What happens when your temporary residence permit gets cancelled and you can’t relocate due to Covid-19 (aka: we’re moving to Switzerland!)
Guess who’s moving to Switzerland?
After over 6 months of no updates, I thought it was worth sharing one about this, mainly because this new planned relocation opened up a whole rabbit hole of temporary residence permit and visa confusion, and this is where I like to rant about these things. 😉
Why are we moving?
The short story is that I got a new job! For the saga, keep reading.
In April, I was contacted by a headhunter on LinkedIn who asked if I’d be interested in a Head of Content role in beautiful Switzerland. At this point, I’d been unhappy in my role in Estonia for a good few months, and was hanging out for when I could finally give my notice (the plan was to resign in July, which would bring me to two years in my current role).
So, like anyone would, I responded with, “hell yes!” This led to two chats with the recruiter and I was put forward for an interview.
The interview itself was very… strange. Other than “Why are you interested in this role?” at the beginning of the conversation, they didn’t ask me any questions. None. I don’t know about you, but I thought the purpose of an interview was for them to ask questions?
So I filled the space with questions of my own, I asked if they had any questions for me, and then we wrapped up after half an hour or so. When the recruiter called me for feedback, I said that I was pretty sure they’d already found someone and the only reason they did my interview was because it was already in the calendar.
The recruiter later confirmed that they had already found someone, and said it wasn’t a no, but they would go ahead with that other candidate first, and I could expect to hear from them in 2 weeks or so.
I never heard back. Though I also never followed up because…
There was another job opportunity!
At this point, Drew got excited about Lausanne (the city where Job #1 was based), so he started looking for other opportunities and found a Senior Content Manager role at a cryptocurrency startup.
I applied and received an interview request a few days later! Then we had:
- Three interviews with four people
- Five assignments
- Two calls with HR about visas and residence permits
- Two job offers
I won’t go into too much detail here, but these were the most challenging interviews of my life. And I don’t think it’s because I was unprepared – it’s because I don’t think there was any way I could have known what to prepare for.
Interview #1 was with HR, and focused on my knowledge of the company, my knowledge of crypto and blockchain, why I was interested in the role and what I was looking for. Not too bad, but I was expecting to talk more about content marketing (what I do) than crypto and blockchain.
Interview #2 was with the co-founder and head of growth and analytics, and this largely focused on:
- Values (they had doubts about my ethics, because I currently work for a Forex and CFD company, which I never thought would happen)
- Technical knowlege (they wanted me to go through the difference betwen their business model and my current company’s business model – how both make money, and the service the client is getting)
- Assignments (I had assignments to do – more on this later)
Interview #3 was with the CEO. Now I’m not usually important enough to be interviewed by the CEO, but when this has happened in the past, it’s usually a casual conversation to assess cultural fit. However, after the last two interviews and the assignments I’d done, I didn’t know what to expect. I also didn’t know how to prepare.
I got onto the call and he said he wanted to start with a couple of technical tasks. The first one: “Take five minutes to find three websites you like that our website could be like.”
Cue five minutes of furious Googling to find websites of companies and brands I liked.
The second task: “I assume you’ve seen our YouTube channel. Find three videos you liked and two you didn’t and explain why.”
Yes, I had seen their YouTube channel, but they have hundreds of videos and I’d only seen a small selection, so I was opening countless videos in different tabs to find some I could talke about.
After this, things got a bit easier – it was more of an open discussion about what he was looking for and what I could do. But the previous two tasks I never saw coming.
They also asked me to do five assignments between the first and second interview. These were:
- What is our branding? (This is extremely vague, so I created a brand book)
- Write a storyboard for a video promoting our app
- Compose a content plan for the next two months
- Segment our community members
- Create a marketing plan for our community
I had seven days, and it took me six, while working full time. (Thank God we were working remotely and I could sneakily work on this during the day.)
Calls with HR and offers
In the interview process, I also had two calls with HR to discuss residence permit options, and at the end of the process I received two offers – the first I turned down, and the second I accepted.
