How to survive in the Philippines as a foreigner/expat

As I spend more time here you start to see a pattern of those that managed to stay here the longest. You also see the survival rates in the first 6 – 12 months take the biggest hit as people get financially and emotionally burned. Now in their defence most of the traps are set before they arrive the recent murder of a Scotsman in Manila is typical where its being sold as a love triangle where its more than likely just a setup for a robbery of a Mariner as they know he had a lot of money on hand. The love triangle thing is very likely untrue but him trusting people wasn’t. You talk to guys that have been here a while their list of people they trust is a lot shorter than you would believe. Its not because they are paranoid or thrifty on cash most have experienced it first or second hand in some way. Not always big problems as a lot wouldn’t still be here if they were but often its the mentality of things that get to people more than anything. A discussion came up yesterday with a friend of mine about something else, this guy had created jobs for some of his wife’s relatives and in return when kids were sick they wanted P5,000 for medicines at which point he said he would go to the Pharmacy himself same with funeral costs of another relative an extra P10,000 was needed for the burial could he pay it.. both occasions he checked it out himself to find out the people concerned were fully insured the relatives just wanted to use the foreigner as an ATM cashing in on other peoples suffering. You talk to people who have restaurants and other businesses here they make them as tight clad as possible as they know theft is going to try and happen. Generally they trust nobody when it comes to business and they are right. The person who has worked for you for several years is just as likely to rob you as the person who started yesterday. Not in an armed robbery type of way but I know of chefs bringing in their own meat to sell at restaurants, relatives skimming all the takings from a restaurant as well as stocking the place with their own produce at night and its not always the obvious industries that get affected. A friend of mine has a fishing lake where he was breeding and fattening fish his caretaker went on the lake at night with a small boat and fish food as the fish are used to being hand reared he would through the food then net the fish once they swarmed. The lake was finally harvested to find it was virtually empty as it was not only large fish the caretaker had taken but also the fry. The owner only found out because his neighbours had told him the caretaker had been eating the fish as well as selling them to people in the area.

So after a long introduction how do you survive how do you get through the first 12 months? The golden rules would be :-

  • Nobody says you have to get married.
  • Nobody says you have to settle down and have a family.
  • Nobody says you have to buy a house or land.
  • Nobody says you have to take on the burden of relatives.
  • Nobody says you have to form up a business/company.
  • Nobody says you have to believe everything I say!

Now before someone’s quick off the mark saying all the above will happen my point is nothing says YOU have to.


Marriage is something that should be taken seriously and not jumped into I have seen it lots of times here and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it for at least a year of knowing each other as there are a lot of things under the surface that you may not be aware of for some time not all bad but may affect your decision to get married once it all becomes out in the open.


Kids in the Philippines are expensive because the whole system is based on scrambling to the top. Best schools equals best jobs and a better chance to get abroad for the kids future and it doesn’t come cheap or free a good school is easily P5,000+ a month and the standards of education and social standing vary depending what school your kids went to. Now I am anti elitist at the same time I have either to build a big enough business setup that it can support the kids in the future or I am going to have to throw them into the rat race at some point myself either way its not cheap or easy.

You can buy a house and land if you want

only problem is you don’t own it! I have seen this go wrong for so many people and it normally happens a lot sooner than expected. Rentals are cheap and if you have cash available roll it in something more viable and use the interest to pay the rent.

You don’t have to take on the burden of family

You will see a lot of smiles from people on your arrival and at various times there are a good chance you will see why they are so happy its not always about you but your money. Not always but I have only heard positive from 3 people in nearly 3 years compared to the hundreds of people I have met. I don’t say all the family is bad but you will get a percentage that will take you for a ride given the opportunity. I was one of those people who “trusted” some people to later find they would take the shirt from your back given half the chance.

Businesses are for business minded

You don’t know the country, you don’t know how people work or how to get them to do the work it takes time. If you want to start a business start something small as the problems are the same regardless of size. After time you will understand some of the cultural things which will mean your business can grow if you decide to do it at the same time you might find it easier to find something in your home country to do and just hop in and out of the Philippines. What sort of things do I mean? Well a friend had to spend 2 weeks sorting out paperwork an administrator was doing because “she felt lazy sometimes to put receipt numbers on the paperwork”. Or maybe its the people that don’t go to work because its raining. Well they may seem bizarre excuses and to me they are but they are also true accounts of things people do. Same as another friend has several Jeepney’s out on routes if the drivers have a good day you might not see them for 3 days as they have enough money for the next few days. Meaning his vehicles make no money as they are sat up. Happens several times a month and its why he has added 3 – 7 days extra as “lost days” now if you had worked out loans on the vehicles and income needed to cover the debts you could really be screwed as you may not have accounted for  the lost days. A lot of Filipino’s culturally look to the day not the month or the year and its not about to change anytime soon.

You don’t have to believe everything I say

Because I don’t want you to! I want you to think, look and learn before committing into things the whole point of my articles are information they are not gospel documents they are experiences I am aware of and its reading but having your own thoughts on it that is important. I have seen so many people here ignore good advice purely because they don’t want to admit it then come whining when their lovely girlfriend who worked as a sex worker for the last few years has several boyfriends coming in and out of the country and fleeces them out of every peso they have. Its not always as obvious as a case like that which is why you have to use the grey matter t
o work out what’s what yourself. If you want advice or help its here and I am happy to help where I can at the same time I can only help you if you help yourself.

7 comments for “How to survive in the Philippines as a foreigner/expat

  1. david rooke
    September 11, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Good advice,I would add to that, if know how to build ,do it yourself.Filipino builders are masters at the art of delay and rip offs.

