What it’s like to work in Svalbard, a visa-free zone near the North Pole

  • Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago at the North Pole, is one of the only visa-free zones in the world.
  • But residents who cannot support themselves or find housing can be evicted by the governor.
  • Insider spoke with four locals (one of whom was evicted) about what it’s like to work in Svalbard.

In a world where your passport dictates where you can live, travel and work, there is a semi-frozen haven open to citizens of all countries – no complicated visas or work permits required.

Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago 500 miles from the North Pole, is home to the northernmost human settlement in the world. The 2,300 inhabitants of the capital, Longyearbyen, include people of more than 40 different nationalities, few of whom are “from” Svalbard, strictly speaking.

That’s because you’re not allowed to give birth on Svalbard – one of the many strange rules that govern existence on the remote collection of ice-covered islands.

There are of course surprises, which the city affectionately calls “Svalbard babies” even when they’re big, said Cecilia Blomdahl, a popular content creator based in Longyearbyen, in an interview with Insider.

Other strange rules in Svalbard, inherited from its days as a mining town, include a monthly limit on alcohol (24 beers, half a bottle of fortified wine and a bottle of liquor) and a ban on cats to protect the population. of birds.

But the most important rule of all: Don’t run out of money. And certainly don’t find yourself homeless.

Cecilia Blomdahl's cabin in Longyearbyen, one of the few such houses on the island.

Cecilia Blomdahl’s cabin in Longyearbyen, one of the few such houses on the island.

Courtesy of Cecilia Blomdahl

While the 1920 Treaty of Svalbard allows anyone to live and work on the archipelago indefinitely, its open borders come with an asterisk: you must have enough money to support yourself and a roof over it. of your head, or risk expulsion from the territory.

“You can stay here as long as you can take care of yourself,” Blomdahl said. “It means how you get to work, how you live, your accommodation – nothing will be provided for you.”

Although it is a sovereignty of Norway, employees of Svalbard pay 8% income tax and local businesses pay no tax for the country’s national insurance program (the rate of mainland’s current taxation is 14% and 22% respectively). As a result, there are no retirement homes, public transport, homeless shelters, unemployment benefits or social safety net that you can think of.

No one understands this compromise like Mark Sabbatini, the founder and editor of IcePeople, “the world’s northernmost alternative newspaper”, who was kicked out of Svalbard in 2021 after living in Longyearbyen for more than a decade.

He moved to the island from the United States in 2008 with about $1 million in the bank and ambitions to start an English newspaper, Sabbatini told Insider.

Mark Sabbatini, founder and editor of IcePeople, the

Mark Sabbatini, founder and editor of IcePeople, the “world’s most northern alternative newspaper”.

Courtesy of Mark Sabbatini/Photo by Elizabeth Bourne

While running IcePeople, two of Sabbatini’s apartments were condemned due to environmental issues that he says have been exacerbated by the region’s rapidly warming climate. The first was built above the melting permafrost and the second was located in a newly determined avalanche zone.

“At that time, I didn’t have a lot of money and it was a big scramble every month to scrounge up stuff,” he said. “I was begging, I was borrowing – I wasn’t stealing, but it was pretty close.”

After squatting in a friend’s cabin during the pandemic, Sabbatini succumbed to his last resort: sleeping at the campsite where a guide was killed in a polar bear attack the year before. It was then that the governor gave him the boot.

“I was horribly miserable, but it was absolutely the right decision,” recalls Sabbatini, who now works at a local newspaper in Alaska.

“It’s a very fair system. Your taxes are incredibly low, but in return you don’t get any social support,” he continued. “If you are not paying for this system, why should you benefit from it? »

Cafe huskies Svalbard

“Scheduling the canine employees was much more difficult than the human ones,” Fiala said.

Courtesy of Martin Fiala

Thanks to the local housing crisis, it is easier to find work in Svalbard than accommodation. Despite 2.5 months of total darkness and sub-zero temperatures, the capital city of Longyearbyen is a great place to be an entrepreneur, according to Martin Fiala, one of the co-founders of Café Huskies.

“If you have an idea, you’re probably the only one doing it. [in Svalbard]” he said. “I think if we set this up in a regular town where there are five other cafes or stores on the same block, I don’t think we would be so successful.”

But the region’s remoteness also creates a distinct set of challenges, Fiala explained, particularly when it comes to shipping goods from the mainland.

“If the coffee machine breaks, no one here can fix it and it would take us weeks to get another one,” he said, adding that “there’s a guy in town who knows how to fix it. an industrial dishwasher”.

“As soon as we save a little more money, we want to buy or rent another one and have it in reserve,” he told Insider. “If there’s ever a lunar colony set up, I think we’d be perfect for that. It’s really like a space station here.”

Martin Fiala and his dog

Martin Fiala and his dog, Tequila: “Most of my work is just hiking with my dog ​​in the mountains. The price is that it’s exhausting and chaotic, but it’s pretty awesome”, Fiala told Insider.

Courtesy of Martin Fiala

Fiala and her co-founders all have second jobs, which made launching Café Huskies less financially risky. He studied architecture but currently works as a nature guide – one of many professionals in the local tourism economy with hidden passions.

“Here in tourism you have a lot of people working in hospitality, guiding, driving a truck,” he told Insider. “But he’s also an economist, a chemist, a photographer.”

Why do people from such different backgrounds and careers continue to flock to one of the most remote cities in the world? One answer, according to Fiala, is that the extremity of life in Svalbard serves as a “catalyst” for the best and worst human qualities.

“If you’re depressed and have a drinking problem and you come here, you’ll probably end up drinking all winter,” he explained. “But if you try to finish the book, you will. Life here is complicated.”

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