Final Reports are completed by each IRSEP student at the completion of their time abroad. Finals reports
are meant to serve as an overview of the program and to orient the future IRSEP student. The information
in this report is subject to change and is the experience of one person.
IRSEP FINAL REPORT 2008-2009
HÁSKÓLI ÍSLANDS (ICELAND)
Kael Schneider, firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Obtaining a residence permit
During the summer prior to your departure, the University of Iceland will send out a packet
with information relevant to applying for dvalarleyfi a residence permit, once you have been
accepted to the university. Besides carefully completing the included application form, a student
residence permit is obtained by submitting the several required documents to the
Útlendingastofnun, the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration (henceforth referred to as UTL) for
their approval. A list of these necessary documents and the application form can be found on the
UTL website at http://www.utl.is/english/residence-permits/outside-the-eea/students. It is
crucial that you follow the UTL’s guidelines exactly and begin gathering the required materials
as soon as possible, as you will need several weeks to a couple of months to do so.
• The completed and signed original application form.
• Two passport size photos. I recommend having several photos taken as you will also
need sets for the Schengen visa and for a bankcard.
• A photocopy of your passport, which must be valid at least three months beyond the
proposed permit, i.e. the end of your stay in Iceland.
• A criminal background check from the FBI. Instructions can be found at
• Documentation of Icelandic medical insurance, covering at least 2,000,000 Icelandic
krónur (henceforth abbreviated as ISK) from an Icelandic provider or an insurance
company authorized to provide services in Iceland. (see section 4.)
• Confirmation of financial support. The Learning Abroad Center with provide you with a
letter stipulating the conditions of the IRSEP scholarship, however, the amount of the
stipend is less than the cost of living determined by the UTL and you will need to show
documentation of other sources of support. The minimal support required for a single
person, around 90,000 ISK per month in 2008, increased to 115,567 ISK per month this
past year. My monthly IRSEP stipend for the 2008-2009 academic year was 70,000 ISK.
• Confirmation of secure housing. Your acceptance letter from the University of Iceland
will serve as proof of accommodation in a dormitory room. You will later need to
confirm this reservation with Stúdentagarðar, the Student Housing Office.
• Your letter of acceptance from the University of Iceland.
• Confirmation of registration of full-time studies.
• Authorization. You will designate the director of the Office of International Education,
mentioned in the acceptance letter, to handle your affairs in Iceland. This person will
notify you once your residence permit has been approved or if something goes wrong.
The letter of acceptance from the University of Iceland is sent out in the informational
packet and takes the longest to arrive. In the meantime, I suggest you secure the required federal
criminal background check, administered by the FBI, and Icelandic medical insurance. The
World Class Coverage Plan provided by the IRSEP scholarship is administered by CISI, which is
not licensed to provide services in Iceland, and is therefore insufficient for the residence permit.
Instead, you will have to purchase an insurance plan from an Icelandic national provider, unless
you have your own insurance policy from a company recognized by the UTL, listed here:
http://fme.is/?PageID=186 (see section 4.). Your Icelandic provider will also be able to assist
you in acquiring a kennitala, an Icelandic identification number that you will need for everything
from opening a bank account to registering for classes at the university. I recommend
mentioning that you are interested in acquiring a kennitala when purchasing an insurance policy.
It is especially useful to have a kennitala early on in the application process as you can use it as a
personal identifier on the various application forms.
The UTL must receive an 8,000 ISK processing fee as well as an additional 600 ISK
transfer fee before they will begin reviewing your application. This payment of 8,600 ISK must
be sent via wire transfer before submitting the residence permit application. Your bank is likely
to charge you a fee for such a transfer. A receipt with a personal identifier, such as your
kennitala or American social security number, should be sent along with the application
materials as proof of payment. I recommend referring to more detailed processing fee
information at http://www.utl.is/english/residence-permits/processingfee as the fee amounts are
subject to change.
The residence permit application materials for the fall semester must be submitted no
later than the given deadline, which has been July 15th in the past. The processing time for the
residence permit application is approximately 3 months and you are not allowed to be in Iceland
during this period until the application has been processed and approved. Should you choose to
participate in the 6-week summer course in modern Icelandic (see section 10.) as I did, it is best
to assemble the application materials before your departure in June, so that you can submit them
in person before leaving Iceland and still make the July 15th deadline.
In addition to a residence permit, you also need to obtain a Schengen visa (also called D-
Visa) and have it applied to your passport. You must indicate an embassy, either the Royal
Swedish Embassy in Washington DC or the Royal Danish Consulate in New York, to issue such
visas on behalf of Iceland in your residence permit application. If your residence permit
application is approved, the UTL will inform the designated embassy and the individual you
authorized will then contact you with directions on where to send the required forms and your
passport. You can stay in Iceland for up to 3 months on this visa, allowing a month or two to
finalize the residence permit process.
Remember to make copies of any original documents that you receive or submit. Also keep
in mind that you may have to present important documents, such as your acceptance letter, upon
entering the country to prove the reason of your stay; so have them with you on your flight to
Iceland. The residence permit must be approved before you enter the country. Past IRSEP
recipients reported students having been deported because their permits had not yet been
processed when they entered Iceland. These students were able to return after their permits were
approved, however they missed the beginning of the semester and were responsible for the
additional expenses incurred.
