‘Like running on a treadmill’: A programmer’s 10-year struggle with Danish migration

Denmark has changed its immigration laws 68 times in the last 15 years, with one change every three months, often applied retroactively. Naqeeb Khan from the Danish Green Card Association (DGCA), here tells the story of how this has impacted one green card holder over the last ten years in practice.

'Like running on a treadmill':  A programmer's 10-year struggle with Danish migration
A crowd gathers in Copenhagen town hall for the citizenship ceremony in 2020. Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen/Ritzau Scanpix

Ahmed Nawaz is a software engineer, who came to Denmark in 2009, shortly after the country announced its green card scheme. With a freshly obtained masters degree from a Swedish university, he easily got a Danish green card in 2010 and came to the country in 2011.

“When I came to Denmark, I had a plan,” Nawaz says. “I planned first to build up some savings and then to start a family life, bringing my spouse and kids here. I also planned to focus on learning Danish language.

“Everything was going smoothly until the immigrations laws started changing constantly. I have been trapped by these laws changes and their retroactive implementation.”

If Nawaz’s current citizenship application is rejected, it will be the third time he has received a rejection letter due to rules with retroactive effects brought in after his application.

He dates his problems back to Denmark’s 2015 election, which brought an overwhelming victory for the far-right parties, with the Danish People’s Party (DPP) winning a record number of seats.

This immediately led to tightening immigration rules as the DPP had come into parliament with one and only one item on its agenda — to tighten immigration.

But even then, Nawaz could hardly conceive of how miserable this election result would make his life in the coming six years.

Rejection of Permanent Residency application

Nawaz had then been living in Denmark for five years, and met all requirements to apply for permanent residency, which he did on December 15, 2015 paying a fee of DKK 5,400.

“I was focused on my job and my family life. I thought I would receive my permanent residency permit in a few months, after which I would no longer have to worry about extending my visa or getting kicked out of Denmark if I lost my job,” Nawaz remembers.

But his troubles were only just about to start. At the end of January 2016, the Danish parliament passed a new bill tightening permanent residency rules.

These new rules made it compulsory for applicants to have lived in Denmark for six years before becoming eligible for permanent residency.

Although the bill was passed on January 26th, 2016, it was applied retroactively to all applications submitted after December 10th 2015, the date when the bill was presented to the parliament for the first time.

This meant that the compliant application Nawaz had submitted little more than a month previously no longer met the criteria.

Sure enough, a few week’s later, Nawaz received a rejection letter from the immigration office stating that he had not been in Denmark for six years, meaning he did not qualify for permanent residency.

“I felt betrayed as my application had not only been turned down due to the retroactive enforcement of the rules, but I did not even get back the DKK 5400 which I had paid for my application,” Nawaz says.

“But I just continued my life and thought I would apply for permanent residency in a year’s time”.

Residency requirement raised to 8 years in 2017

In March 2017, just as Nawaz was preparing to apply, a new bill was once again presented to the parliament tightening permanent residency requirements, this time raising the residency requirement from six years to eight years.

“I would have to wait for another two years before I could be eligible to apply. This was another shock for me,” Nawaz said.

“As my kids were in school and felt integrated in Denmark, I again committed to continuing my life in Denmark, and decided to apply for permanent residency in two years’ time for the sake of a better and certain future of my kids.”

READ MORE: Denmark is locking every door to immigrants

Rejection of Permanent Residency application in 2018

After two years’ wait, he applied for permanent residency again.

The residency requirement for permanent residency is counted from the time you receive a nummber from the Centrale Personregister (CPR) or from the submission date of your first visa application.

As Nawaz submitted his first green card application in Denmark in October 2010, his residency years should have been counted from then. But when he sent in his second application for permanent residency in 2018, he received a rejection letter in early 2019.

The immigration office argued that he had stayed longer outside of Denmark in his early years in the country, reducing the amount of time he had spent in Denmark. Once again, he received no refund for his DKK 6000 application free.

Permanent Residency in 2019

He again applied in 2019 and then finally received permanent residency in October, after eight and half years in Denmark.

“I finally made it to permanent residency, despite a long process and number of rejections due to changing rules and their retroactive implementation,” he said.

Citizenship Application rejected in 2020

But when, in June 2020, Ahmed submitted his application for Danish citizenship, he again ran into trouble, as he had lost his job in March 2020, due to the coronavirus crisis.

