Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dear Friends 19

Written: February 11, 2006
Published: February 28, 2006

Dear Friends,

One of the things we were unable to bring with us from Britain was our credit rating. Having popped up in Canada unannounced, as it were, it seems that the local financial institutions regarded us with some degree of suspicion. The credit history which we had so carefully built up over twenty years of mostly responsible spending was of no use to us here, and we have had to start again from scratch.

Considering how much time and effort I actually put into organising banking before we arrived, I still have the nagging feeling that I didn’t quite do enough – I had read up on the whole issue of credit scores, but I felt sure that we’d be able to work something out, given that we had sold up and were arriving with a reasonably large pot of cash.

But I was sadly mistaken. Although our British bank is part of a global corporation with a branch here in Prince George, there seemed to be little or no link between them, and I ended up with the bank who were the most helpful when it came to moving our money offshore and then back onshore again.

For you cannot open a bank account in Canada from abroad. I imagine that this was possible not so long ago, but banks everywhere are understandably suspicious of people opening accounts in countries they don’t live in, and even as an existing customer with an offshore account – perhaps especially as an existing customer with an offshore account – I had to wait until we were actually here to get my own local bank account.

The process was relatively painless, although – as noted before – somewhat paper-heavy compared to what I had been used to; everyone I spoke to at my new bank was extremely helpful and forgiving of my stressed-out demeanour. The stress was mainly due to the protracted sale of our house in England – the money which we needed to pay for our new house only reached the new bank account a day or so before we needed it, with the ink barely dry on the new account forms.

So, once we had done the difficult part and paid for everything, we stopped worrying about the banking situation for a while. However, working without a credit limit, even when you have cash in hand, is almost impossible these days, and we found ourselves in the odd position of putting purchases on our UK credit card, then having to transfer money across the Atlantic, incurring various charges along the way, to pay for them.

At the same time, our UK bank decided that moving abroad put us in a special category of customer and we found that every third transaction or so was refused, because (as I was told) “they’re all in Canada.” Explaining that we lived in Canada now cut no ice with the automated systems which watch your transactions for irregularities – and living in another country seems to be particularly irregular.

The net result of all this was that we were using our new bank accounts rather more frequently than we had intended, and that brought us up against another feature of the Canadian banking system which took me by surprise – bank charges.

I remember bank charges in Britain – indeed, I’m sure it’s not so long ago that the concept of ‘free banking’ was introduced, but, as with so many things, it feels like ancient history now. Back in England almost every purchase was made by plastic of one kind or another and, aside from wondering if there were sufficient funds in the bank, I never paid any attention to how many times the card was used. Here, though, all the main banks still charge for every transaction on an account. I understand that it is possible to have an account where this does not happen, but it is unusual to say the least, and it has been a most unwelcome surprise.

Add to this the fact that salaries are paid in every two weeks, while payments may be taken out every calendar month, and you can understand why I am paying a lot more attention to managing our bank accounts than I ever did before. On top of all the practical problems, I am still, after all this time, mentally translating everything back into pounds and pence, although I’m still using the exchange rate from a year ago, so I have no idea if I’m rich or poor.

As you might imagine, the only way to get a credit rating is to incur some debt and pay it off. However, in the time-honoured tradition, the only way to incur debt is to have a credit rating. I was, somehow, able to obtain a loan to buy one of our cars in the first few days after we arrived, but I have no idea how this was done, since it seems to have no impact on anything else – the loan is with the same bank as our other accounts, but they won’t entertain the idea of a credit card for us – or, at least, they didn’t last time I checked.

We do, however, now have Canadian credit cards – we were introduced to a very helpful lady at another bank who helped us do the inevitable mountain of paperwork involved, and we now have a credit limit; it’s laughably small compared to the one we have been used to, but it works, and by carefully paying it off each month we will be building ourselves up a credit score at last. How long all this will take is anyone’s guess, but we are on the road now.

And all of this might sound critical, but it’s not meant to – it’s just different. Like so many things we’ve encountered over the past year, it’s the little things which make us feel different – bank charges or the flavour of baked beans, it all just keeps us on our toes.