Carlie: Hey there. It’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast.
The Netherlands is well known for its great work-life balance, its cycling culture, tulip fields … there’s a few more clichés I could mention here too. But did you know it’s also a bit of an expat’s dream when it comes to making your move to a new country and settling in?
My guests in this episode are Sharon and Gladys from Rotterdam Partners and the Rotterdam Expat Center. This and other centers like it in cities across the Netherlands are taking so much stress and hassle out of the life set-up process for new arrivals. The ladies are going to explain how they help, and provide a few tips for those who are going to be making the move.
Sharon, let’s talk to you first. So, you’re an expat yourself and you moved 17 years ago. What brought you to the Netherlands?
Sharon: So, originally, I met a Dutchman [chuckles] while living in the UK, and that was my first introduction to a visit to the city of Rotterdam. And after commuting for around about 18 months, I decided that the Netherlands was a really interesting opportunity in terms of moving from my career and at the same being able to live in the same country as my boyfriend.
Carlie: And 17 years ago, when you moved or when you first started looking at moving to the Netherlands, what was available to you in terms of support, to make that move and to make that transition from the UK?
Sharon: Well, at the time, I wouldn’t say there was a huge amount of information available. I think things have really changed, and certainly, I’ve seen a big change in the last five, six years, in terms of living as an expat in Rotterdam, and it becoming much more international. I think one of the things that does make it very is that it is part of the European Union, it is very close to the UK, and in terms of being able to speak English, that was also not really a challenge compared to other European countries, where you think, “Oh, I really have to know the language, I have to understand the language.” One of the things I found great about coming to Holland was the Dutch all were able to help me in my own language still.
Carlie: What is the attraction of the Netherlands for expats? What are some of the draw cards?
Sharon: I think it’s a really easy country to live in. It’s a very small country. It’s very easy to get around. You can commute into Schiphol, and you can be very easily into Amsterdam or within 20 minutes into the city of Rotterdam. All the other cities are not that far away. And there’s now a huge amount of international companies, so in terms of finding work, finding career opportunities, that’s also something that is available.
Carlie: And alongside those international companies with opportunities available for exalts is this really impressive support service. Gladys, you work at the Rotterdam Expat Center, and can I just say I really love that this actually exists? It sounds like a one-stop shop for people moving to the city to get all their administrative stuff done and in order. Would that be an accurate description?
Gladys: That is exactly what it is.
Carlie: It sounds like heaven! [laughs]
Gladys: We worked a lot to create the one-stop shop. From March this year, we have the [Municipality House], and we have [03:26] the Immigration Office in the house. And we can easily [03:32] [an appointment] to open a bank account with all of the international banks. So if everything goes well, within one hour, you get your residence permit, you get your registration, your [VSN] number, you get an appointment at the bank, and you can go to work.
Carlie: That’s just amazing. I mean, when I think about how long all of those individual tasks can take, and here is a center that will help you with all of it.
Gladys: Yes. And we also provide all the information [an international needs] who comes to live in Rotterdam, as in schooling, house, [04:01] [healthcare system, work,] etc.
Carlie: Gladys, can you tell me how the Rotterdam Expat Center came about?
Gladys: It started in 2008, as part of the government, the municipality, and then in 2014, it was joined with Rotterdam Marketing and the Economic Development Port, and became Rotterdam Partners. And the Expat Center joined that also.
Carlie: What did Rotterdam Partners recognize that the expat community needed?
Gladys: It’s mostly because Rotterdam Partners has a department of international trade and investments, where Sharon is the business manager of. So they thought the Expat Center is – that’s the best place for the Expat Center to be, because the business manager is all about getting the companies in, and with those companies always also come the people who work there. So that’s where we take all of the people who work there to find all the information they need. So that was a logical place for the Expat Center to be.
Carlie: Yeah, it sounds like a win-win for everyone really.
Sharon: Yeah, and I think in terms of the Netherlands, because they want to be a really attractive place for internationals to come and have their business here and to work here, they needed to make it as easy as possible. The Netherlands, in all the major cities, have expat centers that offer a similar service. And it just means really, regardless of where you want to come as a business, or as an expat coming to live in the Netherlands, you’re going to be made to feel welcome, but it’s also going to be easy for you to do everything that you need to do.
