Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wanna be an illegal alien?

Zocalo Mexico city
Zócala, Mexico City
Photo by Ari Helminen
With studies showing the state of Georgia lost close to one billion dollars last year due to their anti-immigration legislation (pdf) and are likely to continue losing that money every year, the topic of illegal aliens is a hot as ever. It's like economics: the less you know, the louder your voice.

However, in an interesting inversion of the normal discussion, the BBC has a fascinating article about American illegal aliens in Mexico and the Mexican government doesn't give a damn.

Of course, as points out, you do not want to get deported from a country. Your passport will be stamped and that will make it much harder to visit other countries when they see you've been deported and decide that they don't want to risk you overstaying your visa. However, some people are going to risk this anyway. I knew one illegal in Amsterdam who was sending a lot of money back home because the Euro was so much stronger than their home country's currency. And if you  can mange to pull off being an illegal in the UK for 14 years, you can apply for residency.

Illegal English teachers are moderately common in Asia and South American borders tend to be rather, um, porous.  I've known a few illegal aliens and I would really like to find more and chat with them. Naturally, this is not a topic which illegals naturally sit up and talk about. Plus, with all of the anti-immigration rhetoric, it's very hard to use a search engine to get good quality research results in this area. Anyone have any good recommendations for me to read? I don't want to encourage people to be illegal aliens, but it would be remiss of me to not discuss such an important topic.

Side note: I might have been an illegal once. A decade ago I was working in Amsterdam and it was never clear to me that my company had put through the right paperwork. However, I left that position because the company was awful, but I did worry about this a bit when I returned to Amsterdam a decade later. I certainly didn't intend to be working illegally, but I trusted the company which hired me. Amazingly, when I showed up at customs back in 2001, they asked why I was there and I said I had a job and they waived me through without looking at my paperwork. It was almost a letdown, given all of the paperwork I had gathered.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Quelle langue do I speak?

I'm getting very tired of stuff like this. Notice what's going on with the phone on the left? The date is in French, but the "Slide to unlock" clearly is not. When we got this phone, it was my wife's and she selected "French" for it since, after all, she is French. Then we decided to swap phones and I selected "English" for it since, after all, I'm not French.

Yes, I should learn French better, but I didn't want to do it on something this important. What's worse, take a gander at the phone below. It's telling me that one of my brother's has a birthday "this jeudi at 12:00". And if you read behind the popup alert, you'll see unknown callers calling on vendredi. If my French wasn't already acceptable, I'd be screwed.

Applications get this wrong all the time. On my phone, many apps are in French and many are in English. Aside from the phone itself, not one of the apps has given me a choice of which language to select. That's particularly interesting because my AppStore ID is locked to the UK AppStore.

While we're ranting about applications which can't figure out language ...

Dear application developers: I assume your application has a native language (presumably yours). If you want to provide your application in a language other than the native one, do not silently guess what my language is! Seriously, don't do it. Stop it. Knock it off. What? You thought you were clever choosing the language via GeoIP? When you know that an IP address is not identifying? When you know I might simply be visiting an area? When you know that many cultures are multilingual and you've just decided that everybody in the Netherlands must speak Dutch and nothing else?

If you're must guess my language, tell me you are guessing it. And then let me decide what language I speak, not you. And while you're at it, I don't care if the native language of your application is Hindi. If you're giving me a choice, spell the language name the way native speakers would spell it and have your default language in parentheses (why is this so hard for devs to figure out?). For example, if your Hindi application will let me switch to French, it should offer me the choice of français. Or you could suggest français (फ्रेंच). I can figure that out. Offering me the options of switching to फ्रेंचअंग्रेज़ी or जर्मन is useless.

And that includes if I can read your alphabet. Offering me anglais, français and allemand instead of English, français and Deutsch is still stupid. Cut it out.

In other news, here's a picture I snapped on the way back from lunch. Amongst other things, that's the Eiffel Tower you see just to the right of center.

Update: Dear Google: Stop changing my f***ing language. I'm signed in to your damned services. I have chosen "English" (and "Anglais") so many damned times that it's not even funny. Why the hell do you keep screwing this up?

