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Iceland

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Travel Guide Europe Iceland

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Introduction

DSCN3231.jpg

DSCN3231.jpg

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Iceland is a land teeming with natural beauty. A center of volcanic activity, Iceland's landscape is highlighted by volcanic peaks and lava deserts, as well as glaciers, geysers and hot springs. In the past, destructive volcanic eruptions have seen many Icelanders emigrate; now, the tide has turned, as Iceland's popularity among tourists steadily grows. What visitors are finding is a country with more than a pretty landscape to offer: they are discovering a people of above average height, whose ancestry can be traced back to settlers from Scandinavia and who boast a rich literary and artistic tradition (beyond Björk). They are also a people who statistically live longer than the rest of the world - perhaps the consequence of the revitalizing effect of hot springs. It is not surprising, then, that Iceland is beginning to attract visitors for more than just its extraordinary beauty.

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Brief History

The first people believed to have visited Iceland were members of a Hiberno-Scottish mission or hermits, also known as Papar, who came in the 8th century or even as early as the second half of the 7th century. No archaeological discoveries support this theory; the monks are supposed to have left with the arrival of Norsemen, who systematically settled in the period circa AD 870–930. The first known permanent Norse settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, who built his homestead in Reykjavík in the year 874. In 930, the ruling chiefs established an assembly called the Alþingi (Althing). This parliament was founded as the political hub of the Icelandic Commonwealth. Christianity was adopted 999–1000. The Commonwealth lasted until 1262 when the political system devised by the original settlers proved unable to cope with the increasing power of Icelandic chieftains.

From the 14th century onwards to the late 18th century, Iceland was part of the Norwegian Crown, Norway-Denmark (Kalmar Union) and later under Danish rule. Lutheranism became the main religion and the last Catholic bishop in Iceland was beheaded in 1550, along with his two sons. Two Black Death and one smallpox epidemics killed about one third to a half of the population each time during these centuries.

In 1814, following the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark-Norway was broken up into two separate kingdoms via the Treaty of Kiel. Iceland, however, remained a Danish dependency. Throughout the 19th century, the country's climate continued to grow worse, resulting in mass emigration to the New World, particularly Manitoba in Canada. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland a constitution and limited home rule, which was expanded in 1904. The Act of Union, an agreement with Denmark signed on 1 December 1918, recognised Iceland as a fully sovereign state under the Danish king. On 31 December 1943, the Act of Union agreement expired after 25 years. Iceland formally became an independent republic on 17 June 1944, with Sveinn Björnsson as the first president. Iceland became a NATO member in 1949.

The immediate post-war period was followed by substantial economic growth, driven by industrialisation of the fishing industry and Marshall aid. The 1970s were marked by the Cod Wars—several disputes with the United Kingdom over Iceland's extension of its fishing limits. The economy was greatly diversified and liberalised when Iceland joined the European Economic Area in 1994. During the period 2003–07, Iceland developed from a nation best known for its fishing industry into a global financial powerhouse, but was consequently hit particularly hard by the 2008 global financial crisis, which extended into 2009 and 2010.

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Geography

Smoke Landscape

Smoke Landscape

© All Rights Reserved hugeknot

Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the Arctic Circle. Only the island of Grimsey is above this circle and the Arctic Ocean starts north from the country. Totally surrounded by water, Iceland is a geological wonder and is the place to be for those with an interest in volcanoes and volcanic activity.
A recent volcanic eruption on Eyjafjallajökull saw the disruption of European airspace for several days. This strato volcano is one of Iceland's largest and has only erupted 3 times since the island has been inhabited. The last time was nearly 200 years ago and this eruption lasted for nearly 2 years and was immediately followed by Katla (one of Icelands most powerful volcanos). The eruption started on March 20th 2010 with a small crater forming on a hiking trail at Fimmvöruðhals (between Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull, the eruption followed several days of constant earth tremors at the site. The eruption was small and became known as the tourist volcano as many people flocked to the site to get close to it. The main volcano started erupting from three craters on top of the glacier. The largest crater was around 5km diameter at its widest point. The volcano was very explosive to start with because it had to burn through many tons of ice, this caused massive dust clouds which were blown high onto the atmosphere. It also cause local flooding which broke the main road and changed the landscape at the beautiful Þorsmörk.
The North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate border each other right through the centre of the country and the best place to actually the fault in between is at the Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and apart from its natural importance also the most important cultural place for the Icelandic people.

