Icelandic Language Blog

Five culture shocks of Iceland. Posted by on May 14, 2015 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

Save! No goal! by _becaro_ at

A culture shock will always catch you by surprise no matter how well you thought you had prepared yourself. Here are some that have given people big jumps before.

1. No ice hockey

The ice hockey world championship games are in full swing and the whole world is watching, holding its breath. The whole world? No! One little island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean does not care at all.

Really. There’s barely a note that the ice hockey world championship is even going on. Finding news about it in Icelandic takes some serious digging, whereas f.ex. the Finnish news are so full of game reports that you barely find the news articles sandwiched in between. Despite the whole country being named Iceland, Icelanders actually don’t really play or follow ice hockey so any fan of the game is going to be sorely disappointed.

What Icelanders do love instead is handball, and the passion they put into the game does not fall second to, say, my original homeland Finland’s ice hockey craziness. When important handball games are going on they equally drown out other news articles… sports are something that gets the same reaction out of people everywhere, only the favourite sport varies.

2. No alcohol in grocery stores

I remember the first time I returned to visit Finland after moving to Iceland, went grocery shopping and almost broke down crying in front of the beer section because I suddenly felt so very homesick. In Iceland Vínbúðin still has monopoly over alcohol sold in the country so thinking to buy your evening beer or wine while shopping for food is, alas, a futile plan: everything labeled beer or wine in grocery stores will be non-alcoholic.

On top of that the alcohol stores’ opening hours may pull the rug out from under your feet. You’ll be fine in Reyjavík but outside, especially in small towns, you better find out the opening hours in advance. You will also find that in some places the opening hours change for winter: in Borgarnes the store opens at 11.00 from May to September but at 12.00 for the rest of the year. Borgarnesians have it easy though: the people who buy their wine and beer at Búðardalur will have to plan around 16.00-18.00 except for Fridays (13.00-19.00) and Saturdays (12.00-14.00) during May-August, for the rest of the year the liquor store will close for Saturdays.

An alarm clock displaying the word "late". This could mean late for work, late for school, late for an appointment or meeting, etc.

Late by Evan at

3. Nordic punctuality? HAH.

While the rest of the Nordics are known for their love for schedules and even being ahead of them Icelanders seem to barely understand the purpose of a clock. Nothing is ever on time.

It’s not because Icelanders were lazy, mind you. They’re one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever come across. It’s just that time is a very stretchable thing on a little island where being late gives you no consequences, there’s always another tomorrow and trying to hurry up feels unpleasant. Yet if push comes to shove Icelanders can be amazingly fast and effective, and here’s where you see their approach to time split neatly in two parts. On the other, larger part is stretchable time on things that aren’t really that pressing such as tax papers. On the other side are emergencies, people in risk of injury or death, houses being on fire, a volcano threatening to swallow up a whole town, a glacier flood on its way. Evacuations, rescue operations etc. will be in full swing in a blink of an eye, thoroughly exercised and executed with perfection and often quite a bit of daring and sheer badassery.

By the way, it also seems to count as an emergency if you’re keeping an eye on the people working. If something’s just not happening despite waiting for a long time and sending in multiple e-mails and making phone calls, go to the place yourself and you’ll see the work being immediately completed in front of you.

4. The cost of no rabies

Also the cost of keeping the ecosystem safe from outside harm. Iceland has many rules and regulations on what you cannot bring into the country, which sadly includes all pet lizards and snakes. Iceland has none by itself and introducing them would be catastrophic for the local wildlife, especially the birds that nest on the ground. Keeping these exotic pets is therefore banned by law, but Iceland does not stop there in pet-manners.

If you’d like to move in Iceland with your dog, be prepared for a long quarantine period. Make sure the dog has a microchip, remember that the importing surveillance fee is currently at approximately 33.000ISK (~250$), and always be well in time with the animal’s rabies etc. shots. You will also be required to reserve a spot at a quarantine station well in advance, where the pet will then have to stay for four weeks upon arrival.

You can find more information on bringing pets to Iceland here. It pays to go through the checklist very carefully because failure at any point will mean no entry for your pet.

Blue lagoon sign 01 by Christopher Angell at Flickr,com

5. No dating

Icelanders do not date, at least not in the sense dating happens in the USA. In fact by the time you’re going out for dates you’re already considered an item! In Iceland dating is not meant for getting to know somebody and hopefully hitting it off, it’s a couple activity for spending romantic time together. Instead typical ways people couple off is either via a shared interest or a friends group, or sometimes even as an aftermath of a one night stand. The first option is much more common I’d say, although naturally Icelanders like to make jokes of the latter one being the norm. 😀

Also remember that if you’re going on a date with an Icelander they’ll expect you to pay for your own food and drinks unless otherwise stated. It may not sound gallant but the one thing that Icelanders always prefer over that is equality between the genders.

Oh no, I still had a culture shock!

Don’t worry, everyone will have one over one matter or another. I had my shock moments too, even though my country of origin has very similar culture to Iceland’s. In little time you’ll get used to how things are done over here and settling into the daily life becomes easier. Þetta reddast!

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!


  1. Aoibhe Ní Shúilleabháin:

    Out of curiosity, how easy is it to transport a dog into Iceland if you’re coming from another rabies – free island, like Ireland?

    • hulda:

      @Aoibhe Ní Shúilleabháin I’m afraid it would be pretty much the same. I don’t have any personal experience on this matter but Icelanders are very, extremely strict about importing animals of any kind, and I’ve never heard of anyone being given exceptions to the protocol. 🙁

  2. lisa rhein:

    About punctuality and time: It sounds as though the time sense is very sensible. Some interesting pointers on possible culture shock. Thanks!

    • hulda:

      @lisa rhein Oh yes! Once the initial annoyance wears off it’s actually very relaxing to know it’s almost never too late for anything. 😀

  3. Jummi:

    I was considering to bring my cats to Iceland with me… After making my boyfriend to ask for prices and reading thing by myself aswell, it would have costed somewhat 2000euros to bring one cat only. So I suppose it would be the very similar for the dogs too?

    • hulda:

      @Jummi It’s similar with dogs, yes, the quarantine period is long and the process is costly. You also have to book a place for them at the quarantine kennel well ahead of your journey. There’s only a limited number of available spots so if they’re all booked the pets cannot enter country.

      Besides that it’s harder to own a dog than a cat. Unless you live in your own house you’re required by law to ask for written permission from all the other residents of the house and if they disagree you can’t bring a dog in. With cats there’s no such rule.

      You can read more about bringing pets to Iceland here.