Dutch civic integration exam: what expats need to know
Everaert Advocaten is a respected leader in Dutch migration law. Based in Amsterdam, its multilingual team advises both short- and long-term expats on residency procedures and migration-related legal issues.
Our law firm receives many queries from clients on the civic integration exam. Clients raise questions such as, "Do I need to pass this exam?", "How does the exam work?", "How should I prepare?", "Where do I register for the exam, and where do I write it?"
Due to significant changes in the Dutch Civic Integration Act over the past years, the legislation on integration has become very diffuse. With this article I hope to provide at least some clarification regarding the web of rules on integration.
Who needs to take the integration exam?
Since 2007 immigrants in the Netherlands must undergo a civic integration course. They have to pass an exam testing their command of the Dutch language and their basic knowledge of Dutch society. If they do not pass the civic integration exam within three years upon the entry date of their legal residence, they receive a penalty.
Not every immigrant is required to fulfil the civic integration obligation. For example, highly skilled migrants, entrepreneurs and immigrants with a residence permit based on employment are exempt from the obligation to pass the civic integration exam. Their family members who have a dependent permit are not required to take the exam either.
Applicants for a permanent residence permit
As of 2010, all applicants for a Dutch permanent residence permit are required to take the civic integration exam, including those who are exempt from the civic integration obligation on the basis of the Immigration Act.
In other words, members of the above-mentioned groups: highly skilled migrants, entrepreneurs, immigrants with a residence permit for employment and their respective family members, must also pass the civic integration exam, or an equivalent, if they wish to apply for a permanent residence permit.
Exactly the same civic integration requirement is set to all immigrants for naturalisation. So, although expats will not receive a penalty for failing to pass the civic integration exam within three years of arrival, they will need to pass the exam, or its equivalent, in order to become eligible for a permanent residence permit or for a Dutch passport through naturalisation.
New exam content: "Orientation to the Dutch Labour Market"
The language part of the civic integration exam consists of four parts: reading, listening, writing and speaking. In addition to these language exams one also has to pass the exam "Knowledge of Dutch Society".
As of January 2015 another exam has to be passed as well: "Orientation to the Dutch Labour Market". The latter exam is only required for those for whom the duty to integrate is vested after 2015.
Since highly skilled migrants, residence card holders on the basis of employment, entrepreneurs and their dependent family members (family members older than 18 years) were, and are, not obliged under the Integration Act to pass the integration exam, they should pass the exam "Orientation to the Dutch Labor Market" first if they want to apply for a permanent residence permit.
The same exam is set for those who, instead of the regular integration exam, undertake the NT2 exam, programme I or II.
Interestingly, under current rules, immigrants who have passed the civic integration exam or NT2 programme I or II prior to January 2015 can file a naturalisation request without having passed the exam "Orientation to the Dutch Labour Market".
This is because the Dutch Nationality Act and its subordinate legislation have not been fully adapted to the change of the Dutch Immigration Act.
I believe it might not take long before the relevant changes to the Dutch Immigration Act will be made so that anyone wanting to naturalise will also have to pass the "Orientation to the Dutch Labour Market" part of the exam.
The debate over penalties for failing
Last but not least I would like to address another issue that has led to confusion for some of our clients over the past months: the requirement to sit the integration exam and the consequences if a person fails.
The outcome of a recent integration case
On June 4 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled for the first time on integration requirements for third country nationals under the long-term residence EC Directive .
The case was filed by an American and a New Zealand national who, some years ago, were granted long-term resident EC status in the Netherlands. At the time, the civic integration requirement was not yet necessary to secure this particular status.
These long-term EC residents failed to pass the civic integration exam within the required time and received a fine as penalty.
Recent European case law
The European Court ruled that the long-term resident EC Directive does "not preclude as such national legislation... which imposes on third-country nationals, who already possess long-term resident status, the obligation to pass a civic integration examination, under pain of a fine, provided that the means of implementing that obligation are not liable to jeopardise the achievement of the objectives pursued by that directive."
The European Court left it to the Dutch national court to verify whether "the payment of a fine penalising failure to comply with the obligation to pass the civic integration examination, in addition to payment of the costs incurred in relation to the examinations sat, is liable to jeopardise the achievement of the objectives pursued by Directive 2003/109 and, therefore, deprive it of its effectiveness."
EU court critical of penalties
Although it is still left for the Dutch court to apply the Court’s ruling , it is quite clear from the judgment that the European Court is highly critical of the high fines imposed on top of the high fees to sit the exams in relation to the effectiveness of the EC Directive.
And since the Court clearly stated that it is irrelevant whether the long-term resident status was acquired before or after the obligation to pass a civic integration examination was imposed, it seems that foreign nationals holding a national permanent residence permit or foreign nationals with a residence status of at least five years also fall within the scope of this case.
But again, in order to be certain about this, we will have to wait for the Dutch ruling.
More clarity is needed
This is the first case of the European Court of Justice on conditions for third country nationals. More rulings on integration conditions for third country nationals will follow in the next months and years.
Hopefully these future rulings will bring some more clarity, as the legislation on integration in the Netherlands has never been so opaque.