11 things no one tells you about living in the Netherlands for the first time

Brace yourself 🤓

Before you move to a new country, the Netherlands or otherwise, you are sure to be showered with tips, tricks, anecdotes, recommendations, and more than a few warnings.

When I announced I was moving to the Netherlands, it went a little something like this:

  • “That’ll be lovely — all the tulips, the windmills…”
  • “Don’t smoke anything.” Or the alternative, “Smoke everything!”
  • “Be careful out there, keep your wits about you! You know it’s a land of vice and sin!” — my dad would say in a half-joking, half-serious voice.
  • “Watch out for the canals, many fools have fallen right in.”
  • “Maybe you’ll get to sail along the canals in a boat?

Needless to say, not all of these comments were correct, relevant, or necessary. I saw two windmills in my first months, not a single tulip, and I have yet to be invited onto a boat. 💁

Moreover, my host of advisors managed to leave out some key aspects of life on this sinking land.

1. The Netherlands is actually a kingdom

The Kingdom of the Netherlands is the official title given to the sovereign state of the Netherlands, Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten by King Willem-Alexander. A Dutch king, I mean, who knew? Likely a great number of people, yet I was not one of them.

Dutch-royal-family-in-palace
Yep, the Dutch have royals too! Image: Koninklijkhuis

The king resides in Villa Eikenhorst on the De Horsten estate in Wassenaar. He is mostly a figurehead, but he is celebrated in true Dutch style* every April 27 on King’s Day.

*With lots of orange, alcohol, and parties.

2. There are checkpoints for bike lights

The politie occasionally set up checkpoints to ensure all bikes have working lights. And I mean, it’s a big deal.

It begins with the circulation of the “Brace Yourselves Check Points Are Coming” message, usually by your friends via WhatsApp. 🤳

man-cycling-dark-netherlands
Pas op! Do you have your lights on?? Image: Depositphotos

The next step is to buy some lights as yours are, without a doubt, broken, out of battery, or non-existent. Run to SoLow, Kruidvat, HEMA, or Action only to find empty shelves where bike lights should be.

READ MORE | 7 things that will get you fined while cycling in the Netherlands

But fear not; even without lights, you can survive the checkpoint. You can, of course, avoid the suspect streets. But if that’s not an option, you have two more choices:

  • When you know the checkpoint is coming, hop off your bike and walk. Easy as pie!
  • If worse comes to worst, throw yourself — bike and all — to the ground. In the chaos that follows, maybe, just maybe, your lack of lights will be forgotten.

3. Red light districts are everywhere

Red Light Districts are not unique to Amsterdam. Who knew? Again, not me. Until I took a wrong turn down an unknown street and learned that Groningen too has its fair share of window prostitution.

Picture-of-Amsterdam-Red-Light-District
There’s more than just Amsterdam, you know! Image: Pixabay

4. Visa and Mastercard? Nope

Visa and Mastercards are, largely, not accepted here. Why in the world not? I’m still reeling from the embarrassment and confusion I experienced during my first several visits to Albert Heijn (a Dutch supermarket).

Handing over a VISA card is always a bit of a gamble. Image: Pexels

Although no card means no drunken contactloos pinnen. And believe me, THAT is a good thing. 🥴

READ MORE | 7 reasons the Dutch don’t do debt

But good news! The Dutch are finally starting to see the plus side of accepting and offering more debit and credit card services. For example, many Dutch bank cards are now being switched to debit cards — which means these cards will become more widely accepted.

5. Dutch staircases are hella steep

The rest of the world refers to them as ladders. But here’s an image of how narrow and steep they usually are in the Netherlands. How more folks have not fallen and snapped their necks, I do not know! 😳

READ MORE | Dutch Quirk #71: Have impossible narrow and steep stairs in their houses

Photo-of-steep-Dutch-staircase
Try getting down that after a few drinks. 🤔 Image: DutchReview

6. It’s not a party without balloons

Mention the word “Netherlands” anywhere outside of the Netherlands, and those around you will say one or all of the following — “weed!” “marijuana,” “roll a joint,” “420,” or “blaze it.” And sure, that’s all cool, but do you know what’s cooler? Balloons.

empty-laughing-gas-canisters-lying-on-the-street
And no, we don’t mean party balloons. Image: Depositphotos

Not just any balloons — balloons filled with nitrous oxide, or, as it is more commonly known, laughing gas. The gas is a depressant-type drug that slows down the brain, leading to feelings of euphoria, difficulty in thinking straight, and fits of uncontrollable laughter.

In short, it gives you one heck of a high, even if it lasts only for a few short minutes.

You’ll often see lads with a canister, doing laughing gas straight on the street. While the government has banned the sale of laughing gas at clubs and pubs, this is a trend that isn’t going away anytime soon.

