The international students who responded to our questionnaire were aged between their early 20s and mid 40s and had come from all over the world to study in Sweden: from European countries outside the EU, Africa, Asia, South and North America, and Australia.
Although some of those who responded had found the permit application smooth, many described problems with the current system.
“The question should be how many problems do you have, and not if you had any,” said one frustrated student at Linköping University, who had been in Sweden for two years.
Long processing times
The Migration Agency told The Local that the average processing time for residence permit extensions was 31 days, but several students said they had been waiting for two to three months for a decision, and that they knew others in the same situation.
“I sent in an application for extension to finish my 60 credit year-long thesis and the case officer did not understand how to read my transcript,” recalled a 26-year-old American student. They missed two conferences during the three months that it took to process the permit extension, while their thesis advisor had to correspond directly with the case officer.
Another student who also arrived in 2015 had missed two conferences while waiting for their permit extension due to a delay in being assigned a case officer.
And a student at KTH said that they and four fellow students were missing out on a week-long workshop on entrepreneurship in Amsterdam which was required as part of their Masters programme. “The flights had already been booked and reservations made for five students which will go to waste,” they said.
Students awaiting an extension to their permit are allowed to leave the country, but can face problems when they try to return to Sweden if they don't have a valid permit.
This can be problematic for those students required to attend training or conferences overseas, and can also mean students are effectively prevented from travelling to their home countries to visit family and friends, especially since their permits will typically expire at the end of the academic year, and a three-month waiting period covers the entire summer vacation.
The official advice from the Migration Agency is: “If you are travelling abroad as your permit expires, you may have trouble re-entering Sweden before your new permit is approved. You may need to await your new permit outside of Sweden.”
Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se
Its advice for any students who end up stranded outside Sweden as a result is to apply for an entry visa at a Swedish embassy or consulate in the country they have travelled to, creating a logistical headache.
One 25-year-old Chinese student, who had studied at two different Swedish universities since 2013, had been unable to travel home for three years, because their permit ran out on June 30th each year.
“I have to apply for the extension in May, but I can only get the decision after September. I missed two summer holidays to come back home,” the student said.
One suggestion made by the students who spoke to The Local was the adoption of a legal document which the Migration Agency could issue to students as proof that they had applied for a permit extension, so they would be allowed back into the country during its processing time.
Students pictured in the historic Swedish university town of Uppsala. Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se
New time limits enforced on permanent residence applications
Lack of clarity over the rules was a frequent complaint, including new restrictions on applications for permanent residence permits.
The Migration Agency has announced a new legal position, as The Local reported last month, which meant these applications may only be made 14 days before the current residence permit expires, and not several months earlier as was previously possible.
One Cuban PhD student told The Local he had been negatively affected by the change, and his permanent residence application was rejected on the grounds that it is not allowed to have more than one valid residence permit at a time.
“I think the new regulation was applied without much consideration for the consequences to international students. This will probably cause a one-year delay in my citizenship application,” he said.
Those who miss the 14-day window could even risk deportation, Robert Andersson from the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers told The Local. However, Andersson stressed that students who submit their application on time retain the right to work and remain entitled to social benefits during the processing time, leaving the travel restrictions the major worry.
“The biggest problem in practice is that you cannot leave Sweden if you want to be sure of coming back,” he explained, but said SULF's view was that this was “very problematic”. The barriers to travel went against Sweden's ambitions to internationalize higher education, he said, and could make international students feel unwelcome in the country.
“In some cases, it may also mean that you cannot apply for a permanent residence permit when you have passed the four-year limit [required to be eligible for permanent residence] in cases where you already have a residence permit that is valid for some time to come,” Andersson added.
Photo: Tor Johnsson/SvD/TT
'On the fringes of society'
As well as the problems with longer permit extensions and permanent residence applications, other students told The Local of issues they had faced with short-term permits.
A former student from India, who is now working in Sweden, described their experience as “nightmarish and anxious” because their permit did not allow them to receive a personnummer, the ten-digit code which is the key to many parts of life in Sweden, from opening a bank account to joining a gym.
“For a two-year programme, I was issued a residence permit for 364 days (one day less than a year) which meant Skatteverket [the Swedish Tax Agency] didn't issue me a personnummer and I was always on the societal fringes,” they said.
“Wouldn't be easier to give a student a straight visa for two years when s/he comes to study for a two-year study program?” they suggested.
The Migration Agency noted that it had in 2017 introduced a longer permit for doctoral students, valid for two years instead of one, but for Masters student one-year permits are still the norm.
'We are not the enemy'
There was praise from several students for individual universities including Lund University and KTH, which have many international students and staff on hand to explain the processes. But the students who spoke to The Local called for the Migration Agency to improve its own processing time, ensure international travel was possible for students, and improve clarity about its processes and decisions.
“The international student has enough things to worry about, a residence permit shouldn’t be one of them,” one student said.
“Please tell the Migration Agency we are not their enemy,” were the words of another. “If [Swedish authorities] keep treating us like this, none of us will want to stay any more.”