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RESIDENCY PERMITS

Which countries in Europe impose language tests for residency permits?

Certain countries across Europe demand foreign citizens pass a language test to qualify for certain residency permits. But how does each country compare and what level of language do they require?

Which countries in Europe impose language tests for residency permits?
More and more countries in Europe are talking about making language tests compulsory for residency permit applicants. Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Germany

Germany requires people to have a certain standard of the language to gain permanent residency (Niederlassungserlaubnis / unbefristete Aufenthaltserlaubnis).

When it comes to language skills, the current rules require German at level B1 on the six-level scale of competence laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

This involves taking a test at a language school recognised by authorities. The test includes reading, listening, writing and spoken sections. B1 level on the CEFR scale is defined as being able to “understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.”

Other residency permits, such as the Blue Card, do not generally have formal language requirements.

German citizenship has a B1 language requirement. Note that both citizenship and permanent residency have several other requirements, such as living in Germany legally for a certain period of time.

READ ALSO:

France

At present there is no formal language requirement for residency permits, although for certain groups the Office français de l’immigration et de l’integration (OFII) can require people to attend French classes. The classes are provided for free in most circumstances.

This could change, however, as the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has outlined a plan to make French test compulsory for certain types of long-term residency permit.

At this stage his plan has little detail, so we don’t know what level of French will be required, but it seems to be targeted only at those who are seeking a long-term residency permit, so new arrivals will not be required to have mastered French in advance. The plan does not affect people applying for visas.

READ ALSO French language tests for the carte de séjour: What we know so far

Only French citizenship has a formal language requirement at present – those applying for citizenship through residency need to present a certificate, no more than two years old, to show that they have passed writing, reading, listening and speaking tests at B1 level. A previous exemption for over 60s was scrapped in 2020. 

TEST: Is your French good enough for citizenship and residency?

Spain

Spain doesn’t currently have any language level requirements to obtain residency, and there is no evidence that this is or has ever been considered. 

The country does however expect foreigners applying for Spanish citizenship to prove some command of the Spanish language by obtaining an A2 DELE qualification (Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera) if they’re not originally from a Spanish speaking country. 

The A2 level is still fairly basic however, it’s the second lowest and equates to being a high-level beginner capable of understanding and putting together everyday sentences.

There’s also a language requirement for foreigners from non-Spanish speaking countries who want to have their qualifications recognised to work in regulated professions in Spain (homologación) – a B2 – equal to a high intermediate.

Even though proving a good command of Spanish isn’t a requirement for residency, learning the language is a must for foreigners. Unlike in other European countries such as the Netherlands or Scandinavian nations, Spaniards don’t generally speak English, so learning at least some Spanish is essential for everyday tasks, unless foreigners only want to stay in so-called ‘expat bubbles’.

Switzerland

Whether granting permanent residency or citizenship, whether you are ‘successfully integrated’ is the major question for Swiss authorities. 

Being successfully integrated means that they “should participate in the economic, social and cultural life of society”, according to the State Secretariat for Migration, which includes speaking at least one of Switzerland’s languages. 

Reader question: What does being ‘successfully integrated’ in Switzerland mean?

However, the level of language proficiency differs depending on the type of residency permission you want: residency permit, permanent residency or Swiss citizenship. 

Fortunately for new arrivals, you do not need to show Swiss language proficiency to get a standard residency permit. 

Generally speaking, those on short-term residency permits – such as B Permits and L Permits – are not required to show proficiency in a national language. 

There are some exceptions – for instance people on family reunification permits – however by and large people who have just arrived in Switzerland for work do not need to demonstrate language proficiency. 

Permanent residents however will need to demonstrate language proficiency. 

EXPLAINED: What’s the difference between permanent residence and Swiss citizenship?

For ordinary permanent residency – which is granted after an uninterrupted stay of five years or ten years in total – you need to demonstrate A2 level of a spoken Swiss language and A1 written. 

Citizens of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are exempt from these language requirements. 

For fast-tracked permanent residency, the language level is a little higher. 

You must demonstrate A1 written but B1 spoken. 

There are also exceptions for people who can demonstrate they have a Swiss language as their mother tongue, or that they have attended compulsory schooling for a minimum of three years in a Swiss language. 

