Episode 13 - Visa Troubles
One of the most important components of traveling long-term has to be visas. Without them, doing what we do would be nearly impossible. Therefore, whether we like the grueling visa process or not, it has to get done and get done right.
Since so many people wonder how in the world expatriates like us manage to live in foreign countries, we made a podcast episode just about that. We talk about the different experiences we've faced regarding visas in Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, and Czech Republic.
(1:44) Americans are allowed to be in Thailand without a visa for 30 days (**edit: we said 15 days in this episode, but we were wrong), but since we wanted to stay longer, we had to get a tourist visa, which lasts 90 days. We had to begin applying for the tourist visa before our trip while we were still in America. We had to apply for the Tourist B Visa, which would allow us to be there for 90 days and could eventually be turned into a work visa. It was also double-entry, so we could leave the country and come back, if necessary.
We went to the Thai consulate in New York City a couple of months before we were leaving for Thailand. However, when we got there, the official told us that we were applying too early and we needed to return when we were significantly closer to our departure date. Surprise! Apparently, "the earlier the better" didn't work in this case.
So, instead, we mailed our passports to an office in Texas that specialized in issuing visas. It was relatively easy and cheap to do. It was a little worrisome to mail our passports, but we got them there and back safe and sound, so it worked out perfectly. And, they came back to us with our first visa EVER inside. How exciting!
After three months of living and working in Thailand, our visas were up! So, we had to go early on a school day to a city nearby called Si Racha to extend our visas for one month. Even though our school told us it would only take half a day to do, it took the entire day to get the process done at the immigration office. We got there in the morning and waited and waited with tons of other people. Eventually, it was lunch time for the office, so we had to leave and dillydally in the area for an hour. When their lunch break was over an hour later, we waited some more and eventually got seen by someone. Then, we got sent to another building where this official was demanding a signature from our landlord, which was not going to happen in any way. We nervously tried to handle the situation, but since we didn't have our landlord's number or even cell service, we were useless. Eventually, the lady gave up and let us finish the process without the signature. Phew!
After that month, we had to cross the border into Laos to get a new tourist visa. This process of crossing the border into a neighboring country in order to obtain a new visa is commonly referred to as a visa run. We went through a company who helped us gather all of our documents and went with us across the border. They were worth every penny (even though we didn't spend very much on them to begin with!).
We went by bus there and it took about 12 hours. We arrived at the border at around 4 a.m. and since the border didn't open until 5 a.m., we had to wait outside the gate. Then, we went through and hopped on another bus to the actual border. We gave our company's employee our passports and documents and were then sent on a bus to our hotel. We were then told that we had to pick up our passports with our new visas the following day from the embassy.
After arriving at our hotel in the early afternoon, we crashed for about five hours because we were so tired! We woke up around dinner time, ate some seriously amazing pork larb with rice (highly recommended!), and went back to sleep. It was quite the exciting day in Laos!
The next day, we had to wake up early again and head to the Thai embassy with our group of people to pick up our passports. After waiting around for not very long, we finally got our passports WITH our approved Thai visas! Hooray!
Then, we went back to the border via bus again, waited around for our company's bus on the Thai side of the border, hopped on, and after another grueling 12 hours, we were back in Bangkok.
We finally did get our work permits-- the day before our final day of work at our jobs. Oops! So, we were unfortunately working illegally almost the entire time we were working in Thailand.
But, since we were still on our tourist visas, we needed to extend them for another month again. Even though we were only going to be in Thailand for another week, we still needed to extend them so we wouldn't illegally be in Thailand for that week. So, we headed to the infamous Pattaya to do that extension.
We went through the process again to apply for the extension, but for whatever reason, we didn't convince the official well enough, so she actually ended up denying our application! Luckily, we were allowed one week before we had to leave Thailand, which was all we needed.
(14:42) We were in California when we found our jobs in Korea. While we were there for only a month (we were originally there for jobs, but decided not to take them), we had to start our visa process because our first day at our jobs was just two months away!
Fortunately, we had an agent who hooked us up with our jobs who helped us every step of the way to get our documents together. We had to get passport photos taken, copies of our diplomas notarized, FBI background checks, and other smaller things. We completed everything online and at a FedEx store, which had a lovely and helpful woman who took good care of us and everything we needed!
After a month of that nonsense, we headed back to New York, where we went to the South Korean consulate in Manhattan to finish the process of obtaining our E-2 work visas.
Then, we went to Korea to start our jobs. Hooray! But, we still had to do a couple of small tasks to obtain an employee I.D. card, such as have detailed health checks. That was a wild experience! We were taken to a clinic by an employee at our job. We changed into robes and slippers and got x-rays, blood work, eye tests, shots, and other exams done. It was very thorough!
