I am an edge case

I am an alien. An American who emigrated to Canada. This has resulted in a lot of fun and a bit of pain as I've managed to break the systems of many of the businesses I deal with.

As a programmer I can appreciate the importance (and sometimes difficulty) of handling edge cases. It's been an interesting experience living as an edge case myself.

H&R Block(heads)

Taxes are confusing enough when you don't have a wife from another country. The friendly folk at H&R Block had no idea how to handle my situation. Their computers demanded a Social Security Number for my wife, which she doesn't have, because she's Canadian. So they left it blank. (Leaving it blank was the consensus opinion of everyone at H&R Block, including the managers.)

To even be able to leave it blank, they had to print the forms, because the computer refused to submit my taxes electronically with a blank SSN. This should've been a red flag to me, looking back.

The correct thing to do was for her to get an ITIN from the US, which from what I know is a like an SSN that doesn't get you SS benefits or allow you to work in the US. It's just for tracking. But they didn't tell me that.

Moral of this story: That's the last time I'll ever use H&R Block. If I want to do my taxes wrong, I can do that myself for free.

IRS

The IRS refused to believe that my wife existed without a number to assign her, so they rejected my tax return and threatened to charge me tons of penalties. So I drove down to the friendly neighborhood IRS office. Surely they'd know how to fix this, right?

Wrong. The fellow at the IRS was familiar with filing taxes for Mexicans living in the US, but not for a "non-resident alien Canadian spouse" like mine.

The ITIN docs say that I need to submit a notarized copy of my wife's passport, to get her an ITIN. But notarized by whom? By a notary in Canada or the US? The IRS agent spent at least an hour reading his enormous IRS manual, looking up treaties and international law, trying to figure this out. Eventually he found a footnote scribbled into the margin of his book that said a Canadian notary was OK. So that's what I gave him.

He filled out the new tax forms himself, stapled on a photocopy of the page from his own IRS manual saying the Canada-notarized passport was OK, stamped everything all official-like, mailed it away himself, and... a month later it was rejected again. I needed to get a US notary to do it, or my wife had to drive to the freaking capital of her province to get it super-notarized or something. Nine months later and 3 more trips to the IRS office, I finally got it worked out.

As a US citizen, living in Canada, working for a US company, being paid by a Canadian payroll company, I live in constant fear of doing my taxes next spring.

Moral of this story: Even the IRS doesn't know their own tax code. Thanks again, US Government.

No credit

I have good credit in the US. I was able to get a car loan without a co-signer 6 years ago. I have credit cards.

In Canada, I don't exist. My credit score here is zero, as you might expect. I tried to buy a car, and they just flat-out wouldn't let me without a co-signer for a loan. I guess I can't blame them. (Except that I have money, they have something I want to buy, and we both ended up losing out.)

I went to the bank to open a checking (er, "chequing") account, and all hell broke loose. They wanted my business, but how could they justify giving an account to someone with "no credit"? Eventually the bank manager managed to run a US credit check on me (at least she said she did) and they let me open an account.

But I can't get a credit card here. Not even a $500-limit high-interest card like they give to kids in college. Not even after I had the bank write a letter of recommendation vouching for me. I have to wait a year and keep getting paychecks before I show up in the system. ("Paycheques"?) I'm still looking for other options in the meantime.

Moral of this story: Well, no moral. Sucks to be me, I guess.

Shopping

I tried to buy a computer online recently (from Dell, which I'm starting to regret). Not having a Canadian credit card, I used my US card. This is OK, my card works up here, with a small foreign transaction fee of %1-3.

But the website wouldn't take a US address as my billing address. I had to give a Canadian address. "Province" was a drop-down, mandatory field.

No matter, I'll just go to my bank's website and change my billing address to one in Canada. I checked with my bank before I moved, and they said it was no problem to keep the account even if I moved to another country. "We have lots of international customers!", said the teller.

Well, my bank's website won't let me specify a non-US billing address. "State" is a mandatory drop-down. Which is awesome. I emailed the bank and asked them to change my address for me, and they did. Now when I go to the "change my address" form on their website, half the fields are filled in and half are just blank. So if I ever use the form again, something will probably break.

