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A Comprehensive Guide on Moving to Cambodia

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Relocating to Cambodia

At a Glance:

  • Although you can get a visa at the airport or at named border crossings, we recommend that you apply for one before you move to Cambodia.
  • Officials are tightening up on work permit checks. Previously, you may have gotten away without one, but if you want to avoid hefty fines, make sure you have a valid work permit.
  • Whether you want a busy, cosmopolitan life or a quiet house by the beach, there’s somewhere to suit everyone’s tastes in Cambodia.
  • Buses are the easiest and most common method of public transportation, while use of the Cambodian passenger train service is gradually being restored.

Whether previous travels to South-East Asia left you captivated by Cambodia’s charms, or if your decision to move was more career-motivated, the country has plenty to offer to expats from all backgrounds.

Back to Basics: Facts and Figures

Cambodia, officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, is a South East Asian nation which borders Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. The country has an impressive and diverse environment: sprawling low, flat plains in the central region, the winding Mekong River, tiny tropical islands, wild rainforests, as well as mountainous regions. Cambodia has a tropical climate, with average temperatures ranging from 21⁰C to 35⁰C throughout the year. The rainy season is between May and October, bringing tropical monsoons, while the dry season lasts from November to April. When moving to Cambodia, keep in mind that the extensive rainfall makes flooding a common occurrence, particularly between June and October.

The country has a population of approximately 15.9 million, of which around 65% are under 30 years old. This particularly young population is a result of the baby boom that occurred following the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. The Cambodian people have endured a lot of hardship and suffering, caused by territorial conflict with Vietnam, the Vietnamese Occupation, and the repressive Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). Vietnamese Troops withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, establishing some relative peace in the country.

Since then, however, Cambodia has faced tensions with Thailand, countless cases of political corruption (which sparked protests in 2014), as well as the complex process of bringing the perpetrators from the Khmer Rouge to justice — a constant reminder of the atrocities of war.

An Easy Application: Getting a Cambodian Visa

Before moving to Cambodia, it is advisable to secure a valid visa for your stay. You can also get your visa upon arrival, but taking care of it beforehand will make the process smoother and give you one less thing to worry about upon arrival. You can submit your visa application via mail or in person at your nearest Cambodian consulate or embassy.

There are two main types of visa that are available: the Tourist (T) visa, and the Business (E) visa. Both types are initially valid for 30 days after arrival in Cambodia. The tourist visa can be extended for one extra month, while the business visa can be extended for a maximum of twelve months, and then renewed as often as necessary. This makes it the perfect solution for expats on a short business trip as well as those who move to Cambodia for a long-term assignment.

In order to apply for a Cambodian visa, you need to submit the following paperwork:

  • one completed visa application
  • one passport-sized photo
  • your passport, which must be valid for at least another six months
  • a self-addressed and pre-paid return envelope

For business visa applications you will also need:

  • a letter from your company or your sponsor, or an invitation from Cambodia, supporting the need for you to apply for a business visa

You will be charged a small fee when you first apply for your visa, and again when you extend your visa at the Ministry of Interior after moving to Cambodia.

Border Crossing

The procedure of applying for your visa upon arrival in Cambodia is quite straight-forward. You can apply for your visa at one border crossing with Laos, five crossings with Vietnam, and six with Thailand. However, it is a lot easier and less of a hassle if you take care of it at the airport as opposed to the land border checkpoints. The immigration officers at the land border checkpoints have a reputation for asking for additional immigration fees (which you are not obligated to pay).

They might also overcharge you for your visa, or force you to change your foreign currency into Cambodian riel at a poor exchange rate. The officials in Phnom Penh are trying to put an end to this, so it is important that you try your best to stand your ground and, if possible, pass on the name of the officials trying to scam you to the Ministry of Interiors and Tourism.

Work Permits

According to the Cambodian Labor Law of 1997, every foreign employee needs to secure a work permit in addition to their business (E) visa. However, when it comes to visas and employment, Cambodia has particularly poor regulation. Due to their largely contradictory and confusing Immigration Law, many foreigners have managed to work in the country without a work permit.