Although the UTL’s instructions state that you may not enter the country until the residence
permit has been granted, you will not receive a residence permit card until after you have arrived
in Iceland and have completed the following tasks:
1. Obtain your kennitala (disregard if received when purchasing health insurance).
You must visit the Þjóðskrá, Icelandic National Registry, and apply for one in person.
Take with you your passport and acceptance letter from the University of Iceland. As I
mentioned earlier, the kennitala is used to register for courses, claim your scholarship,
open a bank a bank account, receive a tax card and so on. Visit the National Registry’s
website at http://www.thjodskra.is/en/services for their current address and further
2. Register your address in Iceland. The National Registry also handles this. Simply
present them with your passport and documentation showing that your residence permit
has been granted. If you received your kennitala before arriving in Iceland, you may
want to have the National Registry confirm that the University of Iceland has received it.
3. Have your photo taken at the UTL’s office, so that a residence permit card can be issued.
The card will be sent to the address that you registered with the National Registry.
Americans are exempt from presenting a medical certificate to the UTL; disregard their
instructions to other foreign nationals to do so. If you are having difficulty obtaining any of the
required documentation, contact the UTL at email@example.com. The UTL also opens its phone lines to
resolving issues related to student permits at select times. The phone number and further
information can be found at their website linked above. The Office of International Education
(OIE) is also very helpful; write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find other useful links on their website
Acceptance into the IRSEP program does not guarantee admission to the University of
Iceland. You will have to apply to the university directly. After the Learning Abroad Center has
submitted your nomination to the University of Iceland, you will receive information on the
application process and be granted access to the online application form. You must fill in the
application online, but you also need to send a signed and printed version of the application
along with an official transcript to the admissions office by the May 1st deadline. You will be
notified of your acceptance by e-mail and soon thereafter receive a packet with your letter of
acceptance as well as information about the university, the residence permit application process
and daily life in Iceland. Your acceptance letter will also discuss accommodation offered by the
Student Housing Office and the orientation for international students, which takes place during
the first week of the fall semester.
You will likely be offered accommodation in your letter of acceptance. Gamli Garður is
the name of the dormitory on campus where most foreign students from outside of Europe live.
In order to reserve your room in Gamli Garður, a housing deposit of around 33,000 ISK and an
administrative fee of around 4,000 ISK must be wired to the Student Housing Office. The packet
does not include information about off-campus housing, but the Office of International
Education may be able to assist you in finding accommodation off-campus.
Your flight will land at Keflavík International Airport, about 45 minutes away from
Reykjavík by car. Before picking up your baggage, you will go through passport control. It is a
good idea to carry with you documentation that your residence permit has been approved as well
as any copies of materials submitted to the UTL. Flybus is a company, running in connection
with flights, that travels to BSÍ, the bus terminal in Reykjavík. This is the most affordable way
to get to Reykjavík with one-way tickets costing 1,700 ISK. I recommend buying round trip
tickets for 3,000 ISK, saving you 400 ISK, since you will inevitably return to Keflavík. I paid
for the ticket with a debit, but also withdrew currency from the on site ATMs. There is also an
exchange counter to convert American dollars to Icelandic krónur, but the exchange rate is less
favorable than it would be from an ATM or a bank in Reykjavík You could also take a taxi
from the airport to your destination, but this will be unreasonably expensive.
Before exiting the secured area, you may want to browse the duty free shop near the
luggage claim area. Although some items may seem unreasonably expensive, they are a bargain
compared to what you could expect to pay in Reykjavík.
Once you arrive at BSÍ, you will find yourself situated near the heart of Reykjavík and a
large pond called Tjörnin. Gamli Garður is visible from the bus station and within walking
distance along Hringbraut, a major road that runs in front of the dormitory. I recommend the 5
to 15 minute trek to familiarize yourself with the surroundings and develop a valuable first
impression of your new home! Taxis will also be standing by to transport the weary, timid,
and/or lazy and accept both krónur and credit/debit cards. If you choose to arrive before the
move-in date given by the Student Housing Office, you will be responsible for finding your own
accommodation and may want to spring for having the Flybus drop you off at your guesthouse or
hotel or pay for a cab. Check out www.gisting.is and www.visitreykjavik.is to find
In addition to the tasks I mentioned in section 1, there will be a few other matters to take
care of after you arrive in Reykjavík. You will need to open a bank account in order to begin
receiving your scholarship (see section 5). Once you have opened an account, give your account
number to the Office of International Education to begin claiming your stipend. The scholarship
money will be deposited into your account at the beginning of each month.
You will also need to register at the Service Desk in Háskólatorg, the University Center
that houses all student services. Take with you your letter of acceptance from the University of
Iceland and your passport and know your kennitala. You will not be able to register for classes
online for the first semester and will instead be given a form to fill in once you have researched
the course offerings on Ugla, the University of Iceland’s intranet for which you will receive
login information once you register.
