I am just about to do something illegal. I’m about to cross an international border with what I am told is an invalid passport, which on top of that lacks one of the basic entry requirements of the country I’m about to cross into. Sounds like the beginning of one of 007’s stunts… but more of that later.
Visas are an interesting thing. They allow a country to decide which non-nationals to allow into their territory, for how long, and in which capacity. There are administrative fees involved of course, but when looking at the fees, one cannot help but wonder whether they are more connected to politics between countries than actual workload. Random ‘stamp fees’ charged at South East Asian borders most certainly go straight into official’s pockets, and if you are from anywhere wanting to go to the USA, you’re going to have to dig deep, and in return, if you are from the USA… well, some counties will delight in giving you get a taste of your own medicine.
This has seemed to be the year of visas. After battling for 5 months with the bug ridden Canadian working visa document online upload system, I finally bit the bullet and had my Australian Visa confirmed, a whole 4 hours after applying for it. Two of my close married friends (he is Canadian and she is Spanish) finally had his visa for living in the UK approved, after having to pay a lawyer to appeal years of applying and unjustifiable rejection by the authorities, that came down to nothing but rhetoric.
A very dear Russian friend’s ability to leave her country was recently threatened by other countries proposed boycott of visas for Russian nationals following Putin’s actions in Crimea. And another good friend is millimetres close to having enough to apply for a 3 year US visa – only a film industry reference is needed. Obviously easy to come by in a tight nit community even landsmen have difficulty ever getting into.
The Epic Journey is also giving us plenty of red tape and hoops to jump through to be able to travel through our 17 counties. Experiences have been mixed, with Mongolia super-easy to get a visa for, Russia easy if you pay an agency and China being our hardest so far. Having to put up with and smile sweetly at a rather power hungry and overall difficult embassy official who changed her mind daily on what we needed to supply (shouting “you bring me document… this is wrong document! Not my fault!… you bring me document and I DECIDE if you go to China!” at us), was nevertheless not enough to spoil our amazing stay in Tokyo.
Where visas get interesting is when you have to start figuring out how much you can risk to bend the rules. In countries like Thailand, whole industries depend on border officials turning a blind eye. Allowing scuba diver after scuba diver to re-enter the country after half an hour abroad means dive shops have a sustained supply of long term recruits without having to go through the bureaucracy of organising work permits. Ethical or not, this flexibility does allow for spontaneous work and financial support people would otherwise not be able to have. South East Asia has its ways.
Which brings me back to where I left off. For some reason no one seems to know, certain countries require at least 6 months’ validity of your passport to allow entry. We arrived in Thailand later than planned, so both of our passports needed replacing if we were to go…. anywhere else overland. Australia being as they are, Saxon had his brand new passport couriered within 9 days of applying to our dive centre on Koh Phi Phi. The UK was…. not so obliging.
I was told that upon sending my application, my current passport would become invalid, that I had to remain in Thailand without the option of border-crossing to extend my 30 day maximum stay visa. How long the process would take, no one was sure. When calling the passport agency in the UK, we were only able to speak to the call centre of an outsourcing company. The representative first refused to put me through as ‘it hadn’t been 4 weeks yet’, then admitted they hadn’t even started looking at my application 3 weeks after submittal. I had 1 week to research and try all my options.
My question of whether I was correct in my assessment of the situation that I was going to be forced to stay illegally in Thailand, pay fines and have my new passport red-listed as ‘overstayed’ which could cause huge problems when applying for visas in or even just entering countries vigilant of their borders such as Australia or the USA was answered with a curt ‘yes, it appears so’. Was there anything I could do? ‘No, just wait’. How long for? ‘We can’t say’.
So I’ve bitten the bullet. Spoken to Thai immigration who strongly advised me to go on a border run to gain an extra 30 days. “Your passport won’t be a problem”, I am told, but if the border crossing goes wrong, I could be arrested or stuck in no-mans land between checking out of Thailand and checking into Malaysia. One of our contacts got caught at Bangkok airport and was only allowed back through immigration after a few days rough sleeping on departure gate seats and a hefty fine. Guess where the money went.
Off the bus.
Back on the bus.
Re-check: It seems I got lucky. The Malaysian immigration officer heard my story, turned a blind eye and let me in. The bus is careering towards Penang through the night with me in it, and I am beyond relieved.
I am aware of how lucky I am to have a passport from a country that makes travelling amongst the easiest in the world. With travel being so important for global relations and peaceful coexistence and understanding between so many different people, surely it should be facilitated and encouraged wherever possible. Without having to bend the rules or putting yourself in dodgy, semi-legal situations.
I have been in Malaysia now for 3 weeks, and it has been amazing. Penang is one of the coolest places I have ever been and shooting in KL and visiting Melaka were interesting asides from editing in our little room in Georgetown.
50 days ago I handed my passport and application in to the British Embassy in Bangkok. Taking Thailand’s immigration authorities’ advice and coming to Malaysia has proven to be an immensely wise decision, as staying in Thailand would have cost me £210 in overstay fees so far (not counting accommodation, food and living cost, and not sharing a room as Saxon can only get 15 days after a border run).
Martial law was declared yesterday which in effect means that if anything had happened to me if I had stayed in Thailand (get mugged, hit by a car, slip on the pavement), the police have no power to do anything, and the military would be in their full right to arrest me at any moment.
I called the passport enquiry outsourcing call centre again today. The lady on the line informed me that someone has yet to look at my passport application, 7 weeks after I submitted it. The only explanation she could give me was that they didn’t offer a guaranteed service and the words ‘at least’ were clearly printed on their website when any timeframes are mentioned. The only thing she could tell me was what was written on her computer screen, as they had no direct link to the office actually working on the passports and had to wait for them to get in touch. Why I had not received a single one of the 5 promised phone calls from the passport office directly, no one could say.
As a solo female professional unable to work, travel or plan anything, illegally in a country governed by martial law, the passport office has nothing better to offer than ‘you’re just going to have to wait indefinitely’. I wonder how anyone is surprised that trust in the government is low (especially after the 2012 expenses scandal), and am concerned that these kinds of situations breed a culture of bending the rules as playing by them has so many unnecessary negative ramifications.
I am in a good place, but only thanks to myself. For how long? I wouldn’t want to guess.
I have just picked up my passport in Bangkok after another semi-illegal border crossing (which has saved me over £700 in overstay fees and being blacklisted) as the office was not able to send my passport to the British Embassy in Kuala Lumpur due to their ‘data protection’ (read: doing nothing but the minimum) policy. I am finally on the move again, after two and a half months of waiting.
I can only hope that the UK will make their services more sensitive to the requirements of people who use them, rather than the other way around. And if your job doesn’t require you to be able to be abroad at a moment’s notice, check your passport’s validity and have it renewed now.