Expat Essentials

Best Cities for Expats 2021: No. 2 Helsinki is the capital of the world’s happiest country … and has housing

Give us the benefit of the doubt on this one. Yes, Helsinki theoretically is too expensive and too far north to make our list of the Best Cities for Expats. But Helsinki does makes the list because it’s one of the only major cities in Europe where the number of housing units is rising and costs are dropping. Even Finnish officials say it’s a bit of an anomaly, but there it is. That said, everything else is crazy expensive, though unlike Lisbon and Athens, salaries are high enough to compensate. Life is so good in this high-functioning society that the World Population Review just named Finland the happiest country in the world.


Before the pandemic, we started hearing from expats who’d been to Slush or who had worked there that Helsinki should be on our lists. When we started comparing data with London and other cities, Helsinki comes out quite well in several crucial areas. Further, Helsinki can go head-to-head with Stockholm when it comes to innovative companies, and, of course, digital game giant Supercell came out of Helsinki.

Does everyone want to live at 60-degrees north latitude, the second-most northerly capital in the world behind Reykjavík and just below the Arctic Circle? No. But for those English-speaking, highly skilled internationals looking for career opportunities and good skiing, outdoor adventure and northern lights, Helsinki could be the ticket.

In the past two years, so many cities have priced themselves out of contention, including perennial list toppers such as Eindhoven and Rotterdam in the Netherlands where English is the main business language.

So, now we’re looking at Tier 2 cities that are close to the action. Because expat life should be an adventure, not a burden. Not that Helsinki is Tier 2, but it’s also not Paris in the pantheon of expat centers.

For 2021, cities are ranked by six metrics, each worth 100 points:

• overall cost of living benchmarked against London, the most expensive city in Europe outside of billionaires-only outliers such as Geneva and Monaco.

• availability of housing, affordability of rents and a reasonable quality of life

• density of talent and serious career opportunities with a prominent university driving innovation and creating tomorrow’s talent as in the Silicon Valley model

• the percentage of people who speak English, the language of business

• availability of international schools

• corruption: the fewer the problems, the higher the score

So, how does Helsinki score? Five hundred and 40 points out of 600 possible for the No. 2 spot on our list.

Cost of Living – 80 points

Helsinki is not Lisbon or Athens. It’s a sleek Scandinavian city that’s not “affordable” in world terms, that’s for sure. BUT, it compares very favorably against our benchmark London. For example, rents are about half the cost of rents in London, according to Numbeo, and the same with utilities, while average monthly salaries are about 30-percent lower.

Now, for the really good news … childcare is 80-percent less than London!

Housing and quality of life – 90 points

This was a major shocker for us. When we started doing the research, we found the housing situation in Helsinki is one of the few getting better, not worse, with more rentals available than in modern memory, according to the Helsinki Times.

Mari Randell, the housing programme manager at the City of Helsinki, told the public broadcaster YLE that the availability of non-subsidised rental units has increased gradually to an unprecedented level, with roughly 2,000 units presently listed online. “There has never been a situation like this in Helsinki,” she said.

That post states that Helsinki has the goal of adding 7,000 residential units in 2021, “an objective it met comfortably in 2020.” And this is in a city of only 632,000.

As for quality of life, this is a cutting-edge city on the sea, one of the most advanced in the world. And to top it all off, they’re installing a tropical forest. How cool is that? But, alas, this is the second most northerly capital in the world behind Reykjavik, so that cost Helsinki 10 points.

• The career ecosystem – 90 points

Since our first list, we’ve rated each city’s density of talent … serious career opportunities with a prominent university driving innovation and creating tomorrow’s talent as in the Silicon Valley model. The University of Helsinki is fairly highly rated, ranked at No. 98 in the world by Times Higher Education, though the ranking has dropped in recent years. As in the Netherlands, all uni classes are in English.

As for careers, if you’re a coder or game developer, this is the place, the city that gave the world Supercell. Nokia and Ericsson both have a huge presence here. And every global tech company, accounting firm and consultancy has a presence in Helsinki, including IBM, Microsoft and Accenture.

Finally, Finland is just like most of Europe … it’s facing a talent shortage.

Prevalence of English – 100 points

Helsinki rivals Amsterdam and Copenhagen when it comes to the prevalence of English, with about 90 percent of people fluent. City government even has a website, “Everyday life in Helsinki runs on English.” Finns also tend to be fluent in Swedish.

International schools – 80 points

Helsinki has three international schools. That’s better than, say, Eindhoven, which has 30,000 expats and one school. That’s far fewer than Valencia, a similiar size city, which has 24, so Helsinki gets dinged.

Corruption – 100 points

The Finns are famous for their integrity. Transparency International ranks Finland at No. 3 on their list of countries, just behind Denmark.

So, that totals 540 out of 600 points, good for the No. 2 spot on our list.

See the intro to the Top 5 Cities for Expats list here, which includes details on the runner-up cities.

Read about No. 5 Valencia here.

Read about No. 4 Leuven here.

Jump to No. 3 Lisbon here.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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