Lastly, you must attend the mandatory orientation for new international students at the
beginning of the semester. The exact date, time and location will be given in your acceptance
letter. At the meeting, coordinators from the Office of International Education will discuss
practicalities of studying at the University of Iceland, while representatives from various
departments will present their study programs and requirements. Any questions regarding your
courses can be answered at this time and the representatives will have departmental timetables on
hand. Afterwards the Student Council and other student organizations will answer questions and
offer tours around campus. Be sure to contact the Office of International Education if you are
unable to attend the orientation.
4. Health issues
Iceland has a primarily socialist healthcare system with 85% of costs are financed using
government tax money and 15% with service fees. A visit to a heilsugæsla, an Icelandic
healthcare clinic, is similar to a visit in the United States; the insurance pays a certain amount
and you are responsible for a copayment. As I described in section 1., the Icelandic authorities
did not recognize the insurance policy provided by the IRSEP scholarship, requiring me to
purchase Icelandic sickness cost insurance to satisfy the immigration requirements. I chose a
company called Sjóvá because I found their application process the most straightforward and
they also helped me to acquire a kennitala. Information about their application process is
described at http://www.sjova.is/english.asp?cat=1233. The other provider is called
Tryggingamiðstöðin, whose information can be found at
http://www.tm.is/english/medicalcostinsurance. I paid a premium of 12,000 ISK for 6 months of
coverage before being enrolled in the Icelandic healthcare system. I had to visit a clinic during
the first six months and paid 5,000 ISK for a 10-minute doctor’s visit, which I thought was quite
expensive. After enrollment in the national healthcare system, the copayment was reduced
significantly to 1,000 ISK.
Gamli Garður is in the service area of the clinic called Heilsugæslan Seltjarnarnesi,
whose address is við Suðurströnd; 170 Seltjarnarnesi, in Seltjarnarnes (see map of Reykjavík),
and can be reached by phone at 527-2070. You must make an appointment before going, though
it is usually possible to make an appointment for the same day if you call early enough. I
recommend trying to get a daytime appointment as the afterhours sessions are shorter and more
expensive. The clinic in Seltjarnarnes is too far to walk to if you are feeling under the weather,
but can be reached in no time by bus from a stop near National Library. Heislugæslan Miðbæ, at
Vesturgötu 7, 101 Reykjavík; 585-2600, is within walking distance in downtown Reyjavík, but
because you will be outside of their service area, they will probably only make an appointment if
you are suffering from a more serious condition. If you have or witness an emergency, call 112!
An emergency room, slysadeild, is located at Landspítali háskólasjúkrahús in Fossvogur, but not
at the Landspítali on Hringbraut.
Prescriptions as well as over the counter medications can be obtained from any one of the
many Lyf og Heilsa pharmacies, the national chain found throughout Iceland. Prescribed
medications are generally not covered by the healthcare system and tend to be expensive.
Apparently dental and eye care are not include in the national healthcare program and are
therefore quite expensive. I recommend you have regular dental, eye and general health check-
ups before your departure.
5. Money Matters
The national currency of Iceland is the króna or krónur in the plural, abbreviated as ISK
throughout this report. I arrived in Iceland without any krónur on me. I withdrew money from
ATMs as I needed it until the first monthly stipend was deposited into my bank account. While
international debit and credit cards are widely accepted (and more commonly used for small
purchases in Iceland than anywhere else I have seen). I only made debit card purchases using a
card linked to my Icelandic account to avoid incurring international service fees.
I arrived on August 28th, the move-in date for Gamli Garður, so I did not have to allow
for accommodation elsewhere. Knowing that it would be some time before I received the
stipend, I did budget a few hundred dollars for the first couple of weeks. Allow enough money
for a few trips to the grocery store as well as textbooks and anything else you might need to get
While in Iceland during the summer course in modern Icelandic, I was able to open a
bank account because I had acquired a kennitala early on in the residence permit application
process. There are several banks to choose from, including Kaupþing, Spron, Íslandsbanki and
Landsbanki. In the end, I decided on Kaupþing because of the proximity of a branch to campus
and later found their online banking system to be among the easiest to use. Landsbanki also has
a branch across the street from the main campus. Investigate these banks for yourself as they
often offer promotional discounts to new members.
I first received my stipend after opening an account with an Icelandic bank and sharing
the account number with the Office of International Education. The OIE sees to it that the
stipend is deposited into your account around the first of each month to cover housing and other
living expenses. I thought I was supposed to receive a monthly stipend of 70,000 ISK for 10
months as stipulated in my exchange agreement, but the University of Iceland refused to deposit
the final month’s payment, claiming it was a mistake. This was unfortunate as I had planned to
stay in Iceland as long as I had the funding to do so. Without the additional 70,000 ISK, I had to
dip into funds that I had set aside specifically for living expenses the summer following my
school year in Iceland.
As the currency of an island nation of 320,000 inhabitants, by nature the króna is subject
to frequent and considerable fluctuations in value. Because of little diversity in the economy and
a heavy reliance on foreign imports, the Icelanders were hit especially hard during the recent
global recession. To make matters worse, a government bailout of the corrupt banking industry
left Iceland around 1,173 billion krónur in debt, more than 90% of the country´s gross domestic
product in 2007. The króna was worth around 80 ISK/1 USD when I first arrived in late August.
