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Moving to the Netherlands – First Steps

This post also know as: Dancing with Bureaucracy.

Given how long this has been in the planning (over half a year) it’s rather strange to be thinking of what’s happened today as first steps. In truth though, it’s the first really concrete stuff that’s happened since I signed the employment contract.

I’ve now moved out from the sphere of potentia, where I could look longingly (albeit with some dread) at the path still to travel, but was unable to actually put a foot on that path and start moving forward. A journey filled with inane, and seemingly insane, bureaucracy, helpful people and some cultural differences.

The first thing to explain is that without a BSN (burgerservicenummer, lit. citizen service number), nothing happens. The BSN is what the Americans would call a social security number. It’s like a national insurance number but more so. You cannot get anything done without one.

To get a BSN, you need to register with the local council. To register with the local council you need an address. To get an address you need to buy/rent a flat. To buy/rent a flat you need to pay for it and hence you need a Dutch bank account. To get a bank account you need… wait for it… a BSN. Oops.

As usual most bureaucracies can be circumvented if you know how to play the game.

My story starts at 9am in gloomy, damp dawn light outside what will be my new flat. Enter the man from the makelaar (lit. Broker, in my case more accurately an estate/letting agent). When I signed the contract for my flat this morning he had (without any prompting from me) kindly brought a third copy of the contract along which both he and I signed in addition to the others. This contract has no legal force whatsoever, since he’s not entitled to sign it, but it means I have a counter signed contract ready to show the authorities to get my BSN; while waiting for the proper contract to make the round trip to the owner company and back. In the event, I didn’t need it; at least not yet. It was a nice extra thing of him to do and much appreciated. He’s also arranging for a contractor to give me an estimate for flooring/painting my flat. His fee well earned, I have to say, despite some irritation at them not getting the key in time. The fee wasn’t much different from that in the UK, yet the guy was friendlier and more helpful than any of the agents I’ve had to deal with in the UK in the past.

Signed contract in hand, I head into town to get my BSN. I really need it now. I have to pay my rent. They don’t take cards, Barclays Bank rather unhelpfully won’t transfer money internationally to a third-party account and so I need a Dutch account… fast. There’s maybe 4 working days to get this done.

I head into the International Centre in the Stadhuis (Town Hall) where they promptly offer me coffee and tea and then tell me that it turns out I cannot get an appointment to register until sometime late in January. Everyone that said I could just walk in and do it was wrong. Problem. Oh and that birth certificate, my original, almost as old as me, isn’t worth a damn. They won’t accept a document older than 6 months.

After describing my dilemma he nods in understanding; he’s heard it all before. Out of earshot of his colleauge he tells me “I’m a civil servant, so I’m not allowed to give commercial advice. So I cannot tell you that the Amro bank just down the road has an international desk and as long a you go in there, keep saying you’re an expat and refuse to speak any Dutch they’ll open an account without a BSN.”

I get an appointment to register (different office) for a couple of weeks’ time, turns out they had just two spare slots right after new year, which worked out great for me.  I get a copy of the appointment details in case the bank wants some proof.

Turns out it was just as simple as my helpful civil servant said. I walk into the bank, which looks more like the front offices of what I picture a rich law firm to be than any UK bank I’ve ever been in; quite similar to my experiences in Germany and Switzerland though. As usual everyone speaks English and I’m once again offered a drink. The address on my new flat contract is enough to open an account. All the documents are provided in both English and Dutch, although it’s carefully pointed out that only the Dutch ones have legal force, and I’m shown a quick introduction to the internet banking site, also totally in English. Knowing I’ll need to move money internationally I make sure I get the IBAN and BIC codes for my account. The bank charges me €2.70 per month for the service and I don’t get interest on the current account (as if the 0.05% I get in the UK qualifies as interest).

I discover that there’s actually online IBAN/BIC calculators to work these things out for free. I know from the Barclays website they charge an extra £7 fee if you don’t have them. Suddenly sounds a lot like extortion.

I swing by the British Embassy on the way to the office to sort out my birth certificate where I’m told they don’t do helpful stuff and I need to talk to the Consulate-General in Amsterdam.

At the office the first thing I do is phone up Barclays to move some money. Once I’m past the Indian call-centre operator with her mediocre grasp of English (worse than most of the Dutch people I spoke to today, who don’t even work in a call centre for an English company), I get a pleasantly helpful northern chap who fairly quickly sorts out the transfer. £15 charge. Starkly in contrast to what the man at the Amro told me earlier that they move money anywhere in Europe for free. I’m starting to think the holy grail of “free” banking in the UK is looking more like the Monty Python version, and not worth the pursuit. This one transfer, that would have been free if going from NL to UK, cost me as much as half a years banking in the Netherlands. I’m hardly a “usual” customer, admittedly, but still.

Next call is to the Consulate General in Amsterdam. They say, yes, I do need a new birth ceritficate issued and I need it legalised, it needs an apostille stamp. After much haggling about the best way to get this quickly, which at one point had me travelling in person to the Consulate-General in Stuttgart where my birth was registered, the best bet was to call General Registrar Office in the UK.

After a futile conversation with an automated phone system I finally get to talk to a real human and he’s immediately helpful. Clearly deals with this type of stuff a lot. Also turns out that I’m quite lucky at needing only 6 months. He says in France it’s 3 months and they want a birth certificate for everything!

£67 later my birth certificate has been requested. £20 for the apostille stamp and the rest on a rush service and special delivery so that I get the thing in time for my registration appointment. Luckily my employer will cover this cost. The cheapest you can do this is around £32; I pity the UK expats living in France.

It’s now basically lunch time. I have a flat. I have a bank account. I have an appointment to be registered. I should hopefully have a birth certificate in time for that, and when the money has finished flowing through the ether I can pay my rent.

It’s taken a couple of months/weeks of preparation, mostly the first step of finding a place to live and getting that sorted, but in half a day I’m a big chunk of the way closer to actually living and working the the Netherlands.

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