English Language Fellowship: The Paper Side

I gave no small amount of thought into how to organize this 10 month long process from application to arrival. It’s a lot, both in terms of time and in details. I’ve started with a division between the paper and the people, and I’m hoping to get some of the orientation and training process recorded as well. It’s been a long time since I wrote a bureaucracy post, but it is a tradition here. I hope that reading about it is more fun than doing it, that it sheds some light on what goes on behind the scenes of a glamorous globetrotting life, and that it might help anyone in the future who is struggling to navigate a similar sea of red tape.

Application Process:

I was doing general job searches over the winter break, you can read about my decision to leave Korea in the “안녕히계세요 Korea” series. Most of the world starts the school year in the fall, so if I wanted to transition out of Korea, I would need to start looking in the winter/spring, and even though most schools only hire a few months in advance, looking for work over the winter gave me a sense of control my life was sorely lacking.

In January, I saw the ad for the English Language Fellowship and vaguely remembered trying to apply for it years ago. Back in 2015, I didn’t realize it was a program for more experienced English teachers, I had only 2 years of experience back then, so I wasn’t quite eligible yet. In January 2022, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had committed to applying to any position that was cooler than my current one. I was on winter break, so a lengthy and detailed application process was not as daunting as it might have been during classes.

The online application process is fairly similar to most in that you have to enter all your information, and relevant work history and skills. It’s a little different in the amount of detail you are expected to provide, including that each skill you claim requires specific examples. There are also a lot of essays. It more resembles an application for an academic program than for a job, which makes sense. In addition to the statement of purpose, you have to answer essay questions with specific examples from your past about:

  • work ethic
  • flexibility
  • judgement
  • classroom management

It’s a lot of writing, which as you may guess wasn’t too onerous for me, but the really hard part was that I had to get my three references (at least one from my current job) to log into the portal and write their recommendations directly into the application (the program sends them a link via email, but I did personal outreach before adding them to the mailing list). It was awkward to contact my current team leader and break the news that I was looking to leave by asking for a recommendation. Thankfully, he thought it was a great opportunity and was very quick to get his positive assessment in.


In my early working life (age 16-25) I didn’t encounter letters of recommendation. Every job application had a space for references contact information, but I didn’t really see behind the curtain of what went on during those phone calls. Later, I was introduced to the concept of letters of recommendation. The way I was taught was that I request a letter when I’m leaving a job or school and then keep it on file for future applications. I didn’t start getting them at all until I was applying for grad school, after which I tried to remember to ask at the end of a job or project because it’s really hard to get one years later. I was also told that it’s common practice to write the letter about myself that they would then sign. All of this was very intimidating to young me, and it took me years to get decent at asking for letters and writing them for myself and for other people.

This was the first time I encountered an application that wouldn’t even be considered until all three references responded with essay answers containing unique and specific details about me (basically the same questions I had to write essays about) with real world examples. It’s a lot to ask for a reference. One of the original three people I asked wasn’t up to it when she realized how different it was from a regular letter, and so I had to find a back-up. I’m really grateful to the people who were willing to put in the work for me, especially after I realized how much work it actually was! If I could do it again, I’d offer to help them brainstorm examples. Many people who give references may think they need to keep them private from the applicant, but if you can co-author your reference, I think it will help you get what you need and be a little easier on the person you are asking to help you.

I suspect part of the reason they want these three detailed reference essays is because this fellowship requires a certain amount of networking, and relying on other people (inspiring other people to be willing to do things on your behalf). I had always hated the idea that my goals or even survival could depend on other people (who might flake out or stab me in the back), but I know now that is just the voice of my past trauma. Humans are team-based social creatures and our ability to thrive depends on our social connections. The fact that I succeeded in getting three wonderful, talented, and accomplished people to want to take the time and effort to write nice things about me and our work together so that I could partake in this opportunity shows me how far I’ve come and how much I mean to others.

Almost immediately after my last reference was completed, I got an invitation to my first interview and was subsequently placed in the applicant pool by early February. I was told my match and second interview could happen anytime from 1 week to 6 months, and in the mean time, there was more paperwork.

NOTE: If you’re interested in applying, the 2023-24 academic year application process opened in September: https://elprograms.org/fellow-program/

Health Verification Part 1:

One of the other complicated piles of paperwork participants have to complete is the Health Verification Form or HVF, and it must be done under the care of a physician. They need to make sure that everyone going is healthy enough to live in a place with … intermittently reliable healthcare. Although I personally think Americans have an incorrect perception of the quality of healthcare abroad, believing it to be substandard or inferior when actually it’s just cheaper, there is something to be said for the fact that in some cases, fellows will go to remote locations that are far from urban centers and hospitals. In addition, very few countries offer the disability and mobility accommodations that America is required to have by law.

None of this is to say that people with extra health care needs or disabilities can’t or shouldn’t travel. I think everyone should travel. There are lots of places you can visit with good, reliable, cheap healthcare, though mobility may require a companion to help navigate difficult spaces. They just don’t want the liability of sending someone with known severe health issues that could result in hospitalization or death if they are unable to receive the same level of care that would have access to with comparable insurance within America.

In addition, the form has to be completed within 15 days of when you receive your official offer, which I had not yet, and would not until I had a match and my second interview and was accepted by the local coordinator of the program. For people in the US, this would be fairly easy. I looked at the sample form and although it’s rather long, most of it is medical history and personal planning. There’s a short part that is an actual exam. The exam is comprehensive (full body) but basic (no blood work or other bodily samples involved, unlike many visa health checks). In America, I could imagine just going in to my GPs office and discussing the history and plan, then getting a quick once over and a sign off. Two weeks is not unreasonable.

Korean Mode Bureaucracy Challenge:

In Korea, there are no GPs. Once every year or two (depending on your job and health plan) you get a full body work up for free! You go to the testing center and it’s like 8 doctors all in one area so you all the preventative medicine checks at once (really, everything). Then if there’s an abnormality in your results, they tell you what kind of doctor you need to see to follow up. In between these work ups, if you have a problem that you need a doctor for, you go directly from the reception desk to the specialist that the intake nurse thinks best fits your reported symptoms. If your back and your knee hurt, you’re likely going to see two different doctors. The good news is they are all right there together and it’s very easy to go between doctors and testing facilities in one visit. The bad news is that no one doctor was likely to file this whole body form.

I knew it was going to take me longer than the allotted time to find a place I could go, so I started the hunt early. I also made a much more comprehensive version of the history and plan than I would have done with an American doctor, since I knew the Korean doctor was unlikely to be comfortable with writing that much English themselves, and I wanted to offer something they could cut and paste, editing as needed. Most places that spoke enough English to take on a form like this flat up said no. A couple places said they could do it, but that it would be billed as a pre-employment health screening, which included a ton of tests and scans that I didn’t need, bringing the price tag up to about 500$ (which is crazy in Korea). One hospital in Seoul said they could do it for less, but still about 200$. I was feeling really disheartened. I knew in the US this would be a 25$ co-pay for other applicants and it just felt like such an extreme barrier.

At the end of February, I got a reply from a nurse in the International Office of Hyoseong Hospital in Daegu. When I arranged to talk with her on the phone, I was so relieved to learn that this hospital had many accommodations for foreigners due to the fact that they worked closely with the US military in the area. I emailed her a copy of the form and a few days later she said not only could they do it, but that it would be cost of a regular doctor visit (10-20$) or at the absolute most 40$ if the doctor decided he needed to run any extra tests. I also talked to her about the time requirements and that I would need the form within two weeks of an as yet unknown date sometime in the next couple of months. She said she would make a note about my situation so that she could remember the details when I called back at go time.

The Intake Paperwork, Georgetown U, and the Portal:

After rounds of waiting and interviewing and more waiting, I got my official offer on May 5th and the race was on to file all the paperwork. The PORTAL is the central data collection for everything you need to be a fellow. The first “step” is the onboarding to-do list. Some of the items on this list are fast and easy like your contact information, others like the Health Verification form and the Supplier ID require multiple steps in and of themselves. I had check off everything you see here to get my agreement finalized. The visa remains unchecked because at the time I took this screenshot, I was still waiting to get mine, although I really hope that by the time this pre-scheduled post drops, I have it. Most of this isn’t actually difficult, it’s just tedious, but I had one major hurdle to jump.

Getting the HVF

When I got my official offer on May 5th, and my acceptance package on May 7th which started the 15 (business days) countdown. I realize they sent the email on their Friday 6th, but Korea is in the future, so I couldn’t do anything about it. I contacted the nurse at Hyoseong the following Monday 9. Then it transpired that the nurse I needed to help me was in COVID quarantine! (She was not too sick, but couldn’t go into the office with a positive test). I had to wait until Monday 16 to try again. On top of that, my school had scheduled me in such a way that it was impossible for me to get to a hospital in another city without cancelling and rescheduling at least one class, limiting the possible days of the week I could hope to go. I got an appointment for Friday 20 (the easiest class to reschedule) which would just give me enough time for a re-do the following week if anything went wrong.

Thankfully, I’d done all my prep work months before and I was able to copy and paste my answers into the form and print off some hard copies for the doctor to sign. Once I arrived, the nurse did most of the work (as nurses so often do), making sure the information I couldn’t write in advance was added in and double checking some details. Then she went off to talk to the doctor while I sat in the waiting room. When I went in to see the doctor, he asked me a couple of basic health questions, offered to refill my inhaler, and signed off. Months of stress, and it was the easiest thing. I know if I’d shown up with a blank form, it would not have been so easy, but one of the many knots of low grade anxiety in my guts unwound a little.

The Visa

While I didn’t need to have my visa in hand to complete the onboarding checklist, I did have to know the visa requirements to enter Senegal. While everything with the hospital was going on, I also contacted the Senegalese Embassies in DC and in Seoul. There was confusion about the visa process and requirements. I didn’t need a work visa, since I would not be working for a Senegalese company, but was it a business visa? or something else? Online research turned up a very complex process that required piles paperwork, a French translation of my birth certificate, and regular in person renewals for a residency permit that would be granted after I arrived, but that seemed like something for immigrants, people moving to Senegal. Americans can visit Senegal for up to 90 days with no visa, and there’s student and work visas, but none of that applied to me.

I explained to the Senegalese embassy here in Korea that I was American (not Korean) and needed a visa, but they informed me that it wasn’t possible to get the visa in advance. It took me longer to get in touch with someone from the DC embassy, but when I did, she was very helpful and once she understood my situation, said that I could get a 1 year visa in advance and helped me get a list of all the documents I’d need and where to send it. At the time of writing this (August), I’m still in in Korea and won’t be able to ship off my passport to DC until after I arrive in the US in September. Hopefully, by the time this publishes, I’ll have good news on the visa front.

Wrapping Up the Pre-Departure Paperwork

I got my supplier ID accepted on May 19, my HVF form approved on May 24, and my completed onboarding accepted June 4, the same day I received pre-departure orientation schedule.

June 10 was the day I finally let myself believe it was real, and that the bureaucracy was safely appeased and declined my simultaneous job offer (yes, I was so nervous I would be rejected on technical grounds, new COVID spike, or other bureaucratic nightmare that I was still entertaining other opportunities even after I got the offer). I still didn’t have my actual contract/agreement in early June, but that was the day I finally jumped with both feet. Is there a story here? Why yes, there is, thanks for asking, but it’s in the “people” part of this series.

June 25 was the day I got my agreement to print, sign, and scan, but an internet glitch meant that instead of sending, my return email went into drafts and it wasn’t until after the deadline that the office sent me a reminder. Thankfully they understand about computer error (or at least accepted my excuse) and my final signed agreement was added to my PORTAL on July 6.

Some Thoughts:

Just about 7 months after I first decided to apply, and 3 months before I was scheduled to arrive, the Starter Pack Bureaucracy was finally complete. There is plenty more paperwork to look forward to. No government funded project could possibly avoid it, but it makes me pointedly aware of the privileged position I’m in. It wasn’t that long ago in my life that the idea of spending 7 months to prepare for a job would have been unthinkable. The closest experience I had was applying to grad school, which I had to do about 9-10 months in advance of the fall semester, but as difficult as that application was at the time, it was basic compared to this and took far fewer overall hours. My application process to get into Saudi was challenging, especially that visa, but it also wasn’t as long or as many hours. My process to get into Korea was the closest in terms of complexity, but took less time (by more than half).

I had stable if undesirable job all of those times. I made the application process into something between homework and a really boring hobby. But how often is someone in the position where they can financially afford to wait 7-10 months from when they apply to when they start? How many people can be working full time and dedicate the needed hours and brainpower to complete pages and pages of complex and detailed essays and forms? How many people can have a good enough job to give them the financial and mental stability to do all this, while also being able to leave that job for 1-2 years or forever?

In order to apply for, get, and participate in this fellowship, a person has to have education, experience, financial stability, a good professional network, decently good health, and a reasonable expectation that they won’t lose all of that after 1-2 years in another country. When I think back to the version of myself that stood in line at the food bank in order to eat, who almost ended up living in her car when she lost her home (but for the grace of some friends with an attic), who struggled to keep a bank balance out of overdraft and didn’t always succeed… it seems so unreal that I came from that and arrived here. I feel shocked and amazed, surprised and lucky. I can’t even really make sense of it yet, I just know I need to recognize that this is rare and amazing, and I didn’t get here alone. Gratitude.

Expat Life: Nothing Simple Is Ever Easy

Those of you following along with the Facebook or Instagram may recall that I spent most of July in the “good old” US of A. I can’t write quite as much about visiting home as I do when I’m on an adventure, but I’d still like to open a little window into my life. In the next two posts, I’m going to share the ups and the downs of travel in the US as an expat. Because I like to finish on a high note, I’m going to start with the downs first. It’s OK to laugh, schadenfreude is healing.

Why Go to America?

Although there are a lot of wonderful things about America, recently I struggle to recall what they are. I have no intention of moving back, and I don’t really dream of “visiting home” with any kind of heartfelt nostalgia. Mostly it scares me.

I have a lot of anxiety about visiting America. I will admit that not a small amount is fueled by the news: will I have to punch a Nazi? Will border patrol get unreasonable about letting me in? Or out? What will I do if I’m adjacent to a mass shooting? What if I need healthcare? It’s enough to drive a sane person crazy, and I’m not terribly sure I started on the “sane” side of the goal line to begin with. So why go at all? Glad you asked.3821492016_7b1a758042

It’s our favorite game: Bureaucracy!

The main reason I needed to return to America this summer (as opposed to exploring Iceland or something) was to renew my driver’s license (DL). I needed a new license so I could drive in Ireland in August, and so I can vote in the upcoming 2020 elections. 

What’s the Word for Negative Serendipity?

Of course, I came to this conclusion through a hilarious series of unfortunate events. When I went online to try and fill out the application form for an IDP (International Driving Permit), I realized I could NOT FIND my DL! Anywhere! I remembered having it on the way back into Korea from Malaysia in February, so I knew I hadn’t lost it in some random country, but I could only imagine it fell out of my wallet in a taxi or shop in Korea and was gone forever.

The Other Bad News

Back to the DL. So there’s me in a panic because we’re planning a ROAD TRIP for Ireland, and my mom does not know how to drive on the left. I HAVE to have a DL, and according to recent EU laws, an IDP too. I go back to the WA DOL website to replace my license and it says I’m in range to renew, so I think “hey, might as well”. I go to renew only to find out that I have to come in person every OTHER renewal… so that 2 year lottery really bit me in the bum. The good(ish) news is that I have the ability to get to the US before Ireland. The bad news is that WA has the licenses printed out of state and they take 2-4 weeks to arrive by mail. Only. By. Mail.

Sidenote: I never was able to get anyone in the DOL or DMV or USPS to explain to me how a homeless person gets a license. What if you’re living out of your car? Even if you don’t drive, the license is the primary source of ID in America used for benefits, employment eligibility and voter registration. Yet one more untenable obstacle to make a path out of poverty impossible.

The OTHER bad news is that according to the internet the EU is taking this IDP thing pretty seriously. It used to be you could just show up with a US DL and rent a car, but laws change, I guess. So it’s looking like I could be in big trouble for not getting the IDP and I have to have a valid DL in hand to get an IDP. So. I applied online for a replacement DL (still expires in 12/19) to be sent to my friend’s house where I’m staying in WA so I can pick up up when I arrive, then go first to AAA to get the IDP with the soon to expire DL then run over to the DOL to renew in person and get a DL that I won’t have to show up in person again for 12 more years.

Except. It can’t be that easy.


The Problem with the Post Office

The DL is returned as undeliverable and shredded. I’m told if you aren’t “registered” with the post office, then your official gov’t mail will not be delivered. I thought that mail would be delivered to the address written on the envelope, silly me. Now we’re registering with the post office. (BTW, when I did the DL renewal back in 2016, this was not an issue. The postal service delivered it to my friend’s house with nary a qualm. Clearly this rule is optional.)

Regardless, you’d think it would be easy enough for me to just have this sent to the address that the post office has on file for me, right? No again! My US apartment is a shitty run down poor-ppl apartment, so the mailbox is not safe AND frequently the mail carriers deliver mail to the wrong box, or just decide not to deliver it. This happened so often while I was residing in the US, that I started having anything I cared about sent to my office instead.

In addition, there’s no way to “register” multiple addresses with the USPS. In the end, I did a temporary address change for the period of time necessary to accomplish this and had the DL sent out again.

In the end, I got it all to work, and I got my updated DL and my IDP and then literally no one in Ireland even cared about the IDP. The rental company and the guard (name for Irish police) were only and exclusively interested in the American licence. So much for getting your info from the internet? But seriously, don’t take my word for it if you’re going to drive abroad it’s better to follow the laws as written, even if the locals don’t enforce them.

