Following a local outbreak in mid-May, some observers drew attention to the exodus of “COVID refugees” – those who had come to Taiwan at the height of the pandemic in the U.S. and other countries. But the results of a recent survey suggest that most foreigners who arrived in Taiwan after the beginning of 2020 hope to make the island their permanent home.
For a period of about 18 months beginning in the spring of 2020, Taiwan was a very different place from the rest of the world. While most countries dealt – often poorly or insufficiently – with the introduction and rapid spread of COVID-19 among their populations, Taiwan’s government moved quickly to shut its borders to most international travel. It also instituted a comprehensive, near-airtight quarantine and contact-tracing system that caught the vast majority of infected people upon their entry to Taiwan, making the island a bubble of normality that became the envy of the world.
Those who were paying attention to Taiwan’s COVID success included a large number of tech workers and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, many of whom were Taiwanese-American or had familial or other ties to the island. Without hesitation, these professionals began applying for Taiwan’s Employment Gold Card, a special residence permit and work visa geared toward high-level or senior foreign talent. Interest was so intense that the number of people possessing a Gold Card, which had been introduced in 2018 but for which uptake had been slow, ballooned from around 580 in January 2020 to 2,600 by the end of April this year. Almost 40% of recipients were from the U.S.
Then an outbreak of local COVID-19 infections occurred in May, and as Taiwan moved to impose restrictions to contain its spread, foreign tech talent began hemorrhaging from Taiwan in order to escape the island’s lockdown restrictions and lack of sufficient vaccines. Surely, this was evidence that they were only in Taiwan as a matter of convenience and were never invested in staying long-term – or so certain media reports at the time made it seem.
It turns out they may not have been telling the whole story. In a recent survey of foreign residents, most of whom came to Taiwan in 2020 or 2021, more than half of respondents said they are unlikely to leave Taiwan permanently. And while 60% said that Taiwan’s excellent handling of the pandemic was a factor in their decision to move to the island, only 16% of that group intended to leave Taiwan (or had already left) with no plans to return, or planned to return only occasionally due to prior connections.
Was Taiwan’s successful control of the COVID-19 pandemic a factor in your decision to come to Taiwan?
The survey was conducted by the Taiwan Employment Gold Card Office (TGC), a project office under the National Development Council, in collaboration with AmCham Taiwan. A little over 300 responses were collected during the survey period, which began on May 7 and ended on June 7, 2021. While the COVID-19 outbreak did occur partway through this period, the survey’s creators noted that it had little impact on the results.
Jonathan Liao, TGC’s project director, says that he and Taskforce Project Manager Tom Fifield originally intended for the survey to be distributed only to Gold Card holders, but later decided to expand it to include the diverse group of foreigners that had arrived in Taiwan since early 2020.
“I wanted to capture a bigger picture of Taiwanese-Americans or foreign professionals or non-Gold Card people who were here for some other reason, or some that had perhaps been stuck here who changed their plans later on,” he says. “That was more the initial purpose of the survey because at that time, everyone was talking about these people, but nobody had actually asked them why they came or if they were staying longer than they planned to and those kinds of questions.”
To be sure, a fair number of recent arrivals did leave Taiwan, particularly in the first few weeks after the island’s pandemic alert was raised to Level 3. Caleb Rogers, an American software engineer who has been in Taiwan on a Gold Card since January this year, says that many of his friends – fellow Gold Card holders from San Francisco and Los Angeles that arrived around the same time as him – made the decision to go back to the U.S. However, he notes that none of the ones who left ever seemed to be interested in making Taiwan their home.
Rogers adds that he also had a few friends who were committed to Taiwan and desired to stay long-term but were unable to cope with the possibility of another extended lockdown situation after experiencing the one that took place in the U.S. last year.
One the other hand, some recent transplants, including Kent Wu, Chief Operations Officer and Director of food delivery startup JustKitchen, left Taiwan – but only temporarily. Kent, who recently became a dual national after receiving his birthright citizenship in Taiwan, says that he had to bring his family back to the U.S. in order to finalize the process for getting his two children their Taiwan passports. Given Taiwan’s slow progress on inoculating its population against the coronavirus, he took the opportunity to get everyone vaccinated once back in the U.S.
In addition, many who came to Taiwan with the intention of staying only for a short period, either due to COVID or for other reasons, ended up deciding not to leave after having a positive experience. Around 20% of respondents to the TGC survey fell under this category, which the survey’s authors call “COVID converts” (or “converts” for those whose reasons did not include the pandemic).
Of course, for those foreign arrivals who plan to make Taiwan their permanent home, the pandemic restrictions are not the only – or even the biggest – difficulty they face as foreign residents. While Taiwan has become exponentially more welcoming and accommodating to a wide range of foreign professionals over the past few years, there are still several institutional barriers and logistical challenges to fully settling in Taiwan, especially for certain types of workers.
