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Visas in Mongolia: Tough Times on the Steppe

Visas – those little bits of paper in our passports that allow us to enter and leave the country.  If you happened to be lucky enough to be born in the US, Europe, Australia or other countries considered the “West” then you can probably travel fairly freely without the worry of getting a visa.  Of course when it comes to employment we all need visas in order to live and work in a foreign country.

While it would seem to make sense that Mongolia would make it relatively easy for people to apply for and be approved for visas, this is not necessarily always the case.  Mongolia, especially during the summer season, actively seeks to increase the number of tourists that visit the country each year.  In a country that has a viable tourist season of only three to four months, one would think applying for a tourist visa would be made as easy as possible.  This, frustratingly for many, is not always the case.  A friend of mine applied for a tourist visa in September at the Mongolian embassy in Vienna to come for a fishing trip.  The embassy required him to present a letter from a Mongolian tourism company confirming he had a hotel reservation.  Luckily I work above a tourism company and this was not much of an issue.  Meanwhile, in London, another person was applying for a tourist visa for the same trip and was not required to provide additional documentation outside of the visa application.  Needless to say, as a company providing visa services this type of discrepancy in policy from one embassy to another makes it extremely difficult to advise clients on visa matters.

I know of several other cases involving work permits and visa issues.  In one case an expat was working as a teacher for a school here in UB.  When the owner of the school began to make teaching there unpleasant he decided to leave, as most people would.  Well, it turns out the owner is the wife of a powerful figure in Mongolia and she was able to single-handedly persuade the Mongolian Immigration Department as well as the Labor Office to deny him a work visa and work permit.  This denial was not based on any actual infraction or breaking of Immigration rules, but was simply imposed on the back of a letter to these agencies.  At a time when Mongolia could use well-trained teachers, of any nationality, she was able to make life very difficult for this teacher because of a grudge.

Another case I am aware of is of an expat worker who was also here teaching.  He had a multi-year visa that was nowhere near expiring and ended up taking another job on that visa but neither he nor the company registered this with Immigration.  When he tried to leave he found out the hard way that somewhere along the way the rules had been broken.  He spoke with the head of Immigration, who ended up fining the company for not properly registering him and telling the expat that there would be no problem for him in the future.

Well, you guessed it.  He subsequently tried to return to work for a company here in Mongolia but was told he had violated not one but two Immigration laws.  He went back and spoke with the same person at Immigration, who feigned not remembering the situation although it had taken place just a few months before, who said there was nothing he could do, even though he is the head of the Immigration Department.

So at a time when Mongolia should probably be actively seeking to increase tourism numbers and the amount of foreign investment, and thus expat workers, it seems to be doing just the opposite by making a visa more difficult to obtain.  While I fully understand and support a country’s right to give visas to anyone it pleases, I also see a need for Mongolia to have exposure to international best practice in any number of sectors of the economy.  A great way to get this exposure is to allow foreign employees to work in Mongolia and pass knowledge and skills on to Mongolian workers.  Mongolia already practices a foreign worker quota system, so there is little fear that foreign employees are going to overrun the country.

This blog has morphed into a different beast than originally intended, but the moral of the story is to always follow the rules.  The Mongolian authorities will definitely seize an opportunity to deny a visa, registration or some other application.  At the end of the day, as tempting and easy as it may be, it is better to follow the letter of the law.  It may take a bit longer, but following the law is going to be your best defense against future problems.

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