Demonstrating language proficiency must be done through an accredited test centre. The accreditation process is handled at a cantonal level. More information is available here

More information about language requirements – including what you need for Swiss citizenship – is available at the following link. 

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

Norway

Residence permits in Norway come in two forms, permanent and temporary. There are no language requirements or tests for temporary permits, nor are there any plans in the works to bring them in. 

Permanent residence does come with language requirements, however. Depending on where you are from, the type of temporary permit you have held, whether you were granted residency to live with somebody in Norway, and their situation, you will need to complete between 250550 hours of Norwegian language tuition and complete a social studies course.

In some situations, you can get around the language tuition by proving that you have adequate knowledge of Norwegian. For example, if you have passed all four parts of the Norwegian exam at a minimum of level A2: oral, listening, reading and written presentation, you do not need to meet the tuition requirements. 

Similarly, when applying for citizenship, you will need to meet language requirements. EU and non-EU citizens must pass an oral Norwegian language test at either A2 or B1 level. A2 refers to an elementary level of Norwegian, and B1 is considered semi-fluent. For citizenship, some residents will need to have also completed tuition in the language also.  

The change to the language requirement from A2 to B1 will apply from autumn 2022 at the earliest, according to the UDI

Italy

For most types of Italian residency permit, applicants are not required to sit a language test.

But if you’re a non-EU citizen applying for a permesso di soggiorno per soggiornanti di lungo periodo (long-stay residency permit) based on being resident for five years or more, there is a requirement to prove at least A2 level competency in Italian.

The A2 level is still fairly basic: it’s the second-lowest on the the six-level scale of competence laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), and equates to being a higher-level beginner able to understand and put together simple sentences.

If you’re applying for citizenship, Italy demands proof of having a slightly better command of the language: applicants must show they’ve passed an Italian language exam at the level of B1 or higher.

The B1 level is a lower intermediate level of proficiency, and equates to being able to communicate in most everyday situations. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Italy’s language test for citizenship

For those who simply need to pass the exam in order to get the required paperwork, and don’t need to prove their linguistic competency for any other reasons (such as study or employment), there is a simplified ‘B1 cittadinanza’ (B1 for citizenship) exam created specifically for this purpose. 

For residency and citizenship applications, certificates proving you’ve passed a language test are only valid if issued by a school (in Italy or abroad) which is accredited by one of four Italian language institutes recognised by the Interior Ministry.

Even though you don’t need a particularly high level of Italian to obtain either residency or citizenship, language skills will prove essential for foreign residents. Unlike in some parts of Europe, most Italians don’t speak English – at least outside of the more touristy areas.

Sweden

The Swedish government is currently carrying out an inquiry on a proposal that would require permanent residence applicants to prove basic Swedish proficiency. Right now, there are no language requirements for other short-term residence permits, including study permits and work permits. 

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your Swedish good enough for permanent residency?

Under the proposal, applicants would have to pass a test certifying that they can read, write, listen, and speak at an A1/A2 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) scale. In the Swedish government’s free language classes, known as Swedish for Immigrants (SFI), this corresponds to passing course C, the third of four levels. 

This proposal is still in its inquiry stage, which will end in May 2023. 

Austria

Austria has language requirements for most of its residence permits and German knowledge is expected to increase as people need to renew their cards.

There is no language requirement for the most common work-based permit, the Red-White-Red card, though. However, there is a point-based system to be able to apply for the permit and knowing German or English will give the candidates points – how many and for what level will depend on which group they belong to.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

For example, “very highly qualified workers” will get ten points (they need 70) if they speak German or English at an A2 level. But “skilled workers at shortage occupations” can get 15 points if they can prove German knowledge at a B1 level (ten points for A2 and five for A1) and another ten for English at a B1 level.

The Red-White-Red Card is issued for 24 months and entitles the holder to fixed-term settlement and employment by the employer specified in your application.

READ ALSO: Working in Austria: Why foreigners find it hard to integrate in the workplace

After that, they may apply for the Red-White-Red Plus, which is also the permit for family members of Austrian citizens, Red-White-Red Card workers, and EU citizens.

In many cases, including for spouses of Austrian citizens, but not for family members of EU citizens, there is a language requirement of an A1 level German even before immigration. You can read more about the requirements and exceptions here. The requirement will go up to B1 (which is also the minimum level for naturalisation) as they seek a long-term settlement, with few exceptions.

