Justin Zehmke, who recently moved to Tallinn from Cape Town, South Africa, writes about his rollercoaster experience of settling in Estonia – and has some hard-learned advice for the Estonian government and businesses.
In early December 2015, while rather casually considering applying for the Estonian e-residency, I came across a job ad that seemed perfect for me. The problem was, as a South African, I held out absolutely zero hope that I’d even receive a response to my CV submission, let alone make it through a lengthy interview process.
Four months later I stepped off the plane at the Lennart Meri International Airport with my family, ready to start a new life in Estonia, still somewhat awed and taken aback by how things had worked out. We’d packed up our entire lives in South Africa, sold our cars and all our physical belongings. We were armed with six suitcases containing the basics needed to start a new life, and we still had huge doubts and uncertainties hanging over our heads.
My wife and daughter each had a 10-day tourist visa. Mine ran for 90 days, but I had no work permit or even a signed contract from my new employer. This could all still go horribly wrong, leaving us destitute and on our way back to South Africa with no money, no jobs and nowhere to live.
We knew the 10-day visas were a problem, but we’d been told in no uncertain terms in South Africa that if I so much as mentioned that I was going to Europe for work, my passport would be blacklisted and I would not travel to anywhere in the EU for at least ten years. As an African, telling a European embassy you’re travelling to go and work if you don’t have a signed contract, a work permit and every single piece of documentation needed is about as smart as showing up at the airport with sticks of dynamite strapped around your waist. Yet I could only apply for the Estonian residence permit once I had started work in Estonia. This was to be the first of many catch-22s.
We had ten days to legally settle in Estonia. I could almost hear the ominous ticking of a clock in my head.
Finding a home
In order for me to even be allowed to apply for a residence permit, I had to secure a permanent place to stay. This seemed completely insane to me. I would be expected to sign a year’s lease, pay the equivalent of three months’ rent in advance with absolutely no guarantee that I would be granted a residence permit.
Yet I was calm about this at the time; I was in the hands of professionals at my new employer and we’d been looking at Estonia’s two big real estate portals for weeks and had narrowed it down to about five places that we liked. Oh how naive we were. It turns out that about 90% of the properties on these portals, kv.ee and city24.ee, are completely fictitious. Yes, they probably were for rent at some point in the past, but they definitely aren’t any more.
I phoned about 20 agents and got the same set of stories every single time. The property I was enquiring about had just been rented out, literally five minutes ago, and unfortunately, they have nothing else available. Eventually, we struck it lucky, or at least so I thought at the time. We found a decent two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a three story house in an acceptable part of Tallinn. How that turned bad is likely a story best saved for another time.
“Oh how naive we were. It turns out that about 90% of the properties on these portals, kv.ee and city24.ee, are completely fictitious.”
If I could change one thing here, it would be the Estonian government’s insistence on the applicant having a signed rental contract before their application can be considered.
Being allowed the courtesy of not committing a deposit, one month’s rent and the agency fee in the middle of what is already a very expensive move and before one has started earning a salary, is onerous in the extreme. I would have preferred to stay in a hotel or rent an apartment over a short term until I know I would be allowed to stay for at least two years. As things stand, I had to take another major financial risk on the gamble that my application would be approved.
Back in March, however, we were about to embark on our immigration office ordeal.
The immigration office
I was feeling rather confident at this point and there’s nothing quite like false confidence to put a man right in his place. My employers had submitted the residence permit application many times before, they knew exactly what was needed and we’d filled in all the forms correctly a day in advance.
The first faeco-ventilatory collision occurred when the immigration officer saw my wife and daughter’s visas. There was no way they were even accepting their applications for residence permits. Mine was processed rather painlessly, but we had to come back the next day and apply for extensions to the holiday visas or they were going to need the leave the country in three days’ time.
“The first faeco-ventilatory collision occurred when the immigration officer saw my wife and daughter’s visas.”
We had all applied together in South Africa, as a family, but the Swedish embassy where we applied decided I would get 90 days and wife and child only ten. Why they made this decision is beyond me even today.
So we had to go back the next day, this time with a lawyer in tow, and start begging. After about four hours, many written explanations and getting my daughter to dial up the cuteness to 11, the application for extension was accepted, but we were also told the following: our marriage was meaningless and that woman I have the child with would have to find work herself or we’d have to get married in Estonia. Option two seemed quicker at that point so we asked what we would need to do to arrange a wedding in Estonia.
