Living In The Baltic States
Author Leaonne Hall is an expert on the overseas property market and has written extensively for a number of newsstand titles. She previously produced three editions of the Red Guide to Buying Property in Eastern Europe, and has been writing in detail on the individual markets since 2003.
LIVING IN THE BALTIC STATES
Daily life and people
Although geographically close, the peoples of the three Baltic countries cherish their individuality. The Lithuanians and Latvians have the most in common, descended from Indo-European tribes who settled in the Baltics in roughly 2000BC. The Estonians have more in common with their Finnish neighbours, most notably their language. Despite the fact that 69% of Estonia’s population lives in urban areas, the Estonians still maintain close ties with the countryside and rural life, as do the Latvians and Lithuanians–until fairly recently the people of all three countries lived in rural villages and farmsteads.
Folk music and festivals are important in all three countries, the most siginificant being the Song Festival which is held every four years or so in each State–attracting singers from all over the country. During Soviet times the revolutionary movement became synonymous with the song and the ‘singing revolution’ was witnessed as protestors turned to music.
As with many post communist states, the younger generation is marked with an impatience to modernise and move forward. The Estonians are known for being difficult people to get to know, being fairly introvert and shy, especially around foreigners. However the Lithuanians are characterised as friendly and welcoming, as are the Latvians.
In terms of cultures and customs, Lithuania’s culture has been heavily influenced by Poland, having once been a combined Poland-Lithuania state. Latvia is the most ethnically diverse and most influenced by Russia, while Estonia sees herself as a European country thanks to the Scandinavian influence.
Visas and residency
As a British citizen travelling to the Baltic States, no visa is required. If you are planning a visit to Estonia, you will be able to travel there freely without a visa or ID card for a visit of up to 90 days. If you intend to live and work in Estonia permanently then you may well need to obtain a Business Visa. To gain temporary residency, an EU citizen must contact the local government authority nearest their residence and register within three months of entering Estonia. Temporary residency is then granted for five years. An EU citizen who has resided in Estonia permanently for five successive years with temporary residence will obtain the right of permanent residence. All details and application forms can be found at www.mig.ee/eng.
In Latvia an EU citizen will not require a visa to enter the country, but will be required to apply for temporary residency if staying in the country for more than 90 days. This can be issued for a period of five years and permanent residency can be sought if a foreigner has lived in Latvia with a temporary residence permit for at least five years. See www.ocma.gov.lv or www.mfa.gov.lv for more details.
In Lithuania the situation is slightly different. As an EU member and British citizen, there is no requirement for a visa when visiting and once you have stayed in the country for three months (90 days), should you decide to stay, you may do so without a permit or visa for another three months. After this period, an EC Residence Permit will be issued for five years if you continue to reside in Lithuania. If you intend to stay permanently you can apply for a Permanent EC Residence Permit. This will be issued to an EU citizen and their family if they have resided in Lithuania for four years. The permit lasts for 10 years before requiring renewal. See www.urm.lt for more details.
Electricity is supplied in 220v and two-pin plugs are employed, requiring you to bring an adapter for products that require a British-style plug. Once you have purchased a property, in order to connect your electricity, you will need to register with the regional distributor. A technician will then come out to either connect a meter or read the meter in order to determine the property’s electricity usage.
Gas is widely available in Estonia and Eesti Gaas (www.gaas.ee) is the provider. To conclude a gas sale and purchase agreement, you will need the following documents:
- identification document or valid registry card;
- a document certifying the ownership of the flat/house, or a lease contract;
- a notarised authorisation document if the owner of the building authorises a representative to enter into the agreement.
If you are renting, you’ll be pleased to know that water consumption is generally included in lease agreements. If you have just bought a property then you will need to register with the water and sewerage company that serves the district.
Electricity is supplied by www.latvenergo.lv and their website provides all the necessary contacts and details you need to connect them.
The energy company Lietuvos Energija (www.le.lt/en) are the main suppliers of electricity in Lithuania and offer all the relevant contacts for suppliers.
Your estate agent or developer will be able to provide you with details of utility connections and help arrange for connection.
Getting a mobile phone is easy, and there are a number of service providers. If you have a GSM mobile phone then you can simply buy a new SIM card and pop it in your current phone. Alternatively, mobile phones can be rented and bought in all three countries.
As for landlines, phone boxes operate using phone cards, which can be bought from post offices, newsagents and tourist information centres.