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Portland Festival in Paris

Portland, Oregon, my former home
Photo by SoulRider .222
In April there's going to be a Keep Portland Weird festival. That's not too surprising, but here in Paris? I find it interesting that the city I live in is paying homage to the city I lived in. In fact, at my new job, I set a Portland, Oregon skyline as my desktop and was surprised to discover that I still feel so very strongly about this city. I miss Portland.

If you must live in the US, I would strongly recommend Portland because it's a lovely, quirky city and Oregon is a gorgeous state.

Some interesting historical tidbits: Portland used to have the second largest Chinatown in the US after San Francisco. Unfortunately, due to racism and claims that "their taking our jobs" (sound familiar?) many Chinese were forced out of Portland, often at gunpoint. Ironically, Portland has tried to win back some of the Asian trade it lost over a century ago, but Portland customs officials were known for being rather hostile towards asians, hampering the job (their was a significant shakeup at the Port of Portland a few years back to fix this problem).

Portland, Oregon
The Gates to Chinatown
Photo by Doug Kerr
More fascinating, though, in Salem, Oregon, the state's capital, is the case of Jacob Vanderpool. Oregon was an anti-slavery state to keep out black people, partially out of racism and partially to limit job competition. They also had illegal "exclusion" laws requiring black people to leave the state within six months or be flogged. Jacob Vanderpool was black and he was charged with violating those laws and forced to leave the state in the mid 1800s. He is the only black person known to have been forced out of Oregon under those laws.

Interestingly, Jacob Vanderpool was well off. He owned a saloon, a boarding house and a restaurant. Where did he get the money to buy them? What happened to his property after he was forced to leave? I've always thought his story would make a great screenplay, but even though I searched through Oregon's historical archives about Vanderpool, I could never find more information about him.

Portland is beginning to develop a strong reputation (obviously, I feel it's deserved) as an independent, quirky city with its own "vibe". There's even a comedy TV series about Portland. Portland, and Oregon in general, are fantastic and I'm surprised (and pleased) to see them being celebrated here in Paris. I hope to have the time to see it. If you have to "get out" and move to the US, try Portland. You won't regret it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The EU Blue Card in Finland

Finnish National Theater
Photo by ninara
Possibly happening as early as 2013, the Finnish government may be offering an EU Blue Card. I have already written that Finland might offer the Blue Card in 2012, but it didn't happen. Many EU countries simply haven't gotten around to implementing the Blue Card (which they're required to do), so kudos to Finland for at least trying to

To qualify you must:
  • Be a highly-skilled non-EU citizens
  • Have work contract of at least 12 months
  • Received a salary of at least 1.5 times the Finnish average gross annual salary
  • Have a monthly income greater than €4,700
These terms are more or less in line with what they had previously declared.

Helsinki - Suomenlinna sea fortress
Photo by Walter Rodriguez
However, I suspect the reason for the delay may be the social benefits. Generally when you emigrate to a country, that country's social services are rather limited to you because you've not been paying into their tax system (there are exceptions, such as the UK offering you free health care from day 1). However, for the Finnish Blue Card, recipients would be eligible for free education, health care, and family benefits.

Finland is a bit concerned about the cost of the social benefits. Specifically, they're concerned about:
The European Commission has proposed a directive that would grant employees working for international companies who come from outside the EU the same rights to health care, unemployment security, and pensions that EU citizens have.
While this sounds lovely from a humanitarian standpoint, it's already expensive to recruit internationally; making this even more expensive for governments is not going to help the situation. Particularly now with the European debt crisis, it seems a curious time to increase costs for governments.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Expat Tax Hell

My planned posting was interrupted by this awful story of someone who didn't realize they were a US citizen and is now facing the hell that is the US's war against expats.

Of course, I can't actually know this story is real (unsurprisingly, many affected expats wish to remain anonymous), but as I dig into expat issues I'm reading about stuff like this more and more in the past few months. I've read about quite a few people who have been surprised to find out they're still Americans. I've read about retirees on fixed incomes on the verge of bankruptcy over penalties for not knowing they were taxed abroad. I read about one American woman living outside the who's dirt poor who found out she had to file tax returns, owes no taxes, but can't afford to pay the tax preparer fees for her taxes (you may not need them, but we expats don't get a short form). Being poor shouldn't be a crime.

