In order to legally work in Finland you do not, in principle, need anything other than a residence permit with a right to work, and an employment contract (which you will need to get a permit in first place anyway). So you can drive to Finland or go there by train or something and go to work right away and enjoy your first workday in the company of the Finns. But obviously you still need to get a number of Finnish papers in the near future (so that you can actually get paid, for example). Getting them is simple and doesn’t take long; the most important thing is to actually know what you need to do and in which order. I don’t know of any exhaustive manual on that matter, so I guess you can use mine if you want. Myself, I got pieces of information from official websites, from Twitter and other social media of people who had already moved to Finland, and from russian.fi web forum (not the most pleasant place on the web but a valid source of information anyway).
Living in Finland is for the most part pretty simple and easy (much easier than in Russia in most aspects) if you are, well, a part of the system. If you’re not, you don’t really have a right to most services; just try going to a Finnish health center or opening a Finnish bank account as a tourist! But since you are not a refugee (probably) or something, but rather a work immigrant, becoming a part of the system will be easy for you. Although there still might be a few annoying gotchas.
There are three most basic things you need in Finland, and you’ll have great difficulty getting by without them:
1. Personal identity number (henkilötunnus), often called a “social security number”, but that’s not correct since by itself it isn’t related to any social security. This is your unique number in the population register of the country. You can always be uniquely identified by this number alone. Thus while this number is not super secret, it’s still a good idea not to show it to the entire world. The number looks like DDMMYY-000X, where DDMMYY is your birthdate, 000 is a number among the people born on that date (odd means male, even means female), and X is a verification letter. As I said before, the identity number these days can be issued along with the residence permit, and this was how I got it.
2. Permanent address. This is the address where all mail from the authorities, various invoices, and so on will arrive. More importantly, having a permanent address means having a home municipality (kotikunta). You have the right to get basic municipal services, e. g. healthcare, from your kotikunta. And if you don’t have one, well, bad luck then.
3. Bank account. Everyone in Finland has one since their pre-teens. You will receive your salary to this account, and can pay rent invoices etc. from it; paying invoices in cash without having an account is difficult and sometimes not possible at all. Of course you’ll have a bank card linked to that account. But even more importantly, having an account usually means having online banking access, which allows you accessing all Finnish online state and municipality services; it’s not an obvious requirement but it’s a de facto one. And these online services are pretty useful; it means you will virtually never have to visit any government offices in person ever afterwards.
This isn’t everything you need, but these are things that entitle you to getting pretty much the same services (both from state/municipalities and from private enterprises) as the Finnish citizens do.
You might not need all of these things to rent your first apartment, which is likely going to be a pretty urgent matter too, but it’s still useful to have them, especially the identity number. It should be possible to pay the first invoices, including the security deposit, in cash, but you’ll want to have a bank account for that as soon as possible as well.
All offices in Finland work only on weekdays, usually from 9-10 to 16-17. So you’ll probably have to ask for leave at work to be able to visit them. In a smaller city like Vaasa it can be convenient to visit several offices at once, and the queues everywhere are usually small to non-existent. Might be more difficult in Helsinki, but still your employer should understand your needs here.
You should take your passport, residence permit, and employment contract everywhere. The latter was also necessary at many if not most places. Curiously, the original of my employment contract doesn’t exist at all; only a version that was printed out, signed, and scanned back twice, first by me and then by my employer. This copy was perfectly fine everywhere, although my signature scanned badly and was barely visible. No stamps or seals of any kinds were expected on it either; stamps generally are used very rarely in Finland at all.
Registration at the magistrate
The very very first thing you need to do is go to a place called the magistrate (maistraatti). This is a beautiful word, but in fact this agency doesn’t do much more than enter and change people data in the population register. If you still don’t have an identity number, you need to get one at the magistrate as well. But even if you already have one, as a foreigner you’re still supposed to first register in Finland by going to the magistrate in person. So on my very first workday in Finland I drove from the farmhouse to the city, and went to the magistrate right away before starting work.
