Last October, having lived in the country for just over 25 years, I became a citizen of the Czech Republic.
In my native Ireland citizenship ceremonies take place in a huge hall, involve thousands and get covered on the main evening news. At the Prague 3 Town Hall no more than five people had arrived to make the oath on the same morning as me.
During the short ceremony itself – each of us new Czechs got one all to ourselves – the only other people there were two officials, my wife and my friend Rob.
Actually there was a third Town Hall employee at the back, but her job was just to press play on a recording of the national anthem, Kde domov můj, which I love and was very happy to stand through alone at a table at the front.
Incidentally the ceremony took place in the same chamber where Václav Havel was married twice, which I considered a bonus.
It began with the nice lady from the registry office who handled my case introducing me, with a few words about who I was, to the deputy mayor, who was officiating.
Then it was time to recite the oath of citizenship, or státoobčanský slib, which I had been advised to memorise.
It read (in Czech, of course): On my honour, I promise loyalty to the Czech Republic; I promise that I will uphold the constitution and the other laws of the Czech Republic.
After that the deputy mayor handed me a document confirming my citizenship, shook my hand and that was it.
The whole thing had really been rather sweet and modest in that typical Czech way. But more importantly I was now Občan Willoughby, with only a little more paperwork to do.
As for why I took the step, there were a number of reasons.
I’m married to a Czech, so that would make it relatively smooth. As an Irishman I could have dual citizenship. It’s not so hard to get Czech citizenship now, but what is to say that won’t change down the line. I would be able to trade in my clunky permanent residence (which resembled a passport) for credit card-sized ID.
But above all I thought, I live here, I’m not going anywhere and wouldn’t it be great to be able to vote?
The first step to obtaining citizenship is passing Czech language and general knowledge tests.
If you’ve lived here and take an interest in the culture, the general knowledge part, which is multiple choice, is a doddle. Before even starting to prepare I got around 70 percent right on an online sample test in about a third of the time usually allotted.
Also there are only 300 possible questions (in 30 categories) and once you’ve learned those it’s near impossible to go wrong in the actual exam.
Some of the questions are along the lines of “what do Czechs eat for Christmas dinner?” But some would be tough even for natives, such as “how many months can somebody receive unemployment benefit?” (11).
The language test was harder. My Czech is average at best in view of how long I’ve been here, but still the listening and reading comprehension and short writing exercise posed no major challenges.
The worst part for me was the oral exam, in which one is paired with a stranger. After saying a few words about ourselves, myself and the older Bulgarian lady I was drawn with (hobby: Feng shui) had to role-play being colleagues agreeing on a sporting activity. We made a date to go swimming.
Around a month later, when my results arrived (they only say if you’ve passed, not the score you got), the real work began.
The woman at the Prague 3 registry office gave me a list of all the documentation I needed, with the catch being that stamps from various offices may not be more than 30 days old when you actually submit your application.
A round of visits to state offices followed. These included social services, for proof that I had never drawn unemployment allowance, and the customs office – which I had never had any dealings with in my life –, for proof that I didn’t owe them any money.
I thought it wise to be in Prague for the entire month, as there were quite a lot of things to sort out, including getting a verified copy of the official translation that I already had of my birth certificate.
In the end all the necessary documents did actually arrive within the 30 days, so I was set. Alongside that I had to fill in a questionnaire and write a motivational letter.
I can’t remember much of the latter, but I did highlight my work for Radio Prague, imagining this might be in my favour. (An English friend mentioned in his letter that he had actually represented the Czech Republic in the table football game Subbuteo; he got his citizenship way faster than me, so that evidently did the trick.)
Frankly I had been so stressed by the red tape and getting everything done on time that the process had come to feel like one almighty chore.
But I realised it meant a lot more than that when I finally handed in my enormous pile of documents and the lady at the registry office smiled and said, Good luck – we’re looking forward to having you as our fellow citizen. It was a genuinely moving moment.
She assured me that most applications like mine were passed and that it would take the Ministry of the Interior around a year to do all the processing.
And lo and behold 10 or 11 months later she called, telling me my citizenship had been approved and offering me a couple of dates for the citizenship ceremony.
As mentioned above, there were still a couple of bureaucratic bits of business remaining.
One was handing in my permanent residence permit. It was only as I left the migration police centre that it struck me – Never again will I have to come to this awful place. (To be fair it had long ceased to be the hellish experience of the mid-1990s).
If you are interested in trying the general knowledge test, there is a model one here: www.obcanstvi.cestina-pro-cizince.cz/uploads/Modelovy_test_z_ceskych_realii.pdf
Another task was applying for a Czech birth certificate, with my own name going in the section marked “child”.
Also when you become a citizen your official address automatically becomes the local town hall, so I had to apply to make my actual address my official one again, to ensure I didn’t risk losing any important mail.
A few weeks later I picked up my new ID card, which was another great moment, to complete the entire process.
Getting Czech citizenship was initially quite daunting and there are lots of hoops to jump through. The process took around 15 months – longer if you count the wait to get a slot for the language and general knowledge tests. But from my perspective it was absolutely worth it.
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