Slow Steam up-Close

Slow Steam up-Close

© All Rights Reserved hugeknot


There are over 20 active volcanoes (Askja and Hekla being the most famous) and hundreds of geothermal areas and hot springs. The best known are the daddy of all geysers, simply called Geysir, and the Blue Lagoon hot spring near the international airport of Keflavik, not far from the capital Reykjavik. Geysir rarely spouts these days, but his little brother Strokkur erupts about every 15 minutes. Apart from this, most of the country is arctic desert covered with rocks, glacial sand planes (called sandars), glaciers (the Vatnajökull Glacier is the biggest in Europe and the third biggest in the world), lava fields and fumaroles. Some parts of the country have their own fjords, particularly in the less visited northwest of the country.
With over half of the population (total about 300,000 inhabitants) living in Reykjavik and the other half mostly in smaller towns, Iceland can be seen as one huge playground with the most beautiful nature you will find in the world. And although sometimes it comes at a price, most of the country can be visited with little trouble.

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Regions

  • Iceland consists of eight regions
  • Austurland (East)
  • Höfuðborgarsvæði (Capital Region)
  • Norðurland eystra (Northeast)
  • Norðurland vestra (Northwest)
  • Suðurland (South)
  • Suðurnes (Southern Peninsula)
  • Vestfirðir (Westfjords)
  • Vesturland

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Cities

Reykjavik

Reykjavik is a small but interesting capital with loads of opportunities to keep travellers busy for at least a few days. The numerous bars are a great place to meet people and enjoy an expensive beer. Hallgrims Church is one of the famous landmarks in the city to have a prayer after your hangover and also a great viewpoint of the city.

Other Cities

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Sights and Activities

Thingvellir National Park

Thingvellir National Park, or Þingvellir in Icelandic, is one of the four national parks in Iceland and is located about 50 kilometres from the capital Reykjavik, reachable by good tarred roads. Because of its cultural and natural importance it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Since 930 it has been of importance to almost all historical events in Iceland and also its geological history is a major draw for most visitors. Fault lines are easily visible in this interesting and beautiful national park. The site became Iceland's parliament around 930 AD after the owner of the land was found guilty of killing one of his slaves.

Dettifoss

DETIFOSS

DETIFOSS

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Located on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river near Lake Myvatn in the northeast of the country, the Dettifoss waterfall is the most powerful waterfall in Europe and also one of the highest. The falls are about 100 metres wide and over 40 metres high. Unlike Gulfoss, visiting Dettifoss requires some 26 kilometres on a very rough road. A reliable car is required. The road is open for just a few summer months.

Eyjafjallajökull

The Eyjafjallajökull is the name of the volcano in the south of Iceland, which made headlines in 2010 as its ashcloud brought European and Transatlantic air traffic to a grinding hold.

Eyjafjallajokull Lightning

Eyjafjallajokull Lightning

© All Rights Reserved hugeknot


The stratovolcano is covered by a glacier with the same name. This combination means that eruptions can also cause flooding problems. Geologists believe the volcano is connected to another (more active) subglacial volcano called Katla, which lies 25 kilometres to the north.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss, meaning Golden Falls, is one of the biggest waterfalls in Europe and is a popular sight located within a few hours drive of the capital Reykjavik. Together with Thingvellir NP and Geysir it is called the Golden Triangle, popular with daytrippers. The tarred roads end at Gullfoss, from where you can travel inland along the rough roads. Hvítá river supplies the water falling into a canyon beneath.