We were fine, we guess, because we got our employee ID cards!
This visa process was much easier than Thailand because we were guided through everything and everyone was incredibly helpful.
We actually only stayed in Korea for 5 months out of our 12 month contracts because we loathed our boss and jobs. But, we did this without telling our boss, since we were not allowed to leave our jobs and, if we did quit, we wouldn't be able to find another job in Korea. So, we were forced to preform what is commonly known as a "midnight run." So many expats are dissatisfied with their newfound English teaching jobs in Korea, that this process of just leaving the country before your contract is up without telling anyone has its own term!
Anyway, while going through immigration at Incheon Airport, the visa officer asked us if we were going to return to Korea and we answered no. He raised his eyebrows, knowing immediately what we were doing, and let us through. Once we passed through there, a weight had been lifted off our shoulders.
Why? Because our boss was crazy enough to call immigration and bitterly lie to them about us and accuse us of anything she wanted. She could've told them that we killed her children, so we can't be allowed to leave the country. She was that nutty. And one of our co-workers told us that she did call immigration, but no one knows what was said.
However, we made it past immigration that day, but now, we still don't know if we are allowed back into Korea.
(22:57) While we were planning our "midnight run" from Korea, we chose to go to Vietnam because it was cheap, nearby, and an expat friendly country. We had to apply for our visas online and we did that through My Vietnam Visa. The process was easy, cheap, fast, and straightforward.
We needed to print something at one point for our Vietnam visas, but since we didn't have a printer in our apartment, our only option was to stealthily print it at our jobs. I say "stealthily" because if our boss found these papers, the jig would be up about us ditching Korea! While we were printing, we managed to accidentally print it twice, but nothing came out one of those times. So, as terrified as we were to be potentially leaving evidence of our fleeing behind, we had to leave work for the day. As we were leaving, one of the employees that worked at our job handed us a paper-- the paper that we were afraid had been left behind! Luckily, this one employee that found it didn't speak English, so they didn't know what the paper they found truly was. Close call!
When we arrived at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, we stopped at the booth just before immigration where we handed them our papers, passport photos, and money. We waited for maybe a half hour and then received our passports with our 90-day tourist visas inside!
After 90 days of being in Vietnam, we had to get another tourist visa in order to stay in Vietnam. So, just like in Thailand, we needed to do a visa run to a neighboring country. We found a company in a Facebook group for Ho Chi Minh City expats called Vietnam Consultancy LLC. We met with someone from this company and they helped guide us through the paperwork, where we needed to go, and what we needed to do when we got there.
We had to go to the Moc Bai border in Cambodia. We rose bright and early a day or so before our visas were up, traveled to the bus station (near Bui Vien, the backpacker street), and hopped on the blue 703 bus. After three hours (and only for $2!!!), they dropped us off just shy of the border, where we had to walk in the blazing heat for 15 or so minutes to the exact border.
We went into a building we just happened to follow people into and noticed multiple lines of people. We were completely confused as to which one to stand on, so we just jumped from line to line until eventually we found ourselves on the right one. We went through and we were back outside, pretty much right where we went into the building earlier!
So, we had to follow this dirt road to get to the actual border itself in the blazing heat. After fifteen minutes, we had to fill out an application form at an outdoor booth and then hand them all of our documents. There was a guy there, trying to "help" us by filling out that application for us...but we didn't need him at all because it was in English! So, we shooed him away because he was only doing it for money. After we handed in those applications, our papers, and money into the booth, we had to go into yet another building! Then, after going through there, we had to go to another booth, which was only several yards from the first one! It was a maze, I swear.
But, eventually we got a Cambodian visa and our Vietnam visa, and it was only 11:00 am! We then hitched a ride in a nice bus that happened to be there for about $4 each and got back to Ho Chi Minh City by 2:00pm.
We wanted to stay seven months in Vietnam, but our combined visas were only good for 6 months. But, we didn't want to do another visa run to Cambodia because it was a waste of time and money for just one month, so we got out tourist visas extended for one month. It was very easy to do. We just went to a place that helps expats with visas on Bui Vien street and they helped us with everything! At first, we were afraid we weren't going to be able to do it because of a recently passed law prohibiting it. But, then we were told that the company does in fact do it, but it would be a little more money (about $50 each). Strange and slightly corrupt, but we did it anyway, and got our one month extension pretty much no problem.
