Note: this post has been corrected, significantly expanded and re-published. Part of our on-going effort to make PhilFAQS.com your best source for answers to the frequently Asked Questions about Traveling to the Philippines, Retiring in the Philippines, or just plain living here in my second home, the Philippines.
Yes, that’s right, after living in continuously in Marilao, Bulacan, Republic of the Philippines since 31 October 2006, on 1 March 2009 I boarded a plane and left. Somewhat of a surprise, eh?
Well it was almost a surprise to me, also, but don’t worry, it was all my decision, and for those who may be wondering, I’m back, same house, same place, just newly rejuvenated in the visa department. There were several courses of action open to me and this was the one my wife and I chose to take.
You see when I entered the Philippines back in 2006 my wife and I took advantage of the basically 100% cost and hassle-free Balikbayan Privilege Program )often called the BB program or BB stamp). (Balikbayan means literally to return to one’s homeland). I’ve written before about the advantages of this program, here Do I need a Visa? as well as a few other places I am sure.
The chief disadvantage of this program is, it lasts for one year only. So when I entered in 2006 my passport was stamped with a little entry that said BB, expires 1 November 2007.
(a lot of folks get confused with how the Philippine BI (Bureau of Immigration) counts days. It’s actually quite simple … the day you arrive in the Philippines, no matter what time it is here locally, is a day “in country”. The day you depart, again no matter what the local time, is a day not in the Philippines, so arriving on the 31st of a month and leaving on the first of the following month 1 year later is exactly a one year stay).
During that year you really have nothing whatsoever to do with the BI. You are just here, legally, and able to go about as you please. A very nice benefit for those of married to Philippine citizens or former Philippine citizens.
At the end of the BB period you have several choices.
- You can apply for a permanent residency visa, based on the sponsorship of you Filipino/Former Filipino spouse,
- You can leave the country not later than the date stamped in your passport.
- You can convert your Balikbayan status to an ordinary tourist visa waiver status.
Converting to tourist visa waiver status at the end of my first, free BB year was what I chose to do, strictly because it was the course of action that “fit” best with what was going on in my life at the time.
Under current rules as a A Tourist Visa or Tourist Visa Waiver holder you can stay 24 months in the Philippines, applying for and paying for an extension every 59 days (two months under BI counting rules). (ed. note: there is now a six month extension option as well) You can extend your stay your stay every 2 months at any BI office for the first 16 months of stay. After month 16 you are still eligible to extend but you can only do so at the BI main office in Intramuros, Manila.
If you have been following along, and counting, my 12 months of BB status and 16 months of tourist status was up 28 February. 1 March as the date stamped in my passport that indicated when I had to leave.
My wife and I decided to take a trip outside the Philippines to get me back onto free BB status.
Checking around I found the best fare deal at the time with Cebu Pacific, mainly because I wanted to fly out of DMIA, the new/old USAF terminal at Clark. I could have saved more by buying farther in advance, but a round trip for two Clark to Macau (the former Portuguese colony next door to Hong Kong, now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China) came up to an all-in price of PhP 13,400, about $275 USD at today’s rate.
This is Cheaper Than Extending and re-Extending a Tourist Visa, For Sure.
I’ll go into the actual costs of extending tourist status another time, because it is different almost every extension period, but it’s very safe to say that the cost of extending 16 months easily comes up to more than an overnight trip to Hong Kong, Macau or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia … again especially if you keep your eye on the calendar and plan ahead, buying a ticket when rates are good.
We found a nice looking hotel in Macau, the Best Western, Taipa, five minutes from the Macau airport for about $62 USD per night through my old friends, Asia Travel … I’ve been using them for years and I recommend them, they even answer emails ;-) Everything done online in just a few minutes. Took longer to print out the Cebu Pacific eTicket confirmation sheet (you’ll always need this to enter any airport) than to do anything else.
I chose Clark because it is close to our home here in Marilao, has parking at the door (long term is PhP 90 per day) and not crowded. After we went into the terminal I realized how long it had been since I had flown out of the Philippines … we made a couple wrong turns, but everything was worked out easily, people were nice and helpful and no long lines.
