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LIVING IN DENMARK

How the dizzying cost of family reunification keeps Danes and foreign partners apart

The cost of family reunification in Denmark for spouses and partners from non-EU countries is so high that it could put relationships under strain and contribute to inequality, critics say.

How the dizzying cost of family reunification keeps Danes and foreign partners apart
Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen/Ritzau Scanpix

The cost for international couples who want to settle down in Denmark remains comfortably over 100,000 kroner in 2021, despite evidence charges in place since 2018 are ineffective and costly to administer.

A Danish partner in an international couple said she was worried about the long-term effect of the heavy financial burden on relationships, while a report has found that an expensive bank guarantee required under immigration rules is an administrative drain on municipalities and is rarely used.

Non-EU national partners of Danes face initial outlays well in excess of 100,000 kroner (€13,400) if they are permitted to move to Denmark to live with their loved one.

The so-called ‘bank guarantee’ (bankgarantien) forms the largest single cost involved in family reunification.

According to figures from the Danish Immigration Service (Udlændingestyrelsen), the bank guarantee, which must be paid in order for a foreign partner to be granted residence under family reunification rules, is set at 106,120 kroner (€14,265) as of January 2021.

This represents a near-doubling of the amount that applied prior to 2018, 57,613 kroner (€7,743).

The money can be placed with a bank under guarantee to transfer it to local authorities in the municipality in which the applicant lives, if needed. Alternatively, it can be put in an account from which the municipality can draw funds. According to the Immigration Service website, municipalities can draw from the fund to pay for costs such as unemployment benefits, if the family reunified person needs them.

After 10 years – the usual point at which permanent residency can be granted – the guarantee is no longer required, but it must remain in place until this time.

In addition to the bank guarantee, the one-off fee for applying for the reunification of a partner is 9,460 kroner (€1,270).

Once family reunification is granted, the foreign national must pass language exams within certain deadlines in order for the temporary residence to be extended. The two language tests, A1 and A2, cost 2,820 kroner (€380) each. If they are passed, a portion of the bank guarantee (21,224 kroner for A1 and 10,612 kroner for A2) can be reclaimed.

It can take up to seven months to process an application for family reunification. In addition to fronting up funds for the various costs, the couple must fulfil stringent criteria in order for family reunification to be granted. These include (but are not limited to) criteria relating to age, previous visits to Denmark, education and work history and language skills.

Additionally, an applicant for family reunification may not work while their application is being processed, despite the self-sufficiency criteria.

Line Boe Grumstrup, a Danish national who met her fiancé in Malaysia in 2019, told The Local she feared the rules could have a long-term impact on her relationship.

Grumstrup hopes to marry her partner Adham, a national of Yemen, in Denmark and apply for family reunification. The couple already face significant challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and Danish visa rules. Should these be overcome, they must then tackle the daunting prospect of meeting the financial demands of family reunification.

READ ALSO: Denmark registered record low number of asylum seekers in 2020

The high costs risk creating inequality between Danes who can and cannot afford for their partners to move to Denmark, she said.

“I see the increase (in the bank guarantee) as an obstacle for Danish citizens, as it splits us into ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams,” she said via email, pointing out that only those who are affluent enough will be able to successfully apply for family reunification.

“For us, the high bank guarantee means we need a certain amount of savings before we even start trying to apply for family reunification under the Danish rules,” she added.

Grumstrup pointed out the rule against either reunified partner being allowed to receive benefits from the Danish state under the law known in Danish as Aktivloven (Activity Law).

“As a family reunified couple we may not receive public benefits. That also applies to the Danish citizen, i.e. me, even though I’ve paid into the Danish social safety net all my life,” she said.

“This means that if I go on sick leave, lose my job or be unlucky enough to need unemployment benefits [Danish: kontanthjælp, ed.] or need any other form of support mentioned under the Activity Law, my partner would be deported from Denmark at that time,” she explained.


Line Boe Grumstrup says she is concerned about the long-term impact on her relationship of family reunification costs. Photo: supplied

She also noted that the Danish laws on family reunification were significantly stricter than EU laws, making it easier for Denmark-resident EU citizens to obtain family reunification than for Danes themselves.

In a 2018 study, NGO Ægteskab uden grænser (Marriage without Borders, ÆUG) asked Denmark’s 10 most highly populated municipalities how many family reunification bank guarantees were currently under their auspices and how often the municipalities drew upon the guarantees.

Based on this sample, the organisation found that the municipalities withdrew an average of just 126 kroner annually from the guarantees during the years 2015-2017. They spent an average of 470 kroner per guarantee administering the funds (not all municipalities were asked for details on administration costs).

