So You Want to Move to the European Union

Welcome back, coastal elites! In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, many of you have expressed interest in moving to Canada or one of the 28 member states of the European Union. I can’t help you with Canada, but as it happens, I’ve lived in Belgium for the last seven years and finally became a permanent resident last week. This has meant having to learn the ins and outs of one of the more opaque bureaucracies in the world — there’s a reason it’s the rudest word in the Universe — but if someone as pathologically disorganized as I am can pull off emigration, so can you.

The EU is basically a constitutional confederation. Its member states are all sovereign nations, but they’ve also harmonized (i.e., made mutually consistent) many of the laws that govern inter-state interaction. This includes immigration law. So, while there will be small variations in procedure from country to country, the process as a whole is basically standardized EU-wide and consists of several different routes. I have personally gone through three of them: family reunification, salaried employment, and the “highly skilled worker” program, so most of my advice will focus on these paths.

Here are some of the questions Americans have asked me recently:

I’m married to/the minor child of/the parent of an EU national. Can I get citizenship through them?

This route requires the least paperwork, so we’ll tackle it first. The procedures for all the other routes require additional paperwork on top of what’s described in this section, so either read this part now or refer back to it later.

Short answer: Yes, if you’re willing to learn their country’s language. Depending on the country, you may also have to move there and wait a few years.

Longer answer: Citizenship and residency are two different things. Citizenship includes rights and privileges such as the right to vote, the right to a passport, and the ability to give up other citizenships you already hold. (Most EU countries allow dual citizenship, but a few, like Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, the Baltic republics, and Spain, require naturalized citizens to give up any previous nationality.) Being an informed voter means being able to understand the local issues, so in order to extend the franchise to you, your host country will expect you to demonstrate language proficiency (typically to level A2 or B1, which are the second and third of six levels) first.

Residency just means “you live there legally.” However, thanks to the Schengen Agreement, there are mostly no border controls within the EU. (The UK is an exception because it isn’t part of Schengen. More on this later.) So if all you want to do is live, work, and travel around in Europe, residency is all you really need. If your relative is already an EU national, there’s even a special residence category for you, “non-EU family member of an EU citizen.” It also applies to people in civil unions, provided the country you want to move to recognizes same-sex marriages or partnerships. (This is basically everywhere except Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Poland. Hungary and Croatia have civil unions but a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, so a US same-sex marriage probably translates to a civil union, but obviously I’ve never tried this so don’t bet the farm on it.)

The very first thing you and your relative need to do is make sure that your relative’s documents are in order. If your relative’s EU passport or ID card has expired, get it renewed. The “citizen services” department of the relevant country’s embassy can help you with this. E.g., if your relative is French, go to the French embassy; if they’re Austrian, go to the Austrian embassy, and so on and so forth.

While you’re at it, start getting your own paperwork together. Most countries let non-EU family members of EU citizens file for residency while they’re already present on a tourist visa. The only one that requires you to apply from outside the country is Austria; everywhere else, you can relocate along with your relative and then apply.

The Schengen Agreement effectively gives Americans an automatic “brief sojourn” (type C) visa on arrival in a member state. It’s good for up to 90 days, with the catch that you can only stay in the Schengen area for 90 days out of any 180. To be admitted for a stay longer than that, people who aren’t family members of an EU citizen (or who are, but are going to Austria) will need a “national” visa, also known as type D, which we’ll get into in more detail later.

The embassy’s website will have forms for visa applications, so if you’ll need one, download it and fill it out. If you don’t already have a US passport, get one — the book, not the card. Ditto for your kids, if you have any. When you go to apply, note that there is a difference between passport acceptance facilities and passport agencies. Normally, a passport agency will only deal with you if you already have a ticket to your foreign destination, but “I need to apply for a visa” is an exception to this rule. If you’re near a passport agency, go there — they’re faster — and bring your visa application with you. Hold on to any extra passport photos, or if you threw the extras away when you got your passport originally, get new ones; you’ll need to submit one with your visa application.

