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Living, Studying and Working in Estonia as an Expat

Gretlin Aumre

Marketing Activation Lead

What’s life really like living in Estonia? You may already have a perception of what Estonia is like to visit but getting first-hand experience from everyday life (including transport studying or working in Estonia) can be very different to what you experience on holiday. We’ve rounded up some key takeaways and observations from expat life in Estonia.

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Walking through the cobbled roads of Old Town, Tallinn / Getty Images

 

Life in Estonia

Estonia is a small Baltic country in northern Europe. It boasts great connections for frequent travelers, beautiful medieval architecture, a tech-focussed outlook, and is a great country for nature lovers. It’s got a very small population so whilst you can be close to friends and the vibrant culture of city centers, you can easily find yourself in the wilderness of a beautiful forest in a handful of minutes too.

Estonia has a chequered history, having been occupied by various neighboring countries. But, since its liberation in 1991, the country has made huge progress in establishing itself as a forward-thinking country with lots to offer residents.

Pros and cons of moving to Estonia

So, what’s it really like living in Estonia? Well if you’re considering moving, you may have already read that it’s a phenomenal place to raise children and that education is really strong. But there are plenty of other things to consider that will affect day-to-day life. We’ve collated some pros and cons below:

Pros of living in Estonia

  • The cost of living is reasonable. Depending on your lifestyle, you can find yourself saving a great deal of money. However, don’t be fooled into thinking everything is cheaper in Estonia. Some things (such as certain groceries, baby clothes, and even cars) can be more expensive when bought in Estonia. But it’s good to know that major expenses are typically cheaper than in most developed countries. For example, rent is around 62% cheaper on average than in the USA.
  • You can get by in English or Russian, easily. As one of the most literate places in the world, almost every Estonian speaks at least a second language (if not several). This is really helpful since Estonian is widely considered one of the top 10 hardest languages to learn. Given its prior Soviet occupation, it’s no wonder that the second most common language in the country is Russian. German and Finnish are also very common in older generations. But the vast majority of younger adults speak a very good standard of English too.
  • Clean environment/ environmentally friendly. Whether you’re an eco-warrior or not, living here is a pleasant experience because of how environmentally friendly it is for everyone. With over half of the country being covered in forestry, coupled with a small population, it’s no wonder that Estonia boasts some of the cleanest air in the world. You may also find that the general public takes recycling more seriously here. It does of course help that the government encourages recycling with incentives like getting cash back on your clean used drinks cans and bottles. Simply take them to your nearest “taaraautomaat” and get a cashback voucher for your next grocery shop.
  • The education is excellent. Whether you’ve a family of your own or want to study higher education, Estonia is a great choice for studying abroad. For primary education it topped the OECD leaderboards in 2021 for reading performance and came second for science and third for mathematics, making it one of the best countries across the board for education. When it comes to university, Tartus uni makes it into the global top 500. Many postgraduate programmes are taught in English or Russian and EU students can even benefit from free tuition!
  • Public transport is free for residents. Once you’re resident in Tallinn you can apply for a personalised smartcard that can be used on public transport. Trams, trains, and buses throughout Estonia tend to be very efficient at timekeeping and are generally comfortable (with free WIFI and charging points for example). Even if you’re not a resident of Tallinn, you’ll be pleased to know that fares on public transport aren’t expensive anyway
  • There is plenty of space. As mentioned above with such a low population (1.3 million people) you don’t need to worry about the mad rush of life you may be used to in your home country. The bulk of the population lives in the three major cities of Estonia (Tallinn, Tartu, or Pärnu).
  • It’s a digital society. Estonia has long been considered one of the most digitally advanced societies in the world. You’re encouraged to do almost everything online from submitting tax returns, to voting and signing various legally binding contracts. This is all possible because of the ID card system they employ, which is mandatory for all residents in Estonia. The tech industry is thriving and it’s been home to several successful tech/advances like Skype, Transferwise, and Starship technologies. So be sure to watch your step if you’re in the center of Tallinn, as you’ll likely be passed by a few electric scooters or delivery robots on your travels. What’s more, you’ll be delighted to find that even in the heart of the forests you can rely on a stable 4G connection!
Did you know?
It's mandatory to wear reflectors on your clothing at night in Estonia