Additionally, the report found that an average of 1 in 300 family reunified individuals received state welfare that resulted in their municipalities drawing from the guarantees.

ÆUG subsequently called for the scheme to be scrapped and accused it of being in breach of article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Article 14 forbids discrimination on the basis of aspects including personal fortunes, and the ability to put up the bank guarantee is closely associated with personal fortune,” the organisation wrote in its report.

“The bank guarantee means on a personal level for us and our wedding that we can’t have the big party with friends and family that we, like so many other couples, dream of,” Grumstrup says.

“If we were a Danish-Danish couple, we’d be able to enjoy planning the wedding and being in love and give that all our attention.

“We can’t do that now, because we simply can’t afford it,” she adds.

The requirement has also been criticised for having no practical effect because foreign nationals resident under family reunification rules are likely to lose their residence status anyway if unemployed, rendering the need for social welfare benefits moot.

“You will be thrown out (of Denmark) if you receive benefits. We support that, but I don’t believe anything else is needed. (Losing residence) is the ultimate punishment. I do not think the bank guarantee has any effect,” Andreas Steenberg, immigration spokesperson with the centre-left Social Liberal party, told newspaper Berlingske in October 2020.

The newspaper meanwhile reported that the Copenhagen Municipality had not drawn money from the guarantee system a single time in 2020, but spends 1.3 million kroner on its administration.

In a written comment to Berlingske, immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye defended the requirement.

“I want to avoid the rest of society ending up with the bill if the foreign spouse needs economic support from the municipality,” Tesfaye wrote.

The minister added he believed the rules have a “clear preventative effect”.

“The amount can also be reduced if you pass Danish tests, so it also helps motivate people to learn Danish,” he added.

Grumstrup said it is “fine that we have to be self-sufficient” but that “when I hear the guarantee is largely never used but is in fact costly for municipalities to administrate, I can’t see the point of it”.

She noted the other costs involved in family reunification and requirement for self-sufficiency through regular income meant that, even without the bank guarantee, the economic challenges involved remain daunting.

“I’m concerned that Adham and I will also be ground down by it eventually or that it will overshadow our everyday lives so much that it will take all of the energy out of us and our relationship,” she said.

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LIVING IN DENMARK

What are the hardest things about moving to provincial Denmark as a foreigner?

Foreign residents who have moved to lesser-known regions of the country share their experiences of life in provincial Denmark. 

Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators?
Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators? Photo: Signe Goldmann/Ritzau Scanpix

Editor’s note: there are of course also many positives about living in provincial Denmark, and people based in those areas were happy to share those too. Read what they said in this article.

When Lea Cesar moved from Slovenia to the town of Ringkøbing in 2011, she didn’t know much about the region of western Jutland. 

“In the beginning, I didn’t like how difficult it was to find a job as a foreigner in a smaller city,” Cesar told The Local. Back then she didn’t speak Danish, and that made it hard to find a job that matched her skills and qualifications. 

“I later took it as a challenge and started my own company,” Cesar said, opening a cafe and bakery called Baking Sins in central Ringkøbing. Once she’d taken things into her own hands, she thrived and came to love her town. 

“I love the small shops with handcrafted products,” she said, drawing a comparison to the big shops and chain stores of larger cities. “The culture here is totally different. Ringkøbing is a smaller town, but feels big enough for me.”

Considering the pros and cons of a life in lesser-known parts of Denmark has never been more relevant, as the Danish government amps up efforts to decentralise Denmark and municipalities look to internationals to balance out declining populations. 

READ ALSO: Is it easier for foreigners to find a job outside Denmark’s major cities?

There may be fewer job opportunities, depending on your industry and Danish language skills

Fewer job opportunities, Cesar said, is one of the primary differences between living in a town like Ringkøbing versus a larger city. 

“There aren’t as many companies here searching for employees that only speak English,” she said. “I think it’s important to speak at least basic Danish; otherwise it would be hard to come here.”

Antoniya Petkov, originally from Bulgaria, faced similar challenges finding work when she moved to Ringkøbing several years ago after her husband accepted a job at a wind energy company in the area. 

“Most of the job opportunities in my field in the area require a high level of Danish language, which I am still working toward,” Petkov told The Local. 

In the meantime, she continues to commute to Aarhus, where she works as a technical recruiter in systematics at a large Danish software firm. “However, there are a lot more opportunities for developers, engineers and people with a technical job profile where Danish isn’t required,” Petkov said.

Even in technical roles, Danish proficiency helps. 

Victor Balaban, originally from Moldova, moved to Vejle while working at Siemens Gamesa. Although he said there are plenty of job opportunities in the region, Balaban said his options would be significantly more limited if he didn’t speak Danish.

