Moving to Amsterdam?

Grain of salt.

I’m not an immigration lawyer, and I implore you not to mistake me for one. Insert grain of salt here. I can only tell you what I think I know, about what is really a complex and delicate process. A process whose details fluctuate year to year as part of the political soap opera.

If you love Amsterdam — for itself, not some fantasy of it — so much that you want to stay, then I do think you should try to live here sometime. Absolutely, pursue your desire.

But the choice to migrate should not be made lightly, especially if home is far away across an ocean or two. People who plunge into Nederland with bravado and untamed optimism may be blessed by the universe and find a smooth way in. Or they may end up destitute and broken. It’s wise to map out the challenges that you, specifically, will face, and plan how to meet them. I say that because everybody’s set of challenges will be different.

Immigration zeitgeist

Article 1 of the Dutch constitution says,

‘Allen die zich in Nederland bevinden, worden in gelijke gevallen gelijk behandeld. Discriminatie wegens godsdienst, levensovertuiging, politieke gezindheid, ras, geslacht of op welke grond dan ook, is niet toegestaan.’

‘All who find themselves in Nederland will, in equal situations, be treated equally. Discrimination based on religion, way of life, political persuasion, race, sex or any other grounds, is not allowed.’

Looking at this, one can be forgiven for assuming it also applies to immigrants — and to all immigrants equally. In contemporary Nederland that is distinctly not the case. As in many countries, the government chooses which migrants to favor, and which to obstruct. And they're pretty blatant about it.

In broad strokes, they're trying to reduce the influx of poor, uneducated, 'scary' foreigners (ie, people whose cultural habits make some native Dutch people feel uncomfortable). They believe they already have plenty of those guys. They prefer to welcome the well-educated, 'western', self-reliant foreigners. Or the rich ones. I know that sounds a bit mean. That's because it is mean.

Why are the authorities getting so strict about who they let in to the country? I think there are three factors. The first is the same reason we find this place desirable: lifestyle wise, they kinda have a good thing going on here, and they paid for it, and they don’t wanna blow it. Secondly, they are recoiling from a former, more liberal policy of inviting lots of people in, who may have burdened (or in some cases exploited) the welfare and health systems. Third is the element of xenophobia that starts to infect the political spirit of a place, as an outflow of the ‘war on terror’, and as a consequence of natives feeling overwhelmed by the number of people living here who are very much not Dutch.

(For the record: in describing this attitude, I am not trying to excuse it. Those of you who know me know that I am a devout anarchist. I don't like national borders, and I do not believe in the idea that a human being can be 'illegal'.)

Some definitions

A few terms to know:

IND — Immigratie- en Naturalisatie Dienst. The branch of government responsible for immigration control. Their English web site is currently at

EER — Europese Economische Ruimte, or European Economic Area. A wonderland including all the member states of the EU, plus Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland.

Visum — a visa to enter Nederland. Most earthlings need one, but some don't, depending on nationality.

MVV — machtiging tot voorlopig verblijf, or authorization for provisional (temporary) stay. Most non-Europeans need one, even to visit Nederland briefly.

Verblijfsvergunning — residence permit, literally a 'stay license'. Non-Europeans need one to stay here legally for more than 90 days.

TWV — tewerkstellingsvergunning. Literally 'putting-to-work license'. An employer's permit to hire a non-European.

GVVA — gecombineerde vergunning voor verblijf en arbeid, or combined permit for residence and work. This is a new thing, just approved. As of 2014, some non-Europeans can apply in one procedure for both residence and employment permission. Does not apply to: "seasonal workers, students, asylum seekers and Croatians," who still must rely on the TWV.

GBA — Gemeente Basisadministratie. Municipal records database. Formerly known as the Bevolkingsregister or population register. This is the city office where everyone is obliged to register — not for immigration, but to show where you live, create a tax relationship, and receive your burger service nummer.

Belastingdienst — the tax service. They send you blue envelopes and want money.