What’s Up Doc?

Since I now had no choice but to visit America, I had this dream of seeing my primary care provider (another weird American eccentricity that doesn’t exist here) to get refills for my prescriptions that are either uncommon or not available here in Korea (not illegal, just not here). I go to a sliding scale clinic in Seattle because when I was poor and unemployed (which in America means also uninsured) it was the only place I could afford at 15$ a visit. When I got insurance, I kept going there so they could bilk my insurance company for as much money as possible to put toward their operating budget. My care provider of many years actually left America shortly after I did and joined DRs Without Borders (cool!) which sort of means the only health care professional that knows anything about me is AWOL. But at least the office has records, right?

But if any of you have heard anything about American health care it’s about the cost. Some of the (if not THE) most expensive health care and prescription drugs IN THE WORLD. In order to afford it, I would need insurance.

l-35426-usa-accessible-healthcare-we-dont-do-that-here-e1567743486654.jpgI have great coverage in Korea, but it is ONLY in Korea. Generally speaking, traveler’s insurance DOES NOT cover the country you reside in… or the one you are a citizen of. You know, in case those are different. Even though I live, work, and am insured in Korea, traveler’s insurance policies would not cover me in the US because of my citizenship. Foreigner’s visiting America can get traveler’s insurance. People who live in the US can get regular insurance. But Americans who live overseas? Well, heck, that should only be military personnel, no private citizen could POSSIBLY want to live overseas and come home on holiday while still being exempt from medical bankruptcy! /sarcasm

Some expats can get insurance when going home by signing up for a short term insurance plan. Because of the way that insurance is linked to employment, a lot of these are available for ppl who are between jobs, but often exclusive to ppl who are between jobs, such that, if your insurance has lapsed for too long, you are not eligible. There are still some generic short term insurance policies around, but it turns out that’s another state by state law and it’s not allowed in WA state.

Sometimes I really do think that the countries of the EU have a more stable and interchangeable system of rules than the states in America. I don’t really understand how you can have health insurance in only one state. I wonder in retrospect what would have happened if I’d signed up for short term insurance in another state and then presented it in WA… probably I would have been told I was out of network.

With regular “short term” plans off the table, and regular travel insurance ineffective, I found exactly ONE expat insurance plan for my situation: short term visit to my country of citizenship but not residence. However, it excluded so much (pre-existing conditions, reproductive health, most prescription medicine, the list goes on) that it was basically useless. All too often people buy these policies without realizing what they don’t cover.

1280px-Healthcare_costs_to_GDP_OECD_2015_v1In the end, I decided against getting an additional plan. I have good US car insurance, so anything involving a car (even me as a pedestrian) would be covered by that, anything else would probably be covered in liability. For things like a cold/flu it’s cheaper to go to a drug store than a doctor anyway, and for emergencies? Well, car, crime, and accident would be covered and that basically leaves things like aneurysms, and I decided that if that was going to happen, it’s just my time. ‘Murica!

The Price of a Pill

I was able to see the doctor in Seattle, and after some awkward explaining of my situation re: employment, income, and insurance they decided to give me the sliding scale rate. I have to say I was pretty happy with the way they treated me overall, the doc was invested in my whole well-being not just “why are you here today” and was happy to help me get refills that would last me until my next bi-annual visit. The challenge came in filling those.

Even if I had gotten that expat health insurance it wouldn’t have covered the prescriptions. I found a website called “GoodRx” that does coupons (oh the insane dumbness of THAT process) and was able to cut the cost down. This still ended up being a multi-week, multi-state process because they could only use the coupon on 2 doses a day and I needed 8. I ran out of time in WA and had to finish in TN, and good on those pharmacy reps for going the extra mile to help me, but ffs would it KILL the US to just sell prescription drugs at affordable rates? I bought the same medication in Thailand for pennies on the dollar what it cost even WITH the coupon in the US. The only reason I didn’t do that again is that factoring in the airfare to Thailand it ends up being more, and I’m not planning on being there any time this next year or two.


On the other hand OTC drugs are sold like gummy bears over there. In Korea, I have trouble getting basic things like acetaminophen, naproxen, and ibuprofen, as well as Sudafed and Claritin. In some cases they need a doctor and have to be refilled CONSTANTLY because the Korean docs don’t give long prescriptions. In other cases you can buy them at the pharmacy OTC, but like 5 pills at a time. I’ve actually had Drs prescribe Tylenol that is weaker than the American OTC stuff I had at home. Maybe the locals who haven’t been overexposed and built up some kind of pain med immunity can get away with that, but I cannot.

Plus, whatever weak-ass decongestant they sell here cannot attack the portal to the mucus dimension that opens in my face when I get sick. Only that good pre-meth ingredient Sudafed stands a chance. Hence, my desire for Costco sized bottles of all of those meds, and in the case of Sudafed, however much I can buy before I end up on a meth-cooker watch-list. The last refill I got was 2-4 years ago (I got a couple on the 2017 visit but some were from 2015). One short trip to Costco with my mom later and I was 100% restocked for under 50$.

Ladies and gents, the US pharmaceutical economy:

2 years of birth control = 500$

2 years of the top three NSAIDS + allergy meds +cold meds = 50$

This is what I did from April until July. I fought with banks, government offices, and healthcare providers because the US does NOT want it’s citizens to live abroad, or travel, or be healthy.

The “ex” in Expat = extra paperwork, extra hassle, I swear.Expat-Problems

Had enough of complex bureaucracy, crazy international systems, and general complaining? Me too! Stay tuned for the next episode where we explore all the happy and wonderful things I got to experience on my visit to my homeland. Good friends, good family, good weather, good food, so much goodness it will turn your brain to sugar! Coming soon: Expat life: When “Home” is a Holiday.

EU Mobile Data : An Informative Rant

While WiFi is becoming more common, and the EU recently passed the free roaming rules, getting mobile data as a non-EU resident is more challenging than it needs to be. I read a lot of blogs before I went and no one really seemed to know what I should do. If you’re an EU citizen, it’s great, because you can travel anywhere in the EU and use your home plan without paying more. As a tourist, it gets … complicated.

Some people (mostly older than me) may wonder why I’m so data dependent. It is really a convenient way to combine your travel guide, phrasebook, map, and camera in one little device. Sure, paper can’t “break down” but it can be heavy to carry all of those things, and they can be lost or damaged, too. I just like being able to look up any and all necessary info on the go while traveling. How and where to get my SIM card is one of the most critical parts of preparing for a trip.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.


I arrived in the airport quite late at night and all the shops that might have had SIM cards were closed. Instead, I got my first SIM card the following morning at a little neighborhood shop. I opted to use LycaMobile as my service provider.

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I bought a month worth of data thinking it would work all over Europe. I was wrong. I can’t tell you what you should buy for an EU trip starting in Paris, but I advise that whatever company you chose, start with the minimum purchase and add more GB later if it works. That way if it stops working when you cross a border, you don’t loose as much. Oh, and don’t expect to be able to add data or minutes using any online form of payment unless you’re a resident of the country you bought the SIM card in since they don’t let foreign bank accounts pay online!

My mobile data stopped working as soon as the bus crossed the France-Belgium border. It said I was running with 3G but refused to load anything. I tried to fix it but nothing worked. Brussels has a lot of free WiFi so I survived my arrival, but the smaller towns were not so convenient.

I was stuck going to Ghent without data because it was the only time I could see St. Bavo’s, but the next day back in Brussels I tried to find the LycaMobile shop, thinking maybe they could get my SIM card from France to work.

I walked around aimlessly because I just could not orient myself on the map without mobile data to fill in the blanks. I used to read paper maps, I feel like I’m usually good at maps, but for some reason the streets of downtown Brussels were confusing as heck to me.

Finally I found it and it turned out to be two dudes in a tiny room with one fan and one desk and a lot of people in line. (That photo is from Google Maps, the day I went it was sunny and there were WAY more people in line, but this is about what it looked like.) The line was short when I walked up but it grew fast. LycaMobile is the cheap phone service of choice in the EU which is why I picked it, but I was not the only person having problems. In Belgium you have to register your sim card at an authorized shop and there aren’t many of them. The only other white people in the line were also backpackers.

The guy who helped me really did his best. He tried everything to get it to work and when he couldn’t he took it to his boss. In the end the answer was definitive: LycaMobile France and LycaMobile Belgium aren’t really the same company, just owned by the same company, so this isn’t really our product.

I don’t blame the guys at the shop (well maybe the one in Paris who should have known this was going to be a problem), but I must recommend AGAINST LycaMobile for non-EU residents who want to do multiple countries. They get good reviews online which is why I chose them, but when I went back and looked later, all the good reviews were from EU citizens.
Orange had some bad reviews from non-EU citizens that were basically once they got your pre-paid money, they don’t care if your service works.

Proximus looked like my best option so I went to find the one in the train station. The line was long again but it was a real retail store and not some shady looking box with two guys at one desk in front of a roll up security door the way LycaMobile had been. (this photo is from Proxiumus’ website, but you get the idea)

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When it was my turn the sales person helped me to understand the way the card worked as well as how to top up. For 10€ I got the card and 500Mb. It doesn’t seem like much but they’re is a lot of free WiFi around, so it is enough if you’re careful about uploading and streaming. I asked the sales clerk about the Netherlands and she said she thought it should work but urged me not to buy too much data just in case (refreshing to be urged to spend less!).

Important to note, that while the SIM must be purchased in a regulated shop and registered, top up cards are all over the place. I was told you can only top up online with a Belgian credit card, so once I leave Belgium won’t be able to get more. I was going to be in Belgium technically 2 weeks, one in Brussels and the other in Lanaken, the small town near Maastricht, Netherlands where my Airbnb was located just on the Belgian side of the border. During that week I’d be going across to The Netherlands and Germany, and I figured if the data worked I could buy lots before finally leaving Belgium for good.

One more thing I noticed, when I got LycaMobile in France I had to activate roaming on my phone for it to work… even though I was in France. I thought it was weird but also thought maybe it was a feature of the global plan that it was just always roaming.
My Belgian plan looked like normal data, no roaming needed in Belgium which is more in line with my expectations.

Later that week, on my way to Antwerp, I had another mobile mishap. I didn’t realize I needed the PIN code to restart my phone, sooooo I accidentally locked myself out for the day (the PIN was in my hotel room and I was already at the train station!) In addendum to recommending Proximus, I would urge users to carry their SIM pin on them in case the phone resets.

The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway

Proximus worked smoothly across Lanaken (Brussels), Maastricht (Netherlands) and Aachen (Germany). I decided to buy what I hoped was enough data for the rest of my trip through Germany since I thought I would not be able to top up once I left Belgium.

I had zero issues all throughout the Netherlands (Den Haag, Amsterdam), crossing back into Belgium (Leige), and in Hamburg, Germany. The Proximus service occasionally took a few minutes to adjust to crossing a border while it searched for a new network but it operated exactly as advertised.

I also discovered the happiest of circumstances while in Germany. I accidentally forgot to use my WiFi to upload photos and it ate all my data. I had been told that it would not be possible to purchase top ups outside Belgium without a Belgian bank account, however, the Proximus website had a PayPal option!!!!! I was able to top up my account from Germany using my Korean PayPal. Plus, buying top-ups came with free Mb, so it was actually a very good deal financially. I was able to stop worrying about hoarding my data bytes and just enjoy the trip for the rest of the EU countries.

TDLR? LycaMobile BAD. Proximus GOOD!

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I heard that there was tons of free WiFi all over Moscow, so I decided that my 20 hour layover didn’t require a SIM card. I regret this decision.

I was able to use the WiFi in my hostel with no issue, but when I tried to log into the free WiFi at the metro station, I could not get anything to load.

During lunch, I asked the staff of the hotel restaurant if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant. The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number.

Wi-Fi has already been rolled out on six of the metro's 12 lines.

Eventually, I was able to figure out the public WiFi on the metro; however, two things: it only worked IN the subway cars (not on the platform or in the station), and the internet access was severely limited, allowing me to use Google Search and Google Maps, but not Facebook or Instagram. It did help a little, but it was hard because the service would also stop every time the cars pulled into a station!

So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi they are both right and wrong. Depending on when your helpful adviser was last in Moscow, there may have been an abundance of free public WiFi. However, just like the EU is changing it’s roaming rules, the Kremlin is kracking down on anonymous internet use. In 2014 the government began to implement laws requiring netizens to have some kind of ID to get online. I’m assuming this is why you have to be a guest at a hotel to use their wifi (the hotel collects your ID), or you have to get your confirmation code via text to a phone number that is also matched to your ID somewhere.

The WiFi is still free to use in the sense that it doesn’t cost money, but you can’t use it without some kind of ID. If I had known, I would have made getting a SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!

I didn’t receive any kickback for reviewing any of the companies above. This is just my experience and opinion in the hopes that my trial and error may help out a fellow traveler some day. Also, as I noticed myself, the times they are a’changin’, so if you’re reading this post in the distant future, please double check that these policies are still in effect for the time of your trip.

Using Public Transit in Europe

I am completely spoiled by Asian transit. In Korea, my transit pass is linked to my bank card and so I just tap to get on any bus/subway/train in any city in the whole country. Tourists can buy a transit card from any convenience store that will work the same way, and also let you buy things at most convenience stores like pre-paid debit cards. I kept my transit card from Japan and used it again 3 years later with no problems. Again, they work on all the transit country-wide. I knew that visiting 8 countries in Europe would mean I’d have to navigate multiple public transit systems, but I had no idea how complex they would actually be.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.

Paris, France:

Paris has a huge subway system, and tickets are priced by zone. It’s a good idea to look at the map and decide what zones you actually need before you buy. Buying tickets one trip at a time is the most expensive way. You can also buy a ticket book for a slight discount, which is what I did my first visit that only lasted 2 days. This summer, I was in Paris for 6 days, and wanted a better option, and one that would include buses, not only the metro.

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In the end, I bought a week long transit pass for cheaper than the 5 day tourist pass. When I asked about it the teller told me there’s no benefit to the tourist pass, that it’s basically there to bilk tourists, and I should stick to the cheaper option. Most cities have some version of the tourist card which includes “unlimited transit” and a few free attractions or discounts, however every single one I checked into was not worth it. In order to actually save money, a person would have to be running around like crazy and do 4+ activities a day!

You can see there’s a spot for a photo there, so it’s a good idea to have one ready when you buy your card. The lady who was working when I bought mine said I could add the photo later, but advised me to carry my receipt with me in case the metro authority asked to see my card and to prove it was not stolen. No need to get a fancy passport photo made, however, you can make a photocopy of your passport or other ID and use that.


In Brussels I got a Mobib Card with ten trips which is cheaper than buying your each trip one at a time. I was able to buy it easily in the subway station nearest to my arrival spot. The tickets are per trip, regardless of distance, and that if you have to go above ground and pass back out of the ticket scanning devices, or use a tram, there’s no transfers. Most of the Metro stations have a way you can connect underground, but be sure you get out on the correct side of the train car, since in some cases one platform leads OUT and the other leads to connecting tracks, while at other stops, it’s all the same.

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It is also worth noting that the doors on the subway cars have to be manually activated. You have to tug the handle or it doesn’t open. I was a little panicked the first time thinking I couldn’t get on, but then I saw someone else open a door and followed suit. When in doubt, watch the locals.

The only downside is that the Mobib Card is exclusively for Brussels, and I needed to figure out transit again and again when I went out to nearby cities like Ghent and Antwerp.

In Ghent I could not find the tram for a while I thought about just taking a taxi from the train station to my boat but I did eventually find it, then realized I had no idea how to use it and no way to look that information up online since the SIM I bought in Paris wasn’t working in Belgium.

I managed to get change from a convenience store and buy a tram ticket at a machine near the stop, but I couldn’t find instructions on how to use it. I got on the tram with my ticket but didn’t see any place to use it so I just sat down. Of course I was doing it wrong but no one challenged me or corrected me. I’m sure if I didn’t look like a middle aged white tourist it could have gone differently. Although I did see a lot of barrier hoping in France….

In retrospect, I think the paper tickets have RF chips in them that you tap just like a plastic transit card. *shrug, they got my money anyway.

At the Ghent train station returning to Brussels, I got confused because it looked like nothing was going back to the “Midi station” in Brussels. It turns out that there are just too many languages in Brussels. Midi is the name I had seen in Brussels, but Zuid is another name for the same thing!!!


Overall, I think the transit issues in Ghent would have been avoided if I’d had mobile data. I did wonder how people navigated these transit options before smart phones, but I also think the technology of the trans, trams and metros has upgraded from paying cash and paper tickets to having RF chips in tickets dispensed by a machine and read by another machine. It’s great automation until you don’t know how to use it.

In Antwerp I decided to walk. The places I wanted to see were all within 30 minutes walking of the main train station and I wasn’t in a hurry. As a result, I have no idea how the transit inside the city works. On my out, the trains were running late but the kind conductor lady helped me hop off and change to a faster train at one of the stops. The tickets are somewhat flexible as to which trains you use to get to your destination.20180712_124849

The Netherlands:

First, in Maastricht, the bus company that runs the bus between Lanaken and Maastricht is the Belgian company De Lijn, and I was able to buy a ticket at the Maastricht main station. The front of the buses had a space to insert the ticket and a date/time/remaining balance was printed on it each time. I think I ended up with about 0.60€ left unused on the ticket at the end of the week, but it was much easier than trying to buy a ticket every time.

