Bangkok Phil

May I see your passport?

The joys of international travel with a Thai partner

I'm off to Amsterdam next month and thoroughly looking forward to it. Even though I haven't been for well over 20 years, Amsterdam has always been one of my favorite cities and I'm looking forward to showing it off to my faithful travel companion - my Thai wife.

Unfortunately, travelling to Europe means having to go through the laborious process of gathering a whole pile of documentation and applying for a schengen visa at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok.

Despite the fact my wife already has three Schengen visas and three UK visas in her passport from past visits, these visa applications are always stressful. Our trip to the Dutch embassy last week was no exception.

Thais don't go to The Netherlands in any great number so as far as embassies go, the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok is a rather sleepy affair located in an attractive leafy soi just off the main Ploenchit Road. On the morning of our appointment, we got there nice and early with all our ducks in a row and received a queue ticket number. There were barely a dozen visa applicants ahead of us in the line and we were looking at a thirty-minute wait at most.

As someone categorized by the embassy as ‘accompanying the visa applicant' I wasn't allowed to enter the building's inner sanctum but through a large plate-glass window I could see my wife sitting patiently and waiting for one of the three visa officers on duty to call her up to their window and begin the application process.

Eventually my wife's number was called and I sat there minding my own business and planning the best place in the neighborhood to have lunch. After several minutes my wife emerged and marched up to me in a fit of mild rage. The Thai officer had asked my wife to photocopy all the pages of her husband's passport, so that meant leaving the embassy compound and finding a photocopying shop nearby. All in all, a dreadful inconvenience. Not only that, but luckily I had decided to take my passport only at the very last minute.

Later, over lunch, when my wife had eventually calmed down, I quizzed her more about the application process and the questions the officer had asked her. To be honest, the interview hadn't got off to the best of starts. My wife sat down and the officer started the interrogation by asking if she had applied for a visa at that specific embassy before. My wife told the officer no - but she did apply for a visa for the Netherlands about twelve years ago when she went on a package tour with her mother. It was a very natural, friendly answer. It's the kind of answer I would have given, purely to break the ice in such a formal environment. Unfortunately, natural and friendly are two adjectives that rarely come to mind when dealing with visa officials. The Thai officer, a lady of about 25, tut-tutted, rolled her eyes and reminded my wife that that was not the question she'd been asked.

As I say - not the best of starts to an interview.

For the rest of the short interview, the questions were mainly about me.
"What does your husband do in Bangkok?"
"How long has he lived here?"
"Which side does he dress?"

The part I don't understand is that I'm not the one applying for the visa. How are the questions relevant? I could be a retired billionaire or a struggling jazz musician. I don't see that it matters.

I was under the impression that the visa applicant had to prove three things;

Firstly, that he or she has enough ‘reason' to return to Thailand. The embassy wants to be sure that the applicant won't just disappear forever into Europe's vast hinterland and live a glorious life on government handouts and state benefits. And that's why my wife did exactly as the Dutch Embassy ordered and had taken a letter from her company to clarify her salary, position and years of service, etc, etc.

Secondly, the visa applicant has to prove that he or she has the necessary funds and travel insurance and they will be able to cope in an emergency. And that's why the visa applicant submits an updated copy of their bankbook and also an original copy of the travel insurance policy. Simple really isn't it?

Finally, the visa applicant has to show that he or she is indeed taking a vacation or a study trip or whatever. And to cover this, I had given my wife a copy of all the e-mail communication between myself and the rather nice-sounding Dutch lady who owns a two-bedroom house overlooking one of Amsterdam's central canals, in other words, the place where we will stay. The e-mail communication was all nicely formatted and even a cursory glance showed that it contained details of the house-owner's bank account number and bank address, where I had sent a deposit to in order to secure the accommodation.

All of the information above had been dismissed by the Thai officer at The Dutch Embassy. She never even looked at it. She was far more interested in whether the applicant's husband had pulled the legs off spiders as a child and eaten up all his greens.

No, that's not entirely true. The officer did ask my wife why she didn't have a hotel voucher to confirm the accommodation. But when my wife told her that we were staying in a typical Dutch house rather than some 5-star steel and concrete monstrosity, the officer merely viewed my wife with even more suspicion, if that were at all possible. The officer was obviously under the impression that people who travel abroad always stay in hotels. At least they do in her blinkered little world.

These embassy stories of Thais giving fellow Thais an unnecessarily hard time are all too familiar. I'm sure many of you reading this ramble have been in exactly the same boat. I'm just curious as to where the embassies recruit these staff members from and what kind of training is involved?

I'm going to get on to very sensitive ground here now but I'm of the firm belief that you can't have Thais dealing with Thais in these situations. For those who have lived in Thailand any length of time the reasons should be obvious. Thai culture - at least between Thais - is one of status and one-upmanship and knowing where you belong in the social pecking order. It's sometimes a culture of inflated self-importance and power trips. A Thai visa official can wreck all your travel plans and dreams with one stroke of a pen. There can't be a bigger power trip than that. Surely you can't have Thai visa applicants being judged by a supposedly impartial officer when there is all that cultural bullshit ticking away in the background. Wow! I'm really going off on one here.

