An outsider perspective on the British bureaucratic machine

7 minute read

I finally got a bank account. And hopefully also a national insurance number.

First chapter: the bank account

I started working in Glasgow last November, and even though I am a European citizen I have experienced some annoying issues in the bureaucratic procedure of settling here from the administrative point of view. I believe I have fallen into a hole of the system. The question is easily told: as I am living with my partner, who was already here, the flat contract (I mean, the rent one) is on his name, as well as the utility bills like gas and electricity. This is the whole problem. Why? Because to open a bank account you have to have what is called a proof of address.Basically if you are a British citizen you face no problems (I think) because your own document demonstrates you are living in the country. If you are a citizen of whatever other country, you have to demonstrate you live here. Makes sense, because they have to know where to get you in case you go overdraft, although when I finally opened the account I was told that if I change my address I have to notify them but no other proof of address will be required (and this is where it does not make much sense any more). Anyway, what you can bring as a proof of address (along with your passport/identity card) is one of these documents:

  • a house contract with your name on it
  • a utility bill which has arrived by post at your place, to your name
  • a foreign bank (or credit card) statement with your name, arrived by post to your place
  • a city council tax statement/bill, arrived by post, to your name

I lacked all of these, because:

  • the house contract was not on my name (when he opened it, we had no idea I’d found a job here and could hence move). Changing the name or adding mine would cost lots of new paperwork and £100. Honestly…
  • utility bills arrive at his name, as they were registered for the same reason as the house contract. We tried changing the name but they kindly told us “we understand you want to change the name on the bills and we have done this for you. However, please note that all correspondence will arrive at the old name”. What??!!
  • I got back to Italy to settle some other Italian bureaucracy and I tried making my bank send me a statement there. As expected, I was told they don’t send statements abroad. Same for an Italian credit card I have
  • I then placed all my hopes in the city council. I had to pay the council tax anyway so I notified them of my presence ever since the start of my relocation here. Here’s where the narrative gets interesting.

Basically relying on the city council is your only reasonable hope if you are in my situation. This is what I call the hole of the system. I desperately tried, in the local branch of a famous bank, to open the account with my working contract (which to be honest should be much more interesting to a bank than where I live), to no avail. They don’t care if you work, they care about where you live. As if I could work here and live in Italy. Everybody knows there’s an amazingly fast direct connection between the two countries which allows me to commute every day, right? By the way, banks are open 9.15–17 which is covered entirely by my working schedule so given that to open an account you need an appointment, Saturday was my only choice. So, I started making contact with the city council. I sent them an email. The automated answer: we will get back to you in 20 days. Fair enough, I had time. Too bad 30 days elapsed and no answer was received (I was expecting a letter which said how much I have to pay and all the details). I called and they had apparently forgotten, or, put more simply, ignored my mail. As an apology, I was told I’d receive my letter within 7 days, my name was added to my partner’s account and everything would be fine. 1… 2… 3… 7… 10… 10 days has passed and no letter in my pigeonhole. I called again.

A rose about to collapse

This photo is a fairly accurate depiction of my mental state back then.

They were like “oh, you should have received the letter, we have sent it!”. I didn’t, I swear. I had no interest in lying about this. They told me they’d send another one but in the meantime I could go retrieving a copy at the local office nearest to my place. Which turned out to be quite far away. I had to go, so I was resolved on arriving later at work that day and spend a few time and pounds on going to get my craved-for letter. The office is very nice, warm and welcoming, with lovely sofas and nice Glaswegian-speaking people.

“Good morning, I am here to retrieve my copy of (bla bla bla)“

“Yes, sure. Which is your reference number?”

“It’s XXX, here it is and here’s my identity card.”

“Mmm, the account is not on your name.”

“I know, I have been added to it, the original name is my boyfriend’s… but there should be mine as well.”

“Mmm, no, you are not here.”

— -(panic) — -

“Oh wait, there’s a link. Oh here we go, you are here. And here’s your copy. Have a lovely day!”

It wasn’t that late so I went to the local branch of the bank again, to book another appointment for the following Saturday. The person in charge for these things was on annual leave (!), so I could either wait for the Saturday after that one or go to another branch. The earlier, the better. I had spent too much time on this and I didn’t receive my monthly payment from the company because I lacked a bank account, so please The second nearest branch was apparently fully booked for appointments so my only choice was a branch in the city centre (now far, but still non walkable). I chose this opportunity. It was a very cold and rainy Saturday morning and I went to my appointment. After the usual “have a wee seat” and “how are you?” I was called to talk to the person responsible for the accounts. In the meantime, a letter arrived to my post from the city council which said something like “we certify that Miss bla bla lives in address bla bla and is registered to us”. I had not one, but two proofs of address! I proudly showed them, but the person wasn’t that convinced: the second one is apparently useless even though it contains the city council logo, while the first one (the bill I had retrieved) was the correct document, if it only had the logo which for reasons beyond my understanding was not there. So there was a problem of logo in the wrong location. I was almost starting to cry. But then he agreed on opening my account, and all is well what ends well.

Second chapter: the National Insurance Number

This is something you need for tax purposes. You need the proof of address as well. If you are a foreigner, you need to go to a jobcentre for an interview: they need to know why you need this number at all. And you book the interview through the phone. After a couple of failed attempts, failed because of my lack of a proof of address, I just went for an appointment in the middle of the week, after making sure my company was fine with this. Nothing interesting here, the interview is just a dull process and they didn’t even have a look at the proof of address. The environment and the people were very, very friendly and helpful and the whole mechanism is extremely efficient. I should receive the number in 30 days, they said. And I seriously believe them. To cut a long story short, bureaucracy here seems to me as heavy as I am used to, except that it is very fast. And people smile. And if you don’t fall into holes of the system, you face no problems altogether. If you do, you are able to sort them out with no particular suffering anyway, because there’s always someone doing what he/she can to really help you out.