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Today’s guest is sharing her experience of applying for Dutch citizenship. For Akanksha Pathania, it was a big decision, not least because becoming a citizen of the Netherlands required her to renounce her Indian citizenship. Find out what the process entailed, how you can best prepare for the exams, and why for Akanksha, becoming Dutch has been worth it.
Akanksha, I’d like to start with your expat story. So, you’re originally from India. Can you tell me how you ended up moving to the Netherlands?
Akanksha: So, I was living in Canada at the time, in Toronto, and I was just sick of the snow. And my sister was living in Amsterdam, and she invited me to visit her, and we decided to do a small Euro trip. And then I travelled to Amsterdam for the first time. I was like, this is not what I imagined in my head at all, because it’s so different from North America.
And while I was visiting her, I was obviously venting about how much I hated snow. So, she recommended that I apply for jobs here and see if I could move here. And that’s what I did. I got a job, and I moved here about seven years ago. And I’ve never looked back.
Carlie: I love that you mentioned that you hated snow, but I’m pretty sure it does snow in the Netherlands. Doesn’t it?
Akanksha: It does, but it’s a nice thing. It’s a special event, and you don’t have months of snow.
Carlie: So it’s a different level to in Canada, then.
Akanksha: Yeah. And I think also, because I was a student, I was just struggling to get to uni in the snow. It was not pleasant for me. Also, I hadn’t lived in snow ever before that in my life. So, I chose the rain over the snow.
Carlie: When you first came to Amsterdam, I assume you were on some kind of visa?
Akanksha: Yeah. When I moved here for work, I was on a work sponsored visa, which is like a work permit for the company I worked for in Amsterdam, but it also opens up travel within the Schengen region, because you can still travel to any of the Schengen countries without another visa.
Carlie: How long were you living here on a visa, before you decided to look into becoming Dutch?
Akanksha: I think I’d been living here for about four years before I started thinking of becoming a Dutch national. Something like that, because I was reading up about the immigration process, and you have to be living here for five years in order to be eligible to become a Dutch national.
So, I started a bit early on. So, initially, when I was living here, the first two/three years, I was like, yeah, I don’t think I want to learn Dutch; it’s too difficult. And I think, as an adult, I was certainly embarrassed of learning a new language and making mistakes.
Carlie: I can relate to that.
Akanksha: And then, we had classes during work hours, and I was like, well, now there’s literally no excuse. I don’t have to travel. It’s during work hours. And I could do it with colleagues who I got along with really well. So it was just a fun experience that I was doing. That’s how I started.
Then I realised that I could make sense of my mail a little bit better, instead of just using Google translate. That certainly made things easier. And yeah, that’s how I started. I think, by the time I started learning Dutch, it had been four years. And if you have been living here for five years and you have a job, you can apply for naturalisation; you just need to speak the language and write the exams.
So yeah, I started doing that. Totally not believing that I could write the exams or pass the exams, but I think I was just doing it half-hearted.
Carlie: And then you were thinking that you’d been there long enough. You’d been learning Dutch anyway. So, it was time for you to consider whether to go for naturalisation for a citizenship.
Akanksha: Being an Indian citizen, I had to get a visa for any country that I wanted to visit. But in the Schengen Area, it was easy, because I had an EU work permit except for the UK. And I had to go to the UK a lot for work. And that was always annoying, because they’d be like, ‘Okay, can you just move away from the line? I need to check your visa.’
So, I think that was one of the annoying things. Why do they have to be so discriminatory? I have a visa! So, I think, for immigration, yeah, for travel – that was one of the main reasons
Carlie: So it was less because you felt an affinity with the Netherlands and loved the cheese and the clogs or something like that?
Akanksha: Actually, I do love Amsterdam. I really do. I think it’s so international. You come across so many different cultures, and people are really open-minded, and they just let you get on with your life. And so, I was like, yeah, I want to stay in Amsterdam for longer. So, that was definitely a motivator as well, but I was also never made to feel like an outsider because I couldn’t speak Dutch.
Carlie: I’ve been to Amsterdam a few times, and every time I’m really impressed with how welcoming the people are. And there isn’t any kind of snobbery or expectation that you … I mean, obviously in any country you go to, you should try to speak the local language, but it’s not like they hold it against you if you can’t speak Dutch, and they just happily flip to English, and nothing’s a problem. And I found that really welcoming and positive.
Akanksha: Yeah, exactly. That’s what I meant. I do like the Netherlands and Amsterdam, but I also didn’t feel like I had to do it because I wasn’t blending in or getting along with the locals there.