This is where it gets fun. We would need a letter from the South African government proving that we were NOT married. This still makes my head hurt. The person insisting that we were not married was insisting we prove this fact, which they insisted was a fact.
“This still makes my head hurt. The person insisting that we were not married was insisting we prove this fact, which they insisted was a fact.”
Before we moved to Estonia I had made sure to ask whether our co-habitation agreement would be accepted by the immigration office. We had been told very clearly and unequivocally that it would. Yet now that we were here and had no option to get married, it was being declined. The strangest part is that Estonia passed a similar law that went into effect in January 2016, legalising civil partnerships and affording those who enter such partnerships legal rights.
So technically these immigration officers were acting against their own country’s laws when they declined to accept a document that is legally binding in most of the civilised world. In South Africa, a co-habitation agreement gives both parties and children the same rights as a traditional marriage. The declaration is made under oath and is legally binding. The Estonian government’s complete disregard for its own laws and the laws of another sovereign country is very strange in this regard.
We decided on the spot that this was a battle for another day. The woman I have the child with is highly qualified and we thought finding employment would be easy, and at worst we’d fly to Denmark for one of their quickie Vegas style weddings. As it stood, she submitted her own application for a residence permit about two weeks later, having found a job with one of Estonia’s many great tech start-ups.
The next bit of fun came when they would not accept my daughter’s birth certificate. It is a signed, government-issued document with shiny bits and holographic paper etc. It is as official as it gets. The immigration officer told me with a straight face: “We don’t trust African documents.”
“The immigration officer told me with a straight face: “We don’t trust African documents.”
I would have to get the certificate legalised by the South African government, the same people who issued it. So essentially this means another piece of paper with a signature claiming that the signature on the other piece of paper is a legal one, and a stamp claiming that the existing stamp is a legal one. Done in the same exact place that did the initial ones, by the same people.
This ended up costing me another €200. I am still expecting them to ask me to have the legalisation signature and stamp legalised and then have those legalised once more in an endless loop of futile bureaucracy. If you didn’t trust the first signature, why would you trust a second one that says the first one is OK?
“I am still expecting them to ask me to have the legalisation signature and stamp legalised and then have those legalised once more in an endless loop of futile bureaucracy.”
I sarcastically asked whether we needed to do the same with our passports, as they were also African documents, but received no answer. It seems not all government documents are created equal. Never mind the fact that I could buy a fake passport in South Africa for about €50 while the birth certificate is almost impossible to acquire illegally. The SA passport is jokingly referred to as the green mamba by South Africans, as it poisons your travel plans. (Please don’t deport me, I didn’t buy my passport.)
I need to interject here that I had by that point dealt with about seven different people at the immigration office and the experience had varied hugely. At least four of the people I dealt with were friendly, helpful and understanding. They clearly see it as their job to assist someone who is legally applying for residency. The other three experiences have not been so good. From outright maliciousness to hostility, I’ve seen it all. Surely an experience like this, based on set laws and procedures, should not be determined by whether the person on the other end is in a bad mood or takes a dislike to you?
“Surely an experience like this, based on set laws and procedures, should not be determined by whether the person on the other end is in a bad mood or takes a dislike to you?”
But back to business. Once I received my residence permit and the ID card about five weeks later, I went back to complete my daughter’s application, hoping the fact that I was now legally in Estonia for at least two years would ease the process. I’d also finally got her birth certificate back after having it apostilled under legally dubious circumstances in South Africa. By now, my daughter’s holiday visa’s validity had become an issue again. Had I not couriered her birth certificate to South Africa and back, I could have had it sent through the South African embassy in Helsinki. This would have taken 10 weeks and left us with absolutely no chance of submitting her application. As it stood, we had four weeks’ grace and were told this would not be enough.
I was asked to write a letter stating why the application was so late and asking that the process be sped up. I asked the police officer handling my case that day whether this would help. “No, they are too busy,” she said. So I was writing this letter why exactly?
I would need to come and apply for yet another extension to my daughter’s holiday visa at the end of May, which would once again incur a nasty expense. I wanted to know what they would do to a four-year-old with an expired visa whose parents were both legally resident in Estonia, but could get no answer. Deportation? Jail? Would we be arrested for people smuggling?