This then brings me to our residence permit situation…
Leaving your job when you’re on a temporary residence permit for employment
I’m on a temporary residence permit for employment as a top specialist (this basically means I have enough experience to qualify as a specialist, and I’m also getting paid at least twice the national average, which I think is EUR 1,400 a month at the time of writing).
This residence permit is tied to my current job. This means that when I resigned from my current job, they contacted the Police and Border Guard to cancel my permit, which would come into effect 14 days after I finished up (on June 19th).
Drew is on a spousal residence permit. This means it’s tied to mine, so if my permit gets cancelled, his does as well.
This puts us in the position where, as Australians, we can stay in Estonia for 90 days without a visa, but we have no legal right to stay beyond that.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem when you’re relocating – give notice, leave the country, move to the new country and organise a visa/residence permit there.
Unfortunately, coronavirus threw a spanner in the works. Because Switzerland completely shut down immigration.
This left us in the position where we would have no legal right to stay in Estonia beyond 90 days, but we wouldn’t be able to relocate, either.
So, what were the options?
New residence permit and visa options
We decided the simplest option would be to organise a new residence permit for Estonia – there’s only a one-hour time difference between Estonia and Switzerland, and I could start remotely.
I also qualify as a ‘top specialist’ in Estonia (which means you need to meet certain experience and salary requirements), and these sit outside of the main immigration quota for employment, which had already been met for 2020, so there wouldn’t be any problems there.
Drew could also continue working for his current employer, and he plans to continue working remotely for them once we move.
However, about a week after I signed the contract, I got an email from HR at the new company asking if I could chat about options. On the call she said that they were trying to organise the residence permit at their end, but things with lawyers were proving quite expensive, and it didn’t make sense to pay that expense when Drew and I would probably relocate anyway in 3-4 months.
So she asked if I’d be open to a D-visa instead.
A D-visa is a long-stay visa, which allows you to stay for longer than the 90 days. While timeframes vary, one year is pretty standard.
When it comes to working, an employer can register you for short-term employment, and on the D-visa you can then work for 365 days in a 455-day period.
This would be plenty of time for us to relocate, but I wanted to find out what it would mean for Drew. So I booked a time with International House, where you can ask immigration questions, and also asked if the company had any questions they’d like me to ask.
They sent through a list of questions, and on the call I confirmed the full process for applying for the D-visa and applying for the temporary residence permit. Luckily, Drew would be okay in both cases – if I got a temporary residence permit, he wouldn’t need to do anything. If I got a D-visa, he’d need to get one as well.
I sent the information through to the company, and HR got back to me to say that their preference was the D-visa, as there were fewer requirements for them to meet as an employer.
Employer requirements for top specialists
To employ an alien as a top specialist, employers need to meet requirements beyond those need to be met by the employee. According to the Police and Border Guard, they need to meet one of the following requirements:
1. The company has at least 65,000 euros of equity capital, which has been used for purchasing in Estonia and classing as fixed assets immovable property, machines or devices or used for making an investment into a company registered in another commercial register of Estonia, which has real economic activities in Estonia or into an investment fund created or established according to the Investment Funds Act
2. the sales revenue of the company shall be at least 200,000 euros per year
3. the social tax paid in Estonia monthly for the persons employed by the company shall be at least equal with the social tax paid in Estonia monthly on the remuneration equalling fivefold Estonian annual average gross wages
The above requirement that the company must be registered in Estonia at least 12 months is not applicable, if the parent enterprise has been operating at least 12 months and the annual turnover of the parent enterprise is at least ten million euros. After the lapse of one year from the date of granting residence permit the company shall comply with at least one of the above named requirements.
I’d shared this information with the new company before they made the offer, so I’d assumed there weren’t any issues here. So I was a little concerned when they started talking about meeting fewer requirements, as my understanding was that they were hiring me as a top specialist, which meant that these requirements would need to be met regardless of whether we organised a D-visa or temporary residence permit.