Carlie: So, you were already learning Dutch thanks to classes at work. When you started really looking into what you needed to do for Dutch citizenship, what else did you find out about what the criteria was?
Akanksha: When I started looking at the process, I have to say that another friend of mine was going through it as well. And I was just like, let’s just see if we can do it together. So that was a huge help. So, I think that that’s going to be my recommendation. If you can find a friend or someone who’s also going through a similar process…
Also, if you’re learning the language, I think it really helps, because you have similar experiences, or you can at least talk about what you’re going through. The factors that I considered were: how long the process was going to take, in terms of eligibility to apply for citizenship – so, it’s five years in the Netherlands – how many exams I had to write – and I believe it was like five exams and then one interview – and how difficult the exams were going to be.
So, I think when I wrote the naturalisation exams, you could write them if you were comfortable with A2 level of Dutch. And I was also looking at it from a point of view of immigration – what would happen to my Indian citizenship? I actually had to give up my citizenship.
So, I hadn’t decided at that point if I would become a naturalised citizen or if I could just get a permanent residency in the Netherlands, because the process of writing exams is the same for both those scenarios. It’s just up to you, once you’ve passed all of the exams, whether you want to become a citizen or just a resident.
Carlie: It’s a really big decision to essentially renounce part of your identity. Was that a big deal for you to have to do that?
Akanksha: A hundred percent. I think I was on an emotional roller coaster the whole time. First, I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t give up my citizenship, that I’d just be a permanent resident. And then I realised that, if I became a permanent resident, I’d still have to be back in the Netherlands every five years or so to give them proof that I’d been living here. Something like that. Basically, it needs to be renewed.
I personally hate doing paperwork. So, I was more motivated by the fact that I couldn’t do this every five years – have this thing hanging over my head that I have to come back. It’d be an inconvenience. But it was very hard for me. When I was finally giving up my Indian citizenship, it felt a bit sad, like I definitely was giving up my identity. What if I couldn’t move back home?
So, at that point, I started making sure that I could finish immigration processes, so that I could actually go back home and become a permanent resident of India. So, I guess the situation was flipped.
Carlie: You’ve essentially become a Dutch citizen, and you’re a permanent resident in India. So, that’s how you’re able to keep a foot in India, essentially.
Akanksha: I’m going through that process right now. So, I’m just going through my application process for becoming a permanent resident in India. I’m halfway through, because I guess this whole thing took a really long time. Once you become a citizen and you have your new passport, that’s when you can start to renounce your Indian citizenship.
Carlie: What are the implications of that? What is the difference between – excuse my ignorance – being a permanent resident of a country and being an actual citizen? What does it change for you, if you decide to go back and live in India?
Akanksha: So, I can speak from, I guess, what I know about the situation in India. If you’re a permanent resident versus a citizen, I think the difference is that you can’t vote in elections, if I’m not wrong, and you can’t own farmland. You can buy residential properties. So, that’s sort of the main difference.
And in the Netherlands, I don’t know. I do know that the Netherlands actually allows for dual citizenship, but then it depends on whether your country of origin allows it. India, unfortunately, doesn’t allow it.
Carlie: You’ve made this big decision. You’re studying up for everything you need to do, and you’re working full-time at the same time. I imagine that was quite a load.
Akanksha: It definitely was. It definitely was quite a heavy, stressful period. I will not lie. I think there were times when I was like, I don’t know why I’m doing this. I should just stop. It’s too stressful. But I managed to pull through. I think the one thing that I would tell myself is that it’s okay. And, if you fail an exam, you can just write it again. You don’t have to get in the mindset of, I failed. It’s not school.
Carlie: You can go back and sit it again.
Akanksha: Yeah, exactly. It’s not a measure of my progress. I’m also working a full-time job, so I don’t need to stress out about too many things. Yeah. I would advise people to maybe take some time off if they’re writing exams. I didn’t do that, actually. I would just go to work and then take an hour off and go and write my exam and then come back and start working.
And because there are six exams, I think I had tests scheduled over a period of two months or something. So, those two months were just like, okay, now I’m done with one exam, and I have to prep for the next one.
Carlie: So, tell me what these exams were. You’ve obviously got the language test. How’s your Dutch these days?
Akanksha: In the pandemic, it has completely gone to sh*t. Also, because I’m working at a place that is almost 80% expats, and none of them speak Dutch … I think I speak the most Dutch. So, it has been hard to keep it up. Yeah. And we had those classes at work, but because of the pandemic, they aren’t happening. I would like to continue learning Dutch.
I had already advanced to B1 level, which is sort of like professional. So, you are supposed to write your CV and apply for jobs and that kind of thing. I don’t trust myself with that at work, because I guess I always just try to make sure that I get everything that’s happening. And I feel like I’m not there with that yet.