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I needed a different transit card (the OV Card) to get around the city of Maastricht, but at least I was able to use that transit pass to buy my passage into Aachen. Once I figured out the basic system it was not too bad, and the people in the Maastricht station were quite helpful in getting me the best prices when I was getting my cards set up on the first day.

The only complaint is that because Lanaken and Maastricht are smaller towns, the buses do not run often and there is no metro at all. This requires more careful planning to get to and from places, to get back to my room at night, etc. It also requires more walking since bus stops are fewer and farther between than in big cities.

Later, in Den Haag

I need to preface this by saying Den Haag was the single WORST transit system I encountered in Europe. I was not a huge fan of Maastricht because the infrequent bus schedule, and that was not an issue in Den Haag, but what turned my brain completely inside out was the pay structure and it’s deep deep bias against foreigners. In the Netherlands, you can use the OV Card everywhere, so I was able to use the same card from Maastricht, which I thought would be a convenience…. ohhhhhh no.

When you ride in Den Haag, you have to tap in and out every time because the price of your trip is based on distance traveled; however, sometimes it double tapped or didn’t tap at all so I suddenly found myself completely out of credit on my OV card with no way to get more!

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There are almost no recharging kiosks for OV in Den Haag either. I found one in the grocery store near my Airbnb, but it wouldn’t take my credit card and the cashier didn’t seem to care much. She eventually just stopped trying to even speak English which was only annoying because everyone else there had been like “of course we speak flawless English!” So, it seemed a little implausible she is the only one who doesn’t…

I tried to use the OV website to find kiosks in my area, but the website map wasn’t working… of course.

I tried to go out anyway, thinking I’d just buy a ticket on the bus but they don’t take cash and a 1hr ticket is 3.50€! I’d end up paying 7€ to go out and get back? I left the bus with sticker shock and stood around cursing the entire transit system that had robbed my card and left me with no way to top up and charged exorbitant fees to get to a top up place. Finally I decided to take the tram back to the train station and sort it out. Then the ticket box on the tram refused to take my debit card! How is a person supposed to pay for this????

I asked a ticket monitor about it because just at that moment I was feeling too honest to steal a ride. She directed me to the app where I bought a ticket then told me I didn’t need to ride all the way to the station I could just stop at Centrum and use the machine there. Great! Except when I got off to use it, it was out of order. I waited for the next tram and got on as my e-ticket was good for an hour, then realized it was going the wrong way, got off and waited again to go the other way. The only good news is they run every 10 minutes instead of 30 like in Maastricht.

I finally got to the train station and put more money on the card. I looked at my transactions history and realized that one point I was charged 4€ for a trip. If you tap in and don’t properly tap out, it’s 4€ no matter how far you go. That’s right, it costs more to mess up your transit card than to just buy the flat ticket. Gouge much?

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My tram ride back from the station? .90€! It cost me 3.50€ to go using the app, and 0.90€ to go using the card. It’s worth using the OV Card, it’s just hard to use correctly. Eventually, I was able to go online to the OV website and submit a request for a refund of the over-charges and it was granted, although I still had to get to the train station kiosk to actually claim the credit.

I specifically say it’s biased against foreigners because most people who live there have their OV linked to their bank account directly, and can easily contest overcharges or incorrect charges at their leisure without worrying about not being able to pay for a trip. Meanwhile, visitors who front load the cards can still contest overcharges, but have no recourse for getting to a charging kiosk if a mistake has drained our account.

Returning from Amsterdam

The OV card isn’t evil in and of itself. I had very little issue using it in Maastricht and Amsterdam. It was nice to be able to move from city to city without having to invest in yet more transit passes (glares at Belgium and France).

However, the vaunted European train system turned out to be a massive disappointment. I know I’m kinda old, but I remember when the dream was “get a Eurail pass and back pack around Europe for your gap year”. My parents had good things to say about the trains. The trains are 2-3x the cost of a bus in most places there. I expected the trains to be GOOD. It was not true.

I hopped on my train back to Den Haag thinking I’d had a wonderful if over-budget day and then about halfway back the train just stopped.

There was a problem with some other train stuck on the tracks (I heard because of the heat) and we sat there for about 90 minutes. The main problem with this is that I only had a small bottle of water, enough for the anticipated one hour journey but not longer after a long day in extreme heat (it was averaging 35-37C that week), and several alcohol drinks (wine with the cheese tasting, Bols distillery tour, and beer with dinner!). I even thought about buying a larger bottle in the train station and thought “no I’m ok, it’s not far.” FML.

There was a toilet in the train but no potable water. I tried to distract myself with Netflix, but I was getting insanely thirsty. We finally moved backwards to Harlem and I was told to ride to Leiden and transfer there to another train. My ticket would cover all my transfers to get me back to Den Haag, but nothing would make up for the extra hours added to what should have been a short and direct trip. At least I got to watch a beautiful sunset from the unmoving train?


When we got to Harlem, my first priority was water and I even willing to buy some but by 10:30 at night, most places weren’t open (Europe closes at 8pm) and the one I went to wanted 2€ for a tiny bottle!!! I pulled up my reusable and asked about tap water. It’s safe to drink from the tap in Europe. The sales clerk looked at me like I had suggested eating his grandmother and said “it’s not free” with the most contempt I have ever heard in regards to being asked for water.

A Little Rant About Water

20180705_121804Ok, a business pays fees to have water, but there is no way customers are going to drink a tenth of what you use operating a food stand. Washing a single load of dishes is more water than all your customers could drink if you gave them each a cup. Water is basically free in a drinking capacity, and even if you wanted to charge me for using your tap water, 20-30¢ would way more than cover my water bottle and not be actual extortion. In a record setting heat wave. While the whole country is having train delays.

I know I was raised in the US where the first thing a waitress gives you is water and it’s bottomless and always free, but I’ve traveled a lot and never encountered such water stinginess as exists in Europe. I’ve also lived in places where the tap water is not safe and never had trouble buying drinking water at very reasonable prices, and many businesses still give away clean drinking water and public water fountains are available in parks and public spaces.

I thought France was stingy with the water but at least you could get it if you asked and in France and Belgium I was able to find some public drinking water (the photo above is a public drinking fountain in Paris). The rest of the time I filled my bottle in bathroom sinks… the bathrooms are very clean because there are no free bathrooms.

I just don’t understand the water hoarding going on here. I don’t think it would be hard to install cheap water stations like the paid public toilets to let people refill their own bottles and reduce plastic waste. If you must make people pay for water then keep it affordable. Besides, free water in tourist areas makes people stay longer. In the end the EU is calling for clean drinking water to be a human right, but F.U. if you’re travelling in a heat wave and get stuck when the infrastructure breaks!

End Rant.

Hamburg,  Germany:

I had been using Flix Bus to get between my main cities up to this point, and it’s about as advertised. It’s a cheap bus. There is usually a bathroom, and sometimes WiFi. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s ok. Additionally, it’s often less than half the cost of the trains. When it came to getting in and out of Germany, however, the costs were suddenly inverted and the train became the cheaper option by half. Germany + trains? That has to be efficient and on time right? Oh, stereotypes, you fail me again. The trains are expensive, overcrowded and often late. Take a bus.

The train ride on DB Bahn from Den Haag was long. It took three trains and I always had to be aware of my stop because there are lots and no one will tell you where to get off. There is no WiFi on the trains in Germany. And outside the main cities I didn’t get good reception either. There was some air-con on the trains but only between stops, so it would get hot again while people got on and off. By the time I got to Hamburg 7.5 hours later I was soaked in sweat and tired. 

The good news is HVV (the transit authority in Hamburg) is great! Although the website is total gibberish, I went to their office in the station as soon as my train arrived, and the kind woman behind the counter helped me figure out what zones the places I wanted to go were in and helped me to save money on the week long transit pass. It was a tremendous relief to have unlimited transit and not have to worry about tapping in and out and possibly running out of credit due to a computer error!

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In fact, there’s no RF readers or tapping in and out at all. The HVV transit pass is just piece of paper in a plastic sleeve that you can show to the bus driver or ticket checker and it’s all good. 

However! The one time I went outside my pass’s zone, I did have to buy a single use ticket. It was supposed to be cheaper this way… it turned out to be a royal pain. I still don’t know the correct way to buy a single use ticket across multiple zones. I thought I got the correct multi zone pass to head out to Blankenese, I got on the first leg ok, but the bus driver at Blankenese refused to let me on, saying I had purchased the ticket in the wrong zone. I don’t know if he was just being a jerk or what, because otherwise it seems I’d have to buy one ticket to get from downtown to Blankenese and then ANOTHER to get around Blankenese. I ended up walking to the beach.

On the way back from Blankenese, I decided to take the ferry, which was an excellent choice. It’s recommended to use the public transit ferry as a cheap tour of the Hamburg harbor and they’re not wrong. At 10.80€, it was certainly more expensive than using land transit, but much cheaper than a cruise up the Elbe with all the same wonderful views.


Leaving Germany, the last train

The original train I booked with DB Bahn was a single train from Hamburg to Copenhagen on Saturday, but the heat wave in Germany was KILLING ME, so I changed to a Friday ticket instead and left a day early. The new train route had two transfers, each giving me less than 10 minutes to change trains. A situation I would have thought could only be offered if the trains were reasonably on time. Silly me!

My first train was 10 minutes late in arriving, but that was ok because my second train was 15 minutes late departing, so I did at least get on it. However, so did EVERYONE ELSE. I’ve seen less crowded trains in China. Oh, and the platform wasn’t clearly marked so, even though I was standing under the sign for my train, my train actually pulled up at a totally different part of the platform and we only realized it when the hordes of people started running past us to get to it.

Hamburg-railway-station hg

The first several cars were so full that I couldn’t even get in the door. I mean, seats all full, aisles all full, stairs all full, entryway all full, full. I finally found one car I could squeeze into and found myself standing on the stairs (with all my luggage) compressed by bodies. There was an option to buy a reserved seat on the website, but I thought it was just for if you wanted to be sure you and your group had seats together or if you wanted to be sure to get one of the ones with tables. I didn’t realize they oversold the trains by so much that it was the equivalent of the Beijing subway. If you find yourself forced to take a train in Europe, pay the extra 4$ to get a reserved seat or else be prepared to stand.

As the tiny stops went by, and people got on and off, I was shuffled off the stairs and into an actual compartment where a very kind man getting off at the next stop gave me his seat and I was able to rest at last. By about halfway, most of the standing people were gone or seated, but it was still ridiculous.

That train was, of course, also late to my second connection, and I missed my connecting train altogether. The conductor gave us instructions on where to find connecting trains to various destinations and I stepped out onto the platform to wait for the last train of the day. It was going to be about 20 minutes later than my first scheduled train, but I didn’t think that was too bad.

I met a young American lady, just graduated from college and off for her summer in Europe with her Eurail Pass and we got to chatting in the station. When we boarded the next train it seemed that too would be standing room only, and two bicycles blocked off 4 folding seats entirely.  Luckily, as the train filled up, and started moving, a kind lady pointed out that there were two empty seats after all and we rushed over to grab them gratefully.

Copenhagen, Denmark:

The train took 90 minutes longer to arrive than the one I was supposed to be on, and instead of arriving in Copenhagen around 10pm, it was almost midnight. I expected the train to let us out into a train station where I could find shops, an ATM, and ticket machines for the public transit system. Instead, the train let us off basically on the street. I had no idea which building was likely to contain the train station/atm/ticket machine so I began to cast about for any ticket machine at all.

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I found one at the bus stop but as far as I could tell, the only option I could do with a credit card was to buy the Rejsekort transit card. For this you must pay for the card (80kr), then pay a minimum of 100 danish krone as a balance. So it cost me about 24 euro to get a transit card. But it was midnight and I was exhausted so I just bought it and got on the bus. Being extra sure to tap out as I exited and see the fare, I was pleased to note that even the fairly long journey out to the diplomatic quarter was about 12 kr and figured I’d be able to use that 100kr for a while yet (foreshadowing!)

The Rejsekort transit card worked similarly to the Netherlands OV Card in that each trip required a tap in and out and money was deducted from the card. However! There are two types of cards, registered and unregistered. Guess what? Of course since I bought mine from a machine at midnight it was unregistered which meant I had to maintain a minimum balance of 70kr in order to USE the card. Please remember that the trip between our Airbnb and the main train terminal is only 12kr, so that’s a little more than 5 trips in and out of town that I have to load up and NEVER USE. I was not amused.

Gothenburg, Sweden:

The local transit company here is Västtrafik. The transit in Gothenburg is good, but Google Maps has the wrong names for almost everything, so it says “get on the 10 going to abc-Swedish name” but none of the bus stops match that name on the sign. You can’t just guess by which side of the street it’s on because they use bays to remove the transit from the flow of traffic (very cool idea) so the stops are all together on an island in the middle of the roads. They have stop letters, so Google could just say take the 10 from Bay A but no. I blame Google for this failure, not the city of Gothenburg. 

Most of my time in Sweden was in a rental car, but for the time I spent in Gothenburg before getting my car, I was able to use the public transit easily enough by purchasing a three day pass which included unlimited use of buses, trams, and ferries. This is especially worthwhile since the archipelago near Gothenburg are PHENOMENAL.


Driving in Sweden was great. The roads are in good condition and the signs are very easy to follow. It is likely going to rank in my top 5 all time road trips. 10/10 would do again.

Even with the car, when I was in Stockholm, I opted to leave the rental at the hotel parking lot and take the bus around the city. In a surprising turn of absolute convenience, I downloaded the transit app on my phone and used that to buy my tickets for the day. I’m sure there are longer term options, but I was happy to just get the single use tickets since I was only using it for two trips and it was drastically cheaper than paying for parking.

Olso and Nesodden, Norway:

I was only in Norway because I was flying out of Oslo. My Airbnb was on Nesodden, one of the fjords a ferry ride away from Oslo. A single trip transit ticket is only good for an hour, but would take more than that to reach my Airbnb from the bus station where I arrived. Do I really have to buy two tickets for this? Turns out… no.


I took the local bus to the ferry terminal, but the buses on the fjord considered anyone getting OFF a ferry to be transferring and did not require an additional ticket. Whew. The ferry tickets were only mildly confusing, and with minor investigative skills I was able to navigate the ticket kiosk at the ferry terminal.

Once the bus dropped me off at the stop closest to my Airbnb, I was truly worried however since it was very rural, with no signs of any ticket machines near the bus stop. I had no Norwegian cash on me and was not walking distance from anything. I tried to use the transit app for Oslo, but it refused to accept my Korean bank card OR my American credit card (which was a much bigger surprise). Unlike the ultra convenient Stockholm app, the Oslo app would only accept payment from a limited number of EU countries.

In the end, I just went to the bus stop when it was time to leave and explained my situation to the driver. Of course he had a solution, and I was able to get to the ferry terminal, then from the Oslo side of the ferry, I was able to walk to the nearest train station that would take me to the airport…. where I promptly bought the wrong ticket.

Bus Terminal in Oslo, Norway (Oslo bussterminal) tickets (billettautomater) for Ruter nettbuss Bus4You IMG 6050

I’m still not sure I completely understand what happened. I went to a ticket kiosk and bought a ticket to the airport, then followed the signs and got on the train. There is no place to have the tickets checked on the way to getting on the train. Once I left the train at the airport, our tickets were checked on the way out. The ticket checker told me I had bought the wrong ticket, and that I’d bought the city public transit ticket, but gotten onto a private company express train (not clearly marked, and don’t check tickets on the way IN?). The money I’d spent went to the city transit authority (Ruter) and there was no way for the private train company to get it. I tried to offer to fix my mistake, but it seems there’s no way to fix it on the back end and she waved me on through exhorting me to pay more attention to the trains in future.

I would never have hopped on the wrong train intentionally, but it wouldn’t hurt if they had some kind of a barrier to scan tickets on the way in?

Moscow, Russia:

Ironically, as in counter to expectations, Moscow had the best running and least expensive public transit. I was only in Moscow for 20 hours, and I got a 24 hour unlimited pass for less than the cost of a single trip ticket in any European city. The ladies at the ticket counter spoke enough English for me to easily get the one I wanted.

I had a little trouble finding my first Metro station (I should have got a SIM card so my Map would work better) but once I realized what to look for in a Metro entrance, getting around Moscow was a breeze. The stations are so well labeled and the metro maps are clear (if you know how to read a metro map). Plus, Moscow is famous for it’s beautifully decorated stations. Even when I got lost because I read the stops wrong there were helpful people to turn me around and help me find my way.


I also used the airport express train here which was crowded, but reasonably priced and running on time with no surprises. I guess there are some things communism does well?

I have come to realize that I’m a novelist, not a blogger. I think other people would have made each country a separate blog post in order to spread out the words, and get more posts out there. At 5200+ words, I gave some serious thought into dividing this post up into bite size chunks… but tbh, I’m not that thrilled to be writing about transit, and I’m mainly including it because these were hard won lessons that I hope can spare at least one other human my trials and tribulations. I also think it helps sometimes to see that the adventure life is not always one of joy and excitement, and that we must also contend with learning basic life skills over and over in each new place we visit.

Bureaucrazy in Korea: Banks & Healthcare

I’ve been having a lot of great adventures here in Korea, but I’ve also had to deal with some more mundane aspects of living in a new country. When I first arrived here, I got the flu rather badly and had to learn about the healthcare system much faster than I expected. Also, I had to open a Korean bank account and learn the details of online banking. One of these is awesome and the other is overly cumbersome. Can you guess? Sorry there aren’t any beautiful pictures in this one, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway.

