Expat Life

Think it’s hard for expats navigating the Ecuadorian bureaucracy? Try dealing with it as a foreigner living in the United States

By Ruth Margolis

When you move abroad, you expect some bureaucratic befuddlement. You’re setting up from scratch in a country whose systems and procedures you don’t know.

Margolis
Ruth Margolis and her baby living the expat life in New York.

But for Brits, U.S. red tape should be simple to scoot around and under. Right? We very nearly speak the same language, and Americans seem like such a breezy, friendly bunch.

So when my fiancé and I moved from London to New York in 2013 because he’d got a job there, we weren’t expecting our lives to be overtaken by killer paperwork. The complete absence of humor or flexibility exhibited by anyone behind a desk or at the end of a “help” line only made the form filling and hoop jumping worse. It was like trying to settle in Stalinist Russia. Multiple times in those first few weeks we’d look at each other, then at the growing pile of semi-literate documents on our friends’ spare bedroom floor, and feel ready to give up.

Signing up for the internet, dealing with the US health care system – even renting a flat – were all soul-crushing experiences.

“Hello. I’d like an apartment to live in please,” I said to the first estate agent – or realtor – starting what would become a tear-jerking two-month hunt for a rented accommodation. My request was met with a few too many seconds’ silence from the other side of the faux mahogany desk.

“OK. Can I first just get your credit score?”

“Erm, no. The thing is, I just moved here, so I probably don’t have one.”

“Well, you need one.”

“Oh.”

He was right. It turns there’s no way to rent an apartment in the U.S., at least through official channels, if you don’t have a glowing credit score. Have none at all (your British credit history is, incidentally, irrelevant) and you might as well write, “keeps bedbugs as pets” on your application.

I checked and they don’t sell off-the-peg credit scores at Target, and no amount of begging while waving copies of healthy bank statements made a difference. Desperate and getting nowhere, we tried to produce a guarantor. But no one met the rigid criteria: a U.S. citizen with a yearly salary of 80 times our proposed monthly rent. Our few American friends were not that wealthy.

In the end, we were lucky enough to find a flexible landlord and a small flat we’ve never left for fear of how we’d manage to secure a replacement.

Long after Apartment Gate was put to bed, I discovered I was pregnant. The predictable elation and anxiety followed, plus one exclusively American fear: how would we navigate the horribly officious health care system?

We panicked endlessly about what, exactly, our insurance would cover, and how much we’d need to fork out. The amount, it emerged, would be capped thanks to something called a “deductible”. Oh, but only if every “provider” seen by me or the baby took our insurance. Doctors in the U.S. are not obliged to accept specific insurance plans, and some won’t take any at all.

It turned out the hospital’s anesthetists and pediatricians – who would, respectively, pump my spine full of a delightful numbing agent and check up on our newborn – wouldn’t necessarily take our insurance. When we queried this weeks in advance, we were offered the option to pick an anesthetist and a pediatrician who were covered by our plan. But this was impossible to organize. You just got who you got on the day, and then later a demand for payment. We spent several stressful postpartum weeks and many frustrating phone calls trying to resolve this lunacy. Luckily, I had a straightforward delivery. Yet, part way through it, a charcoal-suited woman from the hospital’s administrative bowels showed up with a stack of forms wanting signatures. Mine, specifically. Dazed and unable to muster a “sod off”, I obligingly scribbled on everything they put in front of me.

Compared to the stress of trying to understand then reduce our hospital spend, dealing with a new baby was easy. She didn’t send us cryptic invoices and her hourly wails were infinitely less tricky to decipher than her mother country’s opaque officialdom.

Skip forward a couple of months to the time we decided to apply for our daughter’s US passport. Having got ourselves to the correct office on time, we began working through the predictably incomprehensible forms. Soon, we got to the line that asked for our infant’s “occupation”.

“Um, what do I put here?” my husband asked the desk clerk, thinking perhaps we’d missed the memo explaining that kids raised in America need to get a job before cutting their first tooth. Without looking up from her National Enquirer, the official behind the counter gave us our answer: “Just put ‘baby’.”

Slowly, we digested her suggestion.

“But that’s not really an occupation,” he appealed. “I mean, she doesn’t get paid for it.” Cue silence and a contemptuous stare. At last, realizing it was futile to protest, he picked up his biro and wrote “baby”.
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Ruth Margolis is a freelance journalist, originally from London, now living, working and bringing up babies in Brooklyn, NY. She’s a regular contributor to BBCAmerica.com and TheWeek.com. 

