The Visa Runs

This is an article that never ran in Time Out Istanbul. Back in September 2006 when I arrived, the visa system worked so that you could enter on 3 month tourist visa and then disappear into the country, working illegally and avoiding getting expensive, hassle-ful residency or work permits. Pretty much all language schools employed illegally, no tax to pay for them or you – in Turkey there are millions of ways to get out of paying the right tax – and no-one would ever ask you anything about it. People stayed for YEARS, hopping across the border to renew their visa.

Now, it’s different. Now, they’ve made it easier to get residency and harder to be a long term tourist or homeowner as you can only stay 90 days within a 6 month visa. Anyway, note the spirit of cheerful independence based on the experience I had in my first week. And then, three months later when I had to do the second visa run and was already happily depending on someone else. My Turkish knight in shining armour. And  six months after that in May 2007 where I was planning visa runs with him.

If you’re from the EU, USA or Australia, you’re probably used to seeing your passport as an international border Open Sesame.  Wave it around, pass go, collect $200 and sail past the queues of people in the Other Passport Holder lines.  Lured here on the promise of a job and a work permit, one week after entering the country on an old, about-to-be expired Tourist visa, I found I was actually a lying, law breaking fugitive on the run from the Turkish authorities.

Or that’s how it felt, sitting with the tumbleweeds at 1.45 a.m. on a deserted train platform somewhere in Greece, wondering which train my only companions, a dog, a bat and a frog, were bound for.   If the train ever came, would the Turkish Border Guard, who I had so deeply offended on my departure from Turkey,  really make good on his threat not to let me back in?  Tip: don’t tell the border guards you’ re in Turkey because you’re learning Turkish if you don’t understand a word of the language.  Funnily enough, they see you as trying to cheat them and the system.

Visa runs don’t have to be the trauma of my first one.  Determined never to do the overnight train again, I’ve worked out a number of better, more comfortable and not always much more expensive ways of filling my passport with stickers.

Road and Rail The traditional way of skipping out and back in again, has been buses or trains to Bulgaria or Greece. Some people just can’t stop being backpackers, so if you’re one of those eternal sandal wearers out to sacrifice a night’s sleep for the saving of 10ytl, then, you too, can go by bus to …

And this is what I did. New to the country, even buying a bus ticket was a challenge. I got on with it by myself, had no-one to call for help at the border, had to hang out in a boring Greek town all day, fearing what would happen at the crossing and swiftly changing my bus plans so I could return by train. I wasn’t exactly fearless but I was damn well coping.

In November I was all set to do it again, this time completely by train. My boyfriend of two and a half months took me to the train station to see me off but there was a train strike in Greece so no trains for me. It was the last day I could go before my visa expired. The illegal thing was looking a lot less practical (yet I still did it this way for over two years).

So he stepped in, taking the day off work and happy to help. Things like this were normal Turkish boyfriend fare. He’d do anything for me. Anything that was part of the man’s role at least and, to be fair, that’s quite a lot of things. If you want to be taken care of, protected, guarded proudly, a Turkish boyfriend dazzles an English girl, naturally and uncalculatedly. There was a price to pay of course, but he paid his part so willingly it seemed churlish to insist he also took on the elements he saw as the woman’s role.

Alternatively, if you can get someone to drive to Edirne and just beyond to the Bulgarian border, for about 150ytl of petrol money, you can get to the border and back to Istanbul in about the same time as one leg of the above journeys.  If the person driving you is not eligible to enter the EU, you’ll have to wait until someone exiting the country agrees to take you, as the guards are not keen on letting you walk through.

He couldn’t come over with me as he didn’t have a Schengen visa in his passport. And me, who’d done the Greek lonely train station at night three months earlier, walked 200 metres with great trepidation. I felt so happy, relieved and safe as soon as I crossed back to where he was standing waiting for me.

 Then there’s the risk that, after getting your visa at the other side, everyone coming back in thinks you are a potential drug runner/sex-worker and is reluctant to take you.  Or even more unluckily, they think you are a sex worker and agree to bring you back in.  I managed to return on foot, despite paranoia induced by watching jail break scenes in films, without being shot in the back.

