These countries offer adaptation or integration courses for expats

  • training
Published on 2022-12-30 at 10:00 by Ameerah Arjanee
In many EU/EEA countries, there exist cultural integration programs to ensure that long-term expats learn the local language and understand the country well. France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden and Estonia all offer such programs. Outside of the EU, the Canadian province of Quebec offers a similar program. 

What is the purpose of adaptation or integration programs?

Countries that receive many expats, immigrants and refugees often have to deal with integration issues. 

Firstly, newcomers might not master the local language well enough. If they have insufficient language skills, they will struggle to find employment, succeed in educational institutions, or simply make local friends in their neighborhoods. Over time, this can even pose a security problem, as foreign-born residents who feel alienated can sometimes fall into extremist groups and crime. As such, successful cultural integration is part of an anti-terrorism strategy. 

If the expats, immigrants and refugees come from countries with political, legal, administrative and medical systems which are extremely different from that of their new country, they might have trouble getting by in everyday life. They might not be fully aware of their labor rights in the workplace, which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. They might not know how to register themselves as patients in the public healthcare system or be aware of what medical services are available. 

For this reason, many EU/EEA countries make adaptation/integration courses compulsory for non-EU/EEA expats. Newcomers from within the EU are also entitled to these courses, but they will not be prioritized for seats when demand is high.

France signs a Republican Integration Contract with non-EU/EEA nationals 

The French state signs a “contrat d'intégration républicaine” (CIR), translated as Republican Integration Contract, with all non-EU citizens who want to live in the country in the long term. This excludes international students who are in France for a specific purpose and might not settle down there even after 3-7 years. It doesn't apply to interns, seasonal workers, or those with a talent passport either. However, it is compulsory for those with long-stay visas or residence permits as sponsored employees or self-employed professionals.

The prefect, the state's representative in a French department/region, signs this 1-year contract on behalf of France. The expat first undergoes an interview and a language test at a French immigration office before being given the contract to sign. Through this test and interview, the authorities know what kind of training they need exactly in their contract. The training is free, as it is fully financed by the French state.

Expats may be waived from French language training if found to have at least A1 (elementary) proficiency. It's more difficult to be waived of the civic education requirement – learning about Republican French values and the rules in everyday French life over a 4-day course. Only those who've studied in French high school or university can be granted a waiver here.

At the end of the 1-year contract, the expat has an exit interview with the immigration authorities, who check if they have attained all of the targets. If a non-EU expat fails to complete them, they might be barred from renewing their visa or residence permit. A short extension beyond 1 year can sometimes be granted to complete the training, but the expat must have already completed most of it within the initial deadline. 

The German “Integrationskurs” is designed on a case-by-case basis

The “Integrationskurts” (Integration Course) is compulsory for non-EU/EEA expats and optional for EU/EEA ones. 

The normal course is 700 units/hours long. However, fast-track courses are 400 units/hours long, and special courses are 900 units/hours long. The fast track is for expats who already have a certain level of German proficiency. The special courses are for newcomers belonging to specific categories: young adults under 27, immigrants who are illiterate in any language, parents who will have to deal with the German school system, etc.

To be directed towards a course provider, expats first need to get a certificate of eligibility from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Non-EU/EEA expats who will stay in Germany for more than 1 year for work, family reunification, or humanitarian reasons are guaranteed a seat. EU/EEA expats can get a seat only if there is space available or if they have a justification for it, for example, if they don't have enough language skills for their current job. Expats who are registered at a job center and are receiving unemployment benefits are also required to attend the course, regardless of their nationality (EU/EEA or non-EU/EEA).

The Integrationskurts has two pillars – language and German culture. Expats should obtain an A2 (upper elementary) or B1 level (intermediate) in German through the course, which will then be tested through a DTZ exam. Whether they need A2 or B1 will depend on the particular expat's case. The course about German culture is also assessed at the end of the course with questions about the legal and political system, civic values and duties, the rights of citizens and forms of community life. This training can be done part-time or full-time, depending on the participant's circumstances. 

