Is Amsterdam a Good Move for You?

As we’re about to embark on yet another international move, this time from Dublin to Boston, we wanted to reflect back on the move that took us from Tampa to Amsterdam, where we lived for 3 and 1/2 years. Amsterdam is one of the best preserved 17th century cities in Europe. Its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We loved our visit there when we were backpackers, so when the opportunity to move to Amsterdam presented itself, we made it happen. If you’re considering the same, is an Amsterdam move right for you?

PhD Positions are Viewed as Paid Apprenticeships in the Netherlands

The reason we moved to Amsterdam was because Bell was offered a PhD position at the University of Amsterdam. The Dutch consider the position a paid apprenticeship. So all PhD positions are regulated by the government to pay a livable salary. They give small annual increases in pay each year during the four year program. She took a sizable pay cut from her job in Tampa, but as I had income coming in from writing, we felt it was worthwhile to experience another culture.

If you have the chance to work for a major Dutch company like Shell or Phillips, or any job that pays a good salary and want to experience a foreign culture, you should definitely consider moving to the Netherlands for awhile. Here are some pros and cons of living in Amsterdam, especially if you won’t be earning a high income!

Bell sitting having coffee beside a canal in Amsterdam

Most Dutch Speak English

We knew this beforehand and this was a big pro to us. However, we also came to find out that it’s also a con. With the economic crisis, English speaking jobs with multinational companies in Amsterdam dried up. So when I lost my writing job, we found ourselves in a tough financial situation. It was depressing to look at job ads and see more jobs for German and Swedish speakers than English speakers. But it made sense because so many Dutch speak great English.

With most expat couples we knew, one partner was out of work and found finding work to be a challenge. Also, most government documents and day to day paperwork are only written in Dutch. This includes all banking (though people can sometimes verbally help you in English). The banking exception was ABN Amro, but they prefer wealthier clients and charge higher fees.

Great Public Transport and Bike Paths 

You absolutely don’t need a car in Amsterdam or most Dutch cities. The Netherlands is densely populated so the cities themselves are also well connected, making commuting by rail a viable option. Amsterdam is one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world. So if you’ll be strapped for cash, consider commuting via bicycle within the city. That’s also great for your health!

The Dutch train system is one of the most efficient in the world. Dutch towns are conveniently connected with fast and regular train service. This means you can easily commute by living in a less expensive town like Haarlem or Utrecht, outside Amsterdam. There are also so many great day trips from Amsterdam!

Bell biking in Amsterdam, Is Amsterdam a Good Move for You?

Apartments are Expensive, Especially for Expats

Like any desirable city, rents are high, making an Amsterdam move expensive. But the Dutch also have a large socialized housing market. Like any economic aspect, this benefits some and hurts others. The socialized housing market drives the free market rental prices upwards, and this hurts short term expats on lower salaries. If you don’t have Dutch connections, you’ll initially pay a higher price for rent and find Dutch people saying “You pay that much for that? That’s too high!”

As Dutch public transport is excellent, you’ll get a little more bang for your buck in pretty towns like Haarlem or Utrecht, and can easily commute to Amsterdam. Here are some tips for renting in Amsterdam.

Our tiny Dutch kitchen, Is Amsterdam a Good Move for You?
Our tiny city center kitchen in Amsterdam got crowded very quickly at my 30th birthday party

Dutch Tolerance Overrated?

Between tolerating soft drugs like marijuana, legalized prostitution in the Red Light District and Amsterdam being one of the most gay friendly cities in the world, the Dutch are more tolerant than most cultures. On one hand. But the Netherlands is also one of the wealthiest countries in the world. While the Dutch generally don’t flaunt their wealth through fancy clothing or cars, they are famous throughout Europe for often being uncompromising.

We often felt there was a prevailing air of superiority with many Dutch. Wecame to the conclusion that the Netherlands is a great place for Dutch people, and an OK place for everyone else. After 3 and 1/2 years we were very ready to move on. So we moved to Dublin…where we ironically made some great new Dutch friends! We’ve been fortunate to make some loyal Dutch friends over the years.

Don’t Expect Fast Service at Historic Dutch Pubs and Restaurants 

Dining outside alongside lovely canals, beside centuries-old cathedrals and next to historic buildings or windmills is amazing and unique. And Dutch eateries themselves are often quite “gezellig” (“cosy” in English).

Amsterdam’s close proximity to Belgium means it’s a great beer drinking country. It’s dotted with historic pubs and great craft beers. These are some of the most unique pubs in Amsterdam.

But if you move from the USA to Amsterdam like we did, prepare to  adjust your expectations on restaurant service. Like many countries, mostly young people work in restaurants. But the Dutch often feel like they are above their job to serve people. So they often do the bare minimum. Mind of you, this is less about the incentive of tipping than a cultural mindset. Servers are also paid a livable wage in Ireland and elsewhere on the continent. And the Irish are generally far more attentive to guests in their establishments compared to the Dutch.

Don’t expect Dutch servers to ask “how was everything?” And in the chance they do (almost always after you’re done eating) don’t expect them to care too much if you had a problem. And the more you complain, the worse the service will get. The best advice here is to be patient. Of course you’ll occasionally get good service, in which case you’ll find yourself delighted.

