All’s good with new visa on arrival rules

A reader from the U.S. sent in a question a week or so ago. He and his wife are considering retiring outside the country and had been receiving emails about all the low-cost-of-living opportunities available to expats and he was wondering if US$2,000 a month was enough to live on in the countries being touted.

He also wondered what criteria I use when selecting a country to move to, which I haven’t done now for more than 3 1/2 years.

ferry routes

Ferry routes between Singapore (top) and Batam. Not shown is Harbour Bay, which is between Sekupang and Batam Centre.

First, I suggested that the email promotions he was receiving were mostly real estate promotions, getting people excited about luxury living on a dime in Ecuador or someplace else in Latin America (used to be Costa Rica before the influx of gringos raised the cost of living). “Buy a home here,” they urge, and BTW, they have some homes to offer.

First, I would never recommend buying property in another country – unless you’re rich and it would just be a second/vacation home. Real estate usually is too hard to get out from under in a foreign country. Renting usually is a better option.

Second, I warned that $2,000 would not be enough for the reader and his wife, maybe for one of them but not both. Yes, it’s possible for a couple to live on that in Latin America or in many places around the globe, but the austerity necessary would not be pleasant for long.

As to my criteria when evaluating a country, the overall cost of living is the first item, followed closely by rental prices in the town where I would be moving to. I’ve found that food costs in low cost-of-living countries are basically the same, with local foods cheap and imported foods expensive. I also consider political stability and religion, language, banking, and medical.

In addition, how long I can stay in the country with my passport and how easy it would be to make visa runs is important. Costa Rica, for example, allows you to stay in-country for 3 months before you must exit. Nicaragua and Panama are relatively close for visa runs and offer accommodations and entertainment for the 2-3 days you are out of country.

Many countries allow 90-day passport stays, but some are more restrictive, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, where you can only stay 30 days. With a 30-day window, it becomes even more important that a low-cost option for visa runs is available, which is not the case in much of Vietnam (unless you’re near the Laos border) or Indonesia (unless you’re near Singapore as Batam is). This 30-day window is a main reason why I’ve not considered either Vietnam or Indonesia in the past for relocation. The strong religious influence in Indonesia was also a deciding factor.

Yet, here I am in Indonesia. But for my first 2 1/2 years here I had a work permit and so didn’t need to make any visa runs. For the past year, however, I have been making such runs, which are pretty easy given the closeness of Singapore (13 miles by ferry; $40). Those runs were made every two months for the past year, as I was on a business visa sponsored by a company here. Interestingly, a business visa specifically says you cannot conduct business while in Indonesia.

Now, without a business visa, I am forced to ferry to Singapore every 4 weeks. Previously, this would have cost me the $40 ferry ticket, plus $35 for a 30-day visa on arrival.. Doing the math, that’s $870 a year for the privilege to live on Batam.

But that cost was cut in half when the government decided to add the U.S. and 29 countries to its visa-on-arrival exempt list, meaning no more $35 fee when entering the country. This week I tested the new system and was somewhat concerned about how the new procedures would work. Would there be paperwork? Would I have to have a hotel or resort reservation?

First of all, not all the ports on Batam are exempt, only Hang Nadim airport and the ferry terminals at Batam Centre and Sekupang, both of which are a taxi ride away. The Harbour Bay ferry terminal is within walking distance for me but is not on the exempt list for some reason.

Singapore's Harbourfront ferry terminal

Singapore’s Harbourfront ferry terminal

For my first trip, I decided to depart from Harbour Bay and re-enter at Batam Centre, where I had never used the ferry before. I chose the Batam Fast ferry service. My unfamiliarity with the Batam  Centre terminal and immigration there made me nervous, almost like when, in the past, I was making a move to a new country. It should be such an easy trip, but I was nervous anyway.

One nice aspect of the monthly trips will be that I can stock up on hard-to-get foods every month in Singapore at the upscale grocery in the terminal mall, which I did on this trip, bringing back bacon, cold cuts, pickles, sour cream, Parmesan cheese and some other things.