Denmark

Denmark requires people who are granted residence based on family reunification to pass a language test. This only applies to family reunified spouses (and not, for example, children).

People granted residence in Denmark on the grounds of family reunification with spouses are normally required to pass two tests in Danish, meeting the A1 and then A2 standards. The A2 requirement does not apply to people who applied before July 2018.

The A1 level test must be passed within six months of being granted a residence permit in Denmark, and the A2 level test within nine months.

Passing the language tests reduces the so-called ‘bank guarantee’ (bankgarantien), a sum of money which must be provided by the spouse as security against the granting of their partner’s work permit. More detail on this can be found here.

READ ALSO: How the dizzying cost of family reunification keeps Danes and foreign partners apart

There are various ways for non-EU residents to get a Danish work permit based on their profession. A list of different types of work sectors and requirements needed can be found on the website nyidanmark.dk.

These include the Fast-Track Scheme, Pay Limit Scheme and Positive Lists among a series of other routes. Unlike with family reunification, profession-based residence and work permits do not have a language requirement.

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between temporary and permanent residency in Denmark?

Elsewhere in Europe

In the Netherlands, the requirements will depend on many factors, including your nationality.

Before getting a residence permit, many people must go through a process to receive a provisional residence permit, the MVV. During this process, there is a Dutch language requirement.

However, citizens of EU and EEA countries, Australia, Canada, the UK, US, Switzerland and other countries do not need the MVV and, therefore, will not need to prove Dutch skills. Furthermore, people who are family members of an EU or EEA citizen (but not Dutch citizens) also don’t need the provisional residence permit and can skip the language requirements in most cases.

Depending on your purpose of stay, you might not need an MVV or proof of Dutch knowledge. If you need to fulfil language requirements, the level is A2, but the Dutch government intends to increase it to B2.

You can find more information here.

In Portugal, there are no language requirements for long-term residence visas regardless of the applicant’s nationality or purpose of stay.

After five years of legal residency, though, it’s possible to apply for a permanent residence permit, which has an A2 Portuguese level requirement.

In the United Kingdom, most people who are applying for citizenship or settling in the UK (the “indefinite leave to remain”) will need to prove their knowledge of the English language if they are 18 or over.

The requirement is at least a B1 level of English which can be confirmed by submitting a qualification or having a degree taught or researched in English.

You do not need to prove your knowledge of English in certain circumstances.

In Belgium, things can get a little tricky. Anyone who wants to stay in the country for more than 90 days will have their “efforts to integrate into Belgian society controlled”, according to the Foreign Office.

There are several exemptions to this, though, including minors or refugees. You can check all exemptions here.

Those who are not exempt will be required to prove “integration efforts” whenever applying for the renewal of their permits and for a limited period after, depending on the type of permit. The checks also apply to those with permanent residence.

The assessment of the “integration efforts” takes into account several criteria, including if the person is employed, if they attended an integration course, went to school, and if they have knowledge of the local language.

If the efforts are considered non-existent or insufficient, the Foreign Office may “refuse to renew the residence permit or terminate the stay” – though they add that they will consider the nature and strength of family ties in Belgium.

Don’t forget to check the official websites and consult with the embassies and local offices to get information on your specific case.

Member comments

  1. As I understand it, language requirements cannot be imposed on residency permits for those covered by the Withdrawal Agreement

  2. I wished EU regulations would force some administrations to learn the language of a neighbouring country. Especially when two municipalities of different countries have a border in common. You can see the results of this type of language barriers in eastern Germany. Where whole areas are left empty.

    Language requirements are not always a good thing. Many people believe they will get a better job if they speak the language. But some places, English is all you need to earn far more than the average. And with regular jobs you will earn even less or you could even end up in the same poverty loop the locals do.

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READER INSIGHTS

‘I’m still searching for the feeling of home’: Life as a trailing spouse in Sweden

Following your partner to Sweden can open new doors and experiences you've never even imagined, as well as leaving you feeling lost, lonely and jobless, The Local's readers told us when we asked them to share their reflections on life as a 'trailing spouse'.

'I'm still searching for the feeling of home': Life as a trailing spouse in Sweden

Before we delve into the challenges, it’s worth noting that out of 38 respondents, only four were unhappy to have moved to Sweden, whereas 18 described themselves as happy with their choice and 16 said they were not sure. In other words, people still generally held overall positive views or were conflicted between the ups and downs of moving to Sweden as an accompanying partner.

