My first visit to the Swedish tax office: What’s the fuss about ‘personnummer’?

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

My first visit to the Swedish tax office: What's the fuss about 'personnummer'?
Getting your Swedish personal identification number from the Tax Agency is an important rite of passage. Photo: Kenny Bengtsson/SvD/TT

Even before I had started my new job in Sweden, HR strongly urged me to go to the Swedish tax office, Skatteverket, on my first working day. So right after I had my picture taken for the company ID, I was on my way to their nearby offices.

It soon became clear what the fuss was all about: my personal Swedish ID number or personnummer. Moving as an EU citizen, I had not given the formalities of immigrating to Sweden much thought. Free movement of labour, and all that. In reality, as many will have experienced, life without a personnummer is not as straightforward as the European flag in my passport suggests.

I guess technically I had the same rights as everyone else but at every corner of the internet and behind every counter I turned up at, there was someone asking me for that dreaded number. And when I could not provide it, nothing really worked. Need a doctor’s appointment? Personnummer. Need a mobile phone plan? Personnummer. Need a proper bank account? Anyway, you get the idea.

Although Skatteverket felt it knew me well enough to withhold taxes from my salary from day one, it took them six weeks to send me the hotly anticipated number which turned out to be my birthdate plus four digits added. What on earth had taken them so long to produce that? Not to mention the six months my husband had to wait which seems to be the normal waiting time at the moment.

A similar waiting time applies for Swedes returning from having lived abroad and who want to re-register with the folkbokföring, the population registration arm of Skatteverket. I appreciate that I’m a guest in Sweden and chose to move here. My quest for the personnummer will end up as a funny “when we moved to Sweden” anecdote (#stockholm #discoversweden #swexpat). But if I were a Swede returning home from a stint abroad in the middle of a pandemic and I had to wait several months for the government to be registered again so I can more easily book a doctor’s appointment, I would likely be using some different hashtags.

Apart from just handing all your personal information over to the internet, the biggest side effect of having a personnummer was a benefit. It gives you the golden ticket to life in Sweden: the mobile bankID. I don’t think people in Sweden appreciate enough the miracle of having an app on your phone that gives you universal access to all governmental and any other imaginable service and allows you to identify yourself electronically.

Swedes will never know the maddening frustration of having to keep track of a multitude of always expiring passwords and control questions and having a drawer full of tokens giving you access to different bank accounts but that are always out of battery when you need them.

Whenever I’m picking up a package at the post office PostNord and I identify myself in the queue using the bankID and facial recognition on my phone, I truly feel like the future has arrived.

I guess the future is something worth waiting for.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Signing up to move to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. “But if I were a Swede returning home from a stint abroad… and I had to wait 24 weeks for the government to give me my personnummer back…”
    As I know once you get your personnummer you will never loose it even if you move abroad and even if you are officially not registered in Sweden. Your personnummer will not be taken from you. Here is the link:

    So I wonder what exactly you mean talking about Swedes coming back from abroad and applying to get their personnummer back?

    1. I was wondering the same. A Swede will always keep their personnummer if they move from Sweden to another country. The number is even in their Swedish passport! They may also retain things in Sweden while living abroad that require their personnummer, like a bank account or insurance policy or even a summer cottage etc. So you certainly do not have to “get back” your personnnummer when returning to Sweden. It never leaves you.

      The normal time to get things rolling again through the folkbokföring system after returning to Sweden from abroad used to be about two weeks, but I saw a notice on Skatteverket’s website not long ago that says that the processing time for most cases is now four weeks, due partly to the corona pandemic.

      1. Thank you both for your comments. My understanding is that the waiting times at the Folkbokföring arm of Skatteverket have been increasing at the same time as the waiting times for getting a Personnummer and it now takes a couple of months to get re-registered. The column did not reflect that correctly and has been updated to clarify that point.

  2. Based on both the comments and the article, there is apparent confusion regarding the personal number and the population registry. This is understandable, as the government links them in convoluted, yet strategic, ways. Whether one would choose #quaint or #frustration is conditional on a privileged POV, but #surveillance is beyond dispute. Another apt hashtag is #gatekeeping. Personal numbers are assigned for life, but to be a Swedish citizen and return from abroad and NOT have what the government decides is a legitimate address is to be cut out of access to resources (e.g., which health clinic to be assigned, etc.). To be an immigrant–even an EU national– and NOT have a legitimate address is to NOT be eligible to receive a personal number. This “catch-22” looping closes the door on all the services mentioned in the article, as well as on legitimate employment. What makes this enforced linkage insidious is the notorious housing shortage, and the government’s dictatorial stance on what constitutes a “legitimate” address: Own your own land and put up a mobile home? Nope, doesn’t qualify; A winterized holiday house? Nope, doesn’t qualify; A second-hand contract at twice the market rate? Maybe; A friend’s address? Could cause them complications. (But– nota bene: there are cases when circa 1 million kronor beach huts– no running water, and only community toilets during the summer months– qualify as a gov-sanctioned addresses for pop-registry purposes (one might guess: to ensure the wealthy who live abroad don’t have complications gaining resource access whenever they pop back into town).
    The Swedish government could easily–with the stroke of a pen–uncouple the lock-step bind of the personal number and the government-sanctioned address requirement. But to do so would mean giving a fair wage to the likely thousands of– mainly Eastern European– skilled laborers (carpenters, plumbers, electricians) whom Sweden desperately needs to build its way out of the housing crisis. Keeping them without personal numbers keeps them exploitable. This is but one example of how “gatekeeping” certain people out of the system proves lucrative for certain sectors and power elites, but is in fact an institutionalized discrimination blanketed under the rhetoric of “rationalized” governance.
    Just another hidden cost of mobile bank-ID. Yes, Big Brother is watching, but not everyone gets to be thrilled.

