Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Enough to drive you crazy

As outlined in my previous post, driving is an absolute prerequisite for living in the US. (Quote of the week; local lady, when I told her that I lived just behind the library, which is great and has loads of kids' activities: "Wow. I mean, you could even WALK there.")

So you would have thought it might be pretty easy to get a driving licence and purchase a car, yes?

Er, wrong. Acquiring a car has been one our biggest headaches since our arrival in the USA. It all stems from the bigger problem of not having a social security number, which has cast us adrift in a sea of bureaucracy, forms, emails from over-zealous types and inability to pay for things due to lack of ID.

It looked so easy. The plan was, we would arrive here and buy the car of a guy from The Doctor's new workplace who would soon be leaving to go back to Europe.

But, as we discovered on arrival in the US, if you don't have a social security number, you basically can't do anything. It made buying a car nigh on impossible, as to get insurance you need a New York State driving licence, and to even apply for the licence you need the social security number.

The Doctor dutifully went down to Social Services in Brooklyn just a few days after our arrival. He queued for three hours in the kind of place that has notices up saying "It is an offence to kill a federal employee" (so does that mean it's OK kill someone else? we wondered). When he reached the head of the queue, sorry, line, he was told he had not even been activated on the system yet by the visa people, so couldn't even start to apply.

Not having the number had all sorts of interesting implications. It has been virtually impossible to do anything over the phone, including topping up a pay as you go mobile and registering the utilities for our house in our name (this required an in-person visit to their offices).

We soon realised that it would be weeks, if not months, before the process of being able to buy the car began. And so we have been forced to rent the car off the actual owner until we get our licences. And this (required by state law) is no picnic, either. You have to sit through five hours of videos, take a multiple-choice quiz, AND do a roadtest.

The Doctor has all this to look forward to, now that his precious number has finally arrived. And assuming he passes, there will be more queuing, at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and hundreds of forms to fill in to transfer the ownership of the car. Oh what fun. And I am supposed to do it too. Only I don't have a social security number because I'm not eligible for one. How the heck I am supposed to apply for the licence remains a mystery.....

Meanwhile I'm finding it impossible even to buy petrol on my credit card, because it's a UK card and they always ask for the zip code. We haven't been able to apply for a US credit card yet, because guess what? We didn't have a social security number...

So yes, the process of acquiring and driving a car in this country might be easy. But, like many things, as we're increasingly discovering, it's only easy if you're an American.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, when we moved over to the UK from the US, we had similar problems... No credit history in the UK meant no one would give us financing for a car. No UK license meant it was VERY difficult to get insurance, once we finally did get the car. And don't even talk about getting a UK license, if you're American. Polish driving license? No problem. American license? You need to do the test, but in order to register for the test, you need to send in your passport, which they keep for up to 5 weeks... Bureaucracy is the same everywhere I think.

nappy valley girl said...

Anonymous - that's very interesting. I had been wondering what the process would be like in reverse. Why the US and UK can't recognise each other's licences I can't understand. You're right, everywhere is bureaucratic, maybe you just don't realise how much until you are a foreigner.

Mona said...

Getting an SSN is a hassle. If you are not employed won't get one, but you have to get an ITIN number for tax purposes, which can maybe act as a stand in, but I would check that. I've lived in NYC for five years now (F-1 graduate student) and still have neither driver's license nor car, my German license is no good here either. They may tell you that you have to turn in your UK license to get the American one, but I think you can just not do that and it will work out as well. Good luck! By the way: usually it rains much less here, this is a terrible summer so far :-)

Iota said...

Only this morning I was explaining to (yet another) person that I don't have a SS number, and can't have one. Sometimes I feel like making one up - it would probably be a while before it mattered.

Come to my state and take a test. It's about 15 minutes, you never get above 30mph, and if you fail, you can take it again later in the day, and then the next day, and so on. There's a 20-question multiple choice test (I scored 18 which was pretty poor given that it was the same as the one Husband had taken a few days before, and he'd tried to memorise as many of the questions as possible for me).

We changed the address on our UK credit card so it is now our US address. We get statements by post/mail, but it's paid by direct debit out of our UK bank account. It means that it's slightly more expensive, as you're buying stuff in $ and paying in pounds, but the exchange rate they use is pretty good. Of course it means you have to have funds in a UK account. We'd been warned that getting credit here takes a while.

Maybe the subtext of that sign is "it is an offence - as well as an insult - to kill a federal employee".

Absolutely Write said...

I know - Big G always bemoans the endless bureaucracy over there. Good luck with your quest!