The cons of living in Estonia

  • There’s a very visible divide between the rich and poor. According to the OECD, the top 20% of the population earns almost six times as much as the bottom 20%. So even though employment levels are higher than average in Estonia, the levels of disposable income vary wildly from one household to another.
  • It gets very cold in winter. Temperatures are known to reach -20 degrees centigrade at the heart of winter so come prepared! Being in the northern hemisphere means the days can be very dark for several months so you’ll need to adapt to loving winter sports and/or keep a sunny disposition! On the positive side, when you finally make it through to summer, at its peak, the sun barely sets before rising again.
  • Estonian is a difficult language to learn. As mentioned above, you don’t need to learn Estonian to get around in the country, but locals always appreciated it when you make the effort. It is however a tricky language to master with the Foreign Service Institute ranking it the 5th hardest language to learn for English speakers. That’s in part because it has 14 noun cases and 25 diphthongs (i.e. two adjacent vowel sounds occur within the same syllable).
    There is support though, and if you can snap up a place (they go fast!) there are free courses for adults to learn A1 through to C1 levels of the language. Find out more at the integration institutes website here.
  • Infrastructure is still in its infancy. Having only regained its independence (again) in 1991, Estonia has been playing catch-up with the rest of the world. This isn’t noticeable in built-up areas like Tallinn but when you head to more rural parts, you’ll often see continuous roadworks going on. And in many cases when buying a property you may need to arrange for electrical, sewerage, and water connections from your local municipality.
  • The Estonian language is fairly direct. The Estonian language is very matter-of-fact, so often it can seem like people are being cold. But don’t be fooled into thinking Estonian people are unfriendly. They are typically very helpful and kind, however, it’s not commonplace to make small talk with strangers like you may be used to in the likes of the USA or UK for instance.
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Tallinn's business district skyline at night / Getty Images

 

Working in Estonia

For some time now Estonia has encouraged professionals and businesses into the country. With its flat rate of corporation tax (20%), simple electronic filing, and option for e-residency, it’s no wonder that there has been a huge rise in expats and start-ups over the past few years. In fact, Estonia is now home to more start-ups per capita than anywhere else in Europe.

Requirements for working in Estonia

The requirements to work in Estonia, like anywhere, vary depending on where you’re from. Thankfully there are several easy options for foreigners.

EU Citizens working in Estonia

If you’re from an EU country you can work in Estonia without any restrictions for up to three months. If you’re planning to stay for longer, you will simply need to register your residency and obtain a valid ID Card (which also provides you with a state ID number or ‘Isikukood’).

Digital Nomad Visa

If you’re a remote worker and want to simply try out living in Estonia while you continue to work in another country, there is now a ‘Digital Nomad Visa’ option for you. It allows you to live and work remotely in Estonia for up to a year. Whilst you won’t be entitled to long-term residency or any travel rights across the rest of Europe, it’s a great option if you’ve already got a stable position.

Applications are straightforward, usually taking 30 days. It costs EUR80 for a short stay nomad visa and EUR100 for a long stay. You can apply via your local Estonian Embassy or find out more here.

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Young tech firm at work in their office / Getty Images

Temporary work permits (D-Visas)

If you’re working on an assignment for up to a year, you can apply for a D-Visa. It’s straightforward to apply and it typically takes up to 30 days to process. Along with your application form and fee (of EUR 100), you’ll need to present:

  • Your valid travel document
  • A photo (35×45 mm)
  • A health insurance policy – click here to get a quote
  • A document indicating the purpose of the journey – (e.g. an employment contract or letter from your employer about the assignment)

If you’re working on an even shorter project/assignment, then you may also want to consider an alternative option or registering your short-term stay with the Police and Border guard. More information can be found here.

