“Dat verklaar en beloof ik.”
And with those words, I’d reached the end of the road. All those visits to the IND in Rijswijk, the Dutch lessons in The Hague, the exams in Rotterdam, the paperwork in our house and a process that had begun on the other side of the world; it was all done. I had become a Dutch citizen.
Over the years, I’ve gotten a bit of correspondence from readers and Instagram followers, looking for advice. Often it’s about becoming a tour guide and the process I went through, but more often it’s about the logistics involved in moving to the Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe. There’s a real lack of resources out there to help individuals work their way through what often looks like a mess, and the fact that the laws are constantly changing doesn’t help either. I’m not an expert but I do have experience, so here’s my story.
I first moved to the Netherlands in February 2011. Originally I had planned to spend about a year in the country; obviously plans change since I’m still here. My partner Paul is Dutch and had just spent the previous six months living with me in Melbourne, so we decided to give it a go in his home country as well.
Australians do not need visas to visit the Netherlands, and they do not need to announce themselves beforehand if they plan on living there. This is the case for only a handful of countries such as the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and South Korea. (Of course, if you’re an EU citizen you don’t have to go through any of this at all.) Others need to sit a series of exams and interviews before they arrive; I’m not an expert on this so please look elsewhere for information on what that involves.
The lack of paperwork before I arrived startled me somewhat. When I gave the customs officer my passport at Schiphol Airport and she didn’t ask me anything, I blurted out, “I’m planning on moving here.” She didn’t skip a beat. “Welcome to the Netherlands,” she smiled, returning my passport with a simple tourist stamp.
Paul had done a bit of reading before we’d made the move, so we knew that I needed to apply for a Partner Visa when I arrived. I had ninety days to begin the process; the time afforded to me as part of the visa-free Schengen Agreement. We’d already arranged for me to bring my birth certificate and ‘proof of single status’ – a simple document I got from Births, Deaths and Marriages in Melbourne – and looked at the various things I needed to arrange.
I needed a BSN (kind of like a national ID number), a bank account and registry at the local council. In the early days I had a few chicken and egg moments; I needed proof of my local registration so I could officially live in Paul’s apartment, but the council needed my BSN to register me, which the IND immigration office wouldn’t give me until I had an official address. Here, having Paul speak Dutch was a godsend. He arranged for the rental company to grant me the right to live at the address, just as long as we sent proof of my local registration afterwards.
I also hit a snag along the way, in that I didn’t realise that I needed my birth certificate and proof of single status to have apostolic stamps. You know, those red medieval-looking seals? I’m not sure if this is still needed, but it drove me crazy back in 2011. The Australian Embassy wouldn’t do it for me (they do now) so I had to send everything back to Australia via registered post to get it done and wait for it to be returned.
It was time I didn’t really have, and I didn’t get the documents back in time to make my IND appointment in nearby Rotterdam. It kind of snowballed from there. I had already committed to a six-week tour guide training trip and therefore I had to reschedule the IND appointment for six weeks later, right at the death knock of the ninety days.
What I hadn’t counted on was the council having its own time limits. They sent me a letter while I was in Spain, telling me I had to apply for my partner visa in the next two weeks or they were pulling the pin on their end of the deal. (Why this was the case, I honesty can’t remember. I just recall all the stress.) I hastily arranged an IND appointment in Rijswijk (there were none available on short notice in Rotterdam), was granted leave for one night from the training trip and rushed back to the Netherlands. I paid my nine hundred euro fee – this has since been challenged in court and has been lowered significantly – and waited.
I waited seven months for my Partner Visa to be approved. In that time, I wasn’t able to work in the Netherlands. I had anticipated this before we left and knew I’d go batty if I couldn’t work, so I had arranged a UK Working Holiday Visa and worked off that instead. What was quite farcical was that only a few weeks after I picked up my brand-new Partner Visa in Rijswijk (in the form of an ID card), I received my visa renewal letter in the mail. They’d started the countdown from when I first arrived in the country, rather than the day the visa was approved.