In Estonia and Latvia there are no dialling codes and numbers are seven digits long. To dial into Estonia you need the country code, which is 00 372, and 00 371 for Latvia. Lithuania does have area/city codes–seven for Vilnius–while to dial any number from a mobile, you need to first dial 8 and then wait for the dial tone. The country code is 00 370.
Telephone: Elion is the largest telecommunications and IT provider in
Mobile phones: Latvijas Mobilais Telefons SIA, www.lmt.lv
Telephone: Lattelecom, www.lattelecom.lv/eng/
Telephone: TEO, www.teo.lt/
Banking and currency
All three countries are currently working towards the adoption of the euro with the estimated adoption dates between 2008 and 2010.
Lithuania hopes to become a member of the European Monetary Union in 2009–2010, but until then, the current currency is the litas (Lt), which is divided into 100 centai. Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 centu and 1, 2 and 5 litai, while banknotes are available in 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 litai. At the time of going to print, the exchange rate to the pound was 5.12Lt.
The Latvian currency is the lat (Ls or LVL), although Latvia’s aim is to become a fully-fledged member of the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) as soon as possible.
Each lat is divided into 100 santīms and coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 santīmu, and also 1 or 2 lati, while you can get banknotes of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500 latu. In January 2005, the lat was pegged to the euro and at the time of printing, £1 was equal to 1.05LVL.
The Estonian currency is the kroon (EEK). Originally, Estonia planned to adopt the euro on 1st January 2007. It has since changed its target date to 1st January 2010.
One kroon is made up of 100 sents and the coins in circulation are 10, 20 and 50 senti, as well as the 1 kroon coin. You can get banknotes of 2, 5, 10, 25, 100, 500 krooni. At the time of printing, the exchange rate was 23.20 kroons to the pound.
Setting up a bank account in Estonia is essential and fortunately also very easy. Most Estonian banks offer internet banking with English websites, and an account can be opened at any Estonia bank, so long as you take your passport and make a deposit payment to activate it. However, be aware that there may be a limit on outgoing payments and so, in order to settle a payment or deposit on a property, you may have to go to the bank and do it in person.
Banks are generally open Monday to Friday, between 9am and 4pm. The main banks are Eesti Uhispank (www.seb.ee) and Hansapank (http://w.hansa.ee/eng/). Both have branches throughout the country. Credit cards can be freely used and ATMs are widely available. Visit the Central Bank of Estonia website at www.bankofestonia.info.
Opening a bank account is easy for foreigners–all that is required is a passport and a deposit. You can also open an account via the internet by downloading an application form. However, your passport and signature will either have to be viewed at the bank or authorised by a notary.
Rietumu Bank (www.rietumu.com) is one of Latvia’s largest banks, and there is also Unibanka (www.seb.lv), Latvijas (www.bank.lv), Hansabanka (www.hansabanka.lv) and Norvik Banka, which has a department for international customers (www.norvik.lv). The central bank of Latvia can be found at www.bank.lv.
Banks are open between the hours of 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, although the larger cities will also see banks open on Saturday mornings. ATMs are easily found throughout the larger towns and cities and credit cards are widely accepted.
In terms of opening a bank account, the website www.bank.lt offers a thorough breakdown of all the banks in Lithuania, with a link to their websites.
In order to open an account, the following will be required:
- permit for interim or permanent residency;
- personal identity card;
- driving licence with the driver’s signature;
- personal identity document of an EU citizen.
In Latvia, income tax is charged at a flat rate of 25% and corporation tax at 15%. Capital gains tax is generally charged as income and so taxed at 25%, although if you have owned a property for more than 12 months, you are exempt from capital gains tax.
While income tax is generally levied at a flat rate of 22%, some income–such as rental earnings–is charged at a reduced rate of 15%. From 1st January 2008, the government will be reducing the top income tax band to 24%.
Corporation tax is levied at a flat rate of 15%–in some cases this drops to 13% if the company is very small. Residents will be taxed at a rate of 15% for capital gains tax, while non-residents, whether they are companies or individuals, are charged at a rate of 10%. Capital gains tax is not levied on properties owned for more than three years.
Income tax is charged at a flat rate of 23%, while corporation tax has been reduced from 23% in 2006 to 22% in 2007, and will fall again to 21% in 2008 and 20% in 2009.