Read on to understand why so many expats are getting increasingly frustrated with the US government.

I thought it real when I was WARNED that I would relinquish my US citizenship upon becoming a Canadian citizen in 1975 – where is the US’s responsibility to have communicated to me that this was no longer true when the country changed its law? Where was my choice in the matter of retaining my US citizenship? I had made my choice – I took the Oath of Canadian Citizenship in 1975 because that is where I wanted to live, raise my family, work, pay my Canadian taxes, volunteer my time, be a contributing citizen. I liked what I experienced and what I saw for my life here in Canada.

I foolishly thought I had no tax responsibility to the country which I had relinquished my citizenship. The US for decades turned a blind eye to me and to the estimated six million around the world regarding responsibility to file taxes. Did that not set some sort of precedent? Where was the US’s responsibility to absolutely communicate to us, all along, that we did have to file our taxes returns each year, no matter what the cost to us, no matter the little or zero revenue it brought in to the US? Where was our education on FBARs? Why does the US not even have a tax office of any kind in Canada? Why cannot we get answers to our tax questions from the various IRS phone numbers we are to call, usually with long distance charges? Why is the only advice I’ve received from the IRS is to consult cross-border accountants and US tax lawyers for my answers? Why are the regulations so complicated that my compliance depends on me being able to use my retirement savings for fees to cross-border accountants and US tax and immigration lawyers?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Expat Couples

Photo by Mike Baird
The BBC has an interesting article entitled Tales of woe from the roaming professionals.

From what I can see, it's spot on about the issues many expat face, but it focuses on couples. Obviously, if you're moving by yourself, as I did at first, your problems are not the same. For expat couples, moving to an exotic country can make or break the relationship.

The first thing you need to do is check the labor laws of your target country. The first couple in the BBC article had a "trailing spouse" (as they're known in expat circles) who could not get work in the US because her husband had the visa. However, some countries do allow the spouse or recognized partner to take work. That's probably the single most important thing you can get sorted. If working remotely is not an option and volunteer work is not satisfying, your partner could be very justifiably unhappy.

The first thing you need to do when you arrive at your target country is to figure out how make friends as a couple. I've seen plenty of expat couples struggle and lack of "joint" friends is certainly an issue. You don't want just one of you going out and having a good time.

And make sure you always find time for each other. Study the language together. Your hobbies in your home country? Find local versions and enjoy them together. And always, always make sure that you're not letting your personal struggle of being in a new country blind you to the personal struggles your partner has. Becoming an expat is often very difficult, but with a partner, you've greatly increased your chances of failure if you're not very careful.

If your relationship is not strong, becoming expats has a good chance to destroy it. Is living in a new country more important than your partner?

Monday, February 20, 2012


Earth from Space
Try the world.
I write this blog to help people move abroad. I get a lot of email from folks asking questions, but to date I've only known of one person I've directly helped. He and his lovely wife are now living in Haarlem, just outside of Amsterdam.

A couple of days ago I received an email from someone in Korea who's let me know that they're emigrating to Australia, inspired in part by reading my blog. This makes me very happy. I love to see people spreading out over the globe and getting to know other cultures.

If you've moved abroad or are about to move abroad because of this blog, drop me a line and let me know. And if I can, I'd love to share your story here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Romania Introduces EU Blue Card

Sibiu - Romania's Orthodox Cathedral
Sibiu - Romania's Orthodox Cathedral
Photo by Camil Ghircoias
For those of you interested in the European Blue Card, I've been keeping track of them for you.

You'll be happy to know that Romania has introduced the Blue Card. The qualifications are:
  • The non-EU national must have a post-secondary educational qualification.
  • Be offered an annual salary that is at least four times the average gross annual salary for a similar position (yikes!).
  • For regulated professions, they candidate must possess the relevant educational qualifications or work experience.
Currently there is no list of regulated professions available. However, the typical "no EU national must be available for the position" is not required!

So this looks fantastic, except for that "four times the salary" bit. If they're only implementing it because it's legally required, it's a nice way to ensure that it won't have any impact.