Carlie: So what are some of the things that you need to do when you’ve newly arrived in the Netherlands and you need to set up your life?
Gladys: It depends on where you come from actually. If you’re from outside of Europe, you have to get your residence permit of course with the IND. And you have to find a place where you can register and get your VSN number, and after the VSN number, then you can open a bank account. If you’re from inside of Europe, all you need to do is you need to find a house where you can register VSN number and open a bank account. So it depends on where you come from.
Carlie: What sort of other tasks can the Rotterdam Expat Center help with?
Gladys: We make an appointment with an expat. If he has some questions about living here, we make an appointment for an hour, and they can come here, and they can ask all the questions they have about living and moving to Rotterdam. We answer them. We have an in-company training for new companies who come here, for the management but also for the employees, so they can ask all the questions they have and we can answer them. We also bring a specialist who specializes in taxes and healthcare, etc. So we try to provide all the answers for all the questions they might have.
Sharon: We arranged an event in October for all the expats living in the city, to welcome them here. And during that event, we had ten different service providers, so from the international schools, from recruitment agencies … what were some of the others, Gladys?
Gladys: The schools, the recruitment agencies, the tax advisor, and a lot of people who work with expats in their daily lives.
Sharon: And the expats have come in, spent an evening here, and meet some of these people, and we did a really nice event that was an opportunity to find more information out, about being in the city.
Gladys: And we do this twice a year, somewhere in March and in October, because then the most internationals arrive in Rotterdam.
Carlie: Ladies, can I just say, from an expat perspective – and obviously, Sharon, you probably have the same view on it – this center is like everything you could hope to have when you move abroad. You’ve got the administrative support, but then, if you’re looking for work, you can even get contact with recruiters through this center, and from a social aspect too, you’re also thinking about that, and integration into daily life. It’s amazing.
Sharon: And that’s one of the things that’s great to see. As someone who came here 17 years ago and had to find my own way, and I really see the difference of what’s happening now and how much easier it is – and yeah, it actually makes it enjoyable, people want to come and live here.
Carlie: What are some of those differences, Sharon, in how expats experience the Netherlands now, compared to back when you moved?
Sharon: I would say one of the things that could be quite a challenge was getting around in the city, because trying to pronounce some of the names of the places on the metro line was a challenge, and everything, when I arrived, was announced in Dutch. So if a train was being cancelled or delayed or you had to move to another platform, you really didn’t know where to go, and you kind of looked around and wondered and followed the crowd. And that’s changed, because now, in Rotterdam, we have all of our announcements in English. So as well as them being in Dutch, they’re repeated in English, and very clearly, and much more information. So that’s one small thing, but it makes a huge difference when you’ve got to travel.
Carlie: Ladies, what would you say are some must-haves for moving to the Netherlands?
Sharon: [laughs] We talked about this earlier, Gladys and I. I think riding a bike – I think if you come to the Netherlands, you have to invest in a bicycle, so you can get around very easily.
Carlie: You have to be good at riding it, right?
Sharon: You do need to understand how the traffic works. I think it’s something you should really just get a little bit of knowledge on, do a little bit of homework before you come to the Netherlands, see how the road system works and how the bikes work. Bikes have right of way. So if you’re a car driver, you need to know that. That’s something that … in my first experience, I didn’t expect, when the traffic was going to turn to green, that I still have to wait for the bikes to get past, because they still have right of way.
Carlie: And you never walk in a bike lane. I learnt that the hard way. [laughs]
Carlie: Is there any aspect of the setting up process when you moved to the Netherlands that is trickier than it seems on the surface?
Gladys: Yes. Look at the city you want to live, and look at all the documents you need. Because a lot of people move here, and then they hear – oh, for registration in Rotterdam, you need your birth certificate, the original one, in English, Dutch, French, or German. And then they come and probably have one in another language than the four I just mentioned, and then they have to have it translated, which takes some time. So that’s why I said do your homework, find out which documents you need, and when you come here … if you do that, when you come here, you have all the documents, and that makes the transition go smoothly.