Capital gains is normally taxed as income for both companies and individual investors, although individuals are not liable to pay capital gains on a property if it’s their main residence and not a second home/investment.
There are a number of insurance companies in the Baltic States which offer comprehensive websites in English, with a plethora of insurance cover, whether it’s for your health, your pets or your house.
- AS Inges Kindlustus, www.inges.ee, offer various types of insurance.
- Eesti Liikluskindlustuse Fond, www.lkf.ee, specialise in car and traffic insurance.
- Ergo, www1.ergo-kindlustus.ee, offer life, car, pet, home and travel insurance, as well as a number of other services.
- Estonian Insurance Association, www.eksl.ee, has a list of life and non-life insurance companies in Estonia.
- AAS Baltijas Apdrošināšanas Nams, www.ban.lv, offer property, travel and specialised insurance policies for individuals and also a portfolio for companies.
- RSK, http://portals.rsk.lv/main.php, offer health, accident, travel insurance and general insurance for foreigners and non-citizens of Latvia.
- Rīga RE, http://www.Riga-re.com/eng/, offer life, health, travel, car and property insurance, as well as other services.
- Latvian Insurers Association, www.laa.lv.
- Lithuanian Insurance Association, www.draudikai.lt, offer useful advice and contacts.
- Baltikums draudimas, www.baltikums.lt, offers motor insurance for individuals.
- Ergo, www.ergo.lt/en, offer house, car, accident, travel and pension insurance.
- Reso Europa, www.resoeuropa.lt, offer home, personal, travel, car, pet and foreign medical insurance.
In all three countries you will be entitled to emergency treatment as an EU citizen, but private insurance is recommended. Bottled water is recommended over tap water and although no vaccinations are specified, it is recommended that you get immunised against tick-borne encephalitis.
In Estonia, dial 112 for an ambulance, and 03 in Latvia, or 112 in Lithuania. Most general medication is available from the chemist, known as an apteek. See the section on insurance for useful contacts to secure health insurance.
There is nothing to stop you retiring to the Baltic States, but you will be required to apply for residency and may have to prove you receive a certain level of income.
As members of the EU, you will be able to draw your pension in the three Baltic States and it will still be increased to match inflation. As many UK benefits, including income-related benefits such as Pension Credit, Income Support, Housing Benefit and Council Tax benefit, cannot continue to be paid if you move to an EU or EEA country, you will need to rely on the benefits available in the Baltics. As all three countries are members of the European Economic Area, you may well be entitled to certain social security benefits, but these will depend on your circumstances and should be looked into thoroughly with a specialist before you leave. If you are drawing a government pension from the UK, you will be taxed in the UK, while your company and personal pension will still be available to you–although be aware of currency fluctuations and costs for transferring funds to the Baltics that you may incur.
Standards of education in all three Baltic States are high, although while English is widely spoken in business and by the population at large, it is rarely employed in schools and the education system. All three Baltic languages are tricky and so it isn’t recommended to put your child into a local school, unless they are very young and adapt well to new environments.
There are very few international schools in the Baltic States, but these include:
- International School of Estonia in Tallinn, www.ise.edu.ee
- International School of Latvia, Rīga/Jūrmala, www.isl.edu.lv
- American International School of Vilnius, www.aisv.lt
- Vilnius International School, www.vischool.lt
- French International School, www.efv.lt
All three Baltic States require you to have an international driving permit in order to drive in the country. Cars drive on the right, headlights must be kept on at all times and seatbelts are compulsory. In general, you must be over 21 to rent a car. Currently, there are no road tolls in force in the Baltics.
The quality of the roads isn’t the best in the Baltic States, and a combination of uneven surfaces and potholes when you get into rural areas, and icy conditions with the occasional wild animal thrown in, can make driving treacherous. Latvia has one of the highest rates of automobile accidents and fatalities in Europe, and this is partly attributed to road conditions. Unleaded petrol, diesel and gas are available throughout the Baltic States.
Speed limits, Estonia and Latvia:
- motorways: 100km/h/120km/h (62/74mph);
- open roads: 90km/h (55mph);
- towns: 50km/h (31mph).
Speed limits, Lithuania:
- motorways: 110 km/h (from 1 October to 1 May)/ 130 km/h (from 1 May to 1 October);
- open roads: 90km/h (55mph);
- towns: 60km/h (37mph).
