I have always been a fan of Swedish efficiency in terms of public service. Coming from where I came from, it certainly is a huge improvement. It is, of course, not perfect. I heard stories of hiccups here and there, but never have I thought that I would experience such hiccups myself. I am talking here about the process of getting a Ph.D. student residence permit.
The indication came far before I was officially admitted as a Ph.D. student, actually. During the preparation for my admission, I was browsing some KI pages about the residence permit for doctoral students, and I stumbled upon a page called ‘New rules for change of status’. “What is this?” I wondered. I read on and suddenly panic washed over me.
Apparently there were some changes in the Swedish Migration Agency’s practice regarding the procedure of obtaining a residence permit for PhD student. In Sweden, and especially at KI, as I told previously, once you got a PhD position, it doesn’t automatically mean that you are enrolled as a PhD student, because you have to go through a certain admission process beforehand. For international students, usually, they could come first using visiting researcher visa during such preparation time, and apply for PhD student permit once they are admitted. They could keep on working while waiting for such permit. With the new rules, you could not be in Sweden when the Migration Agency make a decision regarding your permit, which means that somehow, somewhere during your PhD, you will have to leave your work, go abroad, and not coming back until you make sure that your permit has been granted. The thing is, and based on my experience, it could be hard to estimate when you will get the decision for the permit, i.e. whether or not your permit is approved. So, it would be hard to plan in advance when, for how long, and where you have to travel. And also, depending on whether or not you still have a valid visa at the time of application, you might either have to go back to your home country, and wait for the permit there, or you could just simply travel within Europe/Schengen where your visa is accepted. Either way, you will have to send a proof to the migration officer that you are not in Sweden, i.e. a picture in front of a landmark, with the day’s newspaper to show them the date.
I was trying to find more information regarding this new practice in the Swedish Migration Agency website. None. Nada. And I searched both Swedish and English website, mind you. So the only source of information was this KI webpage. It was very frustrating because part of me did not want to believe that such complications exist, but another part of me was worried, like “What if it were true? How should I go through that?” I also tried to communicate this with my supervisors but they were as clueless as I was. At that point, I also had another kind of worry, like,
”What if they regret employing me, an immigrant, because of this complications?”
I tried to ask around, to find more clues about this new practice. I sent an e-mail to another friend whom I knew also recently got a PhD position. I sent another e-mail to the contact person at the KI webpage. I talked to the HR (human resources) and discussing the options. At that point, I had an employment contract until December 2017 and valid visiting researcher visa until that point of time. But my admission seminar would be held in the beginning of December and we were not sure when I would be officially admitted as a PhD. It might take 1-2 weeks until the decision came. And then there would be Christmas and New Year’s holiday. Should I prolong the visiting researcher visa while waiting, or should I wait a bit and just directly applied for the PhD permit? But if I did not have a valid visa while waiting for PhD permit decision, I would have to go back to my home country and it would mean longer pause during my PhD work. In the end, it was decided that my employment contract (as a R&D trainee) would be prolonged for some months into 2018 so I could prolong my visiting researcher visa. If I got admitted during that period, I would apply for the PhD permit then.
Luckily, during this ask-around period, I met a colleague who had gone through the same process. According to her, once you were abroad and sent the proof that you were abroad (i.e. the picture), the decision came almost immediately, which meant that she did not actually have to stay THAT long outside Sweden. A cruise trip would suffice, but it should not be on the weekends, since the officer might not work during that time and could not respond to your inquiries. It was such a HUGE relief to hear such piece of information. My only concern was that I would have to go for a prolonged period of time, not being able to work, missed courses, etc etc. But apparently, that did not have to be the case.
In the middle of January 2018, I got the extension for my visiting researcher visa. I had also been officially admitted as a PhD student, so then it would be time to apply for the PhD student permit. I remembered that I could not even apply via the website because I could not choose to have my permit decision sent to my address in Sweden (you had to choose one of the Swedish embassies abroad), so I sent my application via post.
Around two weeks later, 30 January 2018
(wow I even remembered the date!), I received a letter from the Swedish Migration Agency which basically stated that I should leave Sweden in order to get my application processed. I should leave by 9 February 2018, but they also gave me the chance to explain if I should be exempted from this rule. I did not think I would qualify for rule exemptions anyway, so I fired away some e-mails and messages to my supervisors and friends saying that I got the letter and that I would be away for some time. Afterwards, I started looking for cheap plane tickets (cruise was not an option because my husband could not stand traveling by ship). I made this matrix to compare different scenarios of the travel plan, and decided that travelling to Gdańsk, Poland would be the most viable option. Although my colleague said that you only needed one day to get the decision, I decided to extend my travel into 5 days (including weekend) in case something happened. I was extremely lucky because none of my courses had started at that time and the data for the project was still being prepared so I was not in the middle of something very urgent from my work. But think if I had different research, work in the lab, or with the animals. It might mean a more complicated situation than what I had to experience.
When I came to work the next day (I would travel the day after), it seemed that everybody (at least in the research group) had known about my story 🐻 and they were very supportive about that. I feel touched, honestly… ❤
We travelled on Thursday, 1 February 2018 to Gdańsk and arrived in the afternoon. I was actually impressed by the new and modern airport there. We could have actually stayed in the airport and take a picture there, but we decided to go to the city centre. At the central station, we were looking for the kiosk which sold newspaper and debated for some time as to which one we should buy (which, actually did not matter because we did not understand the language anyway XD ). In the end we decided to buy a ‘serious’ looking newspaper and took our picture with it. It might seem awkward to see someone struck a pose in front of the train station while holding the newspaper, all-smiling when the news seemed to be about riot (honestly we did not know what the news was about). We even used the proper camera (DSLR) because we were afraid that if we only used the phone, the date in the newspaper could not be seen when you zoomed it too highly. But because of that, we had to wait until we arrived in the hotel to transfer the picture and sent it to our case officer. By that time it was already nearly 16.00. I was really afraid that the case-officer had gone home, but thankfully he replied and said that he would inform me as soon as a decision had been made. I understood that it was already late, so I tried not to think about it until the following day.
The following day we waited, and waited, and waited (while also exploring Gdańsk – a beautiful city! Especially the old town) but did not hear anything back. Meanwhile, a friend who was also travelling for the same purpose said that he had got the decision almost immediately afterwards! I was desperate. 😥 It was Friday around 16.00. What if we did not get the decision until next week? I was panicked. In that moment of desperation, I tried to login to the Migration Agency’s website. And there it stood that a decision had been made for my application! What? But what would be the decision? We did not know. But we were hopeful, so we tried to go through the weekend in peace and travelled to Warsaw (another beautiful city and a city I’ve always wanted to visit!).
But then Monday came and we would go back to Sweden that day, but we still did not know what the decision was. And so I tried to e-mail our case officer again. Thankfully he replied almost immediately and said that our permits were granted! Alhamdulillah! Thank God!!! So we could finally travel back in peace, knowing that we had the required permit arranged…
I know that I was not the only one affected by this new rules and that everyone had different stories on how they were affected. Some might have it harder than me, so I don’t want to invalidate what they had gone through. I know also that the Migration Agency, at least for my part, had tried to make this process went as smooth as possible. But I really hope that there will be a more practical solution in the future for this process.