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Lost in translation

It's not easy to arrive in Denmark, open a bank account and pay Danish taxes. Here is a personal story about what it's like to find your feet in this country.

It’s always a good idea to keep a Danish friend nearby. Especially when dealing with official documents.

I first arrived in Denmark in August to study for my Masters. I packed my things in the US and boarded a plane. The excitement of living in a new country quickly turned into apprehension. My journey started with a few glitches, but I had faith that things would sort themselves out.
I was nervous about the language barrier but heard that the Danes were particularly good at English. My programme was in English as well, so I was not too worried about coming over here.
I received my Danish CPR number at the end of my first semester in late November. This meant that I could open a bank account, among many other things. After much stress, I finally existed in the eyes of the Danish government!
However, things weren’t going to be as easy as I thought.

I can’t speak Danish

I applied for my very own Danish bank account. I could finally spend money wherever and whenever I needed without having to convert it first, and without having to pay an international transaction fee.
Within a few weeks I would receive my Mastercard and directions on how to set up my account. I was aware that the bank offered an option in English. But the contract that was given to me was left mostly in Danish. After requesting the information in English, I received most of my mail with information on how to set up my NemID, in Danish.
However, I can’t read or speak Danish. Although this had only been a minor problem in the last few months when I needed to add credit to my phone, read signs in the library or elsewhere, arrange for transportation and shop for groceries, I didn’t realise how much of an obstacle it would be. This meant I could not activate my online banking. When I applied for the account I was told that I would have the option of using English to set up and use my account.
I walked into the bank to ask for help. I pulled a number and waited to be called to the cashier. I explained that I did not understand the bank’s letters (they had promised they would have them translated into English), so I couldn’t activate my card or account myself. The lady I was speaking to seemed irritated and told me that she couldn’t help, and even asked why I needed the bank’s material translated into English. She seemed to think that I ought to speak Danish – I had chosen to come to Denmark, after all.
I left the bank with an active card, but still without any directions about how to set up my online account.

How easy is NemID?

In order to register for taxes, among many other important documents I needed access to my NemID – Danish for “Easy ID”. I had also moved into student housing – my contract was also in Danish – and I needed to change my address. These documents were all accessible through the same account, one of the most important but also most complicated aspects of the Danish system.
Most people don’t run into these problems. Non-EU students typically face more issues related to registering themselves in Denmark. However, Aarhus is less friendly to visitors from abroad than you first expect. At first you feel as if you can get around without a translator. But it’s always a good idea to keep a Danish friend nearby. Especially when dealing with official documents.

Not sufficient translation

Annushka Hougaard, who works as a student assistant for the staff mobility unit at the International Centre, says that she has heard plenty of stories similar to mine. For instance, she often hears complaints regarding housing contracts that are only available in Danish.
Annushka translates both on and off the job. She assists PhD students in setting up accounts, and helps her friends or roommates translate documents. “I’ve helped people get Ebox, set up bank accounts and register their NemIDs – which you need for basically everything in Denmark. This all has to be done in Danish.”
She says, “People who don’t know Danish have no chance of doing it themselves”.
Sometimes Annushka Hougaard feels that Aarhus could be more friendly to visitors from abroad, especially since the university sets such store by its international reputation.
“I think the translations that the Danish government offer internationals today are not sufficient”.

Most of the major electronic self-service systems in our public sector only exist in Danish. Read more