I replied saying as much, and shared the link to International House so they could speak with them directly.
The call was scheduled for the following Tuesday. On Monday, though, I received an email in response to my residence permit application (not wanting to hold things up, I’d sent this through as soon as the job contract was signed, not knowing yet that there were issues on the company’s side), which said that the company didn’t meet the requirements.
I sat tight, waiting to hear from them.
On Tuesday afternoon, they emailed me to say they did meet the requirements, and I asked which requirement they met, so I could respond to the advice I received.
They said that they didn’t meet the requirements at the moment, but because the requirements used the word ‘shall’, they assumed they were referring to the future, and the company would likely meet the requirements in July or August.
I went back to my immigration person to share this, and in the meantime I started looking at other options.
Using out 90-day visa-free period to stay in Estonia
As Australians, we can stay in the Schengen zone (which includes Estonia and Switzerland) for up to 90 days in a 180-day period without a visa or residence permit. So, once my permit got cancelled (this should happen on July 3), we’d have until October 1 to figure out the situation in Switzerland.
If Switzerland opens up by then, and we can start the residence permit process over there by then, great – there’s nothing to worry about.
If not… we’d need more time.
So we took a look at non-Schengen zone countries where we could stay. Drew has some remote colleagues in Serbia, so we started there – we could also stay there for 90 days in a 180-day period, and it wouldn’t take up our Schengen-zone time. So that would give us six months in total – three in Serbia, and three in Estonia/Switzerland.
In fact, if we left Estonia and went straight there, we could have a continuous cycle of going back and forth – 90 days in Serbia, 90 days in Estonia/Switzerland, and the next 90 days would start a new 180 days, so we could start again. A bit of a headache, but at least we had an option.
Switching from an employment permit to a spouse permit
At this point, I stumbled across an email that was sent to me from the Migration Advice service. I’d ended up asking my questions in a call, so I’d said they didn’t need to worry about the email, however, they’d also responded since my emailed questions were different to the ones I’d asked on the call, due to the changing nature of my situation.
One of them was about Drew’s residence permit, and whether he could switch from his current spouse permit to an employment one. I’d always assumed it wouldn’t be an option – because he would be categorised under the general employment category, he wouldn’t be eligible since the quota has already been met this year.
However, this email said that he could switch across. I then reached out to HR at my current employer and it was confirmed – as someone with an existing residence permit, the quota didn’t apply to him. It seems that the quota only applies to new immigrants.
Ultimately, this would mean that I could then get a spouse permit attached to his, and there wouldn’t be any employer requirements.
How to stay in Estonia (legally)
This brought us to five options for staying in Estonia:
- Get a temporary residence permit as a top specialist
- Get a long-stay visa (up to a year) for short-term employment (also up to a year) as a top specialist
- Get Drew to switch his residence permit from a spouse permit to an employment permit, and then I could become his spouse
- Stay in Estonia without a visa or residence permit (up to 90 days), and freelance as an Australian
- Go to Serbia without a visa or residence permit (up to 90 days), and then move back to the Schengen zone (either Estonia or Switzerland, also up to 90 days), freelancing as an Australian
Options 1 and 2 didn’t seem to be possible because although the company could meet the requirements in a couple of moths, they didn’t meet them at the time of my application.
Option 3 was possible, but I’d need to wait for Drew’s new permit to be organised before I could organise my own permit, which would be about two months. This would then mean I’d also need a long-stay visa to bridge the gap between when our 90-day visa-free period ended, and when my own new residence permit got approved, which would likely be a month or so. So this one was doable, but a little complex.
Option 4 was looking like the top contender, however, it would mean we were on a 90-day ticking clock while we waited for Switzerland to open up again. This might be enough time, but it also might not be enough time, which brings us to Option 5.
