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I'm a foreign PhD student and have had extreme difficulties in the last six months due to the university school administration not providing the documentation required to get a residence permit in time to start working on the date agreed to by said administration. This means I had to wait for about four months past the intended start date... meaning that I had also e.g. formally canceled my work and living arrangements by that time, making me homeless and jobless while still trying to sort out a bureaucratic nightmare all by myself.

The university continues to be extremely unhelpful to foreign students (apparently there is no support at all for them despite the university having loads of foreign students.). I'm finally here, but the situation is not getting better. My experiences in combination with the issue being effectively ignored by administration has soured my feelings on staying for the years it takes to get a PhD.

Irrespective of this, I do respect and like the actual people in the department I work in, and I still am interested in my particular area of research (despite feeling like I need to take several months off already despite having done very little actual research); I feel bad about "abandoning ship", but the problem won't get better as I'm not going to suddenly acquire another, better passport.

Is this a valid reason to give other departments when inquiring about working with them, and, if so, how can I formulate this in a way which is positive?

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Is this a valid reason to give other departments when inquiring about working with them?

Yes, absolutely! By not providing the necessary resources for you to begin on your expected start date, the university has released you from any obligation to attend. You are a free agent.

How can I formulate this in a way which is positive?

It's not clear that you need to formulate it at all. Since you never attended your intended university, you are under no obligation to mention it in your CV or application. At most, you may need to explain the one-year gap in your education/employment record, in which case — if asked — I'd suggest something simple like "I was admitted to the graduate program at [University X], but I was unable to attend because of unforeseen delays in processing immigration documents, which was out of my control."

As a courtesy, you should also explain your decision to pursue other opportunities to the department that admitted you, and in particular to your prospective advisor (if you have one). In fact, I would recommend starting there; your department/advisor may be able to pressure the university bureaucrats into providing the paperwork you need.

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    I feel that "unforeseen immigration difficulties" may speak too much by speaking too little. Take US as an example, this reason can evoke a wide array of speculations, some of which can be very negative. I'd suggest to be a bit more descriptive: "unforeseen delay in immigration documents that was out of my control." – Penguin_Knight May 1 '17 at 16:36
  • In theory this would be a good idea, but now I'm here. Thus I'd have to quit. – errantlinguist May 1 '17 at 19:35
  • @Penguin_Knight - I disagree. Visas for researchers from a variety of countries face this and their colleagues in the U.S. show a great deal of empathy and solidarity. It's frustrating on all sides. There's nothing embarrassing or suspicious whatsoever about OP's situation. Unless you somehow progressed through a great deal of formal education as a rabid xenophobe. – aparente001 May 3 '17 at 2:41
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This is intended to supplement JeffE's answer.

How can I formulate this in a positive way?

You can ask,

What guidance and support does (name of institution) provide to international students and scholars who might be facing visa difficulties?

You can also take a look at their websites, to see what sort of institutional commitment the university might have made in this regard. Here's an example of one that gives me a good impression: University Letter of Support for International Students, Faculty, and Staff (University of Utah).

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