11 things that will surprise you as an American living in the Netherlands

As a newcomer, the surprises were endless and as an American, they were also confusing! Here’s what to know and prepare for when you move from the United States to the Netherlands.

When I moved abroad, I knew everything would change from the smallest details of life to the overall picture. Here are the biggest differences I have noticed as an American living in the Netherlands.

1. Grocery stores

The US has many grocery stores with an astounding supply of goods, from smaller ones like Trader Joe’s to big-box ones like Costco. While you learn to find alternatives for your favourite recipes from home, be reassured that most Dutch food has fewer additives than in the US due to stricter regulations — a definite positive for health! 

READ MORE | The ultimate guide to the cheapest supermarkets in the Netherlands

Supermarkets in the Netherlands are a wonder. They even work as your local post office! Here are some other things that may surprise you as an American shopping a Dutch grocery store.

Baskets

Most supermarkets have baskets with wheels you can pull around. Some also have shopping carts, like Jumbo — a major chain you’re relieved to see in English, except it’s pronounced “yum-bo.” Sorry, false alarm!

Eggs

These aren’t refrigerated and won’t be found in chillers. They’re just on an ordinary aisle shelf. Why? The EU doesn’t allow eggs to be washed like the US.

Alcohol

Only beer, wine, and pre-mixed drinks cans are sold in supermarkets, not hard liquor. However, the prices are astounding since you usually won’t see wine over €10! If you want to buy hard alcohol you’ll need to head to the Sliterij, or liquor store.

€1 or less

Surprisingly, you can find many items for less than €1. That’s not indicative of lower quality — that’s just the price! Items in this category can be a package of cookies, frozen veggies like spinach, fresh pastries like bakery croissants, a jar of pesto & more.

Recycling centres

These are much higher than in the US at 25 cents for each bottle deposit or statiegeld. That means when you buy plastic or glass bottles, you will pay a small amount included in the price. However, you can get your deposit back once you recycle at a machine located in the store.

Self-checkout

Like the US, there is a self-checkout area but in the Netherlands, you won’t be able to leave the grocery store without scanning your receipt’s barcode. Also, baggers don’t exist and you’ll learn what pressure feels like to keep up with the cashier scanning your goods.

2. Food

The Netherlands is famous for its tulips, clogs, windmills, and stroopwafels. However, if you didn’t know, there are other quirks to the Dutch diet. 

Dutch-fries-in-a-wrapper-with-mayonnaise-and-ketchup
Dutch fries win over French every time. Image: rclassenlayouts/Depositphotos

Bread

Forget about everything the US tells you about carbs and eating less bread if you want to fit in. Bread is a staple in Dutch culture. You’ll see long lines at farmers markets at the bread stands for the fresh variety and if you go to the grocery store late, this section can be bare. Don’t be surprised if you see people walking around munching on bread or carrying clear bags of it! 

Cheese

The other essential to a Dutch lunch. If you love cheese, you’re in for a treat because this land has tons of it. You will never be the same after having access to hundreds of kinds of cheese, and you’ll get to see huge, round wheels of it. If you buy some at specialist cheese shops or farmers market stands, you can usually get a generous sample if you ask. Who needs Costco samples anymore?

Also, let’s talk Gouda cheese. That lovable cheese Americans call “goo-duh” is actually pronounced as “how-duh” in Dutch. You’re welcome because if you anglify when ordering it, you’ll be met with confusion and, best of luck to you. 

Fries

The American ketchup is king, in the Netherlands it’s mayonnaise. Sounds … interesting? Try it, you’ll likely love it more than you care to admit. Don’t fear though, you can still find ketchup here if old habits die hard.

3. Restaurants

Dining out is sure to have a few surprises, different from what you’re accustomed to in America. 

Drinks

Tap water isn’t given out willy nilly over here. You’ll be asked if you want still or sparkling and have to badger them for a kraanwater. When it comes to sodas, gone are the days of a medium, large or XL refillable size. In the Netherlands, you’ll be getting a petite glass bottle smaller than your phone. And don’t even think about asking for refills!

Getting coffee in the Netherlands is also a completely different ball game. These will likely be smaller than what you’ve seen normalised at Starbucks. No more tall, grande or venti sizes! Iced coffee also doesn’t exist everywhere and make sure that there are ice cubes since ijs koffee can also mean finding a scoop of ice cream in it. 

Doggy bags

Leftovers being taken home simply aren’t as common here since the portions are not as large as the US, but in recent years it’s slowly becoming more acceptable to make this request. I’ll never forget the time I received my leftovers in a plastic yoghurt container two years ago, but I appreciated the effort! 

