Island with an Identity Crisis

Driving around the US Virgin Islands, you’re likely to see a cheerful catchphrase on most license plates: “United States Virgin Islands, America’s Caribbean!” You’ll see the same slogan splashed across the main tourism website for the territory, which entices US travelers by proudly proclaiming, “No Passport Required for US Citizens!” You might imagine a move to the USVI would be similar to relocating to a beachy mainland locale like the Jersey Shore or Cape Cod. You would be wrong.

While it is technically true that one can hop off their plane or boat in the USVI without handing over their passport for a stamp, those who live here know the truth: we’re not in America anymore, Toto. Sure, the dominant language is English and we use the dollar for currency, but don’t be fooled. Island life often feels distinctly foreign from anything you’d experience on the mainland.

You may get your first inkling of these differences while preparing for your journey to the USVI, as the airline representative explains that you cannot  check a box when traveling to St Thomas because it is an international  flight; boxes are only permitted on domestic  flights. As this is your first brush with your new island’s somewhat ambiguous status in relation to the mainland, you’ll be passed through four different customer service representatives, none of whom have a satisfactory explanation for why this flight is considered international. “You don’t even need a passport,” you explain, helpfully. You will be put on hold for a very long time.

The most obvious difference you’ll notice as you disembark on island (gleefully skipping past Immigration, unburdened by that pesky passport!), is that we “keep left” here in the VI, the only US territory with the distinction of driving on the left side of the road. This will be a particular challenge, as they were handing out shots of rum as you departed the airport. Careening towards your new apartment – driving on the left, in a car built for the right – you’ll be baffled as to why the road signs say “gade” where you’d expect them to say “street”. No matter – you’ll eventually arrive at your new apartment, miraculously unscathed – time to enjoy some celebratory rum!

You will quickly realize that the Tourism Department’s “No Passport Required for US Citizens!” announcement should really include the caveat, “…unless you plan to live here.” You will be turned away at both the bank and the post office as punishment for arriving in the USVI without that little blue book. You will return to the post office the next day and find a less grumpy employee who kindly sets you up with a PO Box after you hand over your lease, a paystub, and a blood sample.

Similar persistence with the bank will not pay off. Resign yourself to the fact that all of your banking will be done in your husband’s name; he will need to sign every check you write until you can get your hands on that passport you were convinced you did not need. It is very expensive to live here – he will be signing a lot of checks. Luckily, the passport office will expedite your passport processing for a fee. Less luckily, you will call six weeks later to ask where your passport is and be told it was not processed as expedited. (It should go without saying that the US Passport Office will be unable to help you recover your passport expediting fee.)

As you realize traversing the mountainous roads of your new island exposes you to near-death situations on a daily basis, you’ll try procuring yourself some life insurance from a mainland company and endure the barrage of additional questions they ask of those applicants who “reside internationally”. Patiently explain that you live in an unincorporated territory of the United States, for goodness sake! The company will tell you that this does not count. Completing the telephonic questionnaire for “international applicants” will take three hours, as your phone keeps picking up on the cell tower from the nearby British Virgin Islands and dropping your call.

As you arrange to have the rest of your belongings shipped down, you’ll quickly discover that the confusion over the USVI’s status relationship with the USA is nearly universal. The US Post Office will – thank the heavens – operate much the same as the mainland USPS (other than necessitating the rental of a PO Box, as home delivery is impossible without a standardized street address system). But when trying to arrange overnight shipping for an envelope containing a single sheet of paper, you’ll nearly faint as the FedEx representative tells you it will cost over $80. “It’s international shipping,” you’ll be told. Attempts to order a few other necessary items from the internet will similarly fail, as you’ll find many websites lack “VI” as an option in their drop-down menus for shipping locales. You briefly consider calling some of these vendors to inform them of this issue, but elect to dejectedly drink rum instead.

As you make your way back to the airport, sunburned and quite possibly hungover, you may be startled to find yourself being directed to the line for Customs. Your confusion is understandable, as you didn’t go through Customs upon arrival to the USVI – back in the good old days when you still thought you were in the United States. Someone will tell you that this is because the USVI is “outside the Customs’ territory of the United States” and these words will make even less sense to you than “unincorporated territory”. The Customs agent will scowl at you for your lack of passport. “But this is America’s Caribbean!” you’ll say, weakly now, as you make your way to your plane and your adventure on the island with an identity crisis comes to a close.

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9 thoughts on “Island with an Identity Crisis

  1. This blog makes me laugh. I lived in the “islands” for 11 years during the late 70’s until the mid 80’s. I loved it despite all the inconveniences. I come back at least once every two years. It has such fond memories for me. Thanks for keeping me smiling about my own history in the VI.

  2. I just want to thank you for making me laugh and laugh at least once a week..i lived in St Thomas for 16 years and this blog captures exactly my experiences…living on rocks means you’ve got to laugh…or leave

  3. Just about died laughing! Grew up on St. Thomas; moved Stateside in 1991. Went back for a visit post 911. Still didn’t need a passport to get in, but leaving? Was told I should carry a copy of my birth certificate in the future, because my Stateside Drivers License was probably not going to cut it. The officer was mystified when I laughed, and asked my why. I said, “because then I’d also have to carry a copy of my first marriage license, and divorce decree, my second marriage license, and divorce decree, and my third marriage license, just so you guys could track the name change, since my birth surname is nowhere in sight anymore! i have since taken my maiden name as my middle name, for just that reason!

  4. Oh how true! I lived on STT and later STX for 10 years in the late 60s and 70s. Not much has changed I see. Don’t you just love it when HGTV days that island living is like being on a permanent vacation? Setting up a household, setting up a business, or just LIVING there has interesting challenges that are certainly not vacation-like!

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