Living in Estonia – A Subjective Review

Living in Estonia - View of Tallinn at Sunset
This is what Tallinn looks like. If you’re not sold already, I don’t know what will sell you!

If you’ve heard of Estonia and wondered about E-Residency, the Tallinn’s startup culture and what it’s like to live in this country, you’re in luck. This is the first in a series we’ll do of highly subjective reviews of countries to live in, languages to learn, skills to acquire, places to volunteer and anything else we explore in Discover Discomfort. Read on if you want an entertaining—if occasionally vague—description of a place. If you’re looking for data like current population and date of founding, here’s Wikipedia.

Overall: 9/10

We think living in Estonia would be AWESOME. Quality of life is very high in Estonia, to the point where it makes major cities in the USA (like San Francisco or Los Angeles) seem third-world. The cost of living is low, though salaries aren’t that high (but they’re rising), and they grant e-residency willy-nilly. In general, I’d recommend spending some serious time in Estonia, to launch a company, get meditative, go mushrooming (which is a thing people do but paradoxically also an insult, like “Why don’t you just go mushrooming!”) or go cross-country skiing. Avoid Estonia during the awkward autumn-winter transition. Other than that, it’s fine (if a bit chilly).

Facts about Estonia in general

Estonia is an extremely good-looking country with a complicated and feverishly independent history. It was part of the Soviet Union for most of last century, before that being briefly independent, and before that occupied by a mix of the Germans, then the Swedes, then the Danish, then the Russians again, then the Germans again I think and then… one loses track. It seems a lot of people had an interest in the area. But the country, while influenced in part by all of its neighbours, has a decidedly unique identity and language, and despite the constant invasions, has remained physically intact. There are buildings in Estonia that are almost a thousand years old and are still in use.

Just take a visit to the Old Town. It looks AMAZING, reminds you this place is super old despite being extremely modern. Because despite the abundant heavy brick in the older parts of the country, Estonia has great WiFi basically everywhere, allows most things to be done online, is almost entirely cash-free and presents very little chance you’ll be marauded by neighbouring Vikings. It’s very safe.

Estonia is kind of Scandinavian (saunas, mushrooms, quiet and reserved), kind of Russian (occasionally gloomy, with recent memories of poorer times), slightly German (I feel, given the history) but mostly, it’s Estonian. People are immensely proud of their country, and I think justifiably so.

What Estonian people are like

Estonia is bathed in silence. The people are very quiet unless they’ve had a few drinks in them (not something we witnessed much personally, but which remains high compared to the rest of the EU according to reports), in which case they’re of a tolerably moderate volume. The quietude is blissful– almost meditative. We often found ourselves whispering in public places.

“Just be quiet, please.”

Estonians are known to be quite contemplative, taking their time to respond to things with a thoughtful answer. They’re optimistic, in my opinion, though they choose to express it in somewhat apologetic and dry language. They’ll often apologize for the weather, but then explain it is quite beautiful in the summer or in the winter (after the rain becomes snow and the sun comes out again), and then apologize again.

If an Estonian says something is ‘pretty OK’, then it’s quite good. If you’re American and want to fit in, heavily dial down your volume and level of exaggeration. If you’re from anywhere else other than a Scandinavian country I’d also suggest you dial it down a bit. Just be quiet, please.

Estonians also describe themselves as being very direct (something I’ve noticed in nearly every culture, TBH, but it just takes on a different meaning everywhere). This is notable in that there’s no small talk, i.e. in cafes, nobody will ask how you are, they’ll just smile and ask what you’d like. If you casually ask an Estonian how they are, be prepared for them to tell you in detail. We found this refreshingly honest. The Estonians we met were all quite philosophical and unafraid to express opinions or challenge ours, though it might just be the people we tend to meet.

Estonian society

Living in Estonia - Russian Cathedrals
There are still cathedrals in Estonia. They’re nice to look at.