As the economic crisis mounted during the fall, the value continued to plummet to 110 ISK/1
USD in October, to 120 ISK/1 USD in November, finally falling as low as 150 ISK/1 USD in
December, losing nearly half the worth it had when I arrived 4 months earlier. Since then the
króna has floated around 120 ISK/1 USD.
Although it looks as though I must have profited from such extreme changes in value, the
stipend was in fact awarded in Icelandic krónur and, due to simultaneous inflation, the value of
my scholarship was diminished. I fortunately had the forethought to take out a couple of loans as
alternative sources of funding. Rather than using the funds exclusively for travel as I had
planned, however, I often had to use them to make up for where the stipend fell short.
Average monthly budget for IRSEP Iceland
Item Amount Comments
rent 22,000 ISK covered by scholarship and reduced by 13,000
ISK housing subsidy.
utilities 5,000 ISK calculated into rent, phone and Skype covered
food 25,000 ISK Cooking, nearly all meals covered by stipend
transportation 0 ISK free student bus pass
includes 2 weekly beers, a swimming card
entertainment 15,000 ISK with 10 punches, a campus coffee card and 2
drinks in a coffeeshop
books (per term) 15,000 ISK (not covered by the scholarship)
school supplies and
printing 10,000 ISK
TOTAL 77,000 ISK The stipend only covered the minimum of
x 10 months = what I spent. The cost of living expenses and
770,000 ISK entertainment were frugally calculated. You
will need other funds to go out and travel.
The estimated cost of living in Iceland was about 90,000 ISK per month for a single
person. Each month I applied the first half of the stipend to rent, paying around 22,000 ISK per
month for my room in Gamli Garður after I had received my housing subsidy. The rest went
towards living expenses and entertainment. I was able to travel the country and experience what
Reykjavík had to offer culturally, but only because I took out student loans.
I can count the number of times I dined out on both hands during my time in Reykjavík
and the dinners were usually inexpensive. It was more often the case that I cooked my meals in
the basement kitchen in Gamli Garður. My floormates and I occasionally cooked together and
had group meals.
Coming from the University of Minnesota, you may be surprised by the size of the
University of Iceland campus. The campus buildings are close enough together, so you will not
have to rush from one class to the other.
Háskólatorg, the University Center, houses all student services, including the Office of
International Education, the Registration Office, the Student Counseling and Career Centre,
Bóksala Stúdenta the University Bookstore, and the Háma, an affordable campus cafeteria. The
Student Council, which distributes student IDs and bus passes, also has its office in Háskólatorg.
Most university buildings have reading rooms and computer labs where students can study and a
cafe where students can buy coffee and snacks for the frequent coffee breaks taken in classes
during the day. A print quota for the computer lab printers can be purchased on Ugla using an
Icelandic credit card or directly from the service desk in Háskólatorg.
Háskólabíó, the campus movie theater, and Þjóðarbókhlaða, the university library, are
both across the street from the main campus. Háskólabíó also serves as a lecture hall and
university gymnasium for which memberships are available during the day. There is also
another gym on campus which offers its members lessons in yoga, dance and martial arts.
Þjóðarbókhlaðan offers an extensive collection of Icelandic and foreign language
materials and also serves as the national library. You can apply for a student library card for free
at the information desk. Many students opt not to buy books for their classes and instead check
them out from the library. The library has internet accessible computer stations on two floors as
well as Ethernet and wireless connections. Use of the copy machines requires the purchase of a
copy card. The Reykjavík City and Nordic House libraries are also good sources for books,
movies and music, but require separate membership fees.
Any academic matters should be taken to the service desk in Háskólatorg. The Office of
International Education and the Student Council also are happy to address concerns about daily
life in Iceland. The Student Council has begun offering to pair up willing international students
with Icelandic buddies. I did not participate in the buddy system, but I see it as a good way to
get acquainted with some Icelandic people and practice Icelandic early on the in exchange year.
8. Academic calendar 2008-2009
August 20th - September 3rd Beginning of fall semester
September 1st Orientation for international students at 15:00 in Háskólabíó
September 5th Student Day - the University Council requests that there be no classes in the
September 10th Final day to review fall course registration
October 10th Fall semester examination schedule published
November 19th Final day to withdraw from examinations in the fall semester
November 28th – December 9th Fall semester instruction ends
December 10th – 20th Autumn semester examinations
December 22nd – January 6th Christmas break
January 5th – 14th Beginning of spring semester
January 21st Final day to review spring course registration
February 28th Spring semester examination schedule published
April 8th – 14th Easter break
April 10th Final day to withdraw from spring semester examinations
April 11th – 25th Spring semester instruction ends
April 23rd First day of summer - no classes
April 29th – May 15th Spring semester examinations
During the 7th week of the fall and spring semesters, classes in some departments adjourn for a
reading week, intended for special projects and catch-up work.
9. Academic Issues
While a student from the University of Minnesota can expect a credit load of 15 credits in
Iceland, the courses are, on the whole, far less demanding than in the United States. Rather than
putting emphasis on daily graded homework, Icelanders instead heavily weight final exams,
which sometimes account for 100% of a semester grade. The incentive of keeping up with daily
readings and homework is, of course, not having to review from the beginning during the
As I have very few requirements left to fulfill for graduation at the University of
Minnesota, I enrolled in the B.A. program in Íslenska fyrir erlenda stúdenta, Icelandic Studies
for Foreign Students, knowing that few to none of the courses would be counted towards my
major. I was simply looking to take advantage of a unique opportunity to acquire this fascinating
and beautiful language, while getting acquainted with the country and its people when I applied
for this scholarship. I took the following first year courses for the B.A. in Icelandic for Foreign
Students during my exchange year at the University of Iceland:
Icelandic Grammar I 5 cr.
