On Obtaining Your Residence Permit (iqama) and Extending Visas
By Beverly Levine, January 2009, updated from February 2006 version by Nate Abercrombie.
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All students who travel to Syria in order to study Arabic arrive on a Tourist Visa, which must be extended within fifteen days of arrival. In order to stay in Syria beyond the life of your visa, you must either extend the visa or acquire an Iqama or residence permit. Over the past few years, this has become a more complicated process, especially for Americans who may no longer renew their visas simply by going to the Lebanese border where they used to cost $16. As of 2006, many non-Americans could still do this.
Nathan Abercrombie, who resided in Syria (2006), has written this explanation of how students can extend their stay in Syria. Beverly Levine, the current Syrian Studies Association Student Member on the board of officers and a doctoral student in History who spent six weeks in Syria in the summer of 2008, has also contributed to this page.
There are only a few ways to attain an Iqama or residency permit in Damascus. Everything depends on how long you would like to stay in Syria, if you plan on multiple entries and exits, and where you decide to study Arabic or conduct your research.
The first possibility is going to the immigration office. You can attain a tourist visa at the Maktab al-Hijrah wa al-Jawazat for approximately two months. It is necessary to buy a few forms and stamps, provide a few passport pictures, and photocopies of your passport and visa. All of this can be done near the immigration office. This process can take varying amounts of time depending upon when you go, and for some Americans the process has taken more than two hours as the office is crowded with non-Syrians from Arab and foreign countries. It is recommended that you go with a Syrian friend who can help you answer questions properly. In rare cases, the immigration officers will tell you that it is impossible for you to attain this type of visa, or ask that you meet with several immigration officials to explain the nature of your presence in Syria. There is never a clear reason for them to deny you tourist visas/visa extensions, but it does happen, especially for Americans. (Be persistent. They have been known to change their minds.) On occasion and prior to 2006, Americans have attempted to buy a new visa at the Syrian-Lebanese border, but this option is no longer possible. If you are denied a tourist visa/visa extension, you will find yourself in a slightly difficult situation. You will have to find a language institute that will sponsor you. It is recommended that researchers and students residing in Syria longer than two months bring a letter of sponsorship to the immigration office from one of the following well-known Syrian institutions.
Damascus University’s Center for Teaching Arabic to Foreigners: After registering for a course, you must request from the admissions secretary, Rahaf, a letter for the Maktab Al-Hijrah wa Al-Jowazat. You will receive this letter the following day, which you will have to present at the maktab along with several passport pictures, copies of your passport and visa, and several stamps and forms you will have to buy and fill out upon arrival. University iqamas are only good for one month. Each month you will have to repeat this process. We have received information that if you pay for multiple courses in advance the administration will provide sponsorship for the number of classes you paid for. Damascus University offers seven to eight levels (depending on the number of students), so this means that you will only be able to attain an iqama for seven to eight months.
Al-Maʿhadal-Faransi or IFEAD/IFPO (Institut français du Proche-Orient): Besides the University of Damascus, the Maʿhad may be the only other Arabic language institute in Damascus with the capability of providing students with sponsorship. The process at the Maʿhad is almost exactly that of Damascus University. The only exception is that the Maʿhad’s courses are longer than the university’s (approximately three month iqamas). The IFPO, by far, is the easiest way to go. Depending on how much time you plan on spending at the IFPO (spring, summer, winter, or all three terms), your iqama will last for that period of time. The process is also quite simple at the IFPO; fill out the paper work, and they do the rest. For researchers interested in conducting research with the documents at IFPO, it is not necessary that you register for IFPO courses. In July 2008 one American graduate student simply brought IFPO staff a letter of introduction from her home university signed by her dissertation advisor, explained her research topic in a meeting with the director, and was provided a letter from IFPO to present to the immigration office for the iqama. As IFPO is a long-standing institution in Syria with a relationship with the Syrian Ministry of Culture, research affiliation with IFPO is also very useful for obtaining research clearance from the various Syrian Ministries to private documents of local institutions, such as hospital records.
Damascus University: There are not many options for those who are planning on staying in Damascus for a year or more. If you plan on doing nothing other than Arabic, the best option would be to enroll at Damascus University as an “auditing student” or talib mustami’a. The only stipulation is that you must have completed level six at Damascus University’s Center for Teaching Arabic to Foreigners or be at an equivalent level. The process of actually getting the iqama can be tedious. Firstly, you must submit the following to the office for auditing students called the Shu’un at-Talib al-Merkaziah located between Baramkeh and Jisr Al-Ra’is:
2 copies of your passport
Translated passport with 1 copy
Original AIDS test with 1 copy
Letter from your embassy and 1 copy
Translated letter from your embassy and 1 copy
1 copy of your university diploma
Translated university diploma
At least a half-dozen passport photos
After you have submitted everything, you must fill out numerous forms, attain signatures from several different officials, and be patient. The process can take up to two weeks before submitting all required documents and completing every form.
Another option for staying a year is through CASA, which has had a Damascus semester and Damascus year option since 2008. Once you are a CASA student the program staff will help you handle the logistics of obtaining the residency permit. For more information see the University of Texas website, http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/casa/
American Language Center: Native English speakers have another option. Next to the American Embassy is the American Language Center. The ALC provides iqamas for its instructors for up to one year. Experience is a plus, but any person who is a native English speaker and is willing to work at least ten hours a week as an instructor of English to Syrians has this option.
The CCF, Cervantes, Goethe, and Italian Institutes: The French Cultural Center (CCF), Cervantes (Spanish) Center, Goethe (German) Institute, and Italian Cultural Center occasionally offer the same opportunities to its respective communities of ex-patriots as does the ALC. For Europeans interested in this option, it would be best if you contacted your respective embassies or call your respective cultural centers before arriving.
Lastly, you can remain in Syria without renewing your residency, but this is an unwise and risky decision, especially for Americans. Currently, it is extremely difficult to return to Syria without an exit/re-entry visa that you can only attain from the Maktab Al-Hijrah wa Al-Jowazat, and only if you have an iqama. Americans cannot enter Syria via border crossings from neighboring countries without a visa from the Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. See http://www.syrianembassy.us/consularsection.htm
There are honorary consulates in California, Texas, and Michigan that can help you obtain the entry visa valid from 3 months of the date you obtain the visa. See for example the Michigan honorary consulate’s website http://www.syrianconsulate.org/ (The web layout is tricky – as of January 2009 visitors to this site need to “select all” on the webpage in order to see the typed information.) Do not let the 3-month period confuse you – the visa is valid for entry for 3 months, but once you enter Syria, you must present yourself to immigration officers after 15 days. Another reason to keep a valid travel permit is that bus (including Makdoos lines, something like the Greyhound of Syrian bus companies) and train station employees for travel between Syrian cities often check foreigners’ passports. It would be wise not to be caught with an expired iqama or visa. This option must be reserved for the ignorantly brave student who does not plan on crossing into Lebanon, Turkey, or Jordan with the intention of returning, or the student who hopes to somehow travel within Syria using train or bus transportation but may end up using private cars or taxis where drivers may not ask to see the iqama.
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