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Red tape. Bane of an expat life. You don't quite fit the boxes so they just say no. Good luck with the mission, I have a feeling you will need the luck and a fair chunk of patience.

I'm doing battle with the Bosnians who insist that birth certificates need to be validated every 6 months...

http://britsinbosnia.blogspot.com/2009/06/red-red-tape-stay-close-to-me.html

Karin said...

Either way, UK to US or US to UK, it's a pain in the royal bum! When I arrived in the UK from US 4 years ago, I had an International License which I could drive on for up to 1 year from the date of entry but we had a hard time acquiring insurance as I didn't have a valid UK license. We finally got insurance from Norwich Union but I had to go through the process of lessons, theory and hazard perception test and finally a road test. The process of driving in the UK from the US requires those lessons, obviously. I think driving in the US is a lot easier. And even though I passed the road test on the first time, it's a helluva lot harder in the UK than the US. Virtually everyone passes the road test on their first time vs. only 25% of first-timers in the UK. So...good luck to you! You'll get there in the end. Red tape is no fun...I've been through Fiance Visa, Limited Leave to Remain Visa and Unlimited Leave to Remain Visa with many £ to the cause. Fun times, eh?? :)
Karin

A Modern Mother said...

If it makes you feel any better, we had problems when we moved back to the US for a few years (I have a US and British passport, hubby had a green card). I had let my US credit cards expire while I was away, thus I was in the same boat. Though I had a SSN, I didn't have a recent credit history. Hang in there!

nappy valley girl said...

Mona - thanks for the advice. I've heard elsewhere that a tax number is the thing to get, so am checking it out. If I lived in NYC there's no way I would take the test, but out here I'm a bit more reliant on wheels.....and yes, I am expecting the weather to pick up. The last few days have been more like home, but at least when the sun does show its face, it's immediately tropical.

Iota - I might just take you up on that! Or visit my cousin Dallas and take it there.....

Absolutely Write - it does seem like even more of a nanny state than Britain. They are obsessed with ID.

Brit in Bosnia - what a nightmare. I haven't even brought my birth certificate with me. Hope I won't need it....

Karin - I think it's my memories of the UK driving test (passed on 3rd attempt at age 17) that are making me nervous. Here, it's not meant to be too bad. But that doesn't mean I won't fail.....

A Modern Mother - that seems crazy. Particularly in a country where people with bad credit history could take out enormous sub-prime mortgages.....

mothership said...

yes, your tax id is usually the same as a ss number. It's INCREDIBLY annoying that they won't give you one - that law changed a few years ago, they used to give out ones to people that said not eligible to work if you had a non-work visa on it..
Are you applying for any kind of work visa? Is the doc applying for green card? If you are doing this then there are ways around. You might need to speak to US immigration lawyer, worth the bucks imho.
I have a friend in NYC who is a (UK) immigration lawyer and she might have some advice for you, I will ask her.
Re. the credit cards. Get your UK cc/ds and debit cards all changed over to your US address, it's really easy and then you can use them over here with the zip as somebody mentioned, much easier. You can do all your banking online. I still use my UK bank accounts.
When the doc opens a US bank account he will be able to get a joint account for you and you can get debit/credit cards for both of you.
EMAIL ME if you need further assistance.
info AT motherhoodthefinalfrontier.com
xo

mothership said...

you will WEEP with laughter at the driving part of the driving test. It's SO EASY. I had to do a US driving test twice (once at 16 when I first took a driving test in DC and again in CA when we moved). THe CA instructor told me I was by far one of the best drivers he'd ever encountered - I think it was the fact that I turned up in a manual car that pretty much sealed the deal before I even got into it for him. Let's see. I got in, turned on the car, remembered to wear my seat belt, stopped at the stop signs (he reminded me to do that), didn't kill anyone and I DROVE AROUND THE BLOCK and then I parked. Not parallel parked, just pull into the space a la Tesco supermarket parking lot.
I think you can handle it ;)
Good luck. It will all be a distant dream in 6 months and you'll know the layout at Costco like the rest of us.

nappy valley girl said...

Mothership - thanks. As usual, most sensible advice (and you made me laugh too). I'm going to check out the situation with social services this week. If they can shed no further light, I might well ask to speak to your lawyer friend....as for the credit cards, think we have sorted it now by getting a US debit card.

Muddling Along Mummy said...

Enjoy the driving part of the test, its not quite Dubai-esque (drive forwards, drive backwards, don't flatten anyone) but friends tell me it isn't quite DVLA standard

Good luck unravelling the bureaucratic minefield

p.s. I tagged you over at mine ...