Being a digital nomad during the Covid pandemic has been a challenge in many, many ways. But it’s also had some unexpected benefits and new experiences for me. I ended up moving to Split, Croatia for a year after deciding last-minute to get on a plane here and stay for “probably a month or two” (lol). And the reason I was able to stay so long is that I applied for, and received, temporary residency here. I’m now a full Croatia digital nomad with a little ID card and everything – here’s how I did it and what the process was really like.
Deciding to Stay
It was a cool November day when I made the decision to apply for temporary residency so I could stay in Split through the winter. Border crossing rules were shifting rapidly, cases were rising all over Europe, and I knew I didn’t want to return to the US and couldn’t go to Greece. I had made a few solid friends in Split and knew the winters here weren’t too cold, so staying until at least the spring seemed like the right course.
But in order to do that, I had to apply for temporary residency in Croatia because I’d run out of my 90 tourist stay days. And Croatian bureaucracy is no joke. Even though they’ve made the residency process easier because of the pandemic, it was still quite long, difficult, and nerve-wracking.
The Application Process
As a foreigner from a non-EU country, there are a couple of options when applying to stay in Croatia. I got 90 days visa-free upon entry with my American passport, but to stay longer I needed to apply for temporary residency. The Croatia digital nomad visa (not really a visa, actually another form of temporary residency) didn’t exist yet when I decided to stay, so applying for that was not an option.
Instead, I chose to apply for temporary residency based on pre-payment of rent. Yes, this is a rather strange and very specific reason, but it’s pretty easy to do as long as you can pay upfront. I decided to apply only for four months of residency because pre-paying for a whole year when I wasn’t sure I would stay that long was rather a big deal for my bank account. Plus I optimistically thought the world would be open by mid-March (lol) so it seemed wise.
To apply for temporary residency based on pre-payment of rent, you need to have a lease in place which is signed and notarized in Croatia. My landlady took care of that for me, which was helpful because the lease needs to be in Croatian. Plus you need to have proof that you’ve prepaid the whole term of your lease, which I did with a bank transfer to my landlady.
You also need to get a tax number, called an OIB, which I got by emailing the tax office in Split with the application filled out (this took one week). And I needed to provide evidence of health insurance as well, which can be travel insurance – my SafetyWing coverage was sufficient for this. And I needed to provide proof of sufficient funds to support myself, so I provided bank statements since I don’t have a steady paycheck as a freelance writer.
Interested in applying yourself for Croatian temporary residency? Expat in Croatia has a great rundown of all the options available.
Some of the application process has actually gotten easier because of Covid – you can now email things to the tax office and the police, who handle all immigration-related issues. So I sent in my documents via email as requested on November 15 and waited.
As any Croatian will tell you, the bureaucracy here is fickle and often downright unfriendly. It’s also incredibly difficult to figure out what you need to do in order to complete tasks. Once my documents were in, I waited for further instructions from MUP, which is what the administrative police in Croatia are called.
Finally, a month later I get an email asking me for a copy of my lease. Ok, I included that in my original email, but I’ll resend it (this happens a LOT). Then they asked for my proof of prepayment again – sent that too. Then asked for my lease again and requested it be either notarized or stamped by the tax office, so my landlady took it to the tax office to get a nice little stamp.
Then that request was repeated twice more, so I emailed them to ask if it also needed to be notarized because their own emails told me either was acceptable, as did my landlady’s friend in the tax office. But no, now it needed to be notarized, so off my landlady went again (Negri is an absolute gem). And finally, they sent an email confirming all my documents had been received.
All’s well, I thought, so I waited another two months. During this time I was ok to stay in Croatia as my residency application was in process, but I couldn’t leave the country even briefly or my application would be canceled.
The Week I Lived at MUP
Two months later, I check my mailbox one afternoon to find a notice that I am required to appear in person at MUP… that morning. It took two weeks for the Croatian post office to get a letter less than 2 kilometers. Classic. I freak out and have a Croatian friend call MUP and they tell her, no problem, come in tomorrow whenever you like.
We go in as instructed and are not let into the building, because the guard outside tells us we can’t just turn up whenever we want. Lovely. He tells us to come back first thing tomorrow when things are quiet, so we show up again then. (Also having someone with you who can speak Croatian is essential in this process.)
And then the real struggle begins.
We get to the desk specifically designated to deal with foreigners, where we find the one person in all of Split who does not speak English. Great. (I never expect people in another country to speak English for me, except when they work at a place designed to deal with only people who are not from Croatia.)
