A Filipino Expat Guide to Settling Abroad
By Kristine Abante
They say if you haven’t dared left your comfort zone you will only be reading one page of a great book.
Those of us who have been lucky enough to experience the thrill of stepping into another country will tell you that there is this priceless rush that comes from the moment you first set foot on foreign soil.
Everything seems so exotic – the air, the weather, the street signs, the food, public transportation, people talking in a language you don’t understand. You take this all in as you assess the possibilities before you. It is frightening, yes, but it is also rewarding to have that chance to be a brand new person, open to new adventures ahead.
There was a time when travel was not exactly popular among Pinoys, when the word “abroad” only brings to mind three things – a) you’re family is loaded rich, b) you have relatives abroad who petitioned for you, or c) you are an OFW bound for a tough life in the Middle East, Europe or Canada.
Times have changed, however. Nowadays with cheaper international fares and better opportunities, we see Filipinos from all walks of life, not only making their way but also planting roots across globe.
Masters at the art of adapting and integrating, Pinoy expats are proving that although there might be no place like home, there is also no limit to the places you can call home.
If you’re thinking of spreading your wings and moving to certain parts of the world, we’ve gathered some insights from our fellow Filipinos living in key places around the globe to help you plan your next big move.
Mindy Rule – Los Angeles, California
Mindy Rule, an accountant based in Los Angeles and moved to the US back in 2002 to be with her eldest sister. She says, “Moving to the LA as a fresh grad, I took a job in a small company as a secretary and then I went back to school to get more credentials in my field. I worked full-time and attended night classes. Now, I’m working as an accountant in a multinational corporation.”
Famous for NBA and Hollywood, Mindy enjoys LA’s multi-cultural scene and appreciates how traffic rules and regulations are followed over there. A big Filipino community in LA also made it easier to settle.
“Filipinos are in the top 5 immigrants here. They can become immigrants through employer petition or through family petition, but based on experience, it’s a challenging and long process, so you have to be patient.”
Rowena Olores – Dallas, Texas
Rowena moved to the US in 1991 when she was offered a job as a physical therapist for a hospital system in Lufkin, Texas. “I landed here with a working visa and a temporary license to practice while reviewing to take the State Board/Licensure Exam for a permanent license. I have since practiced and pursued a post graduate clinical fellowship and now specialize in Manual Therapy/Ortheopedics,” she explains.
“I like the efficient healthcare system of the US. As far as I know they do not deny anyone of medical care, especially in emergency situations despite your inability to pay.” She adds, “Culturally, Americans are in general, courteous and generous people. They practice the principle of right of way, they would hold a door out for a stranger, will acknowledge your presence by making eye contact or by nodding or greeting you. They also have excellent highway systems – you can see where your taxes are going. Shipping and mailing services are dependable. Freedom of speech is upheld here and personal and professional advancement is open and accessible to everyone regardless of race, ethnicity or economic status.”
Although living in the suburb has its downside, Rowena shares. “You don’t see much people around the street, so you don’t expect much community interaction unlike in the Philippines. You have to be very intentional to reach out to make friends with your neighbors. People tend to stay in their own homes unless you live in more thickly populated areas like New York or California.
As for migrating to the US, she says, “You can move here via an employer based/sponsored petition or a family based petition. They need to be in a profession that is currently in demand. In the 90’s the country was open for medical professionals. Nowadays, the demand is for Information Technology and telecommunications engineers. They can hold a working visa and then, apply for a green card/immigrant visa after a year or two. They will eventually be eligible to apply for citizenship after five years of being a permanent resident. You can find comprehensive information on immigration rules at www.uscis.gov.”