(All the procedures and costs of leaving and returning are detailed in a bullet list at the end of this article)
Macau was a really interesting place. It has really kept it’s European (Portuguese) flavor much strongly than Hong Kong. There are certain similarities between former Spanish colonies and those that belonged to Portugal, but many more differences than similarities. being so close, you might wonder why the Philippines wasn’t a Portuguese colony instead of Mexican/Spanish. The answer to that one is, under international law the Philippines was supposed to be a Portuguese possession … in fact the Portuguese were poised to attack Manila and make a war over the issue, but king Philip of Spain (yeah, the guy the Philippines is named after) married the right girl and also became the king of Portugal at exactly the right time and decided not to fight a war with himself … so the Philippines stayed under Spanish authority and new Espana (Mexican) rule and administration.
Because both Hong Kong and Macau are part of China’s SAR program, US passport or Filipino passport holders do not need visas in advance. Money changing is pretty easy, you can use Macau Pataca, Hong Kong Dollars or Chinese Yuan, all of them are roughly 7 to 8 to the US Dollar.
Returning to the Macau airport at the end of our stay was even easier than getting there. A taxi glided up to the hotel portico as we walked out the door and we were at the airport in less than 8 minutes. Fare in either direction (always metered) is about $4 USD.
No Onward Travel Ticket Needed for BB Privilege Eligible’s
(Ed note: Please read. This is one of the most frequent lines of questioning I get … and yet I have written about it over and over again until it’s pretty boring, really. It’s also very simple)
No lines, no waiting at the airport. The Cebu Pacific counter agents were at first worried about my status. Many airlines seem a little hesitant about the Balikbayan program, but their own official Timatic database regarding Passport and Visa requirements for Travel to the Philippines clearly states that spouses and children of former Filipinos are allowed to travel to the Philippines with the qualifying spouse with no requirement for onward travel or advance visa.
The airline can demand to see proof of marital status … after a couple minutes of hemming and hawing I asked the counter agent if she wanted to see our marriage certificate. When I produced it … apparently they get a lot of people who insist they take their word for it … she suddenly smiled, looked relieved and handed us our boarding passes. All was well … when in doubt, show.
Please Be Careful OF This Fact … Use a Reliable Source … I document MY Sources
This is a good place to interject that many foreigners have told me that the Balikbayan program privilege can be granted to the foreigner spouse traveling on his or her own, so long as they can produce a certified marriage license/marriage contract.
It may well be that some people have had this experience, but don’t depend upon it happening. The Balikbayan law, Republic Act 6768 (you really should read the whole Balikbayan law, it’s only a few paragraphs) clearly states that the law applies to "… the spouse and the children of the balikbayan who are not balikbayan in their own right traveling with the latter to the Philippines. …”. That seems rather explicit to me. The law also states that:
“… Any person who shall willfully derive, obtain, receive or enjoy or cause another to derive, obtain, receive or enjoy the benefits and privileges under this Act without being entitled thereto shall be punished by a fine of not less than Twenty thousand pesos (P20,000.00) but not more than Forty thousand pesos (P40,000.00) or imprisonment of not less than two (2) years or more than four (4) years, or both at the discretion of the court. Any alien found guilty under this section shall be summarily deported upon completion of service of sentence and be permanently barred from reentering the country without the special permission of the President. …”
Frankly, for my own actions, I am going to comply with the law as it seems to be written (in my lay opinion) and not try to circumvent the intent of the law simply to try to get a free year. When they start talking about jail and then deportation at the end of the jail term, the hair goes up on the back of my neck … no thanks. I like playing poker, but not at those odds Of course, as we say on-line, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary), so roll the dice if you choose to. Play by the rules, it’s the easiest path through life, trust me!
How Was The Balik Bayan Travel?
Both the outbound flight and the return flight to Clark pushed back from the gate exactly on time and both arrived a full 20 minutes ahead of schedule. A refreshing change from flying out of Manila.
Upon our return to Clark we walked up to a line at the Immigration counter with only one other person in front of us. Mita handed the officer both our passports and said, “I request a Balikbayan stamp for my husband, please” while I dug into our bag for the marriage certificate. The Immigration Officer stopped me by handing me my passport. “No problem sir, since you both have the same surname we trust you, you are good for another year.”
Out the door, a short walk to the car, fire up the mighty Mitsubishi Motors diesel digester, show the guard our pre-paid parking receipt and we were out the gate of the parking lot before 5 pm, the time the flight was scheduled to land.
But Isn’t a Permanent Residency Visa “Better” Than Using the BB Privilege Program?
