Good news! If you are the holder of a non-permanent Dutch residence permit (verblijfsvergunning regulier voor bepaalde tijd), and you were planning on voluntarily taking the civic integration exam (inburgeringsexamen) in order to qualify for a permanent residence permit (either the Netherlands-only variant verblijfsvergunning regulier voor onbepaalde tijd, or the long-term resident or langdurig ingezetene status which includes rights of movement in most of the rest of the EU), or for Dutch citizenship by naturalization, but you are struggling with learning Dutch, the Dutch government has now given you until the end of 2023 to be able to pass the language exams at A2 level.
Let’s break that sentence down.
What does it mean if you are “voluntarily” taking the exam as the holder of a Dutch residence permit?
This is my translation of the term of Dutch law niet-inburgeringsplichtig, which stands in contrast to the holders of residence permits with certain other purposes of stay (most prominently: partners/spouses of Dutch citizens and refugees who have been granted asylum) who are inburgeringsplichtig, i.e. have a legal obligation to pass the exam by a certain deadline, or otherwise have to pay a fine.
You are niet-inburgeringsplichtig if your residence permit is for one of the following purposes. among others (to see what the purpose of your residence permit is, read the small print on the back under opmerkingen:
- Arbeid in loondienst (work in paid employment)
- Arbeid als kennismigrant (work as a so-called high-skilled migrant)
- Arbeid als zelfstandige (work in self-employment)
- Blauwe Kaart (work as a Blue Card holder)
- Onderzoeker (scientific/academic researcher or PhD candidate)
- Studie* (full-time study)
- Uitwisseling* (cultural exchange)
- Lerend werken* (internship)
- Het zoeken naar en verrichten van arbeid al dan niet in loondienst* (“search year” for recent graduates and PhDs)
- Verblijf bij familie- of gezinslid (stay with a family member who themselves is a non-EU citizen holding one of the above types of residence permits; if you are staying with a family member who is Dutch or who has a permanent residence permit, on the other hand, you are inburgeringsplichtig)
(* Note! If you have one of the types of residence permits with an asterisk, or are the family member of such a person, you have a ‘temporary’ right of residence and cannot yet apply for permanent residence, but you can still take the exam– more below.)
Or to put it more simply: if you had an obligation to pass the exam, you would have already heard about it, either with a letter from DUO (the state educational services authority) or you would have been invited to a meeting at your local city hall to determine what classes you would take to prepare for the exam.
Do I have to take special classes to prepare for the exam?
NO! This is a common misconception due to the fact that most of the discourse surrounding inburgering (civic integration) focuses on the courses (the ‘inburgeringscursus’) provided to those immigrants who do have an obligation to pass the exam (however, even they are under no obligation to take a particular type of course, only to pass the exam).
You can go to any Dutch language school, class or tutor you like—or teach yourself, if you are so inclined. You just have to pass or be exempted from all six components of the exam: no one cares how you prepared for it.
What are the components of the exam?
The most important components, and the ones we are focusing on here, are the four exams reflecting the passive and active dimensions of written and spoken language proficiency:
As to the two ‘passive’ exams, reading and listening, these are tested with multiple-choice questions: you read or listen to a passage of text in Dutch, and then answer a question about that passage. Easy-peasy!
The definition of A2 level language proficiency, according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, is:
Not difficult, therefore, especially considering that Dutch is classified by the US Department of State as a “Category I” language, or one of the languages with the most similarity to English, which therefore requires the fewest number of weeks of instruction to achieve proficiency. (Don’t believe the hype — often spread by native Dutch speakers themselves — that Dutch is zo verschrikkelijk moeilijk! This has much to do with the fact that native Dutch speakers — if they have not been trained in teaching Dutch as a foreign language — never had to spend much time thinking about the logical rules of their own language, which actually are largely consistent and not terribly arbitrary.)
The other two components of the exam are:
- Kennis van de Nederlandse Maatschappij or “Knowledge of Dutch Society” (ironic quotes intended: this is the most notorious part of the exam, mainly asking questions about appropriate behavior in social situations. However, it’s multiple-choice and hardly anyone ever fails this exam on the first try if they already have the language level to understand the questions and can bring themselves down to the condescending level of the authors of exam questions in order to give the “right” answers.)
