By Stephen Thompson
The first two years I lived in Brazil, I longed to have a bank account. But now I've got one, I wish I didn't.
I sometimes wonder what Kafka would have thought of Brazil. Perhaps he would have written extra chapters to his book The Trial, which became a synonym for bureaucratic nightmares, including one on the Brazilian banking system, had he had the pleasure to have an account here.
I couldn't open a bank account because I didn't have an RNE, a National Foreigners Registration number. I was married to a Brazilian, so I had a right to permanent residency, but the waiting time for an RNE was about two years.
When I applied for an RNE, I was interviewed by the Brazilian Federal police. I was asked whether I had been working in Brazil, but I was warned that before I answered I should bear in mind that either answer would incriminate me. It is illegal to work in Brazil without an RNE, but it is also illegal to be married to a Brazilian and not provide financial support to them. I thought for a while and then asked which crime carried a heavier penalty. "I'm afraid you'll have to consult a lawyer", came the reply. So I said, "well I've been working a little bit, doing some odd jobs you know what I mean." "That's okay then," said the police woman.
Eventually I jumped the queue and got my RNE within a few weeks by applying directly to the Brazilian Embassy from my own country, and when I returned to Brazil I was finally able to open a Brazilian bank account. That's when all my troubles began.
Today I'm trying to sort out my credit card. While I was away, my payments were not deducted automatically because my money was in the wrong kind of fund. Shortly after returning to Brazil, I received a phone call offering a deal to clear my debts. This I did, however a few weeks later I received another phone call explaining that I was being taken to court because I hadn't paid the debt in full.
This afternoon I have been trying to find out what happened. It seems to be something to do with the Brazilian custom of spreading payments for big-ticket items over several months. For example if you buy an air ticket, you can pay for it in up to 10 instalments. The instalments are charged to
your credit card over a period of 10 months. As interest payments on visiting credit cards are in the region of 10% per month, this saves a lot of interest. It appears that one or more of these monthly payments was not included on my credit card statements.
I'm trying to speak to the credit card company and I'm slowly going crazy. This morning I phoned them 12 times, four times I've been put through to a recorded message saying that all the lines are busy and will I please call back later. The other eight times a sleepy sounding secretary at the University of Brasilia has answered my call. There is some kind of malfunction with the telephone system but presumably I'm not being charged for a long-distance call from São Paulo to Brasilia. The secretary doesn't seem to be irritated after I call her by accident eight times, I explain what's happening and she tells me this is normal, it happens all the time. Something is wrong with the telephone system.
But as I have some unfinished business at the University of Brasilia maybe this telephonic glitch has a silver lining for me.
I have been trying for some time to be accepted at the University of São Paulo and this has become another ongoing bureaucratic battle. In order to study at a Brazilian University, my university degree needs to be ratified by a Brazilian University. Since my university degree is not offered by any Brazilian University, I have been advised that I have more chance at the University of Brasilia, where they have more experience of dealing with foreigners with strange qualifications,
due to the large diplomatic community resident in the capital. But this ratification process is slow and bureaucratic, taking an average of eight to 10 months, and involves lots of expensive long-distance telephone calls, and I have been so busy lately dealing with my bank account that I don't know where I got to in the process.
So since I can't sort out my credit card bill, I decided to take advantage of the malfunction of the telephone system, to speak to the staff at the University of Brasilia for the cost of a local call. Then maybe I can go back to university in Brazil, which is one of the few freebies available to foreigners here. In the meantime, the Brazilian justice system will order my bank account to be suspended and I can go back to keeping my cash under the mattress, which is probably the safest place for it.
So if you were thinking of opening a bank account, here is my advice. If you have a lot of money, you will earn lots of money in interest payments. But if you don't have very much money, you will pay a lot of money in bank charges. Try to avoid having a credit card, if you miss a payment you'll be charged at least 10% and could be taken to court. Don't use an overdraft, the interest payment is almost as much as for a credit card. If you use a cheque-book, don't write cheques for small amounts less than 25 reals, as you will be charged by your bank. A common form of crime in Brazil is altering checks, keep an eye on your bank statement. If you're thinking about transferring money to Brazil from abroad, be aware that it may not be possible to send it back again. Remember the Brazilian currency goes up and down, and that this depends more on what's happening to US interest rates than to the fundamentals of the Brazilian economy. At the moment the Brazilian real is strong, but you can be pretty sure that the exchange-rate will be different in six to 12 months.
Stephen Thompson runs "O Gaucho", a snack bar serving breakfast, juices, smoothies, sandwiches. For an English menu contact firstname.lastname@example.org
To read previous articles by Stephen click the links below:
Brazils Middle Class Ruled By Political Apathy