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The Chicken or the Egg? - A Year in Ireland - Part 1

This blog is a recap of our first year in Ireland from the perspective of very practical things like the immigration process, banking, cars, auto insurance, taxes, etc. All those things you hate, but are necessary for a civil society. I’ll also discuss those things that are “different” that contribute to making Ireland Ireland … and not the UK or the US.

This is my impression from our experiences and is definitely not the last word. For visitors or other immigrants, the experience may be similar or completely different. I hope the Irishmen reading this blog will be amused by the perceptions of someone trying to assimilate into their society and culture.

The Irish and European Union Flag

During the year we have faced the age-old conundrum “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”…

We started our immigration to Ireland with a trip to the Garda office in Dublin. We had imagined this to be a long drawn out process but it turned out to be very easy, mostly because Carol has an Irish passport. As her spouse, I almost automatically qualify for a “stamp-4” that allows me to work or start a business here in Ireland. The whole process was less than 2 hours: a few minutes in line to understand our business, a 15-20 minute wait for the appropriate clerk, 20 minutes with the clerk, 20-30 minute wait, 5 minutes with another clerk to get my US passport stamped with a “stamp-4” visa and sign for a card to go along with it.

I will leave you with a couple of tips from this process:

1. Have a spouse with an Irish passport and have a copy of your marriage license.

2. Don’t do this the day after a transatlantic flight with free/included drinks. The camera doesn’t lie and you will be showing this card to immigration officers for at least a year.

The next step was getting a PPS card, the equivalent of a Social Security Card. OK, what comes first a bank account (that requires a PPS card) or a home address (that requires a bank account)? It helps if you are already employed (my situation) and you can use your work address for your home address … this step took less than an hour.

Galway County Council Building

Now that we had a PPS card we needed a bank account. Remember we are in a country that has been fighting Terrorism much longer than the US, so opening up an account without a proof of residency (a home address) is almost impossible … No opening up accounts under false names to launder money here … After much consultation, since the PPS took my work address as my home address, the bank decided this was OK …. This step took almost a whole afternoon. In addition this had to be an individual account since Carol could not use my work address. I guess there is some logic here, but then again Carol is the one with the Irish passport. Of course since the EU is quite strict about privacy, this meant that for the first two or three months, Carol could only take care of our online banking business while I was working.

On our first day in Ireland we should have figured out that the banks were a little different in Ireland. While standing in the O2 store buying our phone sim cards, an armored car parked in front of the Bank of Ireland location across the street, and out jumped 5 or 6 Gardai (policemen) in camo fatigues with automatic weapons. They strategically positioned themselves around the bank and the armored car. The cash transfer was completed and they all jumped back in and proceeded down the street. A little startling if you don’t know what’s happening.

Bank of Ireland - Eyre Square Galway

After dealing with the bank, we were now ready to look for a rental apartment or house. And the answer to the chicken and the egg question is neither. An employment letter on a company letterhead with a local address comes first…. or A LOT OF CASH to rent a place until you get a utility bill and then can show a residence address, but that much cash probably breaks some sort of customs laws.

Setting up a bank account in Ireland was very rigid and structured, but the rest of Irish society is fairly lax regarding money and finances. Most restaurants take credit cards although they prefer the “chip type” credit cards that are not necessarily popular yet in the US. Be prepared to pay cash when the credit card machine doesn’t read your US credit card correctly, but there is usually an ATM cash machine around the corner and the Irish are very trusting. They will have no problem waiting while you go around the corner to get cash. Many of the restaurants and B&B’s in small towns don’t take credit cards. As a tourist, it is good to carry €100-200 in spare cash. It is our experience that ATM machines give the best exchange rate, followed by credit cards, cash in US $’s, and Traveler’s Checks in that order. We have been able to use our US bank ATM card, our brokerage ATM card and our Bank of Ireland debit card throughout Ireland (and Europe) without any glitches. The fees that can be charged for use of an ATM are very limited in Europe and has not been an issue for our usage.

An interesting observation about Ireland and the rest of the EU: It is considered “bad manners” to take your CC out of your direct line of sight. Normally a restaurant will have a wireless CC machine that they will bring it to your table. At the pubs you usually clear your check at the bar. Of course this is almost a necessity since there is a pin number that needs to be entered to complete the CC transaction. Almost all drink purchases at pubs are cash.

Typical Credit Card Machine

Utility bills come every other month. Yes, that’s every 2 months and the utility bill is estimated for some bills … so your meter may only be read four times a year. You can pay towards your utility bill during the non-bill months or not. It seems to work. BTW, we were getting worried about our missing water bill, maybe we needed to contact someone … NO water bill, it’s included. This is changing, but it was a surprise until we thought about the amount of rain in Ireland …

Checks seem to be rarely used in Ireland. There is a €.50 tax for each check so people tend not to use them. They do use electronic transfers, even for rent to an individual landlord (versus a company). No one in the office gets a “check”; they get a deposit slip to their account. Electronic transfers include the utility bills, government payments (more on this later), cell phone, Internet, etc.

For us the next step was getting a car. Since we had no credit history in Ireland (see the next paragraph), this needed to be a cash deal. We might have been able to finance through the dealer but we didn’t try. Since, the cars are small, we were able to “cash in” both of our US Camry’s to buy a right hand drive 2009 Toyota Yaris. This is a cozy car. By my estimate, it is only about ½ size/step smaller than the average car in Ireland … there are smaller cars … and much smaller cars. See my previous blog on driving in Ireland. I will also write about the Irish driver’s license process in a later blog.

Our Toyota Yaris

Next comes getting a Euro denominated credit card. Remember Ireland is just coming out of the “Great Recession” and it was probably closer to the “Great Depression” for Ireland. No credit cards until you have a bank account for at least 6 months. It doesn’t matter what your salary is, or your credit score in the US, or how many assets you have in the US, and there is no secured credit card concept here that we could find. No credit card for 6 months, period, then they will talk …. We have NO credit history here. Depending on who you are, this can be good news or bad news, but we haven't been in this situation for over 30 years.

After 6 months and a lot of talking we received a Bank of Ireland CC which gives us a Euro denominated credit card.

In general, The immigration process seemed very reasonable and pretty efficient. The red tape we encountered was more than reasonable and understandable. The Irish government bureaucracy that we have encountered has been responsive and efficient. As an added bonus, almost all of the people we’ve encountered were pleasant, not just polite. The banking system is another matter, but somewhat understandable considering the short and medium term history of Ireland.

Future blog(s): Getting a Driver’s license, taxes, mail, and medical coverage

See You in The Pub!

Jet Lag Jack

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