Expats also have a lot of flexibility in choosing their course provider. They can choose any state-approved third-party provider (e.g., community college, language school) in their region. All of these providers are listed on the website of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). Unfortunately, expats need to pay for their own course. Currently, it costs €2.29 for every unit, so the entire standard course costs around €1,600. It is paid incrementally as one progresses through the program. 

Expats struggling financially can request financial assistance or even a full fee waiver from their regional branch of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Those who are already receiving unemployment benefits are automatically waived.

Integration courses in Switzerland are different in each canton

The Swiss federal state has delegated the responsibility for integration courses to each canton. Even if Switzerland is small, it is a very linguistically complex country, with German, French, Italian and Romansch spoken in different areas. Each canton signs an integration agreement with expats who have moved there. Through this agreement, the canton instructs expats to take both language and cultural integration courses. 

The language training depends on each region, but German is by far the most required, including in the capital Bern. Expats are given a time frame of months to complete this training and are directed toward course providers, who are listed in government databases. Many of these courses are fully funded, including by the Swiss state. Indeed, in October 2022, the Swiss government increased the funding granted to these programs by around 250 million Swiss francs (about the same amount in US dollars). 

Some language courses are very specific, for instance, directed at mothers who need to be able to communicate about family and education. Like in France and Germany, the cultural integration courses introduce expats to Swiss history and laws, explain to them how to navigate the local healthcare and education system, instill values of democracy or gender equality in them, etc.

In Belgium, only Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels have compulsory integration courses – for now

The situation in Belgium is a bit complicated. As reported by the Brussels Times, integration courses have been compulsory for non-EU/EEA expats in the region of Flanders (whose main language is Dutch) for nearly 20 years, and this has also been the case in the region of Wallonia (whose main language is French) since 2016. Brussels, the capital, launched a similar course in 2016, too – it was initially optional, but it became compulsory for non-EU/EEA expats between the ages of 18-65 a few years later. 

A national law was passed in 2017 to make these courses compulsory in the rest of Belgium – but the implementation of that law has been repeatedly postponed since then. IT and administrative issues have been blamed for the postponements. It might actually be implemented in the future, but no one knows exactly when.

Hence, until now, only the three aforementioned Belgian regions have compulsory integration courses. The civic integration path in Flanders makes long-term expats learn Dutch with a partner organization, learn about values and daily life in Belgium, receive individualized guidance in their job search or educational plans, and engage in a work placement or voluntary work. The program ranges from 3 weeks to 3 months to complete, depending on the participant's abilities prior to the course, and is free of charge.

In Brussels and Wallonia, the course is roughly the same as in Flanders, except that the free language training provided is for French. In Brussels, the program is divided into two parts: the first part is mostly counseling and a 10-15 hour introduction to Belgian civic values, and the longer second part (about 50 hours) includes achieving an A2 (upper elementary) level in French. The website of the government of Wallonia says that their entire course takes 12-18 months to complete, on a part-time basis, of course.

The Netherlands gives expats 3 years to complete their integration course

In most countries, the integration course needs to be completed within 1-1.5 years. However, the Netherlands gives non-EU/EEA expats a more flexible period of 3 years, considering that they can be busy with work, family and other commitments. Of course, like in the other countries discussed previously, EU/EEA expats can also choose to enroll if they think it will help them.

Non-EU/EEA expats first receive a letter from the DUO, the Dutch office of education, that states the start date of their program. They are then called for an interview at their local municipality, where their skills and needs are assessed in order to design an appropriate integration program for them. This individualized program is called a PIP (Integration and Participation Plan).

There are three kinds of courses that can form part of a PIP: a course for the Dutch as a Second Language (Nt2) exam, integration courses including Dutch skills up to an A2 (upper intermediate level), and literacy courses for those who can't read/write well in any language. Those who take the third course will need to progress to the second course at some point.

