Facts on Iceland Print this page

GENERAL

Official Name: The Republic of Iceland (in Icelandic, Lýðveldið Ísland).

The Land/Geology: Iceland is an island of 103,000 km2 or 39,756 square miles (about the size of Ohio), with an average height of 500 m above sea level. Its highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, rises to 2,119 m/6,500 feet, and glaciers, including Vatnajökull, the largest in Europe, cover over 11 per cent of the country. Iceland has over 10,000 waterfalls and countless hot springs.

Iceland comprises one large island and numerous smaller ones, and is situated near the Arctic Circle. Iceland is sometimes called the "land of ice and fire" for the striking contrasts in its landscapes, where grand glaciers and magnificent fjords coexist with over 200 volcanoes, many of which are still active today. Geologically speaking, Iceland is the youngest country in Europe, formed only 16-20 million years ago by volcanic eruptions on the North Atlantic seabed. The rift can clearly be seen running through Iceland where the American and European continental plates are moving apart, making the country spread by 1-2 cm a year.

Thirty post-glacial volcanoes have erupted in the past two centuries, and natural hot water supplies much of the population with cheap, pollution-free heating. Rivers, too, are harnessed to provide inexpensive hydroelectric power.

The People: Out of a population numbering a little over 320,000, half live in the capital of Reykjavík and its neighboring towns in the southwest. The highland interior is uninhabited (and uninhabitable), and most centers of population are situated on the coast. The population density is 2.7 per square kilometer. Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe (seventh in the world). Most of the people are of Norwegian descent, with about a 20%+ mixture of Celtic blood from those who came from Ireland and the Scottish islands. Foreigner immigration to Iceland has been steadily increasing over the past 10 years.

History: The first permanent settlers came to Iceland in 874 to seek freedom from Norway's oppressive king Harald Fairhair. In 930, the Icelandic settlers founded one of the world's first republican governments, the Althingi. In 1262, Iceland became subject to Norwegian control. In 1830 it came under Danish control, along with Norway. After the granting of a constitution (1874) and with an improving economy, Iceland finally became an independent sovereign state under the Danish king in 1918. The Republic of Iceland was formally declared on June 17, 1944. The country is governed by the Althingi (parliament), whose members are elected every four years. Elections are also held every four years for the presidency; President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was elected in June 1996 to succeed Vigdis Finnbogadottir. The head of state plays no part in day-to-day politics.

Iceland is a member of numerous international organizations including the United Nations and its agencies, the European Economic Area, NATO, the Council of Europe, OECD, WTO and the Nordic Council.

The Language: Icelandic is a Teutonic language of the Nordic group. It is believed to have changed little from the original tongue spoken by the Norse settlers. English is widely spoken and understood.

The Icelandic Alphabet has two letters of its own: Þ/þ (thorn) pronounced like th in "thing" and Ð/ð (eth) pronounced like th in "them". Other Icelandic letters not found in English include vowels: Á/á, É/é, Í/í, Ó/ó, Ú/ú, Ý/ý, Æ/æ, Ö/ö. From the settlement in 874AD Icelandic has undergone changes of pronunciation and, of course, of vocabulary. Icelandic is considered one of the purest languages spoken in Europe with a strict control over the introduction and creation of new words such as in the technology field.

Iceland is alone in upholding a Norse tradition, i.e. the custom of using patronymics rather than surnames; an Icelander's Christian name is followed by his or her father's name and the suffix -son or dóttir, e.g. Guðrún Pétursdóttir (Gudrun, daughter of Petur). Members of a family can therefore have many different "surnames," which sometimes causes confusion to foreigners.

Religion: Complete religious freedom is safeguarded in the constitution of Iceland. Christianity was adopted in Iceland - one of the few countries where this took place peacefully - in the year 1000 at Þingvellir, the ancient parliament site. A special Iceland 2000 - Millennium of Christianity program was held in 2000 to celebrate the anniversary.

The National Church of Iceland, to which 88% per cent of the population belongs, is Evangelical Lutheran. In addition to the many Lutheran churches in Reykjavik there is a Roman Catholic Cathedral, with regular Sunday Mass. There are many Lutheran churches found throughout the Icelandic countryside and services are usually held every Sunday at 11:00 or 2:00. There is no rule regarding separation between state and church. The Icelandic government provides financial support to the churches including covering pay and benefits for clergy.