But what could I do? Bleeding money at this stage, I sighed and forked out another four hundred euro. Off I went to Rijswijk again, only to realise on the train home that they’d accidentally given me a five-year renewal instead of what I was supposed to get, only one year. I rang the IND from the train, in a panic. “Oh yeah,” they laughed. “We deemed you low-risk so we gave you five years.”
There were so many things I could have said about this, but since it was saving me a fortune I got off my high horse and gleefully accepted.
Once I had my visa, my stress levels improved. And the thing is, I knew I had it easy! Nobody blinked when I entered the country, no-one had kicked up a fuss when I asked to be spoken to in English and everybody had been helpful in that straightforward Dutch sort of way.
For the couple of years, we kept an eye and an ear on the Dutch Parliament and their myriad policy changes regarding naturalisation. We figured that if I had a Dutch passport, our options would be more open. We could live in Australia in the future, with the possibility of moving back to the Netherlands without having to go through all of this mess again. I wasn’t interested in a Dutch passport if it meant having to give up my Australian nationality, however. Thankfully, dual citizenship is allowed by both countries, with the Netherlands granting an exemption if it is due to marriage or partnership.
We understood that generally it took five years to apply for Dutch citizenship, but it was lowered to three if you were the partner of a Dutch citizen. (We became registered partners in January 2014.) But Wilders and co wanted to raise it as well as make the inburgering test more difficult (yes, the best way to make foreigners integrate is to make it harder for them to integrate, gotcha).
I saw the inburgering as my giant hurdle, that thing I just wanted to disappear. I hated it and still do. The inburgering is not a citizenship test, but rather a series of exams every foreigner (except EU citizens) must do after living in the Netherlands for three years. They’re meant to make sure you’re properly integrated into Dutch society by testing your language skills and your knowledge of Dutch customs and traditions. Don’t do it and you get fined.
Now, I know that this is a post about how I gained Dutch citizenship, but even thinking about inburgering now, three years after I completed it, I get all angry. There’s a thousand things I hate about it, but one stands out above all; it’s demeaning. I felt like a child having to go through it, and a naughty one at that.
This was a fact hammered home to me a few months after getting my Partner Visa. I got a letter in the mail from the local council asking to attend a meeting, where we would discuss my integration. I had to go to the unemployment office for the meeting (stereotypical much?). Once there, the lady greeted me in English and said we were going to have the meeting in Dutch. I’d done a twelve-week beginners Dutch course in Melbourne and knew some basics, but not enough to carry a conversation about my future. I politely declined. She refused, so Paul and her had a conversation about me, in front of me, with me hardly understanding a thing. My blood was boiling the entire time.
So I put it off. One of the reasons was lifestyle; I couldn’t commit to thrice-weekly classes for months on end when in fact, I was away from home working for long, irregular timeframes. However, the part I had the biggest problem with was the portfolio section of the exam itself, which smacks of political compromise every way you turn. Initially not part of the inburgering, it was added in later after concerns were raised that some people just weren’t good at exams, and the structure of the inburgering didn’t suit them. So they made candidates go off into the community and have fake conversations with people at places like the bank, the train station or the grocery store. Once you got through that, your conversation partner (a complete stranger, remember) would give you a cute little stamp to prove that you were successful in fake-opening a bank account, fake-buying a train ticket or fake-asking where the carrots were.
I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. So I found a loophole; pass the more difficult Staatsexam – a straightforward, old-school language test – and you didn’t have to do inburgering. Aha! I thought. I’ll do that.
So I enrolled in an intensive Dutch class in The Hague and started preparing for the Staatsexam. I did practice papers, watched the news every night, read the newspaper every day and surrounded myself with all things Dutch. I was just about to set my date for the Staatsexam when they changed the law again. No more portfolio. (As a side note, the portfolio has since been re-added, though in a different form which focuses on how to get a job. Again, stereotypes much? There’s no opt-out button you can press which says, ‘I have a job already’.)
