How I’ve collected over 500 euros in fines from the Dutch tax office

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Rule number one when living in the Netherlands: never ignore a blue envelope. That's a message from the Belastingdienst, the Dutch tax office, which can fine you years after you made a mistake. If they're the ones mistakenly giving you benefits, you may also be asked to give everything back, all at once. This system is at the heart of the recent fall of the Dutch cabinet. Our blogger Hugo Bezombes shares his experiences with the blue letters.

I initially wanted to write this column in verse. It would be titled Blue Love Letters from Mr. Belastindienst and contain a stalking metaphor comparing the Dutch tax authority to a stranger. But, over the course of the past few weeks, these “love letters” have come to infuriate me.

Before going further in my criticism, I feel obliged to mention that I am clumsy with all things administrative and naturally bear some of the blame for my misfortunes. You’ll probably think that I’m an irresponsible idiot and, sure, you're allowed to think that: I’ve thought it too multiple times. But bear in mind that I was 17 years old when I moved to the Netherlands and had never paid taxes before.

2018: a good year for the Dutch Tax authorities
When do you start paying taxes? Convention would have it that you should do it once you start working and receiving a salary, right? Wrong! It turns out that any form of compensation (vergoeding in Dutch) is eligible for taxes and therefore needs to be declared to the tax office.

In 2018, I had just started my year at the University Council of the Eindhoven University of Technology, which means I was receiving a compensation for representing the students. It was a modest sum, but even so, I was already targeted by the blue bullies. Ahhh the joy: I was contributing to Dutch society and being asked to pay taxes! But since I didn’t receive an actual salary, I thought “nah, this doesn’t apply to me”.

Because of the speed at which the Dutch Tax authorities operate, I am only getting notified about my mistake now. It turns out I owe the Belastingdienst 66 euros worth of taxes on the vergoeding I used to receive and 369 euros out of fines because the tax return I didn’t know I had to submit was late.

Why isn’t the tax system more accessible for internationals?
I know what you’ll say: I should have informed myself better. But you should know that the Belastingdienst’s website only has an English home page, which features the following text:

tax.png

But it's only possible to declare your taxes online in Dutch and the only explanation form available in English is for “non-resident taxpayers”, also known as rich people with property in the Netherlands. If you call the Belastingdienst's phone line for guidance, they’re not allowed to provide information in English.

You might also say that I should learn Dutch. Well, I have, but words like Heffingskorting or Bezwaarcheck are hardly common vocabulary.

I am tired of getting fined by a system I do not understand and that makes no efforts to be understandable. The Netherlands prides itself on having clear and accountable governance but its tax system for internationals is anything but.

My 3-step plan to fixing the system
Of course, there is no problem without a solution, so here is my 3 step-plan to tackle the problem.

Step 1: Send a letter to first-time taxpayers explaining to them what, where and how they have to pay. What’s one more letter?

Step 2: Translate your whole website into English.  

Step 3: Show leniency to first-time taxpayers as everybody makes mistakes.

Step 4 (bonus): Education institutions could organise a course on the Dutch tax and insurance system for foreign students.  

Disclaimer: If at any point in this blog, it sounds like I don’t know what I’m talking about, I don’t. That’s why I’m constantly getting fined.

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