Why students from outside the EU struggle to find accommodation in Prague

Czechia has become an increasingly popular destination for foreign students from around the world, offering a rich cultural scene and a cost-effective, quality education in different fields of study. But for some of them finding a place to live may prove to be a challenge.  

Photo: Nikolaj Georgiev,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

On average, the country receives around 20,000 international students each year, and naturally, one thing that is critical when moving to a new country for a year or two, is finding a comfortable place to call home.

While Prague boasts a beautiful city landscape full of picturesque apartment buildings - it also has one of the hottest real estate markets, with demand for housing having risen by 19% in 2021.

With demand far outstripping supply, landlords are the gatekeepers and, more often than not, students who come from non-European countries struggle to find a place to live.

While the Erasmus+ program supports the movement of students from other European nations, international students coming from places such as Cuba and Lebanon also account for the population of foreigners here in Czechia and in Prague.

Luis Orlando Leon Carpio | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

But why should it be difficult for a student from a country outside of the EU to find a space to rent in the city? The average tuition fees for these students are nearly double those from EU/EEA member states, contributing a significant amount to universities and the city’s income. Yet students from outside the EU/EEA are often met with a cold response from landlords when looking for a place to stay. Luis Orlando Leon Carpio, a 32-year old student from Cuba studying his Masters here in Prague, says several doors were slammed shut in his face before he realized what was happening.

“It affects your perception of the society, because we would like to feel a little bit more welcome.”

When Luis began his search for an apartment, he was optimistic about finding a nice space with two of his classmates who come from Brazil. However, the reality he faced was quite different from the one he envisioned.

“The narrative when we first started looking for places was that it was pretty straightforward, that we would be able to find a nice place in a certain period of time. And we kind of got comfortable, I think, about that narrative, but the reality was kind of the opposite.”

From sending messages to landlords with no response, to paying for subscription services on housing websites to look for leads, the time was ticking to find a place. Carpio was unsure why the group was continuously unsuccessful, until an experience with a realtor made it clear.

“It happened to us two or three times, the discrimination we faced, where we got a reply and the agent asked us about our nationality, and if any of the three of us were European. And when we said we weren’t, they would say “I’m really sorry but it’s just a matter of the landlord's preference, he prefers someone who is a Czech citizen, a Czech permanent resident, or an EU citizen.”

On the rare occasion that Carpio and his friends did receive a response from a landlord who was willing to take them on as tenants, thousands of Euros in a deposit was asked for, a difficult feat for a group of students working on a budget.

“We found this apartment, and it was not cheap. We each had to pay around 500 Euros a month, also a commission fee for a realtor, and the initial deposit was one months’ rent. But since none of us were from the EU, they increased the deposit to two months’ rent. So at the end, we were paying around 1,000 Euros for a deposit only. We considered this very expensive, given our expectations, and we are students, so we have to bear in mind that we don’t have a big income. We just considered it not fair to have to pay more for not being European.”

Carpio’s case is not an isolated incident. We spoke with another student from Lebanon, who has faced a similar situation while trying to find a place to stay in Prague.

Sandra Abdelbaki | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

Sandra Abdelbaki is a 22-year old from Lebanon studying her Masters in Journalism here in Prague.

“There were a lot of barriers I would say, one of them is asking for more than one month of rent and a huge deposit. But also because I don’t come from the EU, I am required to present certain documents for my visa and registration in the country, and a lot of people thought this was difficult for them so they would just reject me in the first place because it requires extra documentation.”

From dealing with extra documentation, to hefty deposits, Abdelbaki was even questioned about her religion by landlords.

“Also as a person coming from a non-EU country, I found it even harder because I've been asked multiple times about where I come from, what my religion is, and what I’m doing here in the first place. I also got multiple rejections because I wasn’t from the EU.”

Abdelbaki was able to land a temporary place to stay while she continued her apartment hunt in Prague, but this was because the woman renting out the space was Arab herself, and shared a similar experience to Abdelbaki, when she first moved to the city.

“I ended up getting a temporary place through a girl who was Muslim, and she told me that she also found it very difficult to find a place herself, and she understood my situation. She gave me the place because she said “okay, you’re Arab, I also faced the same problems, so I think you should also have this place, I’m very open.”

The experiences and the difficulties faced by Carpio and Abdelbaki are common for foreigners looking for apartments to rent in Prague, according to real estate agent and CEO of Philip & Frank real estate services, Filip Šejvl.

“I think there is no difficulty in renting properties for foreigners if they are from the Western world. I would say there is no difficulty if someone is from the EU, the United States or Canada. But sometimes, we can expect some kind of hesitation in the case of students or tenants coming from Eastern Europe, South Eastern Europe, and Arab countries.”

Šejvl also described how many landlords and property owners in Prague tend to avoid international students because of their short stay period, preferring to give places to tenants who will stay for a year or more.

“Especially foreign students renting apartments in Prague, and I think it’s all around the world, they are only here for 10 months, and most of the landlords want to rent for a minimum one year period. I think this could be the biggest difficulty because in Prague, where the market is pretty tight in terms of renting apartments, the landlord would of course pick someone who is going to take the apartment for a minimum of one year, or the expectation to have a two or three years rental period rather than 10 months.”

But while landlords may prefer someone renting their space for a longer period of time, it is still considered unethical and prohibited for them to make a decision on a tenant based on religion, race, or gender. However, Šejvl explains that the language barrier between landlords and tenants is also a reason why property owners are hesitant towards folks from outside the EU and western part of the world.

“Of course this is something that is prohibited, landlords cannot make decisions based on race, religious beliefs or gender. But of course, the decisions are made based on language. Most of the properties that are owned by Czech people in Prague, who are above the age of 40-50 years old, don’t speak English, so they don’t want to have a tenant who just speaks English, because it means they can’t communicate with their tenant.”

Like elsewhere around the world, the war in Ukraine is also having an impact on the housing market. With the influx of Ukrainian refugees moving into apartments, combined with new students coming to Prague, especially as fears of corona quell, the market has become extremely competitive, giving the landlords a significant advantage, and leaving students in a precarious position.

“There is no sign that the rents will go down, because the situation we have now is that there is nothing available on the market. So the landlords have an advantage compared to the students who are coming, since the number of students coming to Prague has not diminished, especially after COVID. Basically, there is nothing available for them, and I totally understand why it is difficult for a student to find an apartment.”

While non-EU students may have to face additional barriers in terms of a high deposit, more documentation, and possible discrimination, what they can do is be prepared in advance. When it comes to looking for a place in Prague, Šejvl’s best piece of advice to foreign students is to begin the process as early as possible.

“Foreign students are coming too late to find their apartments, the semester starts in October, and they start looking for an apartment maybe two weeks before the rental period. Czech students start much earlier, especially because they are here the entire year. Moreover, September and October is the end of the season and there are not so many apartments left in general.”

Despite the stressful start for her here in Prague, Abdelbaki remains positive and excited about calling this new city her home.

“I’m actually very happy to be in Prague, I think it’s a very different city than where I was previously, which was in Denmark. I’m very excited to actually experience the city and see how it will go, and I’m leaving my expectations high even though the first phase was a bit difficult.”

Photo: Honza Ptáček,  Czech Radio