Suffering along the path to suffrage in Sweden

There’s nothing like an election to highlight an immigrant’s outsider status. But as Paul O’Mahony explains, the path to citizenship in Sweden isn’t without a bump or two, especially when the journey begins in June.

Suffering along the path to suffrage in Sweden

Getting official business done during summer in Sweden is like trying to lick your own elbow in school: it’s frustrating, makes you look stupid and everybody watching knows it’s impossible. So beginning my quest for citizenship in June was half-witted at best, but I wanted to vote in the general election and reckoned it was worth risking some mild social embarrassment.

In my defence, friends with dual citizenship had assured me the process would take six weeks at most. Once I had submitted my online application, the striking Nordic beauty we call home would cast a coquettish glance in my direction before welcoming me through the gates of a utopian kingdom where elk frolic in the forests, little frogs dance in rings, and tax officials ensure there are no silly names to upset the shimmer of relentless gaiety.

But my trailblazing new Swedish buddies had of course submitted their applications in the autumn or early spring. Not in June, when the great shutdown begins and a work-shy fog descends on the offices of every public employer for two whole months. It’s a time when interminable phone calls ring hollow in the cobwebbed offices of government agencies while hordes of absent clerks scratch their bureaucratic behinds in cloistered woodland glades.

By mid-August I was starting to get anxious. It is no exaggeration to say I say that I called the relevant agency twenty times in two days. Each time I was greeted with the same automatic reply.

”You have called the customer service department of the Swedish Migration Board. All our lines are bissy. Pleece call later.”

I slammed down the phone and unleashed a salvo of choice imprecations.

Bissy, bissy, bissy, every single time.

Eventually I changed tack and called the main switchboard. A rude woman informed me that I would have to call customer service.

“But there’s nobody answering there.”

“Not my problem, guv’nor,” she said, or words to that effect.

My appetite to participate in the looming election grew stronger still as party political posters began shooting up all over the country like enthusiastic heroin addicts. I hit speed dial, the Migration Board by now having assumed a status akin to a sibling or parent, and awaited the inevitable bissy message. But the hoodoo was finally dispelled when a different recorded voice informed me that my call would be dealt with if I held the line for 50 minutes. Strangely elated, I filled the best part of an hour sketching Swedish flags and learning the words of the national anthem.

I was humming the bit about wanting to die in Scandinavia when my call was patched through. A woman with a repellent desk jockey drawl told me I could expect to wait for “up to ten months”. Once my jaw had rebounded from the floor, I requested the name and number of the woman assigned to process my application. I then hung up and dialled the magic number.

“The person you are seeking is out of the office and will return on Monday.”

I wanted to die in Scandinavia. With immediate effect.

Monday came round and the farce gathered force. I called at 10.37. An automatic voice said my own personal bureaucrat would be back at 10.50. Fair enough, silly of me to have called at coffee break time.

I then forgot all about it for a few hours and called again just after four o’clock, fearing the worst.

“The person you are seeking has left for the day and will be back tomorrow.”

Of course. Next day I called just after three. “The person you are seeking has left for the day and will return tomorrow.” Scatter my ashes on a little red house and tickle me pink.

September arrived. Leaves were already tumbling from the trees outside my window when I finally got through. I almost expected this woman to inflict intense pain as she stuck needles in my voodoo effigy, but she was actually very nice and told me she had exceptional news: my application had just been approved and I was now officially a Swede. A little certificate duly arrived in the post to confirm my status as a dual citizen of the Republic of Ireland and the Kingdom of Sweden. Paradise regained.

All that remained was to phone the election authority and request that my name be added to the register ahead of polling day. My interest in the future of my adopted country grew overnight. How to vote? Should I choose to embrace our great shiny-pated leader for another four years (as a fellow follicle-shedder, I can say this without risk of being perceived as baldist), or should I harness my hopes to the three-headed red and green tax machine?

A woman picked up.

“Say what? You just became a citizen. Then you’re too late, mate. If you haven’t been a Swede for 30 days you ain’t got the right to vote.”

Just like that.

Suffrage is silenced.

Despite my disappointment, becoming Swedish has already led to some new behavioral quirks. I’ve become less inclined to make quick decisions, have developed an interest in the latest men’s fashion trends, and sometimes find myself desperate to get outdoors and sing rousing folk songs with hordes of like-minded amateur crooners. It’s just a shame my election dreams ended on such a bum note, with my chances of affecting the outcome now on a par with attempts to get amorous with my elbow. Still, can’t blame a man for trying.

Do you feel the need to be a Swede? Here’s where you can apply online.

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Swedish language tests for citizenship: Here’s what we know about the proposal so far

Sweden is moving a step further to making language tests part of the process for gaining Swedish citizenship.

