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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Population: demographic situation, languages and religions


1.Political, social and economic background and trends

1.3Population: demographic situation, languages and religions

Last update: 27 November 2023

Demographic Situation, Languages and Religions

Demographic Situation

Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean, on the borders of the temperate and the Arctic zones. Its extreme northern point touches the Arctic Circle. Its nearest neighbour to the west is Greenland, at 278 km distance. The Faeroe Islands lie 420 km to the southeast.

Iceland's weather is variable and unstable. The island lies in the path of atmospheric lows, on the borders margins of westerly and Arctic winds. One branch of the Gulf Stream flows northwards to the western shores of Iceland, bringing warmth that makes Iceland habitable. The mean temperature in January is –2 ºC and in July 10.5 ºC.

Iceland's total area is approximately 103,000 km², of which only about 23% is covered by vegetation. About 11.5% (11,922 km²) is covered by glaciers, and lakes account for a further 3%.  

Until the 20th century the population of Iceland was almost entirely rural. Urbanisation was slow, and in 1850 the inhabitants of Reykjavík, the largest urban settlement, constituted only 1.94% of the total population. By 2017 around 63% of the country's inhabitants live in the Greater Reykjavík Area (Reykjavík and the surrounding communities). This development mirrors the economic changes which have taken place during the last century, as increasing industrialisation, especially in the fisheries and the fishing industry led to the growth of urban settlements.

There is great variation in population density; the largest municipality Reykjavík, had 136,000 inhabitants as of 1st of January 2022 and all together, around two thirds of Iceland’s population live in the greater capital area.  Five municipalities have fewer than 100 inhabitants, and 42 have fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. There are 64 municipalities in Iceland. The last municipal council elections took place in May 2022. 

Municipalities are responsible for all the operations of pre-primary schools and compulsory schools (primary and lower secondary education). They are also responsible for the operation of music schools. Apart from being represented on the school boards of upper-secondary schools, local authorities have no administrative responsibilities at the upper-secondary level or the higher education level.


There are than 376.000 inhabitants in Iceland. The Icelandic population was for the longest time very homogeneous but has in recent times become ever more international with the proportion of foreign citizens standing at 13.8% of the population in mid year 2022, the largest group coming from Poland (Hagstofa Íslands - Statistics Iceland, 2022).  Today, with a continuous urbanisation for the past 100 years, more than half of the population  lives in and around the capital area, the latter half on the coast line around the island.

By comparison, the Icelandic population is young. The fertility rate in Iceland has traditionally been very high and although this rate is on a decline, it still measures among the highest in Europe.

Unemployment rate

According to the Labour market statistics for the 2nd quarter of 2017 The number of persons in the labour force in June 2017 was 202,500, corresponding to an activity rate of 84.4%. The number of employed persons was 195,600 while unemployed persons were 7,000 or 3.4%. This is among Europe’s lowest rates. From 2nd quarter of 2016 the number of employed persons has increased by 3,500 to 2nd quarter of 2017. At the same time, the number of unemployed persons decreased by 0.2%. The unemployment rate among females was 3.5% and among males 3.4%.

Immigrants – Percentage of total population

The rate of foreign citizens has increased manifold the past decade. On January 2021 immigrants in Iceland were 13.9% of the population.

The proportion of immigrants has grown significantly the last two decades, or close to threefold. Similarly, the number of pupils with a foreign mother tongue continues to increase year by year. The number of pupils with foreign citizenship similarly multiplied the past decade. The year-on-year increase between 2015 and 2016 was for instance measured at 14.0%. In the autumn of 2021, 5,611 pupils in Icelandic compulsory schools had a foreign mother tongue, or 12%. Some of these pupils also speak Icelandic as their mother tongue. The most numerous pupils with a foreign mother tongue in 2020 were Polish speaking pupils (1914), pupils speaking Philippine languages (352), English (392) and Lithuanian (279).


Granted by the means of the constitution, the state church in Iceland is the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Freedom of religion is however also guaranteed by law. The ministers of the church are civil servants and receive their salaries from the state. The head of the church is the Bishop of Iceland who is the supreme authority on internal church matters. External matters relating to the church are under the jurisdiction of the central government belonging to the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior.


Icelandic is the native tongue of Iceland and the language of teaching. It belongs, along with Norwegian and Faeroese, to the West Scandinavian branch of the Nordic Germanic family of languages. The Icelandic language has remained the most conservative of the Scandinavian languages, retaining for example, three genders and a full system of case endings for nouns and adjectives. There is widespread awareness in the country of the difficulties facing a language spoken by a small population. Language policy in modern Iceland is characterised by two central elements: the preservation of the language, its form and its central vocabulary on the one hand and on the other hand encouragement of further development of the modern Icelandic language to adapt the language to modern times. Icelanders are, however, also aware of the dangers of linguistic isolation, and foreign-language teaching is an important part of education. 

In 2009, the parliament adopted a specific language policy focused on strengthening the foundations of language in society. The primary objective of the policy is to ensure that Icelandic will continue to be used in all areas of the society. In 2011 the Parliament accepted a legislation on the status of the Icelandic language as the language of instruction, together with the Icelandic sign language. The Icelandic sign language is the now recognized the first language of those who are hearing impared.  

In compulsory education, children learn English and Danish (or Norwegian or Swedish in certain cases instead of Danish), and those who continue into upper secondary schooling add at least a third foreign language, usually German, French or Spanish. There are no minority languages in Iceland but the Icelandic Sign Language is officially recognised by law as a minority language of the hearing impared community.