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MOVING TO DENMARK

Nine types of foreigner you might meet in Denmark

It's easy to work out why someone might want to move to a country like Spain, France or Italy. The reasons people come to Denmark tend to be much more varied. Here are some of the types of foreigner you're likely to meet.

Nine types of foreigner you might meet in Denmark
A drone photo of the city of Vejle. Executives who move to Denmark for work may find themselves living in parts of Jutland. Photo: Mikkel Berg Pedersen/Freelance/Ritzau Scanpix

The business executive and trailing spouse 

After a number of years in their home country with one of Denmark’s biggest international companies – someone like Maersk, Lego or Vestas – this foreigner has now moved or been seconded to head office.

As such, you might not only find them in Copenhagen but also in provincial towns close to where their companies are based, spreading them across much of central Jutland and into Aarhus in the cases of Lego and Vestas.

They do not have long-term goals in Denmark in the same way as other groups because they expect their career progression to take them back home or to another country at some point. They also work in an international environment and are probably already in a stable relationship and have their partner, and possibly children, with them when they get to Denmark. They have a busy professional life.

These factors mean that, despite being highly educated, they don’t learn Danish very quickly, if at all.

If they have children, they might attend an international school. Their partners, who may have had to put their own careers on hold during the Danish sojourn, may be attempting to transfer their own qualifications to work in Denmark or alternatively channel their knowledge and interests into recreational pursuits like creative writing groups for internationals, or networking organisations.

The rootless lover (in Denmark by mistake)

This foreigner is likely to have been on holiday, backpacking, travelling or perhaps working abroad in another country when they fell in love with a Dane.

Neither side of this romance had a life plan set out at the time they met, and they were not tied down by commitments like mortgages or children. The foreigner might have finished their studies and be well into their twenties, but they are young enough to have a crack at moving to another country to start from scratch. They can pick up their career there later (once they’ve learned the language) or just go back home if it doesn’t work out. Right?

This type of foreigner is often unflatteringly referred to as a “sexual refugee” and can sometimes be found working in cafes, bars or pubs where the staff aren’t expected to speak Danish.

This is more likely if they are in Copenhagen or Aarhus where such places are more prevalent.  In fact, some may have been baristas or bartenders at such a high level before coming to Denmark that the Danish bar snapped them up, knowing its clientele generally won’t mind being addressed in English by a highly skilled barista.

There’s no shortage of Irish pubs in Copenhagen and other Danish cities. Photo: Martin Sylvest/Ritzau Scanpix

In some cases, the foreigner settles where they are, builds a network of other non-Danish speaking friends and establishes themselves in their international micro-community. Some stay a while, their relationship comes to a natural end and they return home.

In other cases, the foreigner risks being frozen out of society as they discover the Danish language is far more crucial to living in Denmark than they thought. Meanwhile, their partner is more sensible in their homeland, where they must think about paying their bills and planning for the future, things that weren’t concerns when they were backpacking in the Andes.

So the foreigner realises that, if they’re serious about their partner, they need to get serious about Denmark. They immerse themselves in language school, evaluate the chances of their career succeeding in Denmark and if they need to, retrain as something else. Eventually, they find a niche and build a Danish-speaking network independent of the person who brought them here.

By the time the final piece of the jigsaw – fluency in Danish – falls into place, they understand that it would now be just as difficult for them to return home as it was to move to Denmark in the first place. And so they settle in for the duration.

The initial years of regular homesickness mixed with the thrill of their new life gradually give way to a deeper longing for the home and clear identity they once had. They are now transnational, neither fully Danish nor entirely what they originally were, and their journey to rootlessness is complete.

The Dutch farmers

You’ll have to go to the southern reaches of Jutland to have a good chance of finding them, but Denmark has a surprising number of Dutch immigrant families.

Around 500-600 such families have moved from the Netherlands to Denmark since the late 1980s, according to Det Virtuelle Museum. Over half of these are based in southwest Jutland.

The Dutch are not thought of as a large immigrant group in Denmark, but because they live in smaller communities, they often play prominent roles in those communities. They also make an important contribution to the milk production and export industries.