You can read about Romania at Wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Due to be idiotically busy right now, here's something I wrote many years ago. It was just a strange train of thought which occurred to me back when Americans were being beheaded in the Middle East and a lot of people were still screaming "kill the Arabs". I know it's a sophomoric piece of writing, but I did like the underlying sentiment.

He sits at the table, shoving another forkful of tabouli in his mouth and smiling at his son struggling to learn how to use the fork. His wife is dead, killed by an American bomb, and he considers his son a gift from Allah. He has no remorse for filming the beheading of an American that morning.

He glances out the window and notices a light on the house across the street. In that house, an Iraqi businessman is on the phone, frantically trying to convince an American colleague not to pull out of their joint venture. The American sits in his office in Los Angeles, his mind drifting back to a brief relationship with a Costa Rican woman he met while in college. Unbeknownst to him, she became pregnant with his child.

His daughter is running down a beach in Costa Rica, laughing with her friends, wearing running shoes put together by a Malaysian man who is now standing in a factory, watching the needle plunge in and out of the leather, ready to pull the shoe and glue on the sole. He doesn't know about the latest American beheaded in Iraq. Instead, he's mentally composing a love poem. He will go home tonight, as every night, and recite it to his wife before the two of them drift off to sleep.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The far-reaching damage of Rep. Tierney's bill

Amongst non-expats, there appears to be some misunderstanding about the serious nature of Representative John Tierney's attempt to bankrupt expats.  Expats have first-hand knowledge of the damage this will cause, but Tierney doesn't seem to understand. This is frustrating as hell because I like Tierney. I like his politics and I support many of the causes he stands behind. The problem is that he's dead wrong on this one. I'm hoping he just doesn't understand the full implications of this bill and will change his mind when he does (side note: he opposed SOPA. There's some meta-irony going on here).

Some people are claiming that the US tax treaties will protect us, but they won't. Victoria Ferauge wrote about paying US taxes on a French bought with a French loan and paid for with a French salary and there was no tax treaty or Foreign Earned Income Exemption to protect her.

Many expats live in Argentina
Photo by Pablo D. Flores
But look at that tax treaty list. Count them. Only a third of the countries in the world even have tax treaties with the US. There's actually a decent-sized US expat community in Argentina and you'll note that Argentina is not on the tax treaty list. Americans have a 35% income tax in Argentina. If Tierney's bill passes and they have a modest US income, their tax rate could easily exceed 60%. Tierney will bankrupt them.

But consider a far, far worse scenario: Dubai.

Dubai is an emirate in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Here are a few interesting facts about them.

So you're in Dubai, you have some debt, Tierney's bill passes and all of a sudden, your income drops dramatically. They take your passport and you are never leaving Dubai. You don't have the option of returning to the US. You can't take citizenship in Dubai to escape the US debt. You're trapped. It's happening in Dubai today; with Tierney's bill, it will only be more frequent (I've read of one couple in Dubai whose children can't go to school because the couple can't afford it but their passports were seized).

Representative Tierney genuinely seems like a nice person, but he's going to hurt Americans the world over with this one.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Congressman John Tierney (D-MA) wants to bankrupt US expats

Congressman John Tierney, D-MA
Public Domain Image
Hi Reddit! Be sure to read my update about Tierney's bill. It's been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.

I could be facing a top marginal tax rate of 60% next year. Either I move back to the US or I renounce my citizenship. I may have no other legal options under a proposed US law (unless I want to move my family into a one-bedroom flat and live on rice and beans).

Congressman John Tierney has proposed the Tax Equity and Middle Class Fairness Act of 2011. You can read the full bill if you like.

A "Middle Class Fairness Act" sounds all well and good, but as you know, the titles of bills and their contents are often at odds with one another. He wants to remove oil and gas tax breaks. He wants to remove timber subsidies (is destroying the US timber industry good or bad? I can't remember). He wants to remove coal tax breaks (hallelujah!).

He also proposes "Removal of the foreign earned income exclusion which allows U.S. citizens living overseas to avoid paying taxes ($5.4 billion in 1st year)."

