Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bureaucrats: The Minions of Hell (+helpful visa info!)


Shanghai Notary Public Office
Shanghai Notary Public Office in China

Complaining about visas is a common pastime among expats in Taiwan. But this is on a whole other level.

In the past 2 months, I've had to deal with the bureaucrats of 4 governments. This is easily one of my worst experiences in living abroad. Visas suck, paperwork sucks and officials are the personification of evil. Anything I want to do, there's an official ready to block me for no good reason. Here's a review. I've included the addresses and directions of the government agencies at the end.

National Immigration Agency (Taipei, Taiwan)

I went to the NIA to renew my ARC (Alien Resident Certificate). Although I didn't have a work permit yet, I had a letter from the Council of Labor Affairs saying that they were processing it.

The CLA was being really slow about it. It's much easier to get an English teacher work permit. Editor jobs require 2 years of documented work experience. But they refused to recognize my China work experience as real experience, so things were difficult. I was really glad to get the letter saying my work permit was finally proceeding.

The first time, the NIA official rejected me by saying the letter wasn't enough. I went back to my company, and they gave me a receipt showing they paid a fee for my work permit and a record showing my work permit was on the log of permits to be processed.

The second time I went, I tried to go to a different official. She scanned my U.S. passport into a computer, then said, "No, I can't help you."

"Why?" I asked.

"You have already overstayed your ARC."

Huh? I looked at my ARC. "But it expires Nov. 30. Today is only Nov. 25," I said.

She shook her head. "It expired Oct. 31."

What the fuck?! "How did that happen?" I asked, struggling to sound polite.

"When you changed jobs, your last employer canceled your work permit. You must leave Taiwan 14 days after your work permit is canceled." She pointed at the computer.

"But what about my ARC?" I held it up to her.

"No! It already expired!" She pointed at the computer again, more vigorously. "You must go Hong Kong. Pay overstay fine at airport before you leave Taiwan."

So it doesn't matter what date is stamped on my ARC or on a visa in my passport. Only my last employer and the government know exactly when my work permit is canceled. That means the real expiration date is on a computer system that I can't access! That makes no sense!

Hong Kong Immigration Department
(at the Hong Kong airport)

The lines at immigration in the Hong Kong airport are usually fast. Just in case, I decided to dress well and carry a briefcase. That always works. Not this time.

The official flipped through my passport, then he saw the stamp saying I'd been banned from Taiwan.

"What happened in Taiwan?" he asked.

"I overstayed a visa," I answered. Honesty is the best policy, right?

"Were you arrested? Did you go to court? Did you have to go to jail?" he demanded.

"What?! No! I just paid a fine." I showed him the receipt saying I'd paid the overstay fine of NT$4,000 (US$121) So serious. Is that what happens to visa violators in Hong Kong? Scary.

By this time, another official was directing the people standing behind me to proceed to other immigration counters. Bad sign.

"Are you an English teacher?" he asked suspiciously. Wow, he really made them sound like scum. (To be honest, some are.)

"No, I'm a magazine editor."

"What magazine?"

God, it never ends! I opened my briefcase and gave him a copy of the magazine.

"Is this for children?" he asked.

"It's meant for high school students to learn English," I explained.

"Do children read this?"

"Well, it's more for high school students. Teenagers."

"What grade level?" he challenged.

Was he really that dumb or was he trying to catch me in a lie? "The magazine is for high school students," I repeated.

"So grades 9 to 12 then," he said smugly.

"Yes!" I said, exasperated.

"I have to talk to my boss. You sit there." He pointed to a dark, sad corner of the airport.

Goddamnit.

Chung Hwa Travel Service
(Taiwan representative office in Hong Kong)

I explained to the lady behind the window how I needed a new visa while I was waiting for my work permit to be processed.

"So you already have a job?" she asked.

"Yes, but I'm still waiting to get the work permit."

"It only takes 7 to 10 days for the Council of Labor Affairs to process a work permit," she claimed.

Not if they don't recognize China work experience. I've already been waiting for 3 months!

"Can I get a visa to let me stay in Taiwan while I'm waiting for the work permit to go through?" I asked.