Payment

This is actually convenient as you simply need to flag your server down and they will carry a handheld credit card machine so you can pay right from your seat. Oh yeah, and don’t fret if you can’t make the tip. This isn’t customary in restaurants or even beauty services.

The majority of service workers in the Netherlands make a livable wage, unlike in the US where tips are heavily relied upon. You can definitely offer, but some people will refuse (insanity).

3. Shopping

The US really has its citizens spoiled with convenience, but also at the cost of employees who work late or long hours. What did we really ever need from Target at 10 PM?  

Opening hours

It’s not uncommon to see stores or businesses open from 8-10 AM and close at 6 PM. Weekends usually have shops closing by 5 PM. On Sundays, many businesses open at 12 PM, such as grocery stores, but some do not open at all. If the establishment is open on Sunday, they may be closed on Monday instead for a rest day.

Also known as koopavond in Dutch, many cities observe this with stores closing later than usual at 9 PM and typically on a Thursday or Friday. In the Amsterdam shopping area, you may find later weekday shopping hours with stores closing at 8 or 9 PM. 

Payment

Not all stores will accept Visa or Mastercard, especially smaller Dutch establishments and they aren’t accepted in grocery chains such as Albert Heijn or Jumbo. More recognisable retail stores are likely to accept Visa or Mastercard luckily, but it’s best to have a Dutch banking card or euros on hand if you’re new!

And remember, the price you see is the price you pay, all taxes are already included.

4. Working Culture

The Dutch working culture is verrry different to the US. There is such a thing as work-life balance. Breaks are actively encouraged, whether it’s a 10 minute coffee break or your annual leave. Speaking of vacations, they are referred to as “going on holiday,” in the Netherlands. You get 4x your weekly working hours so if you work 40 hours a week, you’re entitled to 160 hours or 20 days of off in the year.

READ MORE | The work-life balance in the Netherlands is the best in the world

Also, overtime isn’t really a thing. Unlike the US, it’s not as common and possibly even strange. So get ready to clock out and get home in time for that early Dutch dinner, unless you’re staying for borrel of course.

5. Driving

The Netherlands is famous for its bike-riding inhabitants and public transportation is known to be excellent too. Plenty of people do drive cars and you’ll be relieved to know the Dutch drive on the right side of the road like the US, but here are some things to know. And watch out for all those roundabouts (trust me, you’ll learn what those are pretty quickly).

American-driving-a-car-in-the-Netherlands
Imagine if this was your daily commute. Image: nilaya/Depositphotos

Gas

At first glance, fuel looks cheap, especially if it starts with a €1 something, but it’s sold in litres, not gallons, which are much smaller. There are roughly 3.7 litres in 1 gallon, so when you do the math, it adds up to roughly the same amount as in the US. 

Speed limits

Surface roads are typically 31 mph and freeways are a maximum of 75 mph. Why such odd increments of speed? Because mph isn’t a thing here, but km/h is. It’ll take a moment to get used to kilometres, so if you’re driving, make sure you’re not thinking in miles, or you may get a speeding ticket due to many cameras! Luckily though, you don’t see many police officers hiding in bushes waiting to catch you!

6. Four seasons in a day

Depending on where you are from in America, you may or may not be shocked by the weather and seasons here. Although winter can be brutal with low temperatures down to -6 degrees, spring makes up for it with its beautiful blooms!

picture-of-little-girl-in-rain-jacket-umbrella-and-boots
It’s raining, then it’s sunny and warm, then it’s freezing and raining again. Image: Dangubic/Depositphotos

The weather can be tumultuous even in one day, or even an hour where you can experience sunshine, overcast clouds, wind, and rain. But there’s less year-round sun, so it might be worth investing in a Vitamin D lamp or taking supplements. It helps keep away the S.A.D (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Dutch summers

They are long days, with the sun rising around 5 AM and the sun setting at 10:30 PM, often not dark until 11 PM! When it’s warm or nice out, you will see many people on their balconies or rooftops, sitting canal-side or even bringing their own tables out in alleys and sidewalks to dine with friends. You may even spot the occasional couch.

7. Measurements

This is sure to be a pain when it comes to cooking, weather, clothing alterations, haircuts and more since the U.S. is only one of a few countries in the world that uses a different system for temperature and measurement. Welcome to gibberish in numbers. 

The U.S. uses the Imperial system of feet, inches, pounds, ounces, etc. while the Netherlands/EU uses the metric system for meters, centimetres, kilos, grams, etc. I find it handy to ask for how long it takes to get somewhere if I don’t remember the conversion for distance. 

