Back in 2012, I went to South Korea by accident. I was helping my sister work on her visa requirements when her friend had to stay in Manila due to family concerns. Since I already knew the drill and because I don’t want my sister to travel on her own, I decided to submit their requirements and got my visa in less than five days.
I’ve been to Seoul once again last 2016 — both times, visa processing was easy, fast and hassle-free.
Much has changed since then. So when the time came for the sister and myself to bring the whole family to Seoul for a late birthday celeb for our father, we were not prepared with the stress and worry. And while we thought to get a visa has become easier since it’s now handled by agencies – clearly, that wasn’t the case.
Before you start plotting a walking course for Gangnam to track your favorite K-stars, read this survival guide in order to successfully get your visa to South Korea:
- Make sure your documents are complete – Having the complete documents is already winning half the battle. It also automatically makes life easier for you because that’s one of the strongest basis they use to evaluate if they should grant you a visa. If you are applying for a tourist visa, here are the requirements you should prepare:
- Application Form – make sure to print out your application form and make sure that it’s without any erasures. Print in A4 sized paper.
- 1 piece of Passport size colored picture – submit the latest copy; please don’t reuse your old ID photos; if you can afford to go to Korea, you can surely afford a quick ID photo sesh. If you go to FotoMe or any of the mall-based photo studios, usually they offer ID packages intended for visa applications. Usually, they cost PHP150-PHP200 per person and already includes 4 pieces.
- Original Passport – make sure your passport is still valid for more than 6months
- Photocopy of Passport Bio-page (page 2)
- Original & Photocopy of valid visa/s and arrival stamps to OECD member countries from the past 5 years (If applicable only). For those who are confused, OECD (or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries are those considered first-world countries including USA, Australia, member-countries of the European Union, UK, and Japan. Before, having a visa from Japan is already considered a plus, but recently the Korean Embassy removed Japan for consideration among OECD countries following a spate of incidents where visa applicants are caught using fake Japan visas in order to beef up their applications. <<insert face palm>>
- Original Certificate of Employment – this should include the applicant’s position, date hired, compensation and office address. The COE should also be printed in a company letterhead indicating the HR landline number(cell-phone number is not allowed), and HR e-mail address.
- Original Personal Bank Certificate – Your bank certificate should include account type, current balance, account opening date, and ADB. I got mine from BPI, which I have to pay PHP200/ application. I usually get questions asking how much they should have in their account as “show money.” Quite frankly, I don’t have a clear answer to this. However, let’s use the advice of the embassy on their recommended budget for the tour (there is a part in the application where you need to write this). In our case, they said that we should indicate 500 US or roughly PHP25,000 per person as a budget for the four-day stay. This meant that your bank account should have more than this amount, depending on the length of your stay.
- Bank Statement – Your bank statement should indicate your transactions for the last 3 months. You can ask your bank for this. BPI usually charges PHP50 per sheet.
- Photocopy of ITR (Income Tax Return) or Form 2316 – you should submit your latest ITR. If you don’t have an ITR, please don’t be someone I know who falsified his ITR and got denied in the process (yes, they DO check). What to do if you don’t have an ITR? You write a letter explaining why – state if you’re new at the job, an entrepreneur, online seller or a freelancer, and then offer alternate proof. This could be your business registration, a contract or appointment letter from a client or a student ID or school registration (for students).
- If applicable: Copy of PRC Card or IBP Card (If applicable only)
Once you have completed all the documents, you can now submit them to your preferred travel agency. For this application, we chose to submit through JTB, a travel agency that traces its roots in Japan.
So, the big question is — is it really easier now to apply for a visa compared to before?
In my experience, I had a harder time now compared before. For reference, the recent application was my third one. The first two was direct to the South Korean embassy, (2012 and 2016) this one is my first time to apply through an agency.
- The process now required more documents compared to the process before. During my first two applications, the embassy only required me to submit a bank certificate, but not the bank statements. The embassy has become more cautious about documents. During this application, we were asked to prepare letters of explanation – one to explain why there are parts of my parents’ marriage contract that are not as legible and another to explain why my husband was not able to provide an ITR and COE (he is a freelancer). Since my sister was the guarantor for most of the party, she was also asked to submit a guarantee letter.
- By submitting to agencies, you needed to allot more time to your application on top of the usual prescribed processing time – Make sure you submit your papers with enough time before you travel. Due to some personal reasons, we were only able to submit our papers 15 days before the trip. Though, in a nutshell, this should be sufficient since regular processing time is usually 5-7 working days. However, because we were submitting through an agency, processing time was extended to 10 working days. In between that, the agency has texted us at least twice asking for additional documents which further lengthened the process and prolonged the anxiety for us. We were so pissed off and stressed at this point, but we really can’t fault the agency for doing their job.
2. Choose the right travel agency. Here is the list of agencies that have been authorized by the South Korean embassy for visa applications. (agency list with branches 2019.4.8) Applying a visa is stressful as it is, choose an agency that you’re comfortable working it. Are they friendly and accommodating, near your office or home and with an affordable processing fee? If you find yourself getting annoyed and even more stressed just by dealing with the agency, better to look for other options. JTB, the agency where we submitted our application, had a branch in Glorietta. This meant we can submit applications on weekends and I can even drop by during lunch hour to submit additional documents, as needed. Their application fee for a single-entry tourist visa to South Korea is just PHP600, and we even got discounts due to their Independence Day promo. I do have to say that JTB is thorough and very particular when it comes to the documentary requirements — this alone added to the stress of getting visas for us. However, if you will submit your requirements with proper lead time, I don’t think this will be a problem.
3. Allot enough time – I cannot stress this enough. Allot enough time for you to complete your documents, along with the many other possible requirements needed by the agency. Be patient, it will work out in the end.
In our case, we got our visas a day before we were supposed to leave (stressful, I know!) and were finally able to fulfill our promises to our parents and bring them to Seoul. My sister and I, owing to our multiple entry visas for Japan and a Schengen visa for my sister, were given five-year multiple entry visas – we plan on using them again early next year for a winter trip to Jeju.
I hope this guide will be helpful to those who really wanted to experience South Korea. I really made it a point to blog this because, in spite of applying twice before, I was really flabbergasted by the new process and requirements and even felt helpless, confused and resigned at one point.
POSTSCRIPT: Note that the decision of the embassy is final. In case you get denied, you can reapply after six months. They do not usually disclose their reasons for issuing a visa denial.