Korean Banking

I was generally advised to wait until my ARC (alien registration card) arrived to open a bank account, but due to my illness, we got a late start on the ARC process and so my school’s accounting office was a bit desperate for me to open an account before my first payday. So my co-teacher and I headed out one afternoon after classes to do just that. I did some research on Korean banks and found that the Korean Exchange Bank was reviewed well for it’s service to foreigners, especially international money transfers, so I opted to open my account there. Recently, KEB merged with Hana Bank, so we went to a Hana branch to do the actual opening. I was able to open the account using my passport and US social security number, but it was going to be a somewhat limited account, and we would have to return to update the paperwork once the ARC was complete.

I thought at the time that it went smoothly. Although the bank clerks didn’t speak English, I was there with my co-teacher who helpfully translated and patiently got all my questions answered. I had to sign a thick pile of paperwork, on every page, sometimes twice. I deposited a small amount of cash just to open the account, and we were even able to make my bank card act as my public transport card as well. This was a clever option so I don’t have to worry about refilling my T-Money card, and the month’s bus/subway bill gets withdrawn on a scheduled day. We also filled out the paperwork for internet banking and international transfers, so I thought I was golden!


I left the account alone for a while, since there wasn’t much money in it anyway, and then on payday, I tried to log on to see if my deposit had gone through ok, and that’s when the trouble started. Internet security in Korea is intense. First, I tried to look up the KEB website and log in using the username and password we’d created at the bank for the express purpose of online banking. This was an abject failure. After several attempts, with the bank telling me that my user name didn’t exist, I finally asked my co-teacher to call the bank and ask what was going on. We discovered that the merger isn’t actually complete yet, and so I had to go to the Hana Bank website instead. Ok.

Next problem. I usually use Chrome as my browser, and have avoided IE since there was an alternate browser to choose from. However, when I opened the Hana Bank website in Chrome, I was informed that I could only access the website from Internet Explorer. So I lauch IE and try again. Then I’m informed that I must install special security software on my computer to access the website. Ok. Three separate pieces of security software, all of the instructions for which are in Korean. This is one of the reasons I like Chrome, because it has a translate option for websites which is (while not perfect) a really huge help in navigating foreign language sites. Fortunately, I have Google Translate on my phone, so I was able to use the photo option to take a picture of my monitor and translate the messages. Finally, I got all the software installed, managed to log in and see my bank balance. It turned out the deposit hadn’t shown up by the time we left school for the day (a Friday), so I went through the whole process again later that night from my home computer. Saw the money had arrived and decided to pay my entry fee for Holi Hai via internet transfer.


I hit the transfer button, went through the process of entering all the information: my account number, my pin number, the name of the receiving bank, and the receiving account number, the amount of money, then I was asked to verify via phone or certificate. I still didn’t have my Korean phone number when we opened the bank account, so my co-teacher used hers to fill out the forms. But I was at home and couldn’t just walk into the next office to ask for her help. It was Friday, the fee was due the next day, and we wouldn’t be back at school together until Monday, so I texted her to ask for help.

After a whole lot of back and forth, including her calling the hosts of Holi Hai because she thought they were Korean (nope, Indian) and that I might be having trouble communicating with them about the due date, we discovered that it was effectively not possible for me to do the transfer myself, so she agreed to send them the money herself and let me bring her cash the next day. I do love my co-teacher.

I spent a chunk of that weekend trying to figure out the certification process, because it seemed to indicate that once a computer (or other device) was registered with the bank, then the phone verification step would not be necessary. Several frustrating hours and more translation work later, I discovered that the certificate also would require phone verification, and so I gave up until Monday. I brought my laptop into the office because I didn’t want the school computer being the only one I could do my banking from, and managed to get online with my phone’s mobile hotspot (since my school has restricted internet access). My co-teacher and I painstakingly went through the website so I could show her the steps I had taken, but something had changed! My weekend of research was useless and we had to try to figure it out all over again.

Usually, Koreans use their national ID, and foreigners use their ARC ID for secure identification. I opened the bank account with my passport and US national ID, so when the website asked for my national ID number, I tried both of those with no success. We finally called the bank and got someone to explain what my temporary ID was (according to them), but they also told us that if I created this security certificate with that ID, then I would have to do it all over again when we changed the bank account to my ARC ID. So we decided to wait.

The next day, we headed over to a local government office that would print out a temporary paper that would have my real ARC number on it so we could give that to the bank, and we made plans to go to the bank later in the week where we could both change my account to my ARC number and figure out the certificate issue.

On the very day we were to go to the bank, my actual ARC card arrived at the school, so at least we never had to find out if the temporary certificate would have worked. We trundled over to the nearest Hana branch with my laptop in tow because we weren’t going to leave the bank without the certificate complete. We got the ID number changed with little trouble, and then asked more questions about the online certificate before we sat down in the waiting area to make it work. In order to apply for the certificate, I still had to go through the rigmarole of entering my account number, my pin number, the set of numbers requested from my security card –

*oh I forgot to mention this part. When I got my bank account, I was given a card full of numbers: two long numbers along the top and rows and rows of four digit numbers filling the card. Whenever you do anything online, you have to enter the numbers from the card that are requested, so it’s not just a pin code or password that you can memorize, you have to pull out the card and squint at the tiny numbers to find the one being asked for.

AND the phone verification (which at least was easier to do since my co-teacher was sitting next to me. Unlike other SMS verifications that text a code you enter on a website, this one actually voice (computer recording) called her phone (remember it’s the number linked to my account at this point) and requested we enter a number from the website into the phone.

The certificate had to be downloaded onto my computer and also requested yet another password (distinct from my password to log onto the website, or my pin number) which, I was informed, were I to forget, would necessitate physically returning to a branch to get a new one. Did I mention banks are only open during school hours, so I’m taking PTO from my vacation to get this stuff done?

Certificate complete, we then decided to test it by paying one of my bills online. In the US, when you want to pay a bill online, you can go to the company’s website and log in, see your bill, then pay it by credit card or by your bank account. The point is, you go to the company website. (Sure, banks have bill pay options online, I’ve never set mine up because it’s a hassle to enter all the data). I’m not saying our way is better (non-sarcastic), but you do take certain things for granted when they are all you’ve ever known. Even when I paid my phone bill in Saudi, I did it with the phone company, not with my bank. Korea is a bit different. The bill shows a bank name and account number where you transfer your payment to.

This took us a little tinkering because my co-teacher has all her bills set on auto-pay and hadn’t actually paid a bill by transfer in many years and I’d never done it this way at all. The first screen you come to when you select the transfer option has you enter your account number, your pin number, the bank and account number you’re transferring to, and the amount of money plus a brief description.

bank info prtscn

I had no idea how to indicate to the company which bill I was paying since my name isn’t actually on the internet, gas or utility bills that were set up before I ever arrived. I tried entering the customer information in the description field, and I hit “OK”. I was shown a summary of the transfer including my banking information and the name of the account I was sending to (which is nice so you can catch it if you mistyped the long account number). Then if that’s all in order, you enter the selected numbers from your security card:

bank card verf prtscn

hit “run transfer” again and have to enter —

bnk cert page prtscn

your certificate password! Bearing in mind, we’ve already gone through all this trouble just to register my computer as safe to do bank stuff on, but every time I do a transfer (read “pay a bill”) I have to go through three passwords (log on password, pin number, and certificate password) and a security card number dance to prove I’m really really really really me.

Once we did the transfers, I noticed that the description field had not worked as I expected and the customer account information was not showing up to the recipient. How are they supposed to know what bill the money is for? Tomorrow. The next day, we called around to the places I’d paid bills to and had the hardest time finding a real person to speak to (some things are truly international?). One place told us they’d simply matched the amount to the bill and figured it out. The internet company however said they couldn’t look up the account without the national ID number of the person who opened it. We didn’t even know who opened this account, it’s just been with the apartment for as long as anyone remembered. In the end, we were told, we could read the MAC address off the router as ID, so I took a photo when I got home and we called once more the next day. The good news is, companies here issue unique transfer account numbers. So the bank account number that’s on my bill is *just for me*, and that’s how they know what bill it is.

After more than a week of hair pulling, I finally figured out the process for online bill paying. I still haven’t tried the international transfer option because I want to send the maximum transfer when I do to get the most for my transfer fee. Nor have I been able to change the phone number linked to my own Korean one (still linked to my co-teacher’s). I’ll let you know how that goes in a couple more weeks/months.

Another really important point here: I did not do this alone. I had a cheerful, friendly, bilingual Korean person with me most of the way. I can’t even imagine trying to do this by myself. I’d probably be trying to pay my bills in person or by ATM (apparently that’s an option) and sending money home by Western Union. I bought my co-teacher a chocolate cake.

I’m all in favor of security for banking, and internet security in general, but Korea takes it to a whole new potentially tinfoil hat level of paranoia. My US bank account asks me security questions if I log in from a new computer, which is nice. But I CAN log in from a different computer, which is also nice, especially when I had to do things like log in from a public computer at a hostel in China to transfer money on the fly. I don’t think that would even be possible with my Korean bank.

On top of that, the internet security isn’t just for banking. I finally figured out how to order food for delivery online. Yogiyo is a really popular website, but they required me to register my phone and authenticate it with an SMS to place an order. I went to the Papa John’s website and tried to register, and only after half an hour of futzing with the security protocols, installing another security program, and trying to legally verify my real name did I give up and place my order as a “guest”. Why do they need to legally verify my name for a pizza? On the plus side, I’ll never have to worry about someone ordering a pizza and claiming to be me.

Korean Healthcare

The EPIK Orientation was ground zero for a very virulent flu minidemic. Later I found out some 40% of the new teachers missed part or all of their first week of teaching due to this outbreak. I got to my new apartment on a Friday evening, feeling tired from the long week, but otherwise ok. I bought some necessities from the local grocery and some soup from a restaurant and settled in to enjoy my weekend. A few hours later, I wasn’t feeling so great. I started coughing and having some breathing distress. I was suddenly gripped by fear that the pollution in my new home was worse than I expected, that I might experience the smog-induced nightmare of China all over again and be unable to stay here and be healthy. The next day was worse. I’d developed a fever and many flu symptoms, which was actually a relief because it meant my breathing trouble wasn’t caused by smog. I was hoping that it was just a short cold and I’d be at least slightly functional by the time I was expected at work on Monday, but alas, it was not to be. I texted my co-teacher (who at the time I had met just briefly on my ride from the orientation to my apartment) and told her I was feeling very ill. I didn’t want to be sick for my first day of work, but it was bad.

I finally managed to get the point across, and we started talking about doctor options. She tried to tell me about a place I could walk to or take the subway to, but this was my first weekend in my new place and I’d had zero time to learn the location of anything before falling ill. And even now that I know where the hospital is in relation to me, there was NO way I could have made it there in my condition at the time. She finally agreed to come pick me up and take me to the hospital. It turned out her husband and son had just recovered from the flu, so she was more sympathetic than I had feared. We got to the ER and checked in. Yep, ER, emergency room. It was after 8pm on a Sunday night so that was all we had, but my coughing/ breathing trouble had become too severe for me to wait any longer.

There was perhaps one person ahead of us in line to check in, so that was done quite quickly, and we were ushered into a large area where I was questioned and examined politely and professionally. We talked about my history of asthma, and about my other symptoms. They took a swab to test for influenza, then set me up in a cot with an IV for fluids (I don’t doubt I was dehydrated by this time) while we waited for the results. Being tested for the flu was a new one on me. In the US, healthcare is so expensive and doctors are so overburdened that it’s just not done. I might have expected a nebulizer treatment for my breathing, and I probably would have been sent home and told to rest and take some Tylenol for the fever, maybe a prescription cough syrup to help me sleep.

The test came back positive for influenza A, a more severe and less common strain that is highly contagious. I was ordered 5 days “quarantine” (basically don’t go anywhere unless you absolutely have to, and wear a face mask if you do) and given a prescription for anti-viral medication as well as a cocktail of vitamins and decongestants. We went out to pay for the visit, but my ARC was not in yet (or even applied for) so I wasn’t in the national Health Insurance registry and had to pay out of pocket. It was about 80$. That was it. For an ER visit. Blew my mind. We walked around the corner to the pharmacy, me coughing all the way, forcing my co-teacher to slow her normal pace to one that wouldn’t destroy me. The medication too, I paid for out of pocket and it was something like 10-12$ for all of it.

After my week of medication and bed rest, I was feeling much better. No more fever or aches, but my cough was lingering on fiercely. I showed up to work the second Monday, and we made arrangements to go to a doctor during regular hours to avoid the ER expense. My co-teacher was delighted to learn the English word “pulmonologist”, because here you don’t need to see a general practitioner to be referred to a specialist if you already know what kind of specialist you need. I couldn’t breathe, so we clearly needed a pulmonologist. You can’t actually make an appointment. It’s first come first serve, but that day we didn’t wait long, maybe 15 minutes, before we got in to see the doctor.

This kind of lingering breathing distress after a serious bout of flu is not unknown to me and that flu had been a doozy. I explained my history (with help translating) to the doctor and he listened attentively. He asked his own questions about my symptoms, and seemed ill at ease with some of my answers. When I asked why, he told me that it didn’t really fit with a “typical” diagnosis. So, I got even more into my history and explained the issues in more detail. This is also totally new to me, since US doctors just want you in and out as fast as possible and hardly ever want to listen to a patient’s own information about their illness or history except for short yes or no answers to specific questions. This doctor had done the specific questions, but when my answers didn’t fit, he kept looking for more information! He did insist on an x-ray just to be sure there wasn’t another problem (which I’m ok with, although it was clear as I expected) and then we talked about medicine.

Now, if this was new, I’d want to take the doctor’s word. But I spent years dealing with this after my return from China. Years of doctors who didn’t believe me or insisted it was something else, or kept giving me medicine that didn’t work or had bad side effects. And although I did eventually get one who listened and helped, it was an uphill battle. So, when it comes to my breathing, I know what works and what doesn’t. He wanted to give me a type of medicine that was awful for me in the past. I was on it for 2 years, and I hate it. I countered with a different option (which, to be honest I also hate but at least it’s over faster, and has always kicked the breathing problem in the butt before). We talked about risks and side effects, when had I last used the medication, how often I’d used it at what dose. Eventually he was satisfied that I understood what I was asking for and prescribed the medication. The visit and prescription out of pocket cost was less than 30$ total, which is what I could expect for a co-pay (what you pay after insurance) in the US (if my prescription was generic).

So– no appointment, short wait times, respectful doctor who both listened to me about my symptoms, history and preferences, and cross checked me to make sure he wasn’t just giving me whatever I asked for without sufficient knowledge, comfortable, professional, dignified, and cheap. Wow.

At a follow up appointment a week later, we had a longer wait. The nurse at the check in desk explained that Saturdays and Mondays were the busiest days. We waited for about an hour that day. My co-teacher was beside herself with the long wait, and I tried to explain that in the US, you can have an appointment to see a doctor made well ahead of time and still have to wait an hour or more in the waiting room before getting in. She was aghast.

The doctor clearly remembered me (although foreigners might stand out a little) and we were able to pick up our discussion easily, and decided to continue another round of treatment. We both agreed that this would be the last of this medication, as it’s meant to be a short term fix, so if this didn’t kick my cough, we would change tactics. At the final follow up, my cough was much improved but not gone. Although he seemed to think it might be normal activity induced asthma, he believed me when I told him I hadn’t had that as a regular symptom in years. We talked again about the original medication he had suggested, and I told him, no I had a different option in mind instead. His face clouded up with concern, but when I showed him the picture of what I was asking for on my phone, he recognized it at once, relaxed and immediately agreed. He gave me a month’s supply and said to come back if it wasn’t better at the end.

Compared to the US and Saudi (the other countries I’ve seen doctors in) the health care I received here was amazing. I have argued with so many doctors in the US who refuse to listen to me talk about my own body and health. I’m not suggesting they should blindly take my word, but to have a doctor listen and critically analyze my self reports was so awesome. I felt like a human being who was heard, respected and cared for in contrast to the US where I’m often made to feel like I’m being a nuisance or a silly girl who is making it up or someone whose health problems would all be solved by losing some weight. And believe me, I’m not the only one. The internet is full of stories of people who have seriously bad experiences with US doctors because they are poor, or women, or people of color, or possibly anyone that isn’t a medical cadaver.

About a week ago, my health insurance card arrived and we finally got some answers about reimbursement. My contract stipulates that I’m covered from the last day of orientation, so even my first ER visit should have been included in that coverage. We didn’t have the insurance card or national ID number at the time, so I paid in full and wanted to know how to go about getting the portion that should have been covered by insurance back. I was sort of committed to the idea that it wouldn’t really happen (getting money out of an insurance company in the States is like blood from a stone), and the bills weren’t that bad, so I knew it would be ok either way, but I decided to try. It turned out to be so easy.

All we had to do was go down to the hospital and pharmacy where the original purchases were made and show them my insurance card. The hospital took the credit card I’d used to pay with and refunded all the charges, then billed the new lower amount instead. The pharmacy simply handed me about 50$ in cash so they didn’t have to go through the paperwork process of reversing bank charges. It was done on the same day we asked for it, and it took less than an hour for both locations together.

The Korean health insurance system is a public service. All Korean citizens are automatically a part of it, and foreign residents are covered once we’re registered with our employer or immigration. But even without it, the health costs are low and the health care is good and speedy. The next time someone tries to tell you universal health care can’t work without insanely high taxes, poor quality care or long waiting lists, point them at Korea and ask them what part of this system is a problem for them.