If I hadn’t gone to the store, I could have returned almost immediately to Batam, but in this case I missed that ferry and had to wait for the next one. The ride to Batam Centre from Singapore is about 20 minutes longer than to Harbour Bay and this was the first time I had taken it.

As usual, I made sure I was near the exit when we docked so as to get in the front of the immigration line. Turns out that was not necessary, at least on this day. I should note that I decided to make this trip on a Tuesday, and will go every fourth Tuesday, because I guessed there would be fewer people traveling. I was right.

Batam Centre ferry terminal

Batam Centre ferry terminal

The Batam Centre immigration area is new and modern, with several lines available, including for visa on arrival. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, figuring there would still be paperwork to fill out. So I stopped at the VOA counter, flashed my passport, and asked if my VOA was free and where should I go.

Now I should note that the free VOA is only if you are a tourist. Apparently, if you declare you are here for business then you still have to pay the $35.

The hijab-wearing Mandiri Indonesia bank clerk behind the VOA counter asked if I was on business or holiday. Of course I said “holiday.” She then directed me to a line with a “Foreign Passports” sign. There were only two people ahead of me.

This is where I had the biggest surprise. The immigration officer did the usual perusal of my passport, looked at me, looked at his computer screen, and then stamped my passport. No questions at all. I just cannot understand some of the things they do here, or don’t do here.

Relieved now that I know the new visa run process might be more often but not a problem, I walked outside to fill out the last bit of information about future trips – the taxi fare. Turns out it is only Rp 70,000 ($5) one-way to Nagoya, about a 20-minute ride.

If I compare costs of now and before, I will be paying for the $40 ferry ticket every month and $10 for round-trip taxi fare, or $600 a year, saving $270. Probably worth having to make monthly trips.

And, yes, I know I didn’t pay for taxis both ways on this trip, but I think I will have to in the future. This is because, in its infinite wisdom, the government decreed that you have to exit from the port where you came in to be exempt from the VOA fee. So, if someone enters through Batam Centre and then goes to the airport and visits Yogyakarta, they have to return to Batam to leave the country, or have to pay the $35 fee.

This means, I think, that in the future I will not be able to walk to Harbour Bay to exit; I will have to taxi to Batam Centre, where I entered, in order to exit without paying the fee. Eventually, I’m guessing, Harbour Bay will be added to the exempt list.

Batam Fast ferry

Batam Fast ferry

Finally, I’m working on a tickets-for-advertising trade with one of the ferry operators that will cut my ferry ticket price in half every month. This will bring my annual costs down to $360, from $600. As a bonus, the trade will include a second ticket that I don’t need but can use to raffle off on the BatamExpat.com website every month. So I reduce my expenses, add a new, prestigious advertiser to my site, and get something of value I can promote to my web audience.

I think that’s called making lemonade out of lemons. I just call it adapting to what you are presented with, or making the best with what you have to work with.

A WORD OF CAUTION: It is very possible that at some point when I make these monthly visa runs (as a tourist) that immigration will pull be aside to ask what I’m doing. I’m obviously not a tourist if I’m making monthly runs to Singapore and have done it numerous times, they will reason correctly. At that point, they can deport me back to Singapore, leaving all my possessions still in my apartment in Batam. What do I do then? My contingency plan would be to either, 1. suggest I be given a 30-day/$35 “Business visa”; or 2. call a friend and have my suitcases loaded up and brought to me at the ferry terminal, if immigration will allow (or ask someone to bring the bags over on the ferry). Stay tuned, because this is likely to happen unless I can find someone to sponsor me on a one-year business visa.

Now I feel like an immigrant

Typical crowd waiting to pass through Singapore immigration at Harbourfront terminal

Typical crowd waiting to pass through Singapore immigration at Harbourfront terminal

I’ve been traveling for more than five years now and I’ve never thought of myself as an immigrant. But that is exactly what I am, a legal immigrant, but still an immigrant.

Why this sudden recognition of my obvious standing in the many countries I have lived in during the past five years? Maybe because they’re getting tougher on foreigners here in my current home. Sound familiar?