Swedish language tests for citizenship: Here's what we know about the proposal so far
Dreaming of becoming Swedish? Soon you'll have to pass two tests first. Photo: Christopher Hunt/

Why does Sweden want to introduce a language requirement for citizenship?

At the press conference announcing the proposals, Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson said that the decision was aimed at supporting integration into Swedish society, as well as to “strengthen the status of citizenship and promote a more inclusive society”.

“Several parties, including my own, see a need for a better balance between rights and duties, both in integration and migration policy,” said Johansson, who noted that the issue has been discussed in Swedish politics over the past 20 years.

The government committed to investigating these tests in a cross-bloc deal struck with the Centre and Liberal parties. 

Currently Sweden is one of only three EU countries that do not require language tests for would-be citizens, along with Ireland and Bulgaria. To apply for citizenship, you need to have had right of residence for five years (or three, if applying as the cohabiting partner of a Swedish citizen), and to have 'conducted yourself well' in Sweden as well as paying a 1,500 kronor ($180) application fee.

How will language tests make Sweden more inclusive?

Johansson explained that the Swedish language is essential not only to finding work, but also to becoming “a fully-functioning citizen”.

According to Mari Andersson, who led the government inquiry, there are no studies that show language requirements boost inclusion, but there is research to show the important of language-learning in integration, particularly on the labour market.

“There was nothing to suggest that tying language to citizenship makes [language-learning and inclusion] happen more; if you have very high requirements it can instead lead to exclusion if people give up,” she explained.

Photo: Emelie Asplund/

How good will my Swedish need to be?

The current proposals suggest a requirement for an A2 level in speaking and writing and B1 in reading and listening, the second and third levels respectively out of six in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

“The hardest elements are productive language, speaking and writing, so we landed on A2 for those skills and B1 for listening and reading. That allows you to follow societal debates on TV or in newspapers for example,” said Andersson.

How will I learn Swedish?

That's up to you, but one option would be the free Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) classes which are available all over Sweden, although class times and locations vary. You are even entitled to time off work to learn Swedish. 

How will I prove my Swedish level?

The proposals suggest various ways you could prove your knowledge of Swedish.

If you went to a Swedish school and passed Grade 9 or upper secondary school, this will be sufficient to prove your Swedish skills, and the same level of education in Norwegian or Danish from a Swedish, Norwegian or Danish school would also be sufficient.

For those who moved to Sweden as adults and/or did not attend Swedish school, completing the final level of Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) would be sufficient, or passing the TISUS test which is used to show you have a good enough grasp of Swedish to study at university, under the proposals.

If you didn't have any of those qualifications, there would be the option of taking a specific language test for citizenship, which currently does not exist. 

Mari Andersson and Morgan Johansson announce the proposals. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Will there be any exemptions to the language requirement?

Yes. The language requirement would apply to people applying for citizenship aged between 16 and 66, under the proposals.

Nordic citizens, who follow a different process for citizenship based on notification rather than application, would continue to be able to become Swedish after living in Sweden for five years without a language test. The reason for these different rules is that the Nordic countries are considered to have strong similarities in their cultures and some of their languages.

The inquiry also proposed exemptions for people with certain physical or mental disabilities as well as those who are from a vulnerable background – for example being stateless or illiterate – who can prove they have tried to reach the required knowledge level but been unsuccessful.

How will the tests be organised?

The proposal is that they would take place in universities around the country, several times each year, and will be digital. 

As well as the language test, there would be a civics test, “defined as knowledge you need to live and function in Swedish society, with a focus on democracy and the democratic process”, Andersson said. Under the proposals, a book with practice questions would be made available online.  

How much will it cost?

Andersson said the plan was for a fee of 500 kronor ($60) for the section relating to civil society and 2,000 kronor for the language component of the test.

What does this mean for waiting times?

Waiting times for Swedish citizenship are currently long, at 37 months according to the Swedish Migration Agency website on Wednesday.

This was not discussed at Wednesday's press conference.

What about applicants for permanent residence?

Permanent residence applications are not affected by this inquiry, but the government is separately looking into whether it should introduce language requirements for that status as well.

What's the next step for the proposals?

None of the details above are final; they are part of the proposals from the government based on an inquiry into the issue, and there may well be changes before they come into effect.

The next stage is to send the proposals out for consultation from relevant authorities, and they may be adapted depending on the responses received. Then a proposal would need to be passed by parliament and work to begin on putting together the tests.

So when will it come into force?

The date suggested in the inquiry is January 1st, 2025, but if it's doable to put the tests in place before then, the government wants to do that. 

“This is a reasonable proposal and we hope that it can be put into place as soon as possible, but of course this is a large organisational challenge,” said Johansson.

Unless changes are made to the proposals, they would not be implemented retroactively, so if your citizenship application is submitted before they come into effect, you wouldn't be required to pass the new tests. Citizenship applications are made via the Swedish Migration Agency.