When can foreigners in Denmark vote in elections and run for office?

In Denmark’s upcoming referendum on its EU defence opt-out, only Danish citizens will be able to vote. But foreigners who live in Denmark can vote – and sometimes even stand themselves – in other elections.

election posters in denmark
Foreigners cannot vote in Denmark's upcoming EU defence opt-out referendum, but can take part in certain other elections. Photo: Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix

Those who follow Danish politics will know that the country will next week vote on a referendum on whether to scrap one of the country’s four EU-opt-outs (forbehold in Danish), which allow the company to stay outside of EU politics on specified areas. Next week’s referendum relates to the defence opt-out.

READ ALSO: Why does Denmark have four EU ‘opt-outs’ and what do they mean?

While referenda are only open for Danish citizens to vote in, foreign residents can vote in some other elections. It’s also possible for EU nationals to stand for office in EU elections that take place in Denmark.

General elections and referenda

Only Danish citizens can vote in general (parliamentary) elections, as is also the case with all referenda (not just those related to the EU, like the upcoming one).

Several other criteria apply in addition to Danish citizenship for voting in general elections and referenda.

You must also be over 18 years old and live in Denmark, meaning Danes who live abroad can generally not vote in these elections.

READ ALSO: How to apply for citizenship in Denmark

Municipal and regional elections

The municipal and regional elections are held every four years in Denmark and determine who is elected to municipal governments and regional health administrations, respectively.

Foreigners who are citizens of other EU countries (or Norway or Iceland) can vote in both the municipal and regional elections if they are over 18 and reside in the municipality and region in which they are voting.

People from non-EU countries can also vote in the elections if they have resided in Denmark for at least four years on the date of the election.

A foreign resident who has had their residence withdrawn (tålt ophold) or who has been sentenced to deportation or is in Denmark to serve a prison sentence may not vote.

Slightly different rules apply to British nationals who live in Denmark. UK nationals who were registered as living in Denmark before Brexit (January 31st 2020) and have live in the country since that date were able to vote in the last local elections, which took place in November 2021. Britons who moved to Denmark after January 31st 2020 could not vote.

For the next local elections, which will take place more than four years after Brexit, this rule will be superseded, so UK nationals will be eligible to vote if they have lived in Denmark for four years or more.

Anyone who qualifies to vote under the above rules can also stand for election as a candidate.


EU elections

In EU parliamentary elections, nationals of all EU countries who reside in Denmark can both vote in the elections and run for office.

Nationals of non-EU countries cannot vote or run in these elections.

To be eligible to vote and run in the EU elections, you must either be eligible to vote in Danish general elections or be an EU national who resides in Denmark. You must be 18 years old or more.

Unlike with general elections, foreign-based Danes can vote in EU elections in Denmark if they live in another EU country (but not a non-EU country).


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EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

Non-EU nationals living in Europe don't have many voting rights but some countries do allow them to cast a ballot in local elections. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

In December 2021 the New York City Council passed a law granting local voting rights to non-USA citizens with permanent residence (the “green card”) or a valid work authorisation, starting from 2023. 

Whether the decision will become reality is still in question, as the law is being challenged in the Supreme Court. But for the time being, New York joins Chicago, San Francisco and some other US municipalities allowing foreign nationals to vote. 

As this happens in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, what is the situation in Europe? The answer is, “it’s complicated”.

The general principle is that voting rights are based on citizenship and each country makes its own rules. When electoral rights are granted to non-nationals, these are usually limited to local elections and do not extend to national ones. So neither EU nationals or non-EU citizens are able to vote for example in French presidential elections or German parliamentary elections, unless of course they have taken citizenship in those countries.

Common arrangements are established at the European Union level for EU citizens who move to other member states. They can vote in municipal elections in the country where they live and can choose to vote in the host country or at home for the election of the European Parliament.

In addition, some EU countries have signed other regional or bilateral agreements that guarantee voting rights to non-nationals. 

So where can non-EU citizens vote in the European Union? This is where things stand in the EU and in particular in the nine European countries covered by The Local.

The Nordics

In addition to EU citizens, Denmark allows all non-nationals to vote in local elections as long as they have at least four years of residence. 

Sweden, Finland and Norway (which is not part of the EU) have similar rules, but in Sweden and Norway the residency requirement is three years and in Finland it is two years on the 51st day before the election.

Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland also mutually guarantee the right to vote for municipal and regional councils as part of the Nordic Passport Union. 

Spain’s bilateral agreements

Another country that grants municipal voting rights to some citizens beyond the EU is Spain. Madrid has signed bilateral agreements with Norway, Iceland, the UK, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand, Peru, Paraguay, South Korea and Trinidad y Tobago. The residency requirement is set in each agreement.

Other EU countries that grant local voting rights to non-EU citizens are Belgium, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Slovenia. Again, each country has its own residency requirements. 

Portugal has agreements on voting rights in local elections with Brazil, Cape Verde, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, as well as with the UK for citizens who were living in the country before Brexit. Some Brazilian residents have full voting rights in Portugal.

Ongoing debates

Austria, France, Germany and Italy do not allow non-EU citizens to take part in local elections, although the issue has been debated in recent years. This would require constitutional changes, however. 

In Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, foreign nationals do not have the right to vote at federal level but they can participate in some cantonal and communal elections. Information on the political rights of non-Swiss citizens is available from this map on the Swiss Confederation website.

A special situation concerns UK citizens in the EU, who have lost the automatic right to vote in municipal elections when the country left the bloc. They can still vote, however, where this is allowed to non-EU citizens and the British government has negotiated bilateral agreements on local voting rights with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland. 

But do foreigners bother voting? 

Having the right to vote, however, does not necessarily mean exercising it. The European Commission has found that electoral participation of EU citizens living in other EU countries is below average. 

Among the difficulties there are a lack of awareness about voting rights, the sometimes burdensome registration requirements, the lack of familiarity with the voting system or with local politics, as well as language problems.

In November the Commission proposed changes to current rules asking member states to better inform EU citizens about their rights and make information available in at least one other language. 

The ECIT Foundation, a group working on EU citizenship in Brussels, said the Commission could be more ambitious. The group requested in particular the creation of “dedicated helpdesk” for EU citizens moving across borders to “proactively engage with electoral rights before, during and after elections to maintain a constant engagement of electoral participation.”

ECIT Founder Tony Venables noted that, in some countries, the extension of voting rights to EU nationals has led to the inclusion of non-EU citizens too and better information about elections is likely to benefit also non-EU citizens. 

The ECIT Foundation is among the organisations behind the European citizens initiative “Voters without borders” which is calling on the EU to grant full political rights to EU citizens moving around the bloc. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.