During my first 2 ½ years in Batam, I stayed under an Indonesian work permit, or a KITAS. This cost my employer about $1,500 and allowed me to come and go from the country at will and did not require any periodic “visa runs” to renew my standing. Normally, I would have to leave the country every 30 days and then re-enter, paying a $35 visa-on-arrival fee. With the $40 ferry fee to Singapore, that means spending $75 every month if you want to stay long-term.

For the past year, I have stayed under a “business visa” thankfully provided me by a Batam company I do business with. For this visa, my sponsor had to provide immigration with certain paperwork, but there was no fee for my sponsor. I did, however, have to pay an agent here about $150 to process the paperwork and then had to pay another agent in Singapore $200 to go to the Indonesian Embassy to obtain the visa. Without using the latter agent, I would have to stay in Singapore for three days, but by paying the fee my stay was only half a day. The main benefit for me was that I could make visa runs every two months instead of monthly.

I should note that the business visa didn’t actually allow me to work in Indonesia; in fact, the rules explicitly say you cannot work with a business visa. Sounds a little crazy.

This time around, my sponsor once again agreed to help me. However, a snafu with an address on the application resulted in my application being turned down. Seems that immigration this time around decided to check my sponsor’s address. Unfortunately, my sponsor had moved and the address on the application was incorrect.

Given hesitancy on my sponsor’s part concerning what immigration might do, I decided to just make the monthly trips. This is a hassle, taking up most of one day, but the financial part has been eased greatly by a recent decision by the government to allow Americans to enter the country without paying the $35 visa-on-arrival fee. So I am left just with the ferry fee every month, much less expensive than with the business visa. However, there’s a caveat (there’s always a caveat).

In its wisdom, the government only sanctioned certain ports to eliminate the visa-on-arrival fee. On Batam, one of those is the airport. The other is the Batam Centre ferry terminal, about a 20-25 minute taxi ride for me. Normally, when I go to Singapore I use the Harbour Bay ferry terminal, which I can walk to, but re-entering Batam at Harbour Bay means paying the $35 VOA.

So to avoid the VOA, I must taxi to Batam Centre, take a ferry ride that is about half an hour longer than from Harbour Bay, and then book my return ferry to Batam Centre in Singapore. Or …

A Batam Fast ferry

A Batam Fast ferry

One of the ferry services that happen to serve both the Harbour Bay and Batam Centre terminals has approached me about a trade for advertising on my BatamExpat.com site. An advertising-for-ferry-tickets trade would shave half of the $40 ferry ticket price from each trip. But I’m still left with the taxi fares to and from Batam Centre, roughly $12-15 total each month.

Since the ferry company serves both Harbour Bay and Batam Centre, however, I can eliminate one taxi fare simply by walking to Harbour Bay to catch the ferry to Singapore and then using the same ferry company coming back to Batam Centre. Every little bit counts when you’re on a budget.

All of this is “the cost of doing business” if you want to stay in another country, so I’m not complaining. In fact, this new setup will save me hundreds of dollars, albeit it will be more of a hassle.

Part of that hassle is the immigration process on both sides of the Malacca Strait. On the Singapore side, it takes between 30 minutes and an hour and a half to clear immigration simply because of the number of people to process.  On the Batam side, if you rush to get off the ferry first, it takes far less time.

I should mention, also, that people who keep renewing their visa every month like I will be doing often come under scrutiny from immigration officials. The rescinding of the VOA fee is meant for tourists and my doing a monthly visa run looks suspiciously untouristy.

Typical ferry interior

Typical ferry interior

Which finally gets to my point about feeling like an immigrant. The government here has become very nationalistic since the last national election in 2014. In addition to making it harder on foreigners to live and work in Indonesia, the religious parties have managed to pass some laws aimed directly at the expat population.

For example, a law was passed that all foreigners obtaining a work permit (KITAS) must be able to speak and write Bahasa Indonesia, the official language. That was such an onerous law that even Indonesian companies objected. No company here would be able to bring in foreign expertise under that law, which would cripple industries like oil and gas and shipbuilding, the main industries on Batam. The law was revoked.