So there it is, banking and healthcare, two systems required for long term existence in any country broken down in Korea. Although the banking system is far more cumbersome and complex than I personally feel it needs to be, I should point out that the customer care was really good and the fee structure is quite reasonable. I’ve had no problems with the bank itself or anything there other than simply navigating the obstacle course of security protocols. It’s really amazing when you remember this country was razed to the ground by war in the early 1950s and then look around at everything they’ve built since, not just in terms of skyscrapers or subway systems, but the social infrastructure that provides for it’s citizens and guests. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to live in this uniquely fast paced country, modern that hasn’t yet lost it’s sense of social responsibility to the siren call of greed.

Bureaucrazy: The Korean Edition part 2 – EPIK Style

Welcome back to part 2 of the craziness. I know these stories aren’t filled with beauty and joy, but I think it’s a valuable reflection of what kind of work goes into the lifestyle. It helps me (and others) to appreciate that it isn’t just luck or privilege that allows me to do my thing, but hours of hard work, lots of determination and not a small amount frustration. In the end it only makes the prize sweeter. So join me as we explore the realities of the job hunt in South Korea.


As I began to apply to university positions, it became clear to me that these were really competitive and difficult to obtain unicorn jobs, which I might technically be qualified for but would also be at a massive disadvantage because I wasn’t already in Korea with a visa in hand. Apparently the catch-22 of needing experience to get the job you need to get the experience is not limited to the US. So I decided I needed a solid backup plan. After all the work I was doing for this Korean visa, it would be a real shame if it all went to waste simply because I overreached in my job applications. Don’t get me wrong, I’m was still holding out hope as many schools said they would be conducting interviews in late Nov-early Dec, but I like back up plans.

I did some research about non-university teaching jobs and quickly decided I didn’t want to work at a hogwan (private language school), but could be open to teaching at a public school where I would have a Korean co-teacher and at least theoretically better hours and treatment than at many hogwans. I found the three main government sponsored public school programs: EPIK, GEPIK, and SMOE. At one time, these were all separate, but now it seems they’ve been blurred together due to funding issues, so filling the EPIK paperwork seems to be the only thing you can do.

not to be confused with the K-pop band Epik High

I had my intake interview (which mostly felt like, “are you not a total idiot?”) and then received a packet detailing what documents I needed to mail to them in Korea in order to move on to the next step of actually being offered a job. I guess they don’t want to make offers to people who don’t have the paperwork, but I admit it made me nervous to think of sending all the paperwork I worked so hard to get while I was secretly hoping to get a call back from one of the universities. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. It took another month after my interview acceptance to the time I finally got all my documents to send to them, and I’m starting to feel pretty committed to the idea that I’ll be an EPIK teacher instead of a university professor next year.

EPIK Application Form

This form is 8 pages long (not counting the 5 page lesson plan you are meant to attach to the end). It asks for your complete academic records including the names and dates of your elementary and middle schools. (I’m an Air Force brat, it’s not just one school.) It includes several essays, explicit details about any piercings and tattoos, 5 years of residency history and even more of job history. I once applied for a job with the US government that required the SF-86 background form. This wasn’t quite as detailed, but it was a near thing. I sent this form in as an email attachment prior to my intake interview, and then part of the interview process was reviewing the form in painstaking detail to correct any formatting or informational mistakes I had made in filling it out the first time so that I could redo it before printing the hard copy to mail to Korea with all the other documents.

This lesson plan was pretty intense too. When I did my TESOL certification classes, we had to write long elaborate lesson plans basically to demonstrate a grasp of the material we were learning, how to organize a lesson, how to manage time, how to actually teach the material, etc. At no point since then have I been asked to write anything so long as 2 pages for a 45-50 minute class. That’s not a lesson plan, it’s a script. The 5 pages of lesson plan that is part of the EPIK application is ostensibly meant to be 2 pages of actual plan and 3 pages of materials. I don’t have any lesson plans that long from actual teaching jobs, so I broke out the one I used for TESOL and revamped it to fit the EPIK format provided in the application file.

We talked about my lesson plan in the interview, which was fine. It’s actually really easy for me to talk about teaching or classroom management now. They asked me to find one flaw in my lesson plan, which seemed a little odd, cause I’m thinking If I thought it was flawed, I would have fixed it before I sent it to you. But fortunately the interviewer had asked a question about a game I used being problematic for a larger class, sooo I just kind of re-worded his critique and suggested some solutions. Later on, in the email review process where I sent in several more versions of the application to make sure it was perfect before shipping, he told me that my lesson plan was too short because it didn’t fill a full two pages and the ideal lesson plan should really be 2.5-3 pages.

I suppose if you’re reading this blog you’re probably thinking something like, “please, Kaine, we know you can generate pages and pages of text, don’t tell me you can’t bs a 3 page lesson plan”. Of course I can. But my ideal lesson plan looks more like this:

There was just a point where I realized that less than 5% of this application process was about whether or not I was actually qualified to do the job and the other 95% was about my ability to follow precise instructions to meet government mandated requirements. There was no way for me to add more material to the lesson plan without going over the allotted time, so I just had to resort to using the longest most descriptive sentences possible to bring my total length up to about 2.25 pages. Hoop jumped.

Original Letters of Recommendation & Original Proof of Teaching Experience

So, my historical understanding of letters of recommendation is that you request them from employers on your way out for your files. You have a copy in your personal files, and you can show it, make a copy, etc to potential employers down the road. They are not meant to be single use items. People hate writing these things, and it’s kind of insane to expect a teacher, pastor, boss, or other person in authority to write them over and over. Yet EPIK is very specific that the letters must be in their format, and signed in INK (no color printed scanned copies of signatures, INK). So I had to get two brand new letters of recommendation, because the ones I have on file are not in the magical format, and they are electronic copies only.

I hate having to ask for these things. It’s always awkward. It takes up the time and energy of the people involved, many of whom do not have experience writing such kinds of letters and end up stalling because they don’t know what to write. In the past, I have written letters and simply asked the people to sign them. I did this because teachers have asked me to do it that way to save them time and to make sure that the letter has what I want in it. I hate even more having to ask for them on a deadline, or in a specific format, because then I feel like I’m asking for a really difficult favor, which I basically am. Thankfully, I am in a situation where two people are willing to print and sign new copies of the letters they just wrote for me should I need more than one original, but what it basically comes down to is that any time someone wants an original letter of recommendation, expect to have to inconvenience someone in a position of authority over you.

The original employment verification letters may be even more ridiculous, since those are pretty much just form letters given by an employer. I’m honestly don’t know what the obsession with getting your only copies of these letters is. Do they just expect your employers to print and sign letters of recommendation and proof of employment in batches, or is it’s just supposed to be really obnoxious to weed out those who lack grit and determination. Also, while the universities required the proof of employment with exact dates on it, the EPIK program wants them to say “full academic year” if the dates are less than 12 full months. Even though school years in nearly every place on earth are 9-10 months long. So, you may remember how kind and cooperative the school in China was to send me that verification letter in the exact format I asked for back when I was only applying for university jobs? Well, not being able/willing to infer that September to June  is a full academic year, EPIK needs new letters!

As you might conclude from the previous installation, there is no freaking way I’ll be getting this from the school in Saudi. Even if I could convince them to issue a 3rd letter, they won’t mail me an original, because you know, e-copies are good enough for “most” employers. But the school in China lived up to their original niceness and mailed me yet another letter which included the phrase “full academic year” just for EPIK. The good(ish) news is that this only impacts my pay grade, not my employability. None of my other experience will count towards the 2 years for the level 1 pay grade (my summer jobs can’t count because only whole years count, not cumulative ones) and this means I get bumped to a level 2+ pay grade, which is a difference of 200,000 won per month (170$US) so I’m not super happy about the situation, but it isn’t the end of the world.


Also known as the “Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education”. This is one of the three programs to hire teachers for public schools through the government. EPIK is “English Program in Korea”, and handles basically everything that isn’t Seoul. There used to be one for the greater Seoul area called GEPIK, but it seems to have vanished. I tried to apply for GEPIK at the same time I applied for EPIK but the “official” GEPIK website routed me to a recruiter for the application page. I couldn’t find a SMOE website at all. Now I know why. Only after you’re accepted by EPIK can you fill out the SMOE attachments, addendum and contract to add yourself to the Seoul list of schools possible teaching pool.

Since I was already filing a huge number of papers, it seemed reasonable to go ahead and print out another ream of paper and initial every page… twice, and thereby be considered for jobs in the Seoul area as well as the rest of Korea.


Another ingredient of the international job recipe that is often discounted: photos of yourself. Pretty much every overseas job wants you to send digital photos of yourself as part of the application process since they will not get to meet you face to face before hiring you. Skype has really helped with the visual aspect of overseas interviewing, but it’s new and everyone still wants to see your picture first. Plus, a lot of government documentation will require “passport style” photos to be attached to official forms. When I was going through the Saudi application process, I spent way too much money getting passport photos from a local drug store at 10$ per 2 photos. A long time ago this made more sense because they had to take your photo against a plain white background and it had to be aligned correctly, then developed and cut to size. Now, you can take your own passport selfie against any white wall and crop it to passport regs in your phone. So why are they still charging me 10$ to take a digital picture?

For Applications

This is going to change from country to country, and sometimes even from job to job within a country. Some places want to see you posing in business dress, others want to see you in a more natural habitat, engaging in your hobbies or out with your friends. Most of them want the photos to be less than three months old. I try to keep a pretty up to date stock of fun photos (no NSFW photos) so that I can provide some shots of me being a fun loving, outdoorsy, go-getter, but the professional shots really confounded me. Korea specifically seems a little schizophrenic about what they want, because I was told professional attire, but BIG smile.I have a hard time working up a fake smile, so my business pose tends to be a small smile, polite and friendly, but not “hey I’m having a great time in this suit!”. The picture I sent to EPIK the first time wasn’t “smiley” enough. However, it’s still easier to do this yourself or with a friend. You don’t even need Photoshop anymore to touch up your imperfect selfies because Pixlr offers most PS features for free online. I was able to remove my facial piercings (easier to Photoshop them out than to take them out for a photo, I’ll remove them for real before I fly out), change the background to a better shade of white, and brighten up the colors all pretty quickly. It’s also great for removing zits.

For Passport Style

To make things more fun, each country could have a different standard size or ratio for passport style photos.America is 2”x 2” square, but Japan and Korea use a rectangular aspect ratio (and cm). So a standard “passport photo” from your local drugstore is not only expensive, it might be the wrong size. When I realized I needed a million passport photos for Saudi, I decided to make my own sort of contact sheet by putting the photos into an A4/letter sized document and just having them printed off on photo stock paper. It was certainly cheaper, but thanks to the internet there’s an even better way.

Here I have one piece of good news for the international paperwork questor. There are about a dozen websites that will take the photo you upload and help you re-size and crop it to fit the passport size for the country you select. You don’t even have to know the sizing (though I like to double check) you just select your country of choice and upload your photo. Here’s the cool part: they turn it into an American standard 4×6 print (or 4R other places) with however many correctly sized photos will fit. Then you simply send this file to a photo printing place and they print you off a copy for less than 1$ (I actually got 4 copies for less than 1$, I placed the order online and the photos were finished and waiting for me in less than an hour). If  you have access, you can even print it out on a home photo printer. This one small breath of fresh air, of ease, convenience and inexpense deserves a standing freaking ovation.

The Final List

I was really surprised at how quickly the apostilles arrived once they were sent off for, and found myself waiting with increasing anxiety on the final document: the second letter from my former employer in China. I passed a couple of weeks by checking and rechecking the checklist, going over my documents with a fine tooth comb to ensure that I had not missed anything, emailing my EPIK liason with re-edits of the application for approval, making copies, learning how to use the scan function on the office copy machine to send myself digital copies, and hunting down “passport photos”. In the end, I had everything ready to go and waiting in a neat little file folder but still the letter had not arrived. To make matters more frustrating, it was coming on time for another couch hop (ok spare bedroom hop) which would take me about 90 minutes of driving away from the address the letter was coming to.

One day after I’d moved across town, I got a text from the former roomie letting me know that the letter from China had arrived. Not being willing to wait another 5-6 days until the next time I had planned to visit their house, I drove up in the middle of the night (after I get off work, plus less traffic) to retrieve the letter. I was so excited to finally have everything together I actually couldn’t get to sleep until I’d gone over the checklist one more time and put everything together for the great mailing. The instruction packet sent to my by EPIK on how to assemble my documents is 15 pages long, by the way. Here’s the final list:

  1. completed and signed application + 5 page lesson plan + passport size photo (notice how they just slip three things into one item on the list? sneaky.)
  2. scan or copy of the passport : the instructions say they prefer color copies but will accept black and white if it’s legible. I’m kind of wondering since they have a color scan already, why they can’t just print it if my copies aren’t good enough?
  3. criminal background check with apostille attached: it’s really important to make sure the apostille doesn’t come loose while you’re making copies of this document too.
  4. I’m really happy to have avoided this one, which is only for UK and Australians, but original birth certificate with apostille. I’m pretty sure my original is long lost, but I have this crazy credit card looking one that they were experimenting switching to the year I was born. No one knows what the heck it even is.
  5. copy of degrees with apostilleand if you don’t remember what was involved with this headache, check out “part 1“.
  6. sealed transcripts: please write “transcript” in pencil on the envelope… 
  7. original letters of recommendationmust be on official letterhead and have INK signatures.
  8. smoking sworn declaration & tattoo/piercing sworn declaration
  9. copy of TESOL certificate with proof that it’s at least 100 hours and proof of how many hours are in class vs online
  10. original proof of teaching experience: that letter I had to ask for from China twice, and will now never see again. also please write “PTE” in pencil on the envelope. So much for giving those stamps to my niece.
  11. Seoul attachment form,
  12. SMOE Addendum,
  13. SMOE contractyes, you have to sign a contract pre-accepting a job with SMOE in order to be considered for a job with SMOE

The next day, once the letter had been scanned and copied dutifully, I checked the checklist and every piece of paper again before sliding it all into a thick manila folder and heading over to FedEx… where I paid nearly 100$ to ship this brick of paper to Korea. I’m really happy to be there, but man I don’t know why we couldn’t just do this electronically for free. I tried to remember how much it cost me to ship my documents to Saudi and eventually realized I never did, I only sent them to a US based visa specialist, so got the far cheaper domestic overland shipping costs.

The Takeaway Lessons

Last year I recommended to myself and my readers:

Do your own research:I’d like to add to that – research should include phone calls and/or emails with a person who will oversee whatever it is or who has undergone the process before. Cursory internet/website research is often incomplete, outdated or just plain wrong. So are untrained cogs.

Have patience: Yeah. That’s really reinforced. I spent three months just gathering the documents I needed to get hired, and I haven’t even started the visa process yet.

Hold on to the story: Last year I thought that was so I could look back while I was having wild adventures and laugh at the red tape blooper reel. I still think keeping the story is important, but now I’m looking at it more as a learning opportunity. The paperwork isn’t going away. Re-reading my Bureaucracy stories from Saudi really put some things in perspective for me about my current trials.

This year, in addition to adding a few caveats to last year’s lessons, I can say I’ve learned the following:

Be as tremendously specific as possible when requesting documents: It’s better to over document, send extra letters, attach extra instructions, assume that the people who will receive your request  are going to do the bare minimum asked of them, or look for a way to avoid doing it altogether. I don’t think this is really true of most people, but it’s like those direction writing exercises we used to do in school, assume you’re writing instructions to an alien and be really really specific.

Leave yourself enough time to do it twice: It turns out I had to do several things twice, part of that was improper research and part of it was lack of super specific requests, but I’m sure there’s something else I haven’t accounted for that will make me need to do something twice again next time.

Look carefully at who or what is causing your frustrations and setbacks: Re-reading my posts from pre-Saudi paperwork made me realize how much of my hair-pulling and head-desking was the result of the company that hired me providing incomplete, contradictory or erroneous information on how to proceed. It turned out that my whole working experience with them was just as frustrating, so maybe I should have been clued in before I ever got on a plane that it wasn’t going to get better. Meanwhile, this time around much of the frustration has been caused by domestic institutions and not at all by my potential employer. I won’t know for a while yet if this is a reliable correlation, but it seems worth paying attention to.

It’s ok to say “no”:

As an international adventurer, I’m usually all about the power of “yes” but over the last year I had some intensely disappointing situations that I ended up having to leave in less than ideal ways. Of course we want to maintain an open mind about travel and adventure to make the most of the time and opportunities. It is important not to wait for everything to be perfect or the ideal situation because we might end up waiting forever. But it can be dangerous to jump into situations that seem too much less than ideal. Looking back on my blogs, I can’t believe I didn’t see what a bad idea that Saudi company was. The job in Japan seemed great until I showed up. My reluctance to say “no” once I realized how disparate the reality was from what I was promised led to a great deal of frustration, heartache and eventually to my premature departure from the country because I didn’t have enough time to search for another visa sponsor. This time, I decided firmly that I was simply not interested in working for another private language school. It would have been easy as pie to get hired by a hogwan, I had recruiters banging down my inbox with private school opportunities, but I said “no”. Only time will tell if I made the right decision, but so far I feel better about it.

and last but not least…

It’s worth it!: No matter how frustrating the preparation work is, or how many potholes or pitfalls I’ve met along the way, I wouldn’t give up the last year of experiences for anything and I’m really excited for the next year, too.

