How the U.S. Bureaucracy Breaks Down Abroad

There’s a lot you don’t think about when you live in America.  Taxes are what they are.  You can usually even do them yourself.  If you want a passport, you go to the post office and apply.  If you want to donate to a charity you go to their web page and donate.  But if you’re not a U.S. resident, things get a little more tricky.  For one thing, that donation you wanted to make has a form that only lists states without an option for countries.  This happened to me when Bill Cosby called for everyone to donate $8 to the U.S. National Slavery Museum (although I notice that they’ve now fixed this little problem by moving to PayPal).

When a child is born normally you don’t need to do anything, except perhaps sign the Social Security application.  For us it was another matter.  We had to first get an international birth certificate, then get a foreign births registration, and then get a Social Security card and a passport.  All of this was necessary for our taxes and for Joanna to be able to travel to the United States.  As an American she has to enter the U.S. on a U.S. passport.

And of course anyone who has seen the Borne Identity thinks they know what the U.S. Consulate in Zürich looks like.  Well surprise!  It looks nothing like what you see in the movies.  It’s a little hole in the wall with a very SMALL waiting room and no place to change the diaper of a four month old baby, which is how old she was when we did all of this.

But it got even sillier.  We brought the required pictures for her, and the chargé d’affairres informed us that we couldn’t use pictures that were printed my handy dandy little Canon.  Instead we had to go and get professional photos.  And the hits just keep on coming.  The picture of a new born child is not all that identifying.

And of course then there’s me.  With the mad rush for passports thanks to inane policies of the Bush Administration, if I need to get a new passport, which I will soon, it means I will have to park it in Switzerland for whatever period of time it takes for that passport to make it all the way to the States, sit in some pile, and make it all the way back to Switzerland.  Probably some weeks.  This doesn’t seem like a lot, for most people, but Switzerland is a small country, and work sometimes requires me to travel.

You may like to invest your money in mutual funds.  Hopefully that’s protected you from some of the downturn that has occurred lately.  As expatriates, however, we are generally excluded from buying new mutual funds thanks to a lack of clarity as to how they are regulated outside of a state.

Want to use Quicken?  Forget it.  Quicken is not usable for foreign currencies, and so you end up doing kludges like treating foreign bank accounts as mutual funds with each unit priced in dollars.  Did I mention that because we have foreign accounts we have to file yet more paperwork?  Hopefully gnucash will be more usable in the future than it was in the past.

When we actually do come back to the States, we’ll have to deal with yet more paperwork to bring in our cars (if we can at all) and even some of that California wine we brought across.

The thing about paperwork is that perhaps in each instance there is a goal that someone could argue is legitimate.  For instance, in my daughter’s case, the government is trying to protect against kidnapped children.  But a picture really won’t help, and yet it’s required.  And if they want one, they should make it easy for citizens to comply.  The paperwork for bank accounts is meant to address tax evasion through offshore accounts.  In the case where someone lives in the States, that makes sense.  But does it really make sense for those of us who live abroad?

Well, as it turns out, many of us pay taxes to the United States even though we don’t live there.  Yes, my daughter will be cursed with this when she is old enough, just because she is American.  I don’t mind paying some taxes, actually.  America is my home country.  But I expect representation in return, and really all I want is civility out of our civil workers and some intelligence about when and how to apply rules that involve paperwork.

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