Here are a few interesting interesting points:

First, I pay taxes. Lots of them. I live in Europe. These aren't exactly tax havens over here. He probably meant "avoid paying US taxes", but as Congress is systematically stripping US expats of the benefits of their citizenship, I can't see many expats being happy about this.

Second, where did that "$5.4 billion in 1st year" figure come from? Given that the US Census, despite being required to in our Constitution (Article 1, Section 2), refuses to count Americans living abroad, we don't actually know how many US expats there are. How can we claim that we'll earn $5.4 billion when we don't even know where that money is coming from?

When I told my wife about this bill she was shocked and the first thing she said was "we'll have to move to the US."

I haven't lived in the US in years. I have a life here in Europe and I don't want to give it up, but I don't see what my options would be. I can't (yet) apply for French citizenship and while that does not legally block me from renouncing my US citizenship, I'm still not keen on giving it up. My other options are trying to hide from the IRS for the rest of my life or reducing my family to poverty.

It's entirely possible that the US-France tax treaty may shield me from the bulk of this, but as I'm hardly a lawyer and in trying to read through that, my eyes glaze over. And I see from consulting the list of US tax treaties that fewer than one third of the countries have have a tax treaty with the US. Given that many expats are paying in excess of $2,000 just to file a tax return (another charming "tax" to deal with), this is only going to increase our burden. And please note that many of these treaties reduce double-taxation but do not eliminate it, and the treaties generally only protect some types of income, not all. Further, while Americans on US soil have plenty of accountants to turn to, we have far fewer in Europe and we have more laws we have to deal with, making it even more of a red tape nightmare.

Johnny Depp left France
due to double taxation
Photo by Arnold Wells
So imagine an American living in the Netherlands where the top marginal rate is a confiscatory 52%. Add in the top marginal rate of the US and you're looking at a top tax rate of 87%. Of course, most Americans with professional careers in the Netherlands would only be facing a top marginal rate of 77%, so that's not too bad, right?

This law won't pass because it's attacking Oil, Gas and Coal and they have enough money to destroy this. For once, I'm glad that the US Supreme Court has said companies are allowed to donate unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns. That's completely immoral, but I don't know what I'll do if this law is passed.

Tierney's bill is going to force a lot of Americans to move back to the US or renounce their citizenship. What a nightmare.

Friday, February 10, 2012

If you've got nothing to hide ...

Pardon the disjointed post. It's actually sort of two posts and I'm rushing to get it out here, particularly since I missed Wednesday's post.

This Financial Times article was quite disturbing. It mentions a large (unnamed) A Asian bank which is considering no longer handlg US Treasury Bonds. It's not because they're afraid the US will default. It's because they're afraid that they can't afford to comply with FATCA.

Author Unknown, Possibly 'Shopped
But if it's fake, it's still real
It's one thing for the IRS to declare that it all financial institutions in the world come under its jurisdiction. It's another thing entirely if the world banking industry decides to divest itself of US assets. Yes, this would be very painful, financially, for these institutions, but when they consider turning over their information to the US to be so expensive (and it's often illegal for them to turn this data over to foreign governments) that no longer doing business with the US is seen as a better option, we have a serious problem.

First, I can't even begin to understand the level of arrogance which led US politicians to think that they can command the entire world financial industry to bow to US interests. However, it looks like there's a quid pro quo going on. It looks like we're going to go ahead and possibly require our banks to report to foreign governments.

Update: this was a draft of a post I started a while ago and failed to get online. Now I've read that the US has reached an agreement with five countries to share bank information. This is a far better approach because it's being done government to government instead of IRS to private companies world-wide, but still, it's very disturbing. When is this "information sharing" going to stop? Just how much information are governments going to agree to send to each other about every private citizen's activities? I don't like this trend at all.

What's even more disturbing is that this has been used to sidestep European privacy laws:
The United States and the five European countries said Wednesday that they would get around the secrecy problem by having financial institutions share data with their own governments, which would then share with Washington.
It reminds me of articles I've read about US government agencies legally buying information about private citizens that would be illegal for them to collect it directly.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Moving overseas with a criminal record

Sitting here in Paris, having a croque-monsieur for lunch. Basically a croque-monsieur is a glorified hot ham and cheese sandwich, but like many French foods, it tastes far better than what you're eating. Did I mention the food here is damned good? The French just don't understand beer or fried food, but the rest of it often makes non-French food seem like prison gruel.

