina: Yeah, absolutely. Well, first of all I had a couple of Estonian friends from Denmark, they were studying there together. So, I also had them as a base besides my husband’s friends and family. But, there were also quite a few expats in my first workplace here in Estonia, and now in my second one. So, I do have a couple of friends from all over the world who are living here in Estonia, for example the US, Spain, Italy, Germany, Montenegro even. Really from all over the world, and I think it’s really cool to see that the Estonian community’s getting stronger and stronger. Of course it’s not as large as it was in Denmark, but I think more and more expats are choosing Estonia.
Carlie: And finally, what do you love most about living in Estonia?
Alina: Well, I’d have to go with the digitalisation, and the fact that things are so smooth and so streamlined here. Because this is really mind-blowing to me. But, we’ve already talked about that, so I’m going to go a little bit more light-hearted, and talk about the fact that we have the four seasons here in Estonia, you can really feel the warmth of the summer, then you have the really beautiful autumn with a million colours, then the winter is really amazing, it’s like a winter wonderland. I’m not a huge fan of the cold weather myself, to be honest, but I’ve learned to appreciate it, and I kind of find some activities that could be enjoyed in the snow, for example.
And spring as well is absolutely stunning when the nature comes back to life. So, I think it’s really really nice to be able to experience the four seasons. In Denmark things were a little bit greyer, but, that’s not to say Denmark was not a beautiful country, of course, it’s just that I really appreciate the four seasons here in Estonia. Yeah.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. Don’t forget, you can join the conversation about life in Estonia by following the links at expatfocus.com. You can also go there, or your favourite podcasting app, to listen to more Expat Focus podcast episodes, about all aspects of life abroad. From having a baby in the Netherlands, to starting a business in France, or retiring to Hong Kong, just to name a few. If you like what we do, please leave us a review, and I’ll catch you next time.