Popular Gold Card Program Still Needs Streamlining

The special visa program for high-level foreign professionals has become all the more appealing in light of Taiwan’s deft handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet bureaucratic obstacles could deter potential applicants.

Taiwan’s effective management of the coronavirus has brought a marked increase in international awareness of the country. One indication of that recognition has been the significant uptick in the number of Employment Gold Cards recently issued to foreign professionals interested in living and working in Taiwan.

As of the end of January this year, according to National Development Council (NDC) data, 584 Employment Gold Cards had been issued across eight fields of expertise. By the end of September, that number had risen to 1,000. To mark this milestone, a ceremony was held on September 28, in which President Tsai Ing-wen presented the 998th, 999th, and 1000th Gold Cards to their respective recipients. The ceremony was attended by several other holders of the card from all over the world.

Recipients past and present of the Employment Gold Card gathered at the Presidential Office in late September to commemorate the issuance of the 1000th Gold Card. Photo: Office of the President

NDC Deputy Minister Kao Shien-quey suggests two reasons for the increase in Gold Card applications. “Taiwan’s visibility has increased substantially,” she says, citing the increased media attention Taiwan has received since the onset of the pandemic. Second, she notes the relatively stable continued performance of the Taiwanese economy, at a time when most neighboring countries have been much more affected by the pandemic and its consequences.

But despite this uptick, shortcomings in the program remain, with critics citing an application process marked by bureaucratic opacity and slow response times. In addition, questions remain over the extent to which the Gold Card can help remedy the broader economic issues it was designed to address.

The Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals, which created the Gold Card, was approved by the Legislative Yuan in 2017 and came into force the following year. Two intersecting motivations spurred its adoption.

The first was the desire to confront ongoing changes in Taiwan’s demographics. In a 2018 report, the NDC estimated that by 2026 Taiwan will have become a “super-aged” society, meaning that over 20% of the population is aged 65 or over. The same report projected that by 2065, the working-age population would constitute less than 50% of the total.

The second issue was Taiwan’s weakness in attracting foreign talent. In introducing the policy, the NDC states that it was designed to “recruit and attract foreign professionals,” “fill domestic talent and skill gaps,” and “assist our enterprises to internationalize their positioning.”

The Employment Gold Card provides significantly more flexible working conditions than other types of visas available to foreigners. The card is colloquially known as the “4 in 1” visa since it provides a resident visa, Alien Resident Certificate (ARC), multiple entry permit, and an open work permit. This final benefit is typically viewed as the most attractive, as holders of the card are not attached to any one organization, allowing them to remain in Taiwan while changing jobs.

Applicants can apply through one of eight categories – technology, economics, education, culture and arts, sports, finance, law, or architectural design. According to the June statistics, 60% of the cards had been issued through the economic channel.

“The primary driver of applications is coming from people already in Taiwan who were doing visa runs before,” says Michael Fahey, a legal consultant at Winkler Partners and a chief advocate of the Gold Card policy. He estimates that those in this category account for around 60-70% of the total.

Among the remaining cases coming from those applying from outside Taiwan, Fahey notes that many are currently originating from places where pandemic-related restrictions remain in place. “In places like California, the schools are shut,” he says. “Applicants want to come to Taiwan because so far it’s safer, and because their kids can be able to go to school.”

Pluses and minuses

Marc Howard, an entrepreneur and consultant who received his card in August, falls into the first category. He had been doing visa runs for two and a half years before the pandemic led him to apply for the Gold Card. Howard runs two businesses: BizPayO, which he describes as “PayPal for professionals,” and AlgoHive, a marketplace for making purchases with bitcoin. He also offers consulting services in the relatively new marketing field of growth hacking.

When Howard first arrived in Taiwan, his consultancy clients were predominantly based overseas. But he hopes the Gold Card will give him the opportunity to develop his growing relationships with Taiwanese clients, most of whom he found through the Techstars program at the Taiwan Startup Stadium.

For Howard, the advantages of the Gold Card – as well as the quality of life in Taiwan – outweigh the sacrifices often associated with relocating to Taiwan, most notably the comparatively low salary levels.

He believes the growing interest in the Taiwanese business environment – with the Gold Card as a driving factor – will make Taiwan increasingly attractive to a particular type of business personality. For those in the technology sector, especially in Europe and the United States, relocating to Taiwan means that you are a “big fish in a small pond.”

“If you want to come here to start the next unicorn, it’s going to be a challenge,” he says. “But if you want to make a fundamental change in Taiwan, to really help Taiwan become a stronger economy, there are a lot of opportunities here.”

The experience of other Gold Card holders, however, shows that while the pandemic has made the program more attractive, there are limits to how much it may contribute to helping alleviate Taiwan’s economic problems.

