Friday, July 8, 2016

Life on the Lam

It’s difficult for people who live in the US to understand, and even incomprehensible to expats from countries other than American, how one’s nation of birth can treat a citizen like a criminal for the simple fact that they chose to live in a different country.

If I am allowed to forget this throughout the year (which I am not) it is driven home to me every July, when I am required to register all my assets with the US Financial Criminal Enforcement Network.

This is akin to being on the paedophile register, and having to report in every year. The difference being that I haven’t actually committed any crime. Despite this, there are draconian penalties for not filing, and no excuses—even if you didn’t know about the law—for failure to comply.

This is what US Expat Passports look like.
But this is something I have been putting up with for years, along with the fact that any money I have in the US—if Uncle Sam has anything to say about it—should jolly well stay in the US.

Accessing my American money has always been an issue. My retirement system will not make deposits to a foreign bank, so they gleefully deposit into my US account and then say, “Good luck getting at that!” The banks charge a fortune for international transfers—the sending bank has a fee, then the receiving bank has a fee, and then the money is sent out at one rate but accepted in another, shaving off even more money--which can mean a loss of up to 10% for each transfer.

My solution was PayPal: simple cheap, efficient. But, as I found out this month when they locked down my account, illegal. Not that they said anything about that when I signed up, though I suppose it’s hidden in the Terms of Service somewhere. The first I knew was when I tried to transfer my US money into my US PayPal account and I got a message saying my account was locked, and to call them.

So I called, and a chipper young woman assured me that, yes, my account was locked because I was sending money to another PayPal account in the UK, which was registered to me, and that was definitely not on. I didn’t bother trying to explain to her that I was not a drug dealer, or an international tax-dodger, and that I was merely trying to get at my retirement income so I could do some non-nefarious things like, you know, pay bills and buy food, because I didn’t think it would interest her, or make her change her mind.

"No transfer for you!"
She did say they might unlock the account in the future but admitted they would probably lock it again if I made another illegal transfer. So I thanked her and hung up and began thinking about how I was going to pay the bills.

Realising that I had been using the PayPal method for years (they’re slow to catch up with you, but watch out when they do!) and that, in the interim, other methods may have been developed, I did a quick Google search and discovered a site called TransferWise.

It seemed too good to be true, so I was dubious. After some background digging, however, I discovered it was developed by the people at Skype and backed by Sir Richard Branson. This lent it an air of respectability—that, and the fact that no Americans were involved—so I decided to give it a try.

I like these guys.
In short, it worked a treat. It was dead easy, quick and cheap. And, I assume (fingers crossed) legal. The fee was a bit more than PayPal’s nominal fee, but TransferWise transfers do not switch rates between the outgoing and incoming banks, so that alone saves a substantial amount of money, which more than makes up for the fee.

And so, like anyone who has the law sniffing around after them, I am now living in a rather nervous state; happy that I can access my money, but wondering how long I will be allowed to do this before the banks raise a fuss that they are not getting their extortion fees, or the US government gets wind that I am taking my money and using it in another country, and they conspire to shut it down. Or at least deny it to American citizens.

The rest of the expat world will probably get to use it; not every country treats its expat citizens like criminals.