Laos border

The Visa Run

One of the frustrating things about setting off abroad to find work, as I did over a decade ago, is that, even in the Internet age, it can be really difficult to find reliable information about actually living abroad instead of just going over for a couple of weeks. In addition, when you do find info, the vast majority of what you see on the web assumes that you’re being sent over by your company, with spouse, kids, car, housing allowances, etc. Houses and condos are priced accordingly – well out of the price of anyone who’s taken a local salary on the spot. $3000-a-month rentals are everywhere online, as is information about the ‘right’ schools in Beijing, how much to pay your nanny, how to retire abroad, etc., but there isn’t much in the way of how to live on the $25-a-day budget you’ll have as a freelance photographer, actor, or English teacher, or how to manage to find that kind of work.

Perhaps trickiest of all is visa information. I’ve found that when you are just getting started abroad – no matter what field you’ve chosen to work in – you can increase your chances of getting a job dramatically if you’re already on the ground. Yes, the school would love to have someone with a fistful of qualifications and commendations, but that person is thousands of miles away, and needs to turn in a notice or rent out their place before they can board a plane – while the school is short a teacher for a class that’s supposed to start Monday.

But of course, that causes a bit of a Catch-22 (really gonna have to read that someday); you are not really able to work legally on a tourist visa, but without a job lined up beforehand, it’s impossible to get a work visa. It’s impossible to get a job lined up beforehand because employers will almost always hire the guy already legally in-country before taking their chances on someone abroad. You can’t be work-legal and in the country yet when…well, you see the dilemma.

The remedy is what’s known as the visa run.

Temple Asakusa

It’s a good strategy for your initial visa to obtain whatever you can get, and the longest time period you can get – tourist, student, business, what have you. You arrive, and state the purpose of your visit as appropriate to the visa you have – of course, if you say ‘looking for work’, you might be rejected – the fear is that you’ll start working without the proper paperwork. If you’ve scored a business visa, saying that you’ll be looking for business opportunities or going to meetings is fine. Otherwise, best to say you’re on holiday.

Now you can do interviews and hopefully find a job from a reputable employer who will sponsor you for a proper visa. It usually takes a couple of weeks for them to get the paperwork together – so time on your original visa is ticking down, as is your bank account since you’re not getting paid anything yet. But, if all goes well, you’re handed a stack of legal-looking papers which you then take with you to a neighboring country, apply for the proper work visa at the appropriate embassy or consulate, then re-enter and legally start to work.

You sometimes run into a bit of a conundrum here, where the employer is in a tight spot and asks you to work ‘gray’, meaning to start working as the papers are processed – as in maybe tomorrow. In many countries, Japan and South Korea for example, this would definitely NOT be an option – working without the proper permits is quite a serious offense. However, there are more than a few places where it’s technically illegal for you to receive any cash before you have a work visa, but authorities typically look the other way as long as the process has begun. I hear this is the case in Cambodia, Vietnam, and several Eastern European countries. It used to also be possible in Thailand and China, but at the moment, things have tightened up considerably. You have to use your own judgement here, deciding how much you want the particular job – or need the money – and what your tolerance for risk is. But reputable companies want you to be legit and will provide the necessary support to make it happen. And, in general, I don’t advise doing anything illegal in any country, especially outside your own.

Getting deported – at your own expense – can really ruin your day.

But the good news is – visa runs can be fun! After spending a few weeks in one place, it’s great to have the opportunity to see something different for a day or three. Some of these borders you cross are out in the middle of nowhere, and you probably would never have experienced the rural environs of your target country if it weren’t for your visa run. Others are proper tourist destinations in their own right. Some of the fantastic places I’ve discovered this way are as follows:

Hong Kong – a great spot to arrange everything for an adventure in China. Hong Kong has a unique culture that draws on both Asian and British backgrounds to create something very cosmopolitan and exciting. The harbor view alone is worth the visit, but there’s tons of great food and shopping, and a surprising number of outdoor activities available as well. If you’re on a budget, stay at the infamous Chungking Mansion – it’s the experience of a lifetime. (Watch the movie Chungking Express before you go.) There are several trains a day from Guangzhou, and daily overnight trains from Shanghai and Beijing.

