Bootstrapping with a Maze of Dependencies (October 28, 2005)
Bootstrapping in Switzerland is hard. It's always hard to move
somewhere different because you are building up from almost nothing.
It's particularly hard in Switzerland, though, because you don't just
walk up and buy what you need. Everything has prerequisites, and to
get started, you have to sort your activities carefully. Some of the
dependencies are cyclical, and so you must break the cycle and get
started by doing things half-baked at first and then returning later
to do the properly.
The most vicious cycle is between housing and the "B Permit" that
proves you are a legal resident. Many, many things require showing a
B Permit -- it's even more severe here than in Denmark with
its national ID cards. Getting housing requires a B Permit,
but getting a permit requires having a local residence.
There are many such dependencies. Here are some items that are
needed (or at least desirable) to bootstrap in a new country:
- HOUSING - you need a place to live long-term.
- BANK - you need a bank account to hold your money.
- HR - you need to go through human resources at your employer.
- INCOME - you need to establish a stream of income to pay for things.
- INTERNET - this is necessary only if you are not omniscient. For
the mortals among us, the Internet provides information
for doing everything else. (Don't ask me how people
got started here back in the dark ages.)
- PHONE - necessary only if you are not omniscient. It lets
you work with local contacts to get things done. Connections
are vital around here for making things happen in the face
of regulations and guilds and so on.
- PERMIT - a good ole' national ID card. Without it you may
as well not exist for many purposes.
That's a short list. Now here is what those things depend on:
- PERMIT : HOUSING + HR. You can't get a permit without proof
that you reside here and proof that you have a job and can
- BANK : HOUSING. You can't get an account without
a home address.
- HOUSING : HR + PERMIT + INTERNET. In practice, you cannot
get apartment without all of: proving you will have income
to pay for the place, having a residence permit showing
that you are legal, and without having access to information
about available housing.
- INTERNET : There are a zillion ways to get Internet
access, some better than others. I'd rather sit at home and surf
from an easy chair, but when getting started I don't have a home
or an easy chair and so some other approach is necessary. Anyway,
since Internet access doesn't have any hard dependencies, it is
one of the first things that I worked on.
- INCOME : HR. You don't get paid until you have signed lots
of legal documents, etc.
- HR : BANK + PERMIT. Human resources, at least at EPFL, needs you
to have a residence permit. Further, they will only pay you if
you have a bank account -- they don't issue checks here.
- PHONE : PERMIT. Cell phone cards, at least, are only given
out to those who have a residence permit. A passport is not
Here are some typical cycle-breaking hacks to get bootstrapped in
the face of the above mess of dependencies:
- Live on the floor at a friend's place when you first arrive.
That way you have a "residence" of sorts to satisfy everyone
who wants you to have HOUSING.
- Pay using Visa or an ATM card from your home country. This loses
you a lot of money due to currency-transfer fees,
but it means that you can survive without INCOME for a while.
- Go through human-resources without getting paid at first.
Then you don't need a BANK account to get through human
resources. Come back later when you have an account.
- Some banks are looser about the housing restriction than others.
In particular, the local bank BCV in my locale is satisfied if you
show them a passport and a U.S. driver's license (don't ask me
what the logic is!). So shop around for the easiest account to
get, not the best account. Get a better account (if you care)
later on after you are better established.
- Suck it up and pay massive fees--on the order of 20 CHF/hour--for
Internet access at the train station. I know there are cafe's
around that have free access, but I haven't dug them yet -- that
takes time that is better spent on other things.
Besides, the train station is conveniently located both for
running to to get information and for departing to wherever you
need to go next.
I'm told that life in Switzerland moves like clockwork once you
make it through all the initial bureaucratic dependencies and are
thoroughly inspected, branded, stamped, and papered. Since everything
requires all these cards and papers and so on, however, it certainly
is hard to get started. I wonder what people do here who don't have
my advantages, e.g. political refugees? I doubt it's impossible, but
the "mere" week I've spent working full time on this would probably
not be enough.