A Comprehensive Guide on Moving to Croatia
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- Paul Zimmerer
The InterNations network helped me transition from a study abroad student to a resident of Zagreb.
Relocating to Croatia
- Croatia adopted the Schengen area rules in 2004, which means that foreign nationals from a variety of countries will not need a visa.
- Zagreb is the most popular expat location, but you could also choose from any of the other locations in the country with smaller expat communities.
- It could be a struggle to find accommodation as the property market in Croatia is largely geared towards the many tourists it receives each year.
Get Ready to Enjoy the Varied Croatian Landscape
Croatia is located at the juncture of Central and Southeastern Europe. It borders Slovenia and Hungary to the north, Serbia to the east, Bosnia & Herzegovina to the southeast, a tiny bit of Montenegro in the very south, and the Adriatic seacoast to the west. With its surface area of 56,600 km², it belongs to the smaller EU members, but it is still bigger, for example, than Slovakia, Denmark, or the Netherlands.
Its peculiar shape—Croatia consists of a broad east-west corridor in the north, and a narrow strip running from north to south along the sea—explains its diverse geography and climate. To the east of Zagreb, you have the low plains of Slavonia. These coastal areas feel very Mediterranean, but the hinterland in the direction of Bosnia is often hilly or mountainous. Across this varied landscape, you can find many cave systems to explore, too.
The scenery can quickly change as you travel from the beaches at sea level to summits like Mount Dinara, with its 1,831 meters. Unsurprisingly, the weather tends to be milder on the coast than inland, especially in the mountains. This is a relevant point to keep in mind when you are moving to Croatia.
A Turbulent History
Like so many other countries in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, modern Croatia traces its roots back to the turbulent history of the twentieth-century. After the First World War, it ceased to be a part of the large Habsburg Empire known as Austria-Hungary. Together with Serbia and Slovenia, it formed an independent kingdom, which became known as Yugoslavia in 1929.
Ten years later, Croatia emerged as a more or less autonomous part of this kingdom, but it was occupied by the Axis Powers and turned into a fascist puppet state in the 1940s. Partisan resistance to the brutal occupation soon erupted, and Communist leader Josip Broz Tito from northern Croatia turned into a key commander of the partisan troops.
When the Second World War ended, Croatia became an integral part of the new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, with Marshal Tito as its new authoritarian president, a role he filled until his death in 1980. A mere decade later, the Iron Curtain fell. A consolidated Yugoslavia united under the banner of Socialism was no more.
The disintegration caused the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, in which Croatia experienced four years of intermittent fighting against Serbia, from 1991 till 1995. The Croatian War of Independence (domovinski rat) left about 20,000 people dead on both sides, tens of thousands wounded or disabled, and ethnic minorities displaced.
A Country on the Rise
On the one hand, the young Republica Hravtska still has to deal with the legacy of the hostilities described above. Ethnic tensions still linger in some areas. The country is going through an economic slump and the emigration numbers are rising, especially when it comes to the young and qualified people.
On the other hand, the country has been working hard to leave the strife of the past behind. The country has joinded international organizations such as the UN, NATO, and the EU. Despite its current economic struggle, the average income is still higher than in most other Balkan and Eastern European countries. And while moving to Croatia to look for a job might not be the best idea right now, foreign assignees or expats working for the government, diplomatic missions, or cultural institutions will find their place here.
People, Religion, and Languages
Expats moving to Croatia will find themselves in an ethnically very homogenous state. Over 90% of the people living in Croatia are Croatian, though there are a number of officially recognized minorities living there too. These include mostly Serbs, but also Bosniaks, Italians, Hungarians, Slovenes, Czechs, Roma, and a few other demographic groups.
The main religion is Roman Catholic Christianity, and the official language is Croatian, a standardized variety of the Shtokavian dialect of Serbo-Croatian. Its exact distinctions from Bosnian, Montenegrin, and Serbian have often been a point of nationalistic or linguistic pride, though the spoken languages are mutually intelligible.
If you are moving to Croatia and do not speak either of these languages, you need not worry. In a survey, over 75% of Croatians stated that they spoke a foreign language, mostly English, but German is also very popular. In northern regions like Istria, Italian is common, too. Still, a basic knowledge of Croatian is extremely helpful and opens many doors for expats moving to Croatia.
Croatia: Entry Requirements and Permits
Before you move to Croatia, you should familiarize yourself with the entry requirements and the procedures for obtaining a residence permit. Whether or not you need a visa to enter Croatia mainly depends on three different factors: the planned length of your stay, your nationality, and your reason for visiting or relocating.
Not all who are looking to stay in Coratia for less than 90 days need a visa. Short-term visitors do not need a visa if
- they are a national of another EU or EEA member state; or
- they already have a Schengen visa or a residence permit for a member; or
- they have a national visa or residence permit for Bulgaria, Cyprus, or Romania; or
- they are a national of selected countries with visa exemptions for stays of up to 90 days.