Once I got on the phone with Dell, they were more than happy to take my US credit card as payment. Their online form just couldn't handle it.

Moral of this story: Text fields, not drop-downs.

An so on

When I fly across the border, I have to fill out a customs declaration form. There's a field asking "country of residence". Well, technically I am a resident of two countries. So I pick "US" when I fly down to the States, "Canada" when I fly back.

I tried to get a Costco membership in Canada, and they wanted a driver license. My license is from Oregon. Hilarity ensued, and they decided I didn't need one after all. Any time I need to give a driver license for any purpose, I end up breaking something.

Note that in every situation I've described, what I was trying to do was valid, and after some hassle, everything usually worked out OK. Computers just got in the way and slowed the process way down. And I'm not that much of an edge case. 250,000 people immigrate to Canada every year.

I suppose it might be better to optimize for the common cases, force people to pick their province from a drop-down. And then deal with the edge cases like mine manually later. Every text field is another opportunity for users to type in gibberish and chaos. But I wonder if the programmers actually thought about it this much, or if they were just being lazy.

I'm not really complaining. I don't expect the world to change to accommodate me. It's been more funny than annoying. But I do find it interesting to see the flaws in computer systems exposed. I get a certain sick satisfaction out of seeing people write "invalid" values into fields that I know are going to break someone's database down the line.

June 30, 2010 @ 3:03 AM PDT
Cateogory: Rants

23 Comments

disi
Quoth disi on June 30, 2010 @ 5:41 AM PDT

Hehe,

the credit thing is totally normal (at least in Europe). You can't just by a car with your personal id card ;)

In Ireland, it even takes an employer letter to open a bank account without credit card. You have to live at least 6 months in the UK to open a bank account or apply for a credit card.

So I have a Visa on an Irish bank account, a Mastercard on my German bank account and a normal bank account in the UK.

For the Visa card, they wouldn't accept my new address in the UK either. So I had to send a letter with my new address and everything. That was pretty easy.

Not being able to pay online for anything is a pita. Paypal let's you use the credit card without changing the address but as soon as you change the address at your institute, they close your account and contact you for fraud :)

cheers,

disi

numerodix
Quoth numerodix on June 30, 2010 @ 6:03 AM PDT

scratches head I don't understand why a bank can't give you an account if you have no credit. Isn't the way a bank account works such that you give them money? So how does that ever put them at risk?

Interesting tales, though, and somewhat familiar. Thankfully, I'm not the first Norwegian who ever moved or went to college abroad, so I appreciate the fact that they've thought of us and I have no hassle with my bank or state run services, typically. But there is a sharp divide between websites that do expect customers from abroad and those that don't. I've run into this recently with book stores, some of them making it impossible to order (I would actually have to time the order with my next stay in Norway so as to pick it up at the post office there etc).

Brian
Quoth Brian on June 30, 2010 @ 6:24 AM PDT

disi: Being able to shop online is the only reason I want a credit card.

At my bank in Canada (unlike most banks in the US and perhaps Europe?) debit cards aren't also credit cards. They're just debit cards or "bank cards" or something. So you can't use them online.

numerodix: Maybe the bank is afraid I'm going to bounce cheques. I'm honestly not sure.

another Brian
Quoth another Brian on June 30, 2010 @ 9:12 AM PDT

I am a United States citizen residing domestically. And I have no credit (I've never borrowed any money). But I can still open bank accounts. Or, I can open brokerage accounts with ATM cards attached and credit union accounts. There's no point doing business with an actual bank in the USA. They run a credit check and it's blank and all's well.

You need a notarized passport to gen an ITIN? I thought you could just go to the consulate in person. Maybe you just shouldn't have told anyone at the IRS you were married.

This is a nice story you've written about computer systems abroad though. When I lived abroad one of my cards would choose every month to detect that I was doing foreign transactions and flag my account for fraud. I had to make a lot of international calls to wait on hold to fix that. Eventually I started calling collect. Banks accept the charges.