E-Residency

We of course can’t mention working in Estonia without discussing E-Residency. E Residency was introduced in 2014 for people who want to start and run a business in the country without physically living in Estonia. Since its launch, this initiative now accounts for a third of all start-ups in the country. A couple of key benefits to e-residents include the use of digital services (like being able to securely sign and send documents) and of course, being able to file corporate taxes in Estonia. Find out more about e-residency here.

 

Finding a job in Estonia

If you don’t already have a job or assignment in Estonia, there are several great ways to find a job. In fact, many employers won’t find it a problem to get speculative applications whilst you’re still overseas. Here are some handy links to get you started in your search, but it might also be worth finding some expat forums or trying to contact companies in your field of study:

Whilst you can often find a place of work without actually living in Estonia, it’s worth noting you’ll usually need to have an Isikukood (state ID) and proof of residency to actually start work and get a contract formally in place.

Business etiquette in Estonia

Estonia has survived a gloomy history of occupation by various neighboring countries, which has no doubt influenced what it’s like to do business there today. Since it’s become a free country again (1991) Estonia has worked hard at improving GPD, attracting new talent, and making it as easy as possible to do business with.

Estonian people are generally quite reserved when you first meet them, and this still applies when talking to businesspeople. They don’t often spend time engaging in idle small-talk. Being concise and to the point will be appreciated here.

They are also very punctual, it’s a small country after all and transport is usually run like clockwork. So if you’re attending important meetings, it’s expected that you arrive a few minutes ahead of time or call ahead if for some reason you are running late.

For the most part, if you’re in an office environment the dress code is usually formal, however, some larger tech firms and start-ups are changing this attitude. For meetings, it’s still typical to see darker suits worn (for both men and women), avoiding any brightly coloured accents.

Whilst it’s acceptable to bring token gifts from your home country, gifting isn’t commonplace in a business environment.

Moving to Estonia as an Expat

Accommodation

Whether you’re renting or planning to buy a home in Estonia, it’s worth noting that the listings are not always classified in the way you may be used to. For instance, the number of ‘rooms’ in a property wouldn’t be limited to bedrooms and instead includes living/reception rooms too. You’ll typically find that accommodation is cheaper in Estonia than in larger economies like the United Kingdom or USA.

The average cost of renting an apartment in Estonia
City Centre Outside City Centre
1 Bed Apartment €554.55 €416.22
3 Bed Apartment €944.83 €651.67

 

The average cost of buying an apartment in Estonia
City Centre Outside City Centre
Price per meter squared €2,583.95 €1,756.75

Data on renting and buying a property in Estonia from Numbeo. Correct as of 21/10/2021.

Buying a property in Estonia as an Expat

The procss of buying a home in Estonia is very quick. A purchase can be made in a matter of days usually. Once you’ve found the right property, however, do be careful to only make an offer if you’re certain you want to and can fulfill it. Otherwise, you will likely be liable to pay a deposit if you change your mind later.

Major property websites include KV.ee and City24.ee. However, if you’re looking to rent you may also find it useful to browse private listings which regularly get updated on various Facebook groups.

When you’ve found the right property, the typical process is to arrange for buyers and sellers to sit down in person at a notary’s office. All of the contractual information is discussed in one go. A translator will be mandatory for anybody unable to understand Estonian (at their own expense). But, after a few hours, you will be able to sign deeds and officially own the property.

When buying it’s worth noting that buyers tend to pay the bulk of the sale fees including those for:

  • Estate agency fees
  • Stamp duty
  • Notary fees
  • Translators (if required)
  • Registration fees

All in, this may account for up to 6% of the property value, so be sure to factor that into your budget.