Rowena also shares a few dos and don’ts – “Beware of the lure of credit cards. American Society is encouraged to ‘build credit score’ and that entails borrowing money or using your credit cards to show your ability to pay for loans. Your mailbox will be filled with application forms whether you like it or not. As for dos –
Connect with Filipinos to ease the feeling of being homesick. Make sure you know how to drive. Public transportation is in place in bigger cities but limited in smaller towns. Be mindful of their culture and how you interact. Learn by observation, reading and interaction. Be open to change some of our old cultural habits like “bahala na”, because that can go against you as Americans are very process and result-oriented.
Listen and discuss, instead of assuming. Also, be comfortable in your own skin. We, Filipinos, are very hard working and are naturally caring individuals and Americans will see and acknowledge that. That way ,you can make the common phrase ‘America, the land of opportunity’ work for you.”
Joni Cham – New York City
Joni Cham is a book author/research analyst who migrated to New York with her Fil-Am husband towards the end of 2013. “I live in Brooklyn, in one of the boroughs of NYC. I like it because it’s away from the touristy hustle and bustle of Manhattan, and yet it’s also close enough for the occasional show or dinner and drinks. I’m a writer in New York, which is such a cliché. The alternative is a housewife, which I am too plus a few other words. Currently, I’m on the hunt for a full-time job. In a sense, I feel like I don’t think I can really know this city well enough until I get out there and be part of it.”
For Joni, the two major challenges of settling in NYC are the cold and the high cost of living.
“I like the diversity of NYC. I like that I can try so many different cuisines, for instance. Oh, and I love, love, love the library! Free access to knowledge is definitely one thing that the US is doing right. Many Americans take this for granted but I always feel a sense of gratitude every time I go to my local library.
For the more mundane things, I like having fast Internet and a (relatively) good subway system. Traffic is never as bad as it is in Manila. It’s the everyday things after all that make up a life.”
Art Simplina, Tampa Bay Florida
Art Simplina came to the US in 1999, from Saudi Arabia, to be with his wife, Filipino-Japanese nurse Meiko, whom he met in the Philippines.
“While looking for a job, I enrolled at a local community college in Clearwater, Florida which eventually became St. Petersburg College. I got my certifications for Microsoft Network Systems Engineer and Cisco Certified Network Associate. These qualifications later on helped me land a job at GE where I worked for 7 years.”
America is a land of opportunity. It has given us the chance to improve our lives compared to our conditions back in the Philippines. Working hard will reward one’s effort and things that were not previously affordable are within one’s reach.
“Going from one place to another is easy. People observe the road courtesies; traffic flow is organized and smooth. “
Joy Duyan – Toronto
Joy Duyan moved to Toronto in 2005 as a caregiver. She was on a working visa for two years. “After I finished the caregiver program, I applied for an open permit (which allows the holder to work for any employer) while waiting for my permanent residency. After I received my open permit in 2008, I started working in a construction company. “
According to Joy, “Canada is a the best country to live in with pretty good job prospects, social programs that help out people when in need, a reasonable cost of living, an average life expectancy of over 80 years for its citizens, and free health benefits for residents.”
For Filipinos who want to migrate to Canada, Joy shares, “If you want to migrate to Canada, there are a few different ways to apply. You will need to decide which immigration program will work best for you and your family. It is also important to know about credential recognition. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) recommends that you review the resources on the Foreign Credentials Referral Office’s website to learn about the steps you need to take to get your credentials and qualifications assessed and recognized in Canada.”
She also advises, “As we set our sights to immigrate to a new country, one of the most important tasks is to get hold of a job. It is advisable to segregate our job search in two phases. The first job is the one that pays the bills, and the second job can be your aspiration. Reason being, many of the fields in which we were working back home are regulated, meaning we need a license to practice. Also there is a need for “Canadian Experience.” Both these aspects can be fulfilled if we get hold of a survival job first for necessities. This also gives us some time to contemplate on the type of job we want to go after. It is also advisable to get a temporary accommodation for a period of 2-3 months as one goes into a new geography. This temporary accommodation can be a basement of a house or a shared one to keep expenses to a minimum. This will also help you understand the city better.
