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The little differences: 7. Gas bill as ID

For Swiss people (and perhaps many expats now living here) it is completely natural to always carry either a passport or an ID card on them.

By Martin Pütter

Many expats living in the Basel area may have experienced this already – just as all vehicle-driving locals will at least once in their life. You are driving your car, or your motorbike, and all of a sudden a policeman waves you to the side of the road (I use “policeman” on purpose as I have never seen policewomen do this kind of job – but I digress). After a polite greeting he will inform you that he and his colleagues further up or down the road are doing a vehicle check. He will then ask you to produce your papers – which means he wants to see your driver’s licence, car registration document and either your passport or your ID card.

With any luck, you will have all those documents on you. You might then be asked just to show whether the lights are all working. Assuming they are, you can be on the road again, like Davy. If one of those documents is missing, however, you are in trouble. If you have left either your car registration document or your driver’s licence (or both) at home, you will be fined. If you have left your passport or ID card at home or at the office, it gets tricky: The police might ask you to come with them to the station to have your identity verified beyond the shadow of a doubt. That might entail phoning someone to bring your passport or ID card to the station.

Now in the UK, for example, it is a different ball game. “Sorry, officer, I must have left my driver’s licence at home.” – “No problem, please present yourself at the police station nearest to where you live within the next 24 hours and bring your driver’s licence with you.” (Slight variations of this dialogue are of course possible). The police will not ask you for your car registration because that is already attached (in form of a sticker) to your car’s windscreen. Or take opening a bank account, for example: Simply produce a gas bill or a phone bill either alone or together with your driver’s licence and you will get your account. Forget trying to do that in Switzerland: no passport, no account.

Passports, ID cards – there are quite a few differences between Switzerland and Anglo-Saxon countries when it comes to this. Unlike Germany, there is no identification obligation (i. e. possession of a foolproof identity document) in Switzerland, whether or not you are Swiss – and neither in Switzerland nor even in Germany it is mandatory to always carry such an official form of identification on you. Nor do expats need to carry their foreign national identity card on them. However, de facto you should always have some form of identification on you – see the example of a vehicle check above.

In the USA, strictly speaking, you need neither a passport nor an ID card to prove who you are. A driver’s licence works in lieu of a passport (i.e. it is a form of identification with a picture of you in it). Some states also issue so-called liquor cards proving that the owner of the card is old enough to buy alcohol (e.g. older than 21 years in some states). And US citizens, permanent residents and temporary (working) residents are issued a nine-digit Social Security Number (SSN) which has also become a de facto means of identifying yourself. Actually, the same is possible in Switzerland: If you cannot find your passport or your ID card, having your OASI number on you (Old Age and Survivors’ Insurance) can help identify you

Now the UK is an altogether different matter. Possession of a foolproof identity document is not mandatory, and carrying such a document with you at all times is not mandatory, either. The same goes for the Republic of Ireland, although many people there have an age card, similar to the liquor card in the USA. And UK citizens only need passports when they want to travel abroad. But mention ID cards in the UK, and a heated debate will start. An infringement of civil liberties, discrimination against minorities, huge costs – these are the three major points mentioned by those opposed to ID cards in the UK.

Let’s look at those three points. Huge costs: an ID card in Switzerland, valid for ten years, costs just 70 francs for adults (postage included), or 7 francs per annum – that is huge, isn’t it? Discrimination against minorities? It would be, if information about religious belief or ethnic origin were needed to get an ID card here, but in fact it is neither necessary nor is it ever added when supplied. Infringement of civil liberties? Do they mean the liberty to be unable to produce a piece of identification when needed? It seems so.

As my colleague at The Basel Journal, Bronwen Saunders, pointed out: “One traditional argument against ID cards is ‘An Englishman shouldn’t have to prove who he is when walking down the street.’ Unfortunately, people never seem to realize that if they don’t have to provide proof positive, then no one else does either.” Thus identity fraud has become a big issue – and producers of paper shredders have been making hefty profits as people scramble to prevent old utility bills from falling into the wrong hands.

Now for all those who thought that in my previous articles in this series I was just Swiss-bashing: I still cannot get over it that in the UK I need only a gas bill to prove who I am (and yes, I tried it myself while I lived in London some years ago). I still prefer proving my identity with either an ID card or passport.

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