This post is for anyone coming to or new to Korea.
I was fortunate to have a Vice Principal at my high school back in 2008 who had lived in Europe and Saudi Arabia prior to returning to Korea to work at my school before leaving again to work in Russia. He expected how I’d react to Korean bureaucracy and made sure to accompany me to immigration and teach me how to maneuver through the system. In addition, he foreshadowed many of the conflicts I’d have with Korean co-teachers, and though he was strict with me, he didn’t permit my stubborn colleagues to blame everything on me either.
What many foreigners fail to realize when working the immigration system—well, any Korean bureaucracy—is that to get what you want, especially if your request is at all different and/or strange, you must be pushy. In addition, you must have followed all the rules. If you miss a step, there’s no mercy and no help.
You really don’t have a choice. I have to admit that it took me a while to figure it out. Being pushy is not something I like doing as it was culturally drilled into my head to not be pushy because being pushy is always rude. It’s a necessity here. In fact, the more Hangukmal I learn, the more I realize that it often works to my benefit to be pushy in Hangukmal. In English, pushiness always sounds abusive. In Korean, it often sounds desperate. I think we can call it earnest pushiness. It’s more than demanding insistence. Earnest pushiness permits a speaker to share his or her frustration without blaming the listener(s).
And I’ve discovered that when I’m polite and pushy—in other words, desperate—I begin to receive sympathy from the Koreans who are tasked to help me and who work customer service. Hangukmal permits being polite and pushy at the same time. English doesn’t. Especially to Koreans who might not speak English well. Pushiness in English always sounds shrill and is always unwelcome.
So, you have to be pushy. In addition, you have to recognize when something begins to happen for you, when things start to go your way, it’s best to thank the person helping you and tell them you appreciate their working for you. Even if you’re annoyed at the help, thank them both for helping you and for understanding your confusion. It’s worth it.
Today, I had to go to immigration for two reasons. My annual visa is set to expire in less than 7 days. Because I will remain in Korea as an unemployed guest, my current alien registration ID is worthless. As of the 25th, I’d be here illegally without a new contract from my school or another educational institution. I needed to apply for an extension of stay, which gives me 30 additional days simply for showing up to apply. In addition, I needed to apply for a Visiting Spouse Visa, which will permit me to come and go from Korea at my leisure and for as long as my wife is employed here.
The first step is a common one for foreigners between jobs. With the most recent immigration regulations, Immigration expects me to show up at the end of my legal stay and request an extension. They’ll automatically give me 30 days for applying. The second request, however, is strange—not strange that I’m married and want to stay in Korea, but strange because my wife is a gyopo and American citizen and not a Korean citizen. Gyopos are one kind of persons with Korean ancestry who aren’t Korean citizens. My wife is a second generation American. Her parents left Korea in the late 70s. She gets special visa status in Korea that other people with Korean ancestry, say third generation Korean-Americans, would not get. My request is strange because most of the people requesting Visiting Spouse visas are not Americans married to Americans, they’re Americans married to Koreans.
As I explained above, strange requests lead to problems. It’s a rule. We spent an hour insisting that our request be processed and, in the end, it was. If we weren’t pushy, we would have left and would have had to return with unnecessary documents and our instructions from other agencies who’d have to have corrected the initial Immigration Officer’s mistake. But you simply cannot tell somebody they’re not correct without encountering problems.
Korean skepticism can be a tough nut to crack. The Immigration Officer we worked with was a kind, older man who was genuinely interested in solving what he thought was a real problem with my request, but the problem really was in his mind. He simply didn’t understand why we were making that specific request. When we got him to help us rather than attempt to brush us off, he lightened up in spite of all we had to do to convince him of our worthy and legal request.
First, we had to be pushy. Pushy to get the ball rolling on our request. Pushy to make sure he didn’t ignore our legal marriage certificate. Pushy to get him to understand my wife really is a Gyopo. There comes a time in these complex social situations in Korea, when the person one works with relents—not because he or she gives up or admits being incorrect but because one has proven genuine interest, concern and effort. When the Immigration Officer began working with us instead of trying to get us to go away, we knew everything would work out to our benefit.
This is similar to what happened when we worked with real estate agents to find an apartment to rent. The people we worked with insisted that we’d have to accept high fees and high prices for what we wanted. Basically, we were told we’d never find what we wanted. We insisted otherwise and politely debated for about fifteen minutes. We were insistent, then pushy, then demanding. We wanted to try, dammit. Amazingly, after the debate, we received many wonderful offers, eventually finding a new landlord who is kind to foreigners in a part of town without many foreign residents and at a very reasonable rent and deposit. If we were new to Korea, we’d never had made it that far. We’d have left and likely headed to the expat ghettos around Itaewon. Exactly where we didn’t want to live. You have to be pushy.
When the Immigration Officer sent my wife to pay the tax for my VISA request, I was elated. Having been to the office twice before, I knew this meant my request would be processed. I took advantage of time alone with him to insist that I apologize for my confusion and am grateful for his effort to successfully help us. I said it properly and in Korean, and even went so far to explain that I needed his help because I’m still new around here. Three years in Korea seems like a long time, but it isn’t. He was positively charmed and blew my apology off. He didn’t need it except he did. He smiled through the rest of the process, even filling out our paperwork. He asked about my hometown, my university, if we’re having children. I’d made a friend.
I hate this process. It’s stressful. And I often forget my role in it, getting unnecessarily anxious at the start of the process and then fulfilling my role both linguistically and socially. But if I’m unwilling to participate in it, I have a much more difficult time successfully navigating Korean bureaucracy. Last year, the process was easy: I had a new contract; I needed a new VISA. Pay my taxes. Get my VISA.
Korean Immigration can be difficult. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s best on your first visit to bring a Korean citizen along and preferrably one who works at your job and is your superior. The office treated me like gold when I was being ushered around with the Vice Principal of my school. We were in and out in twenty minutes.
Always go with a reservation. This means making a reservation maybe a two to four weeks prior, so you can get the time and day you want. When you have a reservation, you can simply step up the Online Reservation Window For Foreigners. There’s never a long wait. Walking in to Immigration is asking for stress you don’t need.
If you notice a free window and you have a question, go up and ask. You might get instant help. Step up and be pushy. Today, I arrived an hour early. My agent was not busy. I went to him, sat down, told him I had a reservation and was early and wanted to get the process over with. He helped me. There were several other foreigners looking helpless, waiting in the background, not sure what to do. That hesitance stresses Koreans out. Never assume that the Immigration Officers speak enough English and comfortably enough to approach you and ask if you need help. You have to ask. And you have to know how to ask. A Korean friend or coworker can write the requests down for you if you’re brand new. Simply give the written note to the Immigration Officer.
Have cash. 50,000 to 80,000 in manwon notes. You’ll have to pay taxes (30-50,000) and you may have to pay for delivery of documents and/or photos. You have to pay with cash at Immigration. They will not accept bank cards of any kind. Same goes for the Department of Motor Vehicles and when you want to get registration for a vehicle at a District Office. Business like this is always handled in cash.
If you’re alone, bring the instructions with you. If an Officer insists you don’t have proper paperwork, you can illustrate that you do.
PS: do not visit the ESL Cafes like Dave’s ESL to learn what to do in these difficult situations. Those forums are full of haters who will often mislead you because they are misinformed and have an agenda. If you’re reading this and need help, ask me. I’ll make sure you get accurate information and the help you need. And I won’t shit on Korea while doing it.