Carlie: Welcome to another episode of the Expat Focus podcast, the show for anyone moving or living abroad. I’m your host Carlie, and today we’ve set our sights on Poland. One of the fastest-growing EU economies, Poland is also rising in the rankings of places seen as good to live. The country moved from 23rd to 13th in this year’s HSBC Expat League table, and it’s among the five best countries in Europe for digital nomads, according to the Remote Workers Index by Plusnet.
But before you pack your bags for Poland, there are some key things you should know. My guest, American blogger and teacher Leah Morawiec, has lived in the country for almost a decade, and she’s going to share her top five tips.
First up, can you tell me how did you end up in Poland?
Leah: Oh, it’s a nice question. I came to Poland about eight years ago now. So, this was … almost nine, yeah! Actually, the first time I came here was nine years ago. It was the summer of 2010, and I had just finished university, and I wanted to do something interesting in the summer, before I started serious life.
So I decided to do a program with an organization called WorldTeach. They send people all over the world to teach English. I thought that sounded interesting. I had never before taught English. So, something new for me. But I went on their site and I chose from a list, and the most interesting country to me was Poland. I went there for two months, and then, while I was there teaching English, I met someone, and decided to see how it would go. And it went pretty well, so … [chuckles]
Carlie: Yeah, clearly! It’s been almost a decade now!
Leah: Yeah, that’s right. That sounds crazy.
Carlie: What did you know about Poland before you went there for those two months.
Leah: Well, not very much, to be honest. And I think that’s kind of typical, at least of American people. I don’t know about other people in Europe, for instance. But I think Americans, generally, they don’t know much about Poland. I think that they know that it’s cold here, for instance. [laughs] People think that it’s always cold here, I don’t know why. But I think that’s just some images maybe that they have in their minds.
What else? I think that a lot of people think it’s not very built up, so there’s not a lot of big cities, or something like that. I think they think it’s kind of fields and villages everywhere, which is also definitely not the case. And what else? I think they also probably think people drink a lot of vodka, which is a typical stereotype of this region. Which is of course, you know, true, perhaps only on special occasions, at weddings and things like that. [laughs]
But otherwise, no, I really didn’t know anything about the country. What attracted me to come here was its nice location, just because it’s centrally located, and it seemed like a safe country to travel around by yourself, as a young girl.
Carlie: So, today we’re going to discuss five things to know before moving to Poland. And you’re a good person to be disseminating this advice – you’ve been there almost a decade now, and I’m sure you’ve learnt a lot along the way, and learnt from mistakes as well.
Leah: Oh, sure. Definitely.
Carlie: The first point on your list, Leah, is Polish bureaucracy. What bureaucratic challenges can expats come up against when they move to Poland?
Leah: Well, this has changed in the last couple of years, which is why it’s the number one thing on my list. And I think it’s probably nowadays the biggest barrier to entry, to living in Poland, generally. Of course, coming here for a trip is absolutely not an issue at all. Anyone I think can come for about three months, so that’s not an issue.
But if you would like to live here, move here, stay here for a long period, nowadays this is an issue because there’s a huge influx of immigrants, specifically from Ukraine, and they have I guess too many applications. So sometimes it takes up to two years even, to receive permission to both work and live in Poland. So that is something for people to think about, whether it’s worth it for them to wait for so long to be able to work, and if they can even afford it. Because that’s a long time not to have a job.
Carlie: What was the process for you, as an American?
Leah: Well, I’m lucky, because I haven’t had to do this in a couple of years, so I kind of avoided this big problem. But the way it looks is basically, you have a lot of documents you have to gather together. You also have to have a good reason to live in Poland, so generally those reasons are going to be either work or marriage. So if you are married to a Polish person, it is possible of course also to have permission to live here. But most people get it for work or … university is another common reason.
So, you have to find a job, and then, you have to of course wait to start working until you get the permission. And I suppose there aren’t a lot of employers who would be happy to wait for you for two years. So yeah, nowadays it is a bit difficult. Although that’s not to say it’s impossible, because I know plenty of people who do it and who are doing it right now. But I also do know a couple of people who have tried recently and they just decided “It’s too long, I don’t want to wait,” and they went home.
And I will also add that this is not an issue if you’re from an EU country. This is only for people outside the European Union.
Carlie: For third-country nationals. What is causing this two-year backlog? Is it simply the volume of applications from third-country nationals?
Leah: Yes, that’s it. When I moved here, this wasn’t an issue. There weren’t so many people coming in, and I guess in the last perhaps maybe five years or so, a lot of Ukrainian people have been coming to Poland seeking work, and that’s just the reason for it. And perhaps people from other countries too are becoming more interested in Poland. I get a lot of emails from people all the time, asking me what it’s like to live here, what I think, where they could work. So I think that there’s just a general interest in living in Poland now. But the biggest of course is from the east.
Carlie: That’s always the case of course, that when a country becomes popular, if its administrative departments aren’t ready, that’s what can cause this massive backlog. I know I’ve experienced it in France when it comes to driving licenses.
Is Poland very with the times when it comes to how it processes applications? I did read on your blog that pen and paper and notebooks was quite common in official offices.
Leah: [laughs] Yeah, I don’t think so. They’re not very efficient I would say. And that’s just the problem is … not a lot of things are automated. You should be able to, for instance, hand in some documents online or something like that, and those kinds of things aren’t possible. So everything is done face-to-face, and people have to go there, they have to stand in line, they have to wait, they have to have an appointment, that kind of thing.
And sometimes you’re waiting just to get an appointment, not to even start the process but just to get the appointment for six, seven months. So yeah, they need to change something, and they don’t know the best way to go about it yet. But hopefully they figure something out soon. I mean, they’re doing their best of course, they’re trying. But I think that they didn’t expect to have such an influx of immigrants, and that’s the issue.
Carlie: So you definitely need some patience when you’re moving to Poland. Second on your list, Leah, when it comes to five things you need to know before moving to the country – English in Poland, it’s on a good level, but it’s good to have some help. Can you elaborate here on the language capabilities in Poland?
Leah: Sure, yeah. A lot of people, especially young people, anyone generally under the age of maybe 45 or 50, the chances are that they speak English at some level. Of course not everyone, but I think a lot. So that’s really nice. And if you go out, if you go to some restaurants or some cafes or bars or whatever, it shouldn’t be an issue.
If you’re just travelling to Poland and you just would like to have a good experience, then you can expect to have people there to help you. But if you’re doing something like we talked about before, something bureaucratic or something official, say if you go to an institution, if you go to city hall or something like, you can’t really expect people to speak English.
I guess it’s possible, but I haven’t encountered it. So you definitely need someone to go with you. That’s one important thing. I wouldn’t move here without knowing absolutely anybody who could help you.
Carlie: And expecting to get set up on your own …
Leah: It would be hard, yeah. I mean, like I said, I think it’s possible, you could find … for example, a real estate agent to help you who speaks English. That’s absolutely possible. It’s definitely easier to do all of those things if you have somebody who can translate for you. A friend, a partner, whatever it is.
I definitely recommend taking someone with you, just in case. Because even if you do speak Polish, some of those things are really complicated. So it’s impossible to know everything. Even, for example, for me – I do most things by myself, but if it’s really, really important, sometimes I’ll still take my husband. Just in case. [laughs]
Carlie: On your blog, you mentioned that you put off your Polish language learning for three years. What delayed you getting started in learning the local language?
Leah: [sighs] Oh, I think it was just … Polish seems really difficult. And I don’t think it only seems difficult – I think it is. But it’s … every language is like that probably. Right? I mean it’s always daunting to learn a new language and to go outside your comfort zone and just put yourself out there. It’s hard, right? Especially if you’re in their country, speaking to them. You’re only talking to native speakers. [laughs] So it can be scary.
I think that was why. And perhaps for me, it was also just a lack of motivation. At that time, for the first three years, I think I knew a lot of people who spoke English, and I just thought, “Hmm, maybe I can just get away with it,” or I was just putting it off until I absolutely had to. And then, I met my husband, and my husband’s parents don’t speak English. So that was a big motivation for me. And I think that they’re the main reason that I speak Polish now. So it was good to have that push, but I needed it. I needed the push. Fortunately.
I don’t recommend that. If anyone’s coming here, I definitely recommend starting some kind of course immediately, because you’ll feel a lot more comfortable a lot sooner, and it’s nice to be more independent.
Carlie: And how is your Polish now?
