Here’s an important lesson I’ve been reminded of repeatedly over the past six months of planning and executing an international move:
Your money does not belong to you.
You do not have an unalienable right or even a persistent privilege to access your money from everywhere on this Earth. It does not necessarily translate across borders. You may not be able to carry it with you every where you go in the form cash, checks, or precious gems.
If you’re someone who has never before worried about accessing your bank account, that’s a frightening concept. It was frightening when we saw it on the The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year. In an early flashback, all of the women in the United States have had their assets frozen. The pair of female protagonists cannot access their own money without a husband to cosign.
(Your level of outrage at this particular development may strongly correlate with your age; American banks could deny women an account until the 1960s and credit cards as late as 1974.)
Based not only on my own reaction to that development but also the “aww, hell no!” I saw from many friends online, I think this scene resonated strongly with viewers more strongly than the same two women losing their jobs. In the real world, everyone is afraid their job could disappear, but we feel like we own our money. Even if that money was deposited directly by our employer into our bank account without our intervention it feels like something real and tangible to us because we earned it. We own it.
Maybe we’re just a pair of unlucky morons when it comes to international banking, but I don’t feel like we own our money anymore.
That started as far back as June, when E tried to transfer some US savings to a new account in New Zealand. Not only did our American bank not offer any tools for such a transfer, but once we found a way to do it the receiving bank in New Zealand declined to open an account for us until we were in the country and could prove our residency.
How were we supposed to land in the country and established residency without a bank account in the country? I’m not sure, but that was the topic of one of my earliest struggles here in Wellington.
I thought we were past those bank shenanigans after our first month here. We have bank accounts now, and debit cards, and E is getting paid in NZ dollars. I thought that meant our money was “real” here in New Zealand, which would make things easy if we needed to get any more of it from one country to another. Yet, earlier this week I found myself breaking down into tears at a bank counter when they wouldn’t allow me to deposit a check made out to me from one of the largest public companies in the world because it was in Euros.
“We don’t do Euros,” the bank teller said, shrugging behind the counter as I buried my head in my hands. “We’re phasing out hard copy checks,” his colleague added, blithely.
(Eventually I’ll get around to taking about the culture shock of customer service outside the United States. I’m still gathering data on how many times I have to cry in frustration.)
As with many things related to our move, I’m sure this is a problem that goes away if you are really rich and can pay someone to take care of it for you. I’m certain packing up my guitars would have been simple if I was Bon Jovi, and my comics would have been taken care of if I was Nick Cage, yet I had to jump through all the hopes to pack and ship them safely with virtually no assistance from our movers.
Similarly, I’m sure Madonna does not have a money transfer problem when she wants to deposit a royalty check from Sweden while she’s in the states.
Yet, for a single family with a discreet amount of savings and a variety of income sources, it’s an ongoing nightmare – now with the added fun of being a race-against-time to figure out how to turn this worthless piece of paper into money before 90 days pass and without giving away a big chunk of it in fees.
Around the world people love to sneer at immigrants and refugees, insisting they’d be fine with a foreign professional who “went through the process” to immigrate and then added to the economy. Well, I’m here to tell you: the process is personally and financially draining, and it makes it hard to add to the economy once you’re through with it – and that’s coming from going through one of the more simple immigrations in the world. I’d never want to try to navigate the process of immigrating to America.
Even if I have to cry at a few more bank counters, this really drives home the amount of privilege it takes to safely and securely make an international move. I’ve barely made it through mentally intact, and I had a partner and a lot of assistance on the ground here. Not everyone is so lucky.