As you know, I’ve been answering a lot of general interest questions on Quora lately, but I also get some questions that simply can’t be answered in that forum.
If you’ve come to Romania and overstayed your visa, I’m going to tell you everything I know, but you must understand two very important things. One, I am not a lawyer. Two, none of what I am going to tell you is strictly legal, so there are risks involved if you heed my advice. If that scares you or disgusts you, contact a (real) lawyer and stop reading this article right now.
I personally think immigration laws are as stupid and outdated as the laws on apartheid and eugenics, so that’s where I’m coming from. I’ve also “lost” one immigration case (in Romania) and “won” one (in Moldova), so I’m probably one of the few foreigners in existence with such an intimate knowledge of the bullshit you’ll have to go through.
Furthermore, I’ve represented myself in court, been behind the scenes where no foreigners are allowed to go (including inside the Immigration Office), dealt with corrupt government officials soliciting bribes, and nearly came to blows with the cretins who work in the Cluj-Napoca Immigration Department. In other words, I’ll tell you what nobody else will, including even lawyers who “specialize” in immigration cases.
Before we begin, two things: One, read my post An Exhaustive Guide to Immigration in Romania and two, keep in mind that what I’ll be describing in this article is strictly about Romania. If you’ve overstayed your visa in Moldova, that’s a different situation altogether even if the particulars are often somewhat similar.
Ready? Here we go!
What Happens When You Enter Romania?
Unbeknownst to you, the moment you entered Romania, the Border Police (Ro: Politia de Frontiera) forwarded a file on you to the Immigration Department. These are two totally separate entities, although, of course, they’re both parts of the Romanian government.
The Border Police, by and large, only care about preventing the wrong people from entering the country. The Immigration Department, however, is focused on making sure the “wrong” people don’t stay in Romania.
If you’re from a “good” country, you get an automatic 90-day “visa” to stay in Romania. Once you’ve stayed past that 91st day, the Immigration Department (theoretically) knows about it, and so your troubles begin.
Your Options, None of Them Good
Once you’ve (realized that you’ve) overstayed your visa, you have three options:
- You want to leave and not come back (any time soon);
- You want to leave AND come back; or
- You want to stay a while longer.
Option #1 – Gone for Good
You will NOT be arrested. You will NOT be fined. In fact, you won’t even get a letter (or call or email) from the Immigration Department. As far as they’re concerned, you’re just a file sitting on someone’s desk.
When you’re ready to leave, simply leave. The Border Police (which also work at airports with international flights) may just wave you on through without a second glance. Or they may refer you to the Immigration Department officer working at the border post.
Note: You will definitely have to deal with Immigration if you fly out of Otopeni Airport in Bucharest.
The Border Police won’t give a shit about you, but the Immigration Department will shout at you, treat you rudely, and act like you’re a terrorist smuggling in nuclear weapons. They will pressure you very hard to sign a document. If you do that, you’re essentially admitting your guilt, and they will use it to fill out 10 more pieces of paper. They’ll also add a crude stamp in your passport which bans you from re-entering Romania for a certain amount of time.
Officially, there’s supposed to a formula to determine how long you will be banned that is based on how long you overstayed. The formula ranges from six months to five years, but the Immigration guys can choose how long to ban you based on how they’re feeling that day.
Once you’re banned, you’ll pay no fine, and you won’t be prohibited from traveling to/in the European Union or staying in any other country. And once your ban period is over, you can re-enter Romania legally with no problems whatsoever.
Option #2 – A Fresh Start
This one is the most difficult option, as there is effectively no legal way to escape being banned for a preset period of time once you’ve overstayed your visa. I 100% guarantee that you’ll lose all of your court hearings and/or appeals unless you bribe the judge (yes, it’s possible, but unless you speak Romanian, I would ask your lawyer to do it for you) and that’s usually too weird/risky for foreigners to attempt.
