A Newbie’s Guide to the Philippines

When I came to the Philippines in 2011, many things were different than they are now. Today, people aren’t traveling as much. Whether people are scared of viruses, or they just don’t have the money, we don’t see as many people coming to the Philippines as expats.

A Newbie’s Guide to the Philippines

When I came to the Philippines in 2011, many things were different than they are now. Today, people aren’t traveling as much. Whether people are scared of viruses, or they just don’t have the money, we don’t see as many people coming to the Philippines as expats.

But, eleven years ago, the world was accessible. After meeting my future wife online, I decided to move my life to the Philippines instead of going through the long and unnecessarily complicated U.S. visa process for her.

The problem was, I had never been anywhere. Sure, I took a few drunken trips through Mexico border towns and traveled the States extensively for business, but I had never been on an international flight or immigrated to another country.

I researched the internet, but back in 2011, there wasn’t much free information for someone like me, except for a few hastily-written blog posts on Asian dating blogs and expensive travel services for expats who wanted to marry and settle in the islands.

I was flying blind when I bought a one-way ticket to Manila and left the only home I had ever known, and I would not ever advise someone to make the same mistakes I did.

There is plenty of information out there now, so there is no need to take your life in your hands and travel to the Philippines without a clue.

Getting Ready

When I decided I would leave the States, I did check to see how much flights cost. I figured I would only need a one-way ticket, as I had no plans to leave the Philippines anytime soon.

But I made a grave error.

The first place you should go is the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and find out the requirements to get a tourist visa. I did but ignored the part about having “confirmed tickets for return or onward journey to the next port of destination.” I found out when I arrived at my first layover in San Francisco and spent some terrifying hours sitting in the airport hallway with my laptop trying to secure a “throwaway ticket.”

If I had done my research, I would have found out that you must have a ticket proving you will be leaving the Philippines within 30 days unless married to a Philippine citizen and have a copy of the marriage contract. Even if you plan on staying longer than a month or moving there and planning on getting a permanent visa, you must have an exit plan.

What I did eventually was get a ticket from Manila to Singapore, which was thankfully not more expensive than my shrinking bank account could afford. I canceled the flight later. I got flight credit, which I used later when I started traveling around the archipelago.

The next thing I had no clue about was communications. In 2011, all I had was a flip phone that I bought because it should have worked internationally. I wanted a backup in case of an emergency or couldn’t use the wi-fi and my laptop.

I did need to use the phone in Japan, and of course, it didn’t work. But I did figure out how to use the payphone in the Tokyo airport using my credit card, so it was okay.

Nowadays, everyone has a smartphone, and wi-fi is easy to find and universal no matter where you go. I even found wi-fi in a small airport in Taipei on a recent trip, so these days it’s not so much of a worry. Sometimes, you can even find flights with free wi-fi and charging ports, so it’s not that difficult to stay connected.

When you arrive in the Philippines, you can buy a SIM card for your international phone or find a cheap burner to get you by when you don’t have wi-fi access. Don’t count on always finding wi-fi, because there are still many places without, especially if you will be in the provinces.

Bring Some Backup Underwear

I made some grave errors when it came to clothing. First off, I am a big guy. Big and tall. You will find most clothing here fitted to accommodate a smaller stature person, and the big and tall sections are few and far between.

Forget about finding underwear.

Thankfully, I did bring a big suitcase, but the clothing wasn’t suited for the tropical climate. I had dark, heavy fabrics, jeans and pants, bulky shoes, and thick socks. Those work fine for a while, but once you spend a few days sweaty and uncomfortable, you will start looking for T-shirts and shorts.

If I had it to do over and had the money to buy a few things, I would have brought the following:

  • 12 underwear. Wear six and store the rest for later. Look for breathable fabrics. You will sweat, and with sweat comes odor. I would spend a little extra and get a lightweight Merino wool blend or the newer smart fabrics.
  • If you bring socks, try to find breathable and moisture-wicking low-rise types. You can find socks here in the Philippines, but if you want something that doesn’t smell as much, you might want to buy it before you leave.
  • Light-colored, thinner fabric shirts and T-shirts are best for the heat and humidity, and if you are an average-sized person, you will find many here in the Philippines at the mall. But if you are big and tall, the options are quite limited. Some of the newer synthetic blend shirts come in larger sizes if you shop around the internet, but like everything else, most of the good stuff is for the average person. Take your time and look around before you pack.
  • Bring one pair of pants. You will need to wear close-toed shoes and pants when you go to government offices and immigration, but other than that, you will wear shorts year-round. Stick to the lighter fabrics because heavier materials will add weight, and you will sweat and chafe.
  • Bring a pair of all-around shoes. I have some charming sneakers which can pass as a dress shoes if I go out to a fancy dinner. The rest of the time, we wear sandals or flip-flops. It’s always a good idea to make sure you get a pedicure because you will spend most of your time in slippers and shoeless inside of people’s homes as it is good etiquette to take your shoes off at the door. Why would you even wear shoes in the house anyway?
  • Bring a hat because the sun is brutal, and you don’t want to be sitting at the beach with nothing on your head. Especially if you have no hair, like me.

