Urban Survival and International Transfers
Moving to another country might get you tangled in the nets of bureaucracy. But it may be easier to navigate the urban jungle than you think.
When I moved to Sweden, I discovered that things were arranged a bit differently than back in the Netherlands. Not much, but I did get surprised once or twice by actions or consequences that are obvious to anyone who was born here, but wouldn’t cross your mind if you came from outside the country. And here, I was actually lucky to have grown up in a country where things are generally lawful, by the book and organized. This made me wonder what happens to people who are utterly unprepared for this, and are moving to a country that has a strong culture of organization and bureaucracy.
So here I decided to make a post and gather some thoughts on surviving a country’s bureaucracy, and navigating the pitfalls you might get into. Mind you that specific countries may have vastly different rules, laws and social conventions, so I am instead going to give you a basic set of “survival tools” that hopefully get you prepared for the worst!
Your identity is your shield
Who you are, and what nationality or nationalities you have, determines what you can do, and what your rights are. To me it seems strange, but there are people who go out of the house without any form of identification. Any means of identifying yourself is critical in an urban society. An ID card, driver’s license or even a library or company pass can help out here.
Maybe you are a witness to a crime or accident, or involved in one. Maybe the police asks for identity if they are investigating suspicious activity. Or perhaps you somehow find yourself in an area that requires identification to pass. There are too many cases where you’d really want to have ID – and in many countries it’s the law. Always carry at least one way to prove your identity with you at all times.
Be prepared to prove everything
Any system that determines whether you are entitled to something (residence, a job, government support, permits, importing goods, licenses) will require you to show proof. Make sure that whatever proof you have is accepted in the country you are moving to, or that you permits/licenses are accepted. This also goes for diplomas for your profession, so if you want to practice as a doctor or lawyer, make sure that you are capable of exercising that profession as is, or that you might need to have your credentials verified.
Read up ahead for each step of a process, and jut down what you need to arrange. Really plan what you need to do, what proof or support documents you need, and what you can do in case of a request for additional info, or a rejection.
For example, to request my Personnummer (personal identity number in Sweden, a core registration that governs daily life) I read up and found I had right of residence in Sweden (as an EU citizen) and this meant I could skip a visit to Migrationsverket (migrations agency), but I did need to bring a proof of residence (rental contract for my apartment) and employment (my contract) which I did.
When I was still in the Netherlands, though, I made sure to request copies of my birth certificate and proof of nationality, and brought them along. It pays to research what kinds of official documents your country can provide you, and invest in those. You don’t want to be stuck abroad with no way to prove your nationality or identity.
When you are told to bring something, bring more
Redundancy is the key word when it comes to getting through red tape. When I was at the Skätteverket (tax agency) to file for an identity card, I was told my European ID card was not accepted as proof of identity, even though it is a legally recognized way of identifying yourself throughout Europe. Luckily I also had my passport with me, which is a much more “official” document and accepted worldwide. Without it, I would simply not have been able to acquire this card, which is a requirement for a lot of services, and I would be in serious trouble.
Similarly, bring duplicates if possible. Photocopies of official documents, multiple prints of your bank statements or employment contracts, whatever is asked for. Sometimes they will need to attach a copy of a document to a request, but won’t have the ability to make a copy themselves (a broken copier, for example) and you don’t want to slow down the process due to an IT failure.
Split up your documents for daily use. I carry my Swedish ID card, but somewhere else on my person I carry my Dutch ID card or driver’s license. That way I don’t lose my ability to identify myself if I lose my wallet, for instance. I leave my passport at home in a secure location, so that if I am left with nothing, I have that to fall back on.
Be patient, not entitled
It can take time to verify and process your requests, and this may require some patience. People might mishear you, or not understand what you want, especially if you do not share a (fluent) language. Be sure to explain what languages you do speak, and when in doubt ask if there is an interpreter, or anyone nearby who speaks your language, if this smooths things over. It is better to ask this and help the process along, being silent may seem polite but may not help you.
Know exactly what your rights and your duties/requirements are. Unless things are specifically mentioned as a right (such as the rights allotted all Humans under the Geneva convention, or for example the right of residency and free travel for citizens of the EU) then assume this is a privilege. When you file requests at any agency or company, treat it as a favor, not as if the conclusion is foregone and any second’s delay is an inconvenience. You are less likely to get what you want, and more likely to antagonize people. And that is a sure-fire way to make your applications take even longer.
Speaking of antagonizing, try and focus as much as possible on facts and proof. If someone makes a wrong claim or gives you info you know is wrong, be sure to correct them with clear proof. You can look up the process and regulations beforehand when doing anything, and print it out or keep it up on your smartphone for example. That way you have a clear guideline of what to expect, and can use it as a shield against misinformation or incompetence.