Romania is under severe pressure both internally and internationally to appear tough on “illegal” immigration. Romania is also (very unsuccessfully) pursuing membership in the Schengen Area, so the Immigration Department gets “points” every time they round up an “illegal” foreigner. It may sound weird to hear this, but “high-status” foreigners from “good” countries like Australia or the US get “extra” points because it shows that Romania is “cracking down” on everyone, not just war refugees from Syria.
Therefore, believe me when I say that (unless you’re very rich), your only option at this point is to do something illegal, namely crossing out of Romania NOT at a standard border crossing. The borders with Moldova, Ukraine, and Serbia are very heavily patrolled due to cigarette smuggling, and the border with Bulgaria is the Danube River, so really, your best bet is to walk right into Hungary from western Romania.
Hungary shares a huge land border with Romania and it’s all flat fields, so no mountains or rivers to cross. Right now, Hungary is pretty visceral about protecting its borders to keep migrants out, so it’s harder now to walk into Hungary undetected than it used to be. You’ll need to pick a Romanian town that’s close to a Hungarian one and find a way to nonchalantly “get lost” and cross over, therefore I recommend going in the middle of the day and acting confidently. Of course, you could get a friend to drive you over and hide you in the trunk/boot of the car, but that’s probably overkill.
Once you’re in Hungary, you can then make your way to an official border crossing and then re-enter Romania. Of course, your passport will only show an entry stamp into Romania, so you’ll need to make plans for this, including using a little artistic creativity to add a fake exit stamp (and entrance stamp into somewhere else).
It won’t fool the computers, but it is highly likely to fool the people who work at the border post, especially (again) if you’re from a “good” country and act like a confused non-Romanian-speaking tourist. You DEFINITELY do not want to speak Romanian here!
Technically, again, this is breaking the law, but good luck in finding anyone who can tell you exactly which law this supposedly violates.
Note: Exit stamps used by the Romanian Border Police are incredibly primitive. Ask to see one in a friend’s passport and build a little stencil. You can buy ink pads in literally every city in Romania (look for stores selling “stampile”). Be sure to add a tiny bit of smudging to make the whole thing look realistic. And make sure your “exit visa” is less than 90 days since you entered! Also, make sure your new entry stamp is NOT in Hungary as you’ll have to first get cleared to leave Hungary by their border police at the crossing before you deal with the Romanian border police.
The only real risk here is being caught by the Hungarians when you cross into their country as they’re really not big fans of immigrants (to say the least). If you’re Muslim or from a majority-Muslim country, or you have dark(er) skin, your chances of making this option work are reduced due to the built-in racism in this part of the world.
Once you’re back in Romania, you’ve got a fresh 90 days (or fewer if you’ve returned less than 180 days after you officially “left”). If you really want to stay in Romania without the hassle, do what it takes to get a longer-term residency visa this time.
Option #3 – Stay Longer
Honestly, you can stay in Romania as long as you like without any trouble, assuming you avoid getting arrested (or ID’d) by the police. The Immigration Department won’t kick in your door or anything else, even if you’ve overstayed your visa by years.
They won’t call you. They won’t email you. And they won’t even visit your home, even if you’re living somewhere that is registered with the (Romanian) government. Police in Romania are not allowed to break into your home without a very hard to get warrant (usually reserved for terrorists or major crime figures), and the Immigration Department is too lazy 99 times out of 100 to get a warrant to arrest you.
Essentially, they wait for you to either a) tangle with the authorities over another matter or b) leave the country and then get informed by the Border Police that you’re trying to leave. Therefore, as long as you don’t need to work (legally) in Romania or get married or register your kids for school or do anything else official in the country, you can stay as long as you like.
Of course, when you DO leave, you’ll be faced with the same problems as Option #1. And there’s no way to retroactively get your visa extended. Once you’ve crossed over the 90-day (or whatever) limit on your visa, you’re forever officially a “criminal” and will be treated as such, verbally if not otherwise.
And even if the Immigration Department does find you, all they will do is get you to sign a piece of paper saying you will leave the country within 30 days under your own power (and at your own expense). You will NOT get arrested OR fined.