Living in the third world is a whole new level of dysfunction in computer networks. When the postal service is unreliable so valuable packages can't be delivered to addresses things get interesting. People pay for their cell phone and power bills at the supermarket or the convenience store. Banks will change money, but only three hours a week and those hours change from week to week. Interest rates on home loans are over 20% and loans never run more than 5 years. Down payments are large. Credit depends on having a personal relationship at the bank, which makes banks much more important than in the developed world.

But when everything is about relationships, nobody has to fit you into a drop down menu. The few places that have computer systems and bureaucracy also have people at the local office with the authority to write down special instructions on your paperwork that carry force of law. Sure, money gets passed under the table sometimes but at least there's a system that works. If I could slip the comcast tech a fifty to make my service really just work, I'd take it in an instant.

disi
Quoth disi on July 01, 2010 @ 5:49 AM PDT

Brian, you always get a debit card for your bank account in Germany/Irland/UK but no credit card.

To get a credit card, you have to apply separately.

It is fairly easy to get a Mastercard or Visa, it just takes some time and in Germany is an institute called Schufa, which tracks your credits. If you are negative listed, you will not get credit from any bank in Germany.

Albert Cardona
Quoth Albert Cardona on July 01, 2010 @ 7:09 AM PDT

Welcome to being an immigrant. I just partially moved to the USA, so I have only temporary residence permit. That, apparently, makes me a sort of Martian who has just landed:

  • after 13 years of driving 30,000 km/year minimum, I had to do both the theory and practice exams at a Department of Motor Vehicles. My European driving license looked like vermin to them. Apparently, only French and German driving licenses are "acceptable" (?).

  • I can't buy a car neither a house--I can't get insured for less than a small fortune per year (~1000 for 6 months minimum for the car, with very low liability coverage). Opening a bank account took a whole morning. The car dealer told me "I am a ghost" regarding credit, despite owning European VISA credit cards for a decade.

So I second your experience: the system is broken.

David Brabant
Quoth David Brabant on July 01, 2010 @ 11:32 PM PDT

A few years ago, I was a Belgian citizen living in Norway, and detached for one year in Philadelphia, in order to work for my international company. During my work that year, I was supposed to jump to Bangalore, India, for a few weeks. After struggling with various administrations for a long while, they had to cancel my trip because my situation was "so complex" that I had no guarantee to be allowed to come back to the States.

Welcome to a world of free circulation.

Peter Van Dijck
Quoth Peter Van Dijck on July 04, 2010 @ 12:35 PM PDT

The legal system (and the computer systems dealing with them) isn't made for a global world. I know, I live in Colombia, South America, and I've lived in a few other countries before. The tax system is a little better in dealing with multiple countries (they want your money, after all), but not great either. Lots of uncertainties. Just a few things:

  • I bought a house with no actual address (in the countryside). Getting phone and internet connections are no problem though.

  • "Residency" is quite a vague concept, used by different agencies for different purposes. Just see the beautiful category "resident for tax purposes", which you become in most countries if you spend > 6 months there, which is just their tax system trying to get to you. Has nothing to do with citizenship, or other types of residency.

  • Paperwork has different meanings in different countries. I've seen bank people reject cheques because they were "too crumbled to be real" (to be honest they did look a little fake). The amount of stamps and "official" bits on paperworks matters more here than it seems it should. Of course, in a digital world, "paperwork" is a category that's fuzzy too, and systems aren't designed to deal with fuzzy things, they assume the things that they deal with are clear and unambiguous.

Andy
Quoth Andy on July 04, 2010 @ 2:24 PM PDT

I feel your pain - I'm a Brit living in Australia but working remotely for a UK company (so my salary is paid into my UK bank account). My tax situation is unknown to everyone including the Australian and UK authorities. Apparently it's possible for me to get out of the UK tax system completely, but nobody seems to know how, so until then I pay taxes in the UK and offset them against my Australian taxes. Unfortunately their financial years don't start/finish at the same time which adds an extra layer of fun.

cak
Quoth cak on July 04, 2010 @ 3:00 PM PDT

Moving from Australia to the UK, I could not open a bank account until I had a NIN number from the government, and a job. Why would anyone want a bank account if you didn't have a job? That would be crazy.