Countries with visa exemptions for short-term stays in Croatia include Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Montenegro, New Zealand, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, the US, the UAE, and more. Be sure to check with the nearest Croatian mission whether the exeptions apply to you.
Applying for a Short-Term Visa
If none of the exceptions listed above applies to you, you have to file a visa application with the responsible Croatian Embassy or Consulate. For stays of up to 90 days, you usually need to hand in the following documents:
- a completed application form
- proof that you have paid the visa fee (460 HRK (69 USD))
- a valid passport (original and copy)
- a 35x45mm color photo
- proof of financial means to cover your stay
- proof of your intention to leave the country again, e.g. return plane ticket
- proof of accommodation, e.g. hotel reservation
- travel health insurance (with a minimum cover of at least 30,100 USD)
- proof of purpose for your stay
- a Letter of Guarantee for private visits and business trips (though not for leisure tourism)
Long-Term Visas and Residence and Work Permits
For stays of longer than 90 days, non-EU nationals usually need to apply for a visa plus a temporary residence permit (aka Temporary Stay Permit) via their closest Croatian Embassy or Consulate. However, note that getting a temporary residence permit does not automatically grant you the right to work in Croatia. If you have found a job with a Croatian company, you also need a work permit. Self-employed expats need, among other things, a business permit to legally practice in their field. You can find more information on work and business permits in our guide to Working in Croatia.
All EU nationals benefit from the free movement of persons which allows them to work in the country with no work, business, or residence permits. However, Austrain nationals are an exception as they have transitional restrictions. That means that Austrians that want to work in Croatia needs to get a permission to work here. This rule applies up until 30 June 2020.
Still, no matter where you are from in the EU, you also have to get a residence permit from the local police. This has to be done in the matter of the first three months there, no later than 82 days into your stay. Detailed information on long-term stays in Croatia can be found on the Ministry of the Interior’s Aliens webpage.
Applying for a Residence Permit
If you are allowed to enter Croatia without a visa, but want to stay longer than 90 days, you can apply for your residence and work/business permits from within the country. These applications are handled via the local police station. However, there is no guarantee that you will be successful, and you might have to leave the country again, depending on your personal situation.
However, no matter where you apply for a temporary residence permit, outside or within the country, you are generally asked to provide the following documents:
- a valid passport or another travel document (original and copy)
- birth certificate (plus a certified translation)
- a color passport photo
- proof of financial means to support yourself
- proof of health insurance
- proof of purpose for your stay (work, family, education, research, etc.)
- criminal background check (plus a certified translation)
- proof of payment for visa fee of (113 USD if applied from abroad or 660 HRK (98 USD) if the application is submitted within Croatia)
- proof of consent from both parents if you are travelling with a minor child
More information on document requirements can be found on Croatia’s Ministry of Interior official page.
Residence Permit Renewals and Local Registration
A temporary residence permit is valid for up to one year, but you can extend it via the local police station. However, you must start the renewal process at least 90 days before your permit expires. Once you have held a temporary residence permit for five years in a row, you can apply for a permanent one.
When entering Croatia, regardless of the travel document, visa, or permit you have, you need to register with the local police. This regulation includes all foreign residents of every nationality, sooner or later. If you are staying at a hotel, B&B, or campsite the staff usually takes care of this for you. Foreign visitors on short-term visas need to complete the registration process within 48 hours. Those who already have the right to live in Croatia, e.g. via a temporary residence permit acquired abroad, have up to 72 hours to register. However, EU/EEA nationals do not have to register with the police unless they are planning to stay for longer than 90 days. As mentioned above, they should go to the local police station to apply for their temporary residence permit at least eight days before this initial period is over.
Once you register as a foreign resident, you also get an ID number. This is very important because you need this ID number for plenty of other tasks like opening a bank account or applying for a phone contract.
Croatia: Destinations and Accommodation
Croatia consists of 20 different counties (županije), which include more than 125 cities. The capital city, Zagreb, forms a county of its own. It also houses Croatia’s biggest expat community, although you can find quite a few expats in other major cities, especially Rijeka, and the coastal region, particularly on or near the Istrian Peninsula.
Zagreb: The Capital and Main Expat Location
Zagreb is Croatia’s most populous city of Croatia. The capital covers a fairly spacious area, stretching about 30km from east to west and approximately 20km from north to south. Most districts border or run parallel to the River Sava but a few reach the Medvednica, a mountain located north of the city. That is to say, that just like Croatia itself, Zagreb has a pretty diverse geography and distinct landscape.
While the eastern and southeastern parts of the city house several industrial zones, the center of Zagreb showcases its historical and cultural heritage. The city center includes the two districts Donji Grad (lower city or downtown) and Gornji Grad (upper city or uptown), where you will find plenty of historical buildings and tourist attractions.
