First impressions after a year of living in Estonia

Aure, a 28-year-old blogger from Belgium, outlines five pros and five cons of living in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.*

Few countries on the planet have managed to market themselves better than Estonia – a sort of European Singapore, albeit much colder – that conjures futuristic images of a society living side by side with robots and jetting around town on magnetic trains, where everyone can found a billion-dollar start-up while not paying any tax. 

Of course, the reality isn’t exactly that. Below, I’ve outlined a few pros and cons of living in Estonia as an expat. 

Pros

1. Its clean, and it’s safe

Anyone visiting Tallinn will doubtlessly be impressed by the cleanliness and safety of the city. I don’t know many European capitals where a 10-year-old can take the bus or tram without parental supervision.

Safety is one of those things we seemingly take for granted when we have it, but becomes all too clear when we lack it.

The freedom I enjoy mindlessly walking across the city, never bothering to check my pockets every 30 seconds or assuming that a passerby asking me a question in the street might have bad intentions brings some peace of mind that doesn’t exist in many places.

2. Plenty of opportunities

I was in Latvia when I decided to move to Tallinn. I had been looking for a job in Belgium for a couple of months, without much success. Since I wasn’t far from Tallinn – affectionately known as the Unicorn Factory for the number of successful start-ups that call it home – I decided to try my luck there.

Two weeks and nine applications after my first email, I secured a job with a startup. Shortly thereafter, I helped a couple of other expats in the same situation, all of whom found employment.

Since Estonia is a small and dynamic country, things work much faster than in other places. For instance, people tend to get promoted to a position they’d only dream of achieving back home after a few short years here.

A large amount of jobs and low demand means there is generally less competition, and it’s significantly easier to land a job you want.

Attendees at a startup event in Tallinn. The image is illustrative; photo by Geir Stint.

3. It’s the most advanced digital nation in the world with the most efficient bureaucracy

It took me only a couple of weeks to get settled. I quickly found a studio to rent in a co-living space, which enabled me to get my social security number – or ID Code – a couple of days later.

While in Belgium it can take as much as a year before receiving an ID card, it took five days for mine to arrive in Estonia. Not to mention, picking it up at the police station was quick and easy.

Once I had it, my ID card gave me access to all of the services I needed.

Want to create a company? It takes 10 minutes, can be done entirely online, and costs a mere €260.

In Belgium, I’d have to find a notary, write a business plan, provide thousands of euros of capital, change my financial status, register with an innumerable number of agencies, and parse through fr the applicable laws depending on which region I‘d be in.

You can get all of your documents online in Estonia. Take a look at your pension, register your vehicle, change your address, and much, much more.

The Estonians have created the most efficient and unique Bureaucracy-as-a-Software or BaaS.

4. Healthcare is quick and (kinda) free

The national health booking system enables you to see which doctors have availability for almost all specialties, country-wide. No need to call one hospital after the other – just book and go.

I have had several heart problems since moving to Tallinn and was able to book appointments with highly trained specialists, quickly. I also got an MRI one month after booking, whereas patients need to wait at least six months in Belgium.

From my experience, all of the doctors speak English.

5. Its rapidly growing

Countries and cultures go through cycles of expansion and contraction. Once a culture has peaked, there’s really nowhere left to go but down. Needless to say, you don’t want to be in those places. You want to be in a place that improves its quality of life over time  –  not in a place that’s merely trying to maintain it.

Without a doubt, Estonia is currently ascending. It will likely become an ultra-modern Silicon Valley contender within the next decade.

Say you want to start a company in Belgium and most people will laugh at you. In Estonia, however, entrepreneurship is encouraged and positively perceived.

Tallinn skyline is changing; photo by Kaupo Kalda.

Cons

1. Its hard to make friends

Simply put, it’s not easy making friends in Estonia. Don’t get me wrong, people are certainly respectful, but they’re not as talkative and social as in other countries.

You will have to engage them and make quite a bit of effort in the beginning. If you persist though, it is possible to become friends with Estonians.

However, it’s worth adding, you’ll likewise have to get accustomed to the negligible amount of talking that happens in general. I have noticed that people don’t say “Hi” just for the sake of saying hi, but only when they want to engage in a conversation. As a result, don’t be surprised if few people offer innocuous greetings. 

Bottom line: If you like quietness and calm, you’ll be happy in Estonia.

2. Everything is quite expensive

Yearly inflation in Estonia reached 25.02 percent in August, while monthly inflation hit 2.1 percent. It’s worth remembering that inflation has hit the entire world hard as of late, but Estonia is the European country that has been hit the hardest. 

Energy inflation has reached 80 percent since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, which resulted in everything else going up. For example, the room I got in January 2021 in Tallinn cost €475. More recently, the owner told me they had to increase the price to €750. Likewise, a piece of Estonian ribeye runs €40/kg more or less. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how the locals survive in such an environment, given that the average income is €1,300 after taxes. 

3. The winter

The winter is tough. The streets are deserted meaning Tallinn, which is a very quiet city to begin with, is even quieter. No one hangs in the street when temperatures dip below -10 degrees Celsius. 

The four or five hours of daily sunlight hardly reach the city due to a thick layer of clouds, and it’s advised to take a daily dose of vitamin D. 

Lest you get caught in a vicious cycle, it’s important to plan appropriate activities outside the home, but indoors no less. It’s possible to play sports at indoor gyms, go swimming in the city’s various thermal baths or relax in its saunas, catch a film at the cinema, go bowling, etc.

A cloudy winter’s day in Estonia: photo by Taaniel Malleus.

4. People dont stay

Unfortunately, it’s only been a year since I moved here and a lot of my friends have already left the country. 

As is the case with expat life anywhere in the world, many people move to Estonia for a job, school or significant other. If the relationship breaks down, they lose their job or they graduate, chances are they’ll leave the country as well. 

All of this makes having a meaningful social life a little difficult at best, and downright draining at worst. 

5. Its pretty far removed 

Because Estonia is far removed from the rest of the continent and has a relatively small population, some items are expensive and hard to get. 

For example, I needed to buy a podcast mic – the price was €70 on Amazon and €130 in the shop. I ended up buying it on Amazon and got slapped with a €20 delivery fee.

Likewise, you cannot fly to many places, and since airlines aren’t competing for the Estonian market, the prices are fairly high. I am going to Lisbon in November and will have to take multiple planes to get there. Similarly, when I fly to Belgium, I have to take a five-hour bus from Riga, Latvia, or a five-hour boat and train trip from Finland’s capital, Helsinki.

Estonia’s seaside; photo by the author.

Conclusion

No country is perfect, that’s a fact. But Estonia ranks pretty high compared to most countries.

Indeed, there are many more reasons to move here, such as:

  1. No tax on corporate revenue or profits
  2. No tax on cars
  3. Getting by with only the English language
  4. The numerous thermal baths and winter sports options
  5. An excellent education and sports infrastructure
  6. Saunas

Do the advantages make up for the disadvantages? It depends on what you want – if you want to work and build a future, Estonia is great. But maybe it’s not the right place if you’re looking for a dynamic social life and a lot of partying. 

It’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, the grass is rarely greener on the other side. And it’s definitely not easy being in a foreign culture in general. 

However, Estonia has done a good job at attracting expats and making it easy for them to settle. 

If you’re an entrepreneur who doesn’t like paperwork, it’s a great place to move to!

*For personal reasons, the author did not wish to reveal his full identity.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

2 thoughts on “First impressions after a year of living in Estonia”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top