The definitive answer to that question is, Yes, No, or Maybe. There seems to be a continual “battle” among the expat community with people on both sides of the issue insisting “they” are right. It’s a stupid thing to argue about. Both sides are “right”. Pay your money and take your choice, and don’t spend your life trying to tell others they have to do things “your” way.
I won’t go into yet another discussion of the merits of the BB versus a permanent residency visa, there are advantages/disadvantages for both, but when I hear people agonize and complain about the trials and tribulations of leaving the country for a fresh visa I wonder what their real problem is.
It’s Easy Enough To Leave and Return for a New BB Stamp
This couldn’t have been an easier and more pleasant trip, and one thing about the BB program you have to agree with, no matter what method you chose for living here in the Philippines, the combination of totally free and not one single form to “fill up” has to count for something.
So now I am back and good until 3 March 2010. No need to fear I’m leaving again any time soon. Here are a few notes/reminders for anyone planning to follow in our footsteps. The procedures are the same no matter which airport you leave from/return to:
- Except for people with permanent residency iCard, every foreigner who stays in the Philippines more than 60 days requires an exit clearance document to leave. You can get this at any BI office, (bring 3 each 2×2 ID photos, white background, no glasses). The clearance costs PhP 310 and is good for 60 days from date of issue. It typically takes 3 working days to process, so plan ahead.
- Bring with you to the airport A Ball Pen, your eTicket receipt (or “real” tickets), your passport, your clearance document and, of course, your spouse and your marriage certificate or contract… unless you are meeting up with her somewhere else).
- First stop upon entering the terminal is the Travel Tax desk. (at Clark make a sharp ‘U’ turn to the left, it is easy to miss). All Filipinos are subject to this fee unless they also have a US Green Card or US Passport and have been in the Philippines less than one year. Everyone gets tagged, yes, US citizens also, if you are “in country” more than a year. PhP 1620 each.
- Then check in with your airline and get your boarding pass.
- Next comes Airport Security fee … International departures all pay PhP 550 each, no matter what passport you hold.
- Once through the security ‘wicket” you’ll see Immigration up ahead, but don’t rush to the shortest line as we did. You need a “Departure Card”. These are on the wall to the right at Clark.
- Present your departure card, passport and clearance if needed to the Immigration officer.
- Go through second (or third) security checkpoint
- Board plane.
- On the plane you will be given an arrival card to fill-up for Macau.
- Upon arrival just proceed through immigration, handing over your passport and arrival card. Typically no smiles, but no questions asked.
- Watch closely, the Immigration Officer at Macau should slip your arrival card back into your passport. Hang on to it because it is you departure card for leaving as well. (if you lose it, you can fill up another when you depart, saving it just saves you time.)
- Enjoy your stay … be careful in the casinos
- Coming back is basically the same process. If you come from Macau you will be let in the terminal with your eTicket receipt. No taxes or other fees to pay.
- Go to the airline counter and recall what I wrote about above. If they seem reluctant about boarding you just stay calm, remind them that you are returning under the Balikbayan privilege program, that accompanied spouses are authorized, and show them your marriage certification. Should be no problem.
- Get boarding pass
- Pass through Immigration
- Board plane.
- On the plane back to the Philippines you will get an Arrival card. this is a two-part form, one for immigration, one for customs. Do not fill up the part of the card that says for returning OFW’s … unless you are one.
- Upon arrival proceed direct to immigration, WITH YOUR SPOUSE, politely request that the officer stamp you foreign passport with a BB stamp (I know of a few guys/gals who never asked, and thus only got a regular 21 day Tourist Visa waiver stamp … they were pissed, but hey, the immigration officer isn’t a mind reader, you don’t ask specifically for what you want, you don’t get).
- If asked, produce your proof of marriage to your Filipino/former Filipino spouse.
- When handed your passport LOOK At THE STAMP before you leave the counter. This whole trip was abut getting that stamp, remember? Don’t grab your passport and rush off because you are thinking about getting home. You can not get Balikbayan status “after the fact”: it is a benefit granted upon arrival only, so if you can’t read the stamp (it will be just a hand-written “BB” inside the standard arrival stamp), politely ask the officer to point it out to you. After you leave the counter it will be too late.
- Proceed directly to the Duty Free counter to buy the passalubong that wouldn’t fit in your luggage.
- Hand the customs man your arrival form
- Go home and enjoy another free year in the Philippines.