- Oriëntatie op de Nederlandse Arbeidsmarkt or Orientation on the Employment Market of the Netherlands. (If you have a work-related residence permit, or if you have a job in salaried employment or an active freelance business, you can be exempted from this).
How do I register for the exam, and when?
With this link! You simply log in with your DigID and register for and pay for each exam component separately, at any date, time, or location you like. You do not have to take them all at once, and you do not have to pass them all at once. If you pass one of the components, then you never have to take it again. If you fail one of the components, you can re-take it as many times as you like (as long as you are willing to pay for it).
If you already think you speak close to A2-level Dutch, maybe even just from picking it up from social interactions, I highly recommend that you just go ahead and register for and take all the exam components! There’s really no need to work yourself up into a nervous froth about waiting to take the exam until you think you are completely ready. By doing this, you will possibly already pass several of the exams and you will know what you are up against with the ones you fail, so that you can concentrate your efforts on preparing to pass them on the re-take. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to demystify this exam for yourself. Most clients of mine are genuinely surprised at how the exam was not as hard as they expected it would be.
And when to take the exam? This is an extremely important message I want to put out there: a lot of people have the misconception that you’re not allowed to take the the civic integration exam until you have already lived in the Netherlands for five years. Not at all! It’s just a test administered by DUO, not by the IND, with almost no heed to what your current immigration status or history is. You can already take the exam during your first year in the Netherlands, if you are up for it. If you get the civic integration diploma, it does not expire (or at least: it remains indefinitely valid as proof that you passed the exam at that particular level).
On that note, though: what are the important things to know about Dutch immigration law and how the civic integration exam fits in to it?
We already discussed how you are seen as ‘voluntarily’ taking the exam. If you are niet-inburgeringsplichtig, it’s because of a notion in Dutch politics that for persons with your type of residence permit (who might only be temporarily in the Netherlands, after all), it would do more harm than good to compel you to demonstrate your integration in Dutch society by threatening you with a penalty.
However, in another sense, you have a much greater penalty hanging over your head if you fail to pass the exam and upgrade your right of residence to an unconditional one: if your circumstances change and you no longer can satisfy the conditions of your current non-permanent residence permit, you’ll have to leave (or otherwise find another way to stay). Even so-called ‘high-skilled migrants’ with high-paying jobs who have bought a home in the Netherlands and whose children are in Dutch schools are only one corporate reorganization away from being kicked out of the country. (The most vulnerable category of niet-inburgeringsplichtigen, in my experience, are partners/spouses of high-skilled migrants, who often have pretty much no recourse to being able to stay any other way if their sponsoring partner breaks up with them.
Getting a permanent residence permit — which means that your right to stay in the Netherlands becomes completely unconditional and no longer dependent on work, income, or family relationships, and which also means that you have to be treated equally to Dutch citizens in almost all areas of the law and you can work wherever you like — is the only way to guard yourself against such contingencies.
I therefore encourage all of my clients to set the goal for themselves of applying for a permanent residence permit as soon as they have had a (an uninterrupted series of) valid residence permit(s) for five years. (It has become unfortunately too-common, but misleading knowledge, among people who had a residence permit as a student for a number of those years, that ‘student years count for half’ toward the five years, but that is only with regard to the ‘long-term resident’ type of permanent residence permit that includes rights in other EU countries! If you have had (say) three years as a student, and one year with a search year, and one year as a high-skilled migrant, on the other hand, you most definitely can still get a Netherlands-only verblijfsvergunning regulier voor onbepaalde tijd, and all your years do count for 100%.)
A common question is: “if I pass the inburgeringsexamen in 2023, but I don’t reach the 5-year mark until 2024 or later, will my diploma still be valid for a permanent residence permit?” What is definitely the case is that the law for Dutch citizenship has already been changed to clarify that a civic integration diploma obtained under the Wet inburgering 2013, as the ‘old’ law with an A2 requirement is called, will still remain valid for future naturalization applications. I expect that the same will be true for future permanent residence permit applications. But even if it’s not, and if a diploma reflecting B1-level Dutch is required, it’s still a worthwhile exercise that you worked toward getting your Dutch to A2 level to start with.
Resolve to make 2023 the year you pass the exam! Zet ‘m op!