There is the short story and there is the long story.
The short story is a list of requirements you need to fulfil, and the long story is about the personal process of actually fulfilling them. In any case, I know I’ll have to abbreviate the long story, because it took the best part of a year and is not the sort of uplifting tale that people enjoy reading. It is however, true, and it has a happy ending.
First, some definitions: when I say Australian I mean an Australian citizen travelling on an Australian passport. If your nationality is Australian but you have another passport, this doesn’t apply to you. For some other Non-EU citizens such as US citizens, Canadians & Kiwis the rules are similar as for Australians – but you must check, because the devil is in the detail, and things can change, based on whatever trade agreement might be on the table that week. However, generally speaking, the rules are the same for all members of the “white list”. Then there is a list of “Annex ii countries” otherwise known as the “the black list” whose citizens are apparently considered less desirable friends of the EU and the conditions for them are different, I.E; even more difficult. In case you’re wondering there is no list known as the coffee-coloured list, red list, or even green list, so if you’re from Mars I cannot advise you and nor can wikipedia.
Second: A disclaimer: I will be reflecting on my experiences with the consular, foreign affairs and immigration departments of three countries. At the time, I was learning about the process and it was very difficult and frustrating. I understand now, with hindsight that all the officials involved were just doing their job, and it’s a complicated one where issues of “national security” come before any kind of human issues. Despite my belief that anyone should be allowed to live anywhere they like, I also understand that it isn’t functional. I am grateful to Portugal for permitting me to live here and I respect their rules. Please give me another visa when I need one. Thankyou.
The Short Story.
1. Australian citizens are not permitted to live permanently or work in Europe without applying for a visa. Australians are only permitted 90 days visa free in the entire Schengen area (most of western Europe except U.K.).
The application process for stays of more than 90 days varies slightly for each of the Schengen countries and there are variety of visas that you can apply for with varying requirements for documentation.
The first thing you should do is contact the department of immigration/
embassy/consulate/foreign affairs of your destination and have a look at their publications about the visas available. In Portugal it is the Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras at www.sef.pt. You can also use the internet to read the entire Schengen Agreement legislation, if that’s the kind of over-producing you’re into.
2. Schengen Area countries are happy to have Australians hang around for more than 90 days if you have
• a satisfactory reason why you want to be there
• proof that you have enough money to support yourself
• good health and/or have health/travel insurance
• somewhere to live or other registration with the police
• proof that you don’t have a criminal record anywhere
• an employer, and a job that will support your visa application
• engaged in a course of study at a university or other institution
• work in or are researching a highly specialised field (i.e. for scientists or academics)
• family resident in the country who can support you on a family reunion scheme
There’s some info here:
Now, let’s workshop your situation. Let’s say you don’t want to study or work, you don’t work in a specialist field, and you don’t have family connections in Europe. So we’ll focus on the first list of requirements:
• a satisfactory reason why you want to be there
You want to travel and see more of the country. Just bought a house and want to live in it? Always wanted to speak a foreign language. Looking for a husband. Whatever, just so long as you have a plan and it doesn’t involve bombs. Nor do you want to be a burden to the health system, social security or take money out of the country. Supply a harmless little reason for wanting to stay.
• proof that you have enough money to support yourself
The value of “means of subsistence” varies according to the minimum wage, which differs dramatically across the European/Schengen region. In Portugal as of 2009, it is €450/month. You need to show you have more than this to live on, because you are going to need it. Banks statements, share statements, income statements, your credit card limit, whatever you’ve got. Show them the paper and make it convincing. If you’re applying for a Portuguese “Authorisation for Residence” you’ll need to show a year’s worth of money – but then to actually get residency with your authorisation you need another year’s worth – basically I showed them everything I had.
• good health and/or have health/travel insurance
If you’re away from home you should have travel insurance anyway. But they might require of you a doctor’s certificate, or as was in my case, a Gesundheitszeugnis, a legendary certificate that says you’re not a plague carrier. Once you are in Portugal you will be covered by their health system, but if you can afford private cover, get it.