In recent years, however, officials have tried to tighten up the regulations, ensuring all foreign employees have a valid work permit. The rules are unclear, and Cambodian officials appear to regularly change their mind on what is needed, but it is always better to err on the side of caution, and apply for the work permit. If an employee is found not to have a valid work permit, both the worker and their employer can face hefty fines.

The application for a work permit is done on your behalf by your employer in Cambodia. As mentioned above, this doesn’t always happen, but if they do want you to have a permit, then you will be required to provide

  • three sets of application forms issued by the Ministry of the Interior
  • a passport and valid Cambodian visa
  • three passport photos
  • a certificate of health
  • written work contract from your employer

The employer will also be required to provide some additional documentation. The application must be done through the Ministry of Labor.

Destinations in Cambodia

Where to Live in Cambodia

Whether you prefer the hectic city life or the serenity of the countryside, Cambodia has it all. Even if the place that you will be settling in is already decided by your (future) employer, you should not miss out on the beauty of this country — make sure to explore your host country as much as possible!

The City of Expats: Phnom Penh

Home to just over two million people, Phnom Penh is the country’s capital and one of the most popular destinations for expats. Whether you find the city loud and overwhelming, or value it for its history and the excitement it provides, Phnom Penh undeniably offers expats the highest level of luxury and convenience.

It is not just the coffee shops, movie theaters, and grocery stores all over the city that make it an expat favorite. The infrastructure is also very good, high speed internet and electricity are available everywhere, and power cuts rarely happen. The job market is attractive to many foreigners: with plenty of English schools wanting teachers, and NGOs looking for volunteers, the city offers a variety of employment opportunities to expats from all over the world.

Currently spread over around 680 square kilometers, the authorities and infrastructure of Phnom Penh are struggling to keep up with an ever-growing population, with traffic, sewage and garbage disposal all causing problems. However, Phnom Penh is now undergoing urban expansion — by spreading into the neighboring provinces — in order to help accommodate the population, which is expected to reach 2.5 million by 2035.

Beauty and Tranquility: Siem Reap

The name Siem Reap translates to “Siam defeated”, a meaning which dates back to a victory over Siam (modern-day Thailand) in the 16th century. If Phnom Penh is the place to go to when looking for a buzzing metropolis, then Siem Reap is the destination for anyone who appreciates the beauty of Cambodia’s countryside. Here you will find endless rice paddies and ancient temples surrounding the town.

Although Siem Reap is much smaller than Cambodia’s capital, it is home to a tight-knit, expat community, including lots of artists and photographers. Tourists migrate to this town as well, loving it mostly for its proximity to the Angkor temples, which means that the area has a good infrastructure, modern hotels, and some of the best restaurants in the entire country.

Life by the Beach: Sihanoukville

Known for its beautiful beaches and islands, Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s most popular seaside resort. It is also Cambodia’s youngest city. Established in the 1950s, it has seen rapid development and nowadays it is dominated by hotels, casinos, and construction sites. Very popular with young backpackers, the area has quite a reputation for being a party-town. In the “low season” though, when the area welcomes fewer tourists, Sihanoukville is much calmer and expats have the chance to properly enjoy the idyllic beaches. Unfortunately, many essentials such as good medical care and various everyday items are almost impossible to find in the area, forcing expats living there to take a trip to Phnom Penh.

A Laidback Lifestyle: Battambang

Battambang, located on the Sangkae River in the northwest of the country, is Cambodia’s second largest city. Yet, despite its size, it has a laid-back atmosphere and feels more like a small town, complete with charming colonial buildings and ancient Angkorian temples. The town is not one of Cambodia’s tourist hotspots, which means it has a calmer vibe than the bigger tourist hubs. The expat community here is small, made up of mainly French expats. One downside is the city’s infrastructure, which is far from the standard of that of Phnom Penh, with very limited shopping opportunities and amenities.

Beauty and Charm: Kep and Kampot

Located in the south, these neighboring towns are slowly being discovered by expats. Kep, once Cambodia’s number one seaside destination, is a small town popular with Khmer locals, and is only slowly being rediscovered by tourists and expats alike. Much of Kep was destroyed in the days of the Khmer Rouge, and many of the ruins can still be seen. Despite this, tourists still find the town attractive: located in Kep National Park, home to idyllic beaches, and renowned for its seafood, the town has plenty to offer. As there are limited job opportunities there, most expats living in the area are involved in the tourism industry in one way or another.

