Does Iceland have many foreign residents? What are the wages and working conditions like for foreign workers?

reykjavík iceland esja

Yes, Iceland has a significant number of foreign residents. The latest figures from Statistics Iceland show that immigrants comprise around 18% of the total population of Iceland.

The Icelandic economy has grown quickly in the years following the 2008 banking collapse, largely driven by the tourism industry. However, given Iceland’s small population pool, the recent economic expansion is largely dependent on foreign labour.

Of Icelanders with a foreign background, Poles make up by far the largest group. As of 2022, some 20,896 were living in Iceland, or 34.2% of the total immigrant population. The second- and third-largest groups are comprised of people from Lithuania and Romania respectively.

Employment opportunities mean that Iceland's immigrant population is largely clustered around the capital region, though residents with a foreign background also make up a notable part of the Westfjords. One of the least-populated regions of Iceland, tour-related services have become a large part of this region's economy.

Though Iceland is an attractive destination for many, there are also realities to immigration.

For example, a 2018 study by the University of Akureyri found while the average monthly salary in that year for full-time workers was 721,000 ISK [$5,168; €4,727], 60% of immigrants made only 400,000 ISK [$2,866; €2,623] or less per month.

Besides statistics, there is of course also a subjective element to the immigrant experience. Iceland is a small community with a unique language. For some, this is a major attraction to life in Iceland, but for others, it can be alienating. Some may also find themselves working largely English-based jobs in the tourism and service sector, and never truly integrating to Icelandic society.

Unfortunately, there have also been increasing incidents of wage theft, in which employers withhold earnings from workers who may not be in a position to press their rights. Read about the rights of workers here, in English.

This is of course a large issue with many facets. Read our coverage of social issues, and check out our coverage of Iceland's largest immigrant population below.

Prospective immigrants to Iceland may also find this Ask Iceland Review helpful: How can I move to Iceland?


Deep North Episode 49: Women Look to the Future

Arnarhóll hill women's strike 2023

It’s not an exaggeration to call the most recent Women’s Strike historic. With some 70-100,000 women participating, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the strike attracted international media attention and injected fresh energy into feminist activism in Iceland. We take a look at our 1986 coverage of Women’s Day Off and consider how far we’ve come, and where we have yet to go.

Deep North Episode 44: Working it Out

work week iceland

A few years ago, Iceland instituted a four-day work week. It’s gone off without a hitch and everyone’s been happier since. At least that’s the story that has spread through foreign media outlets.

The truth is much more complex. Firstly, it’s not a four-day work week, but a 4.5-day work week. Secondly, it technically only applies to public service workers. Thirdly, although preliminary data shows the shortened work week has had many positive impacts, there are still many kinks to work out in its implementation. And when we examine those kinks, we begin to realise that long working hours are only one of the challenges faced by Iceland’s labour market – and that the shortened work week is only one solution of many that will be needed in the coming years.

Read the story here.

Working It Out

iceland work week

A few years ago, Iceland instituted a four-day work week. It’s gone off without a hitch and everyone’s been happier since. At least that’s the story that has spread through foreign media outlets. The truth is much more complex. Firstly, it’s not a four-day work week, but a 4.5-day work week. Secondly, it technically only applies […]

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How can I practice as a doctor in Iceland?

healthcare jobs iceland

Iceland is a great place to live and work. And unfortunately for those in the medical field in Iceland, but fortunately for those in the field eyeing Iceland as a new home, there is a healthcare shortage in Iceland.

If you are looking for a healthcare job in Iceland, then you’re in luck, because it’s a very in-demand field.

For the most part, the process is just like any other profession. You will still need to comply to all the relevant regulations regarding work visas for individuals outside of EU/EEA nations (see “General Information” below).

What’s most important for medical professionals looking for employment in Iceland will be recognition of your degree and any other specific professional qualifications you have. You can read about these in detail at “Regulation on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications” below.

For a general practitioner, it should be enough to hold an MD or equivalent degree from an accredited institution. But for more specialized fields, you will want to begin your job hunt long before relocating to Iceland. Here you can view all of the current vacancies at the National University Hospital. For more specific questions on qualifications and employment in Iceland’s medical field, you will also want to contact the clinic or hospital you intend to work at directly. Especially for in-demand roles, they will also be able to help you navigate the process of having your medical qualifications recognized in Iceland.

Admission to medical school in Iceland requires a Bachelor’s degree. In order to obtain a medical license, candidates must complete a course of 180 ECTS credits over three years, in addition to a 12-month residency program. Medical candidates in Iceland will then take the NBME Clinical Sciences Comprehensive Examination.

Another common question we receive about practising as a medical professional in Iceland is whether there is an equivalent of a Physician’s Associate in Iceland. The short answer is no, but nurses do have a slightly wider range of responsibilities in Iceland. For example, nurses in Iceland are able to prescribe contraception. However, according to the National Hospital, laws governing prescriptions are currently under review, and this may change in the future.

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Immigrants Rate Mental Health Lower than Native-Born Icelanders

Fiskur Útgerð Frystihús

Immigrants’ mental health is noticeably worse than natives’ in Iceland. Unemployment, financial insecurity, and loneliness are likely major factors, according to the authors of a labour market study that asked workers in Iceland to rate their mental health. The authors call for targeted measures to prevent immigrants’ poor mental health from becoming a long-term problem.

The study was conducted by labour market research institute Varða and Margrét Einarsdóttir was the lead author. The aim of the research was to examine the differences in self-rated mental health among workers in Iceland during COVID-19 in relation to their immigration status. “Unemployment, financial insecurity, and loneliness are all known risk factors for mental illness. It can be assumed that COVID-19 measures have hit immigrants harder than natives in relation to these factors, while at the same time affecting their mental health,” the study abstract states.

Over 22% of Locals and 34% of Immigrants Have Poor Mental Health

Respondents were asked to state their country of origin and were divided into two groups: those who were born in Iceland and those who had another country of origin. They were asked how many times in the last 14 days they had experienced nine different mental symptoms. “The results show a significant difference depending on immigration status and that mental health is noticeably worse among immigrants,” the study abstract states. More immigrants than natives stated they experienced almost all of the nine symptoms on an almost daily basis. When it came to overall mental health, 34.9% of immigrants measured as having poor mental health while 22.3% of native-born respondents did.

The abstract noted that immigrant’s financial situation was generally worse than that of native-born respondents and they face 3-4 times higher unemployment rates. The study’s authors concluded that authorities must take measures to address the issue. “Immigrants’ access to mental health services, their job security, and their earnings must be ensured.” The data was compiled from 8,461 responses.