Each year in early October I make my annual pilgrimage to Malmi and the offices of the Immigration Police in order to begin the process of extending my student residence permit. It's a process I've grown to loathe over the years: repetitive, boring, time-consuming, expensive – but also undeniably necessary. So each year I go through it all again, to earn myself one more year of life in Finland. The first step in the process is making an appointment. When I applied for my first permit in 2007 the option of making an appointment wasn't available; you just had to go to their offices, take a queue number and wait in line. The offices of the Immigration Police close at 4pm, however the queue closes at 2pm, no doubt because even the Immigration Police themselves would be forced to admit that anyone arriving at 2pm has zero chance of getting to see someone before they close for the day. (The longest time I've ever had to wait was four hours). However last year an online appointment system was introduced, allowing four lucky people per day to make an appointment rather than have to wait in line. This year their entire daily schedule is available for booking, so I will soon get to find out for myself whether this new system has made any noticeable difference.
Once my appointment has been made it's time to start gathering the necessary paperwork. The 'Residence Permit Application for Study' is six pages long and requires a wide variety of information, including personal data, passport information, contact information, information relating to residency, employment, studies, family, income, health insurance, criminal history and more. On a separate form I need to attach a recent passport photo. I can't simply provide the same one I did the previous year, even if my appearance hasn't changed – I tried that once and my application was rejected. I need to provide an official certificate of attendance from school along with a transcript of my studies. I need to provide 'clarification of income', including current bank statements and a transaction record for the past four months, along with my work contract and payslips for the past three months. In total these must prove that I have access to at least 6.000€ to support myself for the year ahead. I also need to provide proof that I have health insurance coverage of at least 30.000€ for the coming year.
The cost of applying for an extension to a student residence permit is significant – the price I pay for my health insurance alone is roughly 320€. The fee for submitting a first residence permit application was 55€ in 2007, this year it's 250€. Luckily for me though the fee to extend an existing permit has only increased to 108€. My bank charges me 30€ to provide me with my account balance statements and transaction records, and new passport photos usually set me back around 20€. When all is said and done, I'll have little more than pocket change left out of 500€.
As always, when the time arrived last year I gathered up all my paperwork and took a train to Malmi. The offices of the Immigration Police are located at Viljatie 2, only about a two minute walk from the station. After passing through the glass outer doors I enter a waiting-room that is far too small for the number of people it is required to accommodate. All the chairs and benches are full, people lean against every spare wall space they can find, whilst others simply give up, preferring to wait outside. Posters decorate the walls, whilst a variety of shelves and cabinets offer a dizzying array of application forms for those unfortunate enough to have come unprepared. In the far left corner of the room is a full-length mirror, a picture of a disembodied police uniform adorns its surface. Armless sleeves form a V-shape at the crotch, whilst a headless cap floats suspended as if by magic above the shoulders of the empty shirt. Beside the mirror is a glass security door that can only be opened after access has been granted from the inside, access that is signalled with a loud electronic buzzing sound.
The mood of the room speaks of anxiety, with a distinct undertone of desperation. In spite of the number of people present the atmosphere is subdued – people speak in low voices, under their breath, if at all. During the numerous occasions that I've been forced to spend soaking up the atmosphere of this room, I've always felt an unmistakable change in my mood – for me at least, the tension and stress contained within these four walls is contagious. Even though the rational part of my brain keeps telling me that this entire renewal process is pretty much routine, the simple fact that my residence permit is about to expire is unnerving. For these few months each year, I can't help feeling like my entire existence is placed in a state of limbo.
After surveying the room I manage to find a small patch of vacant wall, and I settle myself into a comfortable leaning position. An hour after my scheduled appointment time they're ready to see me – not what I had been expecting, but still, I'll take it. I make my way through the hordes of people, past the mirror and open the security door. On the other side is a short, narrow, brightly lit corridor. To the left a row of windows look out upon the nondescript path outside, to the right, a row of seven small cubicles, where lone clerks sit at desks placed behind a thick layer of plexiglass. I take a seat at the first cubicle, smile and say “Hi, I'm just here to apply for an extension to my student residence permit.” I'm asked to pass over my application and the evaluation begins. In my experience these clerks come in two main types – those who are simply going through the motions and barely say a word throughout the entire process, and the fanatics, those who will interrogate you relentlessly, and go over every line of your paperwork in minute detail, looking for any possible signs of mischief.
