by Ani Ivanova; illustration by Gergana Shkodrova

Finding your way through Bulgaria' maze of red tape is difficult but not impossible - if you know what to do, and how

redtape bulgaria.jpg

Coming from the UK you are bound to find Bulgaria's administrative system slow, awkward and corrupt, and private firms sluggish, overstaffed and reluctant to do business on the phone. However, you can manage – using your common sense, insisting on your rights, reading the small print and/or getting a good solicitor will go a long way towards saving you from trouble.

1. Language

As those of you living outside the capital and other cities will have noticed, English is rarely spoken, so having a grasp of Bulgarian is crucial in all areas of life – from ordering your meal to running your business. Plenty of language schools offer intensive and part-time courses, and even lessons via Skype, and the prices will be three times cheaper than in Britain.

2. Setting up a company

Anyone looking to buy land in Bulgaria must do so through their own company. To set one up independently you would only need to engage a local solicitor. Alternatively, most property agencies offer this service for clients. Bulgarian Bar Association members can be found on the Bulgarian Law Portal website (www.lex.bg) or rely on word of mouth.

3. Maintenance

The property buying stage is when you should look at your maintenance contract carefully. With resort apartments, expect a fixed, all-inclusive annual charge often quoted as a cost per square metre of apartment. Alternatively, the resort maintenance charge may include a fixed amount for the upkeep of amenities, with utility bills being calculated on actual consumption. In residential properties, apartment owners usually organise the maintenance themselves.

4. Property insurance

Once you have bought your property, consider insuring it against various risks. In Bulgaria, property insurance is optional, but some developers may have included it in the sale price, so check it out. Think about arranging insurance locally as policies in Bulgaria are cheaper. Ask your real estate agent/property management company for advice/assistance with insurance, or contact an insurer yourself. Bear in mind that insurers here require a much more detailed list of the potential hazards you want included. If letting your property, third party liability will protect you from any damage caused by tenants.

5. Renting

Finding a home to rent shouldn't be too much trouble provided you do your homework. Decide on the location, facilities and type of building you want. Brief your English-speaking agent in detail with your requirements and what you consider acceptable. If you opt for an unfurnished apartment, be prepared to provide your own white goods. The day you sign the rental agreement you pay for the current month and a refundable deposit of the same amount.

6. Property fraud

If you have bought property in Bulgaria, only to find subsequently that you were in some way deceived, your solicitor will file a suit in the court. Be aware that the entire process – from the first- to the third-instance court – can take up to three or four years. However, the law allows for the ruling to be enforced once the second-instance court has issued a judgment. Any small claims, such as damage to your property, involve the same procedure, only much faster.

7. Cars

If you're coming to Bulgaria from an EU country in a private vehicle, you must have all the car documents as well as insurance that is valid in Bulgaria (a policy can be bought at the border, if necessary). Excise taxes are only due if your vehicle's engine exceeds 120 kW/160 hp. Keeping foreign plates saves expats from having to register with KAT, or the Traffic Police Directorate, but makes vehicles a target for thieves. To swap your registration plates for Bulgarian ones, use the services of a company specialising in car registration or your solicitor. Regardless of what plates you're using, you can drive on your national (if coming from an EU member state) or international driving licence. You may be stopped by traffic police for routine checks, or in case of speeding or an accident.

The traffic police are currently not allowed to collect any fines – despite continuous talk that they may be allowed to collect fines of up to 50 leva. To be on the safe side, keep an eye on any subsequent changes in the Traffic Code. If you are shown a radar picture of you speeding, they should issue you a ticket and take you to a bank to pay your fine. Alternatively, if caught speeding by a crossroads or highway camera, you will receive a notification at your permanent address. Grave violations of speed limits can result in confiscating your licence. Don't offer cash to anyone as this is considered a bribe. If asked to do this, contact the anti-corruption hotline on 982 2222 or at www.nocorr.mvr.bg, insist on an authorised translation and refuse to sign anything until you get one.

In addition, traffic cops can impose fines for not having third party liability cover which is mandatory in Bulgaria. So if your third party policy expires, take steps to renew it. Bear in mind that only a few local companies provide insurance for foreign-registered cars. Motor insurance policies are voluntary, can cover you against all or some major risks, and may be exclusive to Bulgaria or valid abroad. Note the risks included in your policy as few local insurers cover you for theft/vehicle robbery in Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the former Soviet Republics. Importantly, if an EU citizen, you can leave your car in your garage whenever exiting the country without it.

8. Banking

Opening a bank account is relatively easy. You need your passport and certificate of long-term residence, but note that you cannot withdraw your funds for a few days.

If your card has been kept in an ATM, and/or skimmed, call either your bank or BORIKA, the national card operator, to have it cancelled. In the case of a fraudulent withdrawal, notify the bank that issued the card. Opinions differ as to whether the police should also be contacted. It seems a police investigation is clumsier, yet in the case of a robbery or other criminal activity, notifying them is a must. Unlike elsewhere, banks in Bulgaria do not automatically refund the money lost due to fraud, if at all. Should your claim be rejected, make another one with the help of a solicitor.

9. Health

There are many private health centres where facilities and treatment rival standards in the West, but when it comes to emergencies or major surgery, you will probably have no alternative but to accept treatment in a state-run hospital, where facilities and aftercare are below what you might expect.

In case of an emergency dial 150 to reach the ambulance service. Emergencies go to the regional emergency unit or else to the nearest hospital. Bulgaria has a reciprocal agreement with the UK for the provision of free emergency medical and dental care – as long as you have your passport and NHS medical card. As an EU member Bulgaria provides emergency and urgent medical treatment to EU visitors in possession of an EHIC. If you have the EHIC or private insurance, your expenses – for emergency and other treatment – will be covered by it on the basis of documentation issued by the clinic/hospital. UK citizens can claim a refund through the NHS for anything they have spent. If you're a foreigner here on either a short or long-term stay, you can also buy a policy from a Bulgarian private insurance provider. And if you want to buy voluntary health insurance, look for any of the 13 licensed local providers. Another option is to join the state health care system – by paying the mandatory health contributions to the national health insurance fund. This means you can register with a GP who will perform basic checks and/or refer you for tests and additional check ups.

10. Crime

All kinds of crime – theft, burglary, traffic accidents, personal injuries, and so on, should be reported to the local police department and the local prosecutor's office, preferably with the help of a solicitor.

If willing to set up a business in Bulgaria and officials from any institution involved ask you for a bribe, report them to the anti-corruption hotline.

In all disputes that involve contracts signed in Bulgaria, you can claim your rights at a local court. Bulgaria's civil law is essentially different from English common law, so hiring a local solicitor is advisable. Besides, it won't break the bank as fees are cheaper than in the UK.


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