"Okay, I'll give you a visitor visa. But only for 30 days. You must tell your company to work faster!" she stressed.

What?! My company applied for my work permit 3 months ago, before I even started the job. It's the CLA that's been so slow. Instead of giving me the usual 60-day visitor visa, she only gave me 30 days. It's like she thought, "If I give you less time, your company will work faster." The problem is that the work permit is processed at the government's speed, not my company's. She just screwed me over.

China Ministry of Foreign Affairs Visa Office (Hong Kong)

I'd heard that China became really strict about granting visas around the time of the Olympics. There were horror stories about businesspeople being rejected for visas and expats having to make visa runs to Hong Kong every month. My main worry was if there was a long processing time. I didn't want to spend an extra week in expensive Hong Kong.

The good news is that China visas are a popular service. Hotels, hostels and even the cheapest guesthouses offer a China visa service. A lot of travel agencies will do it for you as well.

What a lot of people do is apply through China Travel Service, a company owned by the China government. They have branches all over Hong Kong and overseas, convenient hours and relatively good customer service.

If you're just transferring at Hong Kong airport, the CTS branch there can process China visas in 4 to 5 hours, faster than anywhere else. Taiwanese passport holders can get a visa in 1 hour, the lucky bastards!

I prefer to apply for visas directly, to avoid the extra expense of using an agent and for safety reasons. It's ironic: the Chinese government has done a lot of bad stuff, but I trust them to return my passport. I wouldn't want an agent to hold my passport hostage.

(Update: The main China Visa Office only seems to grant 30-day-visas. If you want a longer visa, it's better to go through an agent. Ask around and get recommendations from other travelers. Check out the "Inside Information" section of my Hong Kong post for more details.)

However, in cities like Bangkok, where people sometimes have to wait in long lines for visas, using an agent might be a better option. As a rule, the worst scenario is this: you're at the embassy of a rich country where the poor local population goes to look for jobs. When I applied for a Taiwanese visa in Singapore, the consulate was almost empty. In stark contrast, the Taiwan consulate in Bangkok was packed to the gills with migrant workers going to work in factories in Taiwan.

I picked up my passport from Chung Hwa Travel at 4 p.m. and went straight for the official China visa office. Hong Kong is a maze of elevated walkways, stairwells and escalators, just one big 3-D maze. If you're at street level in the wrong area, it's almost impossible to cross the streets.

As a result, I got hopelessly lost. The visa office closed at 5 p.m. and I got through the door at 4:50 p.m. I ignored the nasty looks from the staff who were getting ready go home and started filling out an application.

One official kept coming up behind me to look over my shoulder. Probably to hurry me along, but I thought about oppressive government surveillance.

When it asked for my occupation, I didn't check off the "media and journalism" box, because I heard rumors that China will deny your visa on that basis. Or they will examine you more closely. I checked in "Other."

The good thing about going at closing time was that the place was empty and I didn't have to wait in line. I went right up to a service window. I turned in my application, passport and 1 passport-sized photo. The website says sometimes people are asked to provide a bank statement, and flight and hotel reservations. Luckily, I wasn't asked to.

"What is your purpose in visiting our country?" the lady official asked.

The real reason was to get a "proof of employment" certificate in Shanghai. Instead, I answered, "Tourism, sightseeing."

She turned the pages of my passport. When she saw the the Taiwanese immigration stamps, she frowned. Did she think I was a Taiwanese spy?

She barked, "I give you 30 days. Only for travel. Nothing else!"

Way to welcome me to your country, bitch.

She asked for my Taiwan boss' business card, and stapled it to my application. Probably to prove I had a job. It was the only one I had, so I reminded myself that I needed to get more business cards for the other visas I'd apply for in the future. Maybe embassies are trying to prevent unemployed backpackers from lingering in their countries for too long.

The staff seemed grumpy but efficient. I got the service, but without the smile.

Shanghai Notary Public Office (China)

This was what I'd been dreading the most. Dealing with Chinese Communist Party bureaucrats in mainland China. Failure to get what I needed was a very high possibility. But I had to get a "proof of employment" certificate to prove I'd worked in China, because the Taiwan Council of Labor kept demanding it before they'd give me a work permit.