Two days ago, Option 5 seemed like the most realistic option, and I started looking for Airbnbs in Belgrade. I was open to this – it could be fun to live somewhere new for a few months, and even though packing everything up twice (once to move to Serbia, and again to move to Switzerland) would be annoying, we’d have a three-month break before the second move.
However, what was driving my anxiety through the roof was that I couldn’t take steps towards Options 3, 4 and 5 until we confirmed, once and for all, that Options 1 and 2 weren’t doable.
See, one of the challenges in Estonia is that because they are fairly new to importing foreign talent (I think it’s only really picked up in the last 10 year), any time you have a slightly unusual situation, no one seems to know what to do. Drew experienced this in late 2018/early 2019 when he was applying for his residence permit, and he received conflicting advice from different people.
As I mentioned earlier, the company and I had received conflicting advice – they had been told that they met the requirements for hiring a top specialist, while I had been told they hadn’t.
And, when I heard back from my immigration professional, they confirmed that the company didn’t meet the requirements – they needed to meet the requirements now, not in the future.
So, it looked like we’d confirmed that Options 1 and 2 were not, in fact, options.
Bring in HR at my current employer…
Estonian HR to the rescue!
One of the most challenging things about this experience was feeling like I needed to become an immigration advisor, since the new company was so new to the process. The problem is that I’ve only been through the immigration process once, and I only know that specific situation from an employee’s perspective – anything from the employer perspective, or any different options, and I couldn’t help.
So in addition to reaching out to International House and the Police and Border Guard, I’d also been asking HR at my current company a LOT of questions, and, even though I was asking these questions as part of the process of leaving the company, they were incredibly helpful.
So, I decided to ask them about how Option 3 would work. Could I apply for a visa as Drew’s spouse before his new permit was issued?
The answer was yes, I could apply as soon as he submitted his own application, however, this wouldn’t allow me to work until my visa/residence permit was issued. So rather than starting on July 1, I would probably be looking at a start date in September.
In order for me to start in July, my employer would need to register me for short-term employment.
But isn’t that the problem we have with Options 1 and 2? Isn’t the short-term employment registration based on my employment as a top specialist?
And, if it isn’t, hasn’t the quota for 2020 already been met for general employees?
Short-term employment loopholes
It turns out, no – short-term employment contracts don’t go under the employment quota, there’d be no need to register me as a top specialist – I could just be a general employee.
So, after all of that, the company didn’t even need to meet the requirements we thought they needed to meet!
Registering for short-term employment
So, we’re going with Option 2 – registering for short-term employment (as a general employee), and getting a D-visa.
The first step of this process was for the employer to submit the short-term employment registration.
Now, if you’re in Estonia, this can all be done digitally. In fact, if you’re in certain EU states that have digital IDs, this can also be done digitally. However, Switzerland is not one of these. This means, they need to submit the paperwork by post.
However, I already had an appointment scheduled at the Police and Border Guard for my temporary residence permit application, which I kept on the off chance I could just apply for a D-visa instead when I was there.
So I got the company to send through the paperwork, and I brought this with me to my appointment. After trying to take my photo five times (it kept telling me to close my already-closed mouth) and overriding the system, I sat down for my appointment, explained that my situation had changed and I was no longer applying for a temporary residence permit. Then I pushed the short-term employment forms across the desk.
The immigration person looked at them then looked back at me. “You can’t submit this,” she said. “The company needs to submit these.”
“I know,” I said. “But the company is based in Switzerland so they can’t apply online. We can send the forms by post, but since I was coming anyway I thought I’d try submitting them in person.”
“No, you can’t submit them. They need to post them.”
I paused. “What if I put these papers into an envelope and send them in?”
She shrugged. “If it is from the company, it is okay.”
So rather than handing the forms to an immigration person at the Police and Border Guard office, I went to the post office, put the exact same papers into an envelope and sent them in instead.
From here’ the short-term employment should be confirmed in 2-3 weeks, after which I can apply for my D-visa.
So we’re not getting deported! And at some point we’ll be relocating to Switzerland! Yay, I guess?