You will also need to prepare the documents that verify the composition of your family. This includes your marriage license, and if you have any kids, their birth certificates. (If you’re in a common-law marriage or partnership, go to the courthouse and have a justice-of-the-peace wedding; it’s generally easier to register a US wedding in the EU than it is to get married in the EU.) You’ll need to get these documents certified via another document called an apostille, which is like the international-law version of a notarization. In most places, you can do this by mail or in person through the relevant state’s Secretary of State. (So, if you were married in Ohio but now live in New York, your marriage license needs an apostille from the Ohio Secretary of State. If you had a daughter in New Mexico, moved to California, and then had a son there, her birth certificate needs an apostille from New Mexico and his needs one from California.) You may also need to get these documents translated into the national language of the country you want to move to; check with the embassy to be sure. For some weird reason, there is usually a time limit on how old the apostille can be — six months is typical — so keep this in mind as you collect the plot coupons for your application.

(Applications for citizenship typically also require your birth certificate, apostilled and translated. Additional paperwork requirements will vary by country, as will any required waiting period. If you’ve been married to and lived with a Dutch citizen for at least three years, are fluent in Dutch, and meet a few other qualifications, you can apply directly for Dutch citizenship. In France, it’s five years of marriage, or four if your spouse is registered as a French national living abroad. However, the spouse of a Belgian has to obtain residency first, wait five years, and then apply for citizenship; the spouse of a German has to wait three. This is why we’re focusing on residency.)

Once you have all the plot coupons together, go to the embassy, get your marriage registered with the country, and apply for your visa. Like I said before, everywhere except Austria you can also do this at the local administration of whatever municipality your spouse is registered in if you’re already in-country on a tourist visa. However, if you go that route, it’s a good idea to report your presence and file your residency application as soon as possible after you arrive. Legally, they can’t kick you out if your tourist visa (or the visa the embassy issued you) expires while you’re waiting on the authorities to issue your “family member of an EU national”-category residence card, but if you have to travel outside of Schengen, returning on an expired visa may be awkward. Best to give the gears of bureaucracy as much time as you can. Your residence card, once it arrives, will be good for five years, and you don’t need a work permit to get a job. When you go to renew it, you can apply for permanent residency.

Depending on what country you’re going to, or in some cases, what part of a country, you may also be required to take an “integration course.” These are part civics class, part country-specific basic life skills class (e.g., when and how to deal with various administrative offices, how to interview for a job, national customs), and mostly language class. France requires this for all new immigrants; in Belgium, the Flemish region does (and they’ll fine you up to €500 if you don’t enroll), but the Brussels region and Wallonia don’t.

I want to work for an EU company, or I want the multinational company I work for to transfer me to an EU office.

Short answer: There are two ways to do this. One is marginally less hassle over time if you already have at least a bachelor’s degree (or, in some countries, five years’ professional experience in the field you’ll work in), but both routes are about the same amount of effort up front. You will need both a work permit, which is issued by some relevant employment ministry in the country you’re going to, and a Schengen type D visa, which is issued by the immigration ministry and for which a work permit is a prerequisite. These are the plot coupons that unlock your residence permit. After five years of continuous legal residency (you’re allowed to travel, but you have to keep your paperwork current), you’ll be eligible for permanent residency.

Long answer: Whether you apply for a European blue card (“Europe’s answer to the US Green Card”) or as an ordinary worker, the company you work for has to sponsor you by obtaining a work permit for you. In most cases, you’ll have to start this process from your home country. (I was on a family reunification visa from 2009 to 2011; when I switched to a work visa in 2012, I had to go back to the US and apply from there.)

Depending on which country you’ll be hired in, the permit (and your residence card) will have to be renewed every one or two years. After five years, you can apply for permanent residency, which frees you up from the work permit requirement. The advantage of the blue card is that you only have to maintain a valid work permit for two years, after which your residency gets extended another three years and your blue card itself counts as your work permit. I’ve done both, and if I’d known I could have avoided three years of annual paper-chase, I would have gone the blue card route to begin with. But if a blue card isn’t an option for you, the regular-employment route isn’t terrible. It’s just more frequent interaction with bureaucracy.

