Around the world twenty- and thirty-somethings are criss-crossing borders and bodies of water in search of a post in the global economy and a place in global society. This year, the Netherlands made that search a bit easier for some of us.
In March, at the same time as the Dutch government was lobbying for the EU deal that would ship asylum seekers back to Turkey, parliament also made some key changes to the ‘orientation year for highly-educated persons’ visa that repaved the path for highly-educated migrants to enter the Dutch job market.
The zoekjaar hoogopgeleiden, known in English as the ‘orientation year’ or ‘search year for highly-educated persons’, is a special visa offered by the Netherlands in an effort to avail itself of the global knowledge economy. By simplifying eligibility requirements and offering immediate access to the job market, the zoekjaar is a fast lane for skilled expats, lined with billboards advertising the benefits of working or starting a business in the Netherlands.
After two years wandering around Latin America and taking digital stabs in the dark at piecing together a freelance income, those billboards drew me onto the highway back to Holland. For 24 months I’d been in another hemisphere searching for everything from professional and personal fulfillment to fluency in a third language to a quiet seat alone on the Greyhound, and in October the Dutch Immigration Service awarded me with this little holographic ID card, the legal formalization of my zoekjaar, one more year of searching.
In times like these, when global Millennials are bouncing from country to country and job to job, everybody can use a good search year.
The Dutch ‘Orientation Year for Highly-Educated Persons’ Visa
The Dutch orientation year visa is the stuff expat dreams are made of.
A short introduction by EP-Nuffic:
Even the name of the program is dripping with precarity and opportunity.
From the verb zoeken — to search, seek — and the word jaar for ‘year’, it’s both a visa program and a handy way of referring to the year you spend on that visa searching for employment and a place in Dutch society. In English it’s often referred to as an ‘orientation year’ — a year for orienting yourself to the Dutch job market — but I tend to think of it as a ‘search year’. And since most of us are in our early- to mid-twenties when we reach the level of education required for eligibility, it can be a year of searching for more than just our next job.
Eligibility Requirements for the Orientation Year Visa in the Netherlands
In March the Dutch government made changes to two older and somewhat more complex laws, giving birth to 2016’s simple, flexible zoekjaar hoogopgeleiden. The new orientation year visa is intended for two groups of people:
- Non-EU/EEA citizens who have graduated with a Bachelor’s degree or higher from an institution of higher education in the Netherlands; or
- Non-EU/EEA citizens who have graduated with a Master’s degree or higher from universities ranked in the global top 200 by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings, or Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities.
So, in short, if you have at least a Master’s degree from one of the top 200 world universities, or at least Bachelor’s degree from any Dutch institution, you’re eligible for the Dutch orientation year.
Once you graduate, the clock starts ticking, and you’ve got three years to apply for your visa. In other words, once your diploma is in hand, you’ve got three years to travel, volunteer, or work in some other corner of the world before requesting your zoekjaar visa.
I graduated from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands two years ago, and I decided I’d use at least part of my three year window to travel more, learn a language, and build up some employable skills on the road. After two years, here’s what dragged me out of the City of Eternal Spring and back to the Low Countries.
How the orientation year visa turns immigration pain into expat pleasure
Immigration is, generally speaking, a pain in the ass. Red tape designed to protect the local labor market forms an obstacle course of forms and fees, and in EU member countries that obstacle course looks more like a labyrinth of alarm lasers surrounding the billion-karat diamond inside the maximum security bank vault from every spy movie.
The search year visa removes most of the lasers, and also provides you with a map of the quickest and easiest path through the rest with a wink and a thumbs-up.
In most cases, you’d need a solid high-paying offer from an employer before you’d even think about booking your flight, but that’s not necessary with the zoekjaar hoogopgeleiden. Upon approval of your visa request, you’ll receive a residence permit that allows you to legally reside and work in the Netherlands for one calendar year, along with these fancy perks:
- Physical presence in the Netherlands. Even if you don’t need a visa to travel to the Netherlands, the longest you can stay as a tourist is 90 days. Sure, you could limit your job search to LinkedIn and Skype interviews, but your chance of landing a job is phenomenally higher if you’re already in-country. You can go to job fairs and networking events, have a Dutch phone number and mailing address, and attend job interviews in person.
- No income requirements. For almost any other visa to come to the Netherlands, you’ll need to demonstrate that you meet the minimum income requirements to be able to support yourself or have enough money in the bank to get through the entire length of your stay.
- You’re free to work during your search year. There’s a beautiful line on the back of your residence permit that says “arbeid vrij toegestaan, geen TWV vereist“, meaning “labor freely permitted, no work permit required”. That means that whether you want to take on a six-month temporary position or keep yourself afloat with a few shifts at a local bar or supermarket, you can.
- Lower income requirements after your search year. For the highly skilled migrant visa, which the search year is designed to lead into (more on that in a moment), the salary requirements are quite steep. If you find a job during your zoekjaar, however, that minimum required salary is much lower than it would be if you were applying for the visa from abroad without having completed a search year first.
If you’re like me — young, broke, and precariously employed — this is all ideal. I could have never moved back to the Netherlands from Colombia if, for example, I’d needed to demonstrate that I have at least €12,000 in the bank to support myself (I don’t) or had needed to immediately start earning a salary of €37,000 or more (lol).
The catch is that, like all our other in-betweens and figure-stuff-out periods, it’s temporary, and you can’t turn back the clock. You get one orientation year, one year of fertile soil to try and plant some roots in the Netherlands.
Paths Forward from Your Zoekjaar: Residing and Working in the Netherlands
There’s nothing stopping you from coming on a search year visa and spending that year piecing together part-time work with no ambition beyond enjoying twelve months of the Netherlands. But at least in theory, the program is designed to facilitate your finding one of these three paths into longer-term stay:
- Finding a job as a highly-skilled migrant is the most common and conventional. To do this, you’ll need to find a job with a recognized sponsor of foreign workers where you earn at least €2228 gross monthly.