Carlie: I really liked when you mentioned that expats can come in and book an hour session with the Expat Center, where they can just ask all of their questions about daily life. Are there any particular things that stump people or that they ask a lot because they don’t quite understand how it works?
Gladys: Yes. One of the most-asked questions is how our healthcare system works. [chuckles] They don’t understand that. Do I need health insurance? Why do I even have to pay in health insurance? Can I just go to the doctor and pay when I get sick? Those are the most questions we hear. So we explain them how it works, and how [you are meant], if you stay more than three months, to have a Dutch health insurance or a health insurance who covers you in Holland. So that’s always a question which some don’t understand. Why pay monthly if you’re not sick? That’s one of the most asked questions.
And one of the questions is how do the benefits in Holland work. So the child benefits and the benefits for the daycare center, etc, so we are trying to explain to them.
Carlie: And what about learning Dutch? I know the country tops global indexes for non-native English proficiency. So is the Dutch language even necessary for expats?
Gladys: We always recommend expats to learn Dutch if they plan to stay for a longer time. One funny thing we heard from an expat – “You guys make it so tough for us to speak Dutch, because everyone around them speak … if you’re struggling a bit, they switch to English, just to help us.” [laughs] “So you make it so hard.” But that is also one question [which is quite often] asked.
Then we also give them some Dutch studying courses, where they can learn Dutch.
Carlie: Permanent residency – once you’re in the Netherlands, how hard is it to go from expat to permanent residence?
Gladys: To get a permanent residency, you have to be here five years straight without a gap, not even a gap for a half day. If you do that, then you get the permanent residency.
Carlie: So you can’t even take a holiday.
Gladys: Oh, no. Holidays are also [committed] …[crosstalk]
Sharon: You have to stay registered …[crosstalk]
Gladys: You have to stay registered, you cannot de-register. So holiday is of course not de-registration, you come back. But you cannot de-register, even for a day and then come back and register again.
Carlie: Right. So it has to be five years continuous, and then you can apply to stay in the Netherlands …
Gladys: Correct, yes.
Carlie: Sharon, what makes Rotterdam so special? What do you love about the city?
Sharon: I love the city, I love that the city has evolved to become my home. When I first came here, it felt a little bit more Dutch, a little bit more difficult to get around and find friends, and other expats. And I would say that has significantly changed. There are so many more expats living in the city. And it’s also become so much more international. There are international people working in the Dutch companies …
What I found is … I originally thought, well, at some point I’ll go back to England, that’s where my family and my friends are. But I started to make … I had my family here, I had my children, and I started to make Dutch friends, who made me feel very welcome. And that was, for me, that step that said I actually belong here, I feel a part of this community, and I really feel like I can make it my home. And every part of having a family, taking my kids to Dutch school, and then growing up here, has been very easy.
The Dutch really have a lot of value over the whole work-life balance and how you live your life. There’s a lot of opportunities to work but also to enjoy yourself outside of work, and enjoy your life outside of work, and a great balance.
Carlie: And finally, what are your top tips for a smooth transition to living in Rotterdam or another Dutch city?
Gladys: Well, what we always advise people is do your homework before you leave. Decide what city you want to live, so you can log in and see and read a lot about the city. See what kind of documents that city needs if you want to register here, because it depends on which city, because every city has their own rules. And also, what we had advised is we have a website of the expat center, and also the [INDS] website, which are both in English. So you can find out a lot of information about moving to Rotterdam. And if you might have any questions, if it’s still not clear, our phone number is in there, you can always call us with any questions you have, and we will answer them before you leave. So you can know when you come here, everything’s settled.
Carlie: Well, that’s it for this episode. If you’re in another country, like me, I’m sure you’re feeling just as envious right now, about the awesome support services available to expats in the Netherlands.
If you have any questions or want to share your own experiences, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our forums and Facebook groups. Remember to check out more episodes at expatfocus.come/podcast. They’re also on iTunes. I’ll catch you next time.