• somewhere to live or registration with the police
In Germany I needed to have a certificate from the police to show I had registered my address with them. For that I needed a signed rental agreement for where I was living. For Portugal I showed a copy of the contract for the house purchase. Another rental agreement would have been the alternative.
• proof that you don’t have a criminal record anywhere
You can request a copy of your criminal record with your local (or state) police at home. The embassy will want a record from the last place you were a resident, or a resident of the last 5 years. I needed one from both Germany and Australia. I mailed the police a form downloaded from the internet along with a fee. They sent me the police record in the mail in a few months. Quite a lot of bother for something that says nothing.
Maybe that sounds all well and good to you. There is one final ‘requirement’ that won’t be listed anywhere but will be critical to convincing the relevant authorities that you do fit their eligible criteria and are a nice person and you mean them no harm. Is it just tenacity they are looking for? I don’t know. All I can tell you is what happened to me.
The Long Story
The Immigration System is an inherently xenophobic one.
In 1999 I returned home to Australia after a couple of years of travelling to find it had turned into a redneck wonderland. People I had previously thought of as intelligent and liberal-minded were mouthing political dogma like neo-nazis. An insidious anti-immigration mood had been introduced by the Howard government who propagated the idea that immigrants, (in particular the most desperate kind, “illegal immigrants”; people who travelled first and delivered paperwork later, mostly economic refugees but also including trafficked people and political refugees) were parasites and terrorists and should preferably be drowned at sea rather than be allowed to set foot on Australian beaches.
“Queue Jumpers” as they were called, were locked up in camps where they invariably went a bit crazy. Many Australians were horrified and ashamed, because as the entire world is aware, 97% of “Australians” are immigrants, at the least 8th generation immigrants. The issue raged on for years, time enough for people and the media to become polarised, and to take sides on the issue against the government. Hundreds of people would visit the detention centres on weekends to give their support person-to-person. The general public got to hear what life was like for these new arrivals, and I don’t think I was the only one who found themselves imagining what it would be like for a whole nation to think you were a criminal just because you were from somewhere else. Xenophobia. Racism, pure and simple.
It was with this frame of reference that I embarked upon the adventure of becoming an outsider myself. I left Australia without planning my final destination. To apply for residency in Portugal you have to be somewhere else other than in Portugal, preferably your country of origin. But in my mind going all the way back to Australia was not an option. Anyway I have a thing for taking the most difficult route possible. I chose to apply from Berlin.
The Portuguese embassy in Berlin would accept my application if I could prove I was a resident there. This started the first phase of my residency process, and introduced me to what a time-consuming and humiliating ordeal it would be. The Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) in Berlin was just out of reach of public transport, which they must have planned on purpose because the rest of the world is accessible by Berlin’s über public transport system. So it took a few hours to get there and I learnt from trial and error that if you weren’t there by 8am you could forget it. Any later and you would not get a place in the queue that would guarantee being attended to that day.
I also learnt from trial and error that “being attended to” didn’t have much meaning anyway. The first time that I got to the desk I was told I had to make an appointment, which I had been told on the phone wasn’t necessary. To make an appointment I had to come back the next day because the computers weren’t working and I couldn’t make an appointment over the phone. Actually I’m making this sound much simpler than it was, because I don’t speak German and NO ONE AT THE FOREIGN AFFAIRS DEPARTMENT SPEAKS ANY OTHER LANGUAGE EXCEPT GERMAN.
Is wasn’t so much that no one spoke English that surprised me, but no one spoke Turkish either. Turks make up the majority of immigrants to Germany and the majority of my queue companeiros whose style I was beginning to admire. I had observed some subtle but crafty tricks a few of them had going on. “Queue jumpers!” I felt like yelling, but of course no one would get the irony. I realised I would need my own secret weapon if I was to conquer the system.
