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

Before you move to a new country, the Netherlands or otherwise, you are sure to be showered with tips, trick, 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!” — said by my dad in a half-joking, half-serious voice.
  • “Watch out for the canals, many a fool has fallen right in.”
  • “Maybe you’ll get to sail along the canals in a boat?”

Needless to say, not all of these were correct, relevant or necessary. I have seen one windmill in four 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 in 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.

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 with King’s Day.

* with lots of orange, beer, and parties.

2. There are checkpoints for bike lights

The politie occasionally set up checkpoints to ensure all bikes have lights. And I mean, it’s a big deal. It begins with the circulation of the “Brace Yourselves Check Points Are Coming” message, usually via WhatsApp.

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

But fear not, even without a light you can survive the checkpoint. You can, of course, avoid the suspect streets. If that’s not an option you have three 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 found 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.

living in the Netherlands for the first time
Living in the Netherlands for the first time? It’s not just Amsterdam where you’ll find these. Image: PublicDomainPictures/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. Although no card means no drunken contactloos pinnen. And believe me, THAT is a good thing.

5. Dutch staircases are hella steep

Image: DutchReview/Supplied

The rest of the world refers to them as ladders. How more folks have not fallen and snapped their necks I do not know!

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.

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, one heck of a high, even if it does last only for a few short minutes. You’ll often see lads with a canister, doing laughing gas straight on the street. It won’t last for long, as the government wants to ban laughing gas.

Laughing gas
Image: Pexels/Pixabay

7. The Dutch are a little cat crazy

The Dutch are cat people. Almost as much as they are bike people. Okay, that’s an exaggeration but truly, there are a lot of cats here. The University of Groningen even has its own cat Professor Doerak. And yes, he has his own Instagram page.

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 tell them the name of the city you will be living in. Let me tell you now that you really should not 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. And every time the chain has fallen off my bike (many, many times) someone has been 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!

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

Feature Image: Kirk Fisher/Pixabay
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2019 and was fully updated in May 2021 for your reading pleasure.

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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  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.

  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. ❌❌❌


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