Prison cell with bed inside Alcatraz main building san francisco california
Does this kill your expat dreams?
Photo by Tim Pearce
Speaking of which, how do you move overseas with a criminal record? I get asked this from time to time and always answered "I don't know". I had assumed it would be pretty much impossible as many countries are very picky about who they let in. Then I found out about Spencer Global, a Chilean law firm which specializes in helping the international community in Chile.

They claim that you can move to Chile with a criminal record:
Criminal background checks and police records are only required when applying through the Chilean consulates or embassies for visas to Chile. The department of immigration in Chile does not require criminal background checks, police records, FBI criminal reports when applying for visas in Chile.

The reason for the difference is that the department of immigration in Chile and the department of foreign ministry in Chile that operates the Chilean consulates and embassies are two different offices with distinct internal procedures. The recommend method for applying for a residency visa, including work visas and student visas, by the department of immigration in Chile, is to first enter the country under a tourist visa and then apply directly through their office where you will be living in Chile.
That's very interesting news. It goes on to say that even if you do apply for your visa through the foreign ministry, you may still be allowed in the country if it wasn't a serious crime. Forget murder, but maybe if you were busted for a joint?

For many would-be expats, this is fantastic news. I keep hearing rumors that some countries don't do background checks and that others don't care so long as you're not currently wanted, but this is the first time I've stumbled across information that is a bit more credible than "I heard from a friend that ..."

If you have any more information about this, post below! I'm sure there are quite a few people who would like a fresh start and discover that the French Foreign Legion isn't what they thought it was.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Want to teach overseas? Try England!

teaching with emotion: a halloween story
Photo by woodleywonderworks
I realize most readers aren't qualified teachers, but maybe it will be incentive for you to pick up that certificate.

The Training and Development Agency for Schools, a UK government agency, has an Overseas Trained Teacher Programme, also known as the OTTP.  Various teaching roles are on the UK Occupation Shortage List and this makes it much easier to get work over there. You need to apply at a school and, if they are willing to offer you a position, you can work in England for up to four years as an "unqualified teacher" until you get qualified. Financial aid, while not guaranteed, is available to help you with your qualifications.

Note that you'll be hired as an "unqualified teacher" and if they stick with standard pay scales, your salary may be pretty bleak.
  • London fringe: £16,856–£26,052
  • Outer London: £18,789–£27,992
  • Inner London: £19,893–£29,088
  • Rest of England and Wales: £15,817–£25,016
Note, however, that those are minimum salaries. You may be able to negotiate to a higher end of the range. But hey, you didn't get into teaching for the lavish lifestyle, did you?

Read my work permit series to get a better understanding of how to improve your chances of a job offer and a better salary.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The State of the Exile

Photo by Srthnow
Last month this blog had well over 13,000 views, making it the most popular month so far. It's a far cry from an A-list blogger but it's enough that I know it's more than just my friends, families and colleagues are reading it. That means I need to take a bit more care with my writing, but with a new job, a new country, a one year old baby and and writing a book, I'm finding it very hard to maintain the standards on this blog.

This is why some of my later posts have been "personal" bits; I don't have to do as much research on those. Of course, it's entirely possible that regular readers like the tone the blog has taken in the past couple of months; I've no real way of knowing. I was particularly concerned that my Obama is not a Socialist post would put people off, but it didn't. I did throw in a touch of the "non-US" point of view there, but it was skirting the edge of material which is appropriate for this blog's subject matter. On the other hand, I have a lot of that material and if I feel I could do a better job of rewriting in such a way that it gives you a sense of the world, but there are limits. No matter how much I like my cavemen post, it's just not going to work here.

I still have a large backlog of posts to create on Panama, changes to the European Blue Card system and many other areas, so there's still going to be "how to become an expat" posts, so don't worry about that. I just need to find the time to juggle everything going on in my life right now. Thanks for your understanding.