But first, a bomb dropped. I was innocently searching the internet for the small print in the Schengen Agreement that would clear the path between me and a visa. I had discovered an anomaly: the legislation says that Australians are permitted 90 days visa free in a Schengen Country, which had I taken to mean 90 in each Schengen Country, and I had, in fact, discussed this on two separate occasions with passport control coming in and out of the UK. But I had just found a forum discussion to the contrary – 90 days in theentire Schengen Area – which didn’t make sense, because how could your average backpacker fit in 25 countries including France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands & Greece, in 3 months? I rang the Australian embassy, where my friendly fellow countryman informed me quite succinctly that I was in Germany ILLEGALLY, and, in fact I’d been illegal in Europe for the last 6 months and I was GOING TO BE DEPORTED. Panic spread from our apartment across Berlin, over the north sea by telephone to England and then over to Sweden where it gathered momentum before finally waking up family members in and around Sydney.
Two Berliner mates rang the Foreign Affairs Hotline, pretending not to be me or in any way associated with me, and were independently reassured that despite what that cranky Australian embassy prat had said, “We in Germany just don’t do that sort of thing anymore”.
Hello? What was that last part again?
“We in Germany just don’t do that sort of thing anymore”.
I had used the English word “deported” which my German-speaking friends translated directly into German, where it’s connotation refers to that unfortunate period in Germany’s modern history whose name shall not be spoken aloud. Deportation. Trains. Jews. Translation issues aside I was reassured that I would not be “politely asked would I mind voluntarily departing the country at my earliest convenience by whatever transportation method I deemed appropriate” as my German boyfriend interpreted the modern German terminology. Thank god. Thank Yahweh, I should say.
I then recruited a good German-speaking friend to escort me on my next trip to the Ausländerbehörde. She was a busy person and didn’t have the patience for queuing, plus she was my secret weapon, so somehow got up to the desk fairly early in the day. When Desk-Bitch-Eins gave various pre-prepared excuses as to why my requests for assistance should be denied, my friend simply argued with her so ferociously that she broke her will to live. So then we got moved onto Desk-Bitch-Zwei who confounded us with conflicting information only further riling up my busty buddy who was in no mood for recalcitrance. While absent-mindedly wandering the halls of the department contemplating our next move, we suddenly struck gold. We were standing by the office door of Mr Biergarten Doppleganger, whose title my voluptuous companion deciphered as the Regional Area Chief and before I knew what was happening my friend had burst through the door and was pushing her stupendous breasts in his face. My gutsy girlfriend explained my dilemma with such overwhelming intensity that poor Herr Doppleganger was forced to confess that we would be assisted on the second floor.
Now that we were on such intimate terms with the boss we could use his name as the master key to every door in the department. I found myself in a waiting room next to the only other suited applicant that I had seen so far. He was the ambassador of Nigeria.What are you doing here? I asked. “Oh We have to wait in line like everyone else”, His Honourable Ambassadorship replied, with such grace and humility that I felt like a street urchin. Get a load of that – not only is he an industry insider but also a high ranked official, and the Germans make him wait in the smelly line like everyone else. Crap to that.
Meanwhile my curvaceous chum returned from another whirlwind tour of the halls to find us deeply diverted on the subject of the Nigerian elections. Credit to the BBC World Service for keeping blonde flirts fully briefed on current affairs. Unfortunately my cleavaged comrade had been so successful in her pursuit of satisfaction that we had bumped His Highness of Nigeria (and thus my last hope of ever finding a suitable husband) and it was our turn for an interview.
The moment had come to prove my worthiness and I was at a loss for words. The most excellent thing about my feisty friend was that she wasn’t intimidated by the process, because she had nothing at stake. In my mind, getting this visa was critical to my whole grand plan, and even though I’m hard to subdue even at a funeral, I felt that being any more presumptuous than a field mouse would put everything at risk. But my friend didn’t have her future riding on this moment. She was confident and the people in charge respected that. Feared that.
