Immigrating to Sweden: Lessons and Frustrations

There is a substantial blemish marring the moderate, efficient, perfectly rational and just-the-right-amount landscape of things here in Sweden. I think I keep leaving it out in hopes that it will go away but, alas, today is the day in which I have had enough. I am going on record.

In October I learned that I was being offered my research position at Linnaeus University. I waited some time for a formal offer of employment (the contract) to arrive. When it did I applied immediately for a work permit for myself and residency permits for the family. There was an online application form and a substantial processing fee. I completed the application at the end of October and was told that I should receive a decision within “several weeks.” Once we had the decision we would all go to the migration office upon our arrival in Växjö in order to get fingerprinted, etc, for our residency cards.

A few weeks later I received word from the University that there was a form they had not given me (the contract was not the correct form for the migration office). About a week later I received the correct form in the mail. However, there was no way for me to submit the form online. I contacted the migration office over email and asked where I could send the form. After a substantial delay they got back to me with an address to send the form. I sent it immediately.


More time passed and still no decision. I tried to be patient and trust that the paper pushers were doing what they needed to do. December arrived. We left for China. I tried calling the migration office a couple of times and was always put off by the person answering the phone (I have learned that the first person you talk to in the Swedish bureaucracy is charged with the task of breaking your spirit so you go away) who told me that it takes up to 6 months (not the several weeks I heard in the beginning) so I needed to be patient.

Then we arrived in Sweden. I have already explained that I felt nervous about showing up without the right to work. But it ended up being much worse than feeling nervous. You see, legal residents of Sweden have something called a personnummer. It’s like a social security number except that you need it for everything. The kids need it to register for school and dance class. You need it to open a bank account (and get a Swedish bank card and make cash transfers) and if you don’t have a Swedish bank account and bank card you have to pay hefty fees for everything from buying train tickets to paying for any services like the aforementioned dance classes. In Sweden folks basically do not use cash and checks are unheard of. Everything is done through EFT. You also need a personnummer to get set up at your new job – email, getting your research computer, getting a mailbox, accessing your research funds, etc. So, from day one we felt marginalized by the need to ask the school, for example, to enroll the kids only provisionally and to ask colleagues, for example, to print documents since I didn’t have printer access. We were limited in what we could do and paying extra fees because we were not in the system.

I spent my first two days on the phone with the migration office. As I became more persistent about getting a decision on my case, I was given the names of other people I could call. I finally got the name of the person managing my case. She, like all the case managers, only accepted calls from 9 to 11 a.m. However, she did not have voice mail or even call holding so, in the most bizarre of scenarios, I spent an entire 75 minutes making hundreds and hundreds of 7-second phone calls to the same number where I would hear a Swedish recording that said “The number is busy. Try again later” and then get hung up on. After 75 minutes of that I decided to call the service desk (the people who are supposed to break you) and be on hold for 18 minutes so I could give her an earful about how I couldn’t get through to my case officer. At 10:54 I made one last desperate attempt to get my case officer and, amazingly, I actually got through. When she answered I think the first thing I said was, “I can’t believe you actually answered.”



Once I got through to my case manager, I explained the situation, that I had arrived in Sweden with my family and we needed to get processed so I could get everyone settled and get to work myself. After a little cajoling she looked into the system and saw that the form we sent in later was never added to my file. She moved the letter into my file, attached a priority label to the case and sent it off to the department that makes final decisions. That afternoon I was notified that all of our permits were granted.


Proof of our immigration decision in hand, the next day all four of us headed to the migration office to get fingerprinted and photographed for our residency cards. We waited about 60 minutes for our chance. After we finished getting documented we were told that it would take 1- 2 weeks for our cards to arrive.

“1-2 weeks?” I said, “Can you give us our personnummers now?”

“We don’t give your personnummer. For that you need to go to the tax office. If you take the copy of your decision, they should be able to issue your number.”

So, we walked across the street to the tax office and took another number. While we were waiting to be called the employee working crowd control, the one who is there to break you so you go home, approached us to see what we were there for. We said that we were there to get our personnummers. She said that the tax office would not process our applications until we had our residency cards. Once we applied it would take 2 to 3 weeks for our numbers to be issued. Both Jason and I blew our tops at that news. We said that we could not be without our numbers for an additional 5 weeks and that the migration office said they could process us without the card. The employee told us that we were wasting our time to wait but we waited anyway.

Once we were called, the tax office clerk dutifully copied all our passports and birth certificates and the copies of our decision from the migration office. She said they would send them to Malmö where the decision would be made on our case. I returned the next day to inquire about the decision. I was told to return the next week.

Fast forward a few days. No residency cards but a letter arrives from the tax office saying they will not issue our numbers without the cards. I give up and hope that the cards arrive soon. Fast forward a few days to today. Still no cards. I call the migration office. I wait in the queue for 20 minutes only to be told that there was a problem in the factory that makes the cards. They had technical difficulties, had to stop production, and now the cards are coming late. It will still be 2 to 3 weeks before I receive my card. I explain my problems and she tells me that the tax office should be able to give us our numbers. I go back to the tax office. This time I bring all my documents in addition to a print out of their own website which states clearly that they should be able to give us our numbers with the information we provided earlier. After waiting 45 minutes I get to a real person who tells me that I will need to call Malmö and that it is regrettable that the migration office cannot send out the cards but there is nothing they can do.

So, there you have it. I am sure that at some point in the next couple of months we will have all of this worked out and I will have cooled off to the point that I am saying things like, “It is terrible but you just need to be patient and persistent” but right now I am pissed. I think it was Rogers Brubaker (1992?) who said something along the lines of the more you get with citizenship the harder it is to acquire. Well, when it comes to Sweden, this seems to be true for legal residence and entry into the tax system. I used to be quite excited about the idea of sampling a bit of all that the “Great Society” has to offer but right now I am struggling to believe that the offerings are worth the trouble. Between all of the break downs in this system and our transportation snafu on day one, I am beginning to wonder if the orderliness and comprehensiveness of the Swedish system is really just a farce.

Also, for the record, how perfectly Weberian that these 2 offices manage to do a complicated dance that allows them to deny culpability while they make it exceedingly tough (and additionally expensive) to live and work here even though they have invited you to work and given you permission to come. We are fortunate that we are not wholly dependent on my wages (which, by the way, are not easy to access without a bank account). I am sure many other newcomers are not so fortunate.

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1 Response to Immigrating to Sweden: Lessons and Frustrations

  1. Nancy says:

    Wow Andrea – I decided to take a look and see how you were all doing in Sweden – sorry you are dealing with all this hoop jumping! Does it make the process in China seem easy now? Hope you get it all straightened out and settle in to some less confrontational times. Thinking of you all!

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