Extremely Important Advice
If, for some reason, you do come into contact with the Immigration Department and you’ve overstayed your visa, they will practically force you to sign a piece of paper. It may be bilingual in Romanian and English (or French), but what it really says is that you’ve admitted that you’re a criminal. DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING.
Whether you feel you’ve been wrongly accused of overstaying your visa or not, the second you sign that paper, you’ve effectively gone in front of a judge and confessed to a crime, and there’s no return from that whatsoever. Even if you’re legally blind and illiterate, the courts and Immigration people will consider that “confession” to be binding.
At this point, you can either follow my advice under Option #2 above or else hire a lawyer and attempt to fight the thing. By law, you have the right to appeal any and all immigration orders (to deport you), but it’s largely going to be a huge waste of your time and money. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the first one to ever ethically win an immigration court case, but I’ve never heard of such a thing happening except for extremely rich people with powerful business and political connections.
Do NOT listen to your lawyer and/or the Immigration Department when it comes to either signing papers OR writing out your circumstances/story (a “witness statement” is what it looks like) because they will all be treated like a confession of guilt no matter what it actually says. Signing your name to pieces of paper is a huge deal in Romania, and the bureaucracy seemingly cannot function without them. Refusing to sign anything will seriously jam up the works, and can only work in your favor.
Unless you’re caught and don’t care about coming back, don’t sign or write anything! And ALWAYS speak in either English or French (Immigration officers are required to speak one or both) and never, ever in Romanian. If you speak Romanian to them, they’ll get even more arrogant and verbally (if not physically) abusive, so keep the power and speak YOUR language, not theirs.
Romanians are good people, and you wouldn’t be living in the country unless you liked the culture, but they can still be somewhat Communist in their thinking when it comes to bureaucracy. Most Romanians are used to the police only hassling gypsies, and won’t understand what you’re going through.
Romanians have to work very hard and spend a lot of money to get visas to visit places like the United States or Australia, so they get a little angry when they think you’ve “disrespected” Romanian immigration laws. And Immigration Department officials may even scream at you with (mock?) outrage about your “rude” behavior in failing to adhere to obscure residency rules that literally nobody ever explained to you when you first came to the country.
My advice is to keep your legal status a secret at all times, not because someone will rat you out to the police, but because Romanians won’t be able to understand why you love the country enough to overstay your visa. As far as they’re concerned, you’re a rich person who should’ve gone through the hoops to get legal residency from day one. If anyone asks, just say you’re keeping your options open, and they won’t pry further.
You can, however, tell your lawyer(s) anything you wish, but they will have barely more of an idea of what the fuck to do about your situation than you will. Even firms that “specialize” in immigration cases actually specialize in taking easy money from foreigners as there’s literally no (ethical) way to win a case in court when someone has overstayed their visa. The Romanian justice system is opaque, weird, and secretive, and there’s absolutely no room for mercy or extenuating circumstances to come into play.
Look, I love Romania. I generally respect their laws too, even the stupid ones. But immigration laws are immoral and cruel. I consider them no more valid than apartheid was in South Africa or eugenics-based sterilizations were in Nazi Germany and the United States. Birds, plants, emails, letters, money, and animals all migrate around the world freely in this modern age, and so should human beings. Every country in the world was first inhabited by human beings that had neither passport nor visa, and all these modern day immigration laws are less than a century old.
Stupid and weird rules that make you a welcome guest for 90 days but a disrespectful criminal on the 91st day are ridiculous, and I consider them non-binding and invalid. They do nothing to promote the security of Romania and cause unbelievable hardship and suffering on people who just want to live their lives in peace without hurting anybody.
Furthermore, the low pay and xenophobic nature of the Immigration Department tends to attract the stupidest, most racist, and thuggish kind of employees, exactly the type of people who shouldn’t be interacting with foreigners or handling delicate situations.
If you love Romania like I do, I wish you a pleasant and happy stay, however long that may be.