For newly arriving foreigners, integrating into Czech society begins with a course

Starting a new life in a foreign country can be a big challenge, especially if you don’t know the language. Some non-EU foreigners seeking a long-term residence permit in the Czech Republic are now obliged to undergo an integration and adaptation course, which should make this transition a bit easier. 

The courses, which are also intended to prevent social isolation and security risk, are organised by the Ministry of Interior and provided by Centres for Support and Integration of Foreigners all across the Czech Republic. I paid a visit to the Integration Centre Prague, which runs the courses in the capital:  

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the lecture room at the Integration Centre Prague is already packed with students of different nationalities, including Koreans, Indians and Japanese. For the next four hours, they will be learning about various aspects of Czech culture and get acquainted with their basic rights and obligations.

In this case, the course is translated into English, but the integration centres also provide translations into other languages, including Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, French, Serbian, Mongolian, Arabic and Vietnamese.

Foreigners from non-EU countries, seeking permanent residence in the Czech Republic, have to complete the course within a year of their arrival in the country. Otherwise they risk a fine of up to CZK 10,000.

The course at the Integration Centre Prague starts with the lecturer explaining some of the most frequent terms foreigners in the Czech Republic need to know when applying for long-term residency.

Within the next four hours, she will instruct the participants in nine areas, ranging from Czech traditions to how the public administration works in this country, says Branislav Makúch, who coordinates the centre’s courses:

Branislav Makúch | Photo: archive of Branislav Makúch

“The information they receive concerns their stay in the Czech Republic, their rights and obligations, but also information about health care, and other basic things, such as public transport, or finding accommodation.

“We also teach them that they have the right to understand their contract, which is very important.  The contract should always be written in the language they understand and they should never sign anything they don’t understand.”

Until January 2021, integration courses for foreigners were organised on a voluntary basis. Due to the growing number of foreigners applying for long-term residency for the purpose of employment, the Ministry of Interior has decided to make these courses obligatory.

Mr Makúch believes that based on their previous experience with running voluntary courses, most of the newly arriving foreigners will find such courses useful:

“The aim of the course is to help the foreigners to start living in the Czech Republic, to let them know what to do and to help them integrate into society.

“We have feedback from people who already went through the course and who say it was very good for them. They also say it would have been great if they went through the course immediately after they arrived in the Czech Republic.”

The obligation to undergo the course applies to most third-country nationals who have been issued a long-term residence permit or a permanent residence permit after January 1, 2021, explains Branislav Makúch:

“The obligation applies to people outside of the EU, the so called third country region migrants, who arrived in the Czech Republic and who got their biometric ID card in 2021.

Source: Adaptačně integrační kurzy

“It’s easier to list the exceptions to which the obligation doesn’t apply, which includes key or scientific personnel, foreigners studying in the Czech Republic and diplomats.

“So the duty applies mostly to people who have an employee card, who came here for work and also for family members of the highly qualified personnel.”

Although the obligation to undergo an integration course came into force in January, most of the courses were only launched in July, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The biggest interest in the courses is in the capital, which is the target of most foreigners coming to the Czech Republic. According to Mr Makúch, some 800 people have so far completed the course:

“Most of the people are Russians and Ukrainians. In the English courses it’s a mix of nationalities, usually its Indians, Japanese, Chinese and Latin American migrants.

“The statistics of the Interior Ministry, issued after May 2020, shows that when the borders were closed due to Covid, the situation has changed and most people arriving in the Czech Republic started coming for work.”

One of the people who attended Tuesday’s course is Mariam Pilpani, a young woman from Georgia, who currently works in a marketing firm in Prague:

“I came for my studies in 2015 and after finishing my Master’s degree I found a job and I decided to stay. I also met my Czech boyfriend, who doesn’t want to live anywhere else, so it was a very easy decision for me.”

Although Mariam came as a student, she says starting a new life in the Czech Republic wasn’t easy, since she lacked some documents required for a long-term visa:

“When my school started, I came here with my short-term visa, because it takes time to get the long term visa and I didn’t want to miss my classes. But because I didn’t get my nostrification in time, I also didn’t get the long-term visa.

“So I had to go back, apply once again and after a few months, when I got my nostrification, I came back and started my studies again. So for me it was quite complicated.”

She also says another major hurdle in settling down in the Czech Republic was the language barrier.

“It was always really hard to deal with the authorities to get a visa extension. And sometimes, even though they know English, they say that you cannot speak any other language than Czech. So you always need to take an interpreter and be prepared.”

Mariam says that most of the information provided at the integration course was already well-known to her, so it would have been more useful right after arrival:

“I have been here for more than six years, so I already known a lot of these things. I know how to deal with the authorities, I know when I need to apply for the extension of my visa and so on.

“There was some information that I found useful, but I think you don’t need this information after six years of staying, working and studying in the Czech Republic. So I think it is more useful for people who have just arrived here.”

Another participant of the course, Francis Kwame Attigah from Ghana, a student at the Faculty of Tropical Sciences at the Czech University of Life Sciences, also agrees that the course would have been more helpful when he first arrived in the country:

“It would have been very helpful. I wouldn’t have had to experience what I did, because I would already know all these things. So I think it’s very helpful and useful and I would advise everyone to take this course!”

Integration Centre Prague | Photo: Irina Ručkinová,  Radio Prague International

Despite having open borders for more than four decades, Czechs are still known for being wary of foreigners, especially those from former Soviet Union and Muslim countries.

However, both Mariam and Francis say that despite the difficulties they sometimes face in the process of settling in the Czech Republic, they are not planning to leave any time soon:

“I agree with the view that Czech people are not very open at the beginning. But when you get to know them, they are very kind and friendly.

“I had some classmates during my Masters studies and I felt they were a bit detached and arrogant, but when I got to know them after a few weeks they were completely different people.

“So I would recommend others not to make assumptions and get to know Czechs better.”

According to Branislav Makúch the system of registering for the compulsory integration courses still has its shortcomings, and some foreigners might find it difficult to find all they need to know.

While the Ministry of Interior provides all the information on their website, the Integration Centre Prague tries to make it more accessible and also provides consultation services, to make sure foreigners obliged to take the integration course don’t fail to do so:

“It is important that when people want to attend the courses, they have to register through the Ministry of Interior’s website. The registration might be a little bit cumbersome for some people. So we have consultation hours for people who have problems with registering.

“Every Tuesday and Thursday there is a possibility for anyone interested in the courses and getting to know if they are the target group to come to us and our employees will help them.”