Don’t do bribes, don’t use emotional blackmail
It’s not really a problem to explain why you need something done. If you have little time because you are in danger of being deported, by all means explain that you are in a hurry and would like to be helped. If you are ill and have difficulty conforming to a request, contact whatever agencies you are meeting and ask if there are alternatives for you. But do not use emotional blackmail to try and get through bureaucracies. Don’t use your elderly mother, sick children or disabled family members as leverage to try and get an advantage. Don’t proclaim racism or discrimination the moment your application is not accepted. Don’t threaten people or throw a tantrum in public. Those things are unlikely to help, and may make your chances even lower in the future.
Similarly, bribery is a highly cultural thing that should be avoided unless expressly apart of the culture. It is illegal in most countries, but I am not going to lie and say that it does not exist in some countries where it is outlawed. Generally though, this is one of those cases where you need contacts and local people who can tell you whether this behavior is “expected” rather than a reportable offense where you are being taken advantage of in a vulnerable position.
Use local expertise
A critical skill in any society is making connections. Whether its through your job, local expat community or a hobby club, get to know people who can help you get started or find your way in your new home. Finding a job, getting references or a local guarantee, even getting a bank account set up can be a much less painful experience once you have someone local who can help smooth the process.
This also goes for government agencies – check beforehand if there are any programs that can assist you. For example, whether the local unemployment agency also offers advice for finding jobs or getting education. Or checking whether there is any government support for setting up your own company, getting a subsidy for an environment-friendly car, or learning the local language. Governments have a vested interest in making sure you are a contributing citizen, and when you show that you are planning to invest in your future rather than conforming to a negative stereotype of a fortune-seeker, you will find doors opening up quickly.
Forums for expats are a great source of information, and you can also use that to verify whether you did everything correctly or when you need help preparing. Be aware that information can be conflicting, as people are often willing to help but not often experts in the field. A good example of such a forum is The Local, which covers several countries, or Internations. If you know of any other forums or online resources for expats that are of good quality, please let me know in the comments, and help someone out!
Find the quickest and easiest way to get things done
You will be surprised what kind of assistance or features a properly organized bureaucracy can offer you to make your life easier. Especially digital tools and automated features, when present, can take the sting out of a lot of actions that would otherwise require a physical visit or a letter to be sent. For example, both the Netherlands and Sweden have an online identification system you can use once you have a permanent registration in the government system. This will allow you to fill in and sign forms online, instead of printing, signing and posting all manner of forms, which is considerably slower.
This also means that you should research procedures beforehand and follow them. If, for example, the process claims that your application will not be processed until you pay a fee for it, then make sure to pay the fee quickly. If you expect to pay it afterwards, you will be waiting a long time.
Driving and traffic regulations
It should be self-evident that traffic laws and regulations may be different in your new country, and you should check if you driver’s license and car registration are valid (and for how long). If you have only a limited time of validity, start arranging for your license and car registration to be localized as soon as possible. Learn the local parking rules as well, because there are no fines that sting as hard as parking fines.
It pays to learn the local driving style. In my personal experience Italians drive more adventurously (if I may call it that) while Swedes drive very controlled and politely on the whole. Danes do as well, but when they change lanes they don’t give you a lot of personal space. Germans like to drive fast, and Dutch people are often claimed to hog the left lane. Verify for yourself how people drive, so that you can are prepared and aware.
Finding a home
It can be very hard to find a home (apartment) in another country from abroad. You may be able to sign up for corporate or council housing, or find a private rent, but you have to be very wary of being scammed. Don’t send money until you have a signed contract, and make sure you visit the property and that the landlord is legit. Again, circumstances are different per country, but if something seems to good to be true, it likely is. When in doubt, save up and spend money on a reputable “home finder” or relocation services agency. They can scout out properties according to your needs, and help out or even do a lot of the paperwork and checking needed to arrange your home for you.
Advice for self-employed entrepreneurs
Always check up on local regulations for starting businesses and registering brand names. It is likely that you will need to register your business at some commerce or tax agency, and this may carry a fee. It would be a bad idea to start a company without knowing those local rules and properly registering. In case you need help, contact that agency and make sure to ask as many questions as needed.
Check with the tax department whether you will need to hire an accountant or whether you can do your taxes yourself. Keep all receipts and order them, don’t just throw them in a big box. It pays to make digital scans of everything you pay for, or are paid for, so that you can have an accountant straighten it out. Learn what kinds of taxes and fees you are expected to pay, and include them in your operating costs. Keep sufficient money aside to pay for them – including any sick days, pension or insurances you need.
If you are determining your own fees, make sure that you have a proper living wage after taxes and fees. Don’t make the mistake of basing your price off the market prices and then find out that you are left with negative margin in the end.
These are just some pieces of advice to keep in mind when moving to another country, especially if you are moving into a highly organized, bureaucratic environment. When you move to another country to further your career, you want to be able to focus on the move and your new job entirely, not getting mired because you missed a step or failed to follow an (obvious) procedure.
If there are any other tips or caveats you have feel free to mention them to the comments below and I will add them to this post.