For Foreigners

A guide on how to survive Polish institutions

Polish institutions, so any Urząd (perfect word in Polish that doesn’t really translate in English well… some kind of official institution/office) where you need to do something official like Urząd Miejski (city hall), ZUS (social security office), NFZ (national health care service), Urząd Skarbowy (tax office), and Urząd Wojewódzki (voivodeship office, aka the worst place on Earth) are notorious for being slow, confusing, depressing, old-fashioned (they still keep records in little notebooks for Christ’s sake!), the list goes on. But you may still run into some problems and that’s why I’ve compiled this little guide for you. 

In my experience, things have changed in recent years, and you can often do things very quickly and the civil servants are kind and helpful. With the exception of Urząd Wojewódzki, where things just seem to keep getting worse and worse (and immigrants are starting to protest!), everywhere else has changed for the better. But don’t expect people to be overly helpful or smile. It could happen but it’s unlikely, so just suck it up and deal! Here’s how.

Attitudes of civil servants.

Generally in Poland, doesn’t matter if they’re shop assistants, doctors, or civil servants, most people have a stiff upper lip when you interact with them (but I guess that’s just an institutional thing. It’s often the same in the States.) Like zero emotion or they’re just pissy. At least the 10-15 minutes they’ll be sussing you out and if you manage to impress them and efficiently break the ice, they’ll be slightly less bitchy and might even smile. But it takes a few minutes. What I’ve found helps is being nice and talking about why you live in Poland, etc., and they tend to loosen up a bit. 

Take a Polish speaker/get a proxy.

You might have a problem if you can’t communicate in Polish. I’m not saying that there’s absolutely no one who speaks English at Polish institutions, but it’s obviously not a requirement, so don’t expect it. I’ve never encountered it and I’ve spent a lot of time at the various halls. So if you don’t speak Polish, you either need to take someone with you or have a proxy (pełnomocnik in Polish) take care of it for you. That means you need to sign a paper saying that person can do things in your name. (side note: I find it absurd that you can give someone permission as your proxy by writing some shit on a piece of paper and signing it and somehow it’s legit. Like anyone couldn’t just write that paper and sign it).

A lesson in patience.

Things usually take a while. And I’m what really referring to is the processes that take place at Urząd Wojewódzki. You could wait years and it’s really difficult to get any info on when or why or whatever. If you go to your city hall, things are typically pretty fast and people are quite friendly. I even had a civil servant hold my son when he was just a few weeks old because I needed to fill out some documents and he was crying. That’s decent service, I’d say. Of course the lady had the standard bitchy attitude in the beginning, but then softened up after 10 minutes or so and many struggles with language and the baby. If you have a baby, take it. If you’re pregnant, use it. It’ll make people be nicer to you (and maybe you can skip the line).

Do not employ bitchface.

My husband used to go with me everywhere to deal with things before I could manage on my own in Polish. And he was constantly telling me to stop with the bitchface. I have this problem that when someone is rude, I immediately get bitchface. He’s right. It doesn’t help. Just remain calm, maybe don’t smile too much, but just be normally polite, and you’ll manage. 

Be over-prepared.

If you think it could be useful, take it. Take all your official documents. IDs, passports, birth certificates, whatever. I have a big folder with all that stuff and I always just take the whole thing with me. It could save you a lot of frustration and extra trips to show original documents. 

The good thing about living in Poland is that even though there’s a lot of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, there’s always a solution and just a little kombinowanie will help you through it. So stay calm and one day you’ll be an expert at Polish institutions, even better than Poles!

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