Desk-Bitch-Drei asked me why I wanted to stay in Germany. We submitted my prepared answer that I wanted to stay so I could study… A language… A Portuguese language. But this did not tick her boxes. You can apply for a student visa, but you have to be studying German or some other respectable subject, not Portuguese. We went through the other possibilities. Did I want to work in Germany…? No, I knew already that this would require sponsorship and a big hassle. “Perhaps I wanted to stay so I could see more of Germany”, Helpful Desk-Person-Three asked. Yeeessss? Bingo! You see, Dear Reader, there are secret (and blaringly simple) answers that you won’t find on the internet or in the legislation. You might be allowed to stay just because you want to. It helps to have the right colour passport and the right answers ready.
So there it was, the visa in the bag. I was given an arbitrary 143 days and a couple of nice stamps in my passport. We went outside for a celebratory latte-macchiato. In the café sat a woman in a headscarf, accompanied by what were unmistakably, her lawyers. It struck me only then that even though it had taken many, many, many hours and a shitload of stress, my experience of the system was nothing compared to what other people must go through. I remembered the Arabs, Persians, Asians and Africans that the Australian government had locked up in camps. It had been educating to experience the system first hand, but I was sure as hell appreciating that stroke of luck of being born white and middle class.
I was thus prepared to engage the Portuguese authorities. I had my list of requirements printed out and I was off to discuss the details at the embassy. This time my secret weapon was my Professora Da Lingua Portuguesa, another feisty young spunk with a similar disregard for diplomatic dress codes.
She outlined my desire to be at one in the Portuguese countryside in her prettiest Paulista accent, but The Porco Da Embaixada, as he was about to become known, wanted to hear none of it. “AND WHAT IS SHE GOING TO LIVE ON?” he spat, in the most frighteningly discourteous way possible for a Portuguese person. “AIR?”
“AIR? AIR?” my teacher repeated, as we relived the horror on the pavement outside. And thus began my war with The Porco Da Embaixada. Clearly I was not going to be taken for a mature, respectably dressed, law abiding woman of independent means, but instead apparently I was a queue jumping, terrorist parasite. At least, that’s how it felt.
As an ex- TV commercials producer, I make a mean presentation. My application for residency looked like a pitch for Portugal Tourism’s advertising business. Photos, mood boards, colour spreadsheets, mission statement, graphic data, and high gloss colour reproductions of historical documents presented in a fully bound gold leaf album that sang the national anthem when you opened the cover, that’s how it was.
But it didn’t impress The Porco Da Embaixada.
“ONDE ESTA O GESUNDHEITSZEUGNIS?” He demanded. “The…?” said the field mouse.
I had to get the Professora to get them on the phone, twice, because she had no idea if this word was German, Portuguese or Swahili. It turned out to mean an official health certificate. I asked around my friends. My friends asked their doctors. I went to medical clinics. I looked on the internet. My Berlin mates rang around the immigration and the health departments trying to discover what it was and how to get one. No one knew. Finally we found an elderly neighbour who used to work for the minister of health. There used to be a form, she said, but no one used it any more. So we reported this back to The Porco. Not negotiable, he said. No Gesundheitszeugnis, no visa. No visa, no Portugal.
The Professora raged around her living room (we were having our daily two hour Portuguese personal-problem-solving-workshop) before calling them back, for the third time. She wanted to know why especially a Gesundheitszeugnis and not some other form that certified that I was safe cargo? What diseases were they worried about? Which ones did I have to be tested for? “ALL OF THEM” The Porco replied. “ALL OF THEM”.
