Iceland is an independent country with its own language, culture, and traditions. It is part of the European Economic Agreement but not an official EU state.
Much of the land in Iceland is owned by the state and open for everyone to use. That means that many glaciers, hot springs, and forests are accessible to Icelandic residents and visitors throughout the year. But not all of them are!
This article will give you a brief rundown of Icelandic land ownership now and through history. So you’ll have a better understanding of the country you’re visiting, and you’ll know your rights when it comes to exploring our beautiful natural spaces.
Wild Camping in Iceland
If you’re an outdoor lover, you may be wondering if wild camping is legal in Iceland.
Until recently, the answer was yes. But as Iceland became known for its outstanding natural beauty, the laws had to change to keep up with the rising numbers of visitors.
Now, you must stay in an official campground, whether you have a tent or a camping vehicle. There are a tiny number of exceptions to this rule, but only in high mountain territory where campsites are impossible to get to. In this situation, you must follow the leave no trace principles to limit your environmental impact. But this will only apply to experienced mountaineers who can hike far enough into the mountains to justify not staying at a campsite.
The good news is Iceland has more than enough campsites for everyone. They are typically inexpensive and will give you fantastic access to our hiking trails and national parks.
Right To Roam In Iceland
Icelandic law allows people to enjoy nature, so long as they are responsible!
If you want to hike across uncultivated land, you have the right to do so without asking permission. (So long as you do no damage and leave no trace!)
Uncultivated land means land which is not in use for crops or livestock. You don’t have the right to jump into a field full of animals or walk through a crop of barley. You must take paths whenever possible, and in return, landowners are supposed to provide gates near these footpaths and not stop you from crossing the land without good reason.
You don’t have automatic rights on the lakes or rivers, so fishermen (and women) and kayakers will have to seek permits or permission from the relevant stakeholders.
Driving and Off-Roading In Iceland
When it comes to driving, most visitors will want to stay on the main roads. The highland roads (or f roads) are not suitable for most vehicles, and you will void your rental car insurance by driving on them.
If you have your own car, you can decide if you’re up to the mountain tracks.
But you can’t drive off the roads or tracks, no matter how capable your vehicle is. (The exception to this is in the wintertime when enough snow and ice is covering the ground. Probably not something that most visitors will need to think about!)
Land Ownership Laws In Iceland
Now we’ve gone over your land use rights, let’s take a brief look at land ownership laws in Iceland.
In many countries, it is difficult to find out exactly how much property is privately owned. But the Icelandic government is trying to make land ownership more transparent.
In July 2020, new legislation went through in the Icelandic parliament. It means that no individual will have the right to own more than 10,000 hectares of land unless they have a special exception from the Minister of Agriculture. To have more land than this, the buyer will have to propose a very strong case to the Minister, and land sales will no longer go through without the buyer declaring the land they own to an official register.
Some wealthy companies oppose the change in law, and they may challenge it in court. Time will tell!
Buying Property In Iceland
Do you dream of buying a second home in Iceland? It’s certainly possible, but you’ll need to jump through some hoops.
For those who are Icelandic citizens or who have residency in Iceland, buying property is straightforward. You can also buy land or property in Iceland if you are a resident of a European Economic Agreement state, or covered by the Hoyvík Agreement between Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
If you don’t fall into this category (that includes the UK post-Brexit!), you would have to seek special permission to buy property in Iceland. You would have to ask the Minister for Justice for permission on the grounds of a business case or because you have a special personal connection with Iceland. For example, if you were married to an Icelandic Citizen.
Overall, foreign ownership of Icelandic land is very low. In 2018, foreign people only owned 1.33% of total registered land. (And that includes partial ownership!)
But that doesn’t mean that visitors are unwelcome in Iceland. We welcome millions of tourists every year, and it’s an important part of our economy!
Iceland has been an independent Nation since 1940.
From 1814 to 1918, Iceland was part of the Kingdom Of Denmark. After 1918, it became a separate kingdom but was still bound to Denmark by law. It was not until the second world war, when the German forces invaded Denmark, that Iceland declared itself an independent nation.
It didn’t all go smoothly, though. British forces occupied Iceland from 1940, with the intention of keeping Iceland “out of German hands”. US troops later replaced them. Despite the collaboration with allied forces, Iceland remained officially neutral throughout the second world war.
In 1944, the Icelandic state officially broke off ties with Denmark, and it has been a self-governing country ever since.
Iceland and Europe
Many people think that Iceland is part of the European Union, but that’s not quite right.
Iceland is part of the European Economic Agreement, but it’s not an official EU member state. This means that trade and travel relationships between Europe and Iceland are strong, but Iceland is not a European country or bound by all of its laws.
Iceland is also a member of the Nordic Passport Union, allowing people to travel, work, and live across Nordic countries.
A word of warning!
It’s worth saying that Iceland is the name of a huge supermarket chain in the United Kingdom. So if you were searching online for who owned Iceland and the answer was Sir Malcolm Walker, you may have got your wires crossed!
Sir Malcolm Walker is the CEO of the British supermarket chain called Iceland, but he does not lay any claim to Icelandic territory. (Apart from his one franchise store in Reykjavik!)
Iceland is an independent country, but it has good relationships with its neighbors. Being part of the Nordic Passport Union and European Economic Agreement makes travel and residency in Iceland straightforward for most Europeans and Scandanavians.
Outside of Europe and Scandanavia, very few foreign people own land or property in Iceland. But it is possible to buy in Iceland if you can make a convincing case to the Minister of justice.
The good news is that Iceland’s countryside is very welcoming to visitors. The right to hike through the Icelandic countryside is very much protected, but wild camping has become more complicated in recent years.