Bureaucrazy: The Korean Edition (part 1)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve had an update here. I really wanted to do fun and exciting adventure stuff in Seattle while I was “home”, but it turns out that finding an overseas job and filing paperwork is a huge time sink. I have been spending some fun times with my friends here, and I have some trips planned to visit family soon, but really it’s been mostly working and spending all my free time on the paperwork/job hunt or on really mundane stuff like groceries and laundry. Thankfully, I looked back on my posts from last year about paperwork and realized that I totally learned some valuable lessons that have helped me navigate the waters this time around.

I have come to terms with the fact that I’m going to be a wizard level expert at international red tape by the time I am done with this phase of my life. As rewarding as travelling around the world can be, it seems that it’s always going to be expensive. It just so happens in my case, the expense is time, sanity and maybe gray hair and only a little bit of money. Eh, I guess until I’m independently wealthy, I have to pay the red tape price for pursuing my dreams. So, welcome to Bureaucrazy, the ongoing cycle of dull boring (frantic, insane) paperwork that I must complete in pursuit of my life of wonderment and adventure.

Every international traveler knows the joy of passports and visas, and most ESL teachers have a similar list of things that are required for basically every overseas ESL Job ever:

  • CV/Resume
  • Cover Letter
  • Copies of Diplomas/Transcripts
  • TESOL Certificate
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Recent Photo
  • Copy of Passport page

These things aren’t hard, and I have so many versions of cover letters (it’s really best to be as personalized as possible when writing these) and updates of CVs that I can do them in my sleep. I generally try to take a new photo about once every year or two, but otherwise, once you have these things, you think you’re set. I have copies in my cloud and on a USB I carry with me everywhere so I can do job hunting any time I have a few minutes at a computer.

There were some additional things I thought I needed specifically for South Korea:

  • FBI Criminal Background Check (Apostilled)
  • Apostilled copies of Diplomas
  • Official Transcripts

After the Saudi debacle, I really didn’t think this was going to be any harder or more frustrating a process. I did some cursory research on the CBC and Apostille process and realized that it took forever, but shouldn’t actually be hard (ha-ha). So I determined to start the paperwork process in September (even though the hiring season is Oct-Dec and the school year starts in March). I am so glad I did.


It’s not really surprising that we need a criminal records check to get a job. I had to get one from City of Seattle for my Saudi gig, after all. But Korea is not satisfied with a mere city, county or state level criminal records check, oh no. They need the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be in on this. MIB, Moulder and Scully, Quantaco. So, I head over to the FBI website to find out what the process for criminal background check actually is.

  1. Fingerprints on specific government form
  2. FBI CBC application form
  3. money
  4. time
  5. oh and don’t forget to explicitly specify that you’re going to get this apostilled so that they put a seal and signature on it.

So, starting with number 1, I look up places to get fingerprints done and decide to head to our city PD downtown office. I had a very nice and smooth experience. I was the only person around that day and the lady was very nice to me (her daughter also travels overseas a lot). So I left feeling pretty positive about the whole start to this paperwork process. I completed and printed the application form and wrote a sticky note with the reminder to stamp and seal the final document for apostille use, then stuck the whole thing in a big envelope and dropped it in the mail. (I may mention, as foreshadowing, that this is the only time in this process I have not used tracked mail. Never underestimate the importance of tracking numbers.)

Then I decided that I would wait the 6-8 weeks to get my CBC back and send all my documents that needed apostille off to the State Department at once. Convenient, right? Wrong!

A month later, I still hadn’t seen the FBI charge appear on my credit card and was starting to get worried. So I called the info line and was told that they don’t even *open* the applications until they’ve had them for 8-9 weeks. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, the FBI’s already insanely backed up process that is supposed to take 6-8 weeks TOTAL, is now so clogged that it takes them longer than that just to open the envelope. Then another 4-5 weeks to process the request. At this point I don’t even have a means of verifying that they have received my request, because my dumb butt thought that seeing the credit card charge would be enough of a clue and didn’t bother tracking the envelope. (Did I mention the importance of tracking numbers?)

Meanwhile, even though main hiring season is Oct-Dec, I popped online to Dave’s ESL where all the ESL jobs live and noticed that there were some jobs posting early for the March start. I’m not a big procrastinator, so I started applying, of course, and learned that *some* jobs wanted applicants to already have their apostilled documents in hand (or scanned versions of them to include in the application). Which was even more confusing, since the documents are only good for 3-6 months after they are obtained (I still can’t get a straight answer on this timeline). So, I’m starting to freak out a little because on this new extended timeline, I’m not going to have my apostilled background check in time for application season. So, I start researching approved FBI Channellers.

These are a handful of companies that have some strange in-road to the FBI process and can get your CBC in 5-7 DAYS, with all the bells and whistles for apostille. After exchanging a few emails with the company to make sure they really mean it, and I’m not just reading wishful thinking into their website, I’ve been assured that their company is not subject to whatever new policies are causing the 13 week wait time for everyone else, and that all their CBCs are apostille ready, I decide to shell out the 85$ for expedited service nearly 6 weeks after my original submission to the FBI (and still 3-4 weeks before they’ll open it). But this meant another round of fingerprinting and application forms, too.

I moved habitation in the meantime, so I was hoping to go to a police department closer to the house I was staying in, and then to the local post office to send off this new round of application materials, but as it turns out, you can’t get your fingerprints taken at most police stations without an appointment and proof that you live in their jurisdiction. Since I’m basically couch surfing while I’m back in the States, I don’t have proof of living where I’m staying like a driver’s license, bank statement or utility bill, so there was simply no way for me to get my own fingerprints taken except to go to the large municipal police department in downtown Seattle. Round 2 fingerprinting took a little longer because there were more people in line, but still a pretty positive experience (way to go Seattle PD, well done). I take my new fingerprint cards and my application to the Channeller, and go to the post office to mail them registered style so I never have to fear a lack of package arrival again.

About 8 days later, I got a UPS letter with my CBC in it and a letter helpfully telling me I could pay their partner service another huge fee for expedited apostille service. The State Department really seemed to think it only takes a week or two to apostille a document, so I took my chances and spent the roughly 20$ to send the paperwork to the State Department myself instead of the nearly 200$ that the “expidited” service wanted to charge. In the meantime, my card still hasn’t been billed by the FBI and I may or may not receive another CBC sometime … ever.

It’s been pointed out to me by one of my Seattle hippie socialist friends that this processes is incredibly corrupt, since it basically entails a private company using its connections with a federal agency to bypass the public applicants and get served first, then charge an arm and a leg to the public for piggybacking on this privilege. Twice. Yay capitalism.

The Apostille

Moving on to the apostille process (and no, I still don’t know how we’re supposed to say this word. I got a French, Spanish and American version and every office seems to say it differently). When it looked like my CBC was going to be super delayed, I decided to get a jump on the diploma apostilles so that I could show the schools I was applying to that I was doing my best to meet the requirements. Further research led me to discover that the United States Department of State doesn’t apostille diplomas. In fact, local documents have to be apostilled locally. So, actually, only my FBI CBC is going to the US Department of State, but my diplomas need to go to the state level State Department offices. Of course, I make this more complicated by having gotten my BA and MA in two different states. You thought we were one country over here? Oh no. I’ve seen easier transitions between countries in the EuroZone than between certain states in America.

Washington (state not D.C.)

A note to non-US residents: It’s still fascinating to me how many people outside the US don’t realize that Washington state and Washington D.C. are not the same place, and are in fact on opposite sides of the country. D.C. sits on the Potomac which feeds into the Atlantic, it’s close to New York. Washington State is all the way in the far northwest, near Canada and the Pacific.

So, starting local and working outward, I hopped on the Washington Secretary of State website to see what the apostille process was. Although the website is not terribly easy to navigate, I found the apostille process itself to be fairly simple: a notarized copy of the diploma, a printed out application form, and a check. No problemo. Fill in and print out the form, write the check and take my original diploma off to get a new notarized copy made.

Since I had this done last year for the Saudi experience, I decided to go to the same notary as before. But when I asked for a notarized copy I was informed rather rudely that it was illegal to make notarized copies of diplomas, and that they would not do so. I expressed surprise and dismay since they had notarized a copy for me last year. He told me someone must have made a mistake. I pulled out the copy (which I wasn’t using for the apostille because it had Saudi stamps all over it in addition to the notary stamp) and asked him if that was his seal/signature. It was, and at this point he became pretty hostile. I tried to ask what the procedure was, how I could get it done. I tried to show him where on the Secretary of State’s website it said that originals were not accepted for apostille, only notarized copies, but he was downright mean at this point. So we had to leave.

I say we. Fortunately, I was running errands with a friend that day to help keep me sane in traffic. She’s an avid reader of my blog/follower of my travels and occasionally gets to see the barest glimpse of the bureaucracy wars (like that time she got up at 4am to help me call airlines and bring this bunny home from China). Also like this time where we were basically stuck between two people in positions of relative authority telling us totally contradictory information. So, sitting in the car and fuming slightly, I decided that the best option was to call the Secretary of State’s office and find out what the heck was going on.

After three tries, I finally got to the lovely and helpful lady who deals with all the apostille stuff. Really, really good idea. She informed me that apparently in the state of Washington, notaries public aren’t trained in how to do their jobs. These are people who collect fees from the public in order to act as legal witnesses to all kinds of things, and they don’t get trained before they are certified. Go Washington, well done. She told me the name of the Washington State law that I needed to direct the next notary to, where they could find the short forms in this law, and which of the short forms needed to be attached to the copy of my diploma in order for it to be a legitimate notarized copy. She also confessed that whenever improperly notarized copies come to her, she fines the notary, which probably explains why Mr. Grumpy refused to do his job, since he also refused to learn how to do it and so got fined for doing it wrong.

Next, Google gives us a list of nearby notaries. We call one and ask specifically if she knows how to do “true and correct” copies and she says, yes. We go, we stand in line, we get to the front and she has no idea what short forms we are talking about. Thankfully, before we can be turned away, my friend whips out her phone where she’d taken all the notes from our helpful friend in the apostille office and shows this notary where to go. Despite being totally out of her comfort zone, this lady was way more gracious than Mr. Grumpy. She got on her computer, found the page in question, was able to print out the short forms and cut out the one we needed for the copy. And she did it all with good grace. See what happens when we’re nice to each other? I get properly notarized copies and she avoids getting fined by the Secretary of State’s office.


My Bachelor’s Degree apostille is a little more complicated. I went to the University of Memphis for my BA, and so I have to get the apostille from the Tennessee Secretary of State. So, on to their website for the rules. Not only do the copies have to be notarized by a Tennessee licensed notary, it then has to be stamped by the county clerk’s office of whichever county clerk licensed the notary then it can be sent to the Secretary of State for the apostille.

My American readers will have a good understanding of how far away from Seattle Memphis actually is. When I fly over to visit my mother there, it’s a good solid day of flying, like 7-9 hours. For the non-Americans, think about how far from your home country you can get in 7-9 hours of flying and know that isn’t even all the way across America, only about 2/3. So there is no way for me to do this in person. I couldn’t imagine that there was not a way for people living outside the state to achieve this, so I waited until the next business day and called the office to ask what methods existed for people who no longer resided in Tennessee. I was told to find someone who was willing to run around and get the stamps/signatures for me. Because Tennessee is trapped in the mid 1970s and knows nothing of the information age.

Fortunately my mother lives and works in Memphis, and she saw my plight on Facebook and offered to get involved (although she may regret that offer now). So, I printed out the forms, cut the check, and wrote a very long email of very specific instructions, then shipped my diploma to my mom. She managed to get notarized copies (she told me they wrote “true and correct copy” on it, and all I could do was hope that Tennessee doesn’t have a short forms law that their notaries don’t know how to use either). I included a list of all the county clerks offices in her county in the email, and advised her to call ahead before going (because websites are so reliable). She did call ahead, and asked all the right questions, and got directed to an office where she waited for an HOUR just to be told that no the only place that they certify notary signatures is the downtown office. When she called to tell me, I just said, “Welcome to my world.”

She finally made it to the downtown office where she was indeed able to secure the certification, and the Tennessee state apostille arrived in good shape a little more than a week later.

United States

As for the federal apostille, that was another adventure. Once the email alert telling me that my CBC was en route showed up, I started the detailed research on the US State Department website. I downloaded the form and started filling it out. Small forms should not be so complicated, but it turns out that most government forms require additional pages of instructions translating the boxes on the form so that you know what to actually fill in. Just as I’m finishing the form and quintuple checking the instructions to make sure that I haven’t missed anything, I see a little line that says that “you must submit a new cover letter for each request. Failure to do so will result in your case being rejected and your documents returned.” WHAT? I check again, maybe this form is a cover letter? No, the paragraph where this line is written mentions the form by alphanumeric designation specifically. I check the website again which has a list of all the things to include with your mailed in request and there is NO mention of a cover letter. Yet clearly, failure to include one has dire consequences. So, I wrote the most basic “to whom” cover letter expressing my desire to have my document apostilled and not rejected and hoped that was good enough.

In addition to the CBC itself and the application form and the money, the US Secretary of State also wants a self-addressed stamped envelope. These aren’t difficult, although they’ve become increasingly rare because most companies want to be able to track their packages and so simply ask clients to include a return shipping fee (or just raise the fee to account for return shipping cost). It’s been a long time since I had to include an SASE. But it’s not just this, the application form wants to know the shipping carrier and tracking number of the SASE that is inside the envelope that the application form is also inside. I think the poor little guy at the post office hates me.

I wrote myself sticky notes of instructions for this process over the weekend, and then headed into the post office on Monday. I began by picking out flat rate trackable envelopes and filling out address stickers. When I got to the front of the queue, I started out by requesting first the money order I needed to include, then explaining that I needed to know the tracking number for the envelope that would go INSIDE the one I was sending. Then I had to fill in the tracking number on the application form before it could go into the big envelope. Then I had to pay for everything before I could get the money order, so he took the final destination address slip and started logging it into the computer to generate a tracking number and of course a price tag.

He told me that I had written the address incorrectly. I told him I’d copied it exactly off of the US State Department website. He went to a supervisor who told him to get me to re-write the address. I showed him the website.  I still had to rewrite the address. It needs to be pointed out that it wasn’t incorrect information that caused this, but merely which line of the address the information went on. I had written 4 lines of text (as it was on the website) and the USPS decided they needed 5 lines of text. Riiiiight. Let’s hear it once more for the federal government! Finally, I had the package paid for and managed to assemble all the necessary bits (CBC, application form with SASE tracking number, SASE, and the mysterious cover letter) into the envelope and of to the east coast.


This should not be hard. Universities send these out all the time. I needed them to get into grad school. I needed them to get hired in Saudi. But yet for some reason (possibly because the Korean government actually cares about the substance and not merely the form?) this year’s quest for transcripts was unusually dismal. Each school of course has it’s own procedures, and since I’m in town with the UW, I decided I could always run down to the registrar’s office for a quick copy if things got down to the wire, so I would tackle the UM first.

I went on to the website to discover that only e-transcripts can be requested via the online request form, and e-transcripts can’t be official. OK. So I print out and mail off the form requesting my official transcripts, 3 copies just in case (I’m told I need 2, but since it’s all the way across the country I order a spare). When they arrive, they are in an improperly sealed envelope with “return service requested” on the outside instead of “official transcript enclosed” which is what it should say. After a few emails back and forth with the office of transcripts, I discover that I should have added the fact that I needed the transcripts to be signed and sealed (instead of merely requesting “official” transcripts) even though there is no place for this on the form and no indication in the instructions on the website. At least they don’t charge for copies? And eventually she agreed to send me what I needed without me having to submit another request form. Small favors.

The UW accepts online requests, but also charges 9$ per copy so I just ordered 2. They both arrived in the same envelope… For those of you who have never had to deal with multiples of official transcripts, they are invalid after the envelope is opened. So if you have to send an official transcript to multiple places (which you do for going to teach in South Korea) you need them in separate sealed envelopes. I have no idea why the universities (which require official transcripts for admission, transfer and job applications themselves) don’t get it when they issue transcripts. So I also ended up having to email the transcript office here and explain the situation, asking with fervent hope if they would please send me a second official transcript since I had paid the 9$ for it as well as the online “convenience fee” (you know for the privilege of paying for something on the internet). Fortunately, she was very accommodating and agreed to send out a second copy as well.

Letters of Employment Verification

Some of you will have noticed that this isn’t in the list. This is because it wasn’t something I thought I would need, but rather something I discovered in the process of applying for jobs. Basically every single school I applied for wanted these letters from previous employers simply stating that I had in fact worked there and from what day/month/year to what day/month/year. I have not ever encountered such a thing before. I have always been in a situation where someone either took my word for what was on my resume or simply called the company to verify my employment with HR. As such, it had simply not occurred to me to get these letters on my way out of previous jobs. I had tried to get one leaving Saudi, because my boss suggested it, but the company (not surprisingly if you’ve read anything else about my exit process) did not deliver.

So, this meant I had to go back and ask. Since the universities seemed focused on other university jobs, at least that meant I didn’t need to go get letters for my summer teaching gigs. First order of business was to dig up the email for the English department at a school I taught at back in 2007 over in China. I can’t say I expected anything to come of it, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well it went. They responded quite quickly and mailed me a letter exactly in the format I had asked. Wow, awesome.

Then I reached out to the school I had just left in Saudi. It took them two weeks to get back to me since everyone was on vacation when I emailed. My request bounced from person to person in the company, until getting to someone who was willing to talk and then needed all my information again because they couldn’t be bothered to read the original email I sent(?). I had long since determined that my decision to leave this company was correct and justified, but this experience only further solidified it. After several more weeks of confusion, I got a PDF file of a letter that did not include the information I’d asked for, but did include an advertisement for the program that went on for 2 paragraphs.

