2019 has been a year of changing plans.
Chad and I decided we most definitely want a European home base and for most of the year, we’ve been working toward that goal. Researching visas. Figuring out next steps. Finding the places that feel most at home to us.
Part of this research was about answering the question: Where in Europe can we get a long-stay visa or residency without having to go back to the US?
Because most countries require that you apply from your place of residency. And if you don’t have a place of residency (hello fellow digital nomads), that means your place of citizenship.
For people who are already in Europe and want to live in Europe, that’s an enormous hassle. Not only is it a hugely environmentally wasteful move (another round-trip plane ticket to the States for no reason? The environment would prefer we not, thanks.), but it’s a waste of time and would cost us big in terms of health insurance and potentially change our tax situation.
So, no matter where we wanted to end up eventually, we knew our first move would be to get a visa somewhere that didn’t force us to leave Europe.
The three options that stood out were these: Switzerland (though rules on this appear to vary by canton/region), Germany, and Estonia.
The third option excited Chad a lot because Estonia is known for its growing tech scene. The country is throwing its arms wide to startups and tech workers. And Chad is about to start a new (and his third, I believe) tech business.
The more we researched, the more convinced he was that he wanted to check out Estonia as a potential base for his business (even if we ended up living elsewhere and he ended up spending some time traveling back and forth).
And so we decided to apply for our D visas.
Estonia’s D visa
So, what is a D visa? It’s a one-year (or less) temporary visa that allows you to live in Estonia. It can be extended for a second year. And after that, you’d need to secure residency if you wanted to stay.
D visas can be granted for a variety of reasons, but the most common ones appear to be short-term work assignments or exploring the possibility of adding your startup to Estonia’s growing tech scene.
So, what are the requirements to grab yourself a D visa? Here’s what we learned:
D visa requirements
1. A place to stay.
The officials seem pretty relaxed about what this is. We asked if a one-month reservation at an Airbnb would suffice (so that we didn’t have to book long-term sight-unseen) and they said yes. When you apply in-country, it takes them about 10 business days to make a decision on your visa, so a month felt like a good amount of time to book ahead.
2. Enough money to live.
Officially, this means 100 euros per month, but practically it means a lot more.
In Tallinn, long-term rentals seem to be around 500 – 800 euros per month on average. On top of that, you’ll need to pay a broker fee that’s usually the equivalent of one month’s rent. Plus whatever deposit is required.
Airbnb averages are well above $1,000 per month (though you will find studios or places farther from the center as low as $800). And anything less than a month will be well and truly expensive.
Groceries were a bit less than in other European cities, as were meals out. But the price difference wasn’t so staggering that you could eat well for less than 100 euros per month.
And then you’ve got transportation, household supplies, and any other expenses you might need to cover (like co-working spaces or weekend trips).
So don’t really expect to get by on 100 euros per month.
3. Reason for being here.
Typically, it seems that this visa is mostly for people with short-term work contracts, plans to study in Estonia, or long-term work contracts that they need to get started on right away (residency takes longer than a D visa, I think, so you get your D and start working, then start the residency process).
For Chad, since he’s exploring the possibility of locating his startup here, he went through the extra step of applying for a startup visa. This means a few extra steps before you apply for your D visa, including an application that must be approved for Estonia’s startup committee.
Details on that visa were straightforward and you can find them here.
My situation was a little more complicated. I was coming to be with Chad and also have a thriving freelance business in my own right. I wrote a one-page letter detailing my reasons (to write about Estonia in my capacity as a travel writer; to make connections in the startup community and possibly partner with tech folks on future projects; to be with Chad, who’d been pre-approved for the startup visa).
When I went in for my visa appointment (more on that in a bit), the person evaluating and entering my application decided my best bet was applying for a friends and family visa to “visit” Chad on his startup visa. Which meant I also needed a letter from Chad explaining our relationship and why I needed to be there with him. (Which felt a little unfeminist, like I had to get a permission slip from a man, but c’est la vie, I guess.)
4. Health insurance for the duration of your stay.
This one almost tripped us up. We both have health insurance through GeoBlue, which covers us in Estonia (and around the world). The insurance is renewed yearly. And when I’ve applied for visas in the past, that’s been fine.
But in Estonia, for the D visa, you actually need to show health insurance that covers the full length of your stay. Chad’s was up for renewal in a couple months, so at first they were only going to give us a two-month visa, at which time we’d need to apply for an extension.
