Saturday, January 13, 2018

Amendments to Sri Lankan Visa Regulations for Foreigners

This week the Sri Lankan Government approved a series of amendments to the Immigrants and Emigrants Act No. 20 of 1948, which will mean favourable changes to existing visa regulations for foreign nationals and former Sri Lankan citizens.

Many of these changes relate to longer stay visas and will be welcomed as positive change by foreign nationals or expats in Sri Lanka, particularly foreign investors, employees and spouses.

One of the banes of expat life in Sri Lanka has been the regular and frequent visits to the Department of Immigration and Emigration ("DIE") to renew your visa. As time has passed, the process to apply or renew your visa in Sri Lanka has become a little smoother, a tad more efficient, and the offices of DIE have moved to a better locale. These latest changes will be a welcome relief as well as to encourage the foreign influx into the country.

So what amendments to the visa regulations have been approved?

The key amendments include:
  • An option for applicants to pay visa fees in US dollars (previously only Sri Lankan rupees were accepted).
  • On the recommendation of the relevant government ministry (which also administers Sri Lanka's Board of Investment ("BOI")), issuance of five-year residence visas for eligible foreign investors within the BOI zones. The same ministry has also been granted responsibility for the development of the criteria for eligibility. Eligibility may include remittance of more than US$300,000 via designated Securities Investment Accounts or Offshore Accounts.
  • A scheme to be developed by the Ministry of Finance that would provide recommendations to the Controller of Immigration for the issuance of ten-year residence visas for foreigners who remit more than US$500,000 to Sri Lanka
  • Issuance of residence visas for foreign students that would cover their full academic course.
  • Issuance of five-year residence visas under the foreign spouse category who meet the criteria of a minimum of five years of continuous marriage. This extended visa would also be issued to their children.
  • Issuance of a conditional two-year residence visas to foreigners for employment purposes, with a visa fee of US$200, in circumstances where:
    • their Sri Lankan spouse is deceased, or
    • they have a living Sri Lankan spouse and they have resided in Sri Lanka continuously for a minimum of ten years and have children under 18 years of age.
  • Issuance of permanent residence visas for former Sri Lankan citizens who have taken citizenship of other countries, but are ineligible for dual citizenship.
  • A new fine of US$500, in addition to visa fees, where foreigners' visas have expired

The clear message in these reforms is to attract new foreign investment (through business development enterprises and direct foreign investment) into the country by relaxing visa regulations. Foreign governments and their trade missions have been pushing the government for these changes for some time.

From the individual expat perspective, these changes also herald a positive outlook, particularly for foreign spouses (sometimes called trailing spouses).

One of the fundamental issues for foreign spouses under the current visa regulations has been the inability to seek employment (paid or unpaid) under the spouse residence visa. The foreign spouse would have to obtain a separate employment visa if they wished to work. Though restrictions have not been strictly enforced when it comes to freelance work, there is always a risk that you might find yourself investigated and on the wrong side of the law.

The new two-year residence visa for foreign spouses for employment purposes is certainly a step in the right direction, but the circumstances will still make it very hard for new foreign spouse arrivals as the criteria for at least ten years of continuous residence on the island is obstructive. Most will have to apply for employment visas is they wish to work or tread a careful line with freelance work.

Having said that, there will enormous relief for long-term foreign spouses who have been residing in Sri Lanka for decades and have been trotting off to the DIE every two years. Now there is at least some certainty of their rights in the event their Sri Lankan spouse passes away, in that they can apply for a visa to remain in the country. Many have been carrying the fear of being deported from the only home they have known upon the death of their Sri Lankan spouse. The two-year residence visa for foreign spouses for employment purposes also offers the ability to seek employment should they need to. 

From a Sri Lankan expat perspective, particularly former Sri Lankan citizens who reside in countries where dual citizenship is not available, the option for permanent residence visa is welcome. Most expat Sri Lankans who have left the country have strong familial ties, which will bring them back to the island on a regular basis. the permanent residence visa will enable them to travel and back and forwards without the need to frequently apply for visa entry (usually tourist visas) into their country of origin.

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