The blue card is for “highly skilled workers,” which the EU defines as having academic qualifications or professional experience, being paid at least 1.5 times the average national salary in the country where you apply, and having any necessary professional qualifications. Countries can also have a list of professions in high demand, for which the required average-national-salary multiplier can be as low as 1.2. IT is probably the most common field on those lists, but health care, the natural sciences, engineering, and even teaching and law are common among those countries that exercise this option.

So, here’s how this works. First, get yourself hired. Getting hired without a work permit may sound counterintuitive, but your work contract will be a required document in any initial work permit application. (Renewing your work permit typically doesn’t require another copy of your contract, but does often require copies of all your pay stubs from the previous year, so if you don’t get those online, don’t throw them away!) Contracts in the EU aren’t like offer letters in the US; they’re formal, extremely detailed, and several pages long. When you’re hired on the basis of a work permit, the contract will (or at least should) state that it enters into force from the date the permit is issued. In other words, the sooner the permit’s issued, the sooner you can start.

Apart from your contract, the other plot coupons you’ll need to apply for a work permit vary from country to country. Most countries require a medical examination confirming that you don’t have any quarantinable diseases (think tuberculosis, not HIV). They’ll usually provide a form for this. The catch is, either the exam has to be performed by a doctor in the country you’re going to or one in your country approved by the embassy — and those can be hard to find; Belgium, for example, has a list of seven for the entire United States — or you can get an unapproved doctor to do the exam, get the form notarized, and then get it apostilled. This may mean having to call around. The second time I had to apply for a work visa (long story, I’ll explain in a minute), I wasn’t near one of the approved doctors, and none of the nearby clinics that anyone I knew was familiar with were willing to do the exam. (I think they were concerned about legal liability in case the form was rejected. Protip one: minor emergency clinics are useless on this front, so find a real doctor.) Eventually I found a gerontologist at a local hospital who was willing to do it. Protip two: Mobile notaries are really helpful in this situation. They can meet you in the waiting room and witness the signing of the form when the exam is done.

When you have all your work permit plot coupons together, take them to the embassy and file that application. Then it’s time for round two: filing for your type D visa. This is a lot like the process described above; you’ll need your visa application form, your passport, and your work permit once it arrives. However, there will generally be other paperwork requirements as well. The most common is a nationwide background check on yourself, which in EU countries is a completely ordinary thing that you can get at any police station or city hall. Since the US doesn’t have federal police, the closest equivalent is an FBI background check, and that’s what the embassy will expect. There are two ways to do this. If you can wait three to four months, you can print out this form, take your own fingerprints (your local police station may be willing to do this for you if you don’t know how), and mail them to the FBI along with this form and an $18 money order or cashier’s check (they also take credit cards online). If you’re in a hurry, you can go to what the FBI calls a “channeler,” but you’ll pay through the nose for it. Channelers are private companies in the background-check business, and handle fingerprinting for everything from concealed-carry permits to bus driver applications. They’re not cheap, but they will turn it around quickly.

Once you’ve arrived on your new visa, you still have to go get your residence card — the right to work and the right to reside are not the same thing. Do this as soon as you can, especially if your country’s immigration ministry has a reputation for taking its time. The clock on your work permit starts ticking as soon as it’s issued, and every day that your visa application is processing is another day of work permit validity gone. When I filed for my work visa in 2012, the process took so long that when I got back to Belgium, I only had about five months left on my work permit. It also took so long for them to issue my residence card that when I went to get my work permit renewed, they couldn’t do it because I didn’t have a residence card yet. I had to go back to the US and start the whole work visa process over again.

You see why I say the less paperwork, the better.

I don’t have a job offer from an EU company, but my non-EU spouse does.

