Olivia Dwyer navigates the vagaries of immigration, visas, and the legal system, to find a way for her and the man she loves to be in the same country legally.

An American girl walks up to a bar and says “Hi” to a British guy. He grabs her ass and buys two tequila shots.

That was their beginning in Wanaka, New Zealand, where they were working at the same ski field for the 2008 season. She’d sneak free mochachinos to him from the café. He picked the first purple flowers of Spring to bring to her behind the cappuccino machine. Then ski season ended, bringing a crashing end to their legal right to stay in New Zealand. They had to leave.

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That girl is me, and that guy is Johnny.

When we met, we didn’t have any available working holiday visas in common. These visas allow someone—depending on age, country of origin, and a few other factors—to live and work in a country for a set period of time.

So we ran away together. We backpacked through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and India, but eventually, the reality of bank balances caught up with us and sent us to different countries where we could find jobs.

Long distance didn’t work. For eight months we were miserable, living thousands of miles apart. No number of emails or hours on Skype could assuage the loneliness of living in limbo.

Many countries allow employers to sponsor foreign workers who can perform a job on a skills shortage list. That’s how Johnny came to America, sponsored by a ski resort to work as a snowmaker. Finally we were together in one place, but only until 10 days after the resort closed, the legal limit on Johnny’s visa.

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In certain countries, these arrangements can allow people to work towards residency, but that didn’t apply to the type of visa Johnny had. So we went looking for another solution.

We returned to New Zealand, where we got work permits for seasonal work on the ski field, played in the snow, and raided our flatmates’ fancy dress cupboard. But in order to stay we would have to ignore our wanderlust and settle at a fixed address on an island far from our families in both distance and dollars.

“What do you want to do?” We asked each other endlessly. Where can we go? How can we do it? Is it legal?

Had my dad claimed his Irish ancestral passport before he died, I would have been eligible also and could have used that to work in Europe. But since he didn’t, it wasn’t an option. I wasn’t ready to apply to and pay for school, certain to put me in a debt, for a student visa. Third-party programs like BUNAC didn’t suit me either. These programs tend to be more expensive than lone travel and often require you to travel with a group. I prefer to be a bit more independent.

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The we heard of the de facto partnership visa. Perhaps that would be our golden ticket! After a couple has lived together for a specified amount of time, countries will recognize them as de facto or common-law partners and grant the right to work based on that relationship. The United States requires seven years of cohabitation. In the United Kingdom, though, two years is enough, and we were almost there.

Unfortunately, when on a visitor’s or tourist visa, you can only legally stay in a country for a specified amount of time. For many countries, the limit is 90 days. Often, you’ll find you can’t just leave to renew your visa and return, as many countries have a limited number of months you can be in the country per year. In addition, you’ll probably need your name on a lease or bills or something official to prove that, yes, you actually do live in that country and have lived there for the two, seven or however many years you’ll need to show your partnership.

More than two years after those tequila shots, we sat in a London pub, an American girl and a British guy having an afternoon pint. We’re talking details of the de facto partner visa application when he says, “Why don’t we just get married?”

In the end, is that the easiest answer? What do you think?

Community Connection

Has a visa ever stood in the way of your relationship? Do you think marriage is the solution? Share your thoughts.