Conversational Practice I 3 cr.
Icelandic Language I 5 cr.
Self-directed study 2 cr.
Semantics 2 cr.
Icelandic Grammar II 5 cr.
Conversational Practice II 3 cr.
Icelandic Language II 5 cr.
Self-directed study II 2 cr.
In order to enroll in the BA program in Icelandic studies for foreign students, I first had
to pass an admission exam held at the beginning of the fall semester. The exam is based on the
topics covered in Icelandic Online I, an online course which can be taken for free at
http://icelandic.hi.is. The program appealed to me because it is geared towards students with a
serious interest in the language and literature of Iceland. The courses are theoretical in nature,
emphasizing the linguistic structure of Icelandic and the literature and the history of Iceland,
while also engaging in practical activities which improve language skills.
Hagnýt íslenska, Practical Icelandic for Foreign students, is a separate program structured
for people who want to improve their language skills as a preparation for further university
studies or careers in the Icelandic society, and also for exchange students in other academic
disciplines who wish to take some Icelandic courses. It provides general language proficiency in
Icelandic at all levels.
Icelandic is the main language of instruction at the University of Iceland, although
individual courses and whole programs are taught in English in many departments such as the
social sciences, humanities, business, engineering and natural sciences. Past IRSEP recipients
have participated in the Geology Program for Foreign Students. This program is specifically
geared toward English-speaking exchange students wanting to gain an understanding of
Icelandic geology. All the courses in this program have a field component, which emphasizes
the study of a particular geological feature found in Iceland such volcanoes, glaciers, geysers,
waterfalls and fissures. There is also a course called Introduction to Icelandic Geology and
Geography that begins a week before the fall semester. During this week, students in the course
go on a field trip to southern Iceland. There is a fee for this course, but the IRSEP scholarship
may cover it.
My classes tended to be small, ranging from 10 to 30 students. While professors in larger
classes lectured a majority of the time, most professors encouraged classroom participation and
discussion. Professors are referred to by their first names in Iceland, which adds to the relaxed
classroom atmosphere. A coffee break in the middle of longer lectures can be expected every
day. Most professors are willing to extend assignment deadlines with little convincing and some
make time to work with students outside of class. Grades are given on a scale from 10 to 1 with
10 being the best and 1 the worst. A 10, however, is an extremely rare accomplishment with
grades between 9 and 7 being considered exceptional.
Icelanders are notorious for a lack of planning and professors sometimes arrived to class
with incomplete presentations, sometimes simply making them up as they lectured. As a
previous IRSEP recipient put it “the lack of planning is just a fact of life in Iceland; at first it can
be maddening, but eventually you just have to give in and go with the flow.” This describes my
experience well and I am now finding it difficult to be back in a task and time driven society.
10. Language Courses
I took part in a 6-week summer course in modern Icelandic the June before spending the
academic year in Iceland. The course is a joint offering from the University of Minnesota and
the University of Iceland with students spending the first 3 weeks of the course in Minneapolis,
then continuing the remaining 3 weeks in at the university in Reykjavík. The language classes
include instruction in grammar, conversation and reading of modern Icelandic texts. Lectures on
Icelandic culture and society supplement language instruction at both locations. In Iceland, there
are also excursions to museums and sites of cultural significance. The course qualifies for
financial aid and costs around $4,000. The price includes tuition, instructional materials, round
trip airfare from Minneapolis to Iceland, accommodation in Reykjavík and weekend day trips.
Applicants apply through Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch and are also eligible
for departmental scholarships. Read more about the summer course in modern Icelandic at
http://www.gsd.umn.edu/language/icelandic.html. There is also an option of taking an
intermediate course in Iceland afterwards through the Sigurður Nordal Institue, however, as an
IRSEP recipient it is not possible to participate as you will need to leave the country at the
beginning of July to allow your residence permit application to be published.
I highly recommend the course in modern Icelandic as it was an excellent introduction to
the Icelandic language as well as to daily life in Reykjavík. My classmates and I were put up in
apartments around the Miðbær neighborhood of Reykjavík and had to fend for ourselves once
class had adjourned for the day. I spent a good deal of time familiarizing myself with the city
and its cultural offerings since I knew I would be returning. It was stressful to get my residence
permit materials in order a month sooner than usual in order submit them to the UTL in person
before the July 15th deadline. However, it was a positive experience in that it required me to be
proactive and attentive throughout the application process. The opportunity to meet new people
and handle matters related to the academic year, such as opening a bank account, before its start,
set me ahead in the fall and allowed me to better enjoy the first few weeks in my new home.
