Sixteen years ago, with a fresh master’s degree in my pocket, I applied for a one-year teaching position at a small state university in the Midwest, and when hired, the school took care of almost everything for me. They found me a furnished apartment (which I rented unseen), applied for my J-1 visa and provided comprehensive health care coverage. They even sent their international officer to town with me for half a day right after my arrival to get me set up with a bank account and the utilities I needed. All I had to do myself was pick up my visa at the American consulate in Frankfurt—and actually move.
This time around, my situation felt very different: in September 2013 I came for love and not a job. These days, I am a writer and freelance translator with a strong customer base in Germany that could not care less about where I set up shop. (Fortunately, the nine-hour time difference between Seattle and Germany has mostly worked in my favor.) But it also means that I had no organization willing or obliged to handle the red tape for and with me. And love, as it turns out, is not very good at helping with paperwork.
I have EU citizenship and an American husband. That combination puts me in the most comfortable immigration position possible. Still, settling in turned out to be much more of a struggle than expected, starting with the immigration process. When I saw all the paperwork required for the Green Card application I immediately decided that I would not tackle this process without the support of a lawyer. Granted, my husband and I would have been able to fill in the paperwork ourselves; but even the process of collecting the necessary support documents took ages. Consequently, the idea of getting forms returned due to errors or minor technicalities gave me nightmares. So I can only advise anybody who wants to go through the process without risking a heart attack to factor in the extra expense of legal support. It is a worthwhile investment in one’s own sanity.
Fortunately, I was spared some of the awful experiences other friends have gone through. Seattle has a brand-new Homeland Security office, and everybody I encountered there was somewhere on a scale from helpful to super friendly. So for people arriving on a fiancée visa, it might well be worth to give some thought to the place where you are planning to get married; how government offices are likely to handle the case there could be as important an issue as where your partner’s family lives.
My next challenge was setting up a bank account. You would think that my husband’s bank would set up an account for me too. Unfortunately, this was not the case. When I went to the local branch by myself with everything I considered proper documentation, the teller told me that a German passport could not be considered valid identification. For a brief moment I thought she was kidding, but then the sad truth sank in that the young woman was dead serious and that she had probably never dealt with an international customer before. To make a long story short, what finally got me my own account was not the call my husband made to the bank, but a blog post I published about my unsuccessful efforts (slightly annoyed in tone, but not insulting) and twittered to the bank’s PR team. The next day, I had an appointment with the bank’s manager who apologized profusely and set up an account for me herself. So I learned that in order to get what you want—or need—you might sometimes have to take the unusual route. And never underestimate the significance of social media in the U.S.!
Originally from Frankfurt/Germany, Micha Goebig Phelps lives in Seattle, WA, USA. Under her pen name Olivia de Winter, she writes about her experiences as an expat on her blog, Breakfast at Starbucks.
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