Hannah Towey – Updated Dec 31, 2022, 12:04 PM – for Business Insider
Longyearbyen, the largest city in Svalbard on May 2, 2022. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images
- Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago by the North Pole, is one of the world’s only visa-free zones.
- But residents who can’t support themselves or find housing can be expelled by the governor.
- Insider spoke with four locals (one of whom was deported) about what it’s like to work in Svalbard.
In a world where your passport dictates where you can live, travel, and work, there’s a semi-frozen haven open to citizens of all countries — no complicated visa or employment permits required.
Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago 500 miles from the North Pole, is home to the world’s northernmost human settlement. The 2,300 residents of the capital, Longyearbyen, include people of over 40 different nationalities, few of whom are “from” Svalbard, per say.
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 islands covered by ice.
There are surprises of course, whom the town endearingly calls “Svalbard babies” even when they’re grown, Cecilia Blomdahl, a popular content creator based in Longyearbyen, said in an interview with Insider.
Among Svalbard’s other odd rules left over from its days as a coal mining town include a monthly alcohol limit (24 beers, half a bottle of fortified wine, and one bottle of liquor), and a ban on cats to protect the bird population.
But the most important rule of all: Don’t run out of money. And certainly don’t find yourself without a home.
While the Svalbard treaty of 1920 permits 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 your head, or risk expulsion from the territory.
“You can stay here for as long as you can take care of yourself,” Blomdahl said. “That means how you get to work, how you live, your housing — nothing will be provided for you.”
Despite being a sovereignty of Norway, Svalbard employees pay an 8% income tax and local businesses contribute zero taxes toward the country’s national insurance program (the mainland’s current tax rate is 14% and 22% respectively). As a result, there are no retirement homes, public transport, homeless shelters, unemployment benefits, or really any social safety net you can think of.
Nobody understands this trade off quite like Mark Sabbatini, the founder and editor of IcePeople, “the world’s northernmost alternative newspaper,” who was kicked off Svalbard in 2021 after living in Longyearbyen for over a decade.
He moved to the island from the US in 2008 with around $1 million dollars in the bank and ambitions to launch an English-language newspaper, Sabbatini told Insider.
While running IcePeople, two of Sabbatini’s apartments were condemned due to environmental issues he said were exacerbated by the area’s rapidly warming climate. The first was built on top of thawing permafrost, and the second was located in a newly determined avalanche zone.
“At that point, I didn’t have a whole lot of money and it was a big scramble every month to scrounge up stuff,” he said. “I was begging, borrowing — not stealing, but pretty close.”
After squatting in a friend’s cabin during the pandemic, Sabbatini succumbed to his last resort: sleeping at the campground where a guide was killed in a polar bear attack the year before. That’s when the governor gave him the boot.
“I was horribly miserable, but it was absolutely the right decision,” Sabbatini, who now works at a local paper in Alaska, recalled.
“It’s a very fair system. Your taxes are incredibly low, but the trade off is you get no social support,” he continued. “If you’re not paying for that system, why should you benefit from it?”
Thanks to the local housing crisis, it’s easier to find work on Svalbard than a place to live. Despite 2.5 months of complete darkness and below-freezing temperatures, the capital 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 some idea, you’re probably the only one who’s doing it [in Svalbard]” he said. “I think if we set this up in a regular city where there’s five other coffee places or shops on the same block, I don’t think we’d be as successful.”
But the area’s remoteness also creates a separate set of challenges, Fiala explained, especially when it comes to shipping in goods from the mainland.
“If the coffee machine breaks, no one here can fix it and it would take weeks for us to get another one,” he said, adding that “there’s one guy in town who knows how to fix an industrial dishwasher.”
“As soon as we save up some more money, we want to buy or rent another one and have it as a spare,” he told Insider. “If there’s ever a moon colony set up, I think we’d be perfect for it. It’s really like a space station here.”
Fiala and his co-founders all have second jobs, which made the launch of Café Huskies less of a financial risk. He studied architecture but currently works as a nature guide — one of many professionals in the local tourist economy with hidden passions.
“Here, in tourism, you have a lot of people working in reception, guiding, driving a truck,” he told Insider. “But they’re also an economist, a chemist, a photographer.”
Why do people of so many different backgrounds and careers continue flocking to one of the world’s most remote towns? One answer, according to Fiala, is that the extremity of life in Svalbard serves as a “catalyst” for both the best and worst qualities of humans.
“If you’re depressed and you have a drinking problem and you come here, you’ll probably just end up just drinking through the winter,” he explained. “But if you’re trying to finish the book, you’re just going to do it. Life here gets dialed up.”