Earlier this year I was working remotely with a distributed team, including some Ukrainians. I was doing the digital nomad thing, traveling and working from all over the world.
My business partner and I, after selling our last successful startup in San Francisco and finishing our obligations, decided to set up an office for our new B2B product company in Kyiv. It’s a huge and great city full of cool restaurants and bars, with some awesome and smart people, and good prices for Americans.
We had assumed it would be a welcoming place as well. Western media told us that many Ukrainians, or at least Kyivans, were eager to join the west instead of Russia, precipitating the Maidan revolution. The economy has a large IT sector and would presumably pursue foreign investment and talent in that rapidly growing area. The population is shrinking, with most of the migration from the country being young, talented and motivated people. An outsider would naturally conclude that Ukraine would make welcoming skilled and experienced foreigners to the country a priority, as has been the case in so many other countries modernizing and trying to stay competitive.
Well it turned out Ukrainians themselves are quite welcoming and friendly people. There are some noteworthy cultural differences from California that took a little bit of getting used to, such as strangers not really smiling or engaging in casual conversation with people they don’t know. Just small things really. The amount of people who speak English in Kyiv is extremely low compared to nearly any other large international city, with most Kyivans defaulting to Russian for interactions although most written things are in Ukrainian. Aside from the language difficulties, it is pleasant and easy to interact with the wonderful people here.
The problem is not with the general population but of course, the governmental bureaucracy
My assumption was that moving to, or even spending time in Ukraine would be a straightforward affair. With so many talented young people leaving and a distressed economy and a supposed desire for integration with the west I had believed immigration would be a minor issue. As I discovered, the government of Ukraine does everything it possibly can to make foreigners feel as unwelcome as possible.
Beginning with arrival at Boryspil airport, you’re greeted with a military-style passport control with signs strongly dissuading you from bribing border officers and comical metal roll-up sheets for the closed pathways, with the open ones staffed by military officers in fatigues. Not really an issue, just get your temporary visa stamp and go though.
Ukraine has decided that foreigners from the EU and American can only stay for 90 days in Ukraine out of a 180-day period. This is not unusual, as the same policy applies to Americans traveling in the European Schengen area as well. Where things really differ is when it comes to applying for a long-term (D-type) visa.
In Ukraine for some reason beyond my understanding if a foreigner DOES choose to go through the cumbersome and unpleasant process of applying for a visa, the maximum stay period granted is only another 90 days. This is comically short for a visa, and I cannot understand why Ukrainians feel that visa should be this short. I applied for a D-type visa in the Czech Republic and it was granted for a full year.
Applying for the visa required me to enlist the help of locals naturally, as the bureaucracy is impenetrable to people who do not live here or speak Russian or Ukrainian. With the help of one of the best law firms in the country I was able to get official employment so I could have the possibility of getting a 90 day visa, which would permit me to then apply for temporary residence so that I could actually stay and work in the country and help run my business here.
I should mention that my attorneys advised me that it is possible to obtain a self-employment basis visa and temporary residence permit, but that it is extremely unpleasant and complicated. I am not sure that this is even possible, because no such D-type visa category exists on the application. If it is possible, the process is certainly an opaque one.
This of course means as a practical matter that anyone who wants to come work as an entrepreneur or contractor in Ukraine must be sponsored by a Ukrainian company and work for them as well. Why? Perhaps there is no concept of entrepreneurship in the State Migration Service as it appears to resemble a soviet-style nightmare of bureaucratic disregard and dysfunction. To obtain a three-year work permit there is a state fee of 10,572 UAH ($400 USD).
A Ukrainian permit to work. Required for foreigners to work in the country. Ukraine needs to make sure random foreigners don’t come in and start… working…. Or something. Certainly not for themselves.
In the Czech Republic I was able to apply for a year-long D-type visa (and renew for two years!) as a self-employed entrepreneur without difficulty. Why is Ukraine more unwelcoming and cumbersome? This is a question I found myself asking repeatedly over the next several months. Why does Ukraine make it so hard for people to come here? Are there hordes of people trying to move to Ukraine? Is the economy doing so well that high-skilled people are afraid their jobs will be taken by foreign experienced software engineers? What great calamity is this system designed to prevent?
The application process for obtaining the D-type visa takes some time, because you must obtain a work permit and secured employment. What incentive employers have to hire someone who doesn’t yet have permission to be in the country for any length of time is unknown to me. Of course once the work permit is obtained, an appointment in a different country’s consulate is scheduled weeks away, and all of the paperwork is accepted, you can then go to the Ukrainian consulate (this has to happen outside of Ukraine) and formally apply for the visa.
Ukrainian Embassy in Prague
On my way out of the country to apply for the visa, I was stopped at the border. With all the pleasantries and tact of a Beirut checkpoint I was escorted into a small room and told that I had committed an immigration offense. According to the officers I had overstayed my allotted time in the country, by one day, and now I was in trouble. I explained that I was on my way to apply for a visa, but it was no use.
Myself and my attorney double-checked the dates on the stamps in my passport for entry and exit from Ukraine and determined that I had spent 89 days in the country. The officer I was dealing with had a list of dates on his computer, and he demonstrated to using a calculator that I had in fact spent 91 days in the country. I asked why he was adding 1 to each summation, but he either didn’t speak much English or chose to ignore my question. I was handed a piece of paper and told to go pay the fine at some random bank stand in Boryspil airport. Finding where I was supposed to pay the fine was an exciting scavenger hunt, because no one could give me clear directions. Eventually I located the obscure banker and paid the fine of around 1,600 UAH for my grave transgression of having the audacity to attempt to stay in the country for 91 days in a 180 day period. I was given a piece of paper and permitted to exit the country.