Vaasa magistrate (or rather, Vaasa Branch of West Finland Magistrate) is located not in the center, but rather at the edge of Palosaari district north of the center, a whopping 20-25 min walk from the central square. So I got to enjoy a short nice walk through the beautiful Vaasa on a frosty morning. There is actually a huge building for all kinds of government agencies, including some rather exotic ones like geological survey service (there’s a picture in the beginning of this post). So I entered, looked at the signs and found out the magistrate is on the 4th floor, and went there. There were two booths, with a woman sitting at the window in one of them, and no other people were present (there also was no queue machine unlike most other places). I said, here I am, just arrived into your beautiful country, and want to register here. The woman gave me an application form, and led me to a back office where another woman, a very friendly and nice one, waited until I filled in the applicaiton, which was short and simple enough. (It’s worth noting that all forms I had to fill in person here so far had English versions, although that’s probably not universally guaranteed everywhere.)
I put in that farmhouse I’ve been temporarily living in as my address. There was a small problem with that; as far as I was knew, that was house number 7, but the magistrate lady looked it up and found out that there isn’t a house number 7, but there are 7a (with a lot of people registered there), and 7b (with not a lot of people). I said that I probably had 7b then. She asked if it was possible to give a call to anyone to clarify, and I gave her Mattias’ number; she cheerfully talked to him in Finnish for a minute or two, and then said that everything was fine and that indeed was house 7b. It seems that without that house number confusion they wouldn’t bother verifying anything at all.
This is, in general, one of the best things about Finland; everyone trusts you by default, even the state, within reasonable limits but still. They don’t ask you to bring a hundred of certificates and references and whatnot for everything.
Thus I was successfully registered as living in that farmhouse, and they gave me a paper, an extract from the population register, with my new address and some other data. They even put a stamp on that paper, and to this day it’s the only Finnish document with a stamp I’ve seen so far.
If I didn’t have a personal number, it would have been possible to get one here too; as far as I know the only inconvenience here is that it may take several days to get this number, unlike registering at an address which is pretty much instant. So of course it’s best to get it with the residence permit since it’s as simple as checking a single checkbox.
If I didn’t actually have an address as well, in theory it should have been possible to register at a municipality without an address, or rather with “Poste Ristante” instead of address. In that case you can get your mail at a post office. I don’t really know how it works. I’ve also read that some organizations, including banks, don’t really like servicing people with a “Poste Ristante” address. But I suppose if you have no other options that might be a possible temporary solution as well.
Having a permanent address, even a “Poste Ristante” one, gives you a home municipality (kotikunta). As I mentioned before, this is the municipality where you’ll be getting your municipal services. It does not actually have to be the municipality where your permanent address is physically located; you can specify another one if you have closer connections to that municipality. I don’t know what counts as “closer connections”; I suppose you can’t just enter yourself into whatever municipality, because at the very least they have different tax rates. I didn’t care, and was registered in Malax Municipality, since that’s what that farmhouse was.
(A municipality is the most basic admistrative unit of Finland (like in many other countries). It may correspond to a city or to a reasonably-sized rural area. Municipalities have major self-government rights, and have their own municipal councils and heads of municipalities. There are about 300 municipalities in Finland. They tend to have a strong sense of identity.)
Along with a permanent address, you are allowed to register a temporary one, in case you’re living somewhere outside of your home for an extended period of time, longer than a tourist trip. But you don’t have to care about that one for now. Another nuance: technically there are two places that track your permanent address: the population register and the postal service. The address is normally entered into both and changed in both simultaneously, but it’s possible to register separate addresses with them, although I have no idea why you’d want to do that.
Oh yes, and they give you a “Basic information about Finland” brochure in the magistrate! In your native language, no less! I like to call it Handbook for the Recently Deceased. That’s quite an adorable book with some useful information for an immigrant, but it’s all rather short and it doesn’t go in depth about anything, and really by that point you should already know everything it says yourself. It’s possible to download these at the magistrate website, but I’m too lazy to look them up right now so that’s left as an exercise for the reader.
Technically your passport (with the residence permit card) is already a valid form of identification, but it’s much preferable to get a Finnish ID card, henkilökortti. The thing is, many places in Finland will want you to have a form of ID issued in Finland, not some mysterious paper from abroad which, for all they know, could have been bought by you from a black market or something. Again, banks are particularly strict about that, and won’t give you access to online banking without Finnish ID, although in theory you can be asked for it even e. g. when buying alcohol, and they don’t have to accept foreign ID there either.