Once you identify the location you prefer, you can then tackle the decision of whether to buy or rent for the long term. When you get to be financially stable, you might want to consider getting a Life Insurance and a Registered Educational Savings Plan (RESP) for your children’s education. In this way you are securing yourself and your family.”
Cristy Guadiz – Sydney
Cristy mentions that she appreciates the laid back vibe and beautiful landscape of the so-called ‘Land Down Under,’ famous for its great outdoors. But the downside for her, especially as a traveler who got used to being conveniently located in the Middle East, is being very far from the rest of the world now.
“Plan carefully, especially if you are relocating with your family. Learn as much as you can about Australia or whatever that country you’re planning to relocate to. Research – there’s a lot of information out there on the internet – i.e. the job market, the average rent prices, the cost of furniture or appliances, food, etc. If you are making your exit from the Philippines for your initial entry to Australia, the CFO (Commission on Filipino Overseas) has a mandatory orientation that you need to attend.”
As for getting settled, she acknowledges the very helpful local Filipino community there. “I was very fortunate to find Pinoy AU Sydney group on Facebook. There’s lots of information there from the forums and discussions and lots of nice and friendly people, too. You’ll be surprised even more that there are Filipinos who are very willing to help out fellow Pinoys. “
Jun Tacio – Melbourne
Jun moved to Australia in July of 2008., by the invitation of his company, Novartis OTC to join their IT department as an Infrastructure Systems Manager. He moved to Australia via a company sponsored work visa and has been based in Melbourne, voted the most livable city in the world for four consecutive years.
Jun shares, “Life in Melbourne is actually laid back compared to Manila, Riyadh or Cairo (cities where I previously worked and lived for years). And yet, the city is very sophisticated. Melbourne is known as the arts and culture capital as well as the Sports capital of Australia, so there are events and festivals going on whole-year through. Then, there is always that option to drive to the scenic mountains and valleys that rural Victoria has to offer. Orchards and vineyards are also open to the public for day drives. Melbourne is also a culinary hotspot, with everything from burger joints to posh eateries, and there’s also a thriving bar scene and café culture.”
“It’s a bit more expensive to live in Australia compared to the US and Canada and most of Europe. But it is cheaper compared to the UK and Singapore. Singaporeans actually prefer to study down here. Also, it is cheaper to live in Melbourne compared to Sydney. But there is always a trade-off. Permanent residents and Aussies enjoy very good medicare which is not available in the US.”
“Filipinos can move to Australia via skilled migration, family connections, and company sponsored work transfer. Filipinos can independently apply to migrate to Australia provided their skills are listed in the Skilled Occupations List (SOL) at www.immi.gov.au/Work/Pages/skilled-occupations-lists/sol.aspx. Migrants can eventually secure citizenship once they met the required number of years of residency in Australia. The Australian Immigration Office website can offer more details about this – www.citizenship.gov.au.
Jun shares some of the dos and don’ts to consider when applying for migration to Australia. “Australian migration requirements can be daunting. The lengthy process and equally lengthy forms required to be filled up will put you off at first but this is the norm. So have patience.
Ella Sison, Auckland
Ella Sison moved to New Zealand four years ago to be with her family. Her mom and sister have been based there for the past five years prior to her arrival. “I came to New Zealand on tourist visa at first, coming from Dubai, then my mom helped me to enroll in university and get a student visa. I can eventually apply for citizenship after gaining full time employment. The only thing is, it will take five years, so we need to be patient. She shares,
“The Lifestyle in New Zealand is good compared to Dubai, its simple, laid back and close to nature. It’s ideal for families but maybe quite a challenge for singletons, as there’s not much of nightlife or party scene. Social services and education are good so it’s really an ideal place to raise your kids.”
“My advice to Pinoys who want to migrate to NZ, is that they should prepare for the costs involved. Check the government website for the skills required as that would make their application process faster.”
