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RESIDENCY PERMITS

Which countries in Europe impose language tests for residency permits?

Certain countries across Europe demand foreign citizens pass a language test to qualify for certain residency permits. But how does each country compare and what level of language do they require?

Which countries in Europe impose language tests for residency permits?
More and more countries in Europe are talking about making language tests compulsory for residency permit applicants. Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Germany

Germany requires people to have a certain standard of the language to gain permanent residency (Niederlassungserlaubnis / unbefristete Aufenthaltserlaubnis).

When it comes to language skills, the current rules require German at level B1 on the six-level scale of competence laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

This involves taking a test at a language school recognised by authorities. The test includes reading, listening, writing and spoken sections. B1 level on the CEFR scale is defined as being able to “understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.”

Other residency permits, such as the Blue Card, do not generally have formal language requirements.

German citizenship has a B1 language requirement. Note that both citizenship and permanent residency have several other requirements, such as living in Germany legally for a certain period of time.

READ ALSO:

France

At present there is no formal language requirement for residency permits, although for certain groups the Office français de l’immigration et de l’integration (OFII) can require people to attend French classes. The classes are provided for free in most circumstances.

This could change, however, as the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has outlined a plan to make French test compulsory for certain types of long-term residency permit.

At this stage his plan has little detail, so we don’t know what level of French will be required, but it seems to be targeted only at those who are seeking a long-term residency permit, so new arrivals will not be required to have mastered French in advance. The plan does not affect people applying for visas.

READ ALSO French language tests for the carte de séjour: What we know so far

Only French citizenship has a formal language requirement at present – those applying for citizenship through residency need to present a certificate, no more than two years old, to show that they have passed writing, reading, listening and speaking tests at B1 level. A previous exemption for over 60s was scrapped in 2020. 

TEST: Is your French good enough for citizenship and residency?

Spain

Spain doesn’t currently have any language level requirements to obtain residency, and there is no evidence that this is or has ever been considered. 

The country does however expect foreigners applying for Spanish citizenship to prove some command of the Spanish language by obtaining an A2 DELE qualification (Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera) if they’re not originally from a Spanish speaking country. 

The A2 level is still fairly basic however, it’s the second lowest and equates to being a high-level beginner capable of understanding and putting together everyday sentences.

There’s also a language requirement for foreigners from non-Spanish speaking countries who want to have their qualifications recognised to work in regulated professions in Spain (homologación) – a B2 – equal to a high intermediate.

Even though proving a good command of Spanish isn’t a requirement for residency, learning the language is a must for foreigners. Unlike in other European countries such as the Netherlands or Scandinavian nations, Spaniards don’t generally speak English, so learning at least some Spanish is essential for everyday tasks, unless foreigners only want to stay in so-called ‘expat bubbles’.

Switzerland

Whether granting permanent residency or citizenship, whether you are ‘successfully integrated’ is the major question for Swiss authorities. 

Being successfully integrated means that they “should participate in the economic, social and cultural life of society”, according to the State Secretariat for Migration, which includes speaking at least one of Switzerland’s languages. 

Reader question: What does being ‘successfully integrated’ in Switzerland mean?

However, the level of language proficiency differs depending on the type of residency permission you want: residency permit, permanent residency or Swiss citizenship. 

Fortunately for new arrivals, you do not need to show Swiss language proficiency to get a standard residency permit. 

Generally speaking, those on short-term residency permits – such as B Permits and L Permits – are not required to show proficiency in a national language. 

There are some exceptions – for instance people on family reunification permits – however by and large people who have just arrived in Switzerland for work do not need to demonstrate language proficiency. 

Permanent residents however will need to demonstrate language proficiency. 

EXPLAINED: What’s the difference between permanent residence and Swiss citizenship?

For ordinary permanent residency – which is granted after an uninterrupted stay of five years or ten years in total – you need to demonstrate A2 level of a spoken Swiss language and A1 written. 

Citizens of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are exempt from these language requirements. 

For fast-tracked permanent residency, the language level is a little higher. 

You must demonstrate A1 written but B1 spoken. 

There are also exceptions for people who can demonstrate they have a Swiss language as their mother tongue, or that they have attended compulsory schooling for a minimum of three years in a Swiss language. 

