Holvi Blog for Makers and Doers

The cheque that travelled around the world: A tale of lust, money and football...

Off topic · 28/10/14 12:17 · Fernando

Note to the reader: This post is about a personal story involving the current state of finance in the world, and its unsuitability to a modern lifestyle. Hence the first-person perspective. It might come in VERY handy if you're a J1 visa holder returning to your home country.

As we gear up for Pioneers Festival in Vienna, I figured it'd be worthwhile taking a step back from every-day duties for a moment and consider why it is that we do what we do at Holvi. What is it we are trying to solve? Often, it feels to me - these mental exercises bring a sense of clarity and added purpose to my personal involvement in the industry. 

Last year, I took part in one of the greatest things I have ever done. I embarked on a journey of self-discovery to work with a startup in the US as part of the Startup Life programme. It was an immensely testing and rewarding experience. It taught me more about my own person, my beliefs, ideals and real goals than 8 years of university (although not as much as Startup Bus!). But I'll leave all that for another post - the most relevant thing is, it left me with the obligation to file for my tax return with the IRS. An endeavour that, done from outside the US, would become a test of will power and patience.

So, once I received all the documentation and found out I was due to file for a total refund of about USD 1942 (not a fortune, I know - but I was going to Brazil for the World Cup, and that was my travel budget for over a month) - I set out to find out what services out there might make it easier and faster to receive my refund. I looked into using TurboTax, but this was not an option for non-residents; then I looked at Ireland-based taxback.com, who seem to specialise in processing US tax returns for J1 Visa travellers - after a couple of emails however, I decided against using them also (the Net amount they would have paid me after 8 weeks would have been USD 1400.

So, stubborn as I am, and unwilling to part with USD 500+ of my hard-earned money - I decided to contact relatives in the US and connect with their personal accountant, who offered to do all filing (and pre-fill all the forms!) for a total fee of USD 100. True to his word, just one-and-a-half weeks after the filing deadline, I received a modest, plain-white envelope through regular mail, containing a crisp-looking paper inside. Printed on it was 1942 US Dollars' worth of joy. And I'd saved over USD 400 in fees. Win, right?

Screenshot 2014-10-28 12.02.23 The culprit

Until it was time to cash it.

A quick search for services to cash my cheque while in Europe was pretty pointless, so I decided to take it down to my bank's local branch. The staff there said they would gladly take it, but would have to check their manuals to find out exactly how they should proceed. After much deliberation among 3 of the staff, they finally agreed to take it and send it off for me to cash it. When I asked for an explanation on the procedure, they said the cheque had to be sent back to the United States to their partner bank, who would then honour it and wire the money back to them. They added the total processing time would be around 5 weeks and their fees would be around 60 - 70 EUR. A quick mental calculation went something like this (local bank fees = 70 EUR, US Bank fee for wiring money to Finland = ca. 70 Dollars + potential inbound cheque fees + waiting time). Not an option, since I was departing for Brazil within the week, plus on principle, I was already committed to the path of circumventing the existing procedures in order to save as much money and time as possible. I decided to take the cheque with me and take my chances.



So, off I went to catch my flights. I had a 4-hour stopover at JFK on the way to Rio, so my logic went like this: find a bank at JFK, cash cheque; or leave airport, find a local bank and cash cheque; or try to cash cheque at Travelex. I had run over it a few times during the flight, and was determined to make it happen.

Until I realised: there are no banks at JFK, Travelex would not touch the cheque and apparently (I have not confirmed the accuracy of this) it is not legal to cash cheques for a fee in NY State without a bank account (I had closed my Chase account when I left the US so I would not have to pay fees due to inactivity). Disgruntled but determined, I figured a global bank branch once in Rio would probably take my cheque and honour it for  a lower fee than a Finnish bank. Off I went...

Once in Rio, I must say, I got sidetracked for about a week - that city will do that to you; but once on the task again, I grabbed my man-bag full of documents (I was the only one at the hostel with one of those) and off to the HSBC bank branch I went. Except, this was a week before the opening of the World Cup and, like half of the country, the Union covering security employees for the banks was on strike. All banks were closed - HSBC, Citibank, local Itaú, you name it - no luck!

Convinced that God is a banker (or the universe was out to get me), punishing me for refusing to let my humble local bank dock me around 200 € for giving me my money, I decided to get creative - and ask my friends in NY who banked with Chase. I had an account with them and handled all my cheques via their mobile app for iOS. They always deposited cash in just a couple of days and I hated myself for not thinking of this in the first place. Couldn't go wrong, right? I enlisted my Finnish friend in Manhattan (with bank accounts on both sides of the Atlantic, and strategically positioned to obtain funds in NY and deposit them immediately for me in Finland, from her local account) to help me go the last mile.

Except she couldn't.

Security features in the mobile app cheque scan meant that continuously trying to scan a copy of my cheque would simply not work. So I was off to FedEx, to overnight her the original. I paid the local FedEx agent 50 EUR to get the cheque to my friend at work within 48 hours, and the deal would be done.

Except it's illegal to mail cheques internationally in Brazil. Even via FedEx.

What's the logic here? Was my question. The IRS sends cheques around the world via regular mail! So, it's okay for them, but not okay for me to FedEx them from Brazil, back to where they came from? Eventually, I got a refund from FedEx - so at least I was still beating taxback.com. I needed to find every tiny positive in my situation. Running out of money and in a moment of weakness, I went online and posted this rant (I did not know at the time that I would join Holvi a few months later).

Why Holvi matters Why Holvi matters



My friend in the US had the brilliant idea of trying the cheque-scan one last time. This time using an Android device.

It worked.

And we painted Brazil a bright Colombia yellow. With an extra USD 1800 in my pocket.






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