Saturday, January 15, 2011

My Biggest Mistake in Ukraine

During my 8+ years in Ukraine I've had plenty of time to make mistakes. What do I regret most of all? Helping my wife (U.S. citizen) get a work permit. Yes, this decision has been the greatest source of stress and negative emotions of anything I have done in Ukraine.

Since my wife doesn't speak Russian or Ukrainian fluently and doesn't understand the system, and because her employer took care of the work permit process only and we are too poor to afford costly legal services oriented towards foreigners working for transnational corporations, I had to take care of the rest of the processes myself.

The result: over 100 man-hours of work, costs (visa, fees, late fines, registration, covering costs for landlord) of upwards of $1000, and continual stress for nearly 9 months as all the steps of this impossibly complicated process played out. I would place a value of roughly $15 per hour of my time, so the total cost of this endeavor has been perhaps $2500. That is, I would not do it again unless you paid me over $2500 to do it.

A Ukrainian work permit is not a good choice for people who do not have the complete support of corporate legal specialists.

Each step of the process leads to another step, the details of which you only find out as you complete the previous step. Each step involving the OVIR or the ZHEK typically requires multiple visits as you first find out the working hours, then who to talk to, then what documents you are lacking, then which things you have done incorrectly, then finally to submit the document/s.

I believe I have been to the city OVIR nearly 10 times for this process, the local ZHEK 5 times, and the rayon OVIR half a dozen times — all for steps of the process that follow receipt of the work permit. That is, getting the work permit is just a fraction of the work involved. The real difficulties come when you get a temporary residency permit and then get the foreigner with the permit registered at a Ukrainian address.

So what do I recommend? Working illegally in Ukraine is a wiser choice for foreigners in the English teaching category than trying to go through the rigamarole of obtaining a work permit and temporary residency.

The fact is, Ukraine desperately needs native teachers of English and other languages (and all the politicians know this, if they have ever given thought to the subject), but absolutely no provisions have been made to allow this to happen. Compare this to Georgia, which now has an official government program to bring native teachers to the country, provide them with housing and a liveable salary, and take care of their organizational worries.

The work permit process — like other bureaucratic business procedures in Ukraine — is designed (whether intentionally or by default) in such a way that only large business structures with lots of capital and legal staff can adhere to them. Everyone else in Ukraine lives outside the law in webs of deceit that make them vulnerable to the whims of government officials, police, etc. Without a doubt, this is the worst part about living in Ukraine, whether you are a native or a foreigner. It's a great reason to emigrate.

The only way out of this web is to be part of a large business structure that provides you with all the appearances of complete legality while taking all the responsibility for deceit upon themselves. For this they have legal staff and government connections that allow them to "settle matters" more efficiently than small businesses or individuals could ever hope to.


  1. hello.
    im moving to ukrain in september to work there as an english teacher. I read your article about difficulties about obtaining a work permit. Only thing i missed in your article, is what to do if you dont have a work permit. Will it get you in legal problems , and will schools hire you if you will be working wiothout a working permit . I hope to hear about your experiences some more.
    greets sebastiaan

  2. hello.
    i read your article and you said that :Working illegally in Ukraine is a wiser choice for foreigners in the English teaching category than trying to go through the rigamarole of obtaining a work permit and temporary residency.

    now my question is how to work in ukraine without having a working permit .
    I hope to hear from you , as i will be mmoving to ukrain at september 1st to work there as an english teacher.
    greetings from sebastiaan

  3. well if you're going to work as an English teacher it'd be a good idea to learn how to spell!

  4. Spelling can help... save me from my agony and point out the error (most likely a typo) please.

  5. The only thing i asked for was something that wasn't mentioned in the article . And I must admit I'm a messy typer ) but i thought this site was about helping each other ..
    greets Sebastiaan

  6. Sebastiaan,

    I hesitate to give people advice about how to break laws by working under the table. I don't want to be responsible for other people getting in trouble, or be identified as a source of problems for the authorities.

    We would all like to see Ukraine put a reasonable work system in place for foreigners that serves everyone's best interests. Such a system would make it as easy as possible for Ukrainians to be taught languages by native speakers of those languages, and for those teachers to gain benefit from their stay in Ukraine. This would involve a major simplification of work permit and registration procedures (possibly annulling the latter altogether).

    If you choose not to go through the whole work permit procedure, it is easy enough to find other less legal alternatives upon arrival. The main thing is to find clients or language schools who want you to work for them.

  7. I have read your articles and think this is a great mistake and harresment for a couple. First time it seems very hard to collect work permit. But for a foreighner it should be easy. Lutfor Rahman, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Cell: +88 02 01912 922814.

  8. The same thing happens in China, lots of places don't fully understand the process, nor do the should be "official" channels they go thru, work properly.

  9. I guess if systems were well thought out and easy to navigate, we would all become global nomads and move from place to place on a whim. Maybe all this bureaucracy serves to keep people rooted in one place, and only people with extreme motivation to travel are able to overcome the obstacles and make it work.

  10. The point is that the system is bureaucratic on purpose and the system makes money at each every step through bribes. Without paying them, your application and approvals will take much longer or may not be approved at all. Sick place.

  11. Hmmmm? So in my situation my company doesn't have an office in Ukraine and I wouldn't have the support of their legal/tax folks. But I have spent a lot of time in Odessa and would like to live there when work doesn't take me elsewhere. (I'm in the oil & gas industry). Ukraine's taxes are less than in the UK. So for that matter Ukraine would be advantageous. But I know little about obtaining and keeping a work permit, if I actually need one.

    1. Work permit for foreigners in Ukraine. See

  12. Another option is working as a freelancer. This will ease the whole stress. This is a follow up post: