Thursday, August 28, 2014

A (Long) Tale of Two Citizenships

A couple of weeks ago, arriving at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport following a short holiday in Croatia I took my place in a queue at passport control, while my wife and daughter sped off in a different direction. Being Finns with biometric passports, they could opt for the practically empty lanes of the automated passport control, where a mere bloodless machine scanned their faces and allowed them into the country.

I, on the other hand, had to undergo the time-honored formality of having my US passport scrutinized by a human immigration officer (in this case a Finnish border guard, or rajavartija). I located the two queues reserved for “All Passports – No Visa Required” and fell in behind a group of Japanese travelers just off their JAL flight from Tokyo. Thankfully, as an American, I could avoid the much longer, and slower, lines packed with Chinese and other nationalities that have a bit higher threshold to cross in order to visit Finland.

For me, going through passport control itself seems something of a throwback. My recent trips within Europe over the past couple of years have been to Italy, Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, all of them Schengen countries, like Finland. Nothing as formal as a passport is needed to fly from here to those nations. 

Croatia is on track next year to join the current 26 nations sharing a common border control, and already a Schengen Area passport apparently merits slightly different treatment. My daughter was a bit envious when my American passport got stamped at the Dubrovnik airport – the first stamp I’ve gotten in Europe in years – while her Finnish passport was left unmarked.

The line of Japanese tourists in front of me moved quickly and soon I was sliding my passport through the window to the Finnish border guard. He asked where I was traveling from, then how long I would be in Finland. When I replied that I live here, he asked if I have a residence permit. I said, yes, as he thumbed through the passport to find the full-page sticker that declares I can live in Finland permanently, as in, the rest of my life. He then asked something like “Puhutko suomea?” (“Do you speak Finnish?”), to which I replied, perhaps a bit glibly, “Vain vähän. Joskus.” (“Only a little. Sometimes.”)

Finally, after ascertaining my status as a legal resident, he slid the passport back to me with a “Kiitos”.

Oddly, at the moment of that exchange, my legal status had in fact been dramatically changed, without my knowing it.

When I first moved to Finland, I had a hard time explaining it to people back in my hometown in rural Georgia. No one there was in the habit of moving overseas, unless as part of a military operation or, more rarely, perhaps as a missionary. I was certainly not acting in either of those capacities when I got off the boat (quite literally) one summer day in Helsinki in 1982.

So unusual was my move that some family members even worried that I was somehow in danger of giving up or losing my US citizenship. It probably didn’t help that they also knew Finland was just barely on the right side of the Iron Curtain, back in the day when the Cold War was still raging.

If the subject ever came up, I always tried to reassure folks that had no intention whatsoever of giving up my US citizenship. This is still true. I think of myself as an American, though I’ve spent half my life outside the US, and I still very much value being a citizen.

While that hasn’t changed even after calling Finland home for so long, I decided last year that it was about time that I also became a Finn. For me, this was a completely optional move. Unlike some folks from tense and troubled parts of the world, who might have good reason to see Finland as a much-needed refuge (last year, Somalis apparently made up the second largest group gaining citizenship), for me Finnish citizenship isn’t essential for ensuring a peaceful and happy life. It’s just a very nice perk.

Since 1992, I’ve had permanent residency status (analogous to a US “green card”). In the decade previous to that, I had to periodically renew my residence and work permits (every three months, six months, and eventually every year) at about 100 Finnmarks a pop (about 17 euros). After living here ten years, I automatically qualified for permanent status, requiring me to renew my permits only when my US passports expired and needed replacing.

As a permanent resident, I’ve enjoyed most of the same rights as any Finnish citizen, as far as I can see. I can live and work here, own property, start a business, even vote in local elections. The only thing I couldn’t do, it seems, is vote for national leaders. Important as that is, I’m sure I could have happily gone on simply living as a “foreigner” here.

It was more of a sense that if I’m really going to call Finland my home, I should be a fully participating citizen. That’s what led me to take a bus to Pasila one snowy day last January to drop off my application for Finnish kansalaisuus.

After starting down this path to citizenship, I couldn’t help wondering how the Finnish process stacks against the American. Naturally, I’ve never applied for US citizenship (that just came naturally to me). However, my wife did once possess a US green card, which I recall required quite a bit of paperwork, in addition to fingerprinting and an in-person interview with the both of us (mostly to verify that ours wasn’t a sham marriage).

Beyond the hurdles my wife had to clear to get her green card, going for full US citizenship requires immigrants to also pass exams in the English-language, US history and civics. For fun, I recently took an US history/civics exam online, a sample of the real test that applicants take. I got 49 out of 50 questions correct (embarrassingly, I got the national anthem wrong – oops).

Applicants for American citizenship also must be of “good moral character”, have no ties to certain pariah political groups such as the Communist or Nazi parties, and profess an “attachment to the principles of the United States Constitution”. I’m surprised that the Communist Party is still on the blacklist. Really? After all this time? Maybe the same could be said for the Nazi party. In the post-9/11 world, that all seems to belong to another era.

In addition to a moral constitutional outlook, applicants must be willing to serve in the military, if needed, which in practice means male applicants under 26 must already be signed up for a military draft that I can’t imagine will ever take place. By contrast, newly minted Finns actually do face the real possibility of compulsory military service, if they are young enough. It’s certainly not something I need concern myself with at this point.

Finally, new US citizens must pay a $680 fee and make a public oath of allegiance to the US, something that we natural-born citizens are never required to do.

The Finnish process is simpler. As in the US, most folks have to be a legal resident continuously for at least five years and speak the national language (in the case of Finland, either Finnish, Swedish, or sign language). There’s no exam to test your knowledge of history or civics. There’s no need to fear if you adhere to an outdated – and let’s face it, largely discredited – collectivistic ideology. There’s no swearing loyalty in front of a government official. And there’s no need to give up your previous citizenship.