- Starting an innovative business is another option, under which you’ll need to fulfill the requirements of the startup visa.
- Working on a self-employed basis is another many-headed beast, but is not as complicated as you might expect, particularly for American citizens under the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty.
From there, the Netherlands is your oyster.
You can sign an employment contract, start up a business, or establish yourself as a self-employed professional, and then it’s only a matter of occasional paperwork and renewing your visa as necessary. After five years of uninterrupted residence in the country, you’ll even be eligible for deepening your Dutch roots in the form of permanent residence or even becoming a Dutch citizen.
But a search year, as I see it, is about more than just nailing down a paycheck and filling out visa forms.
In the context of our generational thirst for personal fulfillment, a zoekjaar visa is the embodiment of our constantly in-between, precarious state of existence: it’s time to search for a job, but it’s also a year on pause, free of the ball-and-chain of an employment contract or the immediate need to justify your usefulness to society.
It’s a year between our studies and the self-exploration that began in and followed them, and the looming reality of putting that education to use and digging out of the debt we racked up in its name. A year to figure out what exactly it is we’re zoeking for.
Een jaar om alles uit te zoeken
Spoiler alert: as it turns out, things aren’t always quite so simple as the education + hard work + upbeat attitude = good job and happiness narrative we grow up with.
Another Dutch word that draws its meaning from the same lexical stock as the zoekjaar is uitzoeken, meaning something like “to figure out” or “to choose between multiple options”. You might hear it from a parent irritated with your youthful fiscal irresponsibility when you throw your arms up and ask how you’re supposed to do about the growing pile of bills on your desk: Tja, dat moet jij maar zelf uitzoeken. “You’ll just have to figure that out yourself.”
It’s been a long journey since I left the Netherlands two years ago to go gallavanting, language learning, and globalizing. In October 2014 I left my student home in Holland with a student-like tendency to break up the path in front of me into sensible months- or years-long chunks that I could plan out carefully, and the chunk I’d chosen first was a year teaching English in Colombia.
Instead, I quickly learned that life is often what happens while you’re busy making travel plans.
By early summer 2015 I was living in and managing a backpackers’ hostel in Mexico City while taking my first bambi-steps down the path to location-independence, editing student papers and random publications from word-of-mouth jobs that stumbled into my inbox and picking up blogging gigs with language software companies I bumped into on Twitter.
Only in January this year did I finally make it to Colombia, not as a teacher but as a writer and editor, a ‘digital nomad‘, finishing my final freelance lap in the Spanish-speaking world before coming back to Holland and figuring out how to make sense and a paycheck of it all.
The last two years of travel have been formative, at least as much as the five years of formal education that propelled me into them. I learned self-reliance hitchhiking penniless to Mexico, lived life in a third language, and experienced every stage of the traveler’s social cycle. I lived in a proper global city, experienced the best civic innovations from the Global South, learned more about the different peoples of my home country, and used lessons learned from one culture to better understand another.
But even after all of that personal and professional development, I’m still left with a task that sometimes feels overwhelming: alles uitzoeken. Figuring everything out.
In a job interview last week, after I had been unable to answer a couple of somewhat technical questions about online marketing campaigns, my interviewers asked me what kind of person I am. How would my old colleagues describe me? My friends? What were my strongest personal qualities?
I felt like they were lobbing me a soft question partly to help me feel like I hadn’t struck out, but even then I still just sort of moved my mouth around and made some weird vowel sounds. After the previous series of more understandable shoulder shrugs and weet-ik-niet‘s, my dumbfoundedness at this simple question must have made them think I’d just slowly forgotten how to talk over the course of the interview.
On the train back to Leiden I was still chewing on the blanks I’d drawn, but especially that give-away “what kind of person are you” question. And then I thought, tja, dat moet ik nog maar uitzoeken. I’ve still gotta figure that one out.
I couldn’t really answer their question because they were, I think, looking for answers about how I interact with others, how I work in a team, whether I’m the party animal or the wall flower, and if I was really as uncomfortable as I looked drinking a beer on a Friday afternoon at the office with my hopefully soon-to-be bosses. And I didn’t really have any kind of useful answer, because in two years I haven’t really worked in a team or interacted professionally with others beyond email and Skype, haven’t had colleagues to grab a beer with at the end of the day on Friday. And after a couple of years of constantly readjusting to different cultures and environments, I’m not really sure what zoekjaar-me looks like sitting behind a desk somewhere in Amsterdam. I think that’s part of what I’ll figure out during this search year.
A year ago I thought jumping on the nomad bandwagon was the way to go. After five years of overachieving my ass off in school I decided happiness shouldn’t be deferred for a hypothetical future in which you can only make guesses at what the world will look like and what will matter to you within it, so I bummed about at my leisure earning just enough to get by.
Today I’m thinking there’s a sweet spot to be found somewhere between sacrificing for the future and living for today. I’m starting to think my prospects as a location-independent something-or-other will be a lot better after a few years of experience punching a time clock, and that it’s okay to spend that time figuring out what to replace “something-or-other” with in my email signature.
Two months into my zoekjaar, I’ve got ten months left to try out part-time jobs at the local travel goods shop or the grocery store, to whore myself out at a temp agency, to take on a six-month position here or there, to build and refine my freelance portfolio, to reacquaint myself with daily life in Dutch. At the end of the day I’m just another semi-jobless drifting Millennial, but I’ve got ten months to drift with freedom and focus, to explore the job market, cast my net wide, and sort out what’s important before committing to those roots.