I wrote back, waited more, got tossed to more different people and eventually told that it was not their policy to use specific dates (because most employers don’t need it), nor to mail copies once a teacher had left. I explain that South Korean universities ALL want exact dates, and also that I did ask for a copy before I left but hadn’t been given one. Then I was told they would make an exception and rewrite the letter, but only mail it to me if I would pay the shipping costs. (BTW, they have a branch office in America, so I have no idea still why the US office couldn’t have slapped a letter in an envelope and sent it for $0.49, but hey! mail it from Saudi, it’s better I’m sure).

I say fine, ok, but can you please also mention that we were teaching in the university, to which they explain no, despite our physical location in a university teaching university students in a program that granted a certificate to the students who had just graduated from the university,  that because I was in the ONLY branch of their program that is like that, because they are contracted with the Department of Labor and not the Department of Education they would not write such a thing in the letter. Fine, ok. Then I don’t hear from them for another two weeks because the country director is out of town. Eventually, after many more emails pleading for my letter with exact dates, they sent me a new pdf. I’m never getting a paper copy. I’m not saying I won’t ever work in Saudi again, but I have some strong feelings about who it won’t be for if I do.

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of Bureaucrazy: The Korean Edition where we’ll learn about EPIK teaching options and follow up on more surprise paperwork!

Bureaucracy Wars IV: A Glimmer of Hope

I recently read another travel bloggess who pointed out that living in a foreign country is a constant, daily struggle to do ordinary things. She wasn’t complaining. Like me, she seems to love her life abroad, but when she described her own battles with visas, banks and other things we barely consider in our home countries she painted a picture of riding the metro back from yet one more frustration in tears, consoling herself with a kinder Bueno bar, and I laughed. Not at her pain, but at my own. It was briefly joyous to see that I was not alone and to remember that all of us who choose this life are facing the same struggles no matter what country we land in.

That being said, my recent trials and tribulations with the phone and bank systems here in Saudi have finally taken a positive turn.

First the phone.

When last we left our intrepid heroine in Episode III, she thought that the phone issue was resolved in her favor, having achieved the unlimited data plan on the prepaid SIM. Oh, but wait. Remember that post paid bill? The one I couldn’t pay because I hadn’t been able to open a bank account because my name was spelled wrong on my Iqama? It came back. Finally able to pay it, I went online only to discover that I had been billed for another month even though the phone company had turned off the line, and I’d gone into the store to switch to the prepaid.

The bill, which should have been 200SAR for the one month I used it, and had been inflated to 275 for reasons I never understood, had been inflated a further 200 to 475 while I was waiting for my bank account to open so I could pay it. Not from late fees, like we expect in the US, but from a whole other month of active billing on a SIM card that had been deactivated and was in a box!

I went online to the chat help place. The first time, they said they had to send the issue to “Technical Support”. I feel like this is a language barrier issue, because I’m like no, it’s not tech support, it’s billing, but the guy refuses to help me further and says I have to try again after 24 hours so Technical Support for Billing can look at the issue.

24 hrs later I try again, get another dude, who after some time finds that the resolution is that my account has been credited 175SAR.. not the full 200, but better than nothing. The big problem is that his English is so bad, I don’t understand this the first 4 times, because he just keeps copy pasting the same grammatically confusing answer. I don’t know if these guys are using Google Translate or some automated answer system, but I was on the English support site, so it’s not like I was expecting regular people to speak English, I was expecting the people hired for the job of helping English speakers to do so. Silly me.

He also kept calling me “sir” over and over, even though I kept saying I was not a “sir”. Once I finally figured out the credit issue, I then said, ok, lets cancel the line so I never get billed again. But he can’t do that, I have to go into the store… again. You know, the people who wouldn’t let me pay the bill with cash and didn’t bother to tell me that them turning off the service to the line was not the same as the line being cancelled.

While going around about this, trying to find some other way, he called me “sir” again and I once again asked him to stop doing that. Him: “Do you mean you’re a woman?”

Me: “I am.”

Him: “What?”

Me: “You call women ‘miss’ or ‘ma’am’, not ‘sir’.”

At which point he apologized, told me he could not help me and disconnected.

Maybe he was just tired of trying to explain the company rules and policies to me. After all, I’m used to being able to pay a bill or cancel a service on the phone or the internet, and it seems to me that having that technology, Saudi would want to use it to keep more women at home? But it sure seemed like he flipped out and ran when he realized he’d been talking to a woman. *shrug.

So the next workday, a Sunday, I get online and pay the 275SAR that was my first bill, leaving the rest unpaid (the supposed credit is not reflected in my account). I head back to the store after Asr (afternoon prayer) and have another protracted, whining conversation with the poor guy designated to help the women folk. We can’t go in to the main store unaccompanied. I guess the only reason I was able to go in when I went to set up my phone the first day was because a male co-worker was with me (to get a router for himself) and they assumed we were married. It’s the same guy who helped me the last time with the bill I wasn’t allowed to pay and getting the prepaid card up and running.

I explain the situation to date. He says I have to pay 74SAR to cancel it. Why? because 475 – 275 that I paid, -175 credit which should equal 25, but I’ve been billed 49 more SAR for the part of the month since the last billing cycle! I think this might be worse than late fees or interest. If you can’t pay for some reason, you both get your phone cut off and continue being billed at the full rate until you can? Technically avoiding the sin of usury while still sticking it to the people, what an astonishing grasp of capitalism!

I explain the absurdity of the fact that the company turned off the phone line, it was not my choice to stop using it, so why am I being billed for a phone line they turned off? The clerk says he can escalate it to STC (isn’t that where I am?) and I can come back another day. Another day!?! I feel like I’ve been fighting this battle for months (which I probably have) and cannot face the idea that I must arrange with the driver yet another day, to get home from work and wait the hour until prayer is ended to get back into my abaya and hijab and ride through traffic and wait in this tiny boring room to be told once more that it can’t be done. Suddenly 74SAR seems like a small price to pay to just be finished.

Fine! Fine. Finefinefine. I’ll pay.

So he goes away again and comes back to tell me that I’ll get a text message with the final amount and once I pay it they can cancel the phone… at this point my eyes are twitching involuntarily. He’s telling me that he’s still not cancelling the phone! I’m not receiving a text. The phone number that I’m cancelling is not the SIM in my phone. No problem, he says, the battle cry of the Saudi, I can put it in the phone when I get home and I’ll see the text.

There’s a moment I experience where I’m so incredibly frustrated, angry, whatever that I cross over some kind of event horizon, and enter the eye of the storm. I become unreasonably calm. This happened.

I patiently explained that I would never recieve this text, because the SIM was suspended by the company and would not receive texts. I know this because it is how I found out the number was suspended in the first place. No problem! he says, it can still get texts from STC. No. The calm is a physical force at this point. It can’t. Punctuation stabbing at the pauses between words, silently containing my outrage. I know it can’t because when I first noticed the line stopped working, I tried to log in to the website to figure out what was going on. They text you a PIN to log in, and I never got those texts, so couldn’t log in to the website. Those texts were from STC. I distinctly remember thinking how ridiculous it was that the company blocked my ability to receive it’s own messages including those about billing.

I remembered that the last time I was in the store to pay the bill, he had asked me for an ATM card (which I did not have yet, and for some reason a credit card wouldn’t do). But since then, I had opened my bank account and had my shiney new ATM card. Why can’t I just pay it now?

What? I can? Oh yay!

So he has me step outside so I can enter the main store (where I was not allowed to be 30 seconds ago) so I can swipe my ATM card and enter my PIN to authorize payment. This is another mind boggling aspect of the culture here. If it’s so important to separate women (for whatever justification) then why don’t you have a payment option for the separate women’s enclosure? And if we’re going to come in the main branch to pay, why keep us out at all?

Finally, I have paid the bill and am given the cancellation paperwork to sign. The line is paid in full and cancelled. I recieve texts on the prepaid line, now the only one linked to my Iqama, to tell me as much and breath a deep sigh of relief. A huge amount of frustration and about 525SAR later, I’ve learned that post-paid phones in Saudi are a total rip-off. But now I’m free.

Next, the bank.

As you may have surmised from the above, our intrepid heroine has managed to acquire a bank account since her last adventure. The new Iqama arrived and I learned that the way that the Saudis make the hard “ch” sound with no equivalent sound in their alphabet is to put the letter “teh” in front of the letter “shin” looking rather like “tsh” and I can sort of see how that sounds like “ch” so there you go.

I take my shiny new Iqama and a huge wad of cash (my savings since I started getting paid in September) down to the bank during school hours (the company has to give us time from work to do any company related banking). We got there early enough that I got a number only 2 up from the “being served” and I sat down to wait. My number called, I was given many forms to fill out, and sat down with my lovely unlimited internet phone to gather all the info I needed. I no longer have an active phone in the US (I can’t tell you how much I look forward to the globalization of mobile phones). I only have an address because my roommate decided to let me keep my name on the lease and stuff in the closet while I was gone. But you need both to open a bank account in Saudi, in addition to an address and phone number in Saudi. Who maintains two addresses and phone numbers in two different countries? The clerk suggested maybe I put my father’s phone number down, and without trying to explain that complexity, I suggested my mother’s instead, which was accepted. So, hey, mom, by the way, my Saudi bank has your cell phone on file as my US phone number 😀

Lots more paperwork later, I get my ATM card and a print out with all the necessary bank numbers and info like account and IBAN numbers. I am then directed upstairs to the tellers to deposit my cash. Victory! I have an account, there is money in it, I can pay my phone bill, buy my own airline tickets with SADAD and start sending money home!

I can’t link my Saudi account to my US account from the US end. I can open a paypal account in Saudi, but can’t link it to a bank account like you can in the US. So my only send money home option is to link the US to the Saudi account on the Saudi end. Which I am assured I can do online. So I hop on the website to discover that the security regulations are a little over the top. Not just the first, but every time you log in, they send you a new code via text. Then while adding the account (called a “beneficiary” on the website) I have to receive several more texted codes to enter and verify myself. In the end, I have to forward a text to another number. I get a text back telling me to call “Sambaphone” to activate the beneficiary.

So, I hunt around and find this entity, call it, enter my exceedingly long ATM number (even though I am calling from the phone linked to my account) and am then told that I cannot use Sambaphone because I don’t have a secret Sambaphone code and that I must go to an ATM or branch to get a secret Sambaphone code. Now, why in the world the bank didn’t have me create this code when I opened the account and chose my ATM pin I will never know. I’m sure if I were Saudi, I’d know I needed to ask, but of course I didn’t know, so now I have to go back to the bank.

Setting up the phone code was pretty easy. And I decided since I was in the bank, it would be easier to just have them add my US account while I was there. Except the clerk had no idea how. When the online attempt failed, I had recieved a text message telling me to remember to include the ABA (routing number, which is what US banks still use instead of an IBAN, because we can’t join the rest of the world in using metric, Celcius or international banking codes). I have my ABA, but there is no place on the form to enter it.

10940425_10152548489616646_1142087100051168821_nI explain all this to the clerk, that I know what the ABA is and have it, but I just don’t know where to put it. Neither does he. So who can we ask? Surely someone in this building somewhere knows how to do this? But no, he’s going to do it himself. He takes me over to a terminal and has me log in to the website and go through the process of adding the beneficiary again, because he is sure the reason it didn’t work was because I didn’t have my Sambaphone code so I couldn’t complete the final verification step (despite the fact that I showed him the text about the ABA). We then use the Sambaphone to submit the final authorization and he tells me it may take a few days to be fully set up but everything is fine now. I mention again that we did not enter the ABA, so I doubt this, but he is sure and we are done.

Even before I get home that day, I get a text from the bank identical to the first, letting me know it failed and not to forget the ABA.

At least now I have my secret Sambaphone code, so I can call the help line, which I do when I get home. The phone tree takes so long, that right before I get to a real person, I run out of minutes and the call is cut off (the phone knows it’s been defeated so it’s getting in some last jabs on the way down). So I get dressed once more to head over to the convenience store to buy more minutes where my day is very briefly enlightened by the little old Yemeni man who sometimes works the counter. He has the talent that many grandfatherly types have of complimenting you like a father rather than a lecher, so he makes me feel good. Up until that day, I’d never used any Arabic with him, but that day I asked for the phone minutes using Arabic numbers and he was so amazingly happy to hear me do so, I thought he would turn inside out.

Bolstered by positive human interaction, armed with plenty of phone minutes, I return home and call the Sambaphone. Finally get a real person and explain the issue once more. The answer? Use the second address line. Put the whole bank address in the first line, and in the second line type “ABA” then a space then the number. Why? Why make an online form that requires specialized non-intuitive knowledge of what to put where? Why can’t you just write a few lines of code and add an ABA box????

Anyway, this man seemed to know exactly what I was talking about and explained the solution very clearly, so I had a lot of hope as I logged back on and tried the solution. Of course, these form lines have limited characters, so the whole address doesn’t actually fit in the first address line so I remove spaces and abbreviate everything I can and hope it works.

After waiting a couple days with no failing text messages, I log back on the website to see that the beneficiary is now listed as “active”! Still cautious, I send myself a mere 25$ to test the transfer. The fee is 50SAR regardless of the amount transferred, but I feel like it’s worth it to make sure it works before sending thousands, because I can’t even imagine the nightmare if the connection wasn’t working and all that money left my Saudi account and never arrived in the US one. Trust but verify.

After a couple more days, I check my US account and LO! the money is THERE! Happy victory dances ensue, celebrations and affirmations! Endorphins run wild! After 5 months in Saudi, my dwindling US savings running dry paying student loan and insurance bills while no new money comes in, I can finally use the money I’m earning to accomplish the financial goals I set out to do when I took this job! Staring at that tiny transfer, I felt like I’d just made the Death Star run with the guidance computer turned off, and I could hear the pumping brass of the “Throne Room” music ringing in my ears as Princess Leia gave me a medal for defeating the Empire.

I also managed to file my US taxes entirely online this weekend, and should be receiving that refund direct deposit soon. I don’t think I’ve been so excited to be able to pay bills since I cleared out the last credit card.

I realize too that if my stories keep following Lucas, that the next episode is not going to be good for me. Whatever the bureaucratic equivalent of loosing a hand or being frozen in carbonite is, I don’t want to find out.  Inshallah, I never will.

Bureaucracy Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SIM

As some of you may know from reading my previous posts about bureaucracy: The Visa Saga or Clash of the Bureaucracies, I tend to wait until the situation has become ludicrous bordering on the the Kafkaesque, a feat of clerical confounding that would make Orwell or Gilliam reach for the typewriter with pure inspiration before I type it into a blog story. Well, it’s finally happened again. I cannot fit all of the absurdity and frustration of this event into a mere facebook post any longer.

Let me begin with the Iqama.

This is the Saudi equivalent of a green card. It is a national identification card that you will use for everything while living here. It will take you at least three months to get this once you move here. For me, the Iqama journey started the day after I landed, back in early September. My first full day in Saudi I was driven to a medical clinic where they took some samples, asked for my passport and the 6 passport photos I’d been told to bring, and (supposedly) began the Iqama application process.

They returned my passport and sent me on my way. I thought this was odd, because everyone told me that the government would need to keep my passport while the Iqama was processed, but that this didn’t matter too much since I couldn’t leave the country until then anyway.

So then at the end of September, weeks later, I come to find out that they should not have returned the passport, and have not started processing the Iqama yet. But, now it’s Eid (a two week holiday when all the government offices will be closed) so they won’t get to it until the second week of October.

Ok. mafi mushkela. Deep breath. Keep waiting, Inshallah they will hurry and you will have it in only six weeks.

Why is this a problem? Well, because you can’t do anything without the Iqama. You can’t get a SIM card, cell phone or bank account. So it’s not just about leaving the country, but about getting off this cheap pre-paid dumb phone my boss has purchased on her Iqama for me to use in emergencies, and about being able to pay my US bills with my Saudi salary, cause it’s doing me no good accumulating in my lingerie drawer.

So, after much fuss and pestering, I finally get my Iqama on November 10th, a little over 2 months after I arrived, so really, despite the bad start, not too bad. Time to get a real phone! (check out the phone buying adventure/disaster in Smart Phone, Dumb Dating) In addition to the skeezy guy hitting on me as I got my SIM card set up, there was some serious confusion about the payment options. I was initially issued a pre-paid card, then issued a second post-paid card.

Now, in the US pre-paid is usually more expensive per minute and more limiting in data. Contracts where you agree to pay a certain amount per month tend to be a better deal. So, I thought that was likely to be the same. Silly me. More on that later, however, because now we get to the real reason I need a SIM card of my very own, the bank account.

You need a SIM to open a bank account, and you need and Iqama to get a SIM. So, Iqama: check, SIM: check… time to go to the bank, right?

Oh, no.

You also need a bank letter. This is a letter from your employer (who sponsored your Iqama) saying that you are employed and earning a salary. I’m not really sure why this isn’t obvious by the fact that I have an employer sponsored Iqama, but I need another piece of paper, so I ask my boss about this paper. Riyadh is working on it.

Why? I ask, did they not just send it with the Iqama? It’s not like getting a bank account is optional for me. The company requires me to get one so they can direct deposit my paycheck. Up to this point, they have been depositing it in my boss’s account and having her give it to me in cash… which we both dislike. So the company knows I need a bank letter whether I want the account for any personal reasons or not. So, why wait until I’ve received the Iqama (FedEx, btw) to start processing this letter (which also will be sent FedEx)????? Why not just start processing it as soon as possible and send them together?

My boss’s answer: because that would make sense. You see why I like her.

