The evils of the ‘proof of address’
As an expat trying to set up in a new country, there are 10 words you dread hearing above all else: “Certainly ma’am, I’ll just need a proof of address please.”
The ‘certainly’ and the ‘just’ are particularly torturous. They imply ‘yes, it is easy for me to give you this essential service/product/system’ and ‘I simply require that most basic of items that surely everybody can provide — an official document such as a bill, tenancy agreement or bank statement that has your name and your current address’.
But of course many people can’t provide this kind of evidence of their existence.
For those of us who can, what are we expected to sacrifice to be able to do so?
Debt, contracts & commitment
Each of these documents requires us to have taken on long-term financial commitments. Often ones that put us in debt or, at the very least, require us to keep earning a certain salary to make repayments.
Take buying a new mobile. You can buy one outright and then use a pre-paid network service. Or you can get a 24-month contract that gives you the phone upfront and bundles it with a credit and data package, payable in monthly instalments.
With the latter option, the company enters your details into their system, bungs them on a bill and there you go, you’ve got your proof of address.
What you’ve also got, though, is a tie that binds you to a place, a job and a way of living.
On its own, one bill may not be a big deal. But then there’s the 12-month electricity contract you signed to get lights and heating, the 6-week deposit you’ll lose if you end your rental lease early, and the year’s gym membership you had to take out to access exercise equipment at any sort of reasonable rate.
It can quickly add up to a life that feels quintessentially structured to prevent you from living according to your instincts, from acting impulsively and from following your dreams.
Nobody likes a nomad
Heaven forbid you take a year off from all of this to travel the globe; you may never be allowed back into the fold of normal society.
Since arriving in London, for example, I’ve filled out several online job applications that require a 5-year employment history “with no gaps”.
If you don’t literally have every day accounted for since 2010, the automated system recognises an ‘error’. A little line of red text appears and you can’t proceed with your submission.
Suffice to say, there’s no space to explain “I went travelling for a few months to clear my head”. Or, “I saved up so I could take off six months to try and write a book”, or whatever your personal project might be.
Freedom & temperament
Naturally, how you feel about this matter is also a question of temperament. Freedom means different things to different people and I think it changes throughout our lives, too.
There are elements of commitment most of us really do want. A roof over our heads is pretty important. Likewise, knowing we can earn a regular income and afford to feed ourselves and our families. This isn’t an anti-work manifesto!
But do we accept too easily the trade-offs we are asked to make? Our lives should not be templates written by our social and economic institutions.
Every time we try to fill out a form and discover we don’t fit, maybe the solution is not to add another check box (e.g. Please state whether you identify as heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex), but to abolish the boxes.
Global citizens — there’s got to be a better way
Vaguely, we have a notion that this requirement for everyone in the world to have an address is rooted in safety and security concerns. Protection from identity fraud, protection for the companies that lend us money, protection against terrorism — all very valid.
But in this age of electronic communication, digital banking, passports with chips and technological identification, surely the proof of address is an outmoded inconvenience.
I’m not talking about trying to live outside ‘the system’. I just want the right to live a diverse, multi-faceted, unique life without jeopardising my entire future eligibility for bank accounts, health care services, employment and who knows what else.
When our system impels us to pick one pattern of living and stick to it, we’re selling ourselves short in ways we can’t even imagine.