This last point might change, however. Last week, due to the current geo-political climate (ahem, the rise of a certain kind of “Novorossiya” nationalism), the government here raised the issue of possibly doing away with dual citizenship. This would, in effect, force uussuomalaiset to leave behind any former allegiances.

Let’s see if that happens. In the meantime, the biggest practical hurdle for many aspirant Finns, beyond having sufficient means of support – not a small matter in this stressed economy – is gaining enough proficiency in Finnish (or Swedish) to get a level-three passing grade on the YKI exam, the gold-standard for language certification here in Finland. This was certainly my biggest hurdle.

I have thought of taking the YKI exam in the past, but because of its reputation for difficulty, I’d always felt I’d just be wasting the 90-euro exam fee, unless I greatly improved my Finnish first.

Luckily, I heard about a free YKI preparatory course that the city of Helsinki was providing for a limited number of maahanmuuttajia (immigrants). Although, after all this time, I no longer really feel like an immigrant (and am ashamed of needing such a course anyway), I showed up at the info session at a language school in Pikku Huopalahti to hear more about it.

The session was limited to only the first 50 people to arrive (I was the last or next to last to put my name on the sign-up sheet – some folks coming up the stairs behind me were politely turned away).

We all listened to a description of the course, then did a short written exam in Finnish, mainly describing our reasons for taking the YKI exam. There were places for only 20 students, so I felt lucky to get a spot. Twice a week I joined my fellow students from Russia, Algeria, Nepal, and various other nations in brushing up on our kielioppi (grammar) and taking practice exams. It worked for me. When I took the actual exam at the end of the 10-week course, I passed, much to my relief.

With my adequate language ability now certified, I could start the application process rolling. The application form itself consists of ten pages, in Finnish or Swedish, in which I provided information about my personal background and my family, including my parents. I had to declare whether I have a criminal record (none) and any tax or other liabilities (also none). In addition, I had to indicate my current and previous means of support (for this, I had to provide copies of my last four pay slips) and provide details about my presence in Finland. For this last point, I needed to submit an attachment listing all my travels outside the country over the previous five years.

Once I had all the paperwork together, I just needed to drop it off at Helsinki’s main police station in Pasila, with $440 in cash.

Obviously, there are enough huddled masses yearning for the same thing as me to make the Pasila station a very busy place. A British friend who had gone through the process last year advised me to book a time in advance to avoid the long queue of applicants who just show up without an appointment. The reservation number I called one day early last December was completely jammed and after repeated attempts, I gave up. A couple of days later, I did manage to get through and book the next available timeslot, which was not for another two months. No hätä, as I always say, since I wasn’t in a particular hurry.

It was worth the delay, since when I did finally get to Pasila I was able to avoid the queue of maybe fifty or more applicants waiting for their number to be called. I had barely sat down in the waiting area before it was my turn. The viranomainen (official) behind the counter, a young woman in jeans and a sweater, checked over my application, made some copies of my certificates, and accepted my €440. It took something like twenty minutes. She informed me I would get the final decision within a year.

In the end, it took only about half that time, and occurred without any pomp and circumstance. I simply got a letter in the mail, the top of which was marked PÄÄTÖS (“decision”). It stated “Maahanmuuttovirasto on päättänyt, että hakija saa Suomen kansalaisuuden päätöspäivästä lukien” (”The Immigration Office has decided that the applicant receives Finnish citizenship starting from the indicated date of decision”. That date was Aug. 4, 2014, when I was still snorkeling in Cavtat. I returned to Finland the next day as a citizen, something I wouldn’t realize until the letter arrived later that week.

That was it. No further action was required on my part – except for the little matter of the processing fee. The letter also informed me that, just before I’d applied for citizenship, the cost had been reduced to €400, something that apparently hadn’t yet properly filtered down to the folks at Pasila. So, now before I forget, I still need to let the Immigration Office know where they can send the forty euros they owe me.

I have no idea if it works out so smoothly for everyone trying to become Finnish or how many applicants eventually are turned down. I guess I’m just happy that for myself, finally, I can identify, truly identify, with this classic Finnish pop song...

"Olen Suomalainen"  


  1. Nice post. However, the right word for citizenship is kansalaisuus. Kansallisuus is (ethnic) nationality. And by the way, the song is Italian - but I suppose you knew that.

    Dual citizenship has only been allowed for something like 6-7 years. That was when I decided to get a Swedish passport in addition to my Finnish one (which i haven't renewed since then..)

    1. Thanks, nice to hear! I'm sure for many of us it's definitely a plus to have two citizenships. And thanks for the language tip -- I've corrected it now.

  2. Great story! So now you have dual citizenship! Very nice! I don't know many people who enjoy such.

    1. Thanks! Yep, now I'm like my kids, who became citizens of both the US and Finland at birth.

  3. There's no oath of loyalty (except oaths of office, maybe when entering some other services and conscripts at the end of basic training) but obviously it is still expected and "[e]very Finnish citizen is obligated to participate or assist in national defence" (constitution §127), so, strictly speaking, it's not just a perk.

    It really should be equally smooth for everyone, who can prove their identity, can support themselves, learn the language, has resided in the country long enough, and is willing to take on the obligations of citizenship, each of which may prove to be not very simple or smooth. (Of course, there is probably also some limitation on the aggregate numbers, but that is handled in the residency permits.)

  4. With regard to the discredited collectivist ideologies, I think the failures of capitalism and the effects of on-going industrialization and automation now being seen and felt and the need to organize a global "collectivist" response to climate change, the economic side and some organizational components of them are hardly forgone conclusions. Just saying.