I met up with my old boss in Shanghai, a cool Western guy. He gave me a copy of the company's business license, and I still had my work certificate from my records. He suggested going down to the notary office and see if those were enough.

At the office, I asked an official in Chinese if she spoke English. She got really annoyed and the staff launched a search through the building to find an English speaker. They finally found a young guy to do it, but he seemed quite unhappy. He looked over my documents and rejected me on the spot. He said they needed a copy of my employment contract.

I went back to my old boss and repeated what the official said. Although my old employer was an English school, it was registered as a consultancy. So the English teacher contract I had in my records did not have any legal power. Only documents in Chinese matter.

My boss wrote a whole new contract for me in Chinese. He's studied the language for years, so it wasn't a problem. He had a Chinese colleague proofread it for mistakes.

With a flourish, he handed it to me. "Here's your new fake contract!"

"What does it say?" I asked.

He explained. "You were a business consultant that helped in the translation and editing of English documents, advised Chinese companies on how to enter the U.S. market and handled pre-departure English training for employees before they went on business trips to America and England."

"Holy shit!" I said.

My second try at the notary office, the officials seemed satisfied with the new documents. Then: "The dates on the China visas in your passport don't match the dates of these documents!"

I took a deep breath while they discussed it among themselves in Mandarin. Finally, one said, "Okay, just fill out this form and pay 300 yuan (US$44) to the cashier." Success!

After I paid, I went back to the counter to retrieve my documents. The guy held out my U.S. passport to me. Just as I was about to take it, he threw my passport on the desk with a loud smack!

I was furious! Why did he have to be such a dick? I wanted to smash his face into the desk. My immigrant parents struggled to get U.S. citizenship. Show some respect, motherfucker.

Choking back my hate, I asked, "When do I pick up the certificate?"

"You come back in 2 weeks," he said flatly.

Spend 2 more weeks in Shanghai?! No way!

"The other half will arrive in Taiwan in one month."

"What other half? What do you mean?"

"The certificate has two parts," the notary official explained. "One half you pick up in Shanghai in 2 weeks. The other half will be sent to the Straits Exchange Foundation in Taiwan in one month. These two documents together will be useful."

You gotta be fucking kidding me! Who thought of this system? What if I was trying to do a China-Taiwan business deal? Billions could be lost while I was waiting for this process to finish.

In the end, I was lucky to know an American friend in Shanghai who was visiting Taipei a few weeks later. She agreed to pick up the certificate and bring it to me.

American Institute in Taiwan (de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei)

Taiwan is not officially recognized as a country, which means that governments have to play a lot of name games. Taiwanese embassies abroad are called Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices. Likewise, foreign embassies in Taiwan go under a variety of names. For more info, check out this Wikipedia entry about Taiwan's foreign relations.

One last piece of bureaucracy to deal with: renewing my U.S. driver's license. After fighting Asian officialdom in 3 countries, I was tired of all the bullshit.

I e-mailed my local DMV and requested that they mail the renewal forms to me in Taiwan. When I looked over the forms, I cursed: one of them required the stamp of a U.S. notary. That meant another trip to a government office. Shit!

After being emotionally scarred by Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kong officials, I was afraid. Since these Americans represent the world's only superpower, would they be assholes?

The AIT offers notary services, and you can make appointments online. That was convenient.

I showed up at the AIT and waited for my turn. As I walked up to the window, I braced myself for whatever abuse this bureaucrat would dish out.

"How are you today?" the American official asked. He was an older man who looked like he had a graduate degree in Asian studies. He'd spoken in Mandarin to the other Taiwanese people ahead of me.

"I'm okay," I replied.

"What can I do for you today?" he asked.

"I'd like for this document to be notarized. It certifies that I hold a U.S. driver's license." I passed the form under the slot, along with my U.S. passport. He read everything carefully.

"Do you need this?" I held up my driver's license to the window.

He chuckled and waved it away, saying, "I believe you!" He stamped my document and gave it back to me.

That's all?! Makes America seem so fast and efficient. Too good to be true.

As I turned to leave, he yelled, "Hey!" I cringed and expected the worst when I turned back to him.

