“Herzlichen Glückwünsch!” beamed the rather plain, middle-aged Beamtin sitting across from me and my best friend at the Kreuzberg Standesamt. It felt sincere. I had achieved the Holy Grail: not only was I granted my long-awaited German citizenship, but I could keep my American citizenship as well. She continued in German: “Now along with all the advantages of dual citizenship, comes certain disadvantages…” When she mentioned “Doppelsteuerpflicht” (“double tax liability”) – we shared a small chuckle. You need to make a lot of money to have to file we both thought – and we felt so cosily poor. In fact, I had received dual citizenship precisely because I was nowhere near this imagined amount. According to German legal statute 188.8.131.52.2.1, one doesn’t have to give up their original citizenship when receiving German, if an “undue financial burden” could be proven. A burden easy to prove when the fee to give up US citizenship was $2350 – a fee, even at rates converted two years ago, was higher than my monthly salary.
Cashing in on Trump: the orange check
That was in January of 2018 and a global pandemic was still the stuff of Hollywood film. Fast forward to 2020, Corona has laid waste to many a Mensch’s personal finances. While countries and cities varied greatly in how they approached the issue (Berlin had its own IBB payouts for freelancers), I had heard the US was handling things in a relatively straightforward way. The rumor proved true when, sitting at my Texan friend Christopher’s kitchen table, I noticed an orange scrap of paper, suspiciously looking like a check. Upon closer inspection, it was a check. A greenish-orange check from the orange US president Donald J. Trump for $1200.
Complete with illustration of the Statue of Liberty, the gaudy font of the US Treasury and Trump’s own name spelled out (the addition of which apparently caused delay in the distribution of the checks). “How did you get this?” I asked Christopher. “They just sent it to me, after I did my American taxes,” he replied. A sense of hope and dread washed over me. It was now mid-July and by now I had been hear- ing about the US Economic Impact Payments vaguely from people since spring. But this was the first time I’d seen one.
And I may not be the poor, scrappy Berliner I was when I moved here, but I would be dumb to pass up $1200 – free money! But then again, wasn’t I still too poor to file taxes? I reached out to my old pal Summer Banks, an American who had been here for a decade and asked her if she’d been filing her US taxes. “Well, yeah,” she said. “I’m too paranoid about being caught at the airport, so I dutifully fill out the 1040 and 2555 every year, send them to some address in Texas and that’s it.” That’s it? While the 1040 and its variants are the most recognizable tax form to every American, the 2555 was new to me. Form 2555, also known as “Foreign Earned Income”, was the basic missing piece of the expat tax filing puzzle. “Do you ever end up owing anything?” I had to know. “Nope,” she told me. “You have to earn over $100,000 to pay.”
For 2019, it’s $105,900 actually. It was right there in black and white on my new friend Form 2555. I fired up TurboTax, an online tax service that will do your uncomplicated, current taxes for free if you make under a certain amount and dove back into the system by filing my 2019 taxes. It took maybe an hour, since I basically had to transfer numbers over from my German Steuererklärung, and that was it! At first, the status website for the Economic Impact Payments wasn’t helpful, repeatedly saying they had no information about my check.
My innate American mistrust of government had me paranoid that maybe I had done something wrong and they were coming for me instead. But only seven days after filing, I was informed that my check would go out a mere three business days later. One week later, it was there in my mail box, barely concealed in a flimsy envelope with US Treasury in the top left corner as the return address.
Cashing a US check in Berlin
But what does one do with a check – a foreign check –in Germany? My bank wouldn’t take it. Christopher hadn’t cashed his yet because he had no idea how. My one foolhardy step in the whole process was asking my fellow countrymen – the Americans in Berlin Facebook group. Digging through an enormous amount of Taco Update posts I did find some posts relating to what to do with the check… all full of answers that sounded more like bravado than knowledge. Too bad my question wasn’t about Tabasco sauce.
I had to step out of that black hole to get my answer (and block those posts from coming up in my feed), eventually finding an American friend on Facebook who said he’d cashed it at a Reisebank in Ostbahnhof. A day later, I was at former East Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, where a woman protected by plexiglass shield (COVID safe from the get-go) took the check, my German ID and asked me to put down my signature before handing me €900.
Was it a fair exchange rate? Who knows? But I was €900 richer and I had filed my taxes for the first time in years. Thanks, Trump! Sort of. Does it feel weird – hypocritical? – for me, a registered Democrat, to take the “Trump Check” (the damn thing does have his name on it!). Well, let’s be real, it’s free money, not my vote. Given the state of the US economy, the Democrats would have also passed out a check – probably a bigger one. To be honest, I was not-so-secretly hoping Trump would push through a second check to buy my vote. It wouldn’t have worked on me, but I would have still taken it. See, I started working on getting my German driving license. And it takes more than one Trump check to pay for driving school in this city!
Haven’t got your Trump Check yet? If you’re an American citizen, you now have until November 21 at midnight to file for $1200 of free money. Just look up “Economic Impact Payments” on irs.gov.