Expat story: Stepping into love and life in Leiden
Greek-American Expat Eleni Menoutis offers a handy guide to moving to and living in the Netherlands.
In September 2009, upon appointment at the municipality in Leiden, I went to the offices and presented both my Greek and American passports, a certified copy of my US birth certificate with an apostille, and my Greek birth certificate (Pistopitiko). I filled out several standard forms which required information such as my parents' names and birthdays, my birthday and my current address. My boyfriend also had to sign my forms, confirming that I would be living with him. We thought we would have to become registered partners, but because of my EU citizenship it was not necessary (sigh).
I received my final confirmation letter about three weeks later. It should have actually only taken about one or two weeks, but there was an issue with the spelling of my last name on my Greek passport, due to Greek females omitting the 's' at the end of their family name. Anyway, here in the Netherlands I am officially Eleni Menoutis with Griekse-Amerikaanse nationaliteit! I also received my BSN (Burger Service Number), which is the Dutch social security number. With this number I could finally open up a Dutch bank account, get a PIN (Dutch debit card), sign up for a phone contract and apply for health insurance, which is mandatory for all residents. For the bank, ABN Amro at least, all I needed to sign up was a form of identification and my BSN number.
A word of advice: schedule an appointment at your municipality as soon as you arrive in the Netherlands; legally, you're supposed to do so within five days. Up until I received my BSN number I was being charged about USD 13 for every transaction at the ATM! And I had to use my American phone! I did buy a prepaid SIM card, but it wasn't compatible with my American Nokia. If you run into the same situation, go to a phone store and ask to have your phone ‘unlocked.’
So let’s quickly sum up the initial official steps of moving to the Netherlands: registering yourself at your municipality, receiving a BSN number, opening up a Dutch bank account, getting a PIN card, signing up for a phone contract (though I actually buy prepaid minutes) and purchasing health insurance. There are just a few more terms and tips I'd like to share with you!
Since my boyfriend and I don't have high incomes (yet), we are able to receive zorgtoeslag, "care allowance," where we get back a little more than half of what we pay monthly for health insurance, including eye and dental! The full amount is automatically taken out of our accounts at the end of every month and we are reimbursed the half on the 20th of the following month. Make sure to apply for this if you're eligible.
Another good term to know about is huurtoeslag, "housing allowance," which enables residents to receive half back on their rent each month. Yeah, wow is right. Unfortunately we don't have our own front door, which means that we aren’t eligible for this, but our next apartment, which we’re still patiently waiting to find on Woonzicht (search ‘starters’), will allow us to receive huurtoeslag!
But what I’m most thankful for would have to be the EUR 4000 budget I received from the municipality of Leiden to learn Dutch. All I had to do was sign an integration agreement stating that I would follow an inburgeringsprogramma, "integration programme," which in my case was learning Dutch at Leiden University, and take het Staatsexamen Nederlands als Tweede Taal (NT2), "the Dutch state exam." Before signing the agreement, I had to go to an IND integration office and get my Greek passport stamped. I also had to bring along a photocopy of my health insurance card and a printout of my bank statement showing that I had at least EUR 7000 in my account, proving I was not a burden to the country.
My generous budget covered levels 1&2, 3&4, 5&6, all of my books, a preparatory course for the state exam and even the exam itself. And I'm happy to say I recently received my NT2 Programma II Diploma in the mail! Dutch is now officially my second language and I'm allowed to study in Dutch if I want to! I'm proud to have passed all four sections — listening, speaking, reading and writing — on the first try. Everybody has the chance to take the exam three times, and if you fail a section you only have to retake that section. But make sure you're really ready before you register because it takes five weeks before receiving your results!
Definitely go to the Sociale Dienst, "social services," in your city to find out if your municipality can help pay for your Dutch courses/integration program. Some of my classmates' courses were also funded through the IB-Groep, so check that out as well. If you're a EU citizen however, the IB-Groep will not help pay. I would definitely recommend taking classes through Leiden University, the best language university in the Netherlands. The classes are intense, the teachers are wonderful and your classmates will become your closest friends.
Yay for OV: Getting around the Netherlands
Some people in the Netherlands prefer to travel by boat, car, moped or motorcycle, but the most famous form of transportation will always be the bicycle, followed by public transportation. Next to walking, these last two are my favourites.
The OV-chipkaart is the handiest thing you can have in the Netherlands. It's an all-in-one card for the train, tram, bus and metro. I used to buy the standard paper tickets, but now I just travel op saldo. I simply load money onto my OV-chipkaart and scan in and out. I have the voordeelurenkaart abonnement, or peak discount card plan, so I receive 40 percent off after 8:55 a.m. Three of my friends can also travel with me and receive the same deal!
Another great service to take advantage of is OV-fiets. For only EUR 9.50 a year I'm able to rent two bicycles, EUR 2.85 per bike per day, for 20 hours! Every main train station has an OV-fiets rental location that supplies comfortable bikes with nice high handles and an easy lock system. Simply go online and add this feature to your OV-chipkaart. The greener and cheaper, the better!
Life in the Netherlands has been pretty nice so far. Follow my personal account and enjoy your stay!
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