“I wanted to know what they would do to a four-year-old with an expired visa whose parents were both legally resident in Estonia, but could get no answer. Deportation? Jail? Would we be arrested for people smuggling?”
Having spoken to other expats I now realise that many, if not all, of our issues stem from the fact that we are South African, but surely there should be no discrimination? I was coming to Estonia as a highly skilled person to work in a field with a severe skill shortage. I was not an illegal immigrant sneaking across the border to come and steal an Estonian’s job.
“I was coming to Estonia as a highly skilled person to work in a field with a severe skill shortage. I was not an illegal immigrant sneaking across the border to come and steal an Estonian’s job.”
If it is easy and painless for Brazilians, Americans and Australians to come and work here, why do my human rights not extend me the same privilege?
Does “we do not trust African documents” actually mean “we do not trust Africans”?
The digital shortfall
For a country that prides itself on being digital, the information supplied on the immigration website is either inadequate or so well hidden as to be impossible to find unless you know specifically what you’re looking for. We suspected this even before we started the process as we would regularly see that info taking up two-three pages in Estonian is dealt with in a couple of paragraphs in the English version. Had I not had a company HR representative and a lawyer with me, I have absolutely zero doubt I would be writing this missive from South Africa. What is severely lacking is one convenient digital destination that gives you step-by-step instructions and clearly tells you what will be needed. The workinestonia.com site is a great start, but is so focussed on selling the country as a great destination that it often glosses over the realities of what will be required.
“For a country that prides itself on being digital, the information supplied on the immigration website is either inadequate or so well hidden as to be impossible to find unless you know specifically what you’re looking for.”
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. All along the entire process there were rays of light as we found some people, even at the immigration office, who were willing to go out of their way to help and find a solution. And had this process been done in South Africa, I would most likely still be sitting in the queue, waiting for my very first meeting with an officer, visa long since expired and my spirit broken by weeks spent queuing.
But back to the action. As this immigration saga was playing out, I had started work and needed to get paid. So I made my way to a bank, my employment contract, a rental agreement and my passport in hand. I’d heard about how easy it was to open a bank account in Estonia and was actually looking forward to this. South African banks are the most exploitative, money stealing, customer screwing institutions on earth. They are so notoriously bad that once a man let a whole bunch of snakes loose in a bank in protest for bad service and became a national hero of sorts. This would make a nice change. Bring on that first-world service. This is what I came to Europe for.
“We can open an account for you, but it will cost €250.”
I was shocked. That’s a lot of money simply to open an account. I was told I could wait until I received my ID card, then it would be free. But at that time it was possibly 60 days away and I came to Estonia to work, not as an independently wealthy tourist. I needed the account, so dropped further into debt, my once-respected South African credit card taking an almighty battering.
“We can open an account for you, but it will cost €250.”
Again, this seems like a brutal screwing of people who are desperate. The banks know the expat has no choice as he or she has bills to pay and their salary needs to be paid somewhere as well, so they charge an extortionate amount. I felt like I was back home. Nothing says “South Africa” quite like being screwed by a bank.
Kindergarten and childcare
My partner had always planned to find work in Estonia, but with a four-year-old we had hoped to wait a few months, settle, find a school of our choice in the right area and just generally be relaxed about the entire thing. The fact that Estonia offers free schooling and subsidised kindergartens was one of the main reason we came here. Now, due to the immigration issues we were suddenly faced with the prospect of having to find a kindergarten in two weeks.
A friendly neighbour took it upon herself to phone around and found a school a few blocks away with an opening and willing to take my daughter at a week’s notice. Fantastic. We went and met the head teacher and all seemed well. Our daughter could start first thing on the Monday morning. At 10:30 PM on the Sunday evening before my daughter was due to start at the kindergarten we received a curt text message, stating that the place was no longer available.
We desperately tried to phone the next day, but our calls were not answered. Eventually, a few days later, we received a mealy mouthed mail claiming a child who had previously left the school had decided to come back at short notice and that they no longer had space for our daughter.
“At 10:30 PM on the Sunday evening before my daughter was due to start at the kindergarten we received a curt text message, stating that the place was no longer available.”
We let it go. After all, if we forced the issue our four-year-old would be going to a place where she was not welcome.
