- 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 to 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 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 residents of the capital, Longyearbyen, include people of more than 40 different nationalities, a few of whom are “from” Svalbard, basically.
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 calls beloved “Svalbard babies” even when they grow up, Cecilia Blomdahl, a popular content creator based in Longyearbyen, told Insider.
Among Svalbard’s other strange 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 definitely don’t find yourself without a home.
While Svalbard’s 1920 treaty allows anyone to live and work on the archipelago indefinitely, its open borders carry an asterisk: You must have enough money to support yourself and a roof over your head, or else you risk being kicked out of the area.
“You can stay here 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.”
Despite being a Norwegian sovereignty, workers in Svalbard pay 8% income tax and local businesses contribute zero taxes to the country’s national insurance scheme (the mainland’s current tax rate is 14% and 22% respectively). As a result, there are no nursing homes, public transportation, homeless shelters, unemployment benefits, or really any social safety net you can think of.
No one understands this trade-off 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 over a decade.
He moved to the island from the US in 2008 with about $1 million in the bank and ambitions to launch an English-language newspaper, Sabbatini told Insider.
During IcePeople’s operation, two of Sabbatini’s apartments were condemned due to environmental issues that he said were exacerbated by the region’s rapidly warming climate. The first was built over thawing permafrost and the second was in a newly defined avalanche zone.
“At that point, I didn’t have a lot of money and it was a big struggle every month to buy things,” she said. “I was begging, borrowing — not stealing, but pretty close.”
After squatting in a friend’s cabin during the pandemic, Sabatini succumbed to his last resort: sleeping at the campsite where a guide was killed in a polar bear attack the previous year. It was then that the skipper gave him the boot.
“I was terribly miserable, but it was absolutely the right decision,” recalls Sabbatini, who now works for a local newspaper in Alaska.
“It’s a very fair system. Your taxes are incredibly low, but the price is that you don’t get social support,” he continued. “If you’re not paying for this system, why benefit from it?”
Thanks to the local housing crisis, it is easier to find a job in Svalbard than a place to live. Despite 2.5 months of complete darkness and sub-zero 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 any idea, you’re probably the only one who does [in Svalbard]”He said. ‘I think if we set it up in a normal city where there are five other coffee shops or shops on the same block, I don’t think we would have the same success.’
But the region’s remoteness also creates a separate set of challenges, Fiala explained, especially when it comes to shipping goods from the mainland.
“If the coffee maker breaks, no one here can fix it and it will take weeks to get another one,” he said, adding that “there’s a guy in town who knows how to fix an industrial dishwasher.”
“Once we save more money, we want to buy or rent another one and have it as a backup,” he told Insider. “If there’s ever a moon colony, I think we’d be perfect for it. It really is like a space station here.”
Fiala and his co-founders all have second jobs, which made launching Café Huskies less of a financial risk. He studied architecture but currently works as a tour guide — one of many professionals in the local tourism economy with hidden passions.
“Here in tourism, you have a lot of people who work at the front desk, drive, drive a truck,” he told Insider. “But he’s also an economist, a chemist, a photographer.”
Why do people from so many different backgrounds and careers continue to flock to one of the world’s most remote cities? One answer, according to Fiala, is that the end of life in Svalbard serves as a “catalyst” for both the best and worst qualities of people.
“If you’re depressed and have a drinking problem and you come here, you’re probably only going to end up drinking in the winter,” he explained. “But if you’re trying to finish the book, you just will. Life here is starting to call.”