I find itunes stupid about this as well. I want to pay for something in UK itunes with an Australia credit card and an Australia address - no dice.

John
Quoth John on July 04, 2010 @ 3:10 PM PDT

Brian, if your wife is Canadian, and you live in Canada, is there a way to just let go of your US citizen status and leave that behind? Have you considered that, and if so, what you do you think of that option?

Seth
Quoth Seth on July 04, 2010 @ 4:09 PM PDT

John, it is extremely difficult to "let go" of US citizenship. Because the US taxes world-wide income, they view attempting to relinquish citizenship as a tax dodge. I'm not sure which other countries if any treat their people like this...

Jan Rychter
Quoth Jan Rychter on July 04, 2010 @ 4:26 PM PDT

I wrote a rant on a similar topic recently: http://jan.rychter.com/enblog/2010/3/31/dear-american-website-owner.html — it seems these kinds of problems are more common in large countries (like the US) where you can get by even while ignoring the rest of the world.

In smaller countries you'd have so many of those "edge cases" that they'd have to stop being edge cases eventually.

On a related note, I think that US laws are both very complex and very vague sometimes. I live in Poland now, and if my tax return got rejected, a specific law would have to be cited. What clerks and agents say isn't law.

JMH
Quoth JMH on July 04, 2010 @ 4:41 PM PDT

Your old costco card should work find here. I'm still using the one I got when I lived in the States. Costco, Starbucks and Walmart all cross the border fine; even gift cards automatically convert the currency. Getting American banks to acknowledge there's other countries is a right pain. It took the better part of two years to get BoA to ship my stuff to the right address. I don't know if it works for the IRS, but when I opened a bank account in the states, before I was legal enough to have a SSN, they just used all nines which apparently means "doesn't have a number". I have no idea why the bank wouldn't open an account. Which bank did you try? If you go to TD or RBC who have American branches, it works better. Bring in your work permit (if you have one?) to prove you aren't just a mafia dude's alias and it shouldn't be a problem... I had a boyfriend who was up on a student visa, and got not just the bank account but the credit card too. But that was before the economy crashed, and also, you know, student. I think you're just talking to the wrong bank. Best of luck. wry grin I remember the joys of being an edge case and immigrant/emigrant myself.

Adam
Quoth Adam on July 04, 2010 @ 4:42 PM PDT

Disi> "You have to live at least 6 months in the UK to open a bank account or apply for a credit card."

That's not true. I used to work in a branch of Natwest opening accounts for foreign exchange students who had arrived the previous day. You just need proof of identity and proof of address.

Nikolaos Dimopoulos
Quoth Nikolaos Dimopoulos on July 04, 2010 @ 11:26 PM PDT

Your post and Albert Cardona's pretty much sums it up for me too.

When I moved to the USA I had a perfect credit record in the UK (my CC limit was circa $75,000) yet in order to get a credit card I had to go through hoops. I finally managed to get one with $500 limit!!!

Similarly after driving for 22 years I had to take the driving test again (twice because the moron at the DMV did not record the theory test the first time).

I am not saying that banks should not be careful, but there is such a thing called Internet and banking collaboration. One phone call to my old bank in the UK would have been enough...

Hang in there buddy - we have all seen stupidity and I bet this is not the last instances of it.

Allister Frau
Quoth Allister Frau on July 05, 2010 @ 2:06 AM PDT

You can always get a secured credit card. Typically you put up a deposit of $500 or more. While it's a bit of a racket that they not only charge you interest on money you've technically lent them, and you still need to pay a membership fee, it does give you a legitimate credit card and is a good short-term solution until you have enough of a record to apply for a "real" one.

Brian
Quoth Brian on July 05, 2010 @ 2:17 AM PDT

John: I'm not a Canadian citizen yet. I have to wait a few years before I can apply for citizenship here. Until then I'm a "permanent resident".

Once I'm a Canadian citizen, I could renounce my US citizenship. I'm not even sure of the procedure of doing so, because I think almost everyone retains dual citizenship. No sense burning any bridges.

Allister: I actually did something like that a couple days ago. I applied for a secured one-year loan or something. They say it'll help my credit, but it kind of sucks that I have to do such things.