Other considerations:

  • You may want to have a small bag for your wallet and phone. Many men here wear man-bags that have a strap to go over their shoulder. I’ve worn one for years because it doesn’t make sense to have a bulky phone or wallet in your shorts’ pockets.
  • If you take a minimalist approach to packing and only bring what you need, you should be able to arrive with a carry-on and nothing else. Don’t overpack; that trip across the ocean is brutal.
  • Make sure you have documentation. Gather all your essential documents and take pictures of everything. Store the files in a secure folder on your phone. Copy all your credit cards and bank account numbers and keep them in a safe place. Bring your paper documents with you, like a birth certificate and divorce papers. Keep them in a waterproof bag in a very safe place in your carry-on.
  • Bring several months’ worth of medication, safely sealed in the original packaging with the original copies of your prescriptions. First of all, customs can be tricky; second, you may not be able to get an appointment with a doctor right away, especially if you need a psychiatrist. Mental health specialists are few and far between, so have a plan. Don’t assume you will find your favorite supplements and drugs either.
  • If you are coming to the Philippines to marry and want to bring your spouse back to your home country, get in the habit of being a collector. If you pay for anything for your girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse, get a receipt. Take lots of pictures together. When it comes time to meet with immigration, you prove that your relationship is not fake or an immigration scam.
  • Remember, you can order from Amazon, but it takes time to arrive, and customs will charge you an import tax. It can get expensive if you want to save money by purchasing a laptop back home.
  • It’s always good to get a checkup before leaving and make sure you mention you will be traveling internationally. There may be shots you need. It’s especially important now with COVID-19 as everyone is still unsure what the travel restrictions will be.

After You Arrive

I’ve made that trip over the ocean many times, and it is a long and arduous trip. Some things I have done to make the journey easier are:

  • Carry all your travel documents in a separate waterproof, easy-to-access pouch. Make sure you have a pen to write with because you will need to fill out immigration forms upon arrival in the Philippines.
  • If you often travel, in and out of the Philippines, one of the best investments is a filtered water bottle. Be careful not to drink tap water. Bottled water is okay, or you will find businesses often have big, blue jugs of purified. The best bet is to carry the filter and bottle everywhere because you will drink a lot of water. And it’s better for the environment than plastic bottles.
  • Find an ATM and get some cash right away. Make sure you also have smaller bills because most people will not have change for 1000 PHP. Don’t expect to use a credit card everywhere because a lot of places are cash-only. Try to pay in exact change, and please tip and tip often!
  • Don’t expect air conditioning. Many places are open-air. Drink a lot of cold water and stick to the shady areas.
  • Learn to always look for wi-fi. Globe and SMART are the Philippines’ leading carriers, and neither is very fast or reliable, even in the city. Make it a habit to seek out wi-fi in the places you go to. Most of the big malls like SM have free wi-fi, and you can pay more to get faster speeds, and a lot of restaurants, resorts, and hotels will have it as well.
  • Be careful with food for the first few weeks. Two weeks after arriving in the Philippines, I spent three days in the hospital with traveler’s diarrhea because I wasn’t cautious with what I ate. The sad fact is that most western countries sterilize their food so much that their citizens have incredibly weak immune systems. I arrived in the country and immediately started eating everything, including lizards and chicken feet from the street food stalls. You may want to go a little easier while your immune system catches up.

You Will Deal with Immigration

A lot of things have changed since COVID, but much will stay the same. When you arrive at the airport, you will get a 30-day Visa. After 30 days, you can get an extension with good reason. If you are going to stay longer, you need to get an I-card, which can be a bit expensive, but after that, you can usually get 2 to 6-month extensions up to 3 years. After three years, if you are on a tourist visa, you will have to leave the country and return.

Your best bet is to get a permanent residence visa if you plan on staying with your spouse in the Philippines. The process is a bit tricky. You need a background check, and all your documents have to be perfect. After all this time, I still have a tourist visa because my name on my marriage contract and my passport don’t match, and I have been hitting roadblocks trying to get the error fixed.

There is a lot of red tape when dealing with the government, but do yourself a favor when dealing with it — don’t be a jerk! Don’t let your privilege and entitlement cause you to be an asshole to these hardworking government employees. They are just doing their job. Just because you have to wait a few hours to get a document does not entitle you to treat people like dirt.

The Philippines is Not Your Country!

I’ve been here for a long time, and I have seen many foreigners come and go. Yes, there will be times when you get irritated because they don’t do things the same way they do in your home country. You cannot and should not expect everyone else to bend over backward for you.

Nothing is the same in the Philippines. Things take longer, and the traffic is brutal in the cities. Especially now that COVID has affected everything, you can expect that anything you do, from traveling by car to going to the grocery store, will be more complicated.

Don’t treat the Filipino people like crap because you feel you should get better treatment than everyone else.

Get over yourself.

You will have so much more fun if you treat everyone you meet like a superstar and smile often. Don’t be that miserable old white man or woman sitting in the corner screaming because the beer isn’t cold!

Here, we put ice in our beer if it isn’t chilly.

The Philippines is a developing country, so don’t go everywhere trying to get a discount or free lunch. I am looking at you, travel influencers. Pay full price, and for gosh sakes, tip. Tip everyone you meet, from your waitress to the guy who helps you back out of a parking spot.

Most people won’t expect a tip, but you should always offer it out of the goodness of your heart.

Adapt to the Philippines, or leave!

Life is Good

The longer you spend in the Philippines, the better it gets. There is so much to explore and countless beaches to walk. There is so much untouched beauty, and the people of the Philippines are kind and generous.

If you are planning on staying for a while, treat the Philippines like something precious. Treat the people like family and the environment like you own it.

There are issues here with things like poverty and trash. But every country you go to has its own set of unique problems.

Accept the Philippines for what it is and what it is not, have fun, and pick up after yourself. Be kind to everyone you meet, and you will have a much better time of it.

Drink strong beer and eat street food. Eat seafood on the beach and dance the night away in the discos that pop up everywhere.

Respect everyone and everything, and for gosh sakes, enjoy yourself!