But in terms of the exams … So, there are six exams. So, there’s: writing, reading, speaking, and, I think, listening as well, and the Dutch culture. And then the sixth one is sort of like an interview, mostly for people who haven’t had a fulltime job for the entire period of five years that they’ve been living here. But if you have had a full-time job, you can also get an exemption from it.
I, however, actually took that exam, because I knew that [getting the exemption would actually take longer]. I just wanted to get done with the process. And the interviewers for the sixth exam were super sweet, and they made me feel really comfortable.
So, that was another thing. Even when I was going to the place where we had to write exams, I never felt like they were being discriminatory, and everybody was being super sweet, because you’re obviously stressed out, and they see that, the organisers and the invigilators. So yeah, everything was quite chilled out. They made me feel like, it’s okay, I’m already doing my best.
Carlie: I’m curious. You said you had reading, writing, speaking, and listening exams to test your Dutch. What level of Dutch language did you need to get through that?
Akanksha: I believe the requirement for these exams is A2 level. So, A1 is really elementary, and by A2 you sort of understand sentences, sentence formation, etc.
Carlie: Okay, so that’s doable for most people.
Akanksha: Exactly. Yeah. Actually, with the Dutch classes that I was taking, I had already progressed. I think I was just starting B1, but I wasn’t the greatest Dutch student. So, I think that helped, the fact that I already knew that I was already at B1. There are also loads of practice tests available online on the IND website.
IND is like the immigration association, or whatever, the department in the Netherlands. And that’s where you have to register for all of these exams. And they have loads of practice tests. So, that really helped, because I could test, and I knew what my level of Dutch was and what I needed to score in order to pass. That definitely helped.
Carlie: So, I’m curious about the culture test, because here in France, I haven’t gone for a French nationality yet, but I hear that they can throw really big curve balls at you. Like, who was the arts minister in 1985, or what football team won the world cup in 1992, or like really random questions.
And so, it’s really hard to prepare for that. You have to study everything, essentially. What did you do to prepare, and what was your culture test like?
Akanksha: That sounds insane that you have to sort of read everything, especially because I don’t follow football at all. So, it already sounds like a nightmare for me, but actually the culture exam here, it’s not that difficult. It’s very reasonable.
There’s a bit about history, about the houses of government here, a little bit of geography, and nothing insane, like who was a minister in the eighties or something like that. It’s more about your general knowledge about Dutch culture, the healthcare system, the education system …
It’s also really practical, which is exactly how Dutch culture is. So, things that you would need to know if you were going to settle down in the Netherlands, what the unemployment bureau is and how to go there, how to sign up for health insurance, how doctors work, and things like that. And there’s loads of books available to study for that exam. And it wasn’t that hard.
Carlie: It sounds like they are really testing you on how you’re able to get by independently in society, which is so useful.
Akanksha: Exactly. I felt like the point of the exam was to make sure that you are self-sufficient and can get around and find things for different situations in life, when you’re having kids or applying for jobs or looking for schools, etc. – things like that.
Carlie: So, you mentioned that you were going to skip the sixth exam, but the exemption process was taking longer than if you’d just done it. So, how long did your process take from start to finish to get your Dutch nationality?
Akanksha: If I only consider the day I took my first exam until the day I wrote my last one, I think it was about three months. And then I had to wait for the result for another three months or something like that. And once you get that, that’s when you apply for Dutch citizenship, which took me a year, because once I had applied for Dutch nationality, it took about a year to process the application, which was further complicated by the pandemic. So, I received it last year.
Carlie: And while you’re going through that process, are you allowed to leave the country?
Akanksha: Yeah, you can, so long as you have a valid visa, like a work permit or a resident permit. I had mine until April of this year. So it was fine for me to travel.
Carlie: And so now you have a shiny new Dutch passport.
Akanksha: I do. I finally got it this year. And what blew my mind was how much faster it was that what I’m used to being from India. And I don’t want to talk bad about India. Maybe it’s just in New Delhi that it’s so busy. But yeah, it was like a week. The day that I got my citizenship – and I waited, because I had to travel – and then the day I applied for my passport, I think it was about five days. It was insane, because I think for an Indian passport it takes about a month or two.
Carlie: Yeah, that’s very efficient. I know when my dad in Australia became an Australian citizen, he had to go to a ceremony and take an oath. And he was given a little tree, a native Australian tree. Did you have to do anything like that? Or did you get a gift? Did you get a block of cheese or something?