Then the religious parties managed to pass a law banning beer and wine sales at mini-markets, under the pretense of saving children from the dangers of alcohol. Such a law impacts foreigners mostly, either tourists or those living and working here. That law was implemented.

Following that, the government is now pursuing a law to ban alcohol sales completely in the country, again mostly directed at the expat population. I’m not sure how such a law would pan out in tourist areas like Bali or in Jakarta, where there are more than 15,000 expats living. An alternate law being considered would increase tariffs on alcohol by as much as 250 percent.

And it’s not all about alcohol. There have been other restrictions placed on foreign workers, such as no one over 60 years old being allowed a KITAS.

All of this is designed to rid the country of what many perceive as carpetbaggers taking jobs away from Indonesians – despite the fact the Indonesian workforce does not contain the expertise to do the jobs the foreigners are doing. It’s pretty convoluted.

Departure lounge at Singapore's Harbourfront terminal

Departure lounge at Singapore’s Harbourfront terminal

I guess I’m one of those immigrants the government wants out of the country, and that perception is why I’m suddenly feeling like an unwanted immigrant. This despite all the money I pour into the local economy. It’s not a lot by any macro measure but it is something, and multiplied by the tens of thousands of expats living in Indonesia, it does come out to be a significant amount.

While my situation is different from that of “illegal immigrants” in the United States, there are some similarities and comparisons. Most of those US immigrants are working, like I am – in the shadows but contributing to the economy. Most, I guess, like me, would gladly pay a small fee to remain in the country legally.

The citizenship question is another story. I don’t desire Indonesian citizenship; I just want to live where the cost of living is low. In the U.S., those immigrants want jobs, first and foremost. They want legal status so that they can lead productive and safe lives, and not be afraid of being deported in the middle of the night.

Why couldn’t a fee system work in the U.S.? Allow those in the country illegally to come forward, pay the fee on a regular basis, and let them apply for citizenship through the normal channels. In effect, let them pay a visa-on-arrival fee every 2-3 months without having to leave the country. If they want to be citizens, they can get in line like everyone else.

Would those newly legal immigrants have access to the U.S. safety net, since they would then be paying U.S. income taxes? That’s a tough call but here in Indonesia I cannot use safety net services, even though I am paying local sales taxes. I am not paying income taxes, however, and the newly legal U.S. immigrants would be, so there is a difference,

At any rate, I’m feeling less welcome here in Indonesia as lawmakers seem to be hell bent are driving the expats out. Definitely feeling like an immigrant, but I’ve been told the current nationalistic fervor is normal after a new election here and that it will calm down soon.

And next week I begin my monthly sojourns to Singapore and back, with one worthwhile benefit – the Singapore ferry terminal is next to a huge mall that contains an upscale grocery store. Bacon, ham, pork shops, cheeses, sour cream, spices, maple syrup and other Western staples will be available monthly now. And if I want to spend a little more time in Singapore, there’s a store in India Town where I can get clothes cheaply that actually fit.

You gotta look at the glass as half full.

(Note: These are not my photos.)

Making ‘Connections’ Internationally

DSC_2405 lrOne of the most gratifying aspects of international travel is the people you meet. Usually, these are just casual encounters, but occasionally you actually “connect” with new people in a way that brings friendship and understanding that can change your viewpoints, or theirs.

In Costa Rica, my best and most-lasting encounter was with a displaced American. In Croatia, it was a young couple who helped me find a place to live and who questioned me, in excellent English, about American life and politics. In Sicily, it was the young man who rented me an apartment and took me out with he and his girlfriend to experience the night as he and his friends did.

In Indonesia, primarily because I have been here far longer and had a built-in support network when I arrived, I have connected with a lot of Indonesians – from the staff members I worked with every day, to the waitresses I ordered food from every day, to the taxi drivers I use on a regular basis, and now to the ordinary, everyday people I interact with on a daily basis.

I consider many of these people my friends, we often hug on meeting, and laughs and conversations are prominent. Even a chance connection with a local ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver, who invited himself to my table at an outdoor restaurant and drilled me with question after question, in passable English, about life in the U.S., President Obama and U.S. foreign policy.