Demonstrating language proficiency must be done through an accredited test centre. The accreditation process is handled at a cantonal level. More information is available here

More information about language requirements – including what you need for Swiss citizenship – is available at the following link. 

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

Norway

Residence permits in Norway come in two forms, permanent and temporary. There are no language requirements or tests for temporary permits, nor are there any plans in the works to bring them in. 

Permanent residence does come with language requirements, however. Depending on where you are from, the type of temporary permit you have held, whether you were granted residency to live with somebody in Norway, and their situation, you will need to complete between 250550 hours of Norwegian language tuition and complete a social studies course.

In some situations, you can get around the language tuition by proving that you have adequate knowledge of Norwegian. For example, if you have passed all four parts of the Norwegian exam at a minimum of level A2: oral, listening, reading and written presentation, you do not need to meet the tuition requirements. 

Similarly, when applying for citizenship, you will need to meet language requirements. EU and non-EU citizens must pass an oral Norwegian language test at either A2 or B1 level. A2 refers to an elementary level of Norwegian, and B1 is considered semi-fluent. For citizenship, some residents will need to have also completed tuition in the language also.  

The change to the language requirement from A2 to B1 will apply from autumn 2022 at the earliest, according to the UDI

Italy

For most types of Italian residency permit, applicants are not required to sit a language test.

But if you’re a non-EU citizen applying for a permesso di soggiorno per soggiornanti di lungo periodo (long-stay residency permit) based on being resident for five years or more, there is a requirement to prove at least A2 level competency in Italian.

The A2 level is still fairly basic: it’s the second-lowest on the the six-level scale of competence laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), and equates to being a higher-level beginner able to understand and put together simple sentences.

If you’re applying for citizenship, Italy demands proof of having a slightly better command of the language: applicants must show they’ve passed an Italian language exam at the level of B1 or higher.

The B1 level is a lower intermediate level of proficiency, and equates to being able to communicate in most everyday situations. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Italy’s language test for citizenship

For those who simply need to pass the exam in order to get the required paperwork, and don’t need to prove their linguistic competency for any other reasons (such as study or employment), there is a simplified ‘B1 cittadinanza’ (B1 for citizenship) exam created specifically for this purpose. 

For residency and citizenship applications, certificates proving you’ve passed a language test are only valid if issued by a school (in Italy or abroad) which is accredited by one of four Italian language institutes recognised by the Interior Ministry.

Even though you don’t need a particularly high level of Italian to obtain either residency or citizenship, language skills will prove essential for foreign residents. Unlike in some parts of Europe, most Italians don’t speak English – at least outside of the more touristy areas.

Sweden

The Swedish government is currently carrying out an inquiry on a proposal that would require permanent residence applicants to prove basic Swedish proficiency. Right now, there are no language requirements for other short-term residence permits, including study permits and work permits. 

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your Swedish good enough for permanent residency?

Under the proposal, applicants would have to pass a test certifying that they can read, write, listen, and speak at an A1/A2 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) scale. In the Swedish government’s free language classes, known as Swedish for Immigrants (SFI), this corresponds to passing course C, the third of four levels. 

This proposal is still in its inquiry stage, which will end in May 2023. 

Austria

Austria has language requirements for most of its residence permits and German knowledge is expected to increase as people need to renew their cards.

There is no language requirement for the most common work-based permit, the Red-White-Red card, though. However, there is a point-based system to be able to apply for the permit and knowing German or English will give the candidates points – how many and for what level will depend on which group they belong to.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

For example, “very highly qualified workers” will get ten points (they need 70) if they speak German or English at an A2 level. But “skilled workers at shortage occupations” can get 15 points if they can prove German knowledge at a B1 level (ten points for A2 and five for A1) and another ten for English at a B1 level.

The Red-White-Red Card is issued for 24 months and entitles the holder to fixed-term settlement and employment by the employer specified in your application.

READ ALSO: Working in Austria: Why foreigners find it hard to integrate in the workplace

After that, they may apply for the Red-White-Red Plus, which is also the permit for family members of Austrian citizens, Red-White-Red Card workers, and EU citizens.

In many cases, including for spouses of Austrian citizens, but not for family members of EU citizens, there is a language requirement of an A1 level German even before immigration. You can read more about the requirements and exceptions here. The requirement will go up to B1 (which is also the minimum level for naturalisation) as they seek a long-term settlement, with few exceptions.

