Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Half-n-half: A visit to the foreign police

By Emily Prucha |
Prague Daily Monitor |
21 November 2008

Half-n-half

I start sweating when I hear the phrase "foreign police". Even though visiting the foreign police for work permits and residency permission is a necessary part of ex-pat life in the Czech Republic, the chance of having a good experience rates alongside having a Czech supermarket cashier smile and bag your groceries. These are possibilities, but I'm not holding my breath.

Even though I'm now a legal permanent resident of the Czech Republic by virtue of marriage, I still get anxious when I have to deal with these authorities. With a notorious reputation for disorganized branch offices, long lines, poor communication and crowded waiting spaces, particularly in Prague, the foreign police is just about the last place any long-term visitor to the Czech Republic would go by choice.

In fairness, I can't say that the USCIS (US Citizen and Immigration Services) has a better reputation among foreigners in America. Honestly, I probably sweated more when the situation was reversed and we had to file my husband Radek's immigration papers in the States. Being the native speaker, I took on the responsibility of reading through the USCIS's detailed web page and filling out the appropriate applications. Although the website was straight-forward and comprehensive, it didn't result in a process as smooth as I'd imagined.

At the time we lived near the Newark, New Jersey USCIS district office, which had the reputation of being the most crowded in the country (probably similar to Prague's main foreign police branch on Koněvova in P3). Radek compared the US immigration officers to cattle herders as they lined up hundreds of applicants to wait in 2-hour-long lines outside the building. The long lines outside seemed particularly ridiculous since every applicant had been summoned to the office on that particular day by a pre-scheduled appointment. After several scheduled appointments and a long waiting period, Radek finally got his permanent residency about 18 months from the date of our marriage.

Knowing that the immigration system in the US was difficult but ultimately navigable helped calm my nerves about the paperwork that awaited me when we decided to move back to Prague. A few months before we wanted to return, Radek contacted the Czech Embassy in New York and prepared the application for my trvalé pobyt (permanent residence).

In late November of 2005, I was able to enter the country with the 24-hour special visa. According to Czech law, I had to go to the foreign police within 3 days of arrival to receive my průkaz o povolení k trvalému pobytu, a passport-type document granting long-term residency.

The pick-up process went smoothly, although my initial průkaz was incorrectly issued with the –ova form added to my last name, even though we'd submitted the proper paperwork to retain the masculine form Průcha. I received the corrected form later that day. My průkaz looked like a regular passport, but I was told that it couldn't be used outside the Czech Republic. To date, I've only ever used my průkaz as identification at the bank and at the post office, and in both cases I'm sure my regular American passport would have sufficed.

Interestingly, in the fall before we left America, Radek had received a call from the man renting our apartment in Prague. Evidently the foreign police had come to the apartment asking if an Emily Průcha lived there. We had listed our Prague apartment as my home address in the Czech Republic, but it seemed funny that the police would visit the apartment in advance of my arrival to the Czech Republic. Later during my first few months back, every time the buzzer rang, I expected to open the door and find policemen, checking to see if I actually resided there.

Just when I thought my dealings with the foreign police were finished until 2015, when I'd have to renew my 10-year trvalé pobyt, my US passport expired. As luck would have it, I met a friend while waiting at the Embassy. She casually mentioned that I would need to register my new passport number with the foreign police within 3 days or else pay the CZK 1,000 fine she had had to pay when her error had been discovered 6 months later. I asked the official at the Embassy to verify, but they are not allowed to give out information regarding the rules and regulations at the Czech foreign police. After checking through my průkaz, I realized that my US passport number was the first item listed, so it made sense that the police would want to register it.

Until then, I'd managed to stay clear of the foreign police, even though we lived just a few streets up from the over-crowded Koněvova office. When I took my children to the supermarket located in the same building as the police office, we'd walk past swarms of people gathered in small groups waiting to enter the building. My stomach sank when I realize we would have to make the trip.

As we approached the building, the police standing guard tried to turn us away. Radek explained that we needed to register my new passport and so we were allowed into the building. After finding the correct floor, we received a number from an information desk and sat down to wait. Our wait wasn't that long and we managed to get in and out of the office in less than two hours.

Buoyed by the speed of the visit, I didn't get myself all that worked up when Radek noted that I would need to go back to the foreign police to change my address to our new house. I tried to stay calm and think positive. We discovered that our new address would necessitate going to a different, smaller branch office in Smichov. I was skeptical when I learned that this office was only open two days a week; worried that it wouldn't mean fewer people and less chaos.

As predicted, when I stepped into the crowded waiting room with my two kids, I realized we had a long, hectic day ahead of us. Unlike the main Prague branch, this office had only 2 officials handling all the incoming applications. There were no machines with designated numbers, nor was there a clear waiting line, so I started to work my way through the room, person by person, asking questions to anyone who spoke Czech or English. There were no applications in the room and nothing denoting how the process was supposed to work, except for the unspoken agreement that people approached the officials' desks in the order of their arrival.

Although a few older women encouraged me to jump line, using my children as an excuse, I had already observed a near-riot when one older woman went to the front of the line immediately upon arrival. I decided to wait my turn like the others. The children managed to entertain themselves (and most of the others waiting) with their antics. Four long hours after we arrived, I left carrying my newly issued průkaz and dragging two very tired children.

It hadn't been the best morning, but in terms of visits to the foreign police, I know it could have also been much worse. At least now my residence on paper matches Radek's, and if we don't decide to move again, I might not have to make a trip to the foreign police for another 7 years. Who knows, hopefully by then the process might be even smoother.

Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please send comments to emily@praguemonitor.com.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.