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OPINION: Why are a Swedish minister’s private bills anyone’s business but theirs?

In what strange world is being late in making a payment to the local council for sewage services a possible sacking offence for a government minister?

OPINION: Why are a Swedish minister's private bills anyone's business but theirs?

In mid-February, the Dagens Nyheter newspaper – the newspaper that broke the sex scandal story that saw the Nobel Literature Prize suspended for a year – published its latest scoop.

“Environment Minister Annika Strandhäll has had a missed payment sent to the National Debt Enforcement Agency, DN can reveal,” its editor, Peter Wolodarski, announced on Twitter.

The debt, 700 kronor ($75) for the installation of a “sludge separator” which should have been paid at the end of 2021, had grown to 1,350 kronor due to late payment charges.

After more than a decade in Sweden, I still find this idea – that the way a minister handles their private, personal finances should be a matter of public interest – utterly mystifying.

From my British perspective, and the perspective of, I suspect, many other foreigners living in Sweden, it’s her money. If she’s late with her bills, she will have to pay a fine. She will probably get a credit marking. That’s her business and no one else’s.

But Tobias Billström, the parliamentary leader of the leading opposition Moderate Party, was immediately out calling for her to be sacked, denouncing her as a slarvmaja, a woman of sloppy, disorderly habits.

“The Prime Minister cannot reasonably keep this slarvmaja – who has now received several chances and official warnings – in her government. Once is enough, twice is once too many,” he declared on Twitter.

So many Swedes then leapt onto Twitter to censure Strandhäll and boast about how they have never once had a debt sent to the enforcement agency, that Kronofogden, the Swedish name for the agency, ended up trending higher than Sweden’s Olympic gold in speed skating, the first in 34 years. 

The story started at the end of last year when Strandhäll was found to have had nine debts sent to the agency since 2018, as part of the investigation of incoming ministers’ finances that has become a Swedish journalistic tradition. 

Strandhäll is by no means the first politician to get into trouble for what people in other countries might see as private economic matters.

Cecilia Stegö Chilò lasted only ten days as Minister for Culture in the first government of Moderate leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, after it turned out she had not paid her TV licence for at least 16 years. Even Billström himself, who was appointed Migration Minister at the same time, got into hot water after it transpired he hadn’t paid for his TV licence either. He didn’t resign, of course (he’s a man). 

Then there’s the so-called Toblerone Affair which forced Mona Sahlin to withdraw her candidacy to be the next leader of the Social Democrats in 1996.

She had spent 53,174 kronor on private expenses on a government credit card, including the purchase of two Toblerone chocolates, something she claimed was an advance on salary that was standard practice among ministers at the time.

It also later emerged that she hadn’t paid for her TV licence and had 98 unpaid parking fines of which 32 had gone to the National Debt Enforcement Agency. She was later found to have committed no crime. 

Arguably, the much-publicised dispute between Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch and 82-year-old pensioner Esbjörn Bolin, who sold her his house and then tried to go back on the contract, is also a private matter, but this has not stopped it dogging Busch for two years. 

But with all the transgressions above (apart from perhaps Busch’s problems – at least until she formally admitted to defaming the seller’s legal counsel), you could argue there is some legitimate public interest. Not paying your TV licence was a crime, and both Chilò and Billström were withholding payment in protest. Sahlin was using public money to buy private goods. 

The Strandhäll case is unusually petty, even by Swedish standards. It is also rather cruel. 

The first batch of unpaid bills was from a period when she had been left to care singlehandedly for her children and stepchildren, who were at the time 12, 17, and 19, after her live-in partner, or sambo, took his own life.


The argument appears to be that someone who is bad at handling their own personal finances lacks the required qualities to be a minister.

“Why claim to be able to organise Sweden when you can’t even organise yourself?” tweeted Mattias Lindberg, a columnist for the right-wing web newspaper Bulletin. 

This is an argument that might hold water when choosing an accountant or perhaps a lawyer, but for a politician, does it really wash? What counts for a minister is communication skills, vision, leadership.   

There’s something cultural behind it: a shame in not paying your debts, or failing to properly manage your household. 

In Britain, government ministers used to have to resign if they were discovered being unfaithful to their partners, something which is also arguably a private matter. Per Albin Hansson, who built Sweden’s Social Democratic state as Prime Minister between 1932 and 1946, supported and lived between two separate families and joked to journalists that “they accuse me of being a Mormon”. 

If that says something about British attitudes to sex, the Strandhäll scandal says something about Swedish attitudes to debt. 

Personal debt seems to be peculiarly morally loaded. Skuld, after all, means both “debt” and “sin”.

Perhaps there’s some connection to Sweden’s Lutheran heritage, or perhaps it’s a throwback to the Sweden of the 19th century and before, when poverty was widespread and those who didn’t pay their debts were thrown into a debtor’s prison? 

Either way, for a foreigner it’s one of those instances when, just as you think you understand how the country works, you realise you don’t at all.