The University of Iceland also offers an intensive language course in August that lasts
about 3 weeks and costs 30,000 ISK for students coming from the United States. There are three
levels of language instruction available, depending on your background in Icelandic and desire to
learn. The course is run by the OIE and can be read about at http://www.ask.hi.is/page/ilpc. In
addition to the courses offered by the Department of Icelandic for Foreign Students mentioned in
section 9, there are also opportunities to learn Icelandic outside the University. The language
school Mímir offers varying degrees of instruction during the day and at night. Read more about
their course offerings at www.mimir.is. The Alþjóðahús, Intercultural House in downtown
Reykjavík offers beginning and work related courses in Icelandic and can be read about at
http://www.ahus.is/content/view/23/19/lang,en. You will often hear people, sometimes
Icelanders, say that learning the language is pointless as most Icelanders speak English with near
fluency. However, I believe that learning at least the basics of this mysterious language is as
important as experiencing the serene, rugged beauty of the pristine environment and will no
doubt offer a glimpse into the Icelandic ethos like nothing else. I strongly recommend studying
some Icelandic, perhaps before your arrival, to better understand your friends, the old lady on the
bus and the average joe sitting next to you at the bar. Visit
http://www.arnastofnun.is/page/a_links_icelandic for great links related to Iceland and its
I did not search for volunteer or internship positions during my stay in Iceland. However,
past IRSEP participants have mentioned that students can seek credit for internship and research
positions through the University of Iceland, creating independent projects or working under
I chose to accept the room in Gamli Garður, the “old hall” situated on campus and
actually the oldest university building, offered in my letter of acceptance from the University of
Iceland. I had a single room of my own in the basement of Gamli Garður, which came
furnished with a bed with a pillow, duvet and its cover and sheets as wells as a desk, chair and
lamp for study, and also had a closet and bookshelf for storage and a vanity with a sink. The
room is also wired with an Ethernet port for internet access. I took a trip to IKEA in the city of
Garðabær to buy extra duvet covers, a pillow, a reading lamp as well as a plant and some
decorations to spruce up my room. I recommend checking out Kolaportið, the weekend
fleamarket in downtown Reykjavík, for bargains on room accessories. The men and women on
each floor share separate bathrooms, which are professionally cleaned. Gamli Garður has only
one laundry room with two washers and an inefficient dryer as well as clothesline to hang up
garments to dry and a sink for hand washing. The machines accept only a laundry card, which
can be purchases and refilled at the Student Housing Office. I bought a drying rack at the
beginning of the fall semester to dry smaller garments and also my clothes when I came in from
Each floor also has its own kitchen that comes equipped with the necessary dishes and
cookware with several refrigerators and cubby spaces for storage. Some kitchens even have
multiple stoves to accommodate several people using the kitchen at once, but even then it was
crowded. Despite the existence of a kitchen duty system, people eventually became fed up with
the constant mess and stopped cleaning up after themselves and others. Fortunately, we could
overlook the discord of the cleaning situation, and continued to congregate in the kitchen where
we cooked together and shared our personal takes on our common experience of living in
As mentioned before, Gamli Garður typically houses international students from outside
the EEA, which was both a positive and negative aspect of residing there. While I greatly
enjoyed living among students from Japan, Estonia, Denmark, Canada and England on my floor,
as a student of Icelandic, there were few opportunities to practice at home, the place where
language is usually reinforced, as few of my floormates were in Iceland to study the language.
During the second semester, however, a few Icelandic students moved into Gamli Garður which
greatly improved the international atmosphere. While living in Iceland, I not only learned a
great deal about the local culture, but also engaged in intercultural exchanges with my floormates
on a daily basis, making life in the dormitory an enriching and memorable experience.
There were several times during the semester when the Student Housing Office neglected
their duty to maintain the building. The men’s bathroom on my floor was without heating for the
first few months and the shower constantly flooded the floor. The building is also poorly wired
and power outages became more frequent during the winter. In addition, the windows were
improperly sealed, allowing moisture to seep through and mold to grow. The dormitory was also
without an intercom system for the first semester, so visitors often had to wait outside for a
resident to let inside. This has since been fixed and all rooms now come with a telephone linked
to the intercom and can also be used to call other residents of the building. A bill for rent is
delivered to your room each month and can be paid online or in person at a bank.
I highly recommend that you apply for húsaleigubætur, rent subsidies for which you are
eligible once you’ve signed a contract for your dormitory room. I received up to 13,000 ISK in
compensation per month, truly making living in Gamli Garður one of the most affordable
housing options. Simply follow the directions given to you by the Student Housing Office when
you sign your lease. While off campus housing options exist, they are significantly more
expensive and most of your monthly stipend is likely to go towards rent. It also may be difficult
to secure off campus housing before arriving in Iceland without the help of the OIE. I suggest
living on campus for at least one semester until you have established yourself in Iceland.
13. Eating & Entertainment
The most affordable way to budget your monthly stipend is to cook for yourself a
majority of the time. I usually cooked alone, though my floormates and I occasionally organized
dinner parties for which each person was to contribute a dish, sharing an aspect of their culture.