Education: Education is mandatory from 6 to 15 years of age. There are 50 schools and colleges at secondary level, where one out of every three Icelanders in the age group of 16-19 is studying. University-level education is offered at five establishments in Iceland and one in every five Icelanders aged 20-24 is studying at university or a comparable institution, in Iceland or abroad. English is a mandatory subject in school. Literacy is 99.9%, the highest in the world.

The Economy: The Icelandic economy is heavily dependent upon fishing. Despite efforts to diversify, particularly into the travel industry, seafood exports continue to account for nearly three quarters of merchandise exports and approximately half of all foreign exchange earnings. Yet less than 10 per cent of the workforce is involved in fishing and fish processing. The travel industry makes up the second-largest export industry in Iceland. The standard of living is high, with income per capita among the best in the world. The financial sector has been liberalized in recent years. The economy is service-oriented: two thirds of the working population are employed in the service sector, both public and private. Iceland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA).

The main imports to Iceland are ships, motor vehicles, fuel, metal ores, household appliances and various foods. The main exports are marine products, aluminum and ferrosilicon.

Health: Life expectancy, at 81.3 years for women and 76.4 for men, in one of the highest in the world, and a comprehensive state health-care system aims to keep it that way.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Time: In spite of its mid-Atlantic location, Iceland is on Greenwich Mean Time all year.

Weather/Climate/Sunlight: Because of the influence of the Gulf Stream, Iceland enjoys a cool temperate ocean climate: cool in summer and fairly mild in winter. However the weather is very changeable and travelers should be prepared for the unexpected.

Average temperatures in Reykjavík:

January
April
July
October
35ºF
44ºF
58ºF
45ºF

Sunrise/sunset in Reykjavík

January 1
February 1
March 1
April 1
May 1
June 1
July 1
August 1
September 1
October 1
November 1
December 1
11:19 am - 3:45 pm
9:55 am - 5:30 pm
8:35 am - 6:47 pm
6:45 am - 8:20 pm
4:42 am - 10:09 pm
3:17 am - 11:36 pm
3:05 am - 11:57 pm
4:47 am - 10:18 pm
6:10 am - 8:44 pm
7:54 am - 6:36 pm
9:20 am - 5:01 pm
10:45 am - 3:48 pm

Air Transportation: Daily flights, most of them operated by Icelandair, link Iceland with more than 20 gateways in Europe and North America. Flight time is 2-4 hours to Western Europe and 4.5-6 hours to North America. Domestic scheduled and charter services operate to several main regional communities, with a flight time of less than one hour.

Clothing: When traveling in Iceland you should bring along light-weight woolens, a sweater or cardigan, a rainproof (weather-proof) coat and sturdy walking shoes. Also bring your swim suit. Travelers who are camping or heading into the interior will need warm underwear and socks, rubber boots and a warm sleeping bag.

The Currency: The unit of currency in Iceland is the Króna, plural Krónur, abbreviated locally as kr and internationally as IKR Coins come in 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 denominations. Notes come in 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 denominations. The exchange rate changes daily and can be found on the Internet at Yahoo or other service providers with financial pages. See the current exchange rate here.

Cash and Exchanging Funds: Banks and some post offices will advance cash against main debit and credit cards. Cash and travelers checks can be exchanged at banks and most hotels. Some shops in Reykjavík and at Keflavík International Airport accept US dollars and other major European currency. ATM's are found throughout Iceland.

Shopping and business hours: There are a large number of excellent shops in Reykjavík and elsewhere in Iceland, where one can purchase not only the usual souvenirs but also gifts for your own home or completely different items for your wardrobe. The famous Icelandic knit sweaters, scarves, dresses and hats are distinctive in design and quality. The ceramics are beautiful; many are made out of, or incorporate, real lava. Unusual ornaments in silver and gold, gloves, slippers, wall hangings, tablecloths and woodcarving add to the list. There is also a wide choice of skin and articles manufactured from them or from fur.