Leah: Now I feel quite good, actually. Now I can communicate. Like I said, I go to institutions and do things by myself, or I can go to the doctor and work all those things out. I had a baby in Poland. I’m having another one. All of those experiences helped a lot, they make you feel a bit more confident when you know that you can manage on your own.
So now, definitely I feel good. Of course, I make a lot of mistakes, because it’s impossible to be correct all the time in Polish. But I do my best and I’m really happy with the results now.
Carlie: Are locals pretty receptive to people who are trying to speak their language to them, even if it’s not perfect?
Leah: Oh, yeah! I think people in Poland are … they’re impressed if you can say “Dzień dobry”, which is “Hello”. If you can say anything in Polish, people think that it’s amazing and they think it’s cute. Which is fine if you can only say “Dzień dobry”, but when you can say much more than that and someone think that it’s cute that you can say the most basic words [laughs], makes you feel kind of funny. But people, I think they’re surprised when a foreigner can speak Polish. And happy. Pleasantly surprised.
Carlie: Yeah, I guess it’s not one of those standard languages you learn in school in the USA.
Leah: Exactly. It’s not French, it’s not Italian, it’s not Spanish, right? German maybe is more likely. But Polish, I guess there’s just not that many foreigners. Even people who live here for many, many years, a lot of people avoid it, completely. Even 20 years, they’ll live here and just not use the language.
Carlie: The third thing that you say people should know before moving to Poland is that there are strong Facebook groups for help, to turn to for help. And I personally am a strong advocate for these groups, and through Expat Focus we have dedicated Facebook groups for every country. What are some popular groups for expats in Poland and ones that you have found really useful?
Leah: I think the ones which are the most popular are the ones which are specially made for the biggest cities. They’re just called simply Warsaw Expats, Krakow Expats. [Wroclaw] expats is a really very active Facebook group, which is really cool, because when I first moved here, there wasn’t … maybe there was something like that, but I didn’t about it, and … With it, you can go there and ask basically anything, any kind of silly question you have.
“Where do I buy these products?” Of course very serious things too. “What do I do if a landlord won’t give me back my deposit?” You see all kinds of things. A lot of official questions, about bureaucratic things as well, because people do need help with that. So it’s really cool, and people are very willing to help, and they give a lot of great information. So I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking about moving to Poland and has some kind of question that they need answered.
Carlie: And your fourth point on what people should know before moving to Poland is that the country is not very diverse. Well, you’ve just written “not very diverse”, so what can you tell me about the ways in which Poland may not be very diverse?
Leah: I guess what I mean is racially speaking, religiously speaking as well. Yeah, unfortunately, it is something I think I should mention. Because I think it is possible that people with different ethnicities, religions could come into contact with some intolerance or just some general unpleasantries in that area. And I think if you go to any of the bigger cities, that’s much less likely to happen, because there are of course many more people from other countries.
It’s more cosmopolitan in Warsaw or [Wroclaw] or Krakow. If you are going to a smaller place, you might want to think about that. That might be something important for you to consider. Just because there aren’t so many people from … even from different countries, in small towns. So it’s different for people, and yeah, it could happen that people could be intolerant.
Carlie: Are there many Americans in Poland?
Leah: I mean … I think that there are quite a lot. I think there are probably more British people, just because of the distance. But there are quite a few … I meet them even in my city from time to time, and I don’t live in one of the major cities, and I think, “Oh, that’s interesting. Other Americans here.” You do meet them.
Carlie: Is there much you miss about back home?
Leah: Hmm. There are some things I miss. But kind of silly things I think, like … not such important things. [laughs] Like good sales. [laughs] That sounds silly. But there are some things which are cheaper in America. Not many things. [laughs] There are some things which are cheaper, like clothes. Does that sound ridiculous?
Carlie: I’m a little surprised, to be honest. Because I always see Eastern Europe and countries like Poland as maybe a bit of a hotbed of textile production. But I could be completely wrong there. So I always thought that maybe you’d get some pretty cheap things going on. But …
Leah: I think it’s just [tax reasons] … I think here, generally in Europe, the VAT tax is really high. And in America it’s much lower, it’s like … it’s different in different states, but like, where I am from, it’s like 6%, 7%. And here it’s like 23%. That might be where one of the biggest differences comes from. Also, you just … I think in America, you think you can find a good deal, and here you can’t really. I don’t know why. So I do kind of miss that.