There are some churches, but in general there is almost no religion in Estonia. Estonians are largely pagan and having resisted Christianity until relatively recently historically. When those invaders left, they went back to their ways. The largest stronghold of religion is in the form of the Russian ethnic minority who are Russian Orthodox.

Estonian society has little apparent racism, though there is some playful fraternal ribbing of their neighbours the Latvians, a slight resentment of their wealthy neighbours the Finns and some historical tension with the once dominant Russian minority. There are too few black people, brown people and Asians for there to be active racism against them, though there is probably a degree of unfamiliarity.

There is also little apparent poverty. Estonia does have a good social welfare system, after all. The impact of this is that there is a negligibly small indigent population, and in nearly a month there we never saw people begging. We did see a couple of people drunk in the daytime. There is, apparently, a drug problem, but it’s not in your face (we didn’t see it). 

We never felt unsafe at any time of day in any part of the two cities we visited, and this was a feeling shared by Estonians.

The Estonian dress code

Observing casually, I’d describe the way people dress as ‘subdued Scandinavian stylish/hipster’, which means well-fitting clothes, stylish and warm coats and things like boots and designer jeans. “Hipsterness” depends a little on age, of course. Colours in the autumn season were mostly darker hues of blue, brown or grey. People didn’t wear baggy clothes, and there weren’t many suits walking the city streets. Estonia also couldn’t be called a very casual place, probably because sneakers, sandals, shorts and t-shirts are usually too cold. So the only place you’ll be able to use your sandals will be going to the sauna, which will be every day (see below).

What Estonians do

Living in Estonia - Hiking in Bogs

Estonians are quite active. They go outdoors all year round, hiking in bogs in the summertime and going cross-country skiing in the wintertime.  A word on bogs – it sounds unpleasant (what’s with the word ‘bog’ as the accepted translation of ‘raba‘?), but really they are what I’d call enormous and fertile meadows, replete with berries and mushrooms.

Gardening is a common and therapeutic activity in Estonia, for fruits and vegetables – having soil to till is pretty common around Estonia, though not universal.

Like many people in the Nordic and Baltic regions, Estonians go to saunas all year round, and it’s a very social thing. Most people with a freestanding house have their own sauna, and describe public or hotel saunas to be sub-standard (or… gross).

Saunas are becoming a health craze in the west, and Estonians would like to politely remind you all that they’ve been doing them for ages and telling you to so quit acting like it’s some kind of revolutionary bio-hack.

What it’s like in Estonia

The following is an overview of the weather, getting around, jobs, the language and the natural environment — all the things you’ll need to know to really get a feeling for what it’s like to live there.

Weather in Estonia (cold, but nice)

It’s really nice in Estonia in the summer, when the days are long. Like, 20 hours! The night is never fully dark! Midsummer is a big thing in Estonia and can seem like something out of a fairy tale. 

Unfortunately the summer isn’t very long. It really hits its stride in July, and things start to cool down by September already.

In the dead of winter, on the other hand, it’s dark, but beautiful in the day time… You get four hours of daylight and it’s all golden hour. Photography heaven!

Living in Estonia. Photo courtesy of Unbounce.

The worst part of the weather in Estonia is the transition period around October and November as it gets colder and rains and sleets a lot. Sometimes it’s so windy the rain can be horizontal. Argh! Stay away at these times unless you’re brave or get a particularly cheap flight.

Also, it should be noted that there’s an element of unpredictable randomness to the weather during the transition periods. As Midsummer approaches, you might get occasional rainy days where it’s 10 degrees C (about 50 F). As the winter approaches, you might get sleet mixed with snow, or occasional beautiful weeks of sunshine to get your hopes up.

Getting around in Tallinn, Tartu and beyond

Estonian cities (we visited Tartu, an ancient and beautiful university city with a thriving tech culture and Tallinn, the capital, and the bigger of the two cities) are very small. Both of these are very walkable places. At one point, Jo said “I’m in a cafe, kind of far from where you are” and I really felt that to be true because it was a five-minute walk away. Most things in Tallinn are either a 20-minute walk away, or a 30-minute (max) commute, including using public transport. In Tartu, nothing seemed more like 10 minutes away on foot.