"Most Estonian banks I've looked at don't seem to welcome foreign clients without ID cards, Estonian personal identification codes, residence permits or any income in euros for mortgages, while American banks don't offer mortgages on property overseas."
Kristiina
Expat in Estonia, ERR News

Renting a property in Estonia

If you’re only planning on living in Estonia for a short time, you may turn to your ‘go-to’ websites to find accommodation (such as Booking.com or Airbnb), but if you want to find somewhere for longer, you’ll likely need to use the local websites instead, or Facebook groups if you want to avoid estate agency fees.

There are no strict rules as to what is or isn’t included in your rental fees. But more often than not, tenants are expected to pay for:

  • Gas
  • Water
  • Communal costs
  • Electricity
  • Internet

The good news is that the cost of utilities is typically low in Estonia in relation to average salaries. The bad news is it may prove difficult to set up utility contracts without an ID card/residency in place.

If you’re planning to live near a big city, you’ll typically find a plethora of apartments. However, houses are infrequently rented and when they are, it’s usually in suburban or remote locations.

Here are some top tips for renting in Estonia:

  • Many landlords (and brokers) don’t want to pay taxes and prefer cash payment for rent. Avoid this where possible and pay electronically to ensure you have a formal paper trail to prove your rental payments.
  • Search for the latest listings first. As with purchasing property, rentals move very quickly too. If you want to snap up the best places, you’ll have to move quickly.
  • Get your right of residency sorted in advance if you can. This can cause problems for you renting otherwise.
  • Check out Facebook groups and marketplace as well as the major websites for the best offers.

Banking

Banking is a common challenge for many expats. You may already hold international accounts, but every country is different and if you’re planning on living in Estonia for a longer period of time, you’ll ideally need a local account. The major banks include Swedbank, LHV, SEB & Luminor. Here are some tips and considerations if you’re planning to open an Estonian bank account:

  • In Estonia, you won’t likely be able to get a mortgage or apply for any credit with a bank as a standalone product. This means you’ll need to hold an existing account with the lender first.
  • If you’re used to free banking you may be a little shocked to find almost all banks charge fees here – especially for those who are non-resident (who can expect to pay anywhere EUR100-400 to process documents).
  • The scale of the bank is important in Estonia if you want to make regular cash withdrawals. That’s because if you use another bank’s cashpoint for withdrawals you’ll be charged.  That’s why the major banks all flaunt how many terminals they have countrywide.
  • For students, there are usually added perks or freebies when you open a new account – so be sure to shop around. 

In order to open an account (and do regular activities such as online or mobile banking) you will usually need:

  • Your passport or EU ID card.
  • Proof of connection to Estonia (for non-residents/citizens)
  • Proof of address (or e-residency)
  • Non-residents may also need to show 3 months worth of existing bank statements

With an Estonian ID card, it’s quite straightforward to open an account and verify your ID online even if you’re not already living in Estonia.

On the whole, yes. But, when looking for a bank in Estonia, be sure to use one that’s overseen by the Bank of Estonia. It is part of the European System of Central Banks.

On the whole yes as Estonian banks offer IBAN numbers (International Bank Account Numbers). However, every bank is individual in their fees. Some take one-off fees for international transfers, others may not take any fee but can bump up the exchange rates so be sure to shop around.

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Tram in Tallinn, Estonia / Getty Images

Transport

One of the first things to note is that public transport is free for residents of Tallinn. Public transport is generally very efficient and comfortable too. In the centre there’s an array of buses, trams and trains. However, it’s becoming ever more popular to use the likes of short-rental scooters or bikes. Care hire is also very quick and easy in Estonia with the likes of Citybee or Bolt.