So I didn’t need to do the portfolio anymore. This changed everything. Why would I take a harder test when I could take an easier one? I am pragmatic, after all. Bring on inburgering, I decided.
I sat my five inburgering exams on one day in Rotterdam in October 2014. Most people like to spread them out over a number of days, but due to my work schedule I had limited time. I sat them pretty much one after another, with only a break I made in the middle for lunch.
After learning Dutch in the classroom and hearing it all around me for the previous three years, I found the inburgering to be quite easy. But that is me. Four of the five I wasn’t worried about at all – reading, writing, listening and the KNM (Knowledge of Dutch Society) – and one was trickier. The speaking exam… let’s just say it could have gone anywhere.
Back then, you had to listen to a whole heap of things on a phone and then answer the questions, like hearing a set of words and saying their opposites. One part involved hearing a bunch of people on what sounded like a crowded, noisy rush hour Amsterdam tram and repeating what they were saying. The whole exam took about ten minutes and when I finished I just felt confused. I spoke to other candidates outside afterwards and all were repeating the exam after failing it in the past, some on multiple occasions.
A couple of weeks later, I got the results for the first four exams, all of which I passed. About a month after that I got the results of the speaking test, which I also passed. As soon as I was off work, I picked up my inburgering diploma in Rotterdam and took it to the IND in Rijswijk. I then paid them close to a thousand euro to apply for Dutch citizenship. This was in December 2014.
From then on, it was smooth sailing. In June 2015, I received a letter from the IND saying that they were recommending me for citizenship and my application was now going to the King. (The King! I thought at the time. That’s kind of awesome.) Willem-Alexander approved me about two weeks later and we booked me in for the next citizenship ceremony in Dordrecht, of which they have about eight or so a year. (Each council is different; the bigger cities have them more often.)
Luckily for me I was off work at the time of the next ceremony, which was later that month. I put on my pretty outfit, practiced my one line over and over again and generally allowed myself to feel proud of the both of us.
I became a citizen of the Netherlands in July 2015 on a rainy morning in Dordrecht. I suppose the weather was typical, perhaps even symbolic. It was a simple ceremony in the Town Hall, complete with koffie and koekjes, and a smattering of different nationalities represented on stage. Most applicants were originally from Turkey or Morocco, while others hailed from elsewhere like South Korea, Nigeria and Eritrea. I will never forget the reaction of the Bosnian man after receiving his official certificate; he whooped with joy and the elation was clear on his face. I choked up then and I’m choking up now, just writing about it.
Een bericht gedeeld door Caitlyn O’Dowd (@theviewfromtheoffice) op
I applied for my Dutch passport the next day and received it a week later. A little bit of hilarity ensued at the city council offices, where they informed me that they needed my height for my new passport. I had no idea how tall I was, except to say “I’m not tall”. Anyway, so off I went and measured myself in front of dozens of amused onlookers before telling the lady my height, 1.66m. She didn’t believe me and had to come out from behind her desk to check, before giggling with everyone in the room. Leuk. I was officially the shortest person in the country.
It’s been two and a half years since I completed this whole process, which cost me an estimated €3600 from start to finish. I’ve been able to vote in national elections and a referendum about Ukraine, I now get to join the shorter line at airport immigration and I don’t need extra visas and permits for work. I still speak more English than Dutch. I continue to introduce myself as an Australian, living in the Netherlands. I’m well aware that I can’t run for Australian federal parliament anymore. Not a lot has changed, but at the same time everything has changed.
And by the way, the mayor screwed up my name at the ceremony. But I didn’t screw up my line.
You’ve stumbled upon The View from the Office, a collection of travel musings penned by an opinionated Australian living in the Netherlands, working as a cruise director and travelling in between.
She can’t quite believe that this is how her life has turned out.
Writing this blog is part the evidence she’ll need in the future to prove that it was all real.