Joseph Dunn
Quoth Joseph Dunn on July 05, 2010 @ 5:16 AM PDT

I can identify -- I'm an American living in Peru, married to a Peruvian. Same situation on the taxes.

Surprisingly, they will let me open a bank account now that I have my Peruvian residency. Haven't gone that route though, because at this point I have no reason in particular to put my money in a Peruvian bank. My debit and credit cards work fine here.

Nic
Quoth Nic on July 05, 2010 @ 5:52 AM PDT

Hey Brian, I have had the same issues as you, I recently moved back to Canada after living in the US for years. My wife is american and so were in the same sort of bind you are. As far as dealing with the Gov. All I've learned is to make copies of everything. What ever you send them keep a copy. They've lost tons of stuff I sent them or given them in person over the years.

Taxes suck, I'm not sure you need to declare your canadian revenues in the US if you live in Canada permanently (if you are a permanent resident now). At least I was was under the impression that my wife won't have to report them once she becomes a permanent resident. I believe that if the money is made in Canada and you live in canada for most of the year, then only the canadian government need it reported. My mother was working for a US company for years receiving checks from them but she never had to pay the IRS for it.

I know that some people who work on contracts for foreign companies have to report it if they are not permanent residents in the other country.

I know that at least the other way was true (Canadians living in the US). But another thing I've learned is that it means nothing for the US Citizen -> Canada. I'd sugest getting a good accountant but my dad is one and he will admit he doesn't know half this stuff because it's so rare they have to deal with it. But he at least knows where to find it or who to ask which has helped a lot.

I've managed to get an account here now even my wife did (she showed them her pasport and the fact that she is a student. BMO didn't have an issue). As for credit card, that's still impossible to get. This really sucks when trying to send money to the US through paypal. That takes 2 weeks without a credit card. It's quite ridiculous. Lets not talk about the god aweful rates these mafia style banks are charging in Canada.

As for the drivers license, that's been one of my annoyances too but I've been reluctant to switch to a canadian license. I guess I have no choice now since I'm about to pass the 6 months limit in my province. If I don't get one now they will impound the car and give me a $435 fine.(no including the fees to get it out of the lot after I pay the fine)

All and all you've demonstrated how there really needs to be a better way in this free trade world to deal with canada/us related things. If they at least returned to a common bank routing system that would be nice. I've been using mail orders but the US customs keep opening my packages. Not sure why.

I hope you write a followup next spring after tax season. A wiki site about this stuff would be cool.

Nic
Quoth Nic on July 05, 2010 @ 5:59 AM PDT

This is a probably what I was thinking of: http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/international/article/0,,id=96822,00.html

you need to be out of the country for 330 days out of the year.

Hope that helps.

fdasfds
Quoth fdasfds on July 06, 2010 @ 1:19 AM PDT

Your post has been submitted to Hacker News:

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1486910

Vic
Quoth Vic on August 11, 2010 @ 11:47 AM PDT

I have the opposite situation you have. I am a Canadian citizen living in the U.S. When I first moved here, I had several of your problems

  • absolutely no credit

Even though in Canada I had excellent credit and many credit cards, in the US I had NADA. For years. Eventually my wife advised me to get a "secured credit card". Basically I gave the bank $300 and they gave me a $300 card. I started slowly to form a "credit history" - after a few months they returned my $300 and I had a REAL credit card with a limit of $300. Then my limit slowly increased. Eventually in 1-2 years I started to build credit here.

Morale: get a secure credit card and/or (possibly even better) a secure loan

Now regarding taxes, the first year I was here I filed taxes both as a Canadian, and for the US. The second year the same. Then I didn't file Cdn taxes anymore, but I lived in fear that I was doing something wrong. Eventually I contacted an expert in US-Canadian laws and taxation. He said I didn't need to file Canadian taxes (and never needed) because since I lived in the US and paid US taxes, there was an agreement US-Canada which prevents double-taxation, so I only needed to file with US.

Morale: check with a inter-border Cdn-US tax expert, it will save you a lot of time (I found mine online)

Hope this was useful. Email me if I can help with any other advice.

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