Years ago, I remember one of my students proudly pulling an identification card from his wallet. He proffered the card to me and pointed to a string of numbers, “If you are Czech, this number is your life.” It took me longer than it should have to realize that the rodné číslo (birth number) my student was pointing out was similar to the social security number that I received in the US.
While a born Czech has it easy, the process of assigning birth numbers to foreigners living in the Czech Republic is fraught with ambiguities. Like many non-Czechs, I made it through my first year and a half in Prague with a working permit, but without a rodné číslo. Although I encountered questions from quizzical authorities (bank officials, doctors, insurance agents), once they realized I was a foreigner without long-term residence, they quickly substituted a form of my birth date whenever a form required a rodné číslo.
A rodné číslo is a ten-digit identification number issued at birth to all Czech citizens. The first six digits are a combination of the applicant’s birth date, plus an identifier to specify male or female, the last four digits are randomly selected. An older article on expats.cz provides a comprehensive look at some of the most often asked questions about acquiring a birth number, although the explanation of the application process itself is already outdated. Before I received my permanent residency, I wasn’t even eligible to apply for a rodné číslo.
When Radek and I moved back to Prague at the end of 2005, I was granted permanent residency through our US marriage, though still not given a rodné číslo. When I inquired after it, the foreign police told me that a request for my rodné cislo had been automatically submitted when my long-term residency had been granted. They told me I’d be notified when it was ready, but warned that it might take a while. Since my long-term residency status guaranteed my rights to benefits, such as state insurance and childcare payments, the lack of a rodné číslo didn’t seem like a big deal. Still the promise of acquiring one taunted me. I wondered how long I’d have to wait before it finally arrived.
I had heard stories from non-Czech friends with long-term residency about how their rodné číslo magically appeared one day in their mailboxes. Some of my friends remembered going through the process of applying at the foreign police, while others claimed that they’d never filled out an application, yet still got a number. From what I gathered, the typical wait-time for a number was 3 years. In cases where long-term work permits were renewed, it seemed that the rodné cislo often appeared without explicit registration. But as I talked to more of my friends, I realized that there were quite a few spouses, like me, still waiting for their rodné číslo.
In 2007, when I visited the foreign police again to update my “resident alien card” because my US passport had been renewed, I was surprised they didn’t even ask about my rodné číslo. The police were more concerned that the style of “book”, or identification, I’d been issued was out of date and required me to apply for a new one. The following year, when I returned to the foreign police to change my permanent residency from Žižkov to our current address, I was told that my rodné cislo application was still being processed. I found it hard to believe that 3 years after my initial application I still hadn’t received a rodné cislo, but I attributed it to the slow pace of the foreign police’s bureaucratic processes. I wondered if I’d been looking for work outside the home, instead of staying at home on “maternity leave,” if I’d have run into more complications by not having a rodné cislo. But when a friend also married to a Czech received her rodné číslo without forewarning in the mail later that year, I was encouraged that mine might be forthcoming.
However, after 5 years of waiting, I was the only person in our now five-person family that didn’t have a rodné číslo. Honestly, I didn’t think about it on a daily basis, but every so often a situation would come up where I’d need to fill in rodné číslo on a form, and I’d wonder if I shouldn’t be more proactive. This fall I heard new information from two different friends who’d applied successfully for their “lost” birth numbers not through the foreign police, but through the Department of the Interior. One friend claimed to have received her American husband’s number on the spot, while another friend told me that she was issued a number within a few weeks. The news was surprising and encouraging. I decided to investigate further.
After doing a bit of Internet research, I discovered that the Department of the Interior is indeed the current authority responsible for issuing birth numbers to foreigners, particularly to those with long-term residency. Since I couldn’t figure out how to proceed from their website, I had Radek call to find out about the process. Radek was told that I should go to the Odbor Azylové a Migrační Politiky (Department of Asylum and Migration Policy), which was located in an office in Prague 10. The women he spoke with actually found my name in her computer, although she didn’t say whether or not I had a rodné číslo.
This week, early one morning, I set off by car to find the office, hoping that the process wouldn’t take long since I had Samuel with me. After a few laps around the block I found the building, a low, white, concrete office at the end of a dead-end industrial lane. It wasn’t well-marked from the road, so I ended up asking directions until I finally found my way to the front of the building. There were no lines outside, as I had encountered on visits to the foreign police, so I was encouraged. Then I noticed the large sign on the front door: NEČEKEJTE, VOLEJTE. Obejednat si na 974847711 vstřicny úřad. I wondered why the official in the main office hadn’t told Radek that it was possible to book an appointment. I thought about just going home and booking an appointment for another day, but I figured I’d already spent an hour getting there, so I might as well scope out the situation.
There weren’t many people in front of me, so I sat down, hopeful. It seemed ages before anyone official appeared. Just when the number in front of me was called, I felt and heard a rumble in Samuel’s pants. The situation was urgent (and smelly) so I politely asked the next official who appeared where the toilets were. She gave me a quizzical look and I motioned to the baby and used the only Czech expression for bowel movement that I know, (on se pokakal – he pooped) which at least brought a smile to her face. Unlike at the foreign police, the officials who worked in this department seemed young, and fairly understanding. She promised to take me next when I returned from the bathroom trip.
When it was my turn, I learned that although my application was submitted in 2005, the foreign police had never gotten around to issuing me a rodné číslo before the Department of the Interior took the process over in 2009. So, I needed to reapply. Altogether the process was quite simple, just a glance at my documents, a form to fill out, and I was off to wait for my elusive birth number again. Although this time, slightly more assured that it would come eventually. I was putting the baby into his car seat for the trip home when the official in charge of my case came running out of the office. You took the form I need to submit for your application, he chastised. Clearly, all the kinks in the system haven’t entirely been worked out yet. But I am told the processing time for my birth number should now only be 14 days. Since I’ve waited 5 years, I’m optimistic, but I’m not holding my breath.
Although in the past 20 years the US has moved away from using social security numbers as a primary means of identification, in the Czech Republic, until quite recently, a rodné cislo was required on all forms. But as Radio Prague reports, the government may be planning an overhaul of the system soon, “Government plans revolutionary changes to ubiquitous ‘rodné číslo’” on the grounds that the number gives too much information and is a security risk. If this measure succeeds, the rodné číslo will be phased out in about 30 years, just around the time of its 100 anniversary. With any luck, I’ll get my number before then.