Gulfoss

Gulfoss

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht


This is done in two stages with a total drop of 32 metres.

Húsavík

Húsavík is one the best places in the world to see a wide variety of whales and other sea creatures. In summer, loads of humpback whales visit the Icelandic coastal areas, and many other whale species complete this magnificent sight. Other places to start a boat trip are Reykjavik, Keflavik and Hafnarfjödur, all on the southwest coast.

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón is the biggest and best known glacier lake in Iceland, and is located just south of the Vatnajökull Glacier, between Skaftafell National Park and Höfn. It is easily reached by car and the lake can even be seen from the main circular road (number 1) which runs just between the lake and the Atlantic Ocean.

Jokulsarlon

Jokulsarlon

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht


It has recently become the deepest lake in Iceland due to increase melting of the Vatanjökull glacier. Boat rides are available in the summer months which will give you an unforgettable ride through the floating ice bergs. The boats are ex-British army amphibious vehicles left over from the war. Don't miss the nearby beach where you can find a black sandy beach littered with washed ice. A unique photo experience.

Northern Lights

During the winter time only, the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are visible from the whole of Iceland. A very strong magnetic storm can be seen within the Reykjavik area, but mostly it is advisable to try to escape the city lights. It is a double challenge because the weather has to be bad in space but good on earth. You need ultra clear skies to see an average Northern Lights display. Generally the Aurora can be seen in the northern sky or over-head. You need to find a dark area and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. If you have a camera and tripod, you could take a long exposure of the northern sky. Your camera will see it before you do. If you can see a constant line of green running right across the sky it will be worth hanging around for about an hour. It should explode into fantastic light show. Bright auroras can cast shadows.

Other Sights and Activities

  • Blue Lagoon is the milky blue thermal swimming pool near Grindavik, between the airport and Reykjavik. It is a good place to either end or start your trip to Iceland.
  • Geysir is where all the geysers in the world get their name from. Since 1294, when the big Geysir first erupted it has been one big geothermal active place.
  • Skaftafell National Park is one of the best places to do some hiking and you can even try to climb Hvannadalshnúkur peak, the highest mountain in Iceland at over 2,100 metres. Svartifoss is one of the most famous waterfalls to be found in this national park.
  • Vatnajökull Glacier. Apart from the icecap in Greenland this is the largest glacier of Europe and it's possible to experience the icecap by glacier trekking or with snowmobile trips.
  • Askja Caldera is a volcano found in the central parts of Iceland. It can only be reached by rough 4wd roads and only for a few months of the year.
  • Lake Myvatn is located in the north of the country and is a great place to experience the geothermic activity in Iceland.
  • More waterfalls like Svartifoss, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss. These last two are found near the main road just west of the southern tip of Iceland near Vik.
  • Snæfellsjökull is the western peninsular tip of Iceland and is best known because of the book "Journey to the Centre of the Earth", where the glacier is featured as the gateway for a subterranean route to the earth's centre.
  • Latrabjarg is the westernmost point in Europe and is famous for being a major breeding place for many birds.
  • The Vestmannaeyjar Islands are one of the world's newest volcanic areas and one of the islands, Surtsey, has only existed since 1963! The islands can be reached by a short flight or rough boat trip from mainland Iceland.
Strokkur

Strokkur

© All Rights Reserved hugeknot

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Events and Festivals

Thorrablot

Icelanders celebrate the old month of Thorri with a festival known as Thorrablot. This is a winter feast which celebrates the hardship which the ancestors has to endure. The feast can be held at any time during the month of Thorri starting the first Friday after January 13th. Traditional food is eaten which mainly consists of putrefied shark, jellied rams head, testicles and eyeballs along with many other delicacies. Much of the food is preserved from the previous year.