Denmark

Denmark requires people who are granted residence based on family reunification to pass a language test. This only applies to family reunified spouses (and not, for example, children).

People granted residence in Denmark on the grounds of family reunification with spouses are normally required to pass two tests in Danish, meeting the A1 and then A2 standards. The A2 requirement does not apply to people who applied before July 2018.

The A1 level test must be passed within six months of being granted a residence permit in Denmark, and the A2 level test within nine months.

Passing the language tests reduces the so-called ‘bank guarantee’ (bankgarantien), a sum of money which must be provided by the spouse as security against the granting of their partner’s work permit. More detail on this can be found here.

READ ALSO: How the dizzying cost of family reunification keeps Danes and foreign partners apart

There are various ways for non-EU residents to get a Danish work permit based on their profession. A list of different types of work sectors and requirements needed can be found on the website nyidanmark.dk.

These include the Fast-Track Scheme, Pay Limit Scheme and Positive Lists among a series of other routes. Unlike with family reunification, profession-based residence and work permits do not have a language requirement.

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between temporary and permanent residency in Denmark?

Elsewhere in Europe

In the Netherlands, the requirements will depend on many factors, including your nationality.

Before getting a residence permit, many people must go through a process to receive a provisional residence permit, the MVV. During this process, there is a Dutch language requirement.

However, citizens of EU and EEA countries, Australia, Canada, the UK, US, Switzerland and other countries do not need the MVV and, therefore, will not need to prove Dutch skills. Furthermore, people who are family members of an EU or EEA citizen (but not Dutch citizens) also don’t need the provisional residence permit and can skip the language requirements in most cases.

Depending on your purpose of stay, you might not need an MVV or proof of Dutch knowledge. If you need to fulfil language requirements, the level is A2, but the Dutch government intends to increase it to B2.

You can find more information here.

In Portugal, there are no language requirements for long-term residence visas regardless of the applicant’s nationality or purpose of stay.

After five years of legal residency, though, it’s possible to apply for a permanent residence permit, which has an A2 Portuguese level requirement.

In the United Kingdom, most people who are applying for citizenship or settling in the UK (the “indefinite leave to remain”) will need to prove their knowledge of the English language if they are 18 or over.

The requirement is at least a B1 level of English which can be confirmed by submitting a qualification or having a degree taught or researched in English.

You do not need to prove your knowledge of English in certain circumstances.

In Belgium, things can get a little tricky. Anyone who wants to stay in the country for more than 90 days will have their “efforts to integrate into Belgian society controlled”, according to the Foreign Office.

There are several exemptions to this, though, including minors or refugees. You can check all exemptions here.

Those who are not exempt will be required to prove “integration efforts” whenever applying for the renewal of their permits and for a limited period after, depending on the type of permit. The checks also apply to those with permanent residence.

The assessment of the “integration efforts” takes into account several criteria, including if the person is employed, if they attended an integration course, went to school, and if they have knowledge of the local language.

If the efforts are considered non-existent or insufficient, the Foreign Office may “refuse to renew the residence permit or terminate the stay” – though they add that they will consider the nature and strength of family ties in Belgium.

Don’t forget to check the official websites and consult with the embassies and local offices to get information on your specific case.

Member comments

  1. As I understand it, language requirements cannot be imposed on residency permits for those covered by the Withdrawal Agreement

  2. I wished EU regulations would force some administrations to learn the language of a neighbouring country. Especially when two municipalities of different countries have a border in common. You can see the results of this type of language barriers in eastern Germany. Where whole areas are left empty.

    Language requirements are not always a good thing. Many people believe they will get a better job if they speak the language. But some places, English is all you need to earn far more than the average. And with regular jobs you will earn even less or you could even end up in the same poverty loop the locals do.

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For members

IMMIGRATION

EXPLAINED: What are the main obstacles to finding a job when moving to an EU country?

Moving to another country is never easy, as it requires going through cultural changes and administrative formalities. It can be even more complicated when looking for a job.

EXPLAINED: What are the main obstacles to finding a job when moving to an EU country?