The Dutch farmers were motivated by cheap land and the relative proximity to their homeland in their decisions to move to Denmark. Dutch and Danish, while not mutually intelligible, are close to each other linguistically, which helps the learning process along. The two countries are also considered to be fairly close in mentality and culture.

Most of the Dutch families have school-aged children when they arrive in Denmark. The children attend local schools and become friends with the other children, learn Danish quickly and help their parents form their own bonds with the local community.

Queen Margrethe of Denmark and Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands at the Amager Museum in Store Magleby in 2022. Photo: Martin Sylvest/Ritzau Scanpix

Interestingly, there was an earlier wave of Dutch immigration to Denmark several centuries ago. While you obviously won’t meet these Dutch immigrants now, you might come across their descendants.

In the early 16th century, a large group of Dutch peasants settled on the island of Amager near Copenhagen at the behest of the Danish King, Christian II. They implemented Dutch agricultural techniques as well as a small colony on the southern part of the island. This was located in the town of Store Magleby near Dragør, the fishing village and seaside attraction close to modern-day Copenhagen Airport and the Øresund Bridge.

The Dutch farmers could regularly be seen in their national costume selling produce at the market on the Amagertorv square in central Copenhagen, and the use of Dutch at the local school in Store Magleby persisted until the 19th century, when Danish replaced it by decree.

The Thai bride 

Although stereotypes suggest that these women are subservient and oppressed, this couldn’t be more wrong. Thai women who come to Denmark, either after meeting a Dane on holiday or through a marriage service, are one of Denmark’s most successful immigrant groups.

They often end up in quite remote areas, notably northwestern Jutland, and they fit surprisingly well into rural life. They may initially take cleaning or factory jobs, sometimes with night shifts, but also commonly run their own businesses such as small-town Thai restaurants or food trucks. 

They are in a hurry to make money, which they send back to relatives back home, and they also form self-help networks with other Thai women, giving new arrivals a hand in setting up business.  

The 2007 documentary Fra Thailand til Thy (‘From Thailand to Thy’) and 2018 documentary film Hjertelandet (‘Heartland’) offer intimate portrayals of the everyday lives, compromises, regrets and successes of Thai women who moved to Denmark.

The foreigner who moves to Denmark for the statistics 

This type of foreigner is resolved to live life rationally. They move to Denmark after studying the statistics of various countries and deciding that, taken together, Denmark is the best country in the world in which to live. This may be connected to a greater or lesser degree by Denmark’s reputation as “the world’s happiest country”, gained for being near the top of annual rankings for societal happiness.

This type of foreigner is educated and frequently quite gifted. They might be a scientist, academic, or computer programmer, meaning they tend to find work easily. 

They may end up happy with their choice, or they may discover that Denmark has less appealing sides which the numbers miss out on. 

The refugee

Denmark’s restrictive asylum policies are well known internationally, and all mainstream political parties seek to continue this approach.

Nevertheless, the Nordic country has given shelter to many refugees through the decades, including Germans at the end of the Second World War, Lebanese and Palestinians in the 1980s, those forced from their homes by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Afghans and Syrians in the 2000s and 2010s and Ukrainians in 2022.

It’s therefore this group, or descendants of people originally belonging to this group, that make up the largest number of “foreigners” in Denmark. I’ve put “foreigners” in inverted commas here because people born in Denmark to two foreign parents – in other words, many children of refugees – are referred to by official Denmark as foreigners, both in statistics and in public and political discourse.

This can also apply to non-refugees like children of the fremmedarbejdere or guest workers who came to Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s from countries like Turkey and Pakistan.

The children and grandchildren of these refugees and workers from decades past now fill Danish management roles and attend universities, but many also live in underprivileged neighbourhoods.

I’d contend that these people, born in Denmark, are Danish in a way that those who moved to Denmark as adults – the people in all the other groups in this article – are not.

The recent refugee arrivals in Denmark whom I have personally spoken to and become acquainted with – mostly from Syria – told me they have the same sort of problems other foreigners do. These include learning the language, finding a job and struggling with a lack of network and cultural differences.

They must also cope with other problems, like uncertain residency status and past trauma, although they speak less often about these things (to me at least) during everyday conversation.