Jenny Altai, Herten
Jenny Altai, whose husband is an EU citizen, moved to Germany from Dubai in January 2007 were they bought rental properties. Self-employed, she shares, “We live in a small quiet town. Living here is less stressful as we are our own bosses. We have German acquaintances but unfortunately, we did not manage to find close friends.”
“It is a good place to raise a family with a high standard ‘free of charge’ education and a health care system that gives you access to doctors and treatments without waiting. Safety is also a plus factor especially in the smaller cities or villages where crime rate is very low.”
She points out some drawbacks – “English is still not widely spoken though. A lot of the locals tend to assume that if you are a foreigner, then you are either a refugee or receiving social benefits. They also prefer to pay cash or with electronic card, so paying with credit card is not widely accepted.”
Jenny notes, “There is always a demand for highly skilled workers but Germany is not attracting a lot of them due to the language issue. Few companies do offer jobs that don’t require German knowledge but the majority, requires basic or even advanced German. If someone is really interested to migrate here, the best way is to find work in bigger cities that doesn’t require German. If not, learn the language and then secure a job before coming here.”
She cautions, “The situation here is not like in other countries wherein you apply for a visit visa, and then try your luck. One advantage of working here is the possibility of applying for permanent residence after five years, then citizenship after 8 years (7 years if you’ve done an integration course).”
Cecile Smago, Germany
Dentist Cecille Smago recounts, “My husband Carsten who is German, works for a Telecom company so on his international assignment I was always along. We lived in Vienna, then Brazil, Costa Rica and then back to Germany. We are now here for a total of 10 years. I have two sons, one is born in Brazil and one in Germany and it is because of them that I decided to be a full time mother here.”
Cecille shares, “There are a lot of good reasons to live in this country. Generally, Germany is clean and organized and education is free in public schools and universities. Best of all, the economy is in good shape compared to neighboring European countries. Another good thing is that every registered individual is required to have health insurance. If you cannot afford it you can go to social welfare and they will help you.”
She adds, “The segregation of trash here was completely new for me when we arrived here but after awhile it became a routine. When it comes to food, the groceries here are reasonably priced so if you cook every meal, it’s quite cheap to live here. The only downside would be that as a Filipino, we are used to the friendliness and openness of our people and we love to chit chat even for few minutes – whether we are in a bus, in a parlor or market, it doesn’t really matter. But the Germans will take years to warm up.”
Some dos and don’ts in Germany – “Carry your residence card or passport at all times. Be punctual and apologize if you are not. Always remember to use the formal pronoun “Sie” when talking to people unless they tell you otherwise. Shake hands all the time – it’s part of their culture. Learn how to properly recycle. Don’t do drugs. Don’t drink and drive as they treat driving under the influence very seriously. Don’t do the Nazi salute as it is considered a criminal offense. Don’t walk in the bicycle lane.”
“If you don’t have family or friends already living here, then you will have a hard time adjusting, especially if you don’t speak basic German and you chose to live in a small town where nobody can understand you. Plan, research and study everything about the company you want to work for and the town or place you will end up living before deciding to move.”
“Germany is a beautiful country. The only hindrance is that it hasn’t yet recognized the importance of adapting English as a second language. They still have this notion that you have to speak German if you want to live here. All I can say is that if you are young, highly skilled and willing to learn, then Germany will welcome you with open arms.”
Precious Baque, London England
Precious came to London almost four years ago. At present, she works as a full time Accountant, while doing fashion styling in her free time.
“Living in England is like driving in the fastest lane, there are so many things to do in so little time,” she remarks. “I like the openness especially in art/fashion. Inspiration is everywhere – from the landscape, to language, to architecture and to people. I love their politeness and open-mindedness here. They are not bothered about your uniqueness at all. Government policies are good, and every citizen is protected.”
“The only thing I don’t like here is the weather. Believe it or not, it has massive impact on your mood and emotion. Out here where it’s always rainy or gloomy you tend to get homesick a lot.”