BSN — burger service nummer, or citizen service number. It's like a personal ID number, used for taxation and other civil purposes. Formerly known as the sofi number. They keep changing the names of things.

The deal for Europeans and 'quasi-Europeans'

The basic deal is, people from EU/EER countries have the easiest time moving to Nederland. Theoretically, all Europeans are allowed by law to live and work anywhere in Europe — just as in the US, someone from Florida may move to Nebraska.

However, individual EU states are allowed to make exceptions for migrants from new EU member states. They can delay opening their labor markets to these newcomers, and essentially treat some Europeans as non-Europeans. That's what Nederland does.

People from Bulgaria and Romania have been discriminated against for the first seven years of their accession to the EU. They were allowed to live here, but prohibited from finding legit work, except if an employer applied for and received a TWV permit to hire them. It’s no coincidence that those two countries are considered the poorest in Europe. Their people were imagined to pose a threat to the Dutch labor market. As of 2014 this restriction is supposed to be lifted. We'll see what happens. Certain elements in the political ecosystem, notably the right-wing PVV, have gained fame by stirring up distrust of all eastern Europeans.

Meanwhile, the folks from Croatia, which just joined the EU in mid 2013, are also 'on hold' when it comes to seeking employment in Nederland.

Here's where it starts to sound a little kafkaesque: there are people who technically are allowed to live here, but may not freely go get a job. At the same time, new rules are coming into effect saying that if you are allowed to be here and not get a job, but don't have a job, then you can't be here.

The deal for everybody else.

For non-Europeans, the rules are different.

To enter Nederland at all, most earthlings need to apply for a visa. To stay for a little while, they need an MVV. To stay longer than 90 days, they need a residence permit. And to get a job, they need an employer who can get a TWV on their behalf.

The list of who needs a visa is quite long, and includes all the poorer countries, as well as places like Russia and the United Arab Emirates. You have to apply for the visa at the Dutch embassy in your home country.

To get an MVV you also apply at your local Dutch embassy. The rules for who is granted an MVV vary with who you are and why you're coming. For example, if you're coming here to be reunited with a partner or family member who is already in Nederland, then you first have to pass a test for basic knowledge of Dutch language and cultural norms. Even if you've never set foot in this country before. Seriously.

Tellingly, some nationalities are exempt from needing an MVV: Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Koreans. In other words, those from friendly, non-scary 'western'-oriented countries. Those guys can come to the Netherlands for up to 90 days just on the strength of their passports. Then if they want to stay longer, they need to apply for a residence permit.

You apply for a residence permit (verblijfsvergunning) with the IND. And you have to pay a fee to apply for it. Once you apply, they're supposed to decide on your case within six months. If approved, you get a plastic pass the size of a credit card, which is also valid as an ID. It's good for one year, but is dated from the time you applied for it, not when you receive it. So you'll find yourself applying for next year's extension long before you've even had it for a year.

After successfully renewing your verblijfsvergunning for five consecutive years, you can be granted a 'permanent' one. It's not really permanent, it's voor onbepaalde tijd, or 'for unspecified time'.

The IND also rules on applications for the TWV, the 'put-to-work license'. Every immigrant who wants to work is assessed for whether they fill an 'essential Dutch need' in society or business.

Miscellaneous exceptions.

Here's the horrible secret, which you may have guessed already. Money makes a difference. If you are rich, famous, or sponsored by a big company, this whole thing is less of an obstacle course.

With some countries, including the US, Nederland has treaties enabling the foreigner to relocate to Nederland to start a business. That's how I got here. When I did it (2003), I had to provide a business plan and financial statement, prepared by a Dutch accountant, showing that I had already invested a certain amount of money in my business (camera, computer etc). The stipulation was that I had to be self-supporting; that is, I could not take a full-time job with another company, and could not apply for public assistance or welfare. That made it a low-risk proposition for my host country, so they approved me.

There are some provisions making it easier for employees of multinationals, for athletes, for students, for artists and musicians. Not all, but some.