Helpful taxi driver, left

Helpful taxi driver, left

For the record, this 40-year-old man wants to live in the U.S. and doesn’t care if he gets a job as a dishwasher, because he doesn’t understand that the wages he would earn would leave him as poor as he is in his homeland. To him, America is the land of opportunity, even though he fails to understand what his being Muslim would mean to that opportunity in a country that seemingly hates anything Islamic.

To me, in a small way, this is how peoples learn about each other, how they begin to understand our differences, and how dialogue begins to be the choice instead of conflict.

But really, the reason I started this post was to introduce my two latest “connections – a young couple with a restaurant across the street and a 40-year-old businessman with a family and a deep curiosity about the United States. I must forewarn that the latter will be reading this post, with interest, so I hope I don’t distort the facts, because he will call me on it.

Warung next to Lusy's

Warung next to Lusy’s

My young couple connection I’ve mentioned before, but I don’t think I ever mentioned how the husband always seemed to be distant, while his wife always had a friendly smile for me. I always figured it was the language barrier and probably that’s true. They have a nicely laid out warong (street restaurant) across from my apartment and I have eaten there many times. Their food is from the Aceh region of Indonesia and very spicy but the wife knows not to make it that way for me.

During Ramadhan, this couple moved  its operation to the side street a block away from their warung, and was serving up just grilled seafood. They were there every night and indicated business was very good at those times I stopped to buy dinner.

But something was different. Now, the husband was verbally giving me a hard time when I looked at the fish he was cooking, all done in a friendly tone in a language I don’t understand. I would then berate him in return, in English, which he didn’t understand. And we both would laugh. And his wife would laugh.

When they returned to their regular location, I ordered mei goring ayam for dinner, which is not on their menu but which was delivered with a nice presentation. It was good to have them back. (Note: that’s a noodle and seafood dish in a red chili sauce, with a piece of very fried chicken [no coating] on the side.)

My second recent connection  runs two phone sales businesses on the island and is the worried husband and father of a beautiful wife and daughter. From all indications, he is relatively successful with his businesses and I’m not really sure what brought him to my door.

He would tell you it is because he found this blog on the Internet, liked how I wrote, and decided to contact me when he learned I lived on Batam. That may be true. I remember maybe a phone call from a stranger who was looking for someone to tutor his 4-year-old daughter in American English. He was explicit about the American part of that American English. Apparently, non-Americans can tell the difference.

I referred him to a local English-language company. He said no thanks because they had Australian or British instructors, not Americans. Finally, he asked if we could get together so that he could learn American English and he would then teach his daughter. He was eager to pay my hourly rate. I was skeptical and told him I was. I’m not trained as a teacher. But we gave it a try.

We have probably been meeting now for about four months, every Monday at 5 pm at the local mall. Our meetings go for an hour and a half, mostly now personal chit-chat and a lot of questions for me about American words and culture.

Now, please understand, my friend speaks English probably better than a lot of Americans. He understands such differences in there, their and they’re, for example, and is astonished that most Americans do  not know. He also seems to have a pretty good grasp on American culture, as evidenced by the fact he understands my sarcastic humor, which is not generally understood in Indonesia.

My friend always brings the lesson plan for the week, usually something in Bahasa and translated into English, which is always terrible. My job is to make sense of the bad translation and explain certain things about the topic.

Once, he brought a transcript of a Roseanne Barr roast, in Bahasa and English, and asked me what the jokes meant. That was tough because all the jokes were about her weight or referred to movies of TV shows she was in. She is not known in this part of the world so they haven’t seen any of her TV shows and films, nor do they follow Hollywood that much. And making jokes about someone’s wait here is not acceptable behaviour.

The latest gimmick is a Donald Duck cartoon book, a very old, very thick cartoon book with captions in Bahasa and subtitles in English.  For that, I’m basically providing descriptions of the individual cartoon cells , which are then relayed to my friend’s daughter.

Anyway, We have become friends, and I knew that for sure this last week, when I showed up for our usual meeting and he had his wife and daughter, and his brother and his girlfriend, there to meet me. There was no lesson. Just lots of questions about my writing and my life.

That, as much as anything, is why I travel.