Shops are open on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., except on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2/4 pm. Many shops are closed on Saturdays during summer months. Many supermarkets are open 10 am to 10/11 pm seven days a week. Kiosks are usually open until 11:30 pm. State-owned alcohol stores are found in most of the larger towns and throughout the greater Reykjavík area. Banks are open for business weekdays 9.15 a.m. to 4 p.m. Offices are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays but most offices are closed on Saturdays. Shops in the Kringlan Shopping Mall are open Mon.-Thurs. 10:00-18:30, Fridays 10:00-19:00, Saturdays 10:00-18:00 and Sundays 13:00-17:30 in the summer. The new Smáralind shopping mall in Kópavogur, a suburb of Reykjavík, is open from 11:00 to 20:00 Monday through Friday, 10:00 to 18:00 on Saturday and 12:00 noon to 18:00 on Sunday. Post offices are open from 9 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Friday.

Tax-Free Shopping: Visitors can reclaim value-added tax (VAT) on purchases exceeding Icelandic Krónur 4,000. Look for the "Tax-Free Shopping" logo on storefronts and ask the shop for a refund form. You will be given a refund form or coupon, which can be cashed in at the airport on leaving the country. The refund amounts to approximately 15% of the purchase price.

Credit Cards: VISA and Master Card are accepted widely and have member banks in Iceland. American Express is less widely accepted, especially outside Reykjavík.

Dining: Restaurants in Iceland offer a wide variety of dishes, ranging from Icelandic seafood and mountain lamb to Indian or Japanese cuisine. There are also places that offer pizza, hamburgers and other less expensive dishes. The average cost of Icelandic meals (without wine or liquor) is as follows: Breakfast USD 10-15, lunch USD 15-20, dinner USD 25-45.

Tipping: Service and VAT (24.5%) are invariably included in prices in Iceland.

Passport: A valid passport for US citizens is required for entry into Iceland. Visas are not required for visits to Iceland of less than three months.  See more information here.

Duty-Free Allowance: Incoming passengers may bring 1 litre of spirits (up to 47% alcohol content); 1 litre of wine (up to 21% alcohol) or 6 litres of beer, and 200 cigarettes or 250 g of other tobacco products.

Communications: Phone numbers in Iceland are seven digits. The international code for Iceland is 354. Dialing from the US, dial 011 354 and the local seven digit number. Dialing from Iceland to the US is easy. All major US long distance carriers have local access numbers in Iceland that enable you to phone and use a phone credit card or a regular bank credit card. Generally, US mobile/cell phones do not function in Iceland. Iceland mobile phones operate on GSM and NMT and can be leased for a reasonable amount at one of three local wireless companies. AOL has a local access number for users and other US-based ISP's can be accessed from Iceland, usually for additional charges.

Health Coverage: Citizens from countries outside Scandinavia and the UK are not covered under the national insurance program and are advised to purchase coverage or make sure exiting coverage is valid for visits to Iceland.

Electrical Current and use of electrical appliances: The electrical current in Iceland is 220 volts, 50 HZ AC. The prongs on electrical equipment you bring with you may be different from Iceland standards. In some cases adapters and portable converters are required.

Airport Arrival: Entry into Iceland at Keflavík International Airport and Leifur Eiríksson Terminal is easy. Travelers first pass through Passport Control (usually no lines), then proceed downstairs to the luggage area. A stop at the duty-free store is a good idea while you wait for your luggage. Then you pass through entry control customs and enter the main lobby of arrivals where you will find all the major car rental companies, a bank for currency exchange, an information booth and the FLYBUS check-in counter. If you are not renting a car, you can bus or taxi into Reykjavík, about a 40 minute journey. The FLYBUS cost about $10 per person and delivers travelers to most of the main hotels in Reykjavík and to the city check-in terminal location at Hótel Loftleiðir, where a local taxi can be hailed. Taking a taxi from the airport direct to your destination in Reykjavík can cost about $80.00.

Conversion table:

Temperatures: Length:
0°C = 32°F
5°C=41°F
10°C=50°F
20°C=69°F
-5°C=23°F
-10°C=14°F
1 foot=30 centimeters
1 meter=1.094 yards
1 yard=0.914 meters
1 kilometer=0.6214 mile
1 mile=1.609 kilometers

Volume

1 liter=1.76 pints
1 pint=0.568 liters
1 liter=0.22 gallons
10 liters=2.2 gallons
1 gallon=4.546 liters

Weight

100 grams=3.5 ounces
1 kilogram=2.205 pounds
1 pound=0.454 kilograms
1 ton=1016.04 kilograms

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