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Interview with Michael Duffy: International Law Expert

What are some of the hardest places to get a visa?

Our office does not procure foreign visa directly, we engage foreign firms for that purpose. Aside from countries with diplomatic opposition to the United States or in a state of conflict (such as North Korea or Iran for example), even with “difficult” countries it’s only a matter of engaging a firm or agency that has the proper experience and background with the country in question. On paper, certain countries seem more difficult than they actually are. Many developing countries have apparently rigorous, myriad regulations for visas, requiring in-person contacts, letters of invitation, etc. (China, Russia and India may be examples). Some countries also provide little to no contact information or instructions, particularly certain African countries such as the Central African Republic or Guinea Bissau. The fact is though, those countries do still want tourist money and foreign investment, so once you find the right channel it’s a matter of course and money.

Are visa lotteries a viable option for movers?

Only certain countries have visa lotteries, and they are really only for people who have no other means of entry. If you have any skills, relatives, or relations in the foreign country, there are likely better routes. Family, student or employment visa provide means for many. If you have no qualifying characteristics but still really want to get into the EU for some reason for example, they you can try the lottery. You might never “win” though.

For a typical move from the UK to the US what legalities would have to be addressed?

Assuming it was not citizenship-based, some standard issues are taxation, establishing bank accounts and other financial instruments, obtaining a living space, as well as the actual immigration process. Foreign workers obtain social security numbers, can get drivers licenses, and do most of the other things citizens do.

How do you help people deal with government corruption in some countries?

In terms of the immigration process, unfortunately government corruption is deeply ingrained in certain countries. Educating clients on the realities of life in these countries is important, even if the reality is hard to understand until experienced. Importantly, we advise clients to become aware of and operate within the boundaries of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This applies to both American business and citizens. For example, there is an important but relatively unclear distinction between “bribes” and “grease payments”.

How easy is it to start a new business abroad?

There are some very business-friendly countries, but it’s a fairly short list. Many countries make it very bureaucratic to start a business, as well as expensive, and slow. Many countries have restrictions on foreign ownership as well, either disallowing it entirely or requiring a majority local partner. Even if you get the business registered and underway, maintaining it is another matter. Don’t expect a small business to run itself while the owner is abroad. I generally recommend limiting legal business presence in foreign countries to only the required minimum. This generally reduces complexity, liability and cost.

Are there any laws in the US that often catch UK expats out?

In my experience Brits are pretty much fine with abiding by laws (the US legal system is modeled on the British, after all). There is trouble driving and other cultural matters initially, but they are always overcome. The UK is often more legally restrictive, so they are more often taken aback by the lack of laws in certain cases. Lack of mandatory holidays, paying for health insurance and lax labor regulations for example, seem to be some of the top legal matters many British expats have issues with. Higher incomes and lower prices often compensate…

You get arrested in a new country, what are your next steps and options?

Call the US embassy or consulate first, immediately. Call a local lawyer second, often the one recommended by the embassy.

Are there any clients you’ve helped out of a particularly sticky situation?

I had a client that was in the US fighting extradition to Vietnam over serious criminal charges. There is no extradition treaty so there was little recourse for the government in that case. It created a political mess, though.