14 things newcomers need to know about the Netherlands

14 things newcomers need to know about the Netherlands

You’ve just touched down in the Netherlands, your course or job is starting and your new room is bare. You need a bike, a Dutch course and to invest in the famous OV-chipkaart - but where to find them?!

Here is a guide for new arrivals to the Netherlands, with 14 survival tips to save money, settle in and make the most of your first days in your new country.

1. Rent a place and register with the gemeente

A key factor when apartment- or room-hunting in the Netherlands is that you need to be able to register at that address. You'll need to be registered at a Dutch address to get a BSN, which is essential if you want to open a Dutch bank account and do other administration. 

If you are looking for an apartment or a room to rent you can check out IamExpat Housing. Once you have your accommodation and rental contract you can visit the local municipality (gemeente) to register.

2. Get a BSN and open a bank account

Getting your social services number (BSN) and setting up a Dutch bank account are two of the first steps to establishing your new life in the Netherlands.

You need a BSN for many different reasons: to open a bank account, start a job, use the Dutch healthcare system and do your taxes. You will receive your BSN when you register with your address at the town hall.

To open an account with a Dutch bank, you can either make an appointment online or visit a branch close to you. You will need your BSN, your passport or identity card (not a driver's license), proof of address such as a rental contract, and your residence permit if you are not an EU citizen.

3. Find a cheap bike

Rule number one: don’t buy a junkie bike! You will only be perpetuating the cycle of bad karma which will inevitably come back to bite you when your stolen bike is re-stolen.

Markets are an ideal place to find legitimate and cheap used bikes. Try Marktplaats (online) or Ij Hallen, Amsterdam’s giant monthly flea market (also good for clothing and furniture).

Check that bike brakes work, tyres are pumped and no spokes are missing. If your cheap bike has something broken you’ll pay the same amount again to get it fixed! Familiarise yourself with Dutch cycling culture and learn some vocabulary, it may come in handy if you have a breakdown.

4. "Don’t forget to check out with your OV-chipkaart"

There’s a reason why this reminder is replayed like a mantra on trams and buses. If you fail to check out, the transport provider will charge you the maximum fare for your trip. On the positive side, the OV-chipkaart can be used on public transport in every Dutch city and on NS trains. Additionally, with a personal OV-chipkaart you can see an online overview of journeys and costs.

Alternatively, a Dal Voordeel abonnement (Off-peak subscription) can be a very worthwhile investment, as it allows you to travel on NS trains with a 40 percent discount (between 9am and 4pm and 6.30pm and 6.30am on weekdays and all weekend long). The subscription also allows three accompanying travellers to receive the same discount.

5. Invest in a Museumkaart

If you plan on visiting even just three museums during your time in the Netherlands then buy a Museumkaart. The card is valid for a year and grants free unlimited entry into almost all museums in the Netherlands, including the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank Huis. You can order the Museumkaart online.

If you are based in Amsterdam and enjoy live alternative music, theatre, dance or film, you also might want to consider subscribing to other cultural memberships, which offer free or discounted entry to such events all over the city.

6. Find furniture and more at kringloopwinkels

The US has thrift shops, the UK has charity shops and Australia and New Zealand call them op shops. In the Netherlands, they’re called kringloopwinkels, literally "recycle shops." It may be difficult to pronounce, but remember this word well because it will open up a world of unlimited bargains. If you need furniture, kitchen utensils, a sound system, musty retro clothing or an old typewriter... now you know where to find it!

Kringloopwinkels are usually located in outer suburbs and smaller towns, so they may require a car or a long bike ride to reach. Visit the Kringloopwinkel website where you can find all stores listed by region (in Dutch).

7. Save money dining at voku restraurants

Voku is an abbreviation of volkskeuken or "people’s kitchen," and is the name for pop-up restaurants run by squatter collectives. If you’re a student on a tight budget, exploring your city’s squat scene will usually turn up some economic dining options.

Dutch squat communities have a tradition of offering cheap dinners for as little as 3,50 euros, usually one regular night per week. Even if you’re not a student, voku dining can be very appealing as they serve healthy vegetarian, and often vegan, meals. Drinks are also reasonably priced, with beer rarely costing more than two euros a bottle.

Some vokus in Amsterdam are:

8. Do a Dutch course

We know Dutch is hard. We know Dutch ain't pretty. But learning even just a little of the local language will make your time in the Netherlands easier and will help you connect more with the locals.