Háma, the cafeteria in Háskólatorg offers affordable, changing breakfast and lunch menus as
well as coffee and snacks. Always remember to present your student ID as it includes a discount
for warm meals and coffee. If you are a heavy coffee drinker as I am, I suggest purchasing an
afsláttarkort, or discounted punch card, which gives you the cheapest cup of coffee in the
Besides having a snack on campus, I often frequented the many cozy coffeeshops in
downtown Reykjavík, whose livingroom charm is uniquely Icelandic. At night, the same cafes
transform into nightclubs and bars, host to the bustling Icelandic weekend nightlife which you
must see to believe. Clubs and bars that seemed enjoyable for most people include Boston, Kaffi
Barinn, Barbara and Q Bar. Drinking in bars has become increasingly expensive, though. Clubs
first become busy around midnight, though most people go out between 1:00 and 5:00 AM with
many bars remaining open until morning.
When in Iceland, get the best value for your groceries and shop as the Icelanders do.
Several grocery chains exist in Iceland, including Hagkaup, Krónan, Bónús and Nóatún. All can
be reached from Gamli Garður by foot or with the bus and are listed in order of my preference.
While Hagkaup is known to be upscale, I went to their location in Kringlan, a mall along
Hringbraut, specifically for good quality fruit and vegetables, especially those produced in
Iceland. On the same trip, I would stop past Bónús, a discount chain, for canned and dried goods
as well as dairy since quality varies little from store to store. A Krónan is located near the harbor
and their prices are somewhere between Hagkaup and Bónús. Nóatún is good for high quality
meat, imports and specialty items, but isthe most expensive. Resist the temptation to buy your
groceries at convenience stores like 10-11 as they are considerably more expensive, but reliable
in that they are open all day.
The food market at Kolaportið is also a great place to indulge in Icelandic delicacies, if
you dare. While cured shark meat, hákarl, ram testicles and sheep’s head, svið, are perhaps only
for the brave, I recommend trying the winddried fish spread with butter, as the Icelanders eat it.
Kolaportið is also a great place to find deals on frozen seafood and flatkökur and other delicious
baked goods. Should you pass a bakery, stop in and try a delicious kleina or the rye bread!
In the midst of the Icelandic economic crisis, I became interested in supporting whatever
Icelandic industries I could. A very small area of Iceland is arable, only supporting the growth
of root vegetables and some grains along the southern coast. I exclusively bought tomatoes and
cucumbers grown in greenhouses and the strawberries and mushrooms cultivated domesticly.
The dairy industry has many Icelandic specialties to offer, including skyr, which is similar to
strained yogurt and mýsuostur, carmelized whey that is sliced like cheese. I was pleased to find
fantastic Icelandic beer from smaller Icelandic breweries like Ölvisholt and Kaldi.
In my free time, I often frequented the heated pools and hot tubs, which are extremely
popular with Icelanders and serve as a forum for social and political discussions. There are
several pools located around Reykjavík. The one in Vesturbær is the closest to campus and is
more popular among an older crowd and foreigners and less busy than others. A 10 punch
discount card can be purchased for 2,500 ISK and will save you money if you go swimming
Reykjavík offered much of what I like in a city; despite it’s small size, as the capital and
largest city in Iceland, it boasts a world-class cultural scene that has something for everyone. In
October, I attended both the internationally acclaimed Iceland Airwaves music festival and the
Reykjavík International Film festival. A few coffeeshops and churches serve as venues for
evening concerts which I attended throughout the year. I also traveled to Hafnarfjörður for the
historic Bæjarbíó’s fall and spring film programs. Once the weather improved in the spring, I
enjoyed going on long walks along the coast and hiking outside city limits.
Gamli Garður is situated directly on campus and university buildings, grocery stores,
swimming pools and downtown Reykjavík are within 20 minutes of travel time and easily
reached by foot. The Student Council arranged free passes for students on the city bus system
during my exchange year. Several buses stop on their routes along Hringbraut, directly outside
Gamli Garður, making getting around the larger Reykjavík area and to a couple towns a short
distance away from Reykjavik a breeze. You can also reach Mt. Esja, a popular hiking
destination, by taking the bus to Mossfellsbær. Although you might see a few bicyclists, the
constant wind and frequent rain showers make biking a miserable experience most of the time.
You might consider familiarizing yourself with a map of the Reykjavík area before
arriving in Iceland. Reykjavík is split up into several neighborhoods and streets within a
common neighborhood often share an element of the neighborhood’s name in their own. For
example, the Directorate of Immigration, Útlendingastofnun, is located on a street named
Skógarhlíð. Another street called Eskihlíð also shares–hlíð in its name, telling us that both
streets are likely near each other. More importantly, their names indicate that they belong to the
Hlíðar neighborhood, named so because it makes up the slope of Öskjuhlíð, the forested hill on
which Perlan, the Pearl, is situated. Knowing this technique, you will be able to find nearly any
place in Reykjavík as long as you know the street address.
I went on several trips around the country throughout the year, always renting a car with
my floormates or other friends to split the cost. Renting a car is costly, but it is well worth the
expense, as many of the interesting places to see cannot be reached on standard coach tours. The
early fall and late spring were the most beautiful times to travel during my exchange, and also
advisable as winter driving can be very dangerous and the daylight last only 3 to 4 hours. Be
prepared for sudden changes in the weather and for severe conditions. I recommend checking
the weather forecast at www.vedur.is and the road conditions at www.road.is before setting out
on a trip. Heed the road administration’s warnings and pay attention to all signs; my friends and
I failed to do so and ended up getting stuck in a snow bank. It was no fun to have to call the
mountain rescue service and have to explain ourselves.