And I also miss great customer service. [chuckles]
Carlie: I miss proactive sales assistance. They don’t exist in France. [laughs]
Leah: Oh, really?
Leah: See, that doesn’t bother me so much.
Carlie: Oh, no, I definitely don’t want someone following me around a store. But I would like someone to kind of make an effort to get a sale. Just in some way.
Leah: Okay. So they just ignore you or something?
Carlie: Pretty much.
Leah: Yeah, I feel also like … in America, people are very … they like to interact and have these little … you know, the small talk and stuff like that with each other …
Carlie: Yeah, same in Australia.
Leah: Just general pleasantries.
Leah: And I do miss that. I do. Because of course there are people who do the same thing here, but it’s not like you walk up to buy something and someone smiles at you or says, “Hi, how are you?” It’s rather not … maybe if they know you or something. And that’s kind of the case in Poland. People are a little bit more distant if they don’t know you. But then, when they know you, it’s okay. It takes some time, you know?
So there is that distance. It’s just there. [chuckles]
Carlie: Do you have a big Polish social community?
Leah: Well … no, I wouldn’t say so. But maybe that’s just me. I think other people might find it different. I always had friends, but never like huge groups or something like that. I have a couple of friends … but I do find that it’s nice to be friends with other expats, just because I think that they understand you more and … and honestly, I have friends who I speak Polish with only, but it’s just not the same. I hate to say it. I would like to come to the point where it’s exactly the same for me. But … it’s really nice to have friends who I can speak English with.
Carlie: There’s absolutely a relatability among other expats that you don’t get so much with locals.
Leah: Yeah, and you don’t get that either when you go home as well. It’s not the same thing, like if I go back to Florida and I spend time with my friends there … it’s also not exactly perfect. Because there’s something missing, there’s something that they don’t understand. You definitely have, yeah, this closer bond with other people who understand your situation perfectly.
Carlie: We spoke with Naomi Hattaway for the podcast, who came up with the ‘I am a triangle’ concept, about when you live abroad, and you’re not a square and you’re not a circle, but you kind of live between these two worlds, a country you’re living in and your home country, and it’s very hard to find out where you fit anymore.
Leah: Yeah, I like that. That’s a really nice analogy. It’s pretty perfect actually, to the situation.
Carlie: What about the diversity in food in Poland?
Leah: I would say that in the past few years, especially since I’ve lived here, there’s been like a huge boom in restaurants and cafes and things like that, even in smaller places, smaller towns or cities. And that’s really cool. So nowadays, you can get a lot of different kinds of food. I do miss Mexican food, I have to say. Because we don’t have much of that here. You can find it, but it just depends on where you live.
So there’s not a huge amount of that. There are … there’s a lot of sushi … like Japanese restaurants and things like that. But when you live in the States, you have Vietnamese food, Thai food, Korean food, you’ve all different kinds. And I do miss that as well. Essentially, you can find most of everything nowadays, I think. So that’s pretty cool.
Carlie: What’s a typical Polish dish?
Leah: Typical Polish dish … probably the most popular is [schabowe], which is fried pork cutlets, probably with potatoes and cabbage, something like that. In the area I live in, which is in the south of Poland, also beef rolls are pretty popular, with some kind of potato dumplings. Soups are also a big deal in Poland.
You can get some really nice soups, for example, made from like sour rye, with … you can have egg inside, or potatoes, or kielbasa, which is sausage of course, in Polish. I would say it’s pretty heavy on the meat. But it’s delicious. And cabbage. Cabbage is a staple as well, I would say. But the food is nice. Very comforting, I would say.
Carlie: Leah, your fifth point on things that people should know before moving to Poland is that there are many English teaching opportunities. Now, you’re an English teacher yourself, so you have a good view of the market. Can you make a nice living for yourself as an expat English teacher in Poland?
Leah: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s pretty … for an expat, I think it’s a pretty great job, actually, for anyone really. The salary, you can definitely live, even in the biggest cities, on a teacher’s salary here. Because it’s very different of course than working in a public school or something. Generally, English teachers, native speakers specifically … because that’s what people very often are looking for. They usually work in some kind of language school or they work on their own.
Also, nowadays, a lot of companies provide English as a benefit to their employees. So this is very popular as well. There’s definitely no lack of students. A lot of people are looking for lessons. So if you even wanted to work privately, for yourself, it’s also possible.
