Cambodian immigration authorities announced that, effective last month, the regulations for long-stay visas for foreigners would be overhauled. The general idea is to separate the various categories – working expats or retirees or students – each with their own defined visa and required paperwork. However, the much-trumpeted innovations have created a good deal of confusion.
Traditionally, the Cambodian government has had a much more relaxed view of long-term expats than the Thai one. Here, in Thailand, one-year extensions for retirement or study or marriage have each had their own bureaucracy with detailed documentation and minimum income or bank deposits. The Thai work permit is separately a most complex animal and is linked to the national income-tax system.
By contrast, any expats wanting to live in Cambodia have simply needed to obtain a US$35 “ordinary” (formerly “business”) visa on arrival for one month — not a “tourist” visa – and have been able to extend it for a full year by paying around US$280 to an agent. No documentation has been necessary, apart from the applicant’s passport. It should be noted that it is almost universal practice in Cambodia for these extensions to be handled by liaison agents. The foreigner is not expected to turn up at the police immigration office and isn’t really welcome there. The agents, who are also travel and tour agencies, can be found in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and other tourist areas. For example, there are several on Phnom Phen’s waterfront district known as Riverside, all of whom interact regularly with the immigration department.
This straightforward policy was scheduled to end at the beginning of September. It was announced that foreigners seeking to renew their one-year, “business” extension would need to show a Cambodian work permit which in turn required a letter from their employer. In the past, the requirement for a work permit was rarely enforced. Moreover, foreigners applying for work permits on a self-employed basis or because they had opened a business were sometimes refused, so they chose not to bother. At the time of writing, it seems that the one-year extensions continue to be renewed without the need to obtain a work permit, but many working expats are confused to say the least.
Another group in limbo are the 20,000 or so foreigners living in Cambodia as retirees, some married to Cambodian nationals. Traditionally, they have simply followed the same path as the working ones – pay the US$280 on an annual basis – and forget all about work permits. The Cambodian immigration authorities have stated that the retirees will now have their own one-year retirement extension which will also cost US$280 and will — maybe — require unspecified proof that the applicant is retired in his or her home country. Whether this new retirement visa has actually been introduced, and precisely on what terms, is hard to say. Some agents say it is possible, others deny it.
Insiders, familiar with Cambodian immigration matters, say there is actually a heated debate going on with government officials about whether the country wants to follow Thailand and introduce various extension categories with detailed check-lists. The laissez-faire policy of the past, say some Cambodian sources, has worked well without a copious bureaucracy and one-year visa holders could always be questioned as they passed through airport or border checkpoints. But others claim that the easy-visa policy has encouraged foreign criminals and undesirable elements to settle there. That sounds familiar!
In fact, it is not uncommon for immigration authorities in Cambodia to herald a new policy which never happens. Two years ago there was a fanfare about three-year tourist visas but they were never introduced and have apparently been forgotten. The normal tourist visa remains one month and is purchased for US$30 on arrival, although it can be extended once for a further 30 days. That will continue as before.
In fairness, Cambodia is currently undergoing tremendous economic and social changes. Its economic growth rate is amongst the highest in Asia and Phnom Penh is rapidly being transformed into a contemporary mega-city on the back of huge Chinese investment in infrastructure and transport. The traditional reliance on the United States and the European Union is shrinking even as local politics are turning increasingly authoritarian in nature, as in many other ASEAN countries.
Expats who are considering moving to Cambodia as a base should certainly obtain the 30-day “ordinary” visa – not “tourist” – on entry. This can be extended up to one year without problems. By the time of the first renewal in 2018, the visa options may be clearer. Those facing renewal in the near future will keep closely in touch with their agent for the latest updates.