Great, then family reunification is for you. Most countries will let you apply as soon as your spouse has their residence card, but about a third — in particular, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia (with some exceptions), France (also with some exceptions), Greece, Ireland, Lithuania (again, with some exceptions), Luxembourg, Malta, and Poland (exceptions here too) — will make you wait anywhere from 15 months to 3 years before you can join them. Unlike family reunification with an EU citizen, usually you cannot apply from within the country and must instead apply for a type D visa at an embassy in your home country. (There are exceptions; I got my family reunification permit in 2009 while I was already in Belgium, but it was a highly irregular situation and we had to get lawyers involved.)

In most countries, the process is very much like the process for migrating for work, just replacing the work permit with your partner’s residence card — the passport, the medical check, the FBI background check, your apostilled marriage license if you’re married, and your dependents’ apostilled birth certificates if you have any, plus whatever other paperwork the country requires. For Americans, the Netherlands are an exception to this rule — your partner already in the Netherlands can apply for a residence permit for you, or you can come to the Netherlands and apply yourself, no mucking about with the embassy required.

Whether you can work or not depends on the kind of residence permit your spouse has. If your spouse is on a residence permit that requires them to have a work permit to hold a job, you’ll need one too, from whatever company you go to work for. Once your spouse is a permanent resident and no longer needs a permit to work, you won’t need one either, but remember, this takes five years. What if your spouse is on a blue card and no longer needs a work permit from their employer, but doesn’t have permanent residency yet? This is a gray area, and will be country-dependent, but the way the regulations are phrased, your status depends on your sponsor’s status. Technically speaking, a blue card in its third to fifth year of validity is a work permit, but that permit is still required until your sponsor has permanent residency. So, a conservative interpretation would require you to get a work permit from your employer if you want to hold a job.

I don’t want to work for someone else, I want to freelance or start a company in the EU.

These routes exist, but there’s a lot more variation between countries with respect to how difficult (or possible) they are to pursue. By all accounts, it is extremely easy to get a self-employment visa for Germany, and US citizens can apply while they’re in Germany on a tourist visa. Lithuania restricts self-employment to just a few careers (journalism, sports, the performing arts, religious work). Belgium requires a “professional card” for freelancers who would otherwise require a work permit, but it’s not especially clear how this works for people in an unregulated profession (e.g., programming). In the Netherlands and Portugal, you have to prove that you have an existing freelance contract that will be in force while you’re there. Some countries will require you to submit a business plan and set up a local company in order to freelance. Slovenia and Cyprus won’t let you enter for self-employment purposes at all.

If your host country requires you to set up a local company, you will have to fund it with some minimum amount of capital, known as “share capital.” Again, this varies wildly from country to country, from €1165 in Malta to  €2500 in Estonia to €18,550 in Belgium. Be prepared to learn a lot about your host country’s social security program, because in nearly all cases, you’ll be paying into it. (If your end goal is citizenship, this is practically a given.) Better yet, get an accountant, preferably one who can handle both US taxes and your home country’s tax and social security system.

(A quick word about taxation: it’s complicated. Tax relationships between the US and other countries are determined via treaty. The US could, in theory, enter into a multilateral treaty with the EU to harmonize taxation, but they haven’t yet, so you’ll have to look up the bilateral treaty between the US and your host country to find out what your tax obligations are. One constant is that if you perform work on US soil while residing in another country — say, if you travel to the US for a meeting — the IRS will collect its pound of flesh on any income earned while you’re stateside. Beyond that, seriously, get an accountant.)

I want to get a degree at an EU university and then figure out what to do with myself.

First you’ll have to get admitted, which is between you and the university you pick. Once you’ve been accepted, the process for obtaining a student visa is roughly the same as the process for a work visa, with your acceptance letter in place of the work permit. A student visa is also a type D visa.

You’ll also have to demonstrate that you can cover your tuition and living expenses. It’s possible to be a student with a job, but it won’t be a full-time one. Your host country can’t limit you to any less than ten hours a week, but you can’t necessarily count on more, either.