“If you are interested in moving to the UK, you have to check the government website and see which skills are in demand annually. Keep in mind that England is part of the European Union. A lot of the members of the Union and other neighboring countries also have skilled workers are interested to work here, so the job market is very competitive. But having good qualifications can help you settle.”
Precious advises, “Be confident emotionally and financially. Your salary may look higher than what you get in Philippines but you have to factor in the cost of living here. You must have enough savings to keep you going and to sustain your needs. You also have to adapt quickly, learn the culture, practice the good and analyze the bad. Eventually you’ll learn and practice both cultures, keep your values intact. Make friends and they will be there for you for life – that will help you feel at home.”
She adds, “Be careful of scammers – you have to be alert. It’s a must to know what’s going on around you, from daily news to financial updates. Keep improving your qualifications, education and career. Keep learning, do your homework, research and study before making any drastic decision.“
Ronald Belzena, Donegal, Ireland
Ronald Belzena moved to Ireland in 2005 in a town northwest of the island called Letterkenny, County Donegal. He says “I am mostly living a simple and quiet life away from the stresses of the big city.”
“Irish people are generally friendly. They have the same extended family culture as Filipinos. There are a few things I do not like here, the cost of living is not as cheap, but at least not the most expensive in Europe. The healthcare system is not reliable and it’s hard to get specialists or it would take months before you can consult one. Since Ireland is not a part of the Schengen area, work visa holders are also not allowed to travel around Europe without a Schengen tourist visa.”
“The only way to move here is to get a work permit/work visa. Spouse and children can also secure visas tied to the work visa. However, a spouse is not allowed to work unless a separate work visa is granted. After five years of employment, one may apply for citizenship. For now, applications only require filling up a form with personal and work employment details. There are no examinations in place yet. Processing could take a year to complete and once done, the spouse and children can also apply for it.” Ronald advises,
“Be friendly with the locals as they would be well-suited to give you advice about your community. Meet up with the Filipinos. It’s the best way to cure homesickness and they would most likely give a helping hand if needed. Also, make an effort to understand Irish history (Catholics and Protestants troubles), so you understand what could be deemed offensive. Do not be sensitive with remarks from locals, especially when out socially. Irish people love the banter and it only means they are comfortable around you when they say funny remarks about you.”
“Even though it’s not cheap to live here, try and enjoy as much of the surroundings. Go to scenic places and enjoy hikes, especially since there are no big shopping malls in the countryside. There’s so much to appreciate in this place and you do not have to spend much, even though you may have to get your own car and learn to drive to get around. Ireland is a wonderful place to settle with the family, so it’s worth taking the risk.”
Ahmed Shawbaki, Singapore
Ahmed moved to Singapore almost four years ago by invitation of his company. “My role takes care of building, developing, maintaining regional/global customer relationship for APAC. If I were to describe my life here in one word, it’ll be – convenient. Getting around is easy. Singapore is quite small, transportation infrastructure is fantastic, traffic jams – in the Filipino sense – is almost non-existent. There are as much food centers (hawkers/coffee shops as they call it here) as we have sari-sari stores at home, and everything can be done online – even paying your taxes. Everything here is efficient and organized; in 15 minutes you can register your business online and start operations.”
Ahmed also enjoys the safe environment offered by the Lion City, “A friend told me before that you can run alone in a dark street at 3AM in the morning holding/flaunting gold bars in both hands and nothing will happen to you. I would say that that is an accurate, albeit slightly exaggerated, statement about Singapore’s public safety.”
“Filipinos who work here, depending on their Visa type and with some exclusions, can eventually apply for permanent residency and then citizenship here,” he reveals. He cautions, however,
“Do your research and be wary of the rules and regulations they have (they have a lot) from traffic to immigration and try not to break any of them. Be mindful of what you say about your host country, especially when it is something negative. That is not to say that one cannot voice out opinions, however, it is rarely what we say, but how we say it. So keep in mind that you are guests, and act accordingly.