If you’re looking to drive around the country, be sure to familiarise yourself with the road laws. Of course, you’ll notice that driving is on the right-hand side of the road, but there are also specific road markings that are unique. For example:

  • A large “X” painted on the road indicates that you need to give way to traffic from your right-hand side.
  • In the cities, it’s not unusual for traffic lights to change to a blinking orange state overnight. This means the traffic lights are temporarily not in use, and you’ll need to exercise caution at those junctions.
  • You may also need to use extra caution when turning corners. There are often pedestrian crossings that are positioned directly after the bend.
  • In the heart of Tallinn, there are smart lanes that change direction depending on traffic. Keep an eye out for the overhead signs that indicate the direction of traffic.
  • In wintertime, it’s a legal requirement to use winter tires.
  • There is zero tolerance for drink driving. If you are spot-checked and have any alcohol in your system you could face hefty penalties.

Whilst we’d mentioned some of the infrastructures in Estonia still being in their infancy, the country is moving very fast to catch up. There are still plenty of dirt and gravel roads in the rural areas of Estonia, but tarmac is being laid at a serious pace around the country. If you choose to live in a rural part of Estonia, it would be worthwhile choosing a car that’s a little higher off the ground, and that you won’t mind a few stone chips on.

Tallinn has a very active ferry terminal (with regular departures to Finland and Sweden). But there are also plans underway to link an underground railway tunnel to Helsinki. This new line is promising a 30-minute journey under the Gulf of Finland between the two cities.

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Students in Estonia laughing together / Getty Images

 

Education and Studying in Estonia

Estonia has a fantastic reputation for education – reaching 2nd place in our review of the best places in the world for education. This in part is because education is well rounded for pupils of all socio-economic backgrounds. The current system caters for four basic tiers of education:

  1. Pre-school (1.5-7 years)
  2. Basic education (6-14 years)
  3. Secondary education (12-18 years)
  4. Higher education (bachelor, master, and doctoral studies)

School-aged children moving to Estonia are offered free tuition of the Estonian language to help with their integration and most basic schools teach in either Estonian or Russian. There are private schools available, however, they aren’t commonplace in Estonia as state education is at such a high standard anyway.

Early Years

Access to pre-school education is available to children from 1.5 – 7 years in Estonia. Whilst education is not compulsory until 7 years, most children do attend Kindergarten. It’s not commonplace to put children into childcare earlier than 1.5 years in Estonia, but that may be linked to the long periods of maternity leave on offer to mothers.

If you’re living in Estonia as a resident, you can apply to up to 3 state kindergartens for your child. However, if you arrive outside of the standard application times, you’re unlikely to find a place. The good news is that if you can’t get a state kindergarten placement, private nurseries are subsidised by the state. You will usually pay up to around EUR350 a month (once subsidies are deducted) for a full-time place, including meals.

Basic & Secondary Education

Mandatory education begins at 7 years, and children do not proceed into Secondary education until they are able to complete basic school graduation exams. Placements are made based on catchment areas. There are private schools providing courses in various languages as well as IB programmes available too.

Higher education in Estonia

International students now account for 12% of all degree students in Estonia. Most international students have found themselves drawn to Tartu University (which has made it into the world’s top 500). But there are a range of other universities available which, combined, now offer over 150 courses in English. It’s also a great place for women looking for a career in tech. In fact, 40% of ICT Masters’ students are female.

Studying in Estonia is also reasonably priced compared to other European counterparts; but the overall range is between €1,500–€5,000 per term. EU citizens will also often find free study programmes. These are however more common at Master’s level. All PhD programmes are also free.

Foreign students don’t need any additional permits to start working in Estonia. Meaning as soon as you have the right to study in Estonia you can live and work in Estonia too. You can find out more about higher education in Estonia here.


Facts and FAQs about Estonia

Estonian. With only 1.1M native speakers, Estonian isn’t a widely-spoken language. It’s part of the Uralic group of languages (that is, originating from northern Eurasia) and is considered closely related to the Finnish language but much of the vocabulary is borrowed from the German language too.

Estonia is one of the most literate places in the world, with almost every Estonian speaking at least one other language (if not several).

The second most common language in the country is Russian, but German and Finnish are also very common in older generations. The vast majority of younger adults speak a very good standard of English too.