First day of summer

On a Thursday that comes up after April 18th, Icelanders mark the first day of summer with a national holiday and the greeting 'Gleðilegt Sumar' (Happy Summer). It is believed that if there is a frost and the weather is wintry on this day, then the summer will be very good.

Independence Day

Icelanders celebrate their independence from Denmark on the 17th June every year. The day is a holiday and many towns and villages hold festivities with traditional national dress.

Verslunarmannahelgi

This is Iceland's shop keeper's holiday is always the first weekend of August. It is a national holiday and music festivals are held all over Iceland. The biggest is on the Vestmannaeyjar Islands. The festival here is over the whole weekend and is the Icelandic equivalent of Glastonbury.

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Weather

Icelandic weather is not the nicest weather in the world, but it's not as cold as you'd expect from an island in the Arctic Sea.

Temperatures in Reykjavik rarely drop below -12 °C in winter and rarely rise above 15 °C in summer. 20 °C is almost a heatwave and if it gets this warm, it is mostly just a matter of days (or hours!). You can have literally 4 seasons in one day.

Generally, the southwestern part of the country gets more rain, is less cold in winter and is slightly cooler in summer than the northwestern region. For example, Vik, at the southern tip, is one of the wettest places, particularly during late summer when the water has been warming up a bit, while Akureyri, which despite being northerly is a bit warmer with temperatures occasionally hitting 25 °C, even in late spring.

Most places get a fair share of snow during the winter half of the year and only the ringroad around Iceland is open during these times. Most F-roads (going inland) are closed until late June and are only open for a few months, sometimes closing again as early as late August. Some geotheral areas can have their own micro climates, being a bit warmer sometimes.

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Getting There

There are only two options of getting to and from Iceland: plane or boat.

By Plane

You are likely to start and end your trip to magnificent Iceland on Keflavik International Airport, about 50 kilometres from the capital Reykjavik. Buses travel between the airport and Reykjavik on a regular basis, taking around 45 minutes. Expensive taxis are available as well and there are many options with rental car companies like Hertz and Avis.

The national carrier is Icelandair which has flights to most major destinations in the western half of Europe and the eastern half of North America. Note that off season (wintertime) some destinations might not be served or have a reduced schedule at least.

In addition, IcelandExpress has budget flights to and from several European destinations. It also has direct flights from Copenhagen to Akureyri in the north and Egilsstadir in the west of Iceland.

By Boat

By boat your options are limited, time consuming and it's not a good deal at all unless you really want to bring your own car to Iceland or want to visit the Faroe Islands as well.

Smyril Line ferries leave from Denmark, Norway and Scotland on their route to Iceland and the Faroe Islands and arrive in Seydisfjördur.

For the more adventurous, the Icelandic cargo ship Eimskip has two vessels, the Dettifoss and Goðafoss which travel the route Rotterdam-Hamburg-Göteborg-Århus-Fredrikstad-Tórshavn-Reykjavík. It takes 8 days in total and the return trip goes via eastern Iceland and Tórshavn only. The vessel can take a maximum of 3 passengers but only between mid-April and mid-October.

By Car

Although of course it is not possible to just drive to Iceland, you can take the above mentioned Smyril Line and drive your own car in the country.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Air Iceland operates regular scheduled flights from Reykjavík to major domestic airports in all parts of the country, like Akureyri and Egilsstaðir. Landsflug also has flights to smaller airstrips around the country, for example several daily flights from Reykjavík to Vestmannaeyjar.

By Train

There are no train services in Iceland.

By Car

Driving in Iceland is straightforward but for all F-roads you will need a 4wd vehicle. In winter most of these roads are closed and don't open until the end of June, closing down by September again. Check this website for details about which roads are open or closed.
Renting a car is expensive in Iceland, but a small Toyota Yaris will do the work on most roads (except the interior roads), especially if you are only with 2 persons
The number 1 road is a ring road which basically follows the coast line and stretches right around Iceland for about 1400 kilometres. It doesn't include the West Fjords or Snæfellsness Peninsular. The road has about 90% tarmac cover and only a few spots in the East have a gravel surface.
There are a few tunnels to make your circumnavigation a bit easier. The only one which charges is actually the shortest tunnel which goes under Hvalfjorður close to Reykjavik. The cost is about 800kr and the charge is both ways.