Career struggles and difficulties breaking into Swedish society were some of the main things readers mentioned.

“It’s been a real challenge. My husband is totally fulfilled and loving life here, but after three years, I’m still jobless,” said Meg Messmer, a film and TV writer and producer.

“I have a few friends and have hit the ground trying to network. But Swedes aren’t welcoming. I’m not saying they’re not nice, because they are, when you engage them. But becoming a part of their community and network is like approaching a 200-year-old stone wall with a stepping stool. You just can’t break in,” she said.

“Luckily, as a mom in Malmö, I have lots of international parent friends that can relate, so at least I feel heard and can laugh. I enjoy the perks of the Swedish life balance having moved from the hustle of America, but I’m still searching for fulfilment and the feeling of ‘home’.”

An Australian reader in southern Sweden said she and her husband had decided to return home.

“When we arrived my husband had a job, and there was a promise of one for me, which never eventuated, so we had to reassess our plans,” she said, adding that she was grateful for having had the opportunity to live abroad and use the free time to pursue other activities.

A Jamaican reader with significant IT experience said that although he wanted to be supportive of his partner’s career in Sweden, he had found it challenging not to have employment of his own.

“I find also that the salaries are less than in other jurisdictions, but the social services easier to access and afford. I’m worried about us actually being able to sustain our vision of a future here. This is sad because I’d love to live here – it’s a beautiful country,” he said.

Out of readers who did find a job, several said that their career progression had been set back several years, that they had been forced to accept a more junior position or even change their career.

“To be blunt, it can be really fucking hard,” said Thomas Walmsley, a British freelance e-learning script writer and copywriter in Stockholm.

“I’ve been here 11 years and am the father to a two-year-old son, so I’m not going anywhere soon. On the one hand it is easy being a trailing spouse, I have not worked that much and have been able to enjoy the legal benefits of living in Stockholm. However, despite more than average free time and an outgoing personality, making friends has been frankly awful and earning respect for my work and role has been similar,” he said, but he like a lot of other readers was conflicted between the positives and negatives of life in Sweden.

“There have been many benefits to living here that are close to unique in the world. Coming from the UK there are many things both statutory and cultural that are simply superior to the UK. However, there are a number of intangible things that are much worse.”

A lot of readers spoke of an invisible glass ceiling for foreigners.

Gabrielle, a Spanish-American reader in Umeå, left a well paid job with high potential to move to the northern Swedish city. She said her husband’s employer helped her get her career and networking off the ground, but still feels like her career took a hit and although she’s working roughly in the same field six years later, she’s finding it hard to break into more senior roles.

“But I am one of the lucky ones – I have permanent employment, I can be flexible which is great for spending time with my kids. Ask me again in another six years and see if the answer changes. I either will accept my role or find a way to break through the leadership ceiling in Sweden,” she said, adding that family life was the best thing about the move, which she said was right for her children.

Another thing that bothered readers was the gap between their partner’s career and their own, and having to depend on another person. This further added to people’s struggles to find community, as their working partner was often faster to make friends and contacts at work.

“On one hand I am happy that my husband is happy in his job, but on the other, I end up being a ‘dependent’. I keep myself busy attending my SFI classes, household work, looking after children but desperately applying for jobs too. But I am not sure where the applications are going. They are simply not answered. I would love to have an interview, to speak with a person from my industry and give me feedback on what I can do differently here. I constantly meet people at forums, network, but so far no luck,” said Rohini from India.

“Sweden is great. The schools are excellent, the support system the teachers give to us parents while we study is outstanding,” she added. “It’s just that landing a job is extremely challenging here. I had a respectable job in my country, and a work experience of more than 10 years in international organisations, but when I am not even shortlisted let alone being interviewed or hired, it gets more depressing by the day.”

Not knowing Swedish turned out to be a bigger barrier than most people expected.

“We moved here almost five years ago for my husband’s job, with our young son. I had a successful career in the UK and assumed after a few months settling in, I would find work. Everyone said I wouldn’t need Swedish. Having native English would be enough for most roles. That’s not what I have found,” said Rebecca in Gothenburg, whose career development was further delayed by the Covid pandemic and being pregnant with her second child.

