The most important lesson you need to learn about living in Croatia

There are lots of resources out there about living and visiting Croatia. What foods to eat. Which cities to visit. How to get a visa. What to look out for and what to beware of. What curse words to learn.

However, if you plan on living in Croatia for any period of time that necessitates you dealing with the bureaucracy, there is ONE thing must know before you do. And you need to keep knowing it the entire time you live here.

Unfortunately, many foreigners residing in Croatia don’t understand this one thing. Truly understand. As in, conscious of this lesson every time they deal with a new bureaucracy or a new person, fresh off the boat.

These forgetful people think that because they’ve made it to the Promiseland and been escorted through the stony Venetian gates that they have somehow ascended to a higher plane, one reserved for only the smartest and most deserving of this Mediterranean paradise.

That is not how it works in Croatia. If you have managed to navigate the bureaucracy, that doesn’t mean you are “chosen”. You are not special. You are not better than everyone else. It just means you have patience and, in most cases, are lucky.

So back to this lesson that most immigrants fail to fully realize. Are you ready?

Drumrolllllllllllll…

Everyone’s situation is different.

I know. Seems like common sense, right? It’s something that we’re all taught in kindergarten (hopefully). And yet, it is so frequently overlooked here.

Everyone seems to know everything, better than everyone else, just because they have a residence permit.

Apologies to the egomaniacs in the room, but no.

Why is everyone’s situation different?

Croatia is one giant gray area

In terms of giving visas to foreigners, the legislation is changing all the time. Also, much of the legislation governing foreigners in Croatia hasn’t even been written yet. The desire for foreigners to move to Croatia is still a new thing. That is why Croatians are shocked that we would want to come here, while they are trying desperately to leave.

Because this immigrant phenomenon is a fairly new idea, the nuance has not yet been addressed like it has in the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Without clearly outlined rules and policy, that leaves a lot of discretion to the individual jurisdictions. If your situation doesn’t fit the exact mold as defined, the police station can decide on their own what to do with you. The Zagreb MUP may act differently than the Split MUP than does the Makarska MUP. (For the newbies, “MUP” refers to the Ministry of Police, which governs the immigration process.)

This can be both good or bad, depending on the situation. Like I said, everyone’s situation is different.

When applying for my third visa, the police literally didn’t know what to do with me because my specific situation was not covered in the law. So what happened? The powers that be at the Split MUP had a meeting and they voted on what to do with me. Like, on Survivor. Since I did everything they asked, hadn’t been arrested and was not a burden on society, they voted to keep me on the island.

Smoke breaks, laziness and wind

Just as each jurisdiction can have discretion over your case, more minutely, so does the individual you speak to.

Does your request involve thinking outside the box? Does it require more work on the part of the employee than outlined in their job description? Are you visiting the police just before lunch? Just before a morning smoke break? Is the person you’re speaking to clearly in a bad mood? Is it jugo?

If the answer is YES to any of those questions, you should probably come back another day. In the morning. Before 10:00.

Photo by
Stéphane Neckebrock

More about legislation

Legislation changes so frequently in Croatia, that it could change how your application is dealt with while it’s in process. Several times. It can also change retroactively, further complicating (or uncomplicating) your situation. A legislative change can simplify your situation and give you an edge in your residence application. There is no way to know as an individual when these things happen or keep up with the changes. Even lawyers have a hard time keeping abreast of the changes.

There are other ramifications. This means the government web sites, embassies and consulates are rarely updated with the latest rules e.g. just because it’s not on the web site, doesn’t make it so (or not so).

There are many types of visas in Croatia

Every type of residence permit comes with its own set of requirements and scrutiny. Some of the basic requirements overlap, but for the most part, each type of application is different. Most of the time, the application process is customized to the exact person’s situation.

An immigrant with Croatian grandparents is held to a different standard than someone with Croatian parents than someone who is married to a Croatian than someone with no heritage ties at all.

The government will not welcome you with open arms

Even though Croatia’s population is rapidly declining due to the mass exodus of its citizens, the country has not caught up to the idea that letting in foreigners will help mitigate the escalating loss of taxpayers.

If you are wondering why you can’t get straight, valid information from a consulate or embassy, it’s because they are the first defense against immigration. Do not bother with them. You need to be in Croatia to start any kind of bureaucratic process.

I mentioned above how encountering a police officer in a bad mood could hurt your case. Sometimes, the person you deal with will simply choose to make it difficult for you. Requiring you to have a certified translator with you during all visits to the police (if you are not fluent) is one such hoop. I believe wholeheartedly that any person who moves to Croatia should learn how to speak the language, but we’re talking about the department that ONLY deals with FOREIGNERS. Why wouldn’t you speak English to them?

Here is one such situation from my personal experience. During my first two years, the one woman I always encountered at the foreigner desk in Split refused to speak English to me. In fact, she did her best to give me the impression that she didn’t speak or understand English at all. For a while, I would bring a Croatian with me to speak on my behalf, but that quickly became unsustainable. Then I would bring a printed out Google translation for her, hoping she had no follow up questions. Queue anxiety attack.

After my second visa was approved, I went to the police to pay my application fee. I walked up to the desk and handed her my passport. That is the moment she chose to start speaking English. Perfectly. As if she’d been doing it her whole life. After 20 months of living in Croatia and dealing with her over at least a dozen visits. It was obvious I was being hazed, discouraged or tested. Who knows, probably all three.

The Facebook groups give foreigners a bad name

There are many Facebook communities throughout the country set up for foreigners (aka “expats”) to connect with each other and locals. These groups can be a great place to meet people and get answers to your most pressing “living in Croatia” questions from “are there English kindergartens in Dubrovnik?” to “where can I find a dry cleaner in Zagreb?”.

The problem is that they can also be a mecca for toxic behavior. The Facebook groups in Split (there are two) are the worst offenders. New people post a question regarding insurance, health care or getting residency. Usually, they will get useful responses. Then the trolls arrive…

The trolls attack useful advice as fake because they have not had the same experience. Which brings us full circle to…

EVERYONE’S SITUATION IS DIFFERENT

Just because you haven’t heard of something, doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just because the one American you know was told something different by the police than some American you don’t know did, doesn’t mean the advice isn’t valid.

The purpose of these communities is to HELP people, not tear people down and create confusion. Share your experience, give advice, but cut the ego shit. Nobody who moved here from abroad is an authority on the bureaucracy. As stated above, not even experienced lawyers can stay on top of the law.

My message to the new people in Croatia who join these communities is this…

Don’t take anyone’s word for gold. The experiences of others can help prepare you for what “might” happen, but that’s all. At the end of the day, the only opinion that matters is that of the police and the government. Get advice in the groups, but for legal questions, go to the police and engage an immigration lawyer. (I can recommend one if you email me.)

My message to the trolls…

You don’t know everything. So stop acting like everyone’s experiences aren’t valid because they don’t align with yours. Additionally, get outside and enjoy this place where you chose to live instead of looking for a fight. Or maybe get a therapist to deal with your anger management issues. (I can recommend one if you email me.)

My message to everybody…

As foreigners, we all choose to live in Croatia. We all know how hard it can be to get legal and live here. Let’s help each other!

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Expat in Croatia

Sara is an American expat based in Split. After globetrotting between New York, Amsterdam and California, she moved to Croatia in 2012. Sara's blog Expat in Croatia is a guide for foreigners living and traveling in Croatia.

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