Over 270,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the Czech Republic, and visas are being offered to all of them. These are being referred to by some as “humanitarian” visas, but various government websites just refer to them as “a new type of long-term visa.” While there is more than enough information online telling refugees how to get one, it’s been a little difficult to find out what the exact classification of this visa actually is.
It makes sense why – Seeing how this is the largest influx of refugees in Europe since WWII, neighboring counties have needed to make special conditions on the fly for the Ukrainians who have been arriving by the tens of thousands everyday.
My partner, Alina, is one of the many Ukrainians who left left their home in the past month, and last week we began our hunt for a long-term visa.
We decided to settle down in Czechia, which was an easy decision because Alina has family here and we are currently staying rent-free in her dad’s apartment. While that decision didn’t require a second thought, we never even imagined that getting a visa would be necessary in the first place. We traveled to Slovakia on February 14th as a precaution, thinking that we would return after a week or two. Like most of my friends and colleagues, we thought everyone else was overreacting and there was little to no chance that Russia would invade, let alone conduct a full-scale invasion.
Of course, the absolute worst forecasts came to light. The war started ten days after we arrived in Slovakia, and that morning Alina and I realized that we needed to make a more permanent move than spending a couple weeks in a Slovakian Airbnb. Having severely under-packed for any sort of long-term stay away from home, we made it to Czechia, needing a few new pairs of pants and a way to stay here for more than ninety days.
We didn’t really know what the residency process entailed, or even where to go to apply for a visa. We were completely in the dark, so Alina looked online and very quickly found a list of lawyers in Czechia who were volunteering their time to give advice to Ukrainians. We were soon speaking to an immigration lawyer, who answered all of our questions in a matter of minutes.
After the conversation, Alina and I learned the following:
- Ukrainians need to register for a visa within 30 days of arrival.
- The visa will last for a year or until Ukraine repeals martial law.
- Health insurance is provided for free.
- If you want to work, you have to apply for an employee card.
- Free sim cards are available for everyone who gets a visa.
- I would be able to get a visa because this process extends to close family members of Ukrainian refugees.
- If we leave Czechia, our visas are automatically cancelled.
- Visa processing is happening at the Prague Congress Center.
While we were a bit disappointed to hear that we aren’t allowed to leave Czechia, overall we were incredibly relieved to learn that I could also get a visa. Alina and I wouldn’t have known what to do if I couldn’t stay in Czechia long-term, but thankfully we didn’t have to figure that out.
On Friday morning we went to the Prague Congress Center, and it turned out that getting a visa would be easier than buying a new wardrobe. While I still need to figure out the difference between American and European sizes, I checked the, “where the am I going to live for the indefinite future,” box rather easily. This is because every step of the process was efficient, organized, and as simple as possible.
We arrived right when the Congress Center opened at eight in the morning, because earlier in the week we heard rumors that some people had to wait for over five hours to get processed. Even at 8:00 am we were far from the first ones there, but at least we didn’t see a line extending out the front door. As we walked inside, we were greeted by a row of policemen checking everyone’s documents to make sure that they were eligible for the visa.
After showing our documentation we entered small waiting area. Right around ten minutes later, an immigration official made his way to our group. There was another guy next to him, wearing a pink vest that said “translator.” Over the course of the day I saw least two dozen people wearing those vests and translating, which was a great sign because neither Alina nor I know a lick of Czech.
After introducing himself, the immigration official (through the translator) told us first and foremost to put our masks on, and that we needed to follow him to fill out some documents. He emphasized that we needed to use the Latin Alphabet, and said some other stuff that Alina and I didn’t hear because the translator was talking a bit too quietly.
The official led us up an escalator, and as we followed we saw tons of tables with volunteers serving tea, sandwiches, and cookies. There was also a play area for kids, and tons of signs in both English and Ukrainian telling us where to go, what to do, and that everything was 100% free. Everywhere we went was a little crowded, but it never felt cluttered or unorganized.
We walked into a large theater, where there were already about fifty other Ukrainians filling out forms. The form we received only required us to jot down basic information, but Alina and I were nervous as all get out and concerned that we were going to fill out something incorrectly. She was worried about whether or not she had to spell everything with only capital letters, and I wasn’t totally confident in my answers because the form was only in Czech and Ukrainian.
Throughout this painstaking process, the volunteers kept us grounded. Every five minutes or so, a volunteer would come to our isle and ask us if we needed any help. Due to nerves we asked way more questions than we probably needed to, but the volunteer was kind and accommodating the entire time.
After filling out the form we waited about forty minutes. Every now and then one of the immigration officials walked to a row ahead of us, asked everyone if they were ready, and then took them to a different part of the Congress Center. A little while later he came to our row and we were once again following the leader. All in all it was an incredibly organized process.
We were taken to another huge room filled with volunteers. They were all sitting at desks working on computers, seemingly processing everyone’s visas. Within minutes Alina and I were led to one of the desks of volunteers, and the person who brought us there even pulled our chairs for us. We gave them our documents, they looked them over, and after ten minutes of work they put a stamp in our passports. With that stamp, we were told that our visa had been accepted and we could stay in Czechia for a year. It was as simple as that – show up at the Congress Center, fill out a form, wait a little bit, then get a stamp in the passport. That’s all it took for our worries about long-term stability to vanish.
Overall, Alina and I had a pleasant and painless experience. Everything was well-managed, and we never felt like we didn’t know what to do. All of the volunteers were really kind as they gave out sandwiches and calmly answered our silly questions. Everyone was really knowledgeable too, and seemed to know all of the conditions and info about the visa. We left with a full understanding of our new residency and all the benefits it provides.
At eight in the morning on Friday, we only had sixty more days to stay in Czechia and no way of going to a doctor. Less than three hours later, we had a year long residence and health insurance. The whole process was simple, orderly, and heartwarming.