All forms of international travel have one thing in common: the need for a passport. All forms of international employment have one thing in common: the need for a work visa. These facts hold throughout the world, except for one place, notable for requiring neither. Welcome to Svalbard, the one place on the planet where all are welcome to visit and work — no documentation required.
Although separated by 590 miles (950 km) from the mainland, Svalbard is part of Norway. The archipelago is located within the Arctic Circle, approximately midway between Norway and the North Pole. It is one of the northernmost inhabited pieces of real estate in the world.
The total land area of Svalbard’s islands is 23,561 square miles (61,022 square km), but approximately 60% of that territory is covered in glaciers. It is home to fewer than 3,000 residents, making it second only to Greenland on the list of nations’ population density.
Svalbard was discovered by Dutchman Willem Barentsz in 1596. The first recorded landing on the islands did not take place until 1604 when an English ship landed at Bjørnøya (Bear Island). It soon became a base for whaling ships.
Over the next 300 years, Dutch, French, British, Norwegian, Danish, and Russian settlements emerged, started primarily by whalers and hunters of walruses, seals, and foxes. By the end of the 19th century, Svalbard became a base for Arctic exploration. Discovery of coal deposits also made it a magnet for miners.
The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 established the unusual immigration and employment environment that exists today. Under the terms of the agreement, the signatories agree that all citizens and all companies of every nation under the treaty are allowed to become residents and to have access to Svalbard including the right to fish, hunt or undertake any kind of maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity. The residents of Svalbard must follow Norwegian law, but authorities are not permitted to discriminate against or favor any residents of any given nationality. Norway is permitted to tax people, companies, and activities in Svalbard, but only to the extent necessary to support Svalbard and its government.
Slovakia’s ratification of the treaty in 2017 brings the number of signatories to forty-six.
The effect of the treaty is that no passport is needed to enter Svalbard, nor is it necessary to obtain a work permit in order to be employed. The governor of Svalbard (who also serves as the chief of police) does have the authority to send a person back to his or her country of origin, however, if that person does not have enough funds to remain self-sufficient or if that person does not have a job offer from one of Svalbard’s employers. In other words, Svalbard welcomes anyone willing to come and contribute to society, but freeloaders should look elsewhere for their handouts. Welfare and health care are available only for Norwegians and for workers employed by a Norwegian company.
While it is true that only the citizens and companies of the nations that are party to the Svalbard Treaty have the automatic right to free access to Svalbard, in practice, the policy is applied quite liberally. Non-treaty nationals may live and work indefinitely visa-free as well. Former Governor Per Sefland observed, “It has been a chosen policy so far that we haven’t made any difference between the treaty citizens and those from outside the treaty.” Regulations concerning rejection and expulsion from Svalbard tend to focus primarily on lack of means of support and violation of laws or regulations.
By way of clarification, although a valid passport is not needed to enter Svalbard for immigration purposes, individuals must still establish their identity and citizenship. A passport is the surest way of making sure you don’t get held up at the port of entry. Also, unless you plan on living out the rest of your days in Svalbard, you will find a passport quite valuable when you return to your country of origin or whatever nation is next on your travel roster.
Should you decide to visit or move to Svalbard, you should remember to pack your long underwear. The average summer temperature is 4-6 °C (39 to 43 °F). January’s average temperature is between −16 and −12 °C (3 to 10 °F). Additionally, from November 11 until January 30 each year, Svalbard experiences civil polar night, where there is only a faint glow of the sun at the brightest point of the day. From December 12 to December 30, there is no sunlight whatsoever.
You should also be aware of the local fauna. Polar bears are among the biggest tourist attractions of Svalbard. They are protected, and they are dangerous. The Svalbard Tourism website warns that polar bear attacks can come without warning, and it advises all visitors to be accompanied by an armed guide.
Oh yeah… there’s one other thing you should be aware of. It is illegal to die there, or at least within the largest town of Longyearbyen. For more details about this peculiarity of Svalbard society, read this post.