Getting to the Philippines can be tedious and getting around the Philippines can be arduous, but staying in the Philippines can be damn complicated – and expensive.
In fact, while other neighboring Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. make it significantly easier to get a visa and renew for a longer stay, the process in the Philippines can be more complicated (typical of their entire society).
But, the good news is that you know where to go, what to do, and when to do it, getting a visa and staying for an extended time in the Philippines is more of an inconvenience, not an impediment.
For instance, even though I live here (for more than two years now, which feels like twenty), I still do so on a tourist visa, which I renew again and again or until I leave the country and come back. Outside of getting a business visa (hard to do and I’d actually have to work for a living), marry a Filipina (easier to do but it’s a life sentence), or in retirement (I still have a few years on the calendar before I reach that age), the only way I can stay in the Philippines us by renewing or extending my tourist visa, again and again.
Sometimes, those renewals need to be done every 30 days, and the more complicated thing is that you need to surrender your passport for a few days or up to a week (if you run into a weekend/holiday etc.), as well as $40 and up.
As I mentioned, where you get your tourist visa extended is just as important, if you want to avoid waiting in long lines all day, squeezed in with the locals and sweating profusely.
Up until now, I’ve lived in Dumaguete, which is a small city that feels like a town. While it had plenty of downside, one good thing about Dumaguete is that it has a reasonably efficient immigration office.
Even though it’s located in a back alley, is the size of a big closet, and is furnished like your grandmother’s 1970s basement addition, they did a good job of processing the hundreds of requests and getting them back to you in a reasonable time with minimal headache.
However, today I find myself in Manila, the insanely crowded, sprawling, fast-paced capital city and in a little bit of a pickle. I fly out of the Philippines on October 10 for my yearly pilgrimage back to visit the U.S., but my tourist visa was up a week ago. However, I only have a few days to renew, and there was no way I wanted to surrender my passport for even a day or two and hope it shows back up in time.
Luckily, someone turned me on to the immigration office here at the SM Aura Mall. The SM Malls are the biggest, best, and most ubiquitous in the Philippines, so it was an easy landmark to get to. In fact, it was only a 15-minute drive from my apartment in the McKinley Hill area of Taguig. The mall actually opens up at , but coffee shops are open at 8, as is the Immigration office, which takes up a whole floor by itself.
I got there early – about 7:45 am, but they still let me in the office, and I was pretty floored by what I saw. Instead of a closet-sized office littered with stacks of paperwork, 1970s furniture, and a single aircon unit that doesn’t work, this office was modern, incredibly spacious, and dazzlingly clean. There were no less than 25 service counters that handled different tasks (based on their clear signage.) Also, I was the only one there!
The half-awake guard did scold me for not bringing a pen, but after that, it was smooth sailing. They opened promptly at 8 and, indeed, I was the first one in line. They took my form (completed in borrowed pen) and ran a quick background check in their system to make sure I wasn’t an international arms dealer or wanted by Interpol or anything. Next, after only a ten-minute wait, I headed to the cashier counter, where they took my payment (about $75 for a 30-day visa renewal, late fee, and express fee – not cheap!). Finally, the friendly staff told me to come back in one hour, even though I’d heard express service meant two hours.
I didn’t even bother to leave the floor because it was such a short wait, so I sat there and did some work. Sure enough, after about 45 minutes my name was called, and my passport with a new visa was handed to me.
In a country plagued by inefficiency, chaos, and even corruption, it was great to see a government office run so smoothly and ahead of time! Kudos to the SM Auro Immigration office and staff, and I‘ll be back every time from now on! (With my own pen.)