Luckily, Chad was able to extend his insurance and we delivered the new proof of insurance before they approved the visas. My insurance was set for renewal in June 2020, so that’s when they gave us our visas through.
5. A passport with at least two blank pages that’s valid for the full length of your stay.
Check your passport expiration date and make sure you have a few pages left before you go through this process.
Honestly, if you travel often, I’d make sure you have more than two pages. You don’t want the hassle of having to figure out what to do if you need to get a new passport and the old one has the visa.
6. An application.
You’ll need to fill out an official application (available on the official website, linked below) and bring it with you to your appointment, along with all the other proofs/items listed above.
7. A photo.
Supposedly, you need to bring your own European-passport-sized photo for the visa. But the truth is that when we got to the border guard office in Tallinn, they had us re-take photos in their photo booth anyway. We were told it’s easier than scanning our old photos in.
8. An 80-euro visa fee.
We brought exact change in cash. They also appear to accept Estonian bank transfers, but I don’t think they take credit cards.
You’ll need proof of everything above, which means bringing a printout of your Airbnb confirmation (or other accommodation), bank statements, insurance confirmation letter, etc. It is always a good idea to err on the side of more rather than less. I also brought print-outs of magazine stories with my byline, my book page on Amazon, etc.
You can apply in Estonia at one of the border guard offices. But here’s an important note: You must have 10 business days left on your tourist visa. That’s about how long (read: a little longer) it’ll take them to decide yay or nay on your visa.
Now, once you’ve applied for your visa, you have the legal right to stay in Estonia while they’re making a decision. So if it takes them 15 business days and you only gave yourself 11, that’s okay.
If you are applying outside Estonia (which you can do at any of a handful of embassies that process visa applications), the process may take longer (up to 30 days, they say).
Finally, to apply, you will need an appointment. And you’ll need to book that appointment well in advance. My ideal time was actually booked by the time we were able to confirm our bookings, which was a month before the appointment itself.
That appointment is where you’ll bring all the proofs above and sit down with a border officer to go over everything and officially submit your application. After you pay the fee, you get a piece of paper confirming payment and you’ll be told when to come back to collect your visa.
If there are any concerns, in our experience, they’ll email you.
Looking for the official requirements? You’ll find them here.
Terrific post. Thank you for sharing. My wife and I find ourselves in a very similar situation. After 3 years in Montenegro, we are currently checking out Poland. Btw for any US Citizens reading Poland allows US citizens to stay 90 days, exit to a NON SCHENGEN country, and re-enter again for 90 days. It exit and re-entry must be via a NON SCHENGEN country.. Sorry for caps but it is critical. After the first 90 days in Poland, you can not enter other Schengen countries, as that would break the standard 90 out of 180 rule. If you use this bilateral agreement between US/Poland, when you leave, you have to avoid the Schengen Area. That includes transit flights. We exit and return via Lviv Ukraine and have had no trouble at all. When we fly home, we fly direct from Warsaw to Chicago. Poland is very welcoming to US Citizens and allows you to apply for jobs, or work as a freelancer, and even request residency from within Poland. However, there is currently there is a huge waiting time because Poland has been allowing many people to apply. We decided against applying and are now looking at other places, among them Estonia. Thanks for the post again. very useful..
This is an appealing option for me, as I’ve already registered my business through Estonia’s e-residency program. What I really need to find is a Schengen country with a long-stay Type D visa where the actual residency requirements aren’t too strict. I am not looking to settle anywhere, I simply want to travel throughout the Schengen zone. Based on this article, it looks like that could be feasible, except what confuses me is on this page (https://vm.ee/en/long-stay-d-visa) it says “and it allows to stay in the whole Schengen Area up to 90 days.” That is not my understanding of how Type D visas work within the Schengen zone. Every other country I’ve looked at, it seems if you get a Type D visa, you have free movement throughout Schengen for the duration of your visa.
Is this not true for Estonia? Gigi, is this something you and Chad have encountered, or are you able to live outside of Estonia if you choose?
Sadly, there’s not really a good option for people who want to travel the schengen zone long term (at least that I’ve found). It’s really meant for people who want to base (even if loosely) in the country they apply to. We’ve decided Estonia isn’t a long-term solution for us, so by the time this visa is up, we will have applied elsewhere.
What are your thoughts about going back to Switzerland? Long-term visa? Or residency?