Where walking is impractical (if it’s raining or if you’re carrying stuff), the public transportation system is very easy to use, with predictable routes and high-quality vehicles. Everyone uses public transport. You pay with rechargeable cards you can buy from any kiosk, and recharge using your phone with a data connection in a transaction that takes about one minute even if it’s your first time. You can also just buy tickets using your phone, but our gracious host got us cards. Or finally, you can pay by cash at the front. So convenient!

Beyond public transport, Taxify (an Uber competitor with presence in 25 countries) was founded in Estonia and works very well. Download the app, confirm your cellphone and credit card and off you go. Uber is also available, but has fewer cars.

To get out of the city you will need to rent a car. There is a terriffic local electric rental car network called Elmo, which you can pay for online, and get an electric car for about 30 euros a day.

Traffic in Estonia is laughably minimal. On the first day, our taxi driver complained about there being traffic, and I think to us the traffic looked like that of an average American suburb on a weekend. There were some cars in some places. It took us six minutes to get from the hotel (downtown) to the airport when we left.

That’s right. Six minutes to the airport from downtown.

Finally, you can hop on a ferry for a couple of hours and you get to Finland! While the Finns like to (according to local prejudice) pop down to Estonia for a cheap weekend of alcohol-fuelled fun, you can go and see what a fancier, more expensive version of Estonia looks like, maybe with some more culinary and cultural diversity. (I expect to receive Estonian hate mail for this, but c’mon.)

Jobs in Estonia for foreigners: think tech sector

If you’re a tech person from Silicon Valley, you can probably get a job in Tallinn or Tartu as a product manager, developer, content manager, customer support person or something else. You won’t get paid those big bucks, and you’ll pay a lot of tax, but your life will be good.

If you’re some kind of professional that depends more on language to get work done, it’ll be harder, as you’d have to know the language, which is no picnic. You’d probably do better as a freelancer working for overseas companies or starting your own business.

If you are a freelancer, there’s wifi and high-speed cellular data all over the place. Cafes always have spare seats, are cool with laptops, and often have outlets. The local chains, Reval and Caffeine, are good options.

Language of Estonia (Estonian). C’mon, not that hard

Estonian is, according to the locals, incredibly hard. I don’t think it is, I think it’s only as hard as you think it’s going to be, and luckily because everyone thinks its hard, the payoff for saying a few words is amazing.

Most educated people speak decent (often amazing) English. Also, because of the rapidly globalizing culture, many workplaces are in large part English to accommodate the minority of people who are foreigners. Still, you should learn Estonian. There are a few resources online, but nothing as good as a local tutor.

The languages people learn in school, after Estonian, are English, and then either Russian or German (or both) which most people understand to a decent level if they’ve studied it, so if one of those is your language, it might be useful. If there were one other language that’d be useful locally though, it’d be Russian, for the minority of migrants/older folk who don’t speak any English.

To answer a common question: No, Estonian is not the same as Finnish. They’re not mutually intelligible. They’re from the same family, and seem about as mutually intelligible (as people describe it) as French and Spanish. Like, if you know one, it will be easy for you to learn the other, but you’d still have to put the effort in.

Here are a few phrases we learned
• Hello: Tere!
• Hi/bye: Tšau (pronounced like Ciao)
• Excuse me/sorry: Vabandust
• Thank you: aitäh
• Please/go ahead/here you go: Palun
• One, two, three, four, five: üks, kaks, kolm, neli, viis
• Forest: Mets
• Bog: Raba
• Shop: Pood
• Chicken: Kana
• Cheese: Juust
• Bread: Leib (the local version, pretty delicious!)
• Sauna: Sauna (ok, that was a freebie)

Nature in Estonia (flat, but pretty)

Living in Estonia - winter
Estonia in the winter

Estonia has beautiful nature, mostly in the form of forests and bogs. In fact, over half of the surface area is forest, and a lot of it is well-cares for national parks.