The minutes tick by as my information is entered into a computer, and as in past years I once again find myself with little else to do but stare blankly ahead, or study the graffiti carved into the desktop in front of me. After some time I'm asked for my financial records, and I hand over my bank statements, work contract and payslips. In the past I've occasionally been asked to explain specific transactions on my bank account, but today everything is apparently in order. After a few moments I'm asked if I mind whether these are photocopied. I shake my head and the clerk disappears momentarily. Minutes later she returns and asks for my certificate of school attendance and transcript. “How many credits did you earn last year?” “Thirty-five.” “That's not very many.” A year's worth of hard work, casually dismissed. I force myself to sigh internally and explain the circumstances surrounding my sub-par performance. She seems satisfied, if not wholly approving. She asks for my proof of health insurance and passport photos, and again goes off to make photocopies. Soon after she returns once more, I pay my fee, and stage one of the process is complete. Several months later stage two will take place when they're ready to accept my passport, and stage three will be when I finally go back a third time to pick it up again. “Will you let me know when you need me to come back in to drop off my passport?” “Yes, we'll either call you or send out a letter.” I nod, knowing they will do no such thing. What will actually happen is that I'll wait several months without receiving any word, then finally give up, call them, and be told, “yes, we've been waiting for you for some time, why haven't you been in yet?” One variation of this scenario or another has taken place in each of the past five years.
Throughout this entire process I understand perfectly how important and necessary it is to first get and then renew a residence permit, but that doesn't change the fact that it is a monumental pain in the ass. And that's coming from someone for whom the process has always appeared to be pretty much a formality, in spite of all the hoops I'm made to jump through. As a student, the renewal of my permit each year has had the appearance of being basically automatic, assuming that I have my paperwork in order. But sharing that waiting-room with me each year are undoubtedly people who are experiencing far more difficult circumstances than I – for instance, people who are unable to speak English as I am fortunate enough to do. Most likely there are also people there who have come to Finland under some form of duress. So whenever I find myself getting overly aggravated by this whole experience, I try to remember that as the old saying goes, “there's always someone worse off than you.” In my case this is undoubtedly true, but damn I'll be glad when I don't have to jump through these hoops anymore.
Today is October 9th, and I've just returned from my first trip to Malmi of the fall of 2012. There had been some changes since my last visit; for one thing, when I arrived I found the perpetually packed waiting room to be practically bare – all but two of the benches were gone, as were the posters, display cases, and that distinctive mirror. Even more shocking, there was only a single person waiting! For a moment I felt as though I must have come to the wrong place by mistake, but no, this was definitely it. Apparently many of the passport services previously provided in Malmi have now been shifted to new offices in Pasila – if this is the result, then I wholeheartedly approve of the change.
My appointment was for 1pm, and at exactly one o'clock my name was called – yet another first. Once I sat down I noticed a small silver box on the desk in front of me, whose purpose was soon to be explained. Apparently my yearly residence permit will no longer take the form of a sticker placed in my passport, it will now be a separate “biometric card”, that will contain a record of my fingerprints. I can't say that I was entirely thrilled with this revelation, but there appeared to be little choice but to go along with it if I wanted to remain a resident of Finland. So this year my evaluation began with me placing first the thumb, then forefinger, middle finger and ring-finger of my right hand on a glass panel atop the silver box, then repeating the process with my left hand – apparently little fingers aren't terribly important.
After my prints had been scanned the remainder of the evaluation process went by without a hitch – the young guy processing my application actually seemed very pleased that I had all the required paperwork in order, and in less than twenty minutes I was done and out the door. Privacy issues aside, it was definitely a vast improvement over past years – not quite so many hoops this time around.