At the Ukrainian embassy in prague, I was able to complete my visa application
There was some difficulty because the kiosk was not localized to any no non-slavic languages and my appointment number was not in their system, but it went fairly smoothly. To their credit, my application was processed relatively quickly (with a small expedited processing fee) and I was able to return to the embassy in one week to pick up my visa. Now I could officially stay in Ukraine! For another 90 days, though only in a 90 day period instead of 180.
Ukrainian Embassy in Prague
With my hard-won Ukrainian visa in hand, I smugly returned to passport control at Boryspil airport and presented it to passport control. I was granted entry and, savored my vanquishing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s bureaucracy, feeling possibly like Caesar returning to Rome after the conquest of Gaul.
A Ukrainian D-04 visa. For a whole 90 days! Wow!
Now the clock was once again ticking, this time to obtain a temporary residence permit. Now things get complicated.
The only way to actually stay and work in Ukraine for a foreigner for a period beyond three months is to get a temporary residence permit. The requirements as I understand, are the same as for the visa plus a permanent residence address, plus several visits to the State Migration Service, which a foreigner is required to be physically present at to apply.
Registering my permanent address for the temporary residence permit was straightforward, or at least it was with the help of my attorney. The process is not documented on the State Migration Service’s list of required documents for obtaining temporary residence and the relevant authorities do not speak English.
Let’s talk about the SMS
It is of course a reasonable requirement that a foreigner must be present to apply for a residence permit at the State Migration Service. What is less reasonable is the State Migration Service itself. Let’s talk about the SMS.
The Ukrainian State Migration Service, Kyiv city office
I believe that it is in this place that I began to truly know what dealing with a state bureaucracy in soviet times must have been like. I’m no stranger to difficult bureaucracies myself, have had particularly unpleasant experiences at the Oakland, California Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Franchise Tax Board in the past, but this was some next-level shit.
The SMS was aware of its shortcomings in customer service, and had in fact promised to institute a streamlining of the process of the in-person meetings required for applicants such as myself. Right before I went there with my attorney, they had created a new appointment system so that people could arrive and not have to wait for hours for a meeting. We arrived on the day of our appointment at the specified time and waited hours for a meeting. During that leisurely period we got to enjoy some sunshine and scenic views.
Applicants await a chance to see a apparatchik
The Kyiv City State Migration Service is located on the left bank in what appears to be a brutalist former dwelling. The hallways are very narrow so to go anywhere you must squeeze past a multitude of people all waiting for their turn. Waiting is the name of the game at the SMS. Particularly if you have an appointment before 1pm, because if 1pm does roll around it’s lunchtime and the two people on duty go to enjoy their lunch hour. It is said that the going rate for easing the process and not needing to stay in the queue is about $500 USD.
Finally after many hours of waiting my attorney and I were granted an audience. I stood there wordlessly because no one there spoke English. Stamps were stamped upon papers and shoved into a giant pile of more papers. We left.
Some months later, I was summoned to return to the SMS to receive my temporary residence permit! After chilling for some hours, I had it in hand. Now I was officially permitted to remain and work in Ukraine for three years. At long last, my difficult journey was at an end.
Haha just kidding! No it wasn’t
I needed a new passport because mine had filled up with immigration stamps. So after getting a new passport, my documents needed to be updated. Oh, and I had to apply for a tax ID to pay taxes.
Dealing with the State Fiscal Service was another rare pleasure. As usual my attorney went with me and handled everything because I could not hope to understand the laws or process and besides no English is spoken at these offices. At the SFS we waited. Their computer system was not working well, so we wanted some time for it to begin working again. Then we were told we had to come three days later after the application process was complete. Eventually I received a tax ID so that I could pay taxes on my income. Sweet!
It is the responsibility of your employer to update your passport number on your work permit, which mine dutifully did. To update it, a scanned copy of your passport along with two notarized translations is required. I took a photo of my passport and got two notarized translations, but they were not accepted. Apparently the translation was incomplete and besides, they require a scanned document. Not a picture. While I believe the mechanism of charge capture devices work the same in a scanner as a digital camera, this point was not really worth arguing, so my counsel took my passport and scanned it and got a new set of notarized translations.
That just left a return visit to.. The State Migration Service! They needed me physically present to update my passport number in their electronic system. Why this is so is beyond my understanding, but at this point I was nearly finished and just wanted to be done with the system. We had an appointment, which appeared on the queue system, and waited. And waited. The time of our appointment came and went. Then it was lunch time. We got lunch and returned, and waited. And then we once again were permitted to meet with a governmental employee to update my passport number. The employee was obviously new and was confused why we were there, telling us that we didn’t need to update my records (as I was informed later). My attorney showed her the relevant section of the law that says the permit must be updated within 30 days of new passport issue. The information was then updated.
Because of the backlog of appointments at the State Migration Service I couldn’t actually get an appointment within 30 days of my new passport being issued, but at the time of making the appointment they said it was okay since nobody actually does that anyway.
All of these details come to me second-hand from my attorney because I cannot personally interface with this system at all, being only a native English speaker.
After applying online and paying a fee of $100, the Estonian embassy in Kyiv emailed me and informed me that I could come pick up my E-residency smartcard today. Using it I can open a business and bank account in Estonia. It’s almost like they want foreigners to come do business there.