After a mere eight months in Sweden, I have finally gotten my Swedish ID card, an accomplishment that represents a triumph of the human spirit over the forces of darkness and the crippling strength of a system greater than myself. (Or something like that.) Watch out, Sweden. Nothing can stop me now!
Something that aspiring expats should know about living in a foreign country is that there is always something that seems like it should be easy to do and ends up being incredibly difficult just because you don’t have the right kind of driver’s license, for example, or proof of home address. Or citizenship. Or a translated transcript proving that you did, in fact, earn a university degree. Or whatever the requirement of the day is. Then you have to struggle through piles of paperwork to prove that whatever it is that you’re claiming is true and to reprocess your credentials and your personal information into a new system.
The funny thing is that these bureaucratic mountains are always made out of seemingly-mundane molehills. There are so many things you have the luxury of taking for granted when you live in the country you grew up in: opening a bank account, signing a cell phone contract, and getting the internet installed in your home, to name a few. Because you get to tackle these challenges one at a time in your own country and you have a continuous history documenting your identity and your place of residence, you never have to think about how difficult it would be to do the same things as a foreigner.
There are two lessons I’ve learned from hours of pleading (or groveling, depending on the day) with sales representatives and civil servants.
- Focus on your goal, not on the system.
- Allow yourself the time you need to feel tired and frustrated, to mope, or to rant and rave. But then get over it.
There’s really no reason why it had to take me eight months to get my ID card. I just got annoyed by a system that was not designed with my personal convenience in mind, took it personally, and gave up. I can’t say that this experience really shows me at my best; rather, the fact that it took me so long to complete a fairly simple bureaucratic procedure kind of shows me at my most petulant and irrational. We all have moments like this, though, and it’s certainly a part of the expat experience.
The whole “ID card situation” started last fall when I wanted to get a bank account. I went to the bank with all my documents—passport, visa, etc.—plus my “personbevis,” a certificate from the Swedish government basically saying once again who I am, what my residency status is, and that I’ve been registered as a resident in Sweden.
Not good enough. I was snidely dismissed (or maybe that’s just the way I remember it) and told to get a Swedish ID because all of my other documents together weren’t quite good enough. Never mind that a significant part of Lund’s population is made up of international students, and all they seem to have to do to get a bank account is (a) show up at the bank (b) show their student cards and (c) continue to breathe. I’m not a student and at the time I didn’t have a job, so I was going to have to take the long route.
So I continued down the road from the bank to Skatteverket, the Swedish tax offices. Sweden being the socialist state that it is, nearly everything goes through the tax offices. (Just kidding. April Fool’s!) But then the receptionist at the Skatteverket in Lund tells me that ID cards are only processed at the larger office in Malmö, so I have to go there.
It’s really not that far to go to Malmö, and now I do it nearly every day for work. But at the time it seemed like just another ridiculous hoop to jump through.
Regardless, at the beginning of the next week I show up at Malmö’s Skatteverket, but I barely made it through the door before being sent back home again.
“Hi, I’m here to apply for an ID card.”
“Oh, yesss! That’s wonderful! Did you pay the processing fee yet?”
“Well, no. But I brought 400 crowns in cash.”
“No, you have to pay it ahead of time and bring a receipt. You can do it with an electronic transfer from your bank! Here’s the number.”
And then I was briskly ushered back out through the sliding doors.
After this, I did what most other people would do: I raged about the system to anyone who would listen about how unfair it was to have a bank require an ID card that required a bank account to do an electronic bank transfer in order to apply for the aforementioned ID card. And then my friend Cecile, another American who was also living in Sweden until recently, filled me in on another requirement that I had failed to fully comprehend. When you go to Skatteverket to get your ID, all of your documents are still not enough. You need to bring an “intygsgivare” with you to more or less hold your hand and say, “Yes, here she is with her passport, her driver’s license, her residence permit, and her personbevis, issued by the Swedish government. But I’m also here to say yes, she is who she says she is.” In my case, as a person on a visa to cohabit with a Swedish citizen, my “intygsgivare” can only be my boyfriend. Hey baby, do you mind telling the nice person behind the desk that I am who I say I am? Thank you so much.
I got frustrated and mad, and then I gave up. And that was my real mistake.
I think something you have to keep in mind as an expat is that there are always going to be highs and lows, and it can seem like your life is being made unnecessarily difficult by rules and regulations that weren’t designed with you in mind. Getting mad at the system isn’t going to accomplish anything, though—no one is going to notice or care, and you’re the only one who is going to be inconvenienced by not having something like an ID card. Then there will come a day when you actually need a bank account of your own for some reason, and if you thought it was hard to get it done the first time around, just wait until you need to accomplish the same task in a shorter time frame.
In the end, it’s not worth getting that upset about, and you’ll have much better luck just focusing on reaching your goal instead of fixating on all the injustices and indignities along the way. (Or maybe it’s just me that thinks in such dramatic terms.) In any case, I don’t know why the system was created the way it was, but when push comes to shove, it’s not that big of a deal to ask a friend to pay the processing fee via electronic bank transfer and to bring my boyfriend along with me to Skatteverket. Once I had all the requirements in order, it was as simple as going to the office, waiting for a letter in the mail, and then going back to Skatteverket one more time to pick up my ID.
Now as for that bank account… I’ll be tackling that challenge sometime next week. With any luck, it will all go smoothly. And if it doesn’t, well, I might be coming back here with some different advice.
Oh! And lest I forget the most important improvement in my quality of life, post-ID card. Now I can buy alcohol at the Systembolaget without bringing my passport! Assimilation, baby… oh yeah!
My tips for getting an ID card (or completing any bureaucratic task as an expat):
1. Expect that there will to be some level of pain and frustration involved.
Imagine doing the same task in your own country. Was waiting in line at the DMV or the State Department ever pain-free? No. I don’t know what’s like in other countries’ government offices, but my guess is that it’s not fun. It never is. It’s the same here.
2. Focus on your goal, not the flaws in the system.
Want to fix the system? File a complaint. Run for office. Write an editorial. Do something. In the meantime, focus on accomplishing your goal. Whether it’s getting an ID card or something else, just figure out what you have to do and do it.
Then bring more information than you need.
4. Ask people for help.
Preferably someone you know and like. Even better, someone who likes you back. (Advisable, but not necessary.) And then bake them a cake or something.
5. Try, try, and try again.
Don’t give up. If there’s a process, you’ll figure it out eventually. Giving up will only hurt you.
And good luck!