  • Well I can understand the difficulty and frustration if the expectation was that US would have a different Passport application for infants or that the US would expect to know a person’s occupation. Shame on them. Also, having been and still currently a landlord with multiple rental properties in the US, I can say that a British banking history and or credit score would be very relevant when I consider a new expat for a tenant. However, I would frown on renting to someone who feeds and cares for bed-bugs. But, since it appears that Mrs. Margolis has a career that she could do anywhere in the world, she will probably be relocating to another more reasonable and literate country in the near future. LOL

  • Ruth……Welcome to the “Land Of The Sheep And Home Of The Slave” ! I went through some of the same nightmares when my wife came from Easter Europe to the US, and I’m an American. Where you and I made our mistakes was to come legally and follow the rules. We should have used the illegal alien route and been welcomed with open arms and given everything from free housing to free medical care. If one has a job, pays taxes and is law abiding – one is screwed……and it’s only getting worse. Fortunately we escaped Obamaland and now very happily reside in Ecuador.

  • Hi Ruth,

    Congratulations on your daughter’s birth. I am saddened to learn of the added stress.

    There are three very important points to be aware of.

    1. You are lucky. Many countries with National Health will not cover any medical expenses incurred when in the United States regardless of the duration of the visit. One tries to buy special insurance plans but that is not possible if there are existing conditions and they are very limited as to duration. They cover the costs of stabilizing to insured enough to fly them out of the US.

    2. A birth in the US means that your child is an American citizen. As such, she cannot enter the US without using an American passport. Sadly, you have already compounded the situation, as so many do, by applying for her passport.

    3. Under the US FATCA law, a first in history, she has become liable for life for US income taxes, regardless of where in the world she resides and the tax regime she lives under. For example, Boris Johnson, the Lord Mayor of London, was born in New York City 51 years ago while his parents were touring the US and Canada. He later applied for a US passport because he could not legally enter the US on vacation or business any other way. When he famously sold his townhouse in London a couple of years ago, he was shocked to be contacted by the US consulate in London and had to eventually pay the IRS a huge sum for “US capital gains”. (The US taxes gains on personal residences but allows the mortgage interest payments to be a deduction, the UK is the opposite. He was effectively severely double taxed.).

    There are 1000s of non-resident dual citizens and expats who have been giving up their US citizenship. But it has been made a very costly process. Aside from the accounting needed, the US government simultaneously raised the application fee for citizenship renunciation from $450 to $2350 with the new rules! (By way of an example, the UK charges just trebled this year to £223. Australia is $200 USD and Canada is $75.00 [However, there are no non-resident tax consequences to being a dual citizen with any of these countries.)

    I would suggest you investigate how to sort your daughter’s status before she earns her first pound or dollar.

  • K.M. Thomas

    Thanks for the interesting story, Ruth! I enjoyed reading it. And to Mr. O’Connor, I’ve asked the same question of other posters on some of these articles…you fled “Obamaland” to go to a country run by a self-avowed democractic socialist. I’m not faulting you for it, but how does that work again?

  • Michael Berger

    To be fair to the United States you seem to have landed in one of the very worst parts, New York.

    A few months ago I was faced with the decision of whether to call myself Parent 1 or Parent 2 on a U.S. form. The gender options for my daughter were only male and female but I’m sure they will manage to screw up that part of the form next time they redesign it. As the primary decision maker for my daughter maybe I should have put myself down as Parent 1 but I put myself down as Parent 2 since it used to be that the Mother was listed first on these types of forms and the Father second. My assumption was that “Parent 2” was some kind of newspeak for “Father” designed to obscure the biological reality.

    I hope readers will not be offended at my use of the F-word on a public forum and excuse any thought crimes I may have committed here.

    • Globetrotter

      Frankly, for better or worse, New York City is the only non-parochial place in the USA. And I am not a fan. It has a distinct culture, global class, far more cosmopolitan than anywhere in that nation. Mind you, I am not exactly a Mar à Largo grandma rockette.

  • Globetrotter

    Since the incredible wave immigration that made the country, the USA always has had some complex and sad rules for newcomers. I could give endless examples. It is not alone in that. But the USA has added a complete lack of compassion and even cruelty to this more than once in its history. For example the slave importation, the period before the Civil War, the period before and during WW2…and now. The big difference between now and the other times is that this presently done with full public knowledge..and therefore implicates ALL who can vote.