Today I obtained my Philippines driver’s license. It was all in all a pretty smooth experience but as all things Philippines it had its moments of humor.
Philippines law says that when you arrive here you can drive with your foreign drivers license but have to get a Philippines drivers license within 90 days of being a resident. My 90 days would be up at the end of October.
I walked into the LTO (Land Transportation Office) behind Robinsons Mall in Dumaguete. There was a woman at a desk just inside the doorway. I explained that I wanted to convert my foreign driver’s license into a Philippines license. “Have you been here 90 days?,” she asked. “No, it’s been under 90 days,” I answered. “Well you can’t get your license until after 90 days,” she replied. “Hmm. I thought you had to get it within 90 days,” I countered. She hesitated, nodded her head in agreement and handed me the application. She quickly went over what I would need: medical certificate and drug screen which I could get next door; proof of residency (I have the Balikbayan stamp on my current visa); copies of my passport, visa stamp and foreign drivers license (I had them all). Then she mentioned that once I had done the medical and drug screen I would have to go to the main LTO office, since this office does not handle this type of license.
I went next door and once again found a woman inside the doorway. She handed me forms to fill out, took my Oregon drivers license, and started to hand me a cup to pee in. Uh oh. It had all happened so quickly that I realized I wasn’t ready to do my, uh, business. “Just let me know when you’re ready and I will give you the cup,” she said. I texted my status to Janet who wisely suggested I drink lots of water. There was a water dispenser near the woman but I saw no cups. “Where are the cups?” I politely asked. She pointed to the cashier’s window. “You can get one there. They’re 5 pesos.”
I did a double take, looked at her with disbelief and then sat down. No way was I paying 5p (about 10 cents) for a cup. But after a few minutes I realized that without water I’d be waiting an hour so I went up to the cashier window and asked for a cup. “5 pesos please.” I handed her the coin and took my cup. Who says Filipinos don’t have a head for business. They provide free water and charge you for the cup!
Since I now had 5 pesos extracted from me I was damn sure I was going to use that cup as much as possible. I went back to the water dispenser three times to fill the cup with water and practically forced myself to drink it. After the 3rd cup I was ready. I got my sample cup from the front desk lady who told me that I could not close the door to the CR (bathroom for those who do not live in the Philippines). This meant that the 20 or so people waiting could see me doing my business. And, not to be indelicate, but since I needed one hand to hold the cup and the other hand to hold my you know, there was no third hand to hold up my shorts which were a bit baggy and didn’t want to hold themselves up. Somehow I did manage to juggle everything and turned in my sample.
Within a few minutes I was called to have a photo taken and sign my name electronically. Another couple of minutes and I was called in for my medical screening. To my surprise this consisted of a simple eye test. I was handed a form which said my eyesight passed, as did my hearing. Apparently just hearing the lady tell me to read the chart constituted passing the hearing test.
It really all went smoothly from there. 550 pesos later (for the medical exam and drug test) I had my documents and could return to LTO, assuming I could find the main office.
At the main office there was once again a woman at a desk just inside the doorway. I explained what I wanted, she repeated what I needed, I pulled it all out and handed it to her and she sent me to the appropriate window. My name was announced many times: to get my picture taken, my thumbprint taken, pay the fees (852 pesos), check in at another window.
Finally I was called one last time to receive my temporary license. The temp license was little more than a receipt for what I’d paid. “Come back in February or March for your official license.,” I was told. Only 5 months; pretty quick for the Philippines, but who’s counting.
The truth is the process was fast, reasonably efficient and no worse than going to the DMV in Oregon. Of course there they don’t charge you 10 cents for a cup.
Surprisingly, many people ask me for tips about traveling and moving to the Philippines. I say surprisingly because I am not sure I know anything, except what seems to work for Janet and me. Nonetheless here are some useful or useless tips in no real order of importance. Take them with a grain of salt but, no matter what you think, in most cases I am definitely right 🙂
Can you find it?: Most things are here if you are motivated to look hard enough. For example, I’m not a picky eater and I like most Filipino food but there are a few items that are important to me. A bagel, and it doesn’t even have to be a great bagel, was one of them. I did my online research, found a recommendation, and went to Rolling Pin in downtown Dumaguete, which has not only passable bagels, but decent pastries and breads. Of course I’m still looking for a great New York pizza, but then I’m a masochist.
Another thing that’s important to me is acupuncture. I’ve been going to the same acupuncturist for 6 years. What were the chances I could find someone here? I did some research, contacted a couple of providers and made an appointment. I was able to find her office (in her home) thanks to Google Maps and had a good session, similar to what I experienced in the US. One more important thing I wanted to have is now off my list.
I guess my only point is that most things can be found here if it’s really important to you. BTW, the acupuncture was 500p ($10), so finding the difficult to find doesn’t even have to be expensive.
A corollary to the above is: If you find it at a good price, grab it. I have already had multiple experiences where I saw something, went back to the store a week later and the item in question was gone. So live for today, guys!