Overall, yes! It was ranked 1st place in a recent internationals report for digital life1, has some of the cleanest air in the world, has a reasonable cost of living, and boasts a great education system.

1 – Where digital life refers to the ease of access to digital services such as social media and government services.  Source: Internations 2019

 

Usually, yes. Where expats haven’t made contributions to the Estonian Health Insurance Fund (or ‘haigekassa‘) they will either need to take out an expat health insurance policy before entering the country or can make a year’s worth of contributions to the fund.

Of course with an expat policy in place, you don’t need to worry about getting registered for a family doctor (or ‘perearst’) as you’ll be covered for the best care possible with a private practitioner right away.

Yes, non-residents can buy property in Estonia relatively restriction-free. A deposit of 10% is usually required.


Facts and FAQs about Estonia

 

Top tips for moving to Estonia

  1. Get an ID card
    If applicable, do this as soon as you possibly can. Your ID card will make your life a lot easier when trying to do basics like buy a SIM card, or sign contracts online. If you don’t have grounds for citizenship then you won’t be able to use this ID card for travel but it will certainly help with everyday life in Estonia.
  2. Pack for every season.
    The weather changes rapidly here with hot summers and very cold winters. If you don’t have proper winter wear, then you’ll find an abundance of it in the shops locally.
  3. Try to learn the language. 
    Or at least some of it. If nothing more, it will serve as a great icebreaker for you when out and about, and don’t forget it’s free for those registered as residents living in Estonia. If you’re living close to the Russian border, however, many of the residents get by solely on Russian – so that would be worth its weight in gold too.
  4. Invest in decent blackout/thermal blinds or curtains. It may sound like a strange one, but in the summer, the sun will barely set, so don’t risk turning into an insomniac. Equally a quality set of curtains or blinds can also help insulate your place in the harsh winters too.
  5. Don’t forget about health insurance.
    If you haven’t made contributions to the Estonian Health Insurance Fund (or ‘haigekassa‘) then you will likely need to take out a policy before entering the country (or even before submitting your D-Visa application). Get the best care possible without facing extortionate fees with William Russell’s International Health Insurance.

Looking for an international health plan for your move to Estonia?

Get a Quick Quote Online

Your handy “moving to Estonia” checklist


We’ve provided a handy checklist for your move – use this link if you want a print-out you can add to.

  • ☐ Do you have an offer of employment?
  • ☐ Have applied for an ID Card?
  • ☐ Have you found a place to live in Estonia?
  • ☐ If your property is unfurnished, have you found a company that can supply your home with essential furniture ahead of your arrival?
  • ☐ Have you prepaid your property deposit and any other bills?
  • ☐ Have you received your tenancy agreement as proof of address? (You will need this to do many other things like set up a bank account.)
  • ☐ Have you asked your landlord or property manager to set up your home Wi-Fi ahead of your arrival?
  • ☐ Have you calculated a budget that takes into account expenses such as rent, taxes and other bills/fees?
  • ☐ If you are migrating with children, have you arranged a place for them at a local school?
  • ☐ Have you chosen a bank for your account and prepared the necessary paperwork?
  • ☐ Do you have all the necessary payment cards to go with your account?
  • ☐ Have you arranged to get a mobile phone with a local SIM card?
  • ☐ Have you taken out international health insurance to cover you and your family?
  • ☐ Have you checked the COVID-19 situation and made preparations to undergo regular testing?
  • ☐ If you have already been vaccinated for COVID-19, if so, do you have evidence of your vaccine such as the batch number and manufacturer?
  • ☐ If you have not been vaccinated, have you made arrangements to get a vaccine once you arrive in India or looked at the quarantine implications?
  • ☐ Have you applied for a visa at least 2 weeks before beginning your preparations?
  • ☐ Have you also applied for a visa for your spouse and/or family?
  • ☐ Have you checked to see if you can bring your pets (both with your landlord as well as the transport implications)?
  • ☐ Have you learned some basic Estonian phrases?