The challenges of joining Estonia’s digital ecosystem
They told me it would be easy. That even though it was difficult getting everything set up, once I had my ID card, everything would be simple.
Little did I know that the ID card wasn’t the end of the journey. Instead, I would have to go through an incredibly convoluted process to become a part of Estonia’s digital ecosystem. The biggest milestone in this seemed to be registering my address with the population register, which is a prerequisite for receiving a number of benefits as a resident of Tallinn, including getting free public transport and registering with a local doctor (which I’ve been told is a prerequisite for using the health insurance that is included in my employment package).
An ID card does not make you digital
I first realised there might be more steps involved when I tried to set up a Ühiskaart (the Tallinn public transport card – the equivalent of a Myki, Opal, Oyster card or Navigo) for free public transport, which is a right for all residents of Tallinn. I took my brand new ID card to an R-Kiosk and purchased an Ühiskaart, asking the woman at the register to connect it to the ID card.
When I tried to use the bus the next day, the card reader told me I had insufficient funds.
Wait a second – I was a resident now. Why did I need funds? Who did they think I was – some kind of peasant?!
So I went online and after a very long Google journey that returned many pages that were clearly optimised for the search engines but couldn’t help me (e.g. articles and pages talking about the fact that Tallinn had free public transport, but not explaining how to register for it) I found the pilett.ee website and an Ühiskaart page where I could personalise my card by submitting my ID code and my Ühiskaart number.
I did this, and the next day I attempted to catch the bus again, only to be told I had insufficient funds.
At the same time I was also trying to figure out how to register with a local doctor so I could use my health insurance should anything bad happen. Like the Ühiskaart, I assumed that now I had my ID card, I’d be able to complete an application online somewhere.
However, as I started to look into it, it seemed that in order to start the process I needed to register my address online with the population register.
Where do I find the population register??
This then sent me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out how to find the population register, where I came across these pages:
While all of these are about the population register, none of them is the population register. Being very impatient, I skimmed through the pages trying to figure out how I actually registered, but there were no obvious links or buttons telling me where to go.
(Note that, now that I know the URL to search for, I’ve been able to find it on each of the pages, but when you don’t know what to look for it’s hard to find as it isn’t very prominent. I’m also an impatient Millennial who expects everything to be intuitive, so this may have contributed to my frustration.)
On the verge of giving up, I then turned to the letter that I received with my ID card, which had a line stating that I could now register for an eesti.ee email address.
Perhaps this would be a good starting point? Better yet, maybe this was the mythical population register I was looking for?
I went to the website, which appeared to be dedicated to public services and had a personal portal section, so I thought this would be a step in the right direction. However, I couldn’t figure out where to go to set up my email address, and when I attempted to log in using the ID card and the online banking option (for some reasons, the major banks are connected to all of these services here), I got an error message.
At this point, I emailed.
How do I set up an eesti.ee email address?
I emailed the help address to find out how to get this address set up, assuming that once it was I would be able to log in and (hopefully) register my address. Then I could ride the bus to my heart’s content!
My email read:
I just received my Estonian residence permit and ID card, which had a
letter with it saying I could register for an eesti.ee email address.
However, when I visited the eesti.ee website, it wasn’t clear where I
should go to do this.
Can you please tell me how I can set up that email address?
The response said:
You can forward your @eesti.ee email address to your default address by going: “My data – Settings – Official e-mail” or the link: https://www.eesti.ee/portaal/!postisysteem.sunamised
Okay… How was I supposed to forward an email address when I didn’t even have the email address? Was my original email not clear enough?
So I tried again explaining that she hadn’t answered my question – I needed to first register an email address before I could forward it. I also explained that when I tried the link she sent me, I got an error message, and got another error message when I tried logging in.
The incredibly patient staff member responded to explain that the email address is automatically created when an ID card is issued (Estonian government – you need to work on your communication skills!), so the only thing I could do with it was forward it.
When it came to logging in, she said: ‘please check if the ID card management tool counts your data’, along with checking whether I had any browser plugins that might affect the ID authentication process.
What’s an ID card management tool??
The plugin question was simple – I had none of the offending programs installed. But what was this ‘ID card management tool’ she spoke of?
I asked, and she responded: ‘When you installed the ID-card software, you also got the ID-card management tool or Digidoc tool. Just click the Start button on your computer and write ID or digidoc. If you open the app you will see your ID-card data.’
This was the first I’d heard about needing any software. There was nothing about this in the letter that came with my ID card, and it had never come up in any interactions with my employer or my bank.
So I went back to Google, searching for ‘Digidoc’, which led me to download five separate programs. (Note that I’m still not sure which of these I actually need.)
Once I downloaded them, I opened the DigiDoc3 program to connect, when it told me there was no smart card connected to the computer. Not only did I need software – I also needed hardware for this process.
Drew and I went to a couple of electronics stores and, after being unable to find smart card readers ourselves, we asked a staff member for help. At this point we discovered smart card readers are kept behind the counter like some kind of contraband, so there’s no way we would have found one without help.
(As a side note: If the government gives e-residents card readers with their ID cards, would it be so hard for them to do the same for physical residents? Just a thought.)
Success! But not quite…
I put my ID card in my card reader and inserted the card reader into a USB port on my laptop. I then opened the Digidoc3 software, which brought up my card details.