We found another school with a place available and were invited to go and meet the teachers. I made sure that my colleague who phoned them on my behalf asked repeatedly whether there was a place available, now. Not in a few months’ time, not next year. Now. They assured us there was. When we showed up for the meeting, the story changed immediately. We were welcome to apply for the next year, and we could find the application form on the website. Or we could go to that other school a few blocks away. This last bit said while vaguely pointing out the window. We asked for directions. Just there somewhere, a few blocks away.
I don’t know if it is pertinent to mention this, but my partner is of Indian descent. Could this be the issue? Is it a race thing? Is it the fact that we only spoke English? We were very upfront about that at all times, even before showing up for the meetings.
“I don’t know if it is pertinent to mention this, but my partner is of Indian descent. Could this be the issue? Is it a race thing? Is it the fact that we only spoke English?”
After a few more disappointments we ran out of time and decided to hire an au pair. Luckily we found a wonderful Estonian lady who has been fantastic with our child, but obviously, this costs a whole lot more than a government-subsidised kindergarten.
There is a website that lists all the kindergartens and whether they have spaces available but of course, it is not in English. Like the estate agents and their ghost apartments, these kindergarten spaces seem to only exist until you enquire about them. We’ve dubbed the real estate ones Schrödinger’s Flats.
My advice to the Estonian government
My advice to the Estonian government: You’ve advertised yourself as a digital utopia and you’re actively luring skilled people to come and work here. Remove some of the obstacles and actually walk the walk rather than just talking the talk. Improve the information on your websites, make sure you have immigration officers who actually speak English and use some logic when it comes to documentation. If my wife, daughter and I all have passports, a birth certificate, jobs, a house etc, why hassle me to get that one document sent back to South Africa at extreme expense? We obviously are who we claim to be.
“You’ve advertised yourself as a digital utopia and you’re actively luring skilled people to come and work here. Remove some of the obstacles and actually walk the walk rather than just talking the talk. Improve the information on your websites, make sure you have immigration officers who actually speak English and use some logic when it comes to documentation. If my wife, daughter and I all have passports, a birth certificate, jobs, a house etc, why hassle me to get that one document sent back to South Africa at extreme expense? We obviously are who we claim to be.”
Train the immigration officers in the law, and make sure there are enough of them. Almost everyone I’ve met had a different idea of what was required and if you phone for information, the answers you get seem to vary according to the person who answers. It really shouldn’t be luck of the draw.
In addition, I’ve learned that the staff numbers at immigration have been cut. This makes no sense as the Estonian government is still openly marketing the country as a welcoming one for highly skilled immigrants. It already takes about 60 days to get a residence permit. You should be careful that this doesn’t end up taking longer than the 90 days applicants are allowed to stay in Europe.
“Train the immigration officers in the law, and make sure there are enough of them. Almost everyone I’ve met had a different idea of what was required and if you phone for information, the answers you get seem to vary according to the person who answers. It really shouldn’t be luck of the draw.”
I was told that until late 2015, the process would take a few weeks and was generally easy and smooth. Then came the big staff lay-off and the subsequent slowdown in processing applications. The Estonian government is generally quite forward-looking, so this strikes me as an odd instance of stupidity. Slowing down your entire economy to save the cost of a few jobs at the immigration office. Again, I’m reminded of home. Rumours that even more staff will be cut also waft through the air like the stench of raw sewage.
Explain, explain, explain. Which documents are accepted? What constitutes a marriage in Estonia? If you’ve passed a law legalising co-habitation but nobody really knows whether it is in force, shouldn’t that issue be clarified? This is such a small country that communicating legislative changes should be easy. In South Africa, there are 55 million people who speak 11 different languages. If you go to an immigration office the entire immigration law is presented in posters on the wall, in multiple languages. This is the only thing that is better about South African bureaucracy. Literally, the one thing.
If it turns out that our co-habitation agreement was enough to secure my wife a residence permit, will I be able to take the government to court in order to reclaim the expenses I underwent due to this lack of communication?
The Work in Estonia website lists about five things needed, when there actually are a hell of a lot more. There is no mention of apostilled birth certificates, medical insurance, proof of residence, marriage certificates etc. It is only when one starts digging rather deeper that these things appear, on a different website entirely.
When it comes to companies employing foreigners, my wife and her employer, who is a much smaller company than the one I work for, ran into the maze of how long a company must exist and how much turnover they must have before you work out the payment coefficient and blah-blah-blah. The proof that this system is broken lies in the fact that she had to reapply a few days after the initial application because the immigration officer and her employer had completed the wrong forms entirely. If not even the people working at immigration can figure this out, how will the average employer or a potential immigrant? Trust your companies enough to fast-track and simplify the acquisition of talent.