I go by a rule that I read somewhere and this applies to anything that you say or write. Before speaking or hitting the send button, ask yourself if whatever you’re about to say or write might end up as tomorrow’s headline news.”
Gibran Tocao, Bangkok Thailand
Gibran has been in and out of Bangkok since his early teenage years, now he’s helping his family run a perishable goods export business. Gibran shares, “Thailand is known for the food, good vibes, and its full moon parties and red light districts that gather tourists from all over the world. But what I like about Thailand is that it’s relatively safe and cheap to live here. Generally people are very lighthearted, though most of the locals do not understand English.”
“For Filipinos, no visa is required. They give you a month for tourism purposes. If you’re a woman and marry a local, citizenship is possible. If you’re a guy, probably wait till you are 60. You can be an English teacher, a nurse or be a staff at a hotel. It will be ASEAN next year so no visa stay restrictions.” Gibran advises,
“Do save up money. You can have a pretty decent lifestyle here with cheap food, clothing and accommodations. I’ve seen a lot of Pinoys get stuck here because they didn’t manage their money well and eventually they try pawning their passports. Always save.” He adds, “If you have a degree with some units related to education, English teachers have the highest paying jobs here.”
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
April Perez – Dubai
April Perez works for Sony Music Middle East, she came to Dubai in March of 2008 on Tourist visa. “I got hired by Sony Electronics as a Vaio Specialist a few weeks right after I came to Dubai.
There are plenty of opportunities in the emirates in general, and although it’s a Muslim country, I like how it is very open and tolerant of other cultures. We have every kind of nationality and religion here, living side by side peacefully. As long as you don’t bother anyone, you keep a decent job and stick to the rules, you won’t have a problem. There are also so many Filipinos here so you won’t have a hard time adjusting.”
She adds, “The heat during the summer is something that takes adjustment though, but you will eventually get used to it. Working with people from different backgrounds i.e Arabs, Indians, Europeans can be a challenge so you need to patient. Otherwise, we all enjoy the tax-free salary!”
April advises, “Be careful about your finances. In Dubai it’s very tempting because everywhere you go, there’s always a sale. If you get carried away with your credit card and your finances get out of hand, you will eventually end up with nothing. Be mindful and respectful of the rules, Dubai is a very modern open city, but you got to learn to respect the culture of your host country and remember at the end of the day you are still their guest. Also, be open to opportunities, don’t put limitations on yourself and be open to working your way up. Enjoy the many benefits that your host country has to offer.”
Kach Medina – Arequipa, Peru
Kach Medina used to live and work in Kuwait (4 years), Kurdistan, Iraq (5 months) and Hanoi, Vietnam (7 months), and has now been living in Arequipa, Peruf for the last 7 months. “We arrived as a tourist looking for a great place to live as expats and luckily someone helped us with the relocation and visa issues. We teach English and recently just started our Yoga and Ayurveda Massage business.”
“Peru is known for a lot of tourist destinations but not a place to live as an expat. Here, we have great options for food, the house rent is relatively cheap and there’s a lot of income generating opportunities. Who wouldn’t love living in Peru?”
Kach shares, “It’s on the immigration website that we Filipinos can get 183 days tourist visa on arrival. If you want to volunteer or study Spanish, you can use the same visa but if you decide to work, then you have to process your work visa – your employer should process it for you and while processing it you can remain on a tourist visa for as long as you won’t do illegal stuff like overstaying!”
She continues, “Never overstay. Adapt and be flexible. Learn how to speak Spanish then everything will be alright. This place is beautiful and if you’re looking for a real change in scenery and a different kind of lifestyle or adventure, Peru and Latin America is something to think about. If you need more information on our stay in Peru, check us out at – www.twomonkeystravelgroup.com