Then I went to eesti.ee and attempted to log in with my ID card…
The portal asked for one of the two PINs that was provided with the card (so that’s what they’re for!), and I was in! After setting up my email forwarding and adding my phone number to the portal (both easy), the next step was to register my place of residence.
I opened the application form and completed the details – quite a slow process as the form as in Estonian, and I had to paste a number of sections into Google Translate to figure out what it was asking me. But that’s to be expected when you move to another country, so no complaints there.
Everything was going swimmingly until I got to the last question, where it requested the property owner’s details. As I’m not the property owner, and I’m renting through a real estate agent, I had no idea what to put here.
So I closed the form and sent my agent an email, explaining I needed the landlord’s first name, last name and ID code for the register.
They got back to me the next day with a series of very helpful screenshots where they’d filled out the form with all of the details I’d need, including the landlord’s information, and I completed the form a second time.
Then I clicked ‘sign with ID card’.
Computer says ‘no’
The next page listed all of the information I’d added, and asked for documents to prove my right to use the apartment. In other words, my lease agreement.
The problem was that the form had a file size limit of 1MB, and my scanned lease agreement was 2.7MB. I tried submitting the larger file just in case, but when I hit the submit button (literally ‘further to the signing’), nothing happened.
I then put the PDF through a range of compression tools to get it under 1MB and tried again.
I logged out, closed my browser and logged back in again, opening the saved application and uploading the document again.
No matter what I tried – different browsers, different computers, different days – nothing happened when I tried to submit the form.
Back to my email!
You can also submit a PDF…
I emailed a help address for the address registration explaining the problem, to which the person replied ‘You were probably using Google Chrome or Internet Explorer’, and she recommended using Edge or Firefox.
I’d been using Edge, but tried Firefox as well just in case, but still nothing happened when I pressed the button.
However, she also mentioned that I could save the filed application to my computer, sign it digitally and send it to the local municipal authority.
Having just learnt how Estonian digital signatures work, I was confident that this was my solution. The only problem was that there was no way to download the application to my computer.
When I asked how I could download it, the consultant replied with an email with a PDF residence notification form. I could either complete the PDF on my computer, digitally sign it with DigiDoc and email it to my council with a copy of my lease agreement, or I could print it out and physically take it to my council with a copy of my lease agreement.
I chose to try the first option.
How digital signatures work in Estonia
While all of this was happening, I also got a message from our HR department asking, ‘Can you sign digitally?’
Back home, we consider a digital signature to be when you receive a contract online and type your name into the signature field. The program will then generate a version of your name in a handwriting-style font, and you check a box agreeing that this will count as your signature.
So in theory, yes, I can sign things digitally. However, having begun to understand the complexity with which Digital Estonia operates, I couldn’t be sure that this was what they were asking.
I responded: ‘It depends – is this a special Estonian way of signing digitally that involves a number of apps, software and my smart card, or is it just typing my name and agreeing for it to count as a digital signature, like the rest of the world does it?’
It was the Estonian way.
Here’s what was involved:
- Try to open the file that needed to be signed. Discover it won’t open because I don’t have the required software.
- Install the DigiDoc on my work laptop (this involved two forced restarts, so it wasn’t a quick process).
- Insert my ID card into the side of my laptop (the Dell I use at work has a built in smart card reader, which is kind of cool).
- Open the DigiDoc program.
- Open the ‘.bdoc’ file for signing.
- Click ‘Sign with ID card.’
Unfortunately then I needed to enter my PIN 2 (the other one of the two PINs I was given with my ID card when my residence permit was approved), which I didn’t have on me. So this meant closing everything and coming back to it the next day, when I had brought my PINs to work.
The next day, though, I was able to go through the complete process and the bdoc file was updated to include my signature.
Fortunately, it meant that when it came time to complete the PDF to register my address, I had all of the pieces in place and was able to do it in a matter of minutes. After completing the form and signing it with my ID card, it was saved as a bdoc which I then sent to the Kristiine Administrative Office (details found in the eesti.ee portal) along with my lease agreement.
I hoped this would be enough to get everything organised.
The cycle of following up
After four days, I still had not heard anything, so I sent an email to follow up, with two versions of my message – one in English, and one Google Translated to Estonian.
Three minutes later (so fast!) I got a response in Estonian, asking me to call a number to follow up on my application.
Life happened, and it was a week before I was able to make a call during business hours when I also had all the possible documentation and details they might ask about in front of me. Unfortunately, the woman who answered the phone didn’t speak English, and I still don’t speak enough Estonian to manage this type of conversation. (I can ask for and tell the time, though!)
So I sent another email in Google-Translate Estonian asking if they could update me by email, since my Estonian is non-existent beyond greetings, numbers and days of the week.
One day later I received an email in English, saying ‘I will let you know that your residence data is registered.’
I assumed this meant it had been registered, not that it was still going to be registered and I should await further communication.
The moment of truth…
I laid out my identification toolkit – my laptop, my ID card, my smart card reader and the letter with my smart card PIN codes.
I inserted the ID card into the smart card reader, then inserted the reader into my laptop’s USB drive.
I opened DigiDoc and confirmed that it was reading my card.
I navigated to eesti.ee (in Microsoft Edge) and clicked to log in using my ID card. A popup appeared with my details (taken from DigiDoc), which I confirmed were correct, and then I entered my PIN 1.
Successfully logged in, I checked my details…
And my address was registered!
Next step: using my digitally documented Estonian residency to get free public transport.