Students walking on campus

The challenges of being an international student

Studying abroad in Sweden can easily become the best time of your life. The people are amazing, the city is beautiful, and the Karolinska Institutet makes you feel like an accomplished student. We write many blogs about how much we love it here but that does not mean that there aren’t any challenges. Every phase of life comes with some difficulty and some of that is attached to being an international student. Surprisingly, none of the problems I faced this year had to do with my lack of Swedish speaking capabilities which I actually thought would be my biggest problem in Sweden. So here are some of the challenges you may come across as an international student in KI, even more so if you are a Master’s of Global Health student.

1.) No Swedish personal number for one-year programmes and Erasmus students

The root of most problems that international students face in Sweden is the lack of a Swedish personal number (like a social security number). Students in the one-year master’s programmes as well as non-EU Erasmus students do not receive one. The personal number is connected to every facet of life in this country: banks, jobs, healthcare, online payment apps, and the like, and without it you are almost delegated to the sidelines of society. However, there is the coordination number which you can apply for, but it is a poor substitute for the personal number.

2.) Opening a bank account can be difficult

This is connected to having a personal number. I have not heard of any 2+ year students having a difficult time opening a bank account beyond the normal screening that banks do. However, for us personal numberless people, there are only 2 banks that I know of so far that will take us with a coordination number: Swedbank and SEB. Since I have an SEB account I can only speak on behalf of this place. Without a personal number I was just given a basic student account. A student account means that I do not have to pay fees, but since there is no personal number attached to it, I cannot get a Mobilt BankID (BankID). I also cannot get a credit card despite having a part-time job nor am I able to shop online using the card I received.

3.) No BankID

Decorative image of international credit cards.
Image by pixabay.

In Sweden having a BankID is everything if you are working here since it is needed for: digital identification, transferring money, registering accounts in Swedish stores, and also having Swish (a Swedish mobile payment app like Venmo).

This isn’t a huge problem for most students, since we have our international credit cards and can just shop for groceries in person. However, for students coming from countries where they aren’t issued a credit card this can be a challenge, especially if they live off-campus and need to pay a landlord.

Swish is also used by some vendors and also to transfer money to friends. To get around this, most of us just do not shop at Swish-only vendors. Also, since Sweden is a cashless society and not every student will have Venmo, my friends and I opted to sign up for Revolut to pay each other back. There are of course other companies such as N26, Wise, PayPal etc.

Also, if all else fails you can just get cash, which I have never seen but supposedly exists.

4.) Healthcare in Sweden

Decorative image of someone seeking healthcare.
Image by Mart Production on pexels.

Healthcare is difficult to navigate in Sweden for all international students not just personal numberless ones. I wish I could write a blog on how to do it but since I have been rejected from the healthcare system twice I can write what I found on this page. First, you must call 1177 if you believe that you are sick. You cannot just walk into a hospital. They will most likely direct you to your closest health clinic called a vårdcentral where you will receive healthcare. The problem is that without a personal number you are told that you have to pay the full price upfront before seeing the doctor.

We international KI students do have the FAS+ insurance however, no one has heard of it and most likely it will not be accepted at any vårdcentral. What you have to do is pay the full price and ask for a receipt. This is important! Then fill out the FAS+ form and send in the receipt plus the form to the person at KI responsible for international students to get your refund. This process does not guarantee a refund since the FAS+ insurance only covers emergencies, and there is no clear definition of what they consider an emergency so your common cold may not be covered. However, once your illness meets the requirement then you will most likely be refunded.

I have had classmates from other European countries complain about the healthcare system as well as 2 year + students so it remains the biggest challenge for all.

5.) Finding an apartment in Sweden

Non-EU/EEA international students are guaranteed housing at one of KI’s dorms for their first year. They are required to find other arrangements for their second year however, so most students register on SSSB during their first week. SSSB is a student housing system that works through a lottery system that depends on the number of days that you have accumulated in a queue. To be a part of this, you must be a Medicinska Foreningen (MF) member which I recommend you become anyway.

As of 2023, the EU/EEA area and Swedish students will not be allowed to stay at the dorms in KI. This is a problem, because it means that if you are an EU/EEA or Swedish student, you will have to find personal lodging somewhere else. This can be difficult if you do not speak the language but is not impossible. The SSSB system can be used to find an apartment but since you have to be a KI student to be in the queue it will be a bit more difficult to find a place on there.

The EU/EEA area Erasmus students will still be allowed to stay in the dorms so this will not be a problem for them. To check if you are eligible to stay in a dorm click here.

6.) Finding part-time jobs

Decorative image of a barista.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

Finding a part-time job in Sweden is not impossible, especially if you know the language. If you do not however, it can be a bit more difficult to find somewhere where you will be able to interact with customers as well as your coworkers. However, it is not impossible, since there are a lot of service industry jobs where English can be used to communicate and other research positions with international teams.

And lastly…

7.) Winter

Winter is long. It is cold, and the lack of sun does have an effect on you. Winter also hits around the time when the semester is at its busiest, people back home are getting ready for the holidays without you, and everything just begins to feel hopeless. The winter blues can really hit people in many different ways. However, KI has a great support system through the student well-being centre. It is also recommended that you keep in contact with friends and family, and make sure you are well rested during this period.

These are some of the personal challenges that I have experienced as an international student at KI as well as what I have heard from my friends. Just remember that your department is there to support you. No one at KI wants to see you have a difficult time. There is always someone in your department like your programme coordinator or study counsellor that you can reach out to. These were challenges but most of them were overcome with support. So it will work out for you too. Good luck!

Zaynab - Global Health

Zaynab - Global Health

Hi, my name is Zaynab and I am from Trinidad and Tobago, a country in the Caribbean. I am currently studying a Master’s in Global Health here at KI and am a blogger for the DA team. I look forward to sharing my experiences at KI and I also hope to expose students from the Caribbean to university life here in Sweden.


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