10 things to know before coming to the Netherlands: a survival guide

I have lived in the Netherlands for a long time. My move here from London in the early parts of the new millennium was accidental, the result of replying to a cryptic job advertisement (another story for another day), but I quickly fell in love with this country.

I can honestly say that it is an amazing place. It has beautiful cities, a laid back pace of life, friendly people and is rated as one of the happiest countries in the world. It is also confusing and weird. There are many things to know before coming to the Netherlands.

When I first arrived here, I had no idea what I was doing. Like for many expats, it was an overwhelming experience. There were so many new and potentially confusing things to discover. New traditions, new customs, new habits and on top of that, a whole new language. All of these things mixed together to raise even more confusing questions. What is the correct way to act in order to blend in? What situations should be avoided? How is survival possible? What the heck is going on and what does it all mean? It was a lot to take in and almost every expat goes through it.

Luckily, over my many years of living in the Netherlands and writing about my experiences on my blog Invading Holland I have learned how to navigate some of these confusing situations (mostly by falling headfirst into them). That’s why I’ve teamed up with DutchReview to bring you some tips that will help you survive life in Holland. Here are 10 things to know before coming to the Netherlands:

The country isn’t called Holland (apart from when it is)

When talking with a Dutch person never refer to the country they come from as Holland. It is called the Netherlands. Holland is only a part of the country (two of the western provinces to be exact). The Dutch are very adamant that their country is called the Netherlands. It is not called Holland… Never!

…Unless they are supporting their country in an international sporting event. Then they will be shouting, “Hup Holland hup,” as if their lives depended on it.

Don’t wear a bicycle helmet

Wearing a bicycle helmet is usually considered a good survival tip but not in the Netherlands. If you want to blend in with the locals it’s best to forgo the protective headgear, and don’t even think about wearing a high visibility vest.

The Netherlands is a country well known for cycling. It is a large part of Dutch culture and identity. Bicycle safety, not so much. The Dutch have been cycling for so long (and have become so in tune with their bicycles) that they don’t understand the need for bicycle helmets. Anyone who wears one stands out as odd.

Things to Know Before Coming to the Netherlands
Image: Stuart Billinghurst/Supplied

Learn to ride a bike

In addition to not wearing a bicycle helmet, it is important to learn how to cycle. You might think, “I already know how to cycle,” but you would be wrong. You might know how to propel a bicycle through a peddling motion but you do not know how to really cycle, not like the Dutch.

Cycling in Holland means you can cycle with your hands in your pockets, or cycle while towing a second bike alongside yourself, or confidently give someone (adult or child) a lift on the back of your bike. It means you can cycle while transporting any number of weird and wonderfully large and impractical objects, or all of the above at once. The Dutch are truly the masters of cycling. You will have to step up your game.

Don’t accept candy from strange (Dutch) people

There are many Dutch treats that are a delightful experience to discover. Stroopwafels, hagelslag, poffertjes, to name but a few, are amazing. When you try them for the first time you will wonder how you ever lived without them.

On the other end of this spectrum is drop, a small black sweet that would be the equivalent of liquorice in other countries if it wasn’t for the extreme, insanity-inducing salty taste. I can only assume that Dutch taste buds have evolved to withstand it because they love the stuff.

To be fair, there are less extreme tasting varieties of drop but it’s the often double salt varieties that the Dutch enjoy offering to expats so they can watch their shocked reactions. If a Dutch person ever offers you this black little sweet do not accept it. In fact, it is probably best to cut off all contact with that person from now on. They clearly cannot be trusted.

Things to Know Before Coming to the Netherlands
Image: Stuart Billinghurst/Supplied

Forget everything you know about queuing

Maybe it has something to do with Dutch directness. Maybe everyone is in a rush. There is no way of knowing but one thing is obvious: the Dutch don’t queue (at least, not in the same way as us obsessive-compulsive Brits).

Any attempt to board a train, tram or bus quickly descends into chaos as everyone crowds around the open doors and tries to force their way through before all the available seats are gone. When queuing in the Netherlands there are no rules. Only survivors.