As Croatia’s political and administrative center, Zagreb is the obvious destination of choice for members of the diplomatic corps, as well as foreign correspondents and international journalists. The capital is also the financial and business center of Croatia, in fields such as high-tech, pharmaceutics, tourism, trade and commerce. Assignees of international companies or business people cooperating with Croatian enterprises settle in Zagreb for this reason.
The country’s best-known and oldest academic institution is the University of Zagreb. As well as its degrees and courses offered in the Croatian language, there are a selected number of full degree programs in English. Moreover, almost all of its faculties and academies deliver individual courses in English and various other foreign languages, which is particularly attractive to international students. Since the University of Zagreb is an important institute for scientific and scholarly research in Croatia, it is of interest to foreign academics, too.
Rijeka is the third largest city in the country, however, noticeably smaller than Zagreb. It is mostly a regional center of Primorje-Gorski County in northeastern Croatia, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Slovenian border. Rijeka is also one of Croatia’s principal seaports, and an important location for the national ship-building industry. The shipyards of Rijeka have traditionally been a large employer and significant economic influence.
However, in order to join the EU, Croatia had to restructure and privatize its shipbuilding industry. Thousands of jobs have been lost across the country, a situation which has only been made worse by a relatively stagnant market. Although this has been a tough blow for Rijeka, the city has transformed from an industrial city into a city dominated by the service sector with a particular focus on urban tourism and the city’s transport links to the rest of the country.
Dalmatia: Dubrovnik and Split
There are some smaller expat communities in Dalmatia along the southern coast, especially in the picturesque town of Dubrovnik and the far more populous city of Split. Dubrovnik is mostly famous as a prime tourist attraction. It has become particularly popular since the beloved HBO series Game of Thrones aired, as quite a few parts of the show are filmed on location in Dubrovnik.
However, Dubrovnik isn’t just a tourist location. It is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in the eastern Mediterranean. Both Dubrovnik and Split offer plenty of sunshine and renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Dubrovnik has its medieval fortifications, and Split boasts the Palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian.
Unlike quaint Dubrovnik, Split is Croatia’s second largest urban center. The city is a balance of tradition and modernity and is also the place to go if you want to travel to the islands of the Adriatic.
Just like Rijeka, Split has a struggling shipbuilding and manufacturing industry, with high unemployment among former factory workers. It is also trying to focus more on logistics and trade, on sailing and leisure tourism, as well as on reviving its traditional industries, e.g. wine-making and fishing. Although both Dubrovnik and Split attract numerous visitors every year, the number of long-term residents from abroad is lower than in Zagreb.
The Croatian Property Market: Putting Down Roots in Croatia
If you are interested in obtaining a home for your vacations in Croatia, you should read up on the state of the Croatian real estate market. Since the end of the local property boom in 2009, housing prices have been dropping although they seem to be beginning to grow again. As fewer people can afford to invest in real estate, there are fewer building permits and fewer new properties. Those Croatians who still have the means to purchase property often use the real estate sector to “park” their assets and protect themselves from financial difficulties.
Another issue to contend with, and one that Croatia has to deal with in becoming a fully-fledged EU member, is the problem of multiple ownership claims. Many ethnic Serbs fled Croatia during the war, some leaving legally owned property behind, which has since been illegitimately resold by third-parties. Other problems stem from the inheritance of property by multiple siblings or under-the-table, paperless property transactions to avoid taxes and fees. Ensure any property you buy in Croatia has the appropriate paperwork to back up the legitimacy of your ownership.
But if you don’t mind either looking for a while or the fairly high transaction costs, you might be in luck. Nonetheless, property in Croatia is not for those interested in making a quick profit.
There are restrictions on who can buy property in Croatia and what type of property they can buy. Unless Croatian nationals are free to purchase property in your home country, you will not be able to purchase property in Croatia unless you plan to settle there permanently. You are also unable to purchase agricultural and forest land and protected cultural monuments unless given permission by authorities. This is in addition to the process for securing consent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before the sale, which can take up to six months.
Finding Rental Accommodation Can Be a Struggle
Obviously, not all expats want to own a second home on the Adriatic Sea, nor can they necessarily afford the investment. The average expatriate probably wants to rent a house or apartment for a few years and then relocate without much hassle. The long-term rental market — i.e. accommodation not aimed at tourists — is comparatively small and mostly limited to larger cities like Zagreb, Dubrovnik, or Split.
However, there is also a fairly large “grey” rental market. Property owners rent out their flat or sub-let a room unofficially, without a contract. They do it to avoid paying taxes on rental income, and these offers may make it easier for some to quickly find a place to live. Please be aware, though, that it is not legal. In case of a dispute with your landlord, you will have no rights whatsoever and might even get in trouble.
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- Paul Zimmerer
The InterNations network helped me transition from a study abroad student to a resident of Zagreb.
- Emma Baxter
The InterNations network helped me get in contact with other expats and internationally minded people in Zagreb.