Surviving the Foreign Police – How to Emerge Feeling Like a Champ not a Criminal
Yes this title sounds dire and dramatic. In my first few months here I’d heard enough horror stories from experienced expats to fill me with unwanted trepidation. I always try to approach any new adventure with a positive attitude. And that had been working for me up to this point in my new country.
It is more difficult for a non-EU citizen to get legal in a new European country than it is for a European citizen. (As in those awkward moments traveling with a Euro friend in Europe where they sail through customs and I’m waiting in a mob for an extra hour or two.) Just to apply for a visa to stay in Czech Republic, as an American I was required to register with a Czech embassy outside the Czech Republic. The laws have since changed recently, but at the time I was able to go to Dresden, Germany, about a two hour lovely train trip ride. I believe that embassy has now closed (it was tiny) and that American expats in Czech Republic are directed elsewhere. My best advice would be to search American visa in __(your new country)__ online and follow their directions. Never hurts to check out the local American embassy website as well.
Be sure all your paperwork is pristinely in order. Often times if one of the small boxes on one of the four pages of the complex application form is improperly marked, they will send you back home to do it again. In my case, I had an improper form from my landlord to specify that I was legally residing in my flat. So that day was a two-hour train trip, 10 minute meeting with the visa people, and two-hour train back home (adding to the discomfort the fact that I had overslept that morning and realized getting out of the shower that I had 20 minutes to get to the station and catch my train, which inspired me to run, get lost, and eventually frog-hop across four lanes of highway rush hour traffic).
For my second trip I brought a Czech friend, and we made a small holiday of it arriving the night before, staying in a hostel (my first time!), and shopping after the appointment the following day.
Right. That’s the first stage of getting legal here. It’s the inevitable visit to the Czech foreign police that is the frightful task. Registering with the local government is required at the onset of one’s tenure here. And if that’s not enough, non-EU citizens are also required to report in person (not online or via post) any residential changes longer than 30-day stay. And for the first couple years a non-EU visa is only issued for 3 months at a time. After 4 years here I was finally able to receive a “long-term” visa which still was issued for only 6 months. Maybe they wanted to make it an easy deadline at the end of the year… ?
Back to the scary part. Those same experienced expats who would complain about the cheaper, better days in Prague also seemed to love to frighten the newbies like children around a campfire with the horrors of surviving the Czech foreign police. First they said the lines were horrendous, that one needed to arrive at 3 or 4am to wait for the doors to open at 8am and maybe to receive an appointment number to be seen by 5pm before they closed. Then they posted videos such as this:
Watching this set me hyperventilating. I put off my visit until the very last minute. (A side note regarding this: Don’t wait until the very last minute. I never saw it in writing, but it’s very true that the Czech foreign police expect us to apply at least 2 weeks before expiration of current papers. I was severely scolded in Czech by the stern clerk, “Velky problem (big problem)” and eventually was able to have my doctor write me a sick note accompanied with an apology letter I’d written and had translated into Czech to cover my faux pas).
As it turned out, the panic and procrastinating were unnecessary. The laws had changed yet again after the terrorizing video was shot. More than one Czech foreign police office is now open and available in Prague. The one at which you apply is discerned by the neighborhood in which you reside. I never had to go to the office in the video. I do have to travel to the opposite end of town (not close at all to my neighborhood, but I don’t question). I’ve found that arriving as soon as the office opens is the best idea. The first line is just to check in and receive an appointment number. Arriving early ensures only about a 3 hour wait. Once the number board flashes my number, I’m usually in and out in 10 minutes or so.
The Most Important advice when making the necessary trip to the foreign police is to take a person who speaks the native language. The funny / not so funny common observation is that no one at the foreign police speaks a foreign language. There are expat services who assist and specialize in foreign police co-pilot trips, such as Kentic Expat Solutions whose help I’ve solicited. But true to my namesake, Minerva, I have my very own Owl. I’ll be mentioning her much more in future posts I’m sure. She has been remarkable on our now numerous foreign police ventures. The last and most recent trip we only waited a couple hours, but had tolerable coffee from the vending machine and played cards. Then I like to think that we were so smiley and charming that a supposed fee was not charged, and I was surprised to finally receive above-mentioned “long-term” visa. We burst out of the appointment room like champions grinning and giving big thumbs up to a group of bewildered Asians in the waiting area.