Smart/Globe or Sun: One of the most important decisions you will make when arriving in the Philippines is which of the major phone carriers to use. I have no real advise other than to wish you good luck. There is no obvious winner. They all offer similar pre-paid and post-paid packages. Coverage depends on your city, neighborhood and house. Janet likes Sun because all her family uses Sun so she can get unlimited calling and texting between all the Pillazos. I just switched to Smart because Sun’s reception within our house sucks. The jury is still out but I am not sure that Smart is any less suckier.
The good news is that most plans are cheap and there’s a fair amount of flexibility. Right now I get 30 day pre-paid plans, since I don’t want to make a longer commitment until I decide who has better reception. Many people in the Philippines have phones that take 2 Sim cards; I now know the reason why.
Driving: Driving is wildly different here in the Philippines; there’s no denying it. But the sooner you get out of the anger over the fact that “they” cannot drive or “they” don’t follow the rules of the road, the better off you will be. “They” aren’t going to change their driving habits, so stop wasting energy thinking “they” should. In fact, “you” will be the one who will have to change your driving habits. BTW, it appears that most foreigners do change their driving habits. I base that statement on the fact that 90% of the foreigners I see driving motorcycles do not wear helmits; they’ve gone native.
Horn Honking: A corollary to the above is the use of the horn. Back in the US I probably honked my horn no more than once a week. Back there the horn is usually used in anger or frustration. It can be a substitute for flipping someone the bird. In the Philippines it’s used almost as a standard courtesy, as in “I am passing you no matter what, so I am letting you know.” I now use my horn many times a day, not only for that reason but because there are numerous blind curves which I enter honking away. Now whether anyone pays attention is another story.
Google Maps: I made reference to this above but use Google Maps. You can actually download the information to your phone if you don’t have data service on your phone plan. Google Maps has most everything in Dumaguete listed; businesses, neighborhoods, streets, etc. It has taken us to weird places a couple times but generally gets me where I want to go. Apple’s Map App is not nearly as comprehensive, at least in Dumaguete.
Banking: Contrary to some reports, you can arrive here and get a bank account quickly. Janet and I did. It may be hit or miss depending on the bank or bank officer you talk to but here’s what you will need: proof of identity (passport); proof of residency (13A, ACR Card, or Balikbayan stamped passport, which is what I used); proof of where you live (lease agreement for example). Add to these items an air of “I am rich and will be passing a lot of dollars through your bank” and you might just get an account.
Bank Fees: Fees vary – don’t expect consistency. I write a monthly check against my US bank account to cover my monthly expenses. Sometimes the teller collects a 200p fee for depositing the foreign check and sometimes not. There’s no rhyme or reason, so just best to go with it.
Phil Health: Yes, the cost recently went up significantly for most foreigners. Nonetheless, I signed up for Phil Health and they struggled getting me into the system without an ACR card number. But they were very helpful and figured out how to skirt around the computer and get me my Phil Health card. I have coverage through the end of the year and next year will decide whether to continue it. Now, I’m not getting into the foreigner anger of “it’s the long nose tax.” Last time I checked I still have free will as to whether to sign up or not. So, I used that free will to punt until next year.
House Renting: Like driving this too can be a unique adventure in the Philippines. I have not rented a house in many years but I know it’s a frustrating challenge in the US. It is here too but for different reasons. For example, you may find a great house but it only has a terrible dirt road leading up to it. You may also have difficulty communicating what you are really looking for. Janet and I were adamant that 3 bedrooms was a requirement and were amazed at the agents and owners who tried to get us into a 2 bedroom place.
One tip would be to post what you’re looking for on all the local buy and sell websites/Facebook sites. But this was also an adventure. Despite posting our requirements of 3 bedrooms, I consistently got contacted by foreigners who owned a 2 or even 1 bedroom houses, asking would I be interested? But in the end we found a nice house in an area we liked. Unlike in the US, rent here is negotiable and we ended up at a price we were comfortable with.
Flights to the Philippines: Here’s a mistake we made. International flights from the U.S. allow 2 bags per person of up to 50 pounds per bag. That’s plenty when you are moving. What we didn’t consider was that domestic airlines don’t allow 2 bags at 50 pound each. The flight from Cebu to Dumaguete, for instance, only allowed 1 bag at 10 kilos. In the end we took a bus.
Don’t Expect Homogeny: I know – it’s too early for a big word. But what I mean is that people want to know definitively what the Philippines is like. As a country of over 100 million, living on 7107 islands, it’s varied – it’s not that homogenous. And because there are not strong central structures and institutions it might be more varied than your Western country. Dumaguete is not like Manila for example in almost all ways, including language. We now live in Valencia, a small town outside Dumaguete. But even Valencia is not homogenous. We’re in E. Balabag, a neighborhood at the beginning of Valencia, not too far elevated. Then you go further up the hill to the city center, and still further up to those rarified neighborhoods with rich foreigners and great overlooking views. Those neighborhoods are not the same; the prices, who lives there, the amenities and even the weather are not the same.
Flexibility: Let me ask you a question – are you flexible? No, I’m not conducting a sex survey – get your head out of the gutter.
IMO you should be flexible in life no matter where you live but you sure as hell can’t travel to or live in the 3rd world without flexibility and humor. This may be the best tip I can give you.