By Bus

There is an extensive bus service to most parts of the country and seasonal to the highlands. The Flybus travels between the international airport in Keflavik and the capital Reykjavik. Note that bus services are limited from October to May. June to September is your best bet.
Check BSI for an overview on bus companies. Otherwise check the bus companies directly: Austurleid for South and East Iceand, SBK Travels for the Keflavik and Reykjanes area, Stjornubilar for the Westfjords and Trex for West and North Iceland.

By Boat

A number of ferry lines operate services to various islands and fjords, like the Hrisey and Grimsey ferry, the ferry between Baldur and Stykkisholmur and the ferry to the Vestman Islands.

By Bicycle

Iceland is perfect to cycle around, especially during the summer months along the ring road. Check websites such as the Icelandic Mountain Bike Club (in Icelandic) and Icebike for more information about touring options.

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Red Tape

See also: Schengen Visa

Citizens of the following countries can stay for up to 90 days in Iceland without a visa:

Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romenia, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Vatican City and Venezuela.

For more information, have a look at the Icelandic Visa Requirements website or visit the nearest embassy or consulate.

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Money

See also: Money Matters

The Icelandic currency is the króna (Ikr.). Coins come in denominations of five, ten, fifty and one hundred krónur and there are notes of 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 krónur. Currently (April 2008) you will get over 120 krónur for your euro and less than 80 for one dollar. This is almost 50 percent more than a year before (regarding the euro) but still Iceland is not a country where things come cheap. A double room costs 100 US dollar or more at least and renting even the smallest car will set you back at least 50 US dollar a day, usually more.

You don't have to bring lots of cash, because Iceland is a country where plastic money seems to be invented and even small things can usually be bought by credit card. If you don't have one, most banking cards of your own country (Cirrus, Maestro logo) will be fine for taking money from ATM's and these can be found in almost every small town.

Tipping is not necessary in Iceland as taxes (VAT) and service is included in the price.

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Work

If you want to work in Iceland you need to apply for a 'kennitala' or Identity Number. This number will tie you to everything tax related, such as benefits, purchases tax returns etc. If you continue to work for more than three months, you will be entitled to subsidised health care, depending on residential status.

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Language

Icelandic is a pretty complex language with lots of conjugations. It's most similar to Danish.
The grammar can be very hard to learn and even natives aren't even sure sometimes. Icelandic has a few of it's own letters, but nothing very hard.
There is:

  • á pronounced "ow"
  • í pronounced "ee"
  • é pronounced "ye"
  • æ pronounced "i" like in hi
  • ú pronounced "oo"
  • þ pronounced "th" like in three
  • ð pronounced "th" like in the

For a short trip you might just want to learn a few easy phrases:

  • Takk = thank you
  • Bless = bye
  • Halló = hello
  • hvar er = where is
  • hvað kostar = how much is

But don't worry, almost everyone in Iceland speaks English.

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Sleep

Accommodation in Iceland is usually of a high standard and even the cheapest places are well run and clean places. Options range from spectacularly located campgrounds to some expensive 5-star hotels in Reykjavik. By far the nicest places to stay are the smaller hotels, B&B's and guesthouses you will find dotted throughout the country. These include some very nice farmstays. Also, there are several dozens of hostels in the country and some of them are only open during the summer months, as they are located in school buildings throughout the country. Although it's not a cheap place to visit, there are many budget options included here on Travellerspoint and also Guesthouses and Bed and Breakfasts.

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Iceland. The country has a very good public health infrastructure with hospitals, good doctors and widely available pharmacies.

