In general, foreigners are allowed to enter and stay in the Philippines without a visa for 21 days, provided they hold valid tickets for a return journey home or to another destination and have passports that remain valid six months beyond their intended period of stay. Those staying longer than three weeks need to apply for tourist visas, which are valid for up to 59 days; any period longer than this and foreigners must apply for an immigrant visa or any of the special purpose visas offered by the government. These are valid for up to a year.
Making up half of all immigrants to the Philippines are visitors from Korea (20 percent of annual tourist arrivals), the United States (19 percent), and Japan (11 percent), but tourists from China and Taiwan are also increasing by 18 and 13 percent, respectively. This is according to the Department of Tourism figures, which cover the period from January to July 2008.
Even Europeans are hitting our shores more often. The DOT says arrivals from Russia, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom are growing by as much as 35 percent. The number of Scandinavian tourists—from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden—also rose 16 percent.
This rise in tourist arrivals has generated huge income for the country. Clearly, there’s money to be made catering to foreigners. The government knows that, of course, so it wants tourists and expats to stay even after they retire.
A sizable number of them actually do retire here, perhaps taking the cue from former Filipino citizens who have made their fortunes abroad and have come back for good. Attracting both groups to invest and live here is the job of the Philippine Retirement Authority (PRA), a government-controlled corporation created in 1985; it’s now under the Board of Investments of the Department of Trade and Industry.
The PRA’s primary role is to promote and grant the Special Resident Retiree Visa (SRRV) to would-be retirees and to offer a range of services and benefits, like assisted living facilities and exemptions from taxes and immigration permits, to make the expats’ stay worthwhile. The visa is available to foreigners and former Filipino citizens who are at least 35 years old and meet certain other requirements.
This inducement appeals mostly to older foreign couples living on their pensions, which usually are not big enough for them to retire comfortably in their own countries. “Our income is mainly our respective social security benefits from the United States,” says Rick Levy, 63, a Chicago native who settled down in Quezon City in August 2005 with his Filipina wife Lydia, a retired teacher. “We get along just fine by living a comfortable but modest lifestyle. There is no way we could do this in California where we lived prior to relocating here.”
Finding a better life
Like most Koreans living in the Philippines, the family of Lee Kyung Hee—better known to Filipinos as Grace Lee, a winsome radio jock and television host— had left their native land in search of a better life. They first moved to the country from Seoul in December of 1992, when Grace’s father, Lee Dong Yuel, set up shop in Manila as an importer of 8-wheeler and 12-wheeler trucks and other construction equipment. Besides Grace, along with him came his wife Lee Song Soon Il and youngest daughter Lee Jin Hee.
The Lees settled at a condominium unit in the Ortigas district of Pasig City, where other Koreans also chose to live owing to its proximity to international schools and to the neighboring business district of Makati City. Grace was 10 years old when her family migrated; to continue her education, her parents enrolled both her and sister Jin Hee at nearby St. Paul College Pasig. Later, Grace enrolled at the Ateneo de Manila University and earned a degree in communications, shifting from a political science course in her second year.