Akanksha: I would have loved to. And actually, there is a similar process here. You’re invited to the city hall, and you take an oath, and then you’re presented with your certificate or your document or whatever, but because of the pandemic, it was all scrapped, unfortunately.
Carlie: Not even a Zoom ceremony?
Akanksha: No, actually. Nothing. I guess they were just really busy at the city hall.
Carlie: Other priorities.
Akanksha: Yeah, exactly. And I think we had a pretty big peak of Covid-19 as well in April. So, there was nothing happening. They sanctioned by post, and I was like, okay then, I guess I’ll just celebrate with my friends. So, that was sort of it.
Carlie: We spoke earlier, Akanksha, about the practicalities of having Dutch nationality compared to when you were traveling on an Indian passport. I’m wondering, what difference has becoming Dutch made to your life?
Akanksha: I was super excited to travel, but I haven’t since I got my passport two months ago, because there are still so many restrictions. But I am planning to travel. I think the difference has been … I’m thinking of changing jobs right now, and that’s not going to impact my consideration, because employers do ask if you’re a Dutch citizen or not.
I don’t know about other countries, but in the Netherlands, you sort of have to say to the government that you can’t find a local resource, and that’s why you’re sponsoring an expat. So that was always a consideration for me as well, that if I’m applying for a job, I have to tell prospective employers upfront that I’m not a citizen, so they’ll have to sponsor me. And things like that.
Carlie: And generally, third country nationals might be further down the employment list than Dutch or European citizens for jobs.
Akanksha: Definitely. And that’s not thinking about the paperwork that you have to go through every year to renew your visa, or every couple of years, because your visa only lasts for, I think, five years. That’s the highest that they give you in the Netherlands. And I don’t have to go through that process.
So, it’s definitely a relief that I can travel without getting visas for other countries as well. I remember when I went to Morocco two years ago, I couldn’t believe that I needed a visa for Morocco, because in my head I was just like, I’m sure that I’ll be allowed in Morocco without a visa. And it wasn’t a straightforward process either. So, the fact that I don’t have to deal with all of that is great.
Carlie: So, having gone through the process and those six tests yourself, what advice would you give others thinking about starting to apply for their Dutch nationality?
Akanksha: I would say to write the exams as soon as possible. I was super scared of learning Dutch, but it wasn’t a very hard language, honestly. And you do have quite a few good teachers. The reason I say as soon as possible is: in the Netherlands, you can write the exams, once you’ve moved here, at any point. You can only apply for citizenship after living here for five years.
So, I think that’s really good as well. You can write the exams and be done with it. I think the scores are valid for a certain period of time. I don’t remember, a year or two years? It’ll be great if you can find a study buddy; that really helped me. I think if I was going through this process alone, I would have been more stressed out than I was. That really helped.
And, at the end of the day, it’s just a naturalisation process, so don’t get too stressed out about it. My out was, I can always write it again, so I don’t care if I fail this one. Of course, in terms of study material, the cultural exam, I think, is the one that most people say is the tricky one. So, maybe get a few practice tests before you start studying, just for context.
That really helped me, because then I didn’t feel like I needed to learn about everything. It narrowed the syllabus down, I guess.
Carlie: Finally, what are some things that you really love about the Netherlands?
Akanksha: I love the canals. The city is so pretty in every season, especially in fall. The fact that the entire city is connected by canals, and you can get from one point to the other on a boat is insane. People are really nice. There’s lots of different cultures. I love the coffee culture, and by that I don’t mean weed, I mean that people are coffee snobs here.
There are loads of great cafes, and you can always find a good cup of coffee. People are very well-travelled, as well. So, I feel like they have a good grasp of other cultures. And they’ll usually come to you with a sense of curiosity, wanting to learn more about your culture, which is quite nice. There’s always something to do. There are loads of festivals going on – not in the pandemic, but in normal times.
I think I find the size of the city grew on me, because I’ve always lived in New Delhi or Toronto – the really big cities – and it was normal to commute to work for like 90 minutes. That’s unheard of in the Netherlands, unless you’re going, I don’t know, from Rotterdam to Amsterdam. Otherwise, you can just get around on your bike.
And that was the best thing for me. I could just bike to work and control my schedule, in the sense that I don’t have to wait for public transport or worry about traffic too much. It’s quite a nice place to live in.
Carlie: Congratulations on becoming Dutch. And thank you so much for having this chat today to share your experience with Expat Focus.
Akanksha: Thanks for having me, Carlie.
Carlie: I hope you enjoyed this episode. Be sure to check out our other interviews with expats – and experts – from all over the world. You’ll find them at expatfocus.com, on YouTube and on your favourite podcast app. You can follow or subscribe to never miss an episode, and I’ll catch you next time.