The holiday fling

This foreigner may have lived and worked around the tourist areas in their home country for a few years by the time they get together with their Dane. Often from a less economically developed country with a better climate, like Morocco, Kenya, or Colombia, but also sometimes from other countries popular with Danish backpackers — say Australia or the US — they come to Denmark with their Dane.

The couple sometimes has children soon after and the transition from beach dude to pram-pushing far (daddy) can be tricky. If the Dane makes an effort to help their foreign partner bridge what can be a fairly daunting cultural divide however, this can go well.

Because the foreigner in these cases is usually not from Europe, the couple must contend with formidable residency requirements if their dreams of setting up a home and having children are to be fulfilled.

The rules can be confusing, change frequently, and are invariably very difficult to live up to. This can put relationships under serious strain. Couples strong enough to survive these challenges might never get to the stage of actually being granted residence, but it’s fair to say they have to be more than just a holiday romance to get as far as they do.

READ ALSO: How the dizzying cost of family reunification keeps Danes and foreign partners apart

The Dane by heritage

This group probably overlaps with a number of others on this list, particularly the executive who moved to Denmark with their spouse.

For this foreigner though, the move to Denmark was not motivated by career ambitions but by a wish to discover family heritage and learn a language (Danish in this case) that a grandparent or parent might speak, but has been set aside over the course of generations spent living outside of Denmark.

They may come to Denmark alone as part of an adventure when young and single, or may arrive when older, with their spouse and family in tow and with some professional and financial ballast they hope will help them on their way.

What is likely to be common for this foreigner is an inherent passion for and interest in everything Danish: language, culture, history, even the mundane routines of daily life. They hope that being in Denmark will help them build on what their beloved Danish family member told them about the country, and perhaps will bring them closer to their past.

Although this is an ostensibly nostalgic reason for moving to the country, this group tends to make the transition with a good degree of success. Maybe they know more about what to expect than people with no prior connection to Denmark, or maybe it’s just in their genes.

The exchange student who never went home

Have a look at social media pages for foreigners in Denmark, or just chat to people speaking English at cafes in Copenhagen or Aarhus and chances are you’ll find a foreigner who came to do an exchange semester at the Danish School of Journalism in 2015 and loved the city so much they never went home.

International students from Copenhagen Business School in in 2017. Photo: Sofie Mathiassen/Ritzau Scanpix

Variations on this theme include the exchange student who stayed for the love of a Dane, rather than a love of Denmark; and the exchange student who did return home for a while but couldn’t resist the lure of a return to the Danish city that inspired them during that memorable Erasmus semester.

Another version is the student who came to Denmark for postgraduate studies like a Master’s degree, then successfully applied for a job in Denmark or a research position at their institution.

There are others that have completed their studies and want to stay on, so are doggedly fighting challenges on multiple fronts to be able to do so: extending their work permits, applying for jobs and trying to get the upper hand on Copenhagen’s terrifying rental housing market.

Denmark has in recent years started cutting back on the number of programmes it offers to international students and data suggests that the country struggles to hold on to qualified foreign students after graduation.

This is Denmark’s loss, as those who have completed studies in the country have invariably also had life-forming experiences there, developed an affection for Danish life, and are in a strong position to contribute to the economy. They can also make very funny Denmark-related memes.

Do you fit any of these categories, and did we miss anyone out? Please tell us in the comments below. 

Member comments

  1. In 1980, I was a British Soldier stationed in Germany, I was reluctantly told I needed a break from my job, because of my recent break up of my marriage, so I was sent on a Sailing course in Kiel, which eventually led me to landing on the beautiful island of Ærø, where I met my now wife of 40 years, a daughter and 2 grandsons later….this is one very happy (ex Brit) I will be forever grateful to Denmark and my Danish friends for accepting me in the local community, my only disappointment was my fellow Brits, who voted to leave the EU.

  2. The UN / Diplomat / Aid Worker (and accompanied spouse…). They came here assured this was a an excellent place to take a break from the humanitarian postings, but, alas, have found it the most difficult place to integrate.

  3. I don’t quite fit any of the above.

    I met and married my Danish wife in my own country 35 years ago where we continued to live and raise our family although we were fortunate enough to be able to buy a summerhouse and visit Denmark regularly.

    We took early retirement last year and, for lifestyle reasons, decided to move to Denmark permanently.

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