Immigrating to Sweden

Last updated: 16 8 2018

Image Boken om Sverige
This material is from the book About Sweden.

About 10 million people live in Sweden today. Of these about 3.5 million live in and around the country's three biggest cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. Approximately 17 per cent of the Swedish population (or about 1.7 million people) was born abroad.

Many people immigrated to Sweden over the course of the 20th century. In most of the years since the Second World War, Sweden has had a positive net migration rate, which means that more people have immigrated than have emigrated.

In the 1950s and 60s, Sweden needed labour. People from countries close to Sweden moved here to work. Many people also moved here from Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey.

In the 1980s, people from South America, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Eritrea applied for asylum in Sweden. Later on came people from Somalia and eastern Europe.

In 1999, the European Council decided that the European Union (EU) would draw up a common asylum and immigration policy. This policy is known as the Schengen Agreement. Sweden signed the Schengen Agreement in 2001. Under the agreement, anyone who is in one of the signatory countries legally is to be allowed to travel freely to other signatory countries, without having to show their passport when they cross borders. The Schengen Agreement led to more people seeking asylum at the beginning of the 21st century.

In Sweden, immigration is regulated on the basis of the Aliens Act, which contains rules on asylum, residence permits and family reunification.

In 2016, just over 163,000 persons immigrated to Sweden. Of these, 56 per cent were men and 44 per cent women. The total included about 15,000 Swedes returning to Sweden, but the biggest group of immigrants was from Syria.

About 1.7 million people living in Sweden in 2016 were born in other countries. The table below shows immigration figures for 2017 from Statistics Sweden, arranged by the most common countries of birth.

Source: Statistics Sweden

Seeking asylum

The UN Refugee Convention is a set of international rules for how the UN's member countries are to treat refugees. According to the convention, a refugee is someone who risks persecution because of their race, nationality, sexual orientation, religious or political ideas, gender or membership of a particular social group. The rule is that a person who is a refugee has to be granted asylum, regardless of which country it is they seek asylum in.

Even someone who is not classified as a refugee under the UN Refugee Convention may have the right to a residence permit as a person in need of protection. Under the Swedish Aliens Act, residence permits may be granted to persons eligible for subsidiary protection (as defined in the EU's common rules).

The EU has common rules governing how countries are to determine whether a person is a refugee. As part of the asylum process, countries have to take into account various factors in the person's background and situation, what is considered persecution, what the situation is like in the person's country of origin, etc.

If you have to apply for asylum in Sweden, you need to contact the Swedish Migration Agency. The Swedish Migration Agency is the central government agency responsible for examining asylum applications from people who want to visit, live in or apply for protection in Sweden or become a Swedish citizen.

According to the Dublin Regulation, your asylum application has to be investigated in the first European country you reach. The Swedish Migration Agency takes finger prints from all asylum seekers over the age of 14 in order to check that Sweden is the first country.

Changes to asylum legislation

The Swedish Riksdag has introduced a temporary law that limits the possibilities of asylum seekers and their families to obtain residence permits in Sweden. The new law came into force on 20 July 2016 and is intended to remain in force for three years. The law may also affect people who applied for asylum before 20 July 2016.

Temporary residence permits

The new law means that asylum seekers entitled to protection will receive a temporary residence permit in Sweden. Applicants who are deemed to be refugees will receive a residence permit valid for three years, and those deemed eligible for subsidiary protection will receive a residence permit valid for 13 months.

If a person who has received a temporary residence permit is still entitled to protection when the residence permit expires, s/he may be granted an extension. A permanent residence permit may be issued if the person is able to support him/herself.

Unaccompanied children and families with children under the age of 18 who are deemed to be in need of protection may be granted a permanent residence permit if they applied for asylum before 25 November 2015.

Residence permits for close relatives

If you want to live with a close member of your family, that person must have a residence permit. Your spouse, cohabitant, registered partner and your children under the age of 18 may be granted residence permits in Sweden if:

  • You are a Swedish citizen, have a permanent residence permit or a temporary residence permit as a refugee.
  • You can support yourself and the family members applying for residence permits.
  • You have a home of sufficient size and adequate standard for all of you to live in.
  • You and your partner are at least 18 years old.

The requirement to be able to support yourself does not apply to everyone, including children under the age of 18.

If you are a Swedish citizen or have a permanent residence permit, a person you are planning to marry or cohabit with can also be granted a residence permit in order to move to Sweden to live with you.

Photo: Colourbox

To apply for a Swedish residence permit, you have to contact a Swedish embassy or consulate in your country of origin, or in another country where you live. People applying for a residence permit must submit the application themselves.

The new temporary law also means that close family members of refugees with three-year residence permits can be granted residence permits to move to Sweden. 'Close family members' here means spouse/cohabitant/registerered partner and children under 18 years of age. Close famly members of asylum seekers who applied for (and were granted) 13-month residence permits before 25 November 2015 can also be granted residence permits in Sweden.

Close family members of asylum seekers who applied for (and were granted) 13-month residence permits after 24 November 2015 will only exceptionally be granted residence permits in Sweden.

In some cases, close family members of unaccompanied children granted subsidiary protection status may be granted a residence permit even if the child applied for asylum after 24 November 2015.

Swedish citizenship

​If you want to become a Swedish citizen, you have to submit an application to the Swedish Migration Agency. Those who want to become Swedish citizens must have reached the age of 18, have a permanent residence permit and have lived in Sweden for about five years. Children under the age of 18 can become Swedish citizens at the same time as a foreign father or mother. 

EU citizenship

If you are a citizen of Switzerland or in an EU/EEA country, you are able to travel freely within the European Union (EU). At present, 22 of the EU's 28 member states are included in an agreement called the Schengen Agreement. This means that EU citizens can travel freely over these countries' borders. If you are the citizen of a country outside the EU, what is called a third country national, you can also travel freely between the countries that are party to the Schengen Agreement. However, you can only travel for a maximum of three months.

​Work permits

A work permit is a decision by the Swedish Migration Agency that gives a foreign citizen the right to work in Sweden. The main rule is that you have to apply for a work permit and have been granted the permit before you travel to Sweden. Nordic citizens, EU/EEA citizens, Swiss citizens and their family members do not need to apply. People who have been resident in another EU country for five years do not need to apply for a work permit either.

A self-employed person does not need a work permit, but must have a residence permit.