“But my youngest son is now three-and-a-half and I’m still struggling. I had over 15 years’ experience and an impressive CV, but here that hasn’t even got me an interview 99 percent of the time,” she said. “I’m currently volunteering and working an internship which can sometimes feel demoralising when I was once so much more successful.”

Rebecca like many other readers who responded to the survey was however also keen to stress the positives of living in Sweden, and she said there were “so many plus points being here”.

“We have made a lot of friends, both Swedish and international. That side I haven’t found as difficult as people say it can be. Perhaps it’s the area we live in, or perhaps the age of our kids, but friendships have been easy for us, as has a sense of community. Overall a positive experience. If only I could get paid work,” she said.

Sindija Svintecka from Latvia, also believes that the pros outweighs the cons on the whole.

“You can’t get a normal job if you don’t speak Swedish. I was very upset and disappointed. I graduated from university, I speak four languages, I have hotel and restaurant manager work experience and all I could get in Sweden was a cleaning job,” she said.

But she added that she had since learned Swedish with the help of supportive teachers: “Education is free in Sweden and that is amazing! You can be whoever you want to be and it doesn’t matter if you need to start your life from zero at the age of 40. If there is a will, there is a way.”

One common unspoken theme, which nobody explicitly addressed in exactly that many words, was that although a lot of readers found the job market extremely challenging, those who had managed to find community in some way – be it friends or assistance from their partner’s company – seemed more comfortable taking on that challenge and were generally happier with their life in Sweden on the whole.

“Not speaking Swedish on my arrival and people in Norrland being a bit shy to speak English made it a bit hard to find a community,” said Raphaël from Switzerland, who moved to northern Sweden in 2018 after his partner found a job with a governmental agency. But putting his sporty side to good use by joining several sports clubs helped him both develop his Swedish and find friends.

“It being summer helped to appreciate the place: lots of water, forests, long sunny days. It took me some time to settle and call Sweden home, despite buying a house quite rapidly after moving. Looking back, it was time-consuming to go through all the administrative paperwork, visiting agencies upon agencies and waiting a long time to get an ID card or personnummer,” he said.

Taylor Hynes from the US said that the Swedish lifestyle had offered her perks that she would never have experienced back home.

“In many ways, being a ‘trailing spouse’ has been a delight. Though I had never visited Sweden before moving, Stockholm is a wonderful and beautiful city. A part of me has felt that I was brought along for a vacation in some ways. We both met community quite early on into being here so there hasn’t been much of an imbalance with community based on who has a job. It’s also nice that I have healthcare while I look for work,” she said, but she too was concerned that the tough labour market would ultimately force her and her partner to leave.

“It’s been much harder to find a job than I expected. I would say I’m mid-level in my career, which was hazard mitigation research and project management work in the US. I didn’t realise that every job that meets my experience would require knowing Swedish, which does make sense. I’m a little worried that if I can’t find something soon, we may have to move on.”

Finding community was for many not just based on having friends, but also the feeling that someone in Sweden had their back, looked out for them and was willing to help if needed.

“I am very happy that I moved to Sweden. I like the culture, the mentality, the climate and the Swedish approach to recycling. I admire many things that have been and are being created in Sweden. After a year and a half, I feel at home here despite the difficulties,” said Darya in Malmö, despite falling into burnout and despair after struggling to find a job, before she landed a freelance contract thanks to networking.

“Returning from other countries, I am glad to be in Sweden – I feel calm and safe here. Friends I have made here have greatly helped me feel at ease. I have a small diaspora here, and they have become my bridge to Sweden. I don’t know if I could feel this way without them in my life. A community is incredibly important for those who have moved to a new country.”

Rajeev, an Indian reader in Helsingborg, who was still looking for a job but enjoyed his life nonetheless, said: “It’s always wonderful to migrate to a new country. And Sweden has a lot of opportunities too. When my wife got a job in her field I left my job in India without a thought to settle my family down in Sweden, and after eight months of being here I don’t regret the decision.”

“Yes, finding a job is a bit cumbersome, but learning the language here and getting to know some people and more importantly mingling and getting to know the culture has been the best.”

Many thanks to everyone who responded to our survey. Would you like to share your own thoughts? Join in the comments below.

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