A common dilemma for internationals considering moving to the Netherlands: choosing the right city.
Very often, The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Utrecht are cited as the most vibrant cities with the most job opportunities in the Netherlands.
Let's focus on Utrecht and Amsterdam today: here are 5 pros and cons of living in each city. (We live in Groningen, so we're not biased).
Pros of working in Utrecht
1. High wages
Utrecht has a high average salary level, positioned right behind Noord-Holland (Amsterdam area). The average annual income in Utrecht is 30,262 euros vs. 30,482 euros in Amsterdam (Expatica, 2020).
2. Lower living costs
While still expensive, Utrecht remains cheaper than Amsterdam, especially real estate-wise. This means less of your salary will be sent down the "rent drain". A one-bedroom apartment in the city centre costs about 1250 euros/month in Utrecht versus 1600 euros/month in Amsterdam city centre (September 2022, Expat Arrivals).
3. Feels "Dutch"
Utrecht is often described as Amsterdam minus the tourists. You'll hear less English and more Dutch people in the streets and will be able to enjoy beautiful views of the Oudegracht (the main canal running through the center Utrecht) without hundreds of large tourist boats. Instead, you'll often see locals canoeing through the city or having drinks and food on their personal boats.
4. Easy to commute
Utrecht is about half the size of Amsterdam in terms of area, (100 km2, versus 220 km2 for Amsterdam). Having a smaller area and given its well-designed public transportation infrastructure, Utrecht may be easier to commute in compared to Amsterdam.
Not that Amsterdam doesn't have a modern public transport system. It's just easier and shorter to get from A to B in Utrecht than it is in Amsterdam. The cycling culture is also very present in Utrecht and bicycle paths too, minus the Amsterdam traffic.
5. Safer city
If you're looking to move to Utrecht with a family and children, you might feel Utrecht is a safer city to live in. The city has a lower crime index and higher safety index than Amsterdam. Utrecht is one of the safest cities in the Netherlands, right after Eindhoven (in Groningen, the Hague, and Eindhoven being the top 3 safest Dutch cities, in that order).
Cons of working in Utrecht
1. Less English-speaking companies
You won't find as many English-speaking companies in Utrecht as you do in Amsterdam. There is a handful though! Check out our list of English-speaking companies in Utrecht.
2. Limited international school options
It's a common issue for expatriates with children: where are they going to attend school? For younger children, adapting to the Dutch schooling system may not be too much of an issue.
For teenagers and high school students, however, adapting to a brand new school system close to graduation may be a bit stressful and challenging. If you move to work in Utrecht, the only option you'll have is the International School Utrecht (ISU), located near the city centre.
3. Housing crisis
Finding a place to live in Utrecht is a complete headache, almost as much as it is in Amsterdam. There is simply too much demand and not enough apartments and houses to live in Utrecht. Make sure to plan ahead if you're moving to Utrecht. If you haven't found a place by the time your work contract starts, you may have to stay at a guest house for a while until you find something.
While not as expensive as Amsterdam, Utrecht is still a pricey city to live in, if you add up the rent, groceries, restaurants and entertainment. Living in Utrecht costs about 850 euros/month per person, on average, excluding rent.
5. Limited restaurant diversity
While Utrecht has a fair number of restaurants offering international cuisines (notably Indian, Thai, German, Indian, and Italian on the beautiful Oudegracht terraces), it doesn't get much more exotic than that. Especially compared to Amsterdam, you'll have much less choice, diversity and niche food restaurants in Utrecht.
Pros of working in Amsterdam
1. International schools
Amsterdam has far more choices in terms of international schools, which is better if you feel like your children could benefit more from an international school than the Dutch school system.
Among the international schools in Amsterdam:
The British School of Amsterdam
Amsterdam Liberal Arts & Sciences Academie (ALASCA)
Amity International School
Winford Bilingual Primary School
Optimist International School
Amsterdam International School
Albert Einstein International School (AEIS)
Japanese School of Amsterdam
Lycée Français Vincent van Gogh (French school)
2. International travel
Not that Utrecht is particularly far from Schiphol airport (only 30 minutes by train), but it's simply easier to jump on an international flight or a train to France or Belgium if you're living in Amsterdam.
The train from Amsterdam Central gets you to Schiphol within 15 minutes. The trip between Amsterdam Zuid and Schiphol airport is 6 minutes. To travel to Brussels or Paris, you can easily hop on a Thalys which runs through Amsterdam Central and Schiphol airport.
3. Employment opportunities
Amsterdam is larger and has more companies and more job opportunities than Utrecht does (~118,000 job postings on LinkedIn in Amsterdam versus ~41,000 open vacancies in Utrecht). This doesn't mean it'll be easier to find a job in Amsterdam (more people applying too!), but it does mean you'll have more options though.
4. Museums and historical landmarks
There is much more to do in Amsterdam than there is in Utrecht. At the same time, tough to compete with Amsterdam when it comes to museums, sightseeing and entertainment. If culture, museums and historical landmarks are a must-have for you on weekends or in the evenings after work, Amsterdam might be a better choice for you.
5. Diverse cuisines
Amsterdam is very cosmopolitan and you'll probably find just about anything restaurant and culinary-wise. The Albert Cuyp market is a great illustration, with stands selling Dutch chees, Indonesian specialities, and authentic American brownies right next to each other. You might not see that as much in Utrecht. In a similar way, you'll more French restaurants in Amsterdam than you will in Utrecht for example.
Cons of working in Amsterdam
1. More expensive
Amsterdam is very pricey when it comes to the cost of living. As the third most expensive city in Europe to rent an apartment in (NL Times, 2022), Amsterdam will take most of your paycheck for housing costs at the end of the month (1,641 euros per month to rent an apartment on average).
2. Overloaded with tourists
Millions of tourists from around the world visit Amsterdam every year and every month of the year, probably. While this is great for the local economy, it has become a nuisance for many locals who don't feel the "Dutch" vibe of Amsterdam as strongly as they used to.
If you want to experience authentic Dutch culture, some areas in Amsterdam may still be able to offer that. Other areas simply don't feel like you're in the Netherlands anymore.
3. Housing shortage
This is also a problem in Utrecht and many other Dutch cities. But the fact that Amsterdam has much higher average rents makes it all the more competitive to find something affordable, and fast. If you're considering working in Amsterdam with a lower budget for rent, make sure you start looking in advance and have a plan B in case you have a work starting date and no housing by then!
With over 883,000 inhabitants in 2022, Amsterdam almost has 3 times as many people as Utrecht does (~362,000), according to Statista. Even if Amsterdam has a larger area, you'll likely feel the congestion in the street, on public transportation, and on the roads too, whether you're cycling or driving.
This brings us to commuting. Given the number of people living, working, and visiting Amsterdam, rush hours can be very stressful and noisy. For some expats, the beauty of the Netherlands lies in being able to cycle to work in a relaxed way, to avoid traffic and public transport.
This will be difficult in most areas within Amsterdam, as you'll have to share the roads with the tram line, buses, cars and hundreds of other bicycles. If you prefer a calmer bike ride to work, Utrecht might be a better option for you.