She begins a very intense discussion with my friend and I begin to get worried, especially when she asks me for several of my documents which I can see she already has in a folder in front of her. Everyone looks tense and I have no idea what’s going on, but I know it’s not good.
We head out and my friend tells me the woman just went off about how I emailed her too many times (only in response to their emails?!) and why don’t I have a lease that lasts until June (because I applied for a 4-month stay in November… how would I know it would take them 3 months to process my application?!). And she says they never received all my documents, which is untrue since they sent me an email confirmation that they received them.
And now I need to get a new lease for the next four months, notarized, and proof of prepayment as well. By tomorrow. Or my application will be denied and I’ll have to leave the country within 14 days. I freak out briefly because what the ACTUAL fuck is happening? She is just flexing her limited power because Croatian bureaucrats can’t be fired and like to do this from time to time.
But my landlady comes through as she always does, and we head back to MUP the next day after scrambling to get everything in order once again. This time, we have a pleasant woman who speaks English and doesn’t threaten me, and I submit all my documents one more time. They call my friend a week later to say everything is fine and I am approved, I just need to come in and pay the fees.
Paying the fees was a process straight out of old Yugoslavia – carbon-copy paper with typewritten instructions on it that I needed to take to the post office and pay with cash only, but that was otherwise hassle-free. I also needed to get some tax stamps, which are literally stamps you can buy at any kiosk. Old-school stuff. Did not prepare me for what’s next, though!
We head back to MUP to the friendly, helpful woman again, pleased that this awful process is almost over. She’s typing away, entering my info, getting ready to give me my temporary residency card… and the computer crashes. No one there can fix it. There is one single IT guy for all of MUP, and he is unreachable (probably having a coffee).
Turns out, the apostrophe in my last name crashed the computer so badly no one can figure out how to turn it back on. “This happened I think one other time,” the MUP lady says, which is stunning because I have one of the most common Irish last names. They eventually tell us they’ll call us when it’s fixed and we can come back and get my temporary card.
It takes more than two full days for them to fix it.
My apostrophe has caused plenty of problems, but nothing like this. It turns out this is so rare this is only the second time it’s happened, and they had to send a recommendation to the Ministry of the Interior to fix this problem before any more people with Irish last names apply for residency.
Finally, that Friday I go and successfully pick up my temporary residency card and breathe a very deep sigh of relief. I am Croatian for four more months! I can leave the country and come back if I need to!
What This Process Taught Me
The biggest reason the residency application process is so arduous and confusing is that until very recently, people wanted to leave Croatia for better job opportunities and they had very few people coming here to live from other countries. They’re trying to encourage more inflow now, but it’s still very new and quite rocky. Also, Croatian bureaucracy is slowwww and totally dependent on who you talk to that day and if they have had their coffee and cigarette break yet.
This was my first time applying for any kind of residency in another country – typically I just leave after three months (that’s how I stay in Europe for more than 90 days legally). From what I hear from other expat friends, this is a terrible experience in most places. Croatia makes it pretty miserable, but most other countries are also unwelcoming.
If I had to do it all again, I’d probably just overstay illegally (theoretically!). Croatia is notoriously lax on overstays if you have a strong passport, and I know several people who have stayed for a year or more without ever applying for residency and they’ve not faced any consequences. Unfortunately, like many things in Croatia, doing things the legal way is much more difficult – it’s almost like being punished for following the rules.
Related: My Digital Nomad Gear Essentials
What This Means for the Croatian Digital Nomad Visa
While I’m a great candidate for the new Croatian digital nomad visa (again, not actually a visa), it didn’t exist while I was applying to stay. Also my experience with this residency permit left me discouraged about applying again in Croatia, and the process only got more difficult in 2021.
Now for any residency permit, you need a background check from your home country – Americans need to get one from the FBI and get it apostilled, which is currently taking 3-4 months. And you need to get fingerprinted, which you still cannot do anywhere in Croatia which is just absolutely insane. (Yes, they fingerprint you at MUP when you get residency, but they won’t do it for non-residents so applicants are out of luck. MUP at its finest.)
So I would need to return to the US to get all this done, but as a digital nomad… I don’t live in the US. Quelle quandary. It’s just not a simple or sensible process at the moment and I don’t plan on going through it anytime soon again.
I hope this doesn’t discourage any digital nomads from coming to Croatia! It’s a beautiful, friendly, wonderful place I’ve grown to love deeply, and I don’t regret applying for temporary residency. But knowing what the process is really like is important when you’re considering your options, so I hope this blog post helped with that.