Candice Progler-Thomsen, an American living in Lolland, said Danish proficiency is “almost essential” to find a job in the municipality. “There will be greater job opportunities here for individuals who learn Danish,” she told The Local. 

And, because it’s a smaller area with fewer employers, Progler-Thomsen said people may need to be willing to commute or otherwise expand their job search.

READ ALSO: Why (and how) Danish provincial areas want to hire skilled foreign workers

On the other hand, there may also be less competition for jobs in lesser-known parts of Denmark, said Mariola Kajkowska. 

Originally from Poland, Kajkowska moved to Vejle in 2019, where she works as an employee retention consultant. “There are often fewer applicants for each job, which increases your chance to be selected for the position,” she said.

Speaking Danish is important, professionally and socially

When Petkov first moved to Ringkøbing, it was challenging that she didn’t speak Danish. It was hard to do daily tasks, like communicate with workers at her children’s daycare or chat with her neighbours.

“People were distant at first when we bought our house in a typical Danish neighbourhood,” she said. 

It was very different from Aarhus, where they had lived before moving to Ringkøbing. “Aarhus has a huge international community,” she said. “We were always able to find friends and it was easy to get by speaking English.”

Petkov also missed the variety of English events and activities available in Aarhus. “But, we compensate by going to international events in the municipality,” she said.

Balaban, who established baseball clubs in both Herning and Vejle, said being a part of the community and getting involved is integral to building a social network and making friends in Vejle. “You have to be an active part of society,” he said.

Although learning Danish was a challenge, Petkov also saw it as an opportunity. “I’m not sure I would have learned Danish if we were living in Copenhagen or Aarhus,” she said. “You just don’t need it much there.”

Now, she’s learned enough Danish to engage in small talk with her neighbours. “Once people got used to us, we felt very welcome,” Petkov said, “though I don’t think we will ever blend completely.”

Chris Wantia, also a resident of Ringkøbing-Skjern Municipality, has found Danish to be integral to life in rural Denmark. 

He lives in the village of Bork Havn, population 300. “When I walk out of my house, I don’t expect my 65-year-old Danish neighbour to speak to me in English,” Wantia told The Local.

“English may be fine in the big cities, but speaking Danish here is important,” he said, adding that it would have been very challenging to purchase and renovate the two homes he and his wife, Janine, own in the municipality if he didn’t speak Danish. 

A second silver lining Petkov has identified is that living in Ringkøbing has also enabled her family to engage more deeply with Danes and Danish culture, adding that most of her friends are Danish. 

“If you really want to dive into Danish culture, a place like Ringkøbing is amazing,” she said.

There’s less to do, depending on your interests (and you might need to drive)

“You can count on one hand the number of good restaurants within 50 kilometres of Bork Havn,” Wantia told The Local. Although that wasn’t a dealbreaker for him and his wife, Janine, it might be worth some consideration before moving to a village like Bork Havn. 

“If you want many restaurants, parties, or meeting new people all the time, this isn’t the place for you,” he said. “It’s quiet here. Some people might not like that, but it’s perfect for us.”

Vejle, though much larger than Bork Havn with a population of 113,000, also isn’t a very lively city in terms of nightlife, according to Balaban.

“I’d say it’s a mature city,” he said. “It’s a quiet city that attracts a lot of families and people who are more settled down.”

Ultimately, having ‘things to do’ nearby depends on which activities you prefer. 

In Lolland, Progler-Thomsen said it’s “a bit of a sacrifice” to not have easy access to the cultural activities the family had in Copenhagen. 

READ ALSO: Are provincial parts of Denmark a good option for international families?

In exchange, her family has access to activities it enjoys that weren’t available in Copenhagen, including many outdoor activities and sports. “We love the Safari Park that’s only a 7-minute drive from our house,” Progler-Thomsen said. 

That’s something else to consider, though: driving. 

Kajkowska, in Vejle, said driving will play more of a role in one’s life, living in these parts of Denmark. “I was at a party the other night and two cars had driven one and a half hours from Sønderborg to come to the party,” she said.

READ ALSO: What benefits does life in provincial Denmark offer foreign residents?

For the most part, Petkov said she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out by living in Ringkøbing.

She enjoys several favorite cafes in town, an Italian restaurant where they are regulars and enjoy chatting with the owners, exploring the beaches and woods, and escaping to the wellness hotel near their house for mini-breaks. “In the summer, it feels like living at a resort,” Petkov said. 

“Ringkøbing is a great place for our family,” she said. “The benefits outweigh the drawbacks for us.”

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