7. The Dutch are a little cat crazy

The Dutch are cat people. Almost as much as they are bike people. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but truly, there are a lot of cats here.

blonde-woman-with-pet-cat-on-sofa-with-heatable-cushion-staying-warm-during-winter-at-home-in-the-living-room
Okay, I kind of want one too, now. Image: Depositphotos

Even the University of Groningen even has its own cat Professor Doerak, and yes, he has an Instagram fanbase.

8. People at home will only ask “So, how’s life in Amsterdam then?

When you tell people you are living in the Netherlands for the first time, you will likely share with them the name of the city you will be living in.

Canalside-view-of-Haarlem-in-while-on-Amsterdam-day-trip
There’s more to the Netherlands than Amsterdam! Image: Depositphotos

Let me tell you now, however, that you really shouldn’t have bothered. They will continue to assume you live in Amsterdam, or at best that you live very close to Amsterdam.

9. You may just end up loving those Dutchies

Anyone can tell you that the Dutch are direct, blunt, and cut straight to the point. But few told me about how nice Dutch people are! Waiters and shop assistants are always super friendly and make an effort to chat with customers.

Photo-of-two-friends-at-bar-talking
You know what? That directness is kind of nice. Image: Freepik.

READ MORE | 6 things to know about dating Dutch people

Every time the chain has fallen off my bike (that’s many, many times) someone was always willing to help me or offer me a tissue for my oil-stained hands. It warms your heart, which is great considering how cold it can be here. 🤗

10. Dutch food is… different

Before moving to the Netherlands, I didn’t have the slightest idea of what Dutch cuisine could possibly be like. I expected a blend of European cuisines, featuring things like Schnitzels, sausages, baguettes, and so on.

I guess, in some ways, I wasn’t too far off — but nothing could have prepared me for the culture shock I had when I first found out about bitterballen.

READ MORE | 7 Dutch foods you need to try before you die

And there is so much more where that comes from: frikandelbroodjes, kapsalon, haring, stampot — so many strange foods I had never even heard about! But hey, don’t knock it ’till you try it — who knows, maybe you’ll love them all. 😋

photo-of-unhealthy-dutch-fried-snack-food-biterballen
A typical Dutch feast! Image: Depositphotos

11. The wind will blow your socks off — literally

It makes sense that a flat, coastal country like the Netherlands gets some rough winds, right? Right — but I wasn’t really prepared for the sheer strength of them.

photo-of-windmills-turning-on-cool-day-with-wind-and-clouds
No wonder they have so many windmills! Image: Depositphotos

Will there be times where it feels like you can’t breathe because so much wind is flying into your face? Definitely. Will pedaling your bike through it feel like the toughest workout you’ve ever done? Absolutely. But will it make you feel alive? Hell yeah! 🌬️

What have you found since living in the Netherlands for the first time? Tell us in the comments below! 

Feature Image:Pixabay
Laura Corrigan
Laura Corrigan
An Irish girl studying in the beautiful city of Groningen. With a long time passion for writing and photography and a new found passion for bikes, Saturday markets and Dutch snacks. You'll find her in the Arts Building possibly working, more than likely daydreaming and most definitely drinking tea.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. In relation to point 6, I hope the use of balloons is reducung at a fast rate. Yes they do look great but cause many problems for wildlife on land and in the sea as they get blowen around the place. They often look like food and are eaten or get tangled around legs and bodies.

  2. I do not live in the Netherlands but we, my wife, my two daughters and myself, are spending much time travelling the country several times a year since many years. Been to many places, seen and admired a lot of things (yes, even tulips, tulip fields and windmills), met many many Dutch folks who have all been very nice (except one rude shopowner in Harderwijk).
    One amazing thing (compared to what we’re used to here in Germany) is the way people react when it comes to kids, especially little kids. In Germany when you enter a store or worse, a restaurant, with kids in tow, you got those shocked and disturbed looks from other customers and shop keepers/restaurant employees. In the Netherlands this never happend to us. The opposite was the truth, folks started chatting with us and the kids, offered pens and paper or books, toys, play cards to entertain the kids. In restaurants we even got impromtu kids dishes and kitchen tours to show the kids how the food’s made.
    This all makes us feel more at home than in our actual home.

  3. I lived in Amsterdam 25 years ago for 5 years and still have many friends there. They visit me in Florida and I visit them in NL. I loved my time there but had a hard time learning Dutch as everyone spoke English to me. Quite easy to live there. Loved the culture (Concertgabow), Art, Food (very cosmopolitan in Adam). Loved the spring with the tulips and the summer with everyone on the terraces. The Vondelpark is great. Amsterdam is my second home.

    • It’s rather telling you mention the great -cosmopolitan_ food in Amsterdam 😂 should have tried a little culture authentic dipping with boerenkoolstamppot or witlofschotel 🤮

  4. Glad you like it here! Regarding the balloons: please don’t advertise the use of laughing gas as it is not as innocent as you’d think- may freeze your lungs if you inhale too much/fast. Other than that gaat er niets boven Groningen, natuurlijk. Hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your time here!