There’s a galaxy of Dutch courses and schools to choose from, with classes to fit every lifestyle and budget available. Once you have learnt the basics in a course, join a conversation class or group, where you can put your new language skills into practice.

It will probably take you six months just to master pronunciation, but the more you persevere the more you will be rewarded. Remember: no pain, no gain!

9. Go shopping on Marktplaats

The Dutch e-bay is a good place to go if you are looking for slightly more reliable second-hand things or brand-name goods. Think bugaboo baby strollers, designer couches, bakfiets (cargo bike) and computer accessories.

On Marktplaats people list their goods, and buyers can bid on items or simply call the seller directly (recommended). The site and search settings are almost entirely in Dutch so translate your search terms before looking something up.

10. Know your rights

There is a great infrastructure in the Netherlands to help disadvantaged people in society, and when you’re trying to settle into a new culture and language that can feel like a pretty big disadvantage!

Het Juridisch Loket offers free advice for any and every legal issue: work, living, immigration, consumer issues and police and justice. Het Juridisch Loket has branch offices in all major Dutch cities, where you can walk in and make an appointment.

If your landlord is charging outrageous rent and failing to fix the leaky ceiling you can contact the Huurcommissie ("rent commission") to check your rental rights and maybe get a rent reduction.

If you have a complaint about public administration you can contact the Nationale Ombudsman, who runs an independent and impartial organisation to keep an eye on the government.

There are also many law firms and legal advisors specialised in expats who can help.

11. Get health insurance

If you’re here for more than a couple of months then you will need to consider signing up for compulsory Dutch health insurance.

Foreign students aged under 30 who are temporarily in the Netherlands to study are not required to take out health insurance. However, in some cases you may need student health insurance. If you stay on after your studies and start working in the Netherlands then you will also need to sign up for health insurance.

The Dutch healthcare system allows you roughly three months to register for health insurance, after which you can be fined by Zorginstituut Nederland.

12. Know your Blokker from your Hema

The Netherlands has some prominent and useful chain stores whose shops can be found on most shopping streets throughout the country. Do you know who sells what?

Here’s a brief outline of what each chain provides:

  • Hema - The Netherlands’ own discount department store specialising in cheap, simple and practical design (especially stationery, sheets and bedding, curtains, makeup, photo-printing services and basic clothing)
  • Blokker - A wide range of kitchen utensils, bathroom and household appliances and cleaning products
  • Xenos - Sells discount homeware like frames and storage systems, also foreign food products like Asian cooking supplies and unusual Italian pasta
  • Ikea - The iconic Swedish maker of affordable furniture, bedding and homeware
  • Media Markt - Electronics: white goods, cameras, phones, printers and computers.

You can also find furniture and home furnishings online

13. You’re in the middle of Europe, travel!

The luxury of the Netherlands is that you’re at the heart of Europe. Paris is just three hours and 20 minutes down the road on the Thalys. London is a 45-minute flight and Cologne is also less than three hours away by ICE train.

Tip: book your tickets at least two months in advance to take advantage of the cheapest deals!

14. Get over the tourist attractions ASAP

People who have never been to the Netherlands immediately associate the nation with the cheesy cliches of coffee shops, windmills and the red light district. It’s true, they’re hard to find in other parts of the world!

But such attractions are just one aspect of a very rich and diverse society and culture. Get your snooping around coffee shops and those velvet-curtained windows out of the way so you can move on to more interesting aspects of Dutch culture, such as the art world, the clubbing nightlife or events and festivals.

Do you have more advice for newcomers to the Netherlands? Add it to the comments below!

Beatrice Clarke


Beatrice Clarke

Beatrice is a native Melbournian who moved to the Netherlands in 2009. With a background in independent publishing and fashion, Beatrice honed her understanding of Dutch language and culture working...

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CC 02:16 | 7 August 2019

Hi Beatrice, thank you for posting this article, it’s very useful and straight to the point. I especially like the section where you talk about where to buy products. I read in your bio that you have a background in fashion. I’m wanting to know / talk to someone who knows a bit about the fashion industry in The Neatherlands. Maybe you would be able to help. What would your opinion be on expats (with 1 year visas) having success in finding roles in the industry over there? I’ve got over 8years experience however the 1 year visa worries me. I would love to know your general thoughts please?