At the end of the courses, expats take an integration exam that tests both language skills and civic knowledge (understanding short films about going to the doctor's or shopping, etc.). Depending on their PIP, some expats might also be required to take a Module Labour Market and Participation (MAP), which consists of training on how to apply for jobs (e.g.: writing cover letters in Dutch) and work placements.

Non-EU/EEA expats in the Czech Republic risk a hefty fine if they fail to complete the integration course

Since 2021, the Czech Ministry of the Interior has made an integration course compulsory for long-term non-EU/EEA expats. This policy change was partly motivated by security concerns, for the government thinks this program can prevent isolation and radicalization among newcomers. Unfortunately, it is not free. Participants bear the fee of 1,500 koruna, about €62. Failure to comply will result in a hefty fine of up to 10,000 koruna, or around €400.

The course is very short, only 4 hours long. It covers areas such as Czech traditions, how the public administration system works and civic values like gender equality, but it excludes Czech language skills. It is taught in Czech, but interpretation in 8-9 common foreign languages (French, Arabic, Russian, etc.) is available. All non-EU/EEA expats between the ages of 15-61 need to complete this short course within their first year in the Czech Republic or risk being fined. An attendance certificate is rewarded upon completion.

The Norwegian integration program is also compulsory for EU/EEA expats

In both Norway and Sweden, integration courses are highly focused on refugees. However, in Norway, there also exists a second integration program targeted at the broader group of expats and immigrants. 

This second program is called the Norwegian Language Training and Social Studies Programme. It provides long-term immigrants/expats between the ages of 16 and 67 with 600 hours of training: 550 hours of Norwegian language classes plus 50 hours of social science/civics classes. These courses can be conducted fully online, which makes it easier to take them. Unlike in the other countries detailed above, this program is also compulsory for EU/EEA expats. However, they get this training for free, whereas non-EU/EEA expats need to pay for it. 

Meanwhile, in Sweden, an integration course is compulsory only for refugees, not economic migrants or expats. It is a short, free course of 2.5 days that focuses on civic values and daily life in the country.

Estonia's adaptation programs are optional and free

Estonia now offers two free adaptation programs for expats: the Settle in Estonia program, which has existed since 2015, and the New in Estonia program, which was launched in 2022. The first program is for long-term expats who have been in Estonia for less than 5 years, and the second one is for foreigners on the shorter-term D-Visa (which is valid for up to 1 year).

Naturally, the Settle in Estonia program aims to help long-term integration by teaching the Estonian language and civic values. Expats can attend free Estonian language classes of the A1 and A2 levels (lower and upper elementary) in the major cities of Tallinn, Tartu and Navaa. The classes are taught using English or Russian as a medium of instruction. 

The participants also take basic modules on Estonian history, its state and laws, rights and obligations in the country, etc. Beyond these basic modules, there are also more specialized modules about research, entrepreneurship, education and family. As it's an optional program, there is no deadline to complete the program, although each module tends to last 5-8 hours. 

Meanwhile, the New in Estonia program wants to make expats on shorter visas also feel welcome and learn about the country. This way, they will be better informed if they decide to change their visa status to stay for more time. The free events they can attend in English or Russian cover topics such as higher education, labor law and healthcare in the country. They are also given guidance about social services and language support they can access.

Quebec's government offers free French courses to expats

Expats in Quebec are entitled to the free French language training provided by this Canadian provincial government. International students are also entitled to it as long as they are at least 16. The courses cover beginner to intermediate French, and they include a cultural aspect like the local labor market, civic values and traditions.

The course can be full-time or part-time: either 25-30 hours a week or 4-15 hours a week (evenings, nights, weekends). A few classes are given online, but most are in-person and are held at universities, community organizations, education service centers and CEGEPs (public colleges offering a mix of academic and vocational courses).

Mastering French can be crucial to succeeding in Quebec. For instance, a recent revision of Bill 96 now requires that all companies with 25 or more employees must use French as their main language at work.