Kampot, is a sleepy riverside town popular with tourists, with many guesthouses and boutique hotels. The town has a growing expat community — drawn to the area by the cheap housing and the French colonial charm — bringing with them cultural developments and new cuisines.

The infrastructure in both towns is not up to the same standards as many larger Cambodian towns, but with growing expat populations, developments are slowly happening.

Local Transportation in Cambodia

Up in the Air

Cambodia has three major airports through which you can enter the country: Phnom Penh International Airport, Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport (the largest and busiest in Cambodia), and Sihanouk International Airport. Additional smaller airports (not all with paved runways) allow you to reach even remote areas of the country.

There are two main airlines in Cambodia: Angkor Air and Bayon Airlines. Both airlines offer connections to various Cambodian cities and other Asian destinations, such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Seoul, or Singapore.

Aero Cambodia is a small airline that focuses mainly on freight and charter services. They transport up to 19 passengers and specialize in short microlight flights. Of course, lots of other international airlines connect you to Cambodia as well.

The Convenient Way to Travel: Buses in Cambodia

Taking the bus is currently the most convenient way to travel from one city to the next. Large, air-conditioned buses will take you almost anywhere you want to go. They connect Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Battambang, as well as many other smaller towns.

You can also reach the surrounding towns and villages of Phnom Penh by using local bus services. Many of the staff even speak English, making it easier for you to find the right connection. Provincial routes are usually serviced by minibuses which are mostly used by the local population. While they are cheap, the journey can be very crowded and uncomfortable. The drivers are not always very cautious, and if you are prone to travel sickness, you should avoid this means of transportation altogether.

By Water or Rail: Travel Takes Time

Cambodia is known for its extensive network of inland waterways, which, in the rainy season, is approximately 1,750 km long in total. Historically used for domestic trade, these waterways (including the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers) also play a key role when it comes to passenger transportation. They allow you to reach various islands, as well as different towns along the rivers. In fact, some villages still largely depend on the waterways for transportation. One of the most popular routes is between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, which can take as little as five hours. However, you should keep in mind that boat trips might not be the quickest, safest or most convenient method of transportation.

Train travel is limited in Cambodia. Once an important means of freight and passenger transportation, the railways suffered neglect and major damage in recent decades and passenger services were suspended in 2009. However, in the last few years the system has been restored, and in 2016, passenger services run by Royal Railways were resumed, albeit only with a limited schedule. The current service runs from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, stopping at Takeo and Kampot on the way, departing only on weekend mornings. There are hopes that a full service of passenger trains will be restored in the coming years.

Behind the Wheel: Is It Worth the Risk?

Depending on where you live, you may want to take your own car to work, instead of having to rely on public transportation. While this may seem like the most convenient option, you should keep in mind that the country’s road network is not in the best condition. While driving around Cambodia, you may find other people’s driving erratic and dangerous, and come across stray cattle, or overloaded vehicles without lights. It is not surprising that the country has one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in the world.

If you are brave enough to hit the road, you will first need to secure a Cambodian driving license. International Driving Permits, although helpful as a means of identification, are not accepted in Cambodia. There are two ways to get your hands on a local license:

  • apply for a driver license exam (only if you do not already have a valid license for your home country)
  • exchange your license for a Cambodian driving permit, which will be valid for one year, after which it can be renewed

If you are 65 years or older, you will also have to undergo a medical general check-up to ensure that you are fit to drive.

In order to obtain a local driving license, you need the following documents:

  • a copy of your passport
  • a copy of your visa
  • a copy of your residence certificate
  • 5 passport-sized photos
  • your driving license (including a translation if the document has not been issued in English or French)
  • a medical certificate (if you are 65 years or older)

Recent changes to the Land Traffic Law mean that, should you want to drive a standard motorbike or scooter (under 125cc), you no longer need a driving license.

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  • Elias Jaber

    Sharing expat experiences about Phnom Penh was exactly what I was looking for when I stumbled upon InterNations.

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