The pace is relentless in frozen Saigon. Today I found myself tramping through the slush of melting Saigon towards some government office that I imagined to be crypto-communist in order to apply for a residence permit. I had stuffed in my bag a a sheaf of incomprehensible papers wrapped in tight cellophane saying that I worked for some company or other in Kyiv and with a bright smile to bring radiance into a dull government office. In fact it turned out it wasn’t like that at all. I’d arranged to arrive at 2pm and there was nothing dull or grey or communist about the building at all. It was warm and heated and a nice friendly lady was waiting for me. I sat on a comfortable seat in a a reasonable room while I waited to be served. The lady was surrounded by all this high-tech equipment and it was nothing like my old Soviet experiences of the Ukraine of yesteryear. Ukraine is pulling her act together, in readiness for EU membership so it seems.
I had no idea what all these papers were and it had taken me and my extremely helpful Ukrainian lawyer days if not weeks to get them all together. There’d been some problem with my old address - I don’t think the landlady had liked the idea of my being registered as living there which means it was a mistake I had ever mentioned it to her - but we’ve had no such problems this time. The lady spent a few minutes dealing with some surly Moldovans and I don’t know what they were doing there but they were taking their time and there were problems with their documents. But the lady was ready for me and she was delighted to see my British passport. We barely exchanged a word - or, more accurately, I didn’t. She chattered on about things in mind-bogglingly fast Ukrainian, while I sat and smiled and grinned and did what I was told when she gestured with her hand signals here and there and everywhere.
Then she told me I had to pay money! And no she didn’t take credit cards. She took Monobank, this long string of mysterious digits by which Ukrainians seem to wire cash around the country to one-another using some FinTech thing I barely understand; but I didn’t have one of those. So off I went back into the slush, tramping in my trench boots from one cash machine to the other, looking for something that might dispense money. It took three banks before I found one that works, which is pretty typical for Ukraine. Ukraine’s entire economy has gone cash-free, apart from government offices which are the final dinosaurs. Still, there were no US$50 bills being slipped here and there which was the old way of doing things in Ukraine. Ukraine I see has taken real strides towards conformity with EU norms and basically this was a fairly hassle-free interaction.
Now I will become a resident of Ukraine. What goodies will that have in store for me? Can I go and fight on the front? Well I can do that anyway, if I want my limbs blown off. Can I buy a car? I know one thing I won’t be able to do for a while with a Ukrainian residence permit: travel to Russia. Because it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Russians have a list of all the foreigners with Ukrainian residence permits and then you get a special welcome on the way into Russia, courtesy of the FSB. But really who’s to say.
I don’t think they issue many of these residence permits anymore. I know at one point a lot of international students used to come to Ukraine and get residence permits so that they could obtain Schengen visas more easily; this was a loophole which has mostly been closed simply because all the foreign students left Ukraine when the war started. Nevertheless my lawyer has mysteriously and gloomily advised me that I should stay at home day and night for the next ten days because “the authorities” may turn up unannounced to make sure that I am really living at the address I have given. Now that sounds thoroughly Soviet. What am I supposed to do in the meantime? Can I go to the supermarket? Apparently my application will be automatically rejected if the authorities arrive and I am not at home. This sounds straight out of Stalin’s Soviet Union, but then he hinted that a lot of the time they actually don’t show up at all. That sounds much more Ukrainian: strict rules, strictly ignored.
The whole thing only took an hour or two, for me to be processed like a rubber chicken in a meat factory, and now I am thoroughly integrated into the Ukrainian system. Maybe next I’ll grow a long beard, ragged stringy hair and dress like a Cossack. But before I do that, I paused on the way home for a cup of coffee and a bag of some indescribable meat pastries from an indescribably kiosk and, staring up at Lviv’s gothic church spires, both gloomy and inspiring simultaneously, I reflected that today wasn’t too bad a day.
Guidelines for applying for a residence permit in Ukraine
1. To apply for residence in Ukraine you must have entered Ukraine with a visa physically stamped into your passport. You are not eligible to apply for residence if you have entered Ukraine under the “90 / 180 day” visa free entry rule that many nationalities are eligible for. Nor are you eligible to apply for Ukrainian residency if you have entered Ukraine on an “eVisa” scheme available for some nationalities.
2. You must apply for residency within the period of validity of your stay in Ukraine pursuant to your visa, and the official in the immigration office will check this when you make the application. Visa overstayers may not apply for residency.
3. The reasons for seeking Ukrainian residency may be varied but typically the reason is to get around the 90 / 180 day rule requiring you to leave Ukraine for 90 days every 90 days. There is no automatic tax advantage to Ukrainian residency, as you may be resident for tax and other legal purposes in more than one jurisdiction at once. You should take legal advice in the country of your origin if you wish to use Ukrainian residency to obtain a tax advantage.
4. Ukrainian residency does not afford a Schengen visa national the right to travel to the Schengen Zone without a visa, unlike a Ukrainian passport; but it if you are a Schengen visa national then it may be a prerequisite to hold a Ukrainian residence permit in order to apply for a Schengen visa at one of the Schengen embassies in Kyiv or consulates elsewhere in Ukraine.