Dutch Customer Service

While not famous for it, the Dutch can be helpful, but don’t expect them to go outside their job description. “Dat niet mogelijk is” or in English “that is not possible” is one of the most common things you’ll hear for requests that you may think are reasonable, like asking the post office to borrow their dolly to move some boxes, while even offering them a deposit for it.

Is an Amsterdam Move Right for You? 

We frequently found life in the Netherlands frustrating, but that’s everywhere, and especially when you have differing expectations. We love that there is less disparity in wealth in the Netherlands compared to the USA. There also is not nearly the amount of homelessness and begging that there is in Dublin. The quality of life is relatively high, we had good experiences with the health care system and Amsterdam is a gorgeous city.

We loved picnicking along Amsterdam’s canals during pleasant weather and thoroughly enjoyed the amazing setting. In 3 and 1/2 years, the city’s beauty did not fade from our appreciation. If we could move to Europe all over again, we absolutely would. Sometimes it is good to dive into endeavors a little on the naive and optimistic side.

Boat ride in Amsterdam with friends


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

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14 thoughts on “Is Amsterdam a Good Move for You?

  1. Great insight into a fabulous city. We have many Dutch people living in Australia and we would say that they are hard working but very tight with cash and compliments. Each culture has its own take on the things which makes it exciting and challenging.

    1. For a small population, the Dutch get around so it’s no surprise there’s many in Australia. Many Dutch also like to visit South Africa given it was formerly colonised as a port of call on the tea and coffee trade with the West Indies. Subsequently the Afrikaans language developed there (which is Dutch influenced)…The Dutch are historically savvy business people and are good with money, similar to Germans.

  2. I love a bit of good, ol’ fashioned honesty about life abroad. I have always wanted to live in Amsterdam, and now I have a little more local knowledge under my belt to help me in my the decision making.

    Thanks for posting this — and all the best for your move to Boston!

    1. Hey Rebecca! Thanks so much for the well wishes on Boston, that’s most appreciated. Even though this is my country, it’s a new city and state so we don’t necessarily find moving to Boston much easier since it’s a far bigger city than Amsterdam and Dublin (both numbering around a million each while greater Boston is over 4 million). And because of so many exclusive and expensive universities, rental prices in the Boston area are very high.

      For a small city the public transport in Amsterdam is fantastic (it’s more extensive and reliable than Boston). If you have the opportunity to live in Amsterdam we say go for it! Please let us know if you have any additional questions. Happy travels!

  3. This was very interesting, as myself and my American boyfriend have just moved to Amsterdam! I can definitely agree in terms of the job market and most people expecting Dutch (unless your job re-located you) and also on the housing prices. As for the service, coming from the UK, I wouldn’t say that it’s really any different than at home, although the tipping culture is almost non-existent here (unlike at home) which does lead to slightly more aloof service. I always figured it was partly because they resent having to talk in English to you!
    Will definitely have to hit you up with some tips re: living here and healthcare/taxes, etc. it seems a bit of a minefield right now!

    1. Hey Julia, thanks for commenting and congratulations on your move to Amsterdam! You and your husband will love summer in Amsterdam. The beach scene in the Netherlands is very underrated. You can really enjoy some great hangouts on Zandvoort Van Zee and other places. We had a wonderful time camping on the island of Texel one summer

      Yeah health care and taxes can be complicated in the Netherlands. Everyone working for a Dutch company or university in the NL must have Dutch health insurance. But if you work for a foreign company, like a friend who worked for American company Fastenal, based in Dordrecht, there are some exceptions. The Dutch provide some tax breaks for skilled overseas labour, but Bell didn’t qualify for it as a PhD student/apprentice. This is strange as she was invited to work from abroad, so if they could find someone local to do the job why didn’t they? But that’s just the way it is for all PhD positions.

      Enjoy all the wonderful things Amsterdam has to offer and please hit us up with more questions any time!

  4. So, you’ve lived in Dublin and Amsterdam…which would you choose for your first expat experience. Note: will be traveling a lot to other European countries for work. Thanks for your insight,

    1. We just visited Amsterdam for the first time since we lived there and fell in love with the city all over again. Dublin is cool but Amsterdam is more beautiful and because the country is more densely populated it’s so easy to do short day trips to lots of pretty towns in the Netherlands because the trains run frequently. It depends what you’re looking for but we’d probably lean Amsterdam. Good luck with your move and let us know if you have specific questions!

  5. Hi
    I want to seek asylum in NL do you think for someone like me NL is the best bet for me ? if not where ?
    thanks in advance.

    1. Hi, sorry but we really have no idea about seeking asylum, as we don’t personally know anybody who’s been in that situation…The Netherlands could be good, but it depends on your situation and you will have to appeal to their embassy. Good luck!

    1. Hi VJ. That’s variably depending on what you do. Salaries in the US are often higher but you’ll almost certainly get less vacation and the cost of living is generally higher in most big cities. It depends what you’re looking for, but if you land a good salaried job in the Netherlands, you should have a good overall quality of life.

        1. That’s pretty subjective and depends on your industry and expectations, Nick. For younger single people, sharing a 2-3 bedroom apartment to save money, is a good idea for many anyway to help mitigate loneliness/homesickness. So we wouldn’t want to discourage people moving to Amsterdam based purely on salary.

          At the end of Bell’s PhD (4th year) she was making around €35,000 a year (in 2011). PhD salary scales are regulated by the Dutch government.

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