I communicated with my family and friends in the States using e-mail and Skype, which
is an affordable way to call landlines and also allows you to videoconference and send instant
messages for free. There is a small phone booth in Gamli Garður, which only accepts phone
cards that can be purchased from the Student Housing Office. Like many students, I purchased
an Icelandic mobile phone to keep in contacft with my friends and bought prepaid credit from
10-11 and online as I needed it. Companies such as Síminn, Tal and Vodafone are always
offering promotions, so you should research your options before making a decision. My service
was provided by Síminn, which seems like a well established name in Iceland, and also allowed
me to set up a billing plan, so that I could use the phone while travelling through Europe.
16. Background information on Reykjavík and Iceland
Reykjavík is the largest city in country where roughly 2/3 of the Icelandic population
resides. While it is a small city by North American standards, Reykjavík makes up for its size
with a vibrant and cosmopolitan urban atmosphere. It has a pleasant downtown district, lined
with design shops, quaint cafes and trendy restaurants. While Northern Europeans have a
reputation for being cold and difficult to befriend, I found Icelanders to be the exception as many
seemed eager to get to know foreigners and share Icelandic culture. Icelanders are very trusting
people, leaving their doors unlocked and their children outside stores while shopping inside.
Icelandic is the language spoken in Iceland, but English is taught to Icelandic children from a
young age, so most young people speak English with near fluency .
The guidebooks of Iceland that are out on the market are excellent resources for
familiarizing yourself with the geography of the island nation before your arrival. You might
consider learning a bit about Icelandic culture and history, especially the recent economic crisis,
before your arrival. Many people also recommend reading ‘Independent People’ by Halldór
Laxness or delving into the world of saga literature for a taste of the Icelandic spirit.
The crime rate in Iceland is almost negligible and most people feel safe walking home
alone at night. As in other places, people under the influence of alcohol are can be loud and
unruly. You should stay alert of your surroundings when walking alone at night and inform a
friend of your destination. There were infrequent group arguments that escalated to fist fights
downtown, but the police were quick to intervene.
Iceland’s temperate climate is the most important thing to take into consideration when
packing. I did my best to avoid over packing by taking only a few pairs of pants and jeans that
could be worn together with nice shirts and comfortable sweaters in different combinations in
casual and formal situations alike. It is highly unlikely you will want to wear shorts or anything
with short sleeves other than a bathing suit, so save the room for something more important. I
also lined the bottom of my suitcase with contact solution and other toiletries, knowing that they
would cost more in Iceland. Since I used them over the course of the year, I also had extra space
when I returned. Leave your umbrella at home and instead invest in a good pair of waterproof
boots, a windbreaker that can be worn over sweaters and woolen socks. Clothes are generally
more expensive in Iceland than in the States, but it might be a good idea to pack lightly and wait
to buy some clothes until after you have experienced the Icelandic weather for yourself. Items
such as towels, however, can be found at affordable prices. Before returning home, I shipped
two boxes with books and light articles of clothing that I had bought during the year. Each box
cost around 10,000 ISK, but this was considerably cheaper than trying to fit them into my
suitcases and paying for overweight luggage.
The informational packet from the University of Iceland as well as the final reports from
past IRSEP recipients were helpful in preparing for the exchange year. I frequently referred to
the University of Iceland’s website at http://www.hi.is and Office of International Education’s at
http://ask.hi.is. Please feel free to contact me at any time while preparing for your year in
20. IRSEP Requirements
I enrolled in an online course for the fall semester called EdPa 3103: Global Identity:
Connecting Your International Experience to Your Future as required by the IRSEP scholarship.
The assignments were designed to develop intercultural skills and encourage us to demonstrate
this development in the writing of documents that could be used in a professional portfolio. The
assignments were fun to complete for the most part and I appreciated the personal reflection they
demanded. During the second semester, the IRSEP coordinator began sending out writing
assignments to be completed and then sent out to the other IRSEP participants. I enjoyed
reading about their experiences, realizing how different my own year had been but seeing what
we shared in common as Americans abroad.
21. Overall Assessment
It was painful to uproot myself from Iceland, that barren, floating rock in the North
Atlantic to which I grew attached and I flourished this past year. It is a special experience to
spend a year in a country as small as Iceland, where change is so immediately apparent. This
perspective made the Icelandic economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 seem very real to me, as it was
a factor of my daily existence. I feel closer to the Icelandic people, having endured the dark,
turbulent winter and period of economic uncertainty together with them. I'm satisfied with the
outcome of my experiences overseas and I feel optimistic about the year to come. I feel as
though I made good use of my time and opportunities, which all helped to make the year go by at
an unhurried pace. My exchange year left me eagerly awaiting the future with the knowledge
that I can find my place wherever I am in the world and make use of my abilities there. I am also
excited to be back at the university and tell other students about this opportunity to spend an
academic year up north. I've already been in contact with this year's IRSEP Iceland recipient to
guide her through the trying application process for a residence permit and to offer advice on
preparing for the coming year. To see my involvement with Iceland and this program finally
come full circle is at once exciting and a bit surreal.