According to new data released by the EU statistical office, Eurostat, the knowledge of the national language and the recognition of professional qualifications are the two most common obstacles experienced by foreign-born people in finding a ‘suitable’ job in countries of the European Union.

Overall, about a quarter of people born outside the EU who had experience in working or looking for work in the bloc reported some difficulties getting a ‘suitable’ job for level of education (without considering the field of expertise or previous experience).

The Eurostat analysis shows that the situation is better for EU citizens moving within the bloc. But there are major differences depending on countries and gender.

Life can be more difficult for women

In 2021, 13.2 percent of men and 20.3 percent of women born in another European Union country reported obstacles in getting a suitable job in the EU place of residence.

These proportions however increase to 20.9 percent for men and 27.3 percent for women born in a non-EU country with a high level of development (based on the United Nations’ Human Development Index) and 31.1 percent for men and 35.7 percent for women from non-EU countries with a low or medium level of development.

Finland (42.9 percent), Sweden (41.7 percent), Luxembourg (34.6 percent) and France (32.1 percent) are the countries with the highest shares of people born outside the EU reporting problems. Norway, which is not part of the bloc, has an even higher percentage, 45.2, and Switzerland 34.3 percent.

In contrast, Cyprus (11.2 percent), Malta (10.9 percent), Slovenia (10.2 percent), Latvia (10 percent) and Lithuania (6.7 percent) have the lowest proportion of people born outside the EU reporting difficulties.

Lack of language skills

The lack of skills in the national language is most commonly cited as a hurdle, and it is even more problematic for women.

This issue was reported by 4.2 percent of men born in another EU country, 5.3 percent of those born in a developed country outside the EU and 9.7 percent of those from a non-EU country with a middle or low level of development. The corresponding shares for women, however, were 5.6, 6.7 and 10.5 percent respectively.

The countries where language skills were more likely to be reported by non-EU citizens as an obstacle in getting a relevant job were Finland (22.8 percent), Luxembourg (14.7 percent) and Sweden (13.1 percent).

As regards other countries covered by The Local, the percentage of non-EU citizens citing the language as a problem was 12.4 percent in Austria, 10.2 percent in Denmark, 7.8 percent in France, 5.1 percent in Italy, 2.7 percent in Spain, 11.1 percent on Norway and 10.1 percent in Switzerland. Data is not available for Germany.

Portugal (77.4 percent), Croatia (68.8 percent), Hungary (58.8 percent) and Spain (58.4 percent) have the highest share of people from outside the EU already speaking the language as a mother tongue before arriving, while more than 70 percent of non-EU citizens residing in Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Norway said they had participated in language courses after arrival.

Lisbon Portugal

Portugal has the highest share of people from outside the EU already speaking the language as a mother tongue before arriving. (Photo by Aayush Gupta on Unsplash)

Recognition of qualifications

Another hurdle on the way to a relevant job in EU countries is the lack of recognition of a formal qualification obtained abroad. This issue was reported by 2 percent of men and 3.8 percent of women born in another EU country. It was also mentioned by 3.3 percent of men and 5.9 percent of women born in a developed country outside the EU, and 4.8 percent of men and 4.6 percent of women born in a less developed non-EU country.

Eurostat says this reflects an “unofficial distrust” among employers of qualification obtained abroad and the “low official validation of foreign education”.

The lack of availability of a suitable job was another factor mentioned in the survey. In Croatia, Portugal and Hungary, this was the main obstacle to getting an adequate position.

This issue concerned 3.3 percent of men and 4.5 percent of women born in another EU country, 4.2 percent of men and 5 percent of women born in a developed non-EU country It also worried 3.9 percent of men and 5.1 percent of women born in a less developed non-EU country.

Restricted right to work due to citizenship or residence permits, as well as plain discrimination on the grounds of origin were also cited as problems.

Discrimination was mostly reported by people born in a less developed non-EU country (3.1 percent for men and 3.3 percent for women) compared to people born in highly developed non-EU countries (1.9 percent for men and 2.2 percent for women).

Citizenship and residence permits issues are unusual for people from within the EU. For people from outside the EU, this is the only area where women seem to have fewer problems than men: 1.6 percent of women from developed non-EU countries reported this issue, against 2.1 percent of men, with the share increasing to 2.8 and 3.3 percent respectively for women and men from less developed non-EU states.

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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