“If not even the people working at immigration can figure this out, how will the average employer or a potential immigrant?”
Speak to your banks about dropping their ridiculous account opening fees for people who are employed in Estonia. And when you do that, I’d appreciate a refund.
The citizen’s portal is a wonderful thing, but all the forms are still in Estonian. I’m supposed to be able to do everything online, but I need a translator every time. I happen to know a decent copywriter who could help out with making improvements.
Establish English-speaking kindergartens. If Estonian nationals have trouble finding spots in kindergartens for their children, can you imagine how expats struggle, especially when heavily pressed for time? You are openly encouraging people to move to Estonia, yet once they get here, it is virtually impossible for them to arrange quality childcare unless they’re willing to pay in excess of €600 for a spot in a private school. We came incredibly close to leaving Estonia because of this matter as we were mere days away from a situation where our choices were leaving a four-year-old at home on her own or have my wife deported after her 90-day visa. The private kindergartens wanted deposits and we had simply exhausted all our funds by that time. I know you love the Estonian language and that you’re desperate to preserve the language and the identity, but if you want to be the European start-up capital and digital torch-bearers, you’ll need a nation that speaks English as well. Teach them young.
Remove the catch 22s. I need a residence permit to live here but I need a lease to apply for a residence permit. That’s simply capricious and puts people at risk of major financial losses and exploitation.
My advice for Estonian companies
My advice for Estonian companies: The best advice would probably be quite brutal. Only hire EU citizens. However, and fortunately for people like me, that is not always practical. In that case, try and help as much as possible. If you’re regularly employing foreigners, consider buying or renting a property that you can “rent” to new starters while their application is in progress. If you can actually house them here for two months, even better.
Give them employment contracts and invitations before they arrive in Estonia. Lobby the government to tell the Swedish embassy in South Africa to chill the f**k out when people want to come to Estonia. The horror stories about that embassy in South Africa could be an article on its own.
“If you’re regularly employing foreigners, consider buying or renting a property that you can “rent” to new starters while their application is in progress.”
As Europeans you’re used to being treated with dignity and respect when you travel. That doesn’t apply to people from the “third world” coming the other way. Bear this in mind and arm your staff with the tools they need.
Understand that what worked for getting an American employee into Estonia will most likely not work for a South African. Make sure they know exactly what they need before they arrive. I could have saved a lot of money and headaches if I’d known I’d need the apostille on the birth certificate and had not been told our co-habitation agreement would be accepted.
“As Europeans you’re used to being treated with dignity and respect when you travel. That doesn’t apply to people from the “third world” coming the other way. Bear this in mind and arm your staff with the tools they need.”
There are a lot of small start-ups in Estonia and you rightly take great pride in your entrepreneurial spirit. How about banding together and starting some international kindergartens? As an African I’ve learned that waiting for the government to do things for you is futile. Even your Estonian staff members are likely to make use of these facilities. A quick straw poll among colleagues suggests they’d happily pay for a service that is convenient and on, or close to, their work premises. Imagine a generation of multilingual super Estonians emerging from these kindergartens, ready to rule the world.
“How about banding together and starting some international kindergartens?”
Whatever relocation fee you are considering, double it. Especially in cases where the new employee’s native currency is trading at 17/1 against the euro. My employer was very generous but I will still only pay back the cost of my move in about two years’ time.
We have been in Estonia for three months and I absolutely love it, despite all the setbacks. After South Africa’s violent, corrupt society I find the safety and the organisation in Tallinn fantastic. The people, although reserved and fairly quiet, are friendly and extremely helpful. We’ve made some friends already and hope to stay indefinitely. I am excited to contribute to the Estonian national project and plan to integrate and assimilate with Estonian culture.
“Estonians should embrace the fact that your small country is an attractive destination for young, highly educated and motivated people from around the world who are interested in becoming part of your culture and contribute to your success.”
I love the diversity of my workplace and the burgeoning multi-culturalism of Tallinn. Estonians should embrace the fact that your small country is an attractive destination for young, highly educated and motivated people from around the world who are interested in becoming part of your culture and contribute to your success.
The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: a welcoming sign by the Kultuurikatel’s chimney in Tallinn.