  5. I remember when I visited shop cashiers were so friendly! They removed prices from each item purchased and wrapped with colored wrapping & placed into colorful gift bags! They would ask were I was from & I would say Texas & they would laugh “Dallas”? As a joke I would say no King Ranch ! And they would reply “wow lucky you” ! Very nice. I have never learned the language but they were v nice people, super friendly!

  6. Small correction on number 1.
    The King lives in palace Huis ten Bosch in The Hague (though admittedly he moved in just before this article was published)

  7. It’s easy to get around some places that don’t take Visa or Mastercard – just “pin” money (i.e. withdraw money) from an ATM. I never had a problem doing this with my Visa card with any ATM in the Netherlands.

  8. So many more I could add……

    You throw your own Birthday parties! I didn’t find out til I had my 30th in Barneveld

    I got pulled over by Police on the way to A’dam because of too much rust on my car ;-))

    Don’t ask for second on Koekjes unless offered to you!

  9. I arrived in Amsterdam knowing almost nothing and one FaceBook vriend.Three amazing years in A’dam. Mijn mokum. I had a ground floor flat with a little garden. I knew about the stairs. I learned a little Dutch. Almost all the cats are not strays. They serve a good purpose because of the mice population. Which I encountered.The Dutch are direct and proud of it. I embraced the culture and had hoped to move back. My friends keep in contact with me and await my return. Stay smart and safe. ❌❌❌

  10. This week in America, 19 children & 2 teachers where shot down in school. Living in the Netherlands and sending your kids to school is safer here than ANY state in the US.

  11. Personally I would add some more practical information about how hard it is to find a good job without Dutch, about how long you have to wait to get appointment in the city hall, about insurance etc.

    • it’s not only credit cards, that’s just how stores call them. there are different levels of cards for both, Visa and Mastercard. in Nederland it’s common that only Mastercard Maestro and Visa Electron are accepted – those are one of the lowest levels of cards. Most countries already moved forward and are using newer types of cards. For example, in my country banks stopped offering Maestro 4-7 years ago. Again, it’s not about if card has credit line or not. It’s level of your card. My golden and platinum DEBIT cards that give me bonuses in airport, for example, and widely accepted in other countries, and are not accepted in Nederlands shops.
      i talked with shop owner once, and he told that bank will charge him extra if he wants to update to accept newer cards. That’s why everyone stays with their old way. Especially because it’s a no hassle for residential population, as dutch banks still print old type of cards, and they are actually default choice for an account.

      Dutch people commonly seem to not understand actual reason of cards declining and keep making fun of Americans with credit cards. But surprise, it’s NOT about credit cards and not about Americans

  12. As for credit cards; there’s actually a huge fee structure connected to the risk to the organisation of guaranteeing you months of fraud coverage.
    Most of that folds into costs to card owners and shop keepers.

    Dutch people don’t pay for such foolishness if they don’t have to.
    Most of the rest of the world has eventually accepted it, but those fees go somewhere, they may be “grandfathered into” the cost of products, or any such like that.

    We decided to start the Benelux cooperation with our closest neighbours that became the EER (euro) and integrated banking system more recently, and yet again a Dutch person though up iDeal that will now be the inspiration to the European system for online bank payments. (although that does introduce a fee…. Annoyingly.)

    We do a lot to not need the cost of a credit card 😉
    That said, because Americans don’t seem to know life without one, I have one for my regular business trips.

  13. There are so many things you could have listed in place of the balloons. Those are a trend which needs to be buried now that they are illegal. I don’t know any Dutch who use this gas. The illegal vendors prey on tourists and litter the streets while making a fortune.

    Another good one is we can’t fly the Dutch flag Willy-Nilly anytime we want, or wear it on our clothes or fly from the car. There are certain days it’s acceptable to hang the flag and there aren’t many.

  14. I’m originally from California and moved to NL 1.5 years ago. When people ask me about prostitution or weed in NL I explain that I don’t know anyone who smokes weed (or visits prostitutes). The Dutch attitude is one of being practical and accepting of others is the practical choice.
    The Dutch are also very community focused. Our neighborhoods are very mixed here. Less expensive apartments are next to larger homes. We don’t have large areas of poor, rundown or unsafe neighborhoods. It’s not perfect in all cities, but the goal is to not segregate people as much as possible.
    The Dutch also have a lot of agriculture, so we have a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables and fresh dairy foods (something to balance out the bitterballen)!

  15. Mmm i live in Zeeland and i have never had any issues using debit/credit cards. When AH delivers I get to pay with the card at my door! I wonder why in amsterdam cards are not as widely accepted?
    Things I didn’t know were so different when I moved:
    Recycling
    Health system
    Bikes and no mopeds can drive against traffic
    Hard to find a GP and Dentist once you have insurance. Yes, you can get one in an emergency.
    We just had the longest winter recorded in history… “welcome to the NL” haha

  16. From this summer the Netherlands is actually ditching the old debit card system and changing to visa and mastercard debit cards. The majority of the shops have already been updated. So getting around with the letter is not a problem anymore 🙂

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