If you’re pursuing a graduate degree, you have more options. As you might expect, there are more funded research positions in the sciences than in the humanities, but the latter do exist. If you’re in a funded position, your salary will cover your tuition and fees, as well as a modest but comfortable lifestyle. During my first two years in Belgium, Len supported us (and our cat) on his researcher salary, and although we had to budget and live within our means, it was manageable.

As far as I’m aware, time spent in an EU country as a student counts toward permanent residency. This is true for EU citizens studying in another EU country, and I think it’s also true for third-country nationals, but check your host country’s laws to be sure. Note that if you are not a permanent resident by the time you graduate (and you probably won’t be), you will still need a work permit to hold a job until you are one. Whether you can convert your temporary residency from “student” to “worker” without leaving the country is, as usual, country-dependent.

I am disabled and cannot work or study but want to emigrate anyway.

… Your life is going to be more complicated, and I don’t have any good news for you.

Operating a welfare state successfully isn’t cheap. Although many benefits of the social safety net are often equally available to citizens and non-citizens — for example, the up-front cost of visiting a general practitioner in Belgium is fixed, somewhere around €25 — one way that countries control the cost of the safety net is by restricting “access to public funds” to people who have paid into the social security system already. In general, you’ll have to demonstrate that you have some means of financially supporting yourself (or being financially supported by someone else — i.e., that you’re their dependent) in order to be admitted for more than three months.

Look, I told you it wasn’t good news.

On the other hand, if you’re a family member of an EU national and you’re disabled, they won’t hold that against you. Or at least they’re not supposed to; I’m not sure how well that works out EU-wide in practice, but anecdotally I hear Luxembourg is good about it. So there’s that.

One more option: if you require medical treatment that will last longer than three months, it is also possible to get a type D visa for medical reasons. You’ll have to demonstrate that you’ve made the arrangements in advance, can afford it, and will have financial support while you’re here, but if you can manage that, it’s a type D visa like any other. To stay on past the end of your treatment, you’ll have to transfer to another category (worker, student, &c), though this may be difficult to arrange while you’re busy with health care matters. You are playing on hard mode. Good luck.

Is there a way to relocate to Europe without doing all this paperwork?

Kind of, if you’re willing to be nomadic or maintain two residences and split your time between them.

The “90 days out of any 180” rule in the Schengen Agreement doesn’t apply to every country in the European Union. It doesn’t even apply to every country in the eurozone. Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Cyprus, and Ireland aren’t part of Schengen, and Ireland is also on the euro. (Since Ireland’s absence from Schengen has to do with the Common Travel Area it maintains with the UK, this could change as Brexit progresses, but nothing’s happened yet.) Strictly speaking, it is possible to bounce between Schengen and non-Schengen countries every three months pretty much indefinitely, or as long as you’re willing to put up with the hassle of relocating that often. Other non-Schengen options that aren’t part of the EU include Serbia, Albania, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro. (Belarus and Ukraine don’t do visa-free travel for Americans.)

I’ve done this, and it kind of sucked. Three months isn’t a lot of time to get used to a place, but if you’re the kind of person who thrives on change or doesn’t like to put down roots, it is doable. However, it has its limitations. You won’t be able to work legally for a local employer, some countries won’t let you get a bank account, and none of the time you spend in a country will count toward permanent residency — those five years have to be contiguous. If your end goal is to relocate permanently, this is not a great option. You will of course continue to be a US citizen and pay US taxes.


That’s everything people have asked me about so far, and everything I wish I’d known about EU immigration before I took the plunge. I’ll try to answer questions in the comments, if I’m competent to answer them. Best of fortune on your journey!

About Meredith L. Patterson
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12 Responses to So You Want to Move to the European Union

  1. brad says:

    May I just chime in on one point: learning the language. That’s easily said, but learning a new language is huge effort. If at all possible, please start at least a year before you emigrate. Be able to communicate at a basic level before you arrive. Work on your accent, so you are comprehensible to native speakers. Listen to radio, or watch television, to get used to hearing the language spoken at native speed.