We are also the few that use the Fahrenheit system instead of Celsius for temperature. Our numbers sound excruciatingly high/hot to Europeans, whereas what the heck is 10 degrees Celsius? Your best bet is to find a temperature you prefer and convert it to Celsius as a starting point or understanding what 0 degrees feels like (spoiler: it’s cold).

8.Time and date

If you’re from America, you’re accustomed to the date format MM/DD/YY, but the Netherlands uses DD/MM/YY format. This is especially important when filling out documents or making appointments and reservations. 😅

If you already know how to tell military time, it’ll make your life easier in all of Europe. It’s one thing you can also start in the U.S. before you move, as I did for fun before I knew I’d become an expat.

Note: for those that aren’t sure the 12-hour clock is when you use am-pm, the 24-hour is military time. So, 12:00 midnight is 00:00 in military time.

I wish it stopped there, but telling the time in the Netherlands gets even more confusing. You will find that asking a Dutch person for the time may set you in a tailspin. If you ask for the time at 9:30 PM, they will tell you it’s “half ten”. While English speakers may think this means it’s half-past ten, Dutch speakers actually mean it’s half to ten! What the hell Dutchies?? I could go into telling you the intricacies of Dutch time telling, but you could write a whole article on just that.

9. Siren

What is that blaring noise? No, the city is not on fire! On the first Monday of every month, your municipality will do a siren test at 12 PM. Don’t be confused or alarmed. It’s the Dutch way of testing the public warning system which sounds like a historical sound from wars past. 

READ MORE | Sirens in the Netherlands: are we under attack?

10. Restrooms

Carry a couple of euro coins or have your card ready since taking care of business isn’t free in places like the airport or gas stations. I know what you’re thinking, gas stations… good news, they’re not as scary as the ones in the US. In fact, gas stations in the Netherlands are pleasant, and they even sell flower bouquets out front. 

11. The country itself

Don’t make the rookie mistake of calling it Holland. This is a region not the official name of the country — The Netherlands is.


Now that you’ve read through this list, hopefully, you’re a little more prepared or learned something new about your new home in the Netherlands. The expat journey is a difficult one, but embrace the cultural differences and you will get so much more in return by keeping an open mind to change!

What differences have you noticed as an American living in the Netherlands? Or what would you find most difficult if you moved here? Let us know in the comments!

Feature Image: twixx/Depositphotos

Stefanie Stetsonhttp://stefastrolls.com
Stefanie left the United States from California for her American husband’s job — like many trailing spouses. Leaving perpetual sunshine for rain hasn’t been easy, but she enjoys strolling the farmers market for the endless Dutch cheese supply while trying to learn the language. A communications/PR major, Stefanie enjoys the creativity of photography, cooking, and writing on her blog. She enjoys traveling and walking her husky, who loves the rain & snow of Groningen way more than she does.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. We don’t say ‘ten thirty’ we say ‘half ten’ which means ‘half TO ten’.

    The British say ‘half ten’, but they then mean half PAST ten. Now that’s confusing in my view

  2. Please don’t say tips aren’t customary in restaurants. They actually are. The difference is, what you ordered. Did you only get a drink and thats it? Then we usually don’t tip. But if you had lunch or diner, then most people tip around 10%. Especially after the lockdowns, people are even more inclined to tip out of solidarity.

  3. Nice overview. 1 comment though, 9:30pm isn’t called ‘ten thirty’ but ‘half ten’. Still confusing because the English call it ‘half nine’. You are right though with complicated time telling… Try to explain 9:35pm

  4. A dutchie telling you it is half ten at 9:30 is not the same as them telling you it is ten thirty. No dutchie is going to tell you that! You assuming the are saying half ‘past’ ten is your mistake it is half ‘to’ ten.

  5. I went back to saying “holland” after many Dutch people asking me how I like living in “Holland” when they know I’m from the mid south part of the country (def not Holland region)

  6. You forgot a few important points…regarding restaurants, it’s not the difference in tipping which is surprising, it’s the culture of enjoying your meal. In the US you will be asked when your finished if you want your check. Never happens in NL unless they are about to close or very occasionally when they have a reservation waiting and no free tables. Mostly you can finish dinner and stay and drink.

    You didn’t mention the most remarkable thing about the water in NL… right out of the tap, everywhere, it’s delicious. The quality is better than bottled water actually.

    Finally the gas prices definitely not about the same! They are more than double that to the US. Averagely they are 3.30/gallon in US and 1.92 per liter in NL. The prices are variable but always keep a similar ratio. So when you say ‘so when you do the math, it adds up to roughly the same amount as in the US’ , you obviously didn’t do the math! 🤣

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