5. You must apply in person for a residency permit and the following documents are required: (a) your original passport with the Ukrainian visa stamped in it and your most recent Ukrainian entrance stamp; (b) a translation of the passport information page into Ukrainian undertaken by an official registered Ukrainian notary (a “free translation” is unacceptable”); (c) a letter in a specific format from your employer (which may be an NGO) and which must contain an original ink signature; (d) a health insurance policy in a specific format; (e) the original incorporation document of your employer company in Ukraine; (f) the fee of 1450 Gryvnas payable only in cash (at least in Lviv). In some immigration offices (but not in Lviv) you may be required to attend with a copy of a lease of an apartment or with your landlord who is expected to attest that you live at the address you have given. We do not know whether a PDF receipt from AirBnB is sufficient to meet these additional requirements; we have not tried.
6. In practice it is very fiddly to get these documents right and you should hire a Ukrainian lawyer to prepare them all for you; (s)he will arrange an appropriate employer’s letter, for example. Ukrainian lawyers are very cheap by international standards. You should hire a lawyer based in Ukraine rather than one abroad as they are more likely to have the relevant connections to make the process go smoothly and they are also likely to be much cheaper.
7. You should choose your Ukrainian lawyer on the basis of personal recommendation. You should take great care with all the documents your Ukrainian lawyer prepares for you as they must all be impeccable. In particular you must take great care with the original incorporation document as if you lose that document the lawyer may have great trouble replacing it and you will cause him or her substantial inconvenience.
8. A notary, that your lawyer will typically recommend to you (this author used a notary in the Old Town in Lviv on the recommendation of his lawyer) will take about 48 hours to undertake the official translation.
9. A residence permit allows you to remain in Ukraine; work (but bear in mind there are very few paid jobs available for foreigners in Ukraine in war time); but it is not necessary to open a bank account (although it might help, depending on the bank). A temporary residence permit (of the kind you will initially receive) is not sufficient to open a ubiquitous Monobank account that Ukrainians use for contactless payments across Ukraine; you need a permanent residence permit for one of those.
10. In theory the immigration office is open on weekdays to accept your application and you do not need an appointment. However in practice your Ukrainian lawyer, if competent, will contact the office informally in advance to let them know at what time you are coming and the officials will be ready for you.
11. The relevant immigration office in Lviv is at Rudanskoho Street 3 in central Lviv and you should walk to it. It is a minor side street and on-street parking is not available. A taxi may have trouble getting there given the traffic. It has a sign in blue and yellow, in Ukrainian and English, outside it. The staff in there do not speak English but if your lawyer has prepared the papers carefully and the staff know you are coming, there is not much to say or to discuss. Here is a Google Maps link to its location:
12. We hear that the immigration offices in other Oblasts can be significantly less convenient than the office in Lviv that is more accommodating to foreigners.
13. While you can attend without an informal appointment arranged via your lawyer, we do not recommend it as it is not entirely clear which hours the office may be open and the relevant official (there is probably only one in the office who is authorised to process applications) may not be there when you arrive. Hence it is all the more important, if you value your time, to ensure that you hire a competent lawyer to pre-arrange a time for you to attend. Otherwise you might be waiting indefinitely or returning on another day.
14. The papers are taken from you, you are fingerprinted and your photograph is taken, an application form is automatically generated that you sign, and your passport and the original incorporation document are given back to you (you send the latter back to your lawyer promptly) and the entire process takes about 45 minutes. Be sure to have the cash with you to speed up the transaction; the official may not have exact change. The other documents are not given back to you. The health insurance policy typically has no value; it is for formal purposes only.
15. What happens next depends on the practice of the immigration authorities in the Oblast in question. In theory there is a statutory deadline of 10 days to decide upon your residency application and although it might slip by a day or two in general this deadline is stuck to. In theory an immigration official is required to attend your stated residence and they can do this at any time within the 10-day period. In practice they may not come at all, depending upon your nationality, the reputation of your lawyer and how you present yourself at the immigration office: so dress in a polite way and appear reputable.
16. Where the officials do decide to visit your residence, practice varies. We hear that in Kharkiv Oblast, for example, the immigration official telephones you in advance to ask you whether it would be convenient to come to your residence at a particular time; by contrast in Lviv Oblast you may receive a Viber message from the immigration office to the effect that an immigration official will be attending your residence at a specific time on a specific date. That cannot be moved; if you are not there at the appointed time then your application for residence will be rejected. Therefore if there is a period during which you absolutely cannot be present for a residential inspection, ask your lawyer discreetly to contact the immigration office to ensure that they do not schedule an appointment within that window. Viber is the standard mode of communication for many Ukrainian government departments due its enhanced security protocols, so ensure you have it installed on your mobile telephone.
17. Then you will receive another message or telephone call telling you that your residence permit is available for collection, and you go back to the original office to receive it.
18. A Ukrainian criminal record or an INTERPOL notice against you will disqualify you from a residence card. Although Ukraine is not a participant in the SIRENE database of European arrest warrants, all her western neighbours are so if you are wanted by the police in Europe you will be arrested at the border before you even enter Ukraine. Do not think of coming to Ukraine if you are “on the run” as Ukrainian prisons fall far below European standards and they are not places where you want to be detained pending extradition proceedings.
19. Residence permits are in the form of a laminated credit card with your name, address and photograph on them. They are initially valid for a period of a year and then they can be renewed indefinitely using the same procedure. Depending on the basis of your residence, after a number of renewals you can obtain “permanent residence” which also includes a path to citizenship should you want that (remember that citizenship, if male, entails a prohibition on leaving the country and renders you liable for compulsory conscription to the Ukrainian Armed Forces if you are between the ages of 27 and 60).