By May 2007, I’d got more forward thinking about the visa run and, firmly in the relationship, planned to treat them as holidays. We went with his best friend to Cyprus. He insisted we stay in a five star hotel with full buffet meals which is how a lot of Turks travel because these kind of status symbols are important. He had a cousin who was a tour guide there and he managed to find us a discount and good deal on precisely nothing – although he had promised a lot. Another Turkish trait – over-sell, under-deliver. No-one will affront your pride by calling you on it because your worth as a person rests in your intentions not your capacity to fulfill them.

It wasn’t my kind of hotel, anonymous, expensive, package holiday – the type of place I hadn’t been since I started travelling. Other customers were English families and ugly Turkish men with physically perfect, fake breasted Russian “girlfriends”. During the two mornings we spent by the pool, my links with the former were already being erased and I was compared unfavourably with the latter.

The first morning we were getting ready to go to the pool, my bikini was criticiseed. “It’s too sexy.” I covered up, it was easier and now I felt self conscious in it anyway. I’d lost my radar for what was and wasn’t acceptable dress over the preceding months. When we got to the pool, I pointed out all the other girls in bikinis like mine. “Yes, but they’re English.” “I’m English.”

He openly goggled the Russian girls in their skimpy bikinis. I  hid  on my sun lounger reading, rather than get up and expose my not so perfect self to play frisbee with him and his friend. He said I was like a “lazy, fat English girl.” My weight had always been an issue (I was a size 8-10 UK, 4-6 US). The first time we slept together he told me I needed to go to the gym. He chipped away at my self confidence, but didn’t  allow me to look sexy and draw men’s attention while I stood by as his attention went to girls that could. Of course he viewed those girls as prostitutes, they probably were, and his open admiration was without respect. But it was a line I never managed to walk correctly. Be attractive enough to meet his standards for beauty but not invite the attention of others.

He never accepted what I knew to be true but grew to doubt, as I doubted so much of what I thought was right, that English men liked their girlfriends to be admired because it reflected well on them. “She’s with me, not you” implies a competition that’s been won. For the Turkish man it says, “She’s still advertising herself, I’m not enough of a man to win.” He said English men let their girlfriends behave like that because didn’t care about their girlfriends . And if I looked at how much he poured affection and protective boyfriend-ness on me, that seemed to be true which further undermined my ideas about what treatment was right and what was wrong for me.

By Air If you’re the kind of person who can cope with planning ahead 3 months (Come on! It’s not like you don’t know when you are going!), the cheap airlines opening up routes to Istanbul are by far the best way of turning a visa run into an enforced, but pleasant, Jolly Holiday.  Northern Cyprus is 1 ½ hours away and can be done for around 100 ytl with Pegasus and, as the island is full of casinos, you might even win back your flight…

With a bit of organization, visa runs can be such good opportunities for travel that getting a residency permit seems like a waste.

In June 2008, I’d got tired of the visa run and the residency permit looked like a much more sensible use of time and money. My boyfriend had been in the army 10 months by then and I found someone – an ex student – to help me go and organise the permit. Someone that was going to be A Big Mistake. But that’s a later tale.

The rest of the article if you’re interested, a lot of it still applies to tourist visas even though the nature of the visa has changed.

  • Watch out for which visa you actually get.  For some unfathomable reason, there are two types: 90 days and 3 months, which can be a difference of a couple of days and an oversight that once cost me a 100 GBP flight change at the last minute.

  • Overstaying a visa results in a fine of upwards of 100 ytl per day, a scary interrogation at whichever border you are trying to cross and a re-entry ban as long as 6 months.
  • Make sure the date of entry is clearly stamped and legible.  A faded one means no-one can tell if you are leaving within your allotted time or not.  Another visa run that took years off my life, as I fumbled for my diary and hoped he’d take that as evidence of when I’d re-entered.
  • Remember, the visa can’t be paid for in Turkish Lira, or with credit cards. Prices vary according to nationality.
  • Don’t volunteer information about why you’re in Turkey.  You might think you’re just being polite and friendly but verbal diarrhoea, or The Visa Runs, is what got me wondering if Interpol were circulating my photo at all Turkish border crossings.
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