Sixteen days later, the bank letter arrives. It is now Wednesday November 26th. But I can’t go to the bank immediately. Bank hours are the same as school hours, so I have to leave school to go to the bank. Fortunately it is in my contract that the school must give me paid leave time to do this in. However, when any teacher is absent, their class is split among the remaining 2 teachers, so if possible, some forewarning and planning is appreciated by all. Thursday is quiz day. Friday and Saturday the banks will be closed. Sunday is the first day of the week and not a great day for me to miss class. So Monday or Tuesday it will be.

I leave as early as is reasonable, about halfway through my second class. Assuring the students I will be back for class three after lunch (and this is why we say Inshallah instead of committing to anything). We drive …

My driver has been having some attitude and entitlement issues of late. He stops at a couple of gas stations on the way. This is not ok. He’s been told to fill up the tank either before he picks us up or after he drops us off. And I’m trying to get to the bank and back to school in time to scarf some food before class three! So I text the SD, who has the AA call and tell him not to waste time (in Arabic).. while I’m still in the car. So natch, the driver gets mad at me for ratting him out. How hard is it to just do your job?

I go into the bank and take a number and sit down to wait my turn. It is a very long queue. I continue texting with the SD to remonstrate him for getting the driver mad at me. Whereupon, he apparently calls the driver and bawls him out (which I hear about much later). Next thing I know the driver has come into the bank and started demanding someone who speaks English to come and help me (even though it is not my turn).

This works. Not surprising really since so much in Saudi is about who you can get to listen. They take my Iqama to begin the process.

No, we cannot open account for you.

Turns out my name is spelled wrong in Arabic on the Iqama. I feel like my face is going to split and peel off in frustration at this point. I call my AA to help with some translation, because the driver has something to say but has very limited English.

He says we can go to (Arabic word I can’t recall) office and get them to change the Iqama there. No problem. Women can’t go into the building, but it’s ok, he’ll handle it, I can wait in the car. We arrive at the building just as Duhr prayer begins, so we have to sit it out. After about 30 minutes (did I mention this is the one day I decided to leave my water bottle in my office?), he can enter the building.

He comes back and asks me to go with him. So I go in, the only woman, feeling very conspicuous. We shuffle from one unmarked office to another. There are no numbers or names or departmental descriptions on these doors, just halls and halls of doors. (what did I say about the absurdity?). If nothing else, his impatience pays off here because he just keeps bothering people until we get to the right office.

He comes back out of the office unsuccessful and gestures me to follow him back to the car and to call my AA for translation. It turns out that they won’t allow him to make any changes on my behalf unless he has a stamped letter from my employer processed through Riyadh. And they won’t let me make any changes on my behalf unless I have a penis.

So, the Iqama must go back to Riyadh to be fixed. Oh, it gets better. I’ve already made plans to go to Dubai for my birthday in December, and you need to use your bank account to pay for your exit visa. But I can’t get a bank account. So I can’t pay for my exit visa. Because my name is spelled wrong on my Iqama.

Let me talk about the phonemes of Arabic. My last name starts with a hard CH sound. Arabic does not have this phoneme. The sound does not exist in the language. Words like “chocolate” and “sandwich” are pronounced with a soft “shh” sound. So when you want some Pringles, it sounds like you’re asking for a woolly grazer that goes “baaa”. They CAN’T spell my name “right” in Arabic. So this is semantic. They want a different incorrect spelling of my name.

We can do this! We find out how to enable my boss to use her bank account to pay for my visa and I give her the cash. So at least the trip isn’t ruined. And I turn over my Iqama expecting the new one to be back by the time I am. Not so much. A few days ago, the company informs us that they cannot fix the Iqama without the Passport, which my boss tells them they are not getting until I get back from Dubai. I did mention I like her, right?

Then, this Sunday (remember that’s the first day of the workweek), while I am sitting locked out of my office (cause my boss has my key) I discover that my mobile data is not working on my phone. Neither is my text, or calling. Looking at the date, I realize it has now been one month exactly since I signed up for my new phone, and because I have no bank account, I have not been able to pay the bill, so the service has (probably) been cut off.

When I get home, I try to log on to the website, thinking I will just pay the bill online and all will be well. However, the website tells me that “in order to protect me” I will be sent a text message with a secret code to log in on a new machine…. But, they’ve turned the phone off, and I can’t receive text messages.

So I download the app, thinking that if I’m logging in FROM the phone, this should prove I have the phone in my hand as effectively as a text message PIN. Right? Right? Nope. The app in the phone wants to send me a text too… I can’t even.

Ok! Well, I’ve logged in from my office computer before so it should be in the system, I’ll just deal with it in the morning before class. Nope. Still wants to send me a text. So, I meander over to my boss’s office over lunch to commiserate, and let her know that I’m not able to get calls/texts cause that’s actually work related news, and that I’m going to try to go into the shop the next day to pay the bill in person.

This moment is one of the things about Saudi I may never get used to. Advice here is infinite and contradictory. All the people who give you advice are well meaning. And I’m sure that each one of them is truthfully telling you what worked best for them. The problem is, that nothing seems to work the same way twice. It’s like there is an irrational number of possible methods to accomplish anything here. Infinite and non-repeating. So, when I mention the post-pay to my boss, she asks, why are you doing it that way?

Remember back at the beginning of this story I said it works different here? Turns out pre-paid is the better deal 9 times of 10. Especially for data plans. My post paid plan was 200 SAR/month for 2GB of data and unlimited in-network calls. To be honest, I felt like I was back in 2001, limited data and “in-network” calling? who does that anymore? But, I figured, hey, they didn’t even get camera phones until 2004, obviously they’re behind the times on the phone thing.

Pre-paid plans offer unlimited data plans for a decreasing cost in bulk amount. A year is 1500 SAR (breaks down to 125/mo, way cheaper and unlimited). Then you pay for calls by the minute. But since I hardly ever call anyone (sometimes call the driver to say I’m finished… usually less than a minute), and can communicate with the other teachers on WhatsApp or email, I don’t actually need calling minutes as much as I need data.

Awesome! I’ll just pay off this bill and leave the post paid deactivated, switch back to the pre-paid and get on the unlimited data bandwagon. Only a few problems with this.

One, I don’t have my Iqama. My boss handed it over to be shipped off to Riyadh to be “fixed”.

Two, I can’t find the other SIM card. !!!. I distinctly remember putting the teeny tiny SIM card into a little jewelry box, then putting that box inside the box my phone came in with all the warranty junk and receipts so I would have all the phone stuff in one place that was hard to loose.

Oh safe places. You know the ones I mean. The safe places that are so safe you can’t ever find them again? I turned my entire (small) apartment upsidedown looking for that box. I could see it in my mind. I looked in every drawer and cupboard. I got a flashlight and looked under the couch. I got the wobbly chair and looked on top of the wardrobe. I moved all the couch cushions and found a pencil I thought I’d lost forever.

Finally, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to get a new pre-paid SIM card. But for this I would need my Iqama for sure. But I could call or text the SD who had it. And I couldn’t call or text my driver to cancel the afternoon trip to the store. So, using the internet alone, I What’sApped my boss, to explain the situation and ask her to contact the other SD to arrange to get my Iqama and reschedule the driver.


Then I sat down and spotted the box.

I took out the pre-paid SIM and installed it in the phone. But I decided it was still probably better to go ahead and get the Iqama and go to the store the next day after all the hubbub and confusion.

Finally, today, the day I went to the store to pay the bill and get the unlimited data plan. My driver picks me up at 4, after Asr prayer, and we drive and drive. Apparently its a long way away. I go into the store, same as last time I was there, but am shooed away and told to go in the other door.

Now, I don’t know if it’s because last time I had a man with me or what. But the “other door” led into a tiny white room with a tiny square hole at about face height. There was a big standing advert blocking my view of the main store (although I’m sure it was meant to be blocking the men’s view of me), and a little bell to allow me to summon a clerk.

In broken English, we establish that I am a current customer, that I have two numbers, that I want to pay a bill and recharge a card.

He goes away. He comes back. I can pay the bill with ATM. I explain I do not have such a thing, I do not have a bank account, I only have cash.

He goes away. He comes back. I cannot pay with cash. But I can recharge the pre-paid phone with cash… Soooo, this place is set up to handle cash. I paid for my SIMs originally in cash. The man who was with me at the time was told he could not pay for his router with a card, and had to pay in cash. But I can’t pay my bill with cash?

He goes away. He comes back. Nope, no cash. He tells me I can pay at a bank. I explain again I cannot pay with a card. I switch to broken Arabic: Iqama mushkela, mafi bank. There is a problem with my Iqama, I don’t have a bank. Inshallah, maybe one month I will have a bank and can pay. Finally, he is able to express that I can take cash into a bank and pay the bill through the bank even without an account. I remain skeptical, but this is irrelevant because banks are only open during school hours and I’m not taking more time off school to pay this bill. They can wait.

Ok. Ok. But what about the pre-paid card. I explain the offer on the website of unlimited data, and he says but not all phone numbers, maybe yours.

He goes away. He comes back. Ok. Your phone number ok. So I explain I would like to pay for the data plan and also put some additional money on the Sawa (the money used for pay by the minute calling). I hand him the money.

He goes away. He comes back. No. Finished. He cannot process the request, despite having told me earlier in our conversation that they could take cash for pre-paid. And he can’t really explain why, because the poor man’s English is just not that good.

I have learned some things about Saudi behavior by interacting with my students. These last seven weeks of emotional displays and demands for explanations of every policy or decision coming from women with limited English has given me a very direct and visceral understanding of how they react to unwanted situations, how they are culturally programmed to react. So, I channel my students. Why?! I demand, voice warbling into a higher tone, approaching the whine threshold.

I turn away, I raise my hands, tears well in my eyes as I continue to plead for assistance. He tries to tell me I can go to Extra or Panda (other stores) to buy a Sawa recharge, but I don’t know how to do this either, and I don’t see how it will help with the data plan, since all I know of Sawa is the pre-paid minutes aspect.

Perhaps I should be ashamed of my adopted histrionics. In the US, when confronted with something this frustrating, I would have calmly thanked the clerk, then left the store and screamed in the privacy of my own car while banging on the steering wheel to release tension before finding a new solution. But here, it’s actually rewarding to channel that frustration into an emotional display.

The clerk then offered to come outside to explain to my driver (in Arabic) what needed to be done. The driver then took the cash and I sat down in the waiting room and was brought a cup of sweet Turkish coffee to enjoy while I waited.

About 30 minutes later, the clerk came in with the receipts my driver had brought back, and then programmed all the credit into my phone, and signed me up for the internet plan I wanted. And, apparently for buying so much Sawa at once, I got like an extra 100 SAR credit on my phone too! Looks like I shouldn’t have to worry about paying for anything on the phone for at least the next 6 months.

To be sure the Bureaucracy Wars aren’t over yet, but I’m closing this chapter with a win. SIM card and Data Plan – achievement unlocked.

The Visa Saga: One Letter Away

My adventure in Saudi Arabia has yet to get its boots on the ground, but it is no less challenging just because I’m still in the U.S. As previously written about in Clash of the Bureaucracies, the process of obtaining an employment visa to the Kingdom is long and tortuous. While that post dealt primarily with the paperwork I could obtain for myself here, this post is a summary of the one elusive document that *had* to come from Saudi itself: the Visa Block/Letter of Invitation.

This is representative of the long time during which issues continued to mount with increasing contradiction and consternation, and often long polite roundabout emails and exchanges are paraphrased for brevity and/or levity.

May 11, 2014

Welcome email, including instructions on how to log into the employee portal to fill out information and begin early training.

The link to the employee portal doesn’t work…

May 12

A Google doc with (later to be contradicted) instructions is shared with me, and a timeline which turns out to mean absolutely nothing, encouraging me to hurry hurry hurry and get my documents in line. I am warned that once Ramadan begins, everything is very slow, so we should try to get my application in before this. This doc also includes the name and address of the visa agent in DC, and an introduction letter to include when I send him my paperwork.

May 14-15

Contract received, signed and returned electronically.

May 15

A dizzying conversation about contradictions between emailed instructions, the Google doc instructions, and the Saudi Embassy website, the upshot of which I am told

“The website information takes precedent over all.  The rules and regulations tend to change drastically and unpredictably.  So always defer to the website. Our document is only a guidance – the web information is what has to be followed.”

June 7

Another reminder to log into the employee portal which is still not working…

June 10

While inquiring about the details on the very unclear Saudi Embassy website, I am told that “The original letter from the company in Saudi Arabia sponsoring the applicant, certified both by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” will be a document sent to me from Riyadh. It will be in Arabic and show your name and passport number in English.

June 18-19

I report that all my paperwork is in, and I was only awaiting the Visa Block letter from the school to be able to send off my application.

I am told this is amazing, and I am the first teacher to have all my documents in order “Gold Star!”, and I should be receiving the letter soon.

June 29

Ramadan begins.

Also, I get an email from the office in Riyadh asking to confirm my address because they have a package to send to me. Joy! I think, this must be the letter finally.

July 1

A check in email from the school, to which I respond again, I am only waiting on the letter from Riyadh.

July 7

I finally get my package away from FedEx to discover that it does not in fact contain the letter I was expecting, but rather the original contract and a photocopy document in Arabic. I email off for advice on what to do with these.

July 8

I am told to use the electronic version of the contract that I received in May.

July 9-10

Trying to sort out what this all-Arabic paper is:

Me: “This is definitely NOT an original, doesn’t seem to have my name on it, so I’m really doubtful this is the document I need.”

Them: “This could be the certificate that they are asking about. When you get ready to send your visa documents to DMS include this document.  If they need it they will have it, otherwise they won’t. I’ve also sent a note to our office in Riyadh to determine the contents of the document.  I’ll be in touch.”

Me: “I have all my other documents ready. I’m only waiting for the letter. So if that is it, I can send it now. But if it isn’t, I have to keep waiting.”

Them: “This is what the extra document is for.  You surmised correctly.”

What? Quickly review the conversation… what did I surmise? Is it the letter or not?

Riyadh Office: “This is the company’s commercial registration certificate. It was required for the visa application so we sent copies together with the original contracts to the teachers.”

Me: “Sorry, but it still doesn’t meet the requirements listed on the Saudi embassy website, I sent you a copy of the requirement. Will they send the original document with my name on it?”

Them: “They will be sending the visa slip as soon as they can get it prepared. The certificate is not always required, but occasionally.  Just send it with your visa application and all will be well.”

July 22

I had planned a cross country visit to see my family before departing. Given my earlier expectations of timeline that I would have been able to send my paperwork in June, or at least before Ramadan, or maybe the beginning of July? I had planned the trip for the end of July. So I send off an email to let the school know that if they plan on sending the letter while I’m out of town, please let me know so I can arrange for someone to receive the package.

The response: “Nice to hear from you! Hope you’re doing well and that this great adventure is appearing more and more exciting. Nothing is likely to happen between now and August 3, as the Riyadh office (and embassies) are closed for the Eid holiday.”

August 5

Another check in from the school to ask how I’m progressing on my visa application.

No really, still have all my materials, only waiting on your letter…


August 7

Another email from me to them, pleading that with only 2 weeks left until my supposed start date, there is still no sign of the letter. I cannot tell my boss when my last day is, I cannot tell my roommate when I am moving out, and my medical paperwork (that they urged me to get as soon as possible back in May) expires on August 26th!

The response: “After reading your email, I’m still trying to determine exactly what
you need. What letter of invitation?”


I once again refer them to the Saudi Embassy website.

Oh, that letter…. Hopefully you’ll get that this week.

August 11

Once again, they check on where I am in gathering my other materials. Once again I say, yes, have them all, have done so for over a month now, and my medical papers expire soon…

August 12

Them: Good news (addressing me by the wrong name), you should receive the letter tomorrow! We also found out that you must use this visa agent (name and address) — who is the same one from the Google doc back in May. And we’re emailing you the letter.

Me: Actually, my name is …,  and (for the Nth time) the Saudi Embassy website says “original letter”, an email doesn’t seem like that…

Them: “I think we are not sending applicants visa blocks after all because
the Saudi Consulates prefer to work only with Visa Agents.”

At this point, I believe the brain explosion could be heard several blocks away.

August 13

“Dear applicant,

Hope this email finds you will [sic].

Please confirm the name and contact information for the visa agent in your country that you would like to pass your visa application through. We have already applied for the work visas and we are expecting them sometime next week.

If you don’t have a visa agent yet, then we will be using  https://www.vfstasheel.com/ where you will need to book an online appointment with them to pass your application.

Please make sure that the visa agent that you will use is certified by the Saudi Embassy in your country. Otherwise, we can just go with  https://www.vfstasheel.com/.

We will also be sending you Wakala letters (invitation letters from sponsor), certified by the Saudi Chamber of commerce via email to support your application.

Thank you”

Ok. Nevermind the fact that I’ve twice been told what visa agent to use, if you visit this website, you’ll see that it does not have an option for Saudi Arabia listed in its services. And also, email, still not original.

August 14

It is explained to me, in further direct contradiction to several previous exchanges

-Yes, use the visa agent we told you in the beginning

-The original contract (that I was told not to send) is where the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs certifications are, so send that.

-The emailed version of the visa letter is certified, but since we’re sending original certifications on the contract, a color printout of the visa block letter is ok.


I finally got the email of the letter of invitation!

Image (4)

So, here I am, all the paperwork finally. Inshallah, unless they respond in the next few hours with some new contradiction, I will be sending the visa application to the visa agent tomorrow.

Who knows, I may actually make it the Kingdom this month. Whether I’m still sane when I get there is another matter entirely.