The lockdown made it hard to find a new job, so he started a web development course at Next Copenhagen to increase his career opportunities, which he completed a few months ago. He hopes to start a new job soon.

READ MORE: Denmark’s new citizenship requirements are discriminatory and racist

New citizenship rules and their retroactive implementation

When the Social Democrats came into power in 2019, many foreigners working in Denmark hoped it might make their lives more normal life, but instead the situation has become even worse.

On April 20, 2021, Minister of Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye along with representatives of the Liberal, Liberal Alliance and Conservative parties, announced new and tighten citizenship laws.

Human Rights organisations and experts called them unreasonable, discriminatory and racist.

Among other new requirements, one is that you must have worked for three and half years full-time over the last four years, with the new rule applied retroactively on all applications submitted after 10th April, 2020.

This is why Nawaz fears he can now expect yet another rejection letter from Denmark’s immigration authorities.

“I am devastated to hear about these new rules and their retroactive implementation,” he says.

“It is like running on a treadmill which never ends. I am still studying a web development course, after which I will probably get a job and then I have to work for three and a half years to become eligible to apply for citizenship.

“This means that I will probably get Danish citizenship in 2026, instead of 2022, if I did not get sick or lose my job again, or if the rules are not changed again.”

Read more: ‘Dictatorial to impose new citizenship laws on those who have already applied’

Nawaz is now living with his wife and two children at the outskirts of Copenhagen. His eldest child is in the eighth class, while the youngest is in 6th.

“I am not only worried about my future in Denmark but that of my kids,” Nawaz says. “Although they are well integrated, I am afraid that what has been happening to me over the last decade might happen to my children one day. It makes me scared for my children’s future.”

Nawaz is one of hundreds in a similar situation.

The Green Card Holders’ association believes that the only fair and moral way of implementing these rules would be to apply them three years from, rather than applying them retroactively.

This would allow everyone to fulfil the requirements, and save Nawaz from getting his 3rd rejection letter from Danish immigration.

Ahmed Nawaz’s name has been changed out of fear that going public might negatively affect his citizenship application. 

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How to apply for citizenship in Denmark

We provide an explanation of applying for citizenship in Denmark, including an overview of the rules, a guide to the application process and useful extra information.

How to apply for citizenship in Denmark
Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Danish citizenship can only be granted to foreign nationals via legal nationalisation: your application must actually be approved by a parliamentary majority. Accepted applications are normally processed in parliament twice yearly, in April and in October. 

You need to fulfil the conditions for Danish citizenship up until the April or October when your application will be processed and the application needs to be submitted at least two to three months before April or October. 

To be granted citizenship, you must apply to the Ministry of Immigration and Integration for the eye-watering fee of 4,000 kroner (2022). 

Citizenship entitles you to a Danish passport and gives you the right to vote in parliamentary elections, as well as providing a permanent basis for residency in the country.

Danish requirements for citizenship are some of the toughest in the world. In April 2021, the Social Democratic government linked up with conservative parties Liberal (Venstre), the Conservatives and Liberal Alliance on a tighter new agreement around citizenship rights.

You must meet a number of closely-defined criteria and requirements in order to be eligible for citizenship by naturalisation. These fall into six broad categories, all of which will be set out in further detail below.

  • Give a declaration of allegiance and loyalty to Denmark
  • Fulfil prior residency criteria
  • Be free of debt to the public sector and be financially self-sufficient
  • Have no criminal convictions
  • Hold a full-time job or been self-employed for three and a half of the last four years. 
  • Meet criteria for Danish language skills 
  • Pass a citizenship test and demonstrate knowledge of Danish society and values

For children, stateless people born in Denmark, people whose previous Danish citizenships have lapsed and citizens of the Nordic countries, special rules apply. These will not be addressed in this article.

Declaration of allegiance and loyalty to Denmark

It is a condition for acquiring Danish citizenship by naturalisation that you declare allegiance and loyalty to Denmark and to Danish society. You must also declare that you will obey Denmark’s laws, including the constitution, and respect the fundamental values and legal principles of Danish democracy.

How do I do this, you might ask? The answer is, digitally. You sign the declaration online as you file your application on the website. You also reiterate the declaration when you attend the ceremony which confirms your citizenship, once you have been accepted for it.

