There is a lot of confusion among new arrivals and people who are planning on moving to the Philippines about what the best ways are to generate an income and what the rules are when it comes to visas and staying here long term. As someone who has been in the country for a while I thought it might be useful to some of our readers if I walked through some of the options that people have. There are four main topics I’m going to cover in this article:
- Earning a living – a look at what works and what doesn’t and what rules apply depending on your visa status.
- Visa options. Tourist visas, SRRV what taxes and fees you can expect to pay and a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years that can make extensions a little easier.
- Safety. Your neighbors, dealing with the locals, crime and what can (and has) gone wrong.
- Finances. Transferring money into the country, fees, charges and the local banking system.
Foreigners earning a living in the Philippines
It’s important to note that if you’re on a tourist visa you’re not allowed to work in the country. So if you fall into this category then freelancing for someone offshore or deriving income from business interests or investments is really your only choice. That’s not all bad.
There are plenty of foreigners in the country who make a very good living as marketing consultants, online content marketers, freelance writers and computer programmers. Also, don’t make the mistake of assuming that all the foreigners in the country are retirees with pensions. I have a large network of connections that live here who are in their mid 30s, I don’t know a single one that has a full time “old-fashioned” job though.
Many people who make the move to the country do so because of some romantic entanglement and make the assumption that they will be able to invest money in some sort of a business that will keep them and the love of their life well supported. While this is a really good sounding idea, in reality it seldom works out to be as profitable as they anticipate.
I hear from foreigners at least once a week who want advice on how much they should invest to open a sari sari store for their girlfriend or what the economics are when it comes to building a pig farm. The first question I’d ask is how much experience either you or your potential partner has in whatever business it is you’re planning on opening. Considering a store? Have you ever worked in retail before?
Do you understand stock management, doing the books and the general complexities of operating a business like that? If not, then what makes you think that you’re not going to end up with just another tumble down wooden lean to shack out the front of your house where the most common thing you say to your customers is “we’re out of stock”.
Even if you do have the requisite experience, as I sit here this morning there are five stores within 10 meters of my front gate. Why would you compete with that? How are your neighbors going to react to that competition assuming you are actually able to somehow separate your business from theirs?
Also, if you’re like so many people who relocate to the Philippines and you met your sweetheart online and haven’t even met her yet then investing money with someone you don’t know in a business you can never own doesn’t seem like a sound household financial policy to me. Many do it, many fail, very few make it.
All of that said, it’s not all doom and gloom. Here are a couple of very successful examples that I’m aware of when it comes to foreigners actually thriving in the Philippines, as you’ll see, thinking outside the box is probably the most important part of cracking the code:
- An American in his 30s who set up a successful marketing agency in the United States then ran it from here as most of his work was done remotely.
- Another American in his 70s who imported rare dog breeds from China and the United States and set up breeding operations here.
- An Australian in his 30s who started out as a freelance writer and then leveraged his freelance clients to establish a business consultancy and outsourcing operation in the Philippines.
- A Brit, also in his 30s, who set up a tour company that included the Philippines on its itinerary and bases himself here when he’s not on the road.
- Many, many people of all ages who make a decent living as freelance writers.
What’s the moral of the story? If you plan to use limited funds to invest in a subsistence farm or little store then don’t expect to make a lot of money out of it. You can start many of the businesses I’ve gone through above before you leave home and bring your income with you, as a good friend of mine often says the easiest way to make a million bucks in the Philippines is to arrive with 2 million.
On the sari sari store front I speak from experience, when we bought the house it had a store attached so I figured I’d give it a go. On a good month it made us between 5000-6000 pesos in profit (that’s a little over $100 USD). We closed it because it just wasn’t worth the effort for the return. We also were not paying any rent as we own the property, had we been paying rent you could easily cut those figures in half.
This really isn’t a very fun country to be stone broke in (again I’m talking from experience there), you’ve got no help and no options if you run out of cash so be wise with your business choices or things can go very quickly pear shaped and you could find yourself up a creek with no propulsion.
What about visas for long term foreigners in the Philippines?
You’ve basically got three ways to stay here for long periods of time:
- Get married and apply for a 13a visa.
- Throw some dollars in a bank account and get an SRRV.
- The endless cycle of tourist visa extensions.
The 13a Visa (Spousal visa)
The vast majority of foreigners here that do get married make the decision to transition onto a 13a. The process is not complicated, you’ll need a few clearances, a marriage certificate and application fees of around 9000 pesos (about $250 or so).
There is a comprehensive checklist here and some more information from the Bureau of Immigration here. The first time you apply for the visa you will, assuming you’re approved, be issued with probationary 12 month visa. 90 days before this expires you can present at the BOI and petition for the transition to a permanent visa.
The SRRV (Special Resident Retirees Visa)
This is pretty much the only option for a long term visa if you’re not married apart from tourist visa extensions. That said there are some other visa classes like special quota visas but I’m not going to cover those in this article as they’re pretty niche.
The SRRV requires a deposit of between $10,000 and $50,000 in an approved bank, the level of the deposit depends on which class you qualify for. The different qualifying requirements are basically attached to your age and your health. Special Resident Retirees Visas are available to people over 35 years of age. As things in the Philippines have a habit of changing and I’d rather this article did not get out of date this page is the official guide from the Philippine Retirement Authority and it goes through everything in depth.
Continually renewing your Philippine Tourist Visa
This is the most expensive but arguably most straightforward option if you don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to deposit in a bank account and you’re not planning any nuptials. Basically you can renew your tourist visa in 2 month blocks for up to 3 years. It costs about 3000 pesos each renewal plus another $50 a year for your ACR I-Card. Let’s take a look at the process:
- Upon arrival in the Philippines most foreign nationals are issued with a 30 day stamp.