One such group consists of foreign professionals who reside in Taiwan but whose income is mainly or fully derived from work conducted for a foreign employer with no permanent establishment in Taiwan. Also sometimes referred to as “digital nomads” since most of the work they do is performed remotely via technological means, many of these foreigners cite multiple reasons for wanting to live in Taiwan, including its affordability, convenience, and the friendliness of its people. However, they do not wish to be hired locally mainly due to the much lower pay offered by Taiwanese employers and the more conservative work culture at local companies. Around one-third of respondents to the TGC’s survey fell into this category, the largest group among the new arrivals.
While this group enjoys a bit more freedom in terms of working hours and mobility, they must often navigate other challenges, such as how to legally reside in Taiwan or handle their Taiwan income tax. For some, including Bridget Snider, an American interior design professional, gaining legal residence was not an issue; both she and her husband had obtained permanent residency in Taiwan before moving back to the U.S. several years ago.
When they decided to return to Taiwan this July, Snider tried to arrange with her company to allow her to continue working remotely. Although at first agreeing to the proposal, the company’s HR department quickly became concerned about its tax liability in Taiwan and backed out. Despite Snider’s attempts to convince them that only she would bear responsibility for reporting and paying Taiwan taxes on her U.S.-sourced income, her company decided it was not worth the risk. In the end, they opted to make her a short-term contractor instead.
Snider was not alone in that experience. The lack of clear guidance on the Taiwan tax authority’s website puts overseas employers in an awkward position. Double taxation agreements often resolve this issue, outlining clear rules regarding permanent establishment. However, no such agreement exists between Taiwan and the U.S. Rather than run the risk of tax exposure in a foreign jurisdiction, American companies often get cold feet and either recall remote employees from Taiwan or prevent them from migrating there in the first place.
Another issue, one experienced by foreign professionals moving with families to Taiwan, is finding suitable educational options for their children and then enrolling them in school – a notoriously tricky and complicated process for foreigners. Around 26% of respondents to the TGC survey reported coming to Taiwan with school-age children; of those, around a third had enrolled their child in an international or bilingual school, while another 37% had chosen to send their kids to a local Taiwanese public school.
When asked to rate their experience with school enrollment, 32% of these respondents reported experiencing moderate difficulty, while 16% found it extremely difficult. As AmCham Taiwan noted in its 2021 White Paper regarding issues affecting foreign talent, a large part of the problem is the lack of clarity, particularly among local public schools, about how exactly to enroll the children of foreign nationals.
An equally frustrating aspect for parents is the absence of a centralized database of information about this topic, including important tips on things such as the lottery system for public school admissions. Instead, foreign parents with little knowledge of Taiwan’s education system must rely on personal research, which often yields incorrect or inconsistent results.
Not all parents have had issues with accessing appropriate education for their children. Kent Wu says that because he had attended the Taipei American School (TAS) for a couple of years while growing up, he was able to get his kindergarten-age son enrolled there almost immediately. Meanwhile, his adolescent daughter attended her U.S. school remotely for the first nine months of the family’s stay in Taiwan until a spot opened up for her in TAS’ eighth-grade class.
“I have around 30 friends with families that ended up in some sort of school – whether it be public, private, or TAS,” says Wu, who notes that enrollment applications are not usually made in the middle of the academic year. “Usually for schools, you apply for the following year, so the fact that they were able to get in so last minute is quite a testament to how well the schools adapt” to new situations.
Challenges aside, foreigners overwhelmingly report having a positive experience in Taiwan. Respondents to the TGC survey were asked to rate their time in Taiwan on a scale of 1 (“It was horrible!”) to 10 (“It was amazing!”). The average ranking was 8.7 and, the survey’s creators found, 97% of foreigners were upbeat about their Taiwan experience.
When asked about what they liked about Taiwan, interviewees for this report responded that it was hard to know where to start. Most agreed, though, that Taiwan’s relaxed atmosphere, the ease and convenience of everyday life, and the island’s natural beauty were big factors in their desire to stay.
Another common theme was the friendliness and helpfulness of local Taiwanese, particularly those in official positions. Gold Card recipients who spoke to Taiwan Business TOPICS mentioned the sometimes convoluted and difficult process of applying for their visa, but noted that much of the headache was alleviated by the assistance provided by the staff at their local Taipei Cultural and Economic Office in the U.S.
“The intention and the spirit of the government and the locals is to be welcoming to foreigners,” says Rogers, the American engineer. “So while that doesn’t necessarily always get implemented, when you do interact with the person here who is involved with your acclimation into Taiwan, it is a positive experience almost 100% of the time.”