Prior residency criteria

At the time of your application, you must already have a permit for permanent residency in Denmark for a minimum of two years, and have lived in Denmark for a specified number of years (see below).

People recognised as refugees, equated with refugees, or stateless, need a one year minimum permit for permanent residency.

Being a resident in Denmark means that you live permanently in the country and are registered at a Danish address (where you live) on the national civil registry (Det Centrale Personregister, CPR).

Certain applicants are exempt from one or both of the above conditions, for example Nordic citizens; former Danish citizens; people of Danish descent; members of the Danish minority of Southern Schleswig in Germany; applicants who are residing abroad due to the Danish spouse’s work for Danish interests; and applicants who were born between 1961 and 1978 to a Danish mother and who could have acquired Danish citizenship if their mother had applied for it between 1979 and 1981; and children who apply for citizenship without their parents. You can read more about this here.


Permanent residency is granted via a number of different routes, depending on the way in which you originally made Denmark your home.

EU free movement

If you are a citizen of an EU country or the family member of an EU citizen, you can be granted permanent residency in Denmark after five years’ legal residency in the country under EU free movement rules. For this, you must make an appointment to hand in your application in person to the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration (SIRI). SIRI has branch offices in Copenhagen, Odense, Aalborg, Aarhus and Aabenraa.


Non-EU citizens

If you are not a citizen of an EU country, the path to permanent residency, and thereby citizenship, is longer. To qualify for a permanent residency permit (permanent opholdstilladelse), you must have been legally resident in the country under a limited residency permit (tidsbegrænset opholdstilladelse) for at least eight years (in some cases four years, and exceptions can also apply, for example for persons aged 18 or 19 and people with Danish ancestry).

There are also a number of stringent requirements related to criminal convictions, debt to the state and self-sufficiency, employment history and language skills. These will not be covered here, since they are superseded by the requirements for citizenship itself, but you can find more detail on permanent residency in the articles linked below.


Length of stay

Normally, you must have lived in Denmark for nine consecutive years (without living elsewhere for more than three months) in order to qualify for citizenship. This period is reduced in some cases: for refugees it becomes eight years, citizens of Nordic countries need a two-year stay and people married to Danes qualify after 6-8 years, depending on the length of the marriage.

Other exceptions are made for those who have taken a significant portion of their education in Denmark, who may qualify after five years. If you moved to Denmark before your 15th birthday, you can become nationalised after you turn 18.

In certain cases, exemptions from residency duration requirements are made, for example if a Danish spouse has worked abroad or due to the applicant being stationed abroad while working for a Danish employer.

Public debt

Overdue repayments to the state, in the form of repayable social welfare payments, child support, excess housing support (boligstøtte), payment for daycare, police fines, municipal loans for paying deposits on rental housing, and unpaid taxes and fees can all result in rejection of a citizenship application.


You are required to prove that you can provide for yourself. That means, for example, documenting that you have not received state social welfare support such as the basic unemployment support, kontanthjælp, or the welfare benefits provided to those granted refugee statues (integrationsydelsen), within the last two years.

Furthermore, you may not have received benefits of this type for more than a total period of four months within the last five years.

Other types of state benefit, such as the state student grant (statens uddannelsesstøtte, SU) and state pensions do not exclude you from qualifying for citizenship.

Unemployment insurance, parental leave and sick leave payouts (dagpenge) received over a total period of over four months will be added to the two years in which you must document that you were not supported by the state. Therefore, these types of benefit (which are partially self-funded) do not preclude you from applying for citizenship, and you can be in receipt of them at the time you apply.

Criminal convictions

From April 2021, a new government agreement meant that anyone who has received a criminal sentence, either conditional or unconditional, will never be able to become a Danish citizen. 

Previous rules allowed people with unconditional sentences of up to one year to be granted citizenship following a suspension period.

Milder punishments such as fines can result in a suspension from applying for a period of at least four and a half years. If someone has been penalised several times, the waiting period is extended.

You must declare while applying for citizenship whether you have committed a crime. If authorities later find (a two-year check is carried out) that you have not disclosed any criminal activities, your citizenship can be revoked.

If a crime was committed abroad, the case will be discussed by the Danish Parliament’s Naturalisation Committee as to whether to grant dispensation.