Getting to the Baltic States is now quick and easy thanks to regular budget flights which serve the Baltic region. Tallinn Airport had a major overhaul in 2007 which has allowed it to nearly double passenger numbers and host many more airlines.
Getting around the Baltic States is fairly straightforward and buses offer the best options if you want to travel between countries – Ecolines www.ecolines.net offer services throughout the region, as do Eurolines Baltic International (www.eurolines.lt). Trains are quite restrictive and can also be very slow. Car rental is another option, although this is obviously more costly. All major car rental firms, such as Avis, Europcar and Hertz, have agents in the Baltic States. For general travel information, www.balticsworldwide.com/timetables.htm is a really useful site.
Given the manageable size of the country, driving is the best way to get around Estonia. However, domestic air travel is available, with Avies (www.avies.ee) offering flights between Tallinn and the islands of Kuressaare and Kärdla, while occasionally they also operate flights between Tartu and Tallinn, Pärnu and the islands of Kihnu and Ruhnu.
Bus services are quick and reliable and Go Bus (www.gobus.ee) operate services throughout Estonia, while at www.bussireisid.ee, you can view timetables for most national routes. www.tallinn.ee details public transport timetables in Tallinn, while www.tak.ee has timetables for Tallinn’s bus network.
Three companies provide Estonia’s train service, and they are GoRail (www.gorail.ee) who handle international services, Edelaraudtee (www.edel.ee) who provide the inter-city services, and Elektrikraraudtee (www.elektriraudtee.ee) who maintain the local electric trains. Train travel is not popular in Estonia and consequently there have been many cut backs and the system is unreliable. It’s almost impossible to travel to Latvia or Lithuania by train and most international services head east. However, trains do travel from Tallinn to Tartu and other Estonian cities.
There are various bus operators in Lithuania, the biggest being Toks (www.toks.lt), who are based in Vilnius, and Kautra (www.kautra.lt) in Kaunas. Bus tickets are cheap and the service is generally well organised.
Trains are operated by Lithuanian Railways (www.litrail.lt), although as with Estonia these have been significantly cut back since the 1990s. There are regular services between Vilnius and Kaunas, but for longer journeys, the bus is quicker and more frequent. If you choose to drive yourself, most of the roads are in fairly bad repair and there are regular hazards, including tractors, animals and decrepit cars.
There are domestic airports at Kaunas, Palanga and Siauliai, though domestic flights are few and far between. Those that are available are operated by Lithuanian Airlines (www.lal.lt).
Trains are far more frequent and reliable in Latvia, especially around Rīga. Routes and timetables can be viewed at www.ldz.lv. However, for long journeys, buses are the best bet.
The country offers a comprehensive bus network, with frequent services operating between Latvia’s major cities. www.118.lv offers details on routes and timetables.
Some domestic flights are offered by Air Baltic (www.airbaltic.com), but these are limited.
Learning the language
Despite sharing many similarities, the languages of the three Baltic States come from two different backgrounds. Latvian and Lithuanian belong to the Indo-European language family, while Estonian descends from Finno-Ugric, sharing close ethnic and historical ties with the Finnish language. In fact, Estonian is one of the few official languages of the European Union that is not of Indo-European origin.
All three languages are difficult to learn, but it’s worth trying to pick up a few basic phrases. Luckily, along with Russian and German, English is another language widely spoken in the Baltic States.
Shops tend to be open from 8am/9am to 6pm/7pm, from Monday to Friday, keeping shorter hours at the weekends, with some Sunday opening at larger stores. Supermarkets are widespread and the larger cities offer some international names and products, such as Body Shop and Marks & Spencer. All prices will be displayed in the native currency, although euros are sometimes also included on the price tag. Debit and credit cards are widely accepted, although in smaller, rural areas it may be cash only.
The postal service in the Baltics is improving, with letters taking only a couple of days to reach Western Europe. Post offices are normally open during shopping hours and they generally offer services such as bill payments and express or special delivery. For a better idea of the services and prices, visit the Latvian Post Office at www.pasts.lv, www.post.lt for Lithuania, and for www.post.ee for Estonia.
Crime, corruption and the police
There is little crime in the Baltic States, and although there were problems with organised crime following the collapse of communism, today corruption is limited. Foreigners are unlikely to experience any problems with corruption during the purchasing process.
The police are polite and helpful, although you are unlikely to have any contact with them during everyday life. To contact the police in Estonia, dial 110, in Latvia dial 02 and in Lithuania 112.