And it’s fun, it’s a great job. I mean, look, if you can make your own schedule, if you can have as many students as you want, you can work as many hours as you want … it’s a really cool way to live. And you can work, for example, four days a week and travel the other days.
For people who like flexibility, this is also something really cool. And it’s just nice to get to know people. You get to know people on a pretty personal level. Because usually, you speak to them an hour a week. And that’s a lot. Face to face for an hour. You don’t even talk to your friends that much sometimes.
Carlie: And what sort of qualifications are you expected to have to teach English in Poland?
Leah: Nothing. Basically nothing. Other than being a native speaker … I think that there’s … you don’t need any kind of certifications. However, that’s not to say that some schools aren’t looking for something like that. Some schools look for a TEFL certificate or they look for … or something even more than that, like the CELTA, which is kind of a bigger course. And I think … yeah, I think that most schools, even, don’t expect you to have any experience.
So you could basically come here and start working probably after a few weeks. Of course, you have the bureaucracy you have to think about too. But there are definitely a lot of opportunities, so it shouldn’t be a problem to find something.
Carlie: And to register as a teacher or to set yourself up as an independent freelancer to teach English in Poland, is that much of an ordeal or is it relatively simple?
Leah: It’s relatively simple. Starting the business takes no time, basically. I would say 30 minutes or something. Starting a business is fairly easy, especially if you compare it to the other things you have to go through to get a residence permit.
So that’s not the issue. But unfortunately, having a business or working as a freelancer is usually not a good enough reason for the institution to give you a residence permit. So very often, if a person is here for the first time, and they would like to get a residence permit, they need a job with a well-established company.
Carlie: So what other jobs do expats do in Poland or can they access in Poland?
Leah: They can work pretty much in any branch … mainly, there’s a lot of interest in … for example, if someone has like IT skills or project management skills, or language skills specific … language skills, I think there are a lot of companies here, like multinational companies, who are looking for someone who can speak different languages.
So I think that there are definitely expats here who do other things than just teach. I think it’s probably the most popular job, but there are people who just work in normal office jobs. I’ve met some people who work as software programmers, for instance.
So it’s definitely possible to find other jobs. Of course, the base of that is going to be English. They’re definitely going to need English skills, and then maybe another language. And also Polish probably. So I think it could difficult, it could be a barrier to finding a job if you don’t speak any Polish at all, or if you’re not willing to learn. So that’s also something to think about.
Carlie: What’s the ratio between Polish and English in your teaching, Leah? Do you need to use much Polish when you’re giving English lessons?
Leah: Oh, no. I think you don’t need to use any. Actually, some people prefer that you don’t speak Polish at all, and that you don’t even understand Polish. They’re looking for native speakers of English, right? So that’s essentially someone who doesn’t speak Polish in theory, or at least who just speaks English very well. So a lot of people … yeah, absolutely, it’s not a problem that you, for example, can’t translate something. It’s in fact sometimes good, because someone has to explain something better or in a different way. So that’s not a barrier to being an English teacher, at all.
Carlie: You have to work harder to be understood and maybe play a bit of charades sometimes as well.
Leah: Yeah, which is a more natural situation, right? I mean, if they’re going to travel or something, well, they don’t have Polish to fall back on, right? So I think that’s definitely not a problem for anybody.
Carlie: Puts you in the hot seat.
Leah: [chuckles] For sure.
Carlie: Leah, finally, looking back at your nine years in Poland and the lessons you’ve learnt, what’s something that you would have done differently if you had your time again?
Leah: I definitely … as I kind of mentioned before, I definitely would have started learning Polish earlier. That is the number one thing that I regret. Because I think now, [sighs] if I had had those extra few years, how much better could I speak at this moment? Of course, I try not to give myself too much of a hard time, because at least I speak now. But it definitely helps you assimilate.
And I think that if you’re really going to live here for the long term, that’s the goal and that’s what you really need, because even if people do speak English, it’s not the same. You need Polish in different contexts. It just makes you feel more comfortable living here.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you want to ask Leah any questions or share your own experiences of life as an expat in Poland, head over to expatfocus.com, where you’ll find the links to our Poland forum and Facebook group. Be sure to check out our other episodes. We cover all aspects of expat life all over the world. If you like what we do, please leave us a review. And I’ll catch you next time.