READ MORE: ‘I’m being punished twice’: How a punch-up is stopping this Scot becoming a Danish citizen


Before 2021, there was no specific work requirement, as long as the applicant had not been receiving social benefits for the last four years.

The new rules require having held a full-time job or having been self-employed for three and a half of the last four years, and to still be employed at the time of application.

Full-time employment means employment in Denmark with an average working week of at least 30 hours. Employment as part of an education employment agreement with a company is also covered in this. 

Applications are also considered by those who have been employed abroad by a Danish company or in connection with a spouse employed abroad by a Danish company for less than two years.

And those employed abroad for less than one year, where the posting or deployment is significant for the sake of the applicant’s employment in Denmark.

There can be exceptions from this category, such as former Danish citizens, people of Danish descent, and members of the Danish minority of Southern Schleswig in Germany, certain children applying for citizenship without their parents, applicants who have reached the state pension age or have been granted an early retirement pension or senior pension. 

READ ALSO: How can you get a work permit in Denmark if you are not an EU national?

Language proficiency

In general, you must have passed the national Prøve i Dansk 3 language test, the final exam in the national Danish language school system. As such, you will be comfortable with speaking, reading and writing in Danish at the time you apply for citizenship.

READ ALSO: Danish: Is it really so hard to learn?

There are certain exemptions from the language requirements. Residents of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, as well as Swedish and Norwegian speakers, do not need to document Danish proficiency. Dispensation can be given for applicants with certain types of illnesses and disabilities, and different rules apply to children.

The Danish citizenship test

A condition of getting Danish citizenship, is that you demonstrate knowledge of Danish society, culture and history, by having passed ‘Indfødsretsprøven af 2021.’

In April 2021, the existing citizenship test, (indfødsretsprøven) consisting of 40 multiple choice questions, was supplemented with five extra questions about “Danish values” such as equality, freedom of speech and the relation between legislation and religion. 

If you have taken and passed the previous test of 2015, between the test date in June 2016 and the test date in June 2021, this will be accepted as part of your citizenship application.

The Danish citizenship test is held twice yearly, normally at the end of June and the end of November. 

The pass mark is 36/45 and at least four of the five Danish values questions must be answered correctly. You’ll need to attach a certificate showing you’ve passed when you submit your application.

A few – but not many – exemptions apply meaning some people do not have to take the citizenship test. This includes children under 12 or people from Norway or Sweden, or people from the Danish minority in German region Schleswig-Holstein.


New Danish citizens attend a celebratory event at Christiansborg in 2015. File photo: Linda Kastrup/Ritzau Scanpix

Where to apply

Applications for citizenship are made via the citizens’ self-service website, where you must initially log-in using the MitID system, which replaces the phased-out NemID during 2021. You will then be guided through each step of the application and prompted to upload documentation. Applications can be saved in the system for up to a month. After this, you’ll have to begin from scratch.

You’ll be asked to confirm whether you are using legal representation for your application, then asked to fill in identity information. Some of this – your personal registration number and address, for example – will be automatically filled in. You will also be required to upload a photo of your passport.

Given the hefty application fee, it is important to make sure you have everything in your application correct. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover the many different ways in which personal circumstances and history might affect a citizenship application, but there are options for seeking advice.

You can contact the Ministry of Immigration and Integration for guidance on citizenship rules. Their contact information (including an email address) can be found here.

You also have the option of seeking legal advice. Copenhagen Legal Aid offers such advice to everyone living in Denmark (not just in Copenhagen), and the service is free (depending on your income). You can contact them in person or by telephone.

READ ALSO: ‘I was born in Denmark, but my post-Brexit Danish citizenship application was rejected’

What happens next? 

Once your application is submitted, it’s time to play the waiting game. At the end of 2021, the processing time for applications was approximately 14 months, according to the immigration ministry.

If all goes well and your application is approved by the ministry, you will receive a letter notifying you that you can expect to be accepted for citizenship at the next round of parliamentary procedure, provided you still fulfil the requirements at that time.

Once the new law making you a citizen comes into force, you will be sent a declaration that you have been accepted for citizenship with one final condition: you attend a ceremony, declare that you will uphold Denmark’s laws, values and principles, shake hands with an official and become a citizen.

READ ALSO: Denmark officially ushers in dual citizenship in 2015

Sources: Udlændinge- og Integrationsministeriet (1) (2) (3),,