There aren’t really mountains. There’s a sea, and some beaches you can surf at, if your wetsuit is thick and your attitude hardened.

There is a lot of farmland and fairly flat forests and bogs. It’s heaven if you like things like hiking, running, off-road biking or dirt biking. You can, in some places, rent vehicles like ATVs and totally tear it up.

In nature, it’s quite common to pick berries and mushrooms as you go, but don’t do this unless you are really sure what you’re picking is edible. The strange thing is that despite foraging being free, there seem to be unlimited amounts of it, which to me is evidence that my Persian family have not yet discovered this place.

Moving to Estonia

Living in Estonia - getting our digital e-residency ID
E-residency is the bizness

Whether you’re there for a short period or a long while makes a difference. We’re mostly considering for a short while.

Visas

It’s easy to get a visa in Estonia, though an employment visa can be harder. Most people from developed countries can get a visa on arrival. You can’t work with this visa, however, or be a student.

The best bit about visas is something every Estonian knows about and likes to tell you: e-residency. This is a system where any international person can become a resident of the EU for a fee of 100 euros, for the purposes of taxes, banking and company formation. There are some benefits to this below!

If you want a long-term work visa, you’ll need to go through a third party company like the conveniently Estonia-based Jobbatical. They’ll help an employer look abroad for talent and help with every aspect of relocation.

Cost of living

Wow, it’s CHEAP in Estonia for an extremely developed country. At the time of writing (2018), a Coke is 0.65 euros, a kebab is 4 euros, a gourmet burger or pizza is about 6-7 euros, and a decent meal in a restaurant is around 20 euros for two courses. There’s no tax and tip on top of that, either. Apartments are around 500 euros a month for a nice place, or maybe 700 euros if you just get it on AirBnB. Alcohol is allegedly cheaper than every neighbouring country except Latvia. In short, life is cheap, and you can live for 1,500-2,000 euros per person per month and have a very comfortable life.

Taxes

Estonians pay a lot of tax. I heard rubbery numbers, but it’s something like half to two thirds of your paycheck. Coupled with the fact that pay is lower, your take-home from a normal job in the tech sector is likely to be something like 3-4,000 euros. As mentioned above, this is PLENTY for comfortable living.

Note: If you’re comparing jobs, people in Estonia normally talk about salary as monthly, and POST-tax.

The most wonderful thing about tax is corporate taxation, if you’re starting a company. If you keep the money in the company, you don’t pay tax! You only pay tax on dividends when you take money out, and that’s at 20%. So if you own your own business and want to pay yourself with dividends, you are in luck. You can do this from anywhere in the world, too.

Paying tax is painless and takes three minutes, just a bit of clicking online. It’s one of the wonderful features of e-residency.

Health and Healthcare

It’s a Scandinavian country in this sense… it’s all high quality, free (or almost free – you pay a bit for dentists) and universally available.

Life is quite active, because people walk around a lot (and go out into nature). I didn’t get a chance to explore the gym scene, but know it exists. There’s Crossfit, for example.

Food

Estonian food is a little hard to place, but I’d largely characterise it as being like a high quality deli you’d find in the west. It’s assumed that most vegetables and fruits are organic and locally produced, and that meats are grass-fed and free-range, with choices like venison and elk being common. There are a lot of smoked and preserved meats available. Fish like herring and salmon feature heavily. In short, it’s healthy. I like it.

There are also some emerging hipster options, like burgers, fancy coffee and pizzas everywhere. Notable things missing: good doughnuts, Mexican, Chinese/other Asian other than Japanese, variants of kebabs, and brunch-oriented cafes. In case you’re looking for a business opportunity, any of the above is likely to crush it.

Overall

As you can tell, we’re fans. If it weren’t for the winter, everyone would move there in a jiffy.

We’re likely to go back as well, but will try to do it in the warmer months, hopefully around Midsummer.

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