Daniel Chiu, a software engineer, had been working nomadically as a consultant for two and a half years when the pandemic struck. After completing a 24-hour visa run on the day the Taiwanese border shut in March, he “stumbled across” the Gold Card program. He says finding out about the Gold Card was “a Hail Mary.”

Chiu, who describes himself as a “one-man shop,” helps clients – predominantly startups – devise strategies to “build out their technology.” To date, those clients have all been outside Taiwan, mostly in the U.S., with a few based in Hong Kong. While Chiu says that he is open to working with Taiwanese clients, the discrepancy in payment levels might pose an obstacle. “I’m not sure that I’d be able to find clients in Taiwan willing to pay the rate that I usually charge for consulting,” he says.

That fact, in turn, has a bearing on his willingness to stay in Taiwan long-term. He expects to stay at least a year, but will move elsewhere once smooth international travel becomes possible again. As Chiu’s case shows, the question remains whether post-pandemic Taiwan will be able to retain recent Gold Card recipients who applied mainly out of expedience.

There are also some criticisms of the program itself, chief among them bureaucratic opacity. Few applicants report that their application process went completely smoothly.

 Applications for the Gold Card are handled by a multitude of government agencies. Documents are first sent to the Ministry of Labor, from which they are then passed on to the ministry relevant to the candidate’s application, such as the Ministry of Economic Affairs for business-related applications and the Ministry of Culture for those in arts and culture fields.

Information on the NDC website implies that authorization procedures are basically linear, but applicants’ experiences suggest that is so only in the smoothest of cases. Many applicants said they did not know who to contact when they had queries, and that they were not informed when their application was passed on to a different ministry.

The complex application process can be even more challenging for non-Chinese speakers. For Christopher Day, who works in international peace and conflict resolution, confusion stemmed from the lack of a single source for all relevant information. In particular, he found that information on eligibility was “scattered around” various government websites.

An online search for the Gold Card brings up websites belonging to several government ministries. For example, information on how to apply is available through the National Immigration Agency (NIA), whereas guidance on whom to contact at each relevant ministry is found on the NDC website.

Day says he encountered problems when seeking information concerning salary documentation. To secure a card through the economic channel, a monthly salary higher than NT$160,000 (roughly US$5,500) is required. However, as a former UN staff member, he did not need to pay taxes in his home country of Germany and therefore did not have the standard documentation the Taiwanese government typically required of applicants.

When he took his inquiry to the Foreign Ministry’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, it precipitated what he describes as a “goose chase” around various government ministries – including the NIA, NDC, and the Ministry of Labor – all of whom said that another office was responsible.

Deputy Minister Kao says she is aware of such issues and cites the recent surge in cases as a reason for the bureaucratic confusion. “Soon we’ll have a specific service team for the Gold Card that will provide information on applications,” she says. A dedicated website with complete information is also planned.

In the meantime, Dave Fontenot, who received confirmation of his Gold Card 83 days after applying, says the bureaucratic sluggishness could be costing Taiwan some potential talent.

In 2013, Fontenot founded HackMatch, an organization that connects software engineers with startup founders. As a result of his long background in the industry, he claims to know “more software engineers than anyone else in the United States.”

Since arriving in Taiwan, he has been encouraging other engineers and startup founders based in Silicon Valley to apply for the Gold Card. However, he says long waiting times mean that they have often made other plans by the time they hear back. “In the startup world, 80 days is a lifetime,” he says.

As a business founder himself, Fontenot’s experience is instructive. His application required several modifications, as the government ministry did not accept the tax statement he initially submitted – a problem likely shared by other startup founders. Since they are defined as self-employed, they often do not have the company-stamped tax return that expedites the confirmation process.

As one of the few places in the world currently able to operate with relative normality, Taiwan now enjoys an unprecedented degree of appeal to innovators around the world, Fontenot says, making it all the more important to capitalize on this unique, time-limited opportunity.

“This is Taiwan’s moment,” he says. “People are literally imprisoned inside of their homes right now, and Taiwan could provide refuge for the brilliant minds of the world. It’s not doing that right now.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Gold Card has proven itself to be an attractive program for foreign professionals. But the 1,000 cards issued so far should be regarded as just the beginning of the effort.

To help navigate the policy changes, the New Economic Immigration Act is currently being re-drafted. The new version is expected to simplify immigration legislation and relax conditions for foreign professionals seeking residency in Taiwan.

Deputy Minister Kao also cites recently proposed amendments to the Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals as further evidence of the government’s commitment to attracting more international talent. The proposed amendments would exempt graduates from the world’s top 500 universities from the current two-year work experience requirement when seeking employment in Taiwan. They would also make it possible to extend a Gold Card, rather than forcing holders to re-apply.

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