"You have a Merry Christmas!" he said cheerfully.

"Uh, thanks! You too," I said. That was weird. He treated me like a human being.

Update on driver's license: After I left to travel Taiwan to travel around Southeast Asia, the Hawaii DMV e-mailed me to say they had increased the renewal fee. I owed them an extra US$6. I was in Hong Kong at the time, but luckily I still had my checkbook. I wrote out a check and a letter specifically telling them to send my driver's license to my house in Hawaii.

A few weeks later, my Mom mentioned during a long-distance call that my driver's license still hadn't arrived. I e-mailed the DMV to ask what the status was.

They e-mailed to say they had sent it to my last known address: Hong Kong! Pissed off, I wrote an e-mail saying that I was traveling and did not have a fixed address. Please send it to my Hawaii address. I had to delete the first three drafts of the e-mail, because I was cursing too much. Goddamn them.

Later, my Mom reported that my driver's license arrived at last.

Appendix: Addresses and directions for government agencies

Taiwan National Immigration Agency (see location map)
Address: 15 Guangzhou St. Taipei City 100 Taiwan.
Phone: 886-024-111 (foreigners' hotline)

Directions: Take the MRT to Xiananmen station, it's one stop away from Ximen. Go out Exit 2. Walk straight ahead, then turn left at Yanping South Rd. Walk straight, and turn left at Guangzhou Rd. Find the NIA main entrance.

Taipei hostel picks:

Eight Elephants Hostel Shida

Chocolate Box Backpackers

Chung Hwa Travel Service
Address: 40th Floor, Tower One, Lippo Centre, No. 89 Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Phone: 852-2525-8315

Directions: Take the MTR to Admiralty station (PDF map). Go out Exit B. Turn left and walk up the stairs into the Lippo Centre, it's #27 on the station map. Once inside, go left. Go to the second set of elevators, behind the ones that you first see. Take the elevator to the 40th floor and go into the visa office to the right.

Hong Kong hostel pick: Yes Inn

China Ministry of Foreign Affairs Visa Office
Address: 7th Floor, lower block, China Resources Building, No. 26 Harbour Rd. Wan Chai, Hong Kong S.A.R.
Phone: 852-3413-2300 (recording of visa information)

Directions: Take the MTR to Wan Chai station and go out of Exit A5. You'll come out on an elevated walkway. Follow the signs to Immigration Tower. At Immigration Tower, turn right to Central Plaza, then right again to Fleming Rd., crossing elevated walkways. You'll see signs above your head at each stop.

Cross under the overpass to "Chinese Arts & Crafts HK Ltd." That's the China Resources Building, it's #23 on the station map.

Take the escalator down to street level. Do a U-turn to your left and go to Harbour Drive. Go right, toward Fleming Rd., and you'll see a small blue sign that says "Visa Office -->". The entrance is on Fleming Rd., at the corner of Harbour Drive.

Shanghai Notary Public Office
Address: No. 660 Feng Yang Rd. Shanghai
Phone: 800-620-4848, 6215-4848

Directions: Take the metro to Nanjing West Rd. Station. Go out exit 2. Go right and cross the street to the other side of Nanjing Rd. Walk toward Shimen No. 2 Rd.

At the intersection, you'll come to a fork in the road. Nanjing Rd. will be on your right, Shimen No. 2 Rd. on your left, and another road in the middle. That's Fengyang Rd. Cross the street, and you'll start to see signs for the "Notary Public Office." It will be on the left side of the road.

Shanghai hostel pick: Le Tour Traveler's Rest Youth Hostel

American Institute in Taiwan (see location map)
Address: No. 7 Lane 134 Xinyi Rd. Sec. 3 Taipei 100 Taiwan
Phone: 886-2-2162-2000

Directions: Take the MRT to Zhongxiao Xinsheng station. Go out Exit 2. Walk south on Xinsheng Rd., toward Jinan Rd., until you get to the bus stop. Take bus 226 to "Xinyi-Jianguo Intersection." Walk east on Xinyi Rd. Although the address says the AIT is on a lane, the main entrance is on Xinyi Rd.

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