- This can be extended to 59 days at any immigration office. Unless you’re really out in the boondocks there will be one relatively close to you.
- You can then extend that visa for another 2 months and continue to do that for another 3 years at which stage you need to exit and re-enter the Philippines, then the whole process starts over.
The first extension costs about 4000 pesos, the second one (including the i-card) about 7000 pesos and the balance are 3000 pesos. There are a few things to be aware of if you go down this path:
If you stay in the country for more than 6 months at a stretch you will have to obtain Emigration Clearance 2 days before you leave. This requires a visit to the nearest immigration office and a fee. The fee has always confused me, on the BOI website it says it is “around 1400 pesos”. I have never paid more than 500 pesos. If you’re here for more than 12 months you’ll also be liable for TIEZA travel tax on departure which you pay at the airport. It’s another 1500 pesos or so.
When you consider the fact that you’re up for 2000 pesos to leave and a whole lot of inconvenience and the fact that you can get a return ticket to Borneo or to Hong Kong for about the same money if you’re smart about when you book it can just be cheaper to leave and come back. That said, if you don’t want that hassle then visa extensions are easy and painless, although can get a little bit expensive.
Safety and security for foreigners in the Philippines
This is an extremely valid concern that a lot of foreigners have when coming here. The reality is that the Philippines is no less safe than most major western cities but you need to remember that locals will often see you as wealthy and as such a target. Many foreigners live here for years without any trouble, many also find themselves fleeing in terror or even getting shipped home in a wooden box.
As I briefly alluded to above, one way to find yourself in trouble is to get into competition with locals. There are some other basic things you need to avoid as well though:
- Don’t got to ATMs at night.
- Never borrow or lend money from / to a local.
- Carry a few hundred pesos in your pocket and the rest elsewhere on your person if you’ve got a lot of cash.
- Make sure you live in a decent area with gated security if you so wish.
- Avoid large, flash displays of wealth.
- Be good to your neighbors.
A lot of these tips are just common sense. They apply at home and abroad for the majority of us. I’ll drill a little deeper on some of them though. That comment about decent areas and gated security, I live in a decent area, reasonably prosperous by local standards but aside from the Barangay Tanods (all of whom regularly drink a lot of my beer) we don’t live in a gated area nor do we have any security. I have low fences and seldom lock my front gate. I didn’t move here to live in a prison, I moved here to be part of a community. That’s why I say at the end of that tip “if you wish”.
Where I say be good to your neighbors, here is my approach. All of our neighborhood kids get a bag of chocolates shared among them at Easter, they will get some stocking fillers at Christmas time (nothing expensive but just a token). I treat the adults in the community with respect and accept and understand that I am in a more fortunate economic position than them.
I always say an emphatic no to requests for money but I try to be a good citizen. To many people this just comes naturally but if you’re from somewhere like New York, London or Sydney it might be a bit of a culture shift. It’s not essential but I think it probably contributes to the fact that I’ve never had any major problems here.
Of course these tips are basically just based on my personal experience and depending on where you are and what sort of person you behave like your mileage may vary. The Filipino people are friendly, happy go lucky and relaxed. They also have a habit of shooting people who piss them off.
Foreigners and finances in the Philippines
If you’re earning an income offshore you’ll need to find a cost effective way to bring money into the country. I operate with Paypal and a local bank account (I’ve got one with BDO and another with East West). I no longer maintain any financial instruments offshore, I hardly ever leave the country so I don’t see the point.
Opening bank accounts in the Philippines is relatively easy for foreigners as long as you have a valid ACR. I would recommend to anyone that they make this a priority as it makes life a whole lot easier.
When it comes to housing, you can’t own it unless it’s a condo. There are a couple of approaches that foreigners will take to resolving this if they want to own landed property. If you’re legally married you’ve got a lot of the same protections as you would anywhere when it comes to matrimonial property. Unless you’ve naturalized and taken Philippine citizenship though you are in hot water if you outlive your spouse and you don’t have children.
The way that situation works is that ownership of the property does not default to you but you will be given “a reasonable period of time to sell the property.” Selling property in the Philippines is difficult at the best of times so most people just accept that if they find themselves in that situation they’re going to lose on the transaction. In the event that you’ve got kids and the house is in your spouse’s name (as long as your kids hold Philippine citizenship) then ownership of the property will revert to your children.
The other alternative, if you remain unmarried, is to put it in the name of a local but have a mortgage document drawn up for the purchase price. This was my approach. We were not married when we purchased the properties here and I had a lawyer draft a mortgage document with me as the lender and my partner as the borrower. In reality this does not afford you any ownership rights but what it does do is stop someone from selling the property out from under you while the lien is in place. Basically in the event of a relationship dispute I am in a position to force the property into a mortgagee auction by calling a default on the debt.
The other option is to lease a property on a long term basis. In this case the land remains owned by a local but you own any improvements on it. Of course the problem is that once the lease period is up the owner of the land can price you out of the property and keep your improvements without any legal obligation to compensate you unless you’ve got a secondary agreement in place (these types of agreements are never really en forcible anyway, the rule of thumb in the Philippines is that if you go to court against a local you’ve lost before you start).
So there it is, my guide to the important bits of life here as I see them. If you’ve got anything else you’d like me to cover in this article I’m happy to run an update, just let me know in the comments. Also any long term residents of the republic that have anything to add I’d love for you to give us the benefit of your knowledge so, once again, hit the comments section below.
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