The biggest hazards in Iceland is probably the weather, especially when venturing inland along the difficult roads. You need a very sturdy high clearance 4wd vehicle and all supplies like food, water and fuel. Also, watch out for sudden storms and blizzards, even in the middle of summer. Also, after rain, some slow flowing small rivers might all of sudden turn into wide and deep rivers, almost impossible to cross by car. So if you do venture inland and away from the main roads, watch all of these things very closely.

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Safety

See also: Travel Safety

Iceland is very safe most of the time with very few travellers getting into problems because of robbery or any natural problems. If travelling around Iceland it is very important that you prepare yourself well and correctly. Remember that the weather can change very quickly and a very large part of Iceland is uninhabited.

There are annual reports of tourist deaths in Iceland. These are normally for two reasons. Either extreme adventure or extreme stupidity. Glaciers are extremely dangerous places. Around the edges of glaciers (where you would normally gain access) the ice cracks and huge crevices, sometimes hundreds of metres deep, are formed. If you want to have a glacier experience, be sure to hire an experienced guide. As with any remote wilderness trek, it is wise to let people know exactly where you are going and when you plan to return. The highlands are popular with hikers, but even in the middle of summer, you can experience extreme blizzards which can put you in severe danger. Always be prepared for the worst.

Most tourist deaths are either on or under the glaciers, but there have been recent deaths at Gullfoss and on the beach at Vík. By contrast, crime related deaths are extremely rare.

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Keep Connected

Internet

Most of Iceland is well connected. Most homes have ADSL connections which work well most of the time. There is however a firewall which can cause connections problems especially at busy times. Most hotels, guesthouses, hostels, cafés etc. have a working Wi-Fi network. Generally it's free of charge, but sometimes there might be a small fee or limited amount of time. There are a couple of public computers at the University of Iceland and the National Library that you can use for free and without the need to log in.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The international telephone code is 354. National numbers in Iceland are seven digits long and generally written in the form xxx xxxx or xxx-xxxx.
There are no area codes in this closed numbering plan and the international call prefix is 00. Numbers of mobile phones tend to begin with either 6xx xxxx, 7xx xxxx or 8xx xxxx, while land line numbers start with 5xx xxxx (in Reykjavík) or 4xx xxxx (the country side). The Icelandic emergency number is 112 for all services.

Internally, phone calls in Iceland are very reasonable priced and most providers offer friends and family discounts or free calls/messaging to same network phones. International calling cards are available in most convenience stores which can significantly reduce the cost of international calls.

There are three main companies who supply personal internet connections: siminn Vodafone and Talk. It is very important to get full details of the charges and excess charges as it is very easy to run up a huge bill without being aware of it, especially on a mobile connection. You can buy a local SIM card, if you have an unlocked mobile phone. The major internet companies can supply 3G mobile internet on a monthly basis. If you are travelling be sure to check the coverage because the mobile connection is not as wide as the mobile phone connection.

Post

Iceland's Postal Service (tel. 580-1200) is reliable and efficient. General post office hours in Reykjavík are 9:00am to 6:00pm weekdays, but post offices close earlier elsewhere. Mailboxes are bright red and marked Pósturinn. Stamps are sold at many locations, including Nóatún supermarkets; N1, Olís, and Shell gas stations; and some bookstores. Mail typically takes 3 to 5 business days to reach Europe or the United States. If you are importing goods through the post, it takes a while to sort out the customs and tax based on the value of the item, so be sure to have receipts readily available. For sending packages you can also use international courier companies like TNT, UPS, FedEx or DHL, since they are fast, reliable and generally competitively priced as well.

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External

Quick Facts

Iceland flag

Map of Iceland

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Capital
Reykjavik
Population
309,699
Government
Constitutional Republic
Religions
Christianity (Protestant)
Languages
Icelandic
Calling Code
+354
Nationality
Icelandic, Icelanders
Local name
Ísland

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