    This is really important! If you arrive unable to communicate in the local language, you will immediately get in the habit of using English. This habit, once formed, is very difficult to break.

    There are too many Americans who only have other Americans as friends. Outside of their sheltered circle, they expect the locals to speak English to them. Even in countries where you can get away with this, it’s still unspeakably rude to expect the locals to adapt to _your_ needs, when you’re the immigrant in _their_ country. The “ugly American” in full glory.

    If you aren’t going to integrate in the local culture, please don’t come.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Necro’ing this comment, but not to be combative: I actually took two years of French in high school, and another two in college, to satisfy language requirements. So I felt totally comfortable going to a bilingual French/Dutch country — right up until I said “excusez-moi” to somebody in the supermarket and got the *worst* death glare. Not gonna lie, language faculty was one of the big motivations for moving to an officially bilingual region after my husband died.


  2. dee nile says:

    it’s still unspeakably rude to expect the locals to adapt to _your_ needs, when you’re the immigrant in _their_ country.

    Of course, this is not true in the USA.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sami Liedes says:

    The perceived rudeness of not learning the local language is not universal. As a Finn, I think I can safely say that very few people in Finland would be offended, let alone unspeakably, by you not learning Finnish. In fact, the foreigners I know who try to learn Finnish complain that it’s hard for them to get practical experience because almost all natives will switch to English when they think it will be easier for everyone that way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had a hell of a time picking up any Flemish during the time I lived in Leuven. Until I figured out the local accent, people would respond in English. The fact that Leuven is a university town probably contributed, but in general I’ve found Dutch and Flemish speakers to have an excellent command of English. Now I speak it with a Leuvenaar accent, and speakers of other regional dialects (especially Amsterdammers) make fun of it. Be careful what you wish for, I guess?

      Local politics sometimes comes into play, as well. At the Brussels hackerspace, the default language is English, because the francophone members would rather speak English than Flemish, and the Flemish speakers would rather speak English than French.


  4. James Kerwin says:

    Yanks dont belong in Europe. The natives dont want you here.


    • Ken says:

      I’m from Texas and we felt the same way about Yankees too but many have settled here since we had one of the best economies among the states and most have adapted to our culture. Give’em a chance.


  5. prankeapple says:

    Why not move to Mexico, South America or Africa? They have lots of welcoming liberals and plenty of diversity.


    • Ken says:

      I hear Cuba has 110% literacy and excellent free health care. Aren’t those two things liberals tell us we do terribly here because of non-liberal policies?


  6. The devil is in the detail, thanks for your well researched article.
    Germany also requires you to renounce your non-German citizenship, unless you are an EU-Citizen.
    People over 60 do not have to prove knowledge of German to apply for German citizenship.
    I had to go to the citizenship office (Einbürgerungsamt) to get the form to apply. The example forms online only give an idea of which questions will be asked.
    I found the hardest question was compiling a list of everywhere, I had lived since birth. My diaries covered most holes.Luckily, collecting information for my pension application, had meant that I knew where I had gone to school and when.

    Pensioners are another group, who could be interested in relocating to Europe. They will probably have a different set of hoops to jump through.


  7. Diego B says:

    I’m already an EU citizen, but I still found this post very informative. Not so much because of the details of international moving to the EU *specifically*, but because it gives me an idea of the sheer hassle involved in *any* international migration. I find it unfortunate that governments find it necessary to make foreigners jump through so many nonsensical hoops before they allow them to immigrate. It unnecessarily stymies opportunities for people who have an open mind and look beyond their own borders. I know that it will take a very good job offer indeed (or political disaster at home) for me to put up with that kind of nonsense.

    In completely unrelated news, I think you should just laugh back at those silly Amsterdammers who mock your Belgian accent. They’re the ones with the heavy, ugly, guttural accent 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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