Valid forms of Finnish ID are a Finnish passport, an ID card, or in some cases a driving license (but only if it was originally issued in Finland, not exchanged from an existing foreign driving license). For a freshly arriving immigrant the ID card is the only option. An additional advantage of using a card instead of your home country’s passport for ID is that it will be much easier to get a new one, should it ever get lost.
It’s worth noting that a residence permit card, although it’s of course issued by Finland and doesn’t have any less data on it than an ID card, is not valid as ID and isn’t normally accepted as ID anywhere (without a passport at least). It’s rather weird and non-obvious but that’s how it is.
You can apply for an ID card at any police department, whichever one you like. I of course got mine in Vaasa, at the main police station of Ostrobothnia; this actually wasn’t on the very first day but a few days later. You can make an appoinment on the police website, or just go as is. If you’re not in the capital region, it’s easier to go as is; the queues shouldn’t be longer than 10-30 minutes. But I originally actually made an appointment (this by itself doesn’t require any documents, not even an identity number). If you have an appointment, then at that exact time they’ll call you out on the PA, asking to go to some booth. It could be quite tricky to understand what’s being said at all; they might pronounce your name incorrectly, and then they’ll pronounce the booth number in Finnish! Without an appointment you have to get a ticket at a queue machine. There were options for making applications and picking ready documents. Such a system is in use in Finland virtually everywhere; either appointments and PA announcements, and/or queue machines.
Unlike every other document, the ID card is issued not for free, but actually costs 58€ which is not exactly pocket money. Perhaps it’s because it’s not officially considered something vitally necessary for life. You can pay by cash or by card when making an application. Of course you’ll need to show the pre-existing ID, that is, your passport and residence permit. And a photo too! The photo required has the same requirements as a regular Schengen visa/residence permit/passport photo, so I brought the photos I made when applying for a residence permit. However, a pretty police clerk girl with some Balkanian sounding surname didn’t accept it for some reason, and told me to return with another photo to finish the application. There’s a list of the photo studios which are guaranteed to make proper photos on the police website, and I picked the closest one (although all of them were in Vaasa center anyway), and went there to make a new photo on the same day. This cost me 20€ more, which does sound like a highway robbery! By they way they can send your picture to the police by e-mail but there are no particular advantages in that, as you need to visit in person anyway, and that costs more too. So I brought the paper version of the photo back to the police, this time getting a ticket from a queue machine. This one was fine, and they told me I’ll get an SMS as soon as the card is ready, in a week. In fact I got that SMS in three work days. I visited the police again, and picked up the card without any difficulties.
For foreigners they put there “XXX” in the nationality field (why bother having it at all if FIN and XXX are the only options?), the card is valid only as long as the residence permit is valid (I’ll have to reapply for the next one separately), and it is marked as not being valid as a travel document. Finnish citizens may enter visa-free European countries holding that card (those include Schengen area, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus), while for other Nordic countries they don’t even need that card. However, the Finns themselves prefer getting a passport, which costs the same and has more uses, although it’s not as convenient to carry around (but they can carry around a driving license instead).
An attentive reader might notice that this card has a chip. In theory it can be used for identification on Finnish online state and municipality services. In practice few people bother, because everyone has online banking anyway, which can also be used for identification and is more convenient to use. For a card you’ll need a card reader, which is pretty cheap but takes time and effort to buy and set up as well. You’ll also need an activation code, which is automatically mailed to you with snail mail separately a week or two after the card is issued.
Cards issued since 2017 also support NFC. I tried setting up identification with my card and a NFC-enabled phone for hours, and eventually got the test page to work, but none of the actual government services did. It felt like that whole NFC support thing was some hobby project of some random individual in the government, and people actually care about this method of identification even less than about the card reader one.
But anyway no one apart from you will actually be putting your card anywhere, they’ll just look at it with their eyes. And it was indeed useful when I was opening my bank account, but I’ll tell about that part later.