People who are deemed to be highly educated or skilled ‘knowledge migrants’ get a smoother path. They are construed to be of higher potential benefit — and lower risk — to the Dutch economy.

A non-European student attending university in Nederland is allowed to work part-time while studying. After graduating, they're granted a 'zoekjaar' or 'search year' in which to try and find a job here, after which their welcome runs out.

As of October 2013, they've also made an exception for very rich foreigners, or vermogende vreemdelingen. Anyone who invests at least € 1250000 (a million and a quarter euros) in Dutch business life gets a residence permit. Woo hoo!

At the other end of the spectrum you have the asielzoekers, or asylum seekers. These are people who just came to Nederland saying 'Really, I need to stay here.' Sometimes they're fleeing war or persecution in their home country. While their cases are being reviewed and appealed, supposedly they can work for up to 24 weeks per year, if an employer has gotten a TWV for them.

When the system fails

Kambiz Roustayi was in his mid-twenties when he left Iran. He had written some articles which, he said, upset the authorities of that republic, and fearing for his life, he refused to go back. Eleven years later he was still in the asylum center here in Nederland. His final appeal for asylum had been rejected, and he was told he would soon be deported back to Iran.

On a Wednesday afternoon, sixth of April 2011, Kambiz walked up to the foot of the monument on the Dam, stood there for a moment, then lit himself on fire. He had doused himself with a serious amount of flammable liquid, and he blazed as he collapsed to the ground. Some of the shocked crowd around him in the Dam rushed to try and smother his fire. An ambulance crew came and took him to a hospital. He died the next day. He was 36.

I'm not sure, but I beleive the last time someone had been burned alive at the Dam was back in the 1400s, when heresy was still a capital crime.

Another strange story: what I call the non-asylum-seeker. I once knew an IT consultant, let's call him Albert, who was born in Sri Lanka, but lived with his girlfriend in Sweden, and was on his way back from a big project for a telecom company in Oman. He landed here at Schiphol to change planes. But at the passport control he was told he didn't have the right to enter the EU. Even though he could show his Swedish residence permit, tax documents and phone bills. All he wanted was to get home to his girlfriend's arms that night, but the immigration authorities here said they were going to ship him back to 'where he came from', ie Sri Lanka.

At this point Albert asked to speak with a lawyer. The officers told him the only way he could see a lawyer would be if he applied for asylum in Nederland — the very place he was trying to exit! Well, as a formality he signed the papers, and became an asylum seeker. His next home was the Schiphol detention center for illegal immigrants. His lawyer was of little help. Albert got bounced around, misunderstood, and forgotten. For a year and a half. Only after his story caught the attention of a TV presenter did the IND finally apologize and let him go on his way.

Head exploding?

Is your head ready to explode yet? Is all this making you wanna say 'I give up, I'm moving to Germany instead!'

Wait a minute. That's what they want you to think. Yes it's all very byzantine, labyrinthine, and mean. But maybe you shouldn't give up too soon. If your desire for Amsterdam is stronger than their will to rebuff you, you might just end up laughing.

It's worth noting that despite all the government's efforts to discourage Bulgarians from coming here, many of my Amsterdam friends are in fact Bulgarian. Some go home after a few years, and not because of the regulations, but because they miss home. Those who really want to be here find a way to stay.

At this moment some 800,000 people are registered residents of Amsterdam. But how many people live in Amsterdam? I don't know, do you?

Here I've tried to consolidate as much info as I could find — from a dozen different government web sources written in Dutch — about the most current rules and procedures for coming to this country legally.

Bear in mind that not everybody does it legally. There are plenty of folks who just come to Amsterdam one day and fail to go home. They shack up somewhere, figure out some crazy scheme to survive, and disappear into the mist. It may not be comfortable, but it happens, and everybody knows it.

It is, in fact, a variation on what people have been doing for as long as there have been people. Human beings move, they follow their desires, and hope for the best. And yet of all the creatures on the earth, we are the only species that thinks it needs a passport. Strange, isn't it?