This did not placate the Professora, not one little bit. “WHAT IF YOU HAD AIDS?” THEY CAN’T STOP YOU GOING TO PORTUGAL BECAUSE YOU HAVE AIDS! THAT’S DISCRIMINATION!” I share her passion for human rights, but I was perfectly quiet. Because, with this ludicrous request for indemnity against every infectious organism on planet Earth, I realised that the gloves had come off. This wasn’t about genuine requirements and box ticking: this was about making it as difficult for me as possible. It had just become personal.
It was around about this low point that I received an email from my Swedish brother-in-law. He told me how he had felt while applying for residency in Australia. ‘Like a low life criminal’ he explained. The hyperbole of this was understood between us. He’s not, of course, a criminal, nor even a criminal type, and I would describe the reverence that Australia has for Sweden to be like Portugal has for Our Lady.
The aim of the immigration process is to intimidate you into giving up. I don’t know why. But if the Australians are making it hard for Swedes, then it’s a global conspiracy. It’s not written in the Common Consular Instructions, but their aim is to keep you out.
With this new intelligence I moved things forward. I eventually I found a few antique template Gesundheitszeugnis-es in the bowels of the internet, and my flatmates and I selected the most thoroughly officiously German looking one. As it happens, my Berliner boyfriend was not just a follower of modern German linguistic trends but also a licenced medical physician. So he looked over my Gesundheitszeugnis the next morning over breakfast. “Do you have Tuberculosis?” he asked, without even looking up. “Um…No, I don’t think so,” said the field mouse. He crossed the box. “Polio?” . “No, we all get immunised against polio, don’t we?”. “Good answer” Herr Doktor replied. He crossed the box. And then he crossed another box without asking anything. “What’s that? That box, that I don’t have?”. “That’s for Plague. You don’t have Plague”. “Are you sure?” the field mouse said, getting all the more timid with every box crossing. The Doktor put his pen down gently on the breakfast table. “If you’ve got it, then I’ve got it. And I don’t have Plague.” That was reassuring, no plague in the house. It was some scary Gesundheitszeugnis though. And thus, with a stamp and a squiggle, it was done. I was no Typhoid Mary, nor even a typhoid mousey.
The next day I put on my best outfit and rode my bicycle into town feeling like Audrey Hepburn playing a nun. Sweet, saintly and irrefutable (and free of all infectious diseases). But you should never underestimate your opponent because while I had been gone The Porco Da Embaixada had been thinking up another reason not to accept my application. This time, he said, everything had to be translated – from German to English, from English to German, then to be sure, everything into Portuguese as well. He’s got to be kidding (again), I thought. You reckon between the diplomatic corps in Berlin and Lisbon, that no one is bilingual in either German or English? Just how exactly did they get a job in an embassy? Of course the field mouse said none of this, and went on her little way to spend vast reserves of renovation money on intergalactic translators. And photocopying.
And I had to buy two more folders. The application tripled in size.
Then my mother arrived in Berlin to come between me and my nervous breakdown, and we temporarily deported ourselves to Prague. I left the application-encyclopaedia with my friend with the biggest heart and the biggest boobs to “drop off” at the embassy on her way to work. Seizing the upper hand again The Porco sent my friend away with the instructions that all the certificates had to be notarised. By a notary. So instead of going to work, the kind lady with the twins delivered the package across town to some lawyer mate of The Porco’s. What a rort.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear about this until I got back a week later, because I would’ve gone ahead with the nervous breakdown, mother and Prague notwithstanding. The application was now so huge I couldn’t ride the bike with it anymore. I can faintly recall teetering on the edge of sanity the next time I rolled up at the embassy. The strain must have been visible, because The Porco took the application without argument, and I went home to take some more of those pills that stop people from flying planes into tall buildings.
My visa was processed in record time and I left Berlin on the day that my German residency expired. When I went to collect my passport from The Porco, he was, just as my brother-in-law predicted, my new best friend. He acted like it had all been a silly game and was overflowing with congratulations and well wishes for my life ahead in Portugal.
Incredibly, I was actually still looking forward to it myself.