Don’t panic if you hear an alarm (as long as it’s on the first Monday of the month)

On the first Monday of each month at noon, a loud alarm rings out across the whole of the Netherlands. It is an ear-splitting sound, reminiscent of an old air-raid siren. It sounds like it should be a good reason to run and hide, and yet, the Dutch do not react to it at all. That is because they know it is simply the monthly test of the nationwide alarm system (that is designed to warn people of a sudden emergency) and nothing else.

The test always makes it easy to spot tourists and newly arrived expats. They will be the ones with a look of absolute terror and confusion on their faces.

As for what happens if there is a real emergency on the first Monday of the month at noon… No one really knows.

Things to Know Before Coming to the Netherlands
Image: Stuart Billinghurst/Supplied

Learn to fake speaking the language.

Dutch is an extremely difficult language, a fact the Dutch seem to take great pride in. When a Dutch person hears that you are trying to learn their language, they will gleefully explain how it is one of the trickiest languages in the world.

It’s much easier to learn how to fake speaking the language. During a Dutch conversation simply nod and smile a lot. Occasionally interject with the word ‘dus‘ or ‘ja zeg‘ in agreement. You’ll sail through that Dutch conversation without issue (as long as they don’t ask you any questions they expect an answer for).


Have throat soothers with you at all times

If you do attempt to learn the Dutch language for real be prepared to have a sore throat for a few months as you try to master some of the more difficult sounds in the Dutch language. It’s another point of pride for the Dutch that their language includes a lot of sounds that cannot be found elsewhere. In Dutch, the sounds created by the combinations of the letters ‘ie’, ‘ou’ and even just ‘u’ are very difficult for a non-Dutch person to get right (or even hear how they are getting them wrong).

However, it is the ‘g’ sound known simply as ‘the hard g’ that causes the sorest throats amongst non-Dutch people. It is hard to describe with written words the sound it creates. However, when most non-Dutch people attempt it they sound like they are choking and in need of the Heimlich manoeuvre.

Don’t get your hopes up when you are invited to a Dutch birthday party

When you’ve made your first Dutch friend and get invited to their birthday party you might get very excited, and you should be. It’s a great honour… but don’t expect too much.

You might have envisioned an off the hook party, a night of music, dancing and drinking but the reality is very different. You won’t be dancing. You’ll be sitting in a circle chatting. You won’t be surrounded by twenty-something party animals. You’ll be surrounded by three generations of the birthday boy or girl’s family, and the strongest thing you’ll be drinking is coffee.

Things to Know Before Coming to the Netherlands
Image: Stuart Billinghurst/Supplied

And finally… doe normaal

Whatever that really means…

What are your survival tips for life in The Netherlands? Any other things to know before coming to the Netherlands? Let us know in the comments!

Feature Image: Stuart Billinghurst/Supplied

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2020 and was fully updated in November 2020 for your reading pleasures.

Stuart Billinghursthttps://www.invadingholland.com/
Stuart is an accident prone Englishman who has been unintentionally living in the Netherlands since 2001. Over that time he has learned to love the Dutch (so much so that he married one of them) and now calls the country home. He started his blog Invading Holland in 2006 as a place to share his strange stories of language misunderstandings, cultural confusions and his own accident prone nature.


  1. Number 7 of this list is absolute nonsense. Basic Dutch can be learned in a very short period. As with any other language it will take a lifetime to become perfect. Since a perfect command of a language is impossible (even for Dutch speakers), don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The Dutch themselves make many mistakes. The Dutch will say their language is difficult learn but they only say this to discourage you. So learn Dutch. Don’t be afraid!

  2. I agree that Dutch is not all that difficult for English speakers learn at a basic level–I learned basic Dutch a long time ago with cassette tapes and a book (Hugo’s Dutch in Three Months–if I remember correctly). Frankly, I find German much harder.

  3. Maybe you were in the Netherlands years ago. It’s since 2003 that it goes off every first monday of the month and yes it’s not possible to not hear it.

  4. make it fun to learn dutch,
    dont be afraid to make mistakes, we might laugh but dont feel offended, we admire you very much for trying, put stickers on all your belongings with the dutch text, whenever possible, listen to whatever dutch blah blah blah, radio, tv,etc. write down the things you have difficulties with, then hang them beside the toilet, we have more “learning moments” then we realize, first learn the sounds of the alphabet, make it fun, dont be to serious, it take 2 years before you can have simple conversations,
    i did learn a bit of russian, it made travel a lot easier and opened many doors,


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