Japan & Taiwan
(35:35) We only glossed over these countrie for a minute because technically, we didn't live in these countries long-term. We were only in Japan for 3 months and Taiwan for 10 days. But, we were able to stay in Japan for so long because, as Americans, we are able to stay in the country visa-free for 90 days! It's also the same situation for Taiwan, but we unfortunately didn't get to take the opportunity to do that.
(36:17) This is where we are currently. Yay! But, this visa process was easily the hardest and most nightmarish of all.
To start, as Americans, we are allowed to be in the Schengen Area of Europe (the Czech Republic is included in that) for 90 days visa-free. What a sweet deal! But, since we wanted to live in Prague for at least a year, we needed to apply for business visas. In order to do that, we would have to do this visa application process either in America or in the Czech Republic during our 90 day visa-free time period.
Like fools, we chose the latter (but don't worry-- we got our visas, so that way of getting a business visa works, it's just more time-constricted and harder to get certain documents). We found an agency called Move to Prague, which would help us both find an apartment and help us throughout the grueling visa process.
We obviously had to pay a decent amount to the agency, which was fine because it was worth it. We had to obtain lots of documents. For the business visa, we needed an application, passport photos, proof of funds (at least about $4,500 in a bank account somewhere), proof of accommodation, and a trade license. Then, the trade license needs a ton of stuff too, such as an affidavit, proof of business address, list of trades, $45, and power of attorney. We also had to notarize some documents, too. So much paperwork!
After we obtained all of our documents, we needed to go to a Czech consulate in a country outside of the Czech Republic. The earliest appointment our agent could get us was two months after we arrived in the Czech Republic at the embassy in Warsaw, Poland.
It was a 10-hour bus ride to Warsaw from Prague the day before our appointments at the consulate.
On the day of our appointments, however, nothing went nearly as smoothly as we had hoped it would.
First, on the way there, there was hefty traffic. What was supposed to be a 20 minute ride ended up taking almost an hour. We arrived at the consulate at exactly a minute before the first appointment was scheduled, which was Matt's appointment. Phew!
Then, when Matt went to the counter to first hand over all of his documents, he also needed to pay. However, we had Czech crowns and Polish zloty, but for whatever reason, this consulate demanded that we have Euros and they wouldn't accept anything else. So, I (Marilyn) was sent off to find a currency exchange place while Matt waited for his appointment and naturally, got a little lost, but did find the place and got the exact amount of Euros we needed.
While I was out getting lost and obtaining Euros, Matt had his interview with the Czech official. He was asking Matt questions about why he wants to live in the Czech Republic, what he has done since graduating college, where he'd been, and so on. But, once Matt mentioned that he lived in Vietnam for more than seven months, the official told Matt that if you have lived in a foreign country for more than six months, you have to provide the Czech government with a criminal background check from that country.
Surprise! Our visa company did not inform us of that at all! What fun!
The official told Matt that since he doesn't have the criminal background check from Vietnam, his application could go either way. The person who actually will look at Matt's file could either look the other way and approve it anyway, or be a stickler and not approve it. So, Matt had no choice but to apply anyway without that document and so did I.
After our interviews, we were panicking. We called the Vietnamese consulate in Warsaw and Prague, we called our visa company, and asked questions in the expat group on Facebook for help. It was a terrifying time! So, instead of exploring a bit of Poland like we originally planned, we headed back to Prague the following day to try to get that criminal background check from the Vietnamese consulate and send it to the Czech consulate in Poland.
However, no matter how many times we called them, they didn't answer the phone. Eventually, a very kind and helpful Vietnamese expat offered to take us to the Vietnamese consulate to help us out because they don't speak English there. So, we all went, but nothing was really accomplished. And there was nothing else we could do to get that criminal background check. So, we chose to wait it out and hope that the official reviewing our files would be generous and approve us anyway.
After a month, guess what? We got approved! Hooray!
But, that's not the end of the visa process, unfortunately. When recording this podcast, we had to register with the police within 3 business days of getting our visas approved. Then, we had to get our official trade license. We went to the police station to register, which was easy, and got our trade license. Currently, we still have to register for taxes, such as social and health taxes (loving the public health insurance!). The process never ends, I swear!
Side note: in order to obtain our approved visas, we had to return to the consulate in Warsaw where we applied to pick them up. Yikes! We really didn't want to do that, so we hired a company that would go to the consulate by power of attorney to get them in our stead. Totally worth it, especially since it was only about $40 per person!
Thank you for listening/reading! Share in the comments what crazy visa stories you have! We'd love to hear from you! :)
Wine: Schloss Raggendorf - Zweigelt (Austria)