We actually applied for our visas in Switzerland this past winter! Of course, this year everything that could go wrong has, so still waiting for an answer and crossing our fingers that we’ll be moving this autumn. The plan is to make Switzerland our long-term home base.
That is fantastic! My fingers are crossed for you. Portugal is allowing us to stay until Oct 31, and maybe they’ll extend it, but it’s time for us to get our EU home base figured out. If you have any Swiss recommendations for the process, feel free to holler! We truly do not want to return to the States, for pandemic health, political unrest, and violence reasons.
For Switzerland, everything happens on the canton level, for the most part, so the process will vary a bit based on where in Switzerland you want to live. A good first step is to figure out which canton you want to live in and then contact their immigration office to ask about the process. For Ticino (our recent application), we needed to apply through the consulate of our residence country (Estonia). Typically, they say it takes 90 days for a decision, but both times I’ve applied it’s taken at least six months, so I recommend planning for a delay.
Oh, wait – can anyone apply while *in* Switzerland? Even US citizens (without EU residency)? I can’t seem to find absolute clarification on this and am trying so hard to *not* fly back to the States to apply. Thank you so much!!
Depends on the canton and your situation. Normally, you need to apply from your country of residence. However, some cantons/areas may allow you to apply in country. With Switzerland, it gets tricky because every canton is really making its own rules. Ticino and Geneva cantons told us no when we asked about applying in person, but Bern let me apply in person several years ago (and then said no when we asked again last year).
A roundabout option for you might be to look into something like Estonia’s digital nomad visa and then apply for Switzerland while on the Estonian visa.
That is so helpful to hear – thank you so much. =) I should email all the cantons/areas to see if I get a response. We were thinking of what you did in Estonia, but since we will be due to leave the Schengen area (once PT says so, due to the pandemic extension) we’re thinking of going to Croatia, applying for residency there, then applying for French or Swiss residency from Croatia. I have family in Switzerland, but our thoughts on France is that the land/climate is so vast, and surrounded by 8 borders, that it might give us the most travel/activity accessibility for five years without counting against our residency time as much. But it’s so crazy, having to choose. Again, thank you so so much, Gigi.
Thank you very much for this post, and I really hope you guys like Estonian private introvert-oriented saunas!?
What was the timeline for your family “visit” visa, could you share?
Do you know if the D-visa renewal requirements include 180 day rule? Can one be outside of Estonian for more then a half year?
We’re US citizens, not settling (yet) but indeed would like a semi-perm base in a developed country for 5.5 months a year, or so.
Our first visas were granted until our health insurance renewal date (which gave us about 10 months, I think) and then we renewed to maximize the visas (you can have D visas for up to 1.5 years before you need to get residency or leave).
I’m not sure about the 180-day thing. The D visa is only good for 1.5 years, so it’s not like retaining residency. It’s more of a multiple-entry visa for a longish stay. Beyond that, you need to apply for residency (which I’ve heard is fairly straightforward, though we haven’t done that process ourselves).
I just found your blog site. It is very interesting!
One of the requirements for the D visa is being a digital nomad. I am a stock investor/trader mainly in the US market. I wonder if I am qualified for the Estonian definition of “digital nomads”? I definitely use telecommunication technology (i.e. Internet) to make trades and earn money.
There is a digital nomad visa, but our visas are under the category of entrepreneurship for Chad and family visit for me. I can’t speak to their DN visa requirements, but I assume anyone who works remotely would qualify as a nomad.
Don’t they not scan passports between Schengen countries? How would they know if you stayed more than 90 days in another Schengen country?
During the pandemic, they did have border controls within the schengen, but yes, typically they do not. In some countries, the police will stop by to check if you’re still at your address (notably, Croatia does this). In some countries, vacation rentals use your passport to register you for a tourist tax (which means there’s a record of your info), etc. Depends on your situation, really. I just cite the rules as I understand them, can’t control what anyone else does.
Hey love your post. I’m trying to figure out how I can stay in Estonia longer than 90 days. My partner is Estonian and was wondering, when you got your family visit visa, were you guys married already? Assuming you are. The problem I’m encountering is they mention visiting your spouse but my partner and I are not married yet. So wondering if that visa will allow me stay there longer as a us citizen who’s not married to my gf (Estonian citizen) yet. Any help would be amazing! Thanks.
Not married! Estonia seems to recognize partnerships pretty easily, as I understand it.