  2. Andrew_swarbrick
    September 11, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Good article Matt,
    I would also add try to avoid living near relatives of your girlfriend or wife to this list as again based on being here for four years. The problem with living close to your better half’s family is that they will tend to see you as the walking ATM or one man problem solver again usually issues that require money become your specialty. If you live a distance form these people it is much harder for them to come looking for money. Don’t get me wrong they will try to but its harder for them so puts a few off and well given you are not near hem when you say nope I’m not giving you money not because I don’t have it but because I don’t want to, when they get shitty which again they will you don’t have to see it or hear it every day!

    As to the trust issue i would agree 190% here as no matter how well you think you know anyone and no matter how long you have known them everyone seems to have their price and when you hit that level they will steal from you. The best option is to keep you major money were nobody but you can get at it, i.e. with a card and password required and then simply top up a spending account when you need to, this well protect you form large scale theft and help avoid temptation form the people around you.
    The land ownership is a massive issue here which has led to some of the biggest problems form people I know or have heard form, remember you can own land so whatever you buy its not yours and it is never likely to be yours unless you renounce your current citizenship and apply for philippino citizenship. The Land issue is not unique to the Philippines it is the same in a number of Asian countries and stems form the top rich controlling family not wanting to allow foreign companies who are fast, quicker or just plane better getting a hold here plus it helps keep the poor , very poor and keeps them the rich nicely rich.

    My advise is not to try and be a hermit, go out enjoy all the Philippines has to offer (and it has much) but avoid making quick commitments to anything business, personal, or land and you will find overtime you will know when the time as come to take the plunge. I myself waited 3 years till I got married in fact so long my now Wife had just about given up on me ever asking her, and she was pleasantly surprised when I did.

  3. Tropicalpenpals
    September 11, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Both very good points.. and to be honest there are good builders here there just aren’t enough of them around. I find it easier to just do it myself and more often than not because of the Westernised methods its faster than having two local guys as well as level.

    Good points Andrew and it all comes down to two major things TIME + TRUST. The longer a foreigner takes his time the more things he will become aware of and degrees of trust is probably the way to go but always having your own reserves and controls as youve already posted.

  4. Anonymous
    October 24, 2010 at 1:00 am

    Great post, Matt! If I may recommend this should be titled “How to survive in the Philippines as a foreigner, expat and/or Balikbayan”? – because Balikbayans (especially those how now reside permanently in the west) are treated exactly like the foreigner when it comes to finances and “please help…” issues.

    “A lot of Filipino’s culturally look to the day not the month or the year and its not about to change anytime soon.”- this is very true. As a little girl in the Philippines, I used to hear “Bahala na bukas” (tomorrow will take care of itself” a lot of the times. And this attitude reflects on the Filipino’s way of spending. That is, spend what they have today and yeah, tomorrow will take care of itself – especially if one has relatives in the west. A good example is a cousin of mine who had a lot of money 2 years ago. He and his GF went on overseas holidays, instead of saving it. Now he is mortgaging his house to me in return for a grand sum of $6000!

    • Tropicalpenpals
      October 24, 2010 at 7:47 am

      Hi Christine,
      so true.. the big problem when it comes to money though is most people see nothing wrong with asking/expecting or taking it. Doesn’t matter if people are lying about sickness, problems with the house or any other emergency the problem is they literally don’t care about where the money comes from and how hard you’ve worked for it. This is why I “role reverse” where I would say if they don’t respect me why should I respect them? I work hard for what I have and I would help if needed but if I cannot trust peoples words then I would advise people to give nothing unless they can see it with their own eyes and control the spending. People might say “don’t you trust me?” and no doubt you would have examples to say “yes your right I don’t because of ______” turn the conversation back on them.

  5. Anonymous
    October 25, 2010 at 8:01 am

    “…the problem is they literally don’t care about where the money comes from and how hard you’ve worked for it”.

    This is very true and I do become angry at times whenever some of my fellow Pinays end up in our hospital because they’ve had a breakdown because of these money demands. A former Pinay patient of mine comes to mind. She left her much older husband early this year leaving him her son from the Philippines. She was only working as a cleaner and part-time at that, therefore her wages were barely able to cover her living costs here. But even after she had separated, the demands for money from her family continued unrelentless. So she borrowed money to fulfill the requests. Then she became a victim of a Nigerian scam via internet dating, placing her deeper into debt. Needless to say, she became suicidal. What surprised me was, even while she was in the hospital being treated for severe depression, the money requests continued!
    I told her she need to ditched her family if she wanted to stay sane! But she won’t because well, they’re her family! She did not come back to us, so I guess she must have got herself sorted.

    • Tropicalpenpals
      October 26, 2010 at 1:06 pm

      I pity her but also dismayed that she still helps them especially when they obviously have no regard for her emotional and mental state nevermind financial.

      There was a documentary done in the UK about OFW’s working in the UK and that covered the same topic in an about way. It opened people of the UK’s eyes to what actually goes on yet the program hadn’t set out to do that it was just that every OFW had the same problems. There was a woman who was working at least 3 jobs it might have been 6 I can’t remember off hand but she was renting a “Cupboard” under someones stairs as accommodation her husband and children were back in RP she was forced into bankruptcy because the debts got so high. On the day she was in court to file for bankruptcy her husband called asking for more money not once did he offer her good luck at court or anything else it was purely money money money.. some of the other OFWs have learned though as they no longer send money for family use but use Balikbayan boxes annually obviously it doesn’t stop the families asking but they have woken up to the fact the money wasn’t going where it was supposed to.