Chinese shophouse Penang

Penang – another former British colony, but unlike Hong Kong, much of the old architectural charm still remains. There are mosques, wats, Chinese ‘kong’ houses, and Hindu temples on almost every corner. Old Chinese shop houses line most of the winding streets of Georgetown, many of them converted into beautiful guesthouses or restaurants, and the sheer variety of food on offer from the many ethnic groups that call Malaysia home is just astounding. This is the best place to go if you’re trying to line something up in Thailand – take an overnight train to Hat Yai, then grab a mini-bus through the border crossing and on to Penang. If you time it just right, you’ll be able to turn your passport in before 2 pm, and have it back the next day. Word of mouth says that an agent at Banana Guesthouse on Lebuh Chulia does a bang up job for a few ringgit.

Seoul / Tokyo – While I’ve visited these cities, I haven’t sorted out a visa in either of them, but several fellow travelers tell me that these two cities are visa run destinations for one another – head to embassies in Tokyo to get a Korean visa, to Seoul for a Japanese one. Good news is both of these countries grant 90 days upon arrival for those of us from English-speaking countries, so there’s plenty of time to job hunt and see a few sights. Seoul is the best country in the world for a weekend of drinking, in my opinion; they have beer, soju (try the grapefruit), and maekguli, plus your standard choices from back home. Almost everyone is stumbling from one pub or restaurant to another on the weekend. Oh, and there are quite a few nice temples and palaces to see as well. Tokyo can be very affordable if you know where to look, and the onsen or hot springs are second-to-none – I’ll be posting more on this later.

Vientiane / Nong Khai – I was just here again a few days ago for the first time in years – what got me thinking about writing this particular post to begin with. Vientiane is of course the capitol of Laos, a quiet little city just across the Mekong River from Nong Khai in Thailand. Not any ‘must see’ tourist attractions here, but two very pleasant small cities, laid back places to chill street-side with a coffee or beer for a few days. Nong Khai is a bit spread out, but the riverside park (and restaurant / guesthouse area around it) is just a couple of blocks from the bus station. Vientiane’s temples and attractions of note are all within walking distance of each other – and the border crossing, pictured above, is one of the most rural international borders I’ve ever crossed.

Phnom Penh / Saigon – two exciting cities to visit in their own rights, but the $10 bus ride between them – and the fact that there are a number of consulates in both cities – make either of these cities an ideal border run location. Phnom Penh is the gateway to Angkor Wat, one of the can’t-miss sights in Asia. Saigon has great street food, cheap beer, and white sandy beaches a couple of hours away – try to get ‘stuck’ there for the weekend on your run.

Mae Sot / Myawaddy – one of several crossing points on the very long Burmese / Thai border, is of fairly limited use – but probably my all-time favorite border run. It’s limited in use because there are no consulates to issue visas in either town. But since Thailand grants a 30-day, visa-free permit on arrival, anyone who’s about to run short can get a re-start just by stepping over the border to Myanmar and back. At the time of writing, you could not travel further into Myanmar from this checkpoint – if you want to visit that country for more than a day, it’s best to fly in.

Mae Sot feels more like a ‘border’ than maybe any other place I’ve visited. Men walking around in sarongs, adorable Burmese children, circles of powder drawn onto their cheeks, colorfully dressed hill tribe women selling snacks on the street. There are very few buildings more than a couple stories high, with traditional teak houses dominating the town’s two main streets. The surrounding hills host several temples and shrines, and hermit monks live in the rustic forest temples. You can’t stay across the border in Myawaddy overnight – the immigration officials will hang on to your passport if you want to wander around the unpaved roads of the village for a few hours, but you have to be back before immigration closes to collect it and head back to Thailand.

These are some of the visa runs I’ve done or know about, but I know there are dozens more – hope to be exploring a few this year. But rest assured that if you ever post ‘#nevercomingback’ on your Instagram and suddenly decide that you really mean it, there’s always a way to stay in the place you love a bit longer.

Have you experienced a visa run or bordertown you thought was interesting? Please share in the comments below!

And don’t forget to ‘like’ Nevercomingback on Facebook.

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