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!