The Plight of the Visa Runner

Published Jan. 4, 2009 in The China Post

Every month — unless you have a work permit that allows you to come and go without the hassle — foreign visitors must leave the country to renew the stamp on their passport. Often this entails going to either Hong Kong or Manila — at US$300-400, they’re the cheapest fares. Some return on the next flight.
There’s even a term for this phenomenon, whereby masses of foreigners are made involuntary slaves to tourism every month: “Visa Runners.”
“It’s a huge waste of money,” many complain. Kenneth Lu, who’s traveled around the world to settle in Taiwan, wonders why Taiwan would want foreign visitors to go through all this time, energy and hassle, just to blow their money on somewhere other than in Taiwan. How many billions of dollars the airlines make out of these “faux holidays” every year? The relevant government authorities currently have no estimates.
“Sophia” the American professional points out that a landing visa in Taiwan is good for only 30 days. “In Europe or elsewhere in Asia, it’s usually for 90 days. Why is Taiwan different in this respect?”
When asked if there would be any change in this 30-day policy in the near future, a National Immigration Agency official said, “No, sorry, no plans.”
Another aspect of this hassle: Employers are usually unfamiliar with the process of helping employees file for a work permit, partially because the rules change frequently regarding the necessary application materials. Sometimes schools pay some fees to go through the arduous process — going abroad to apply for a visitor’s visa that can be turned into a work permit when you come back — but most don’t.
The best — and perhaps only way — to avoid the Plight of the Visa Runner is to have your visa all squared away BEFORE coming to Taiwan. This means going to your local Taipei Economic & Cultural office in your home country. The good thing is that if you are organized enough to do this, you may be able to get a visa for a much longer period. Some people pay a bit more in their home country and manage to get a Taiwan visa for three, even five years — yes, it’s possible! Tip: Most foreigners don’t know that ARCs and work permits are actually separate entities; in some cases, you can get an ARC to stay longer than your actual contract.
Another nuisance for American visa runners in particular is that it costs a lot more — at least twice as much — to apply for a Taiwan visa than all other nationalities. Why? The U.S. raised its visa fees for all nationalities entering the country under the Bush administration, prompting a tit-for-tat visa fee increase worldwide for all Americans applying for visas abroad. In Seoul, Korea, next-day service to obtain a Taiwan visa cost nearly US$200. Tacking on the cost of the flight, accommodation and these fees, visa running can be quite an expensive “hobby.”

Got issues? Call the 24-hour, toll-free International Community Service Hotline (English service), at 0 800 024-11.

— Compiled by Trista di Genova, The China Post