Thais won't thank me for saying this - and I say it with a degree of tongue-in-cheek - but I'm convinced that as a nationality they are not meant to travel. It's almost as if the rest of the world doesn't want them. "Stay at home - we'll come to visit you instead"

Getting a visa for your holiday destination is just one of the hardships you encounter when travelling or making travel plans with a Thai partner. Landing at airports and going through immigration control is another.

My favorite airport story occurred several years ago when I took my wife to Spain to visit my parents. We had been holidaying in England at the time but as a welcome side-trip, we caught a two-hour flight from Birmingham to Alicante on Spain's Costa Del Sol. My parents live in a small Spanish village about 30 miles inland.

Alicante Airport is always busy but because the vast majority of passengers are either tourists or residents of Spain, passport control is unbelievably relaxed. There will usually be a couple of bored looking officers talking about Real Madrid's chances of winning the cup, while a stream of Brits abroad file past waving their red EU passports, their pensioners bus pass or perhaps even a Blockbusters membership card. Basically the first thing you lay your hands on when rummaging around in a handbag.

At Alicante Airport, It's possible to clear immigration, drag your suitcase off the carousel and find yourself basking in glorious Spanish sunshine, literally half an hour after your plane has landed. I knew this from previous visits so the moment the aircraft seatbelt lights went off, I grabbed my wife by the hand and made for the exit door. We were standing at passport control while every other passenger was still wrestling their duty-free carrier bags from the overhead bins.

The Spanish immigration officer beckoned us to approach the counter. He gave my passport the quick once over and then saw that I had filled in a landing card. As an EU citizen this is not something I am required to do. He muttered the Spanish equivalent of "you stupid prick' and then flung the card at me. The card hit my chest and landed on the floor at my feet. I stooped down to pick it up and then passenger and immigration official stared each other down, rather reminiscent of the way Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier used to do to each other minutes before a fight. Welcome to Spain Senor!

When my wife handed the officer her Thai passport, it was as if someone had suddenly plugged him into a power supply. His eyes lit up and his whole body language shifted. He recognized instantly that although of similar color, this wasn't your run-of-the-mill EU jobby for very little escapes Spanish officials in the world of passports. He flicked through the pages from front to back and then did the same thing in reverse - twice. He checked the photograph, looked up at my wife and then checked the photograph again. There then followed a puzzled shake of the head.

By now the other passengers had caught up with us, their footsteps echoing on the tiled floors. The immigration officer instructed us to stand in one spot and not move a muscle and we stood there helpless and embarrassed while the other 248 passengers scurried through immigration flashing their passports, bus passes and video club membership. We adopted a blank expression every time a passenger looked at us and wondered exactly what we'd done or more to the point, what we had attempted to blow up. And then they were gone. We were alone - just me, my wife and a gruff, overworked Spanish official. He flicked through the Thai passport for the umpteenth time and then the following conversation took place.

"What country?" he asked.

"Thailand" I replied, and pointed to the cover of the passport. If you are looking for the origin of a passport, I think the cover is undoubtedly the best place to start.

"Ah Thailandia" the officer announced triumphantly, and with that he waved us through and wished us a pleasant onward journey.

If Alicante wins an award for the most miserable and most confused airport staff, then Christchurch Airport in New Zealand takes home the trophy for the friendliest.

The first surprise comes as you stand in the queue and snake your way towards the passport control booths. The airport has several sniffer dogs that are allowed to roam freely among the queuing passengers. There is no advanced warning of this however. One moment you are discussing travel plans with your partner and the next minute there's a Labrador's wet nose nuzzling in-between your bum cheeks. And I hope you won't think any less of me when I say that I've definitely had worse experiences.

The immigration queues move at a glacial speed and when the novelty of rubbing up against a Labrador wears off, you're left wondering what the hell is taking so long. When eventually it's your turn to be processed by the officer on duty, the reasons for the long wait become apparent. You are now face-to-face with the chattiest man in New Zealand.

"So where are you guys heading for?"

"Yes, I would love to see your itinerary if you could fish that out for me"

"I see you've rented a car with Eazee Car Rental. Actually they have just changed their name to Juicy Car Rental. I'm not sure why but that's what they've done. I guess a lot of companies go in for a corporate re-branding at some stage"

My wife and I just stood their and nodded. What else can you do other than say "can you just stamp the bloody passports before our holiday is over"

He even went as far as to ask me what I did for a living. I told him I was a website designer only because it was the first thing that came into my head. The officer gave my answer some thought.

"You know something - and I'll tell you this for nothing - you wouldn't earn much in New Zealand as a web designer"

This was getting ridiculous. What was next? - an invitation to his modest Christchurch semi-detached for sandwiches and a chat with his wife?

I instinctively looked at my watch and thankfully he got the message. "Have a great time in New Zealand folks"

"Yes, if we ever fucking get there" I muttered.

What else can happen at airports? Oh yes.... I never like the fact that at British airports I'm allowed to fast-track it through the EU citizens channel while my wife gets to queue up for several hours with ‘those who hold funny passports' - you know the ones I'm talking about? I never see the point of deserting my wife and then having to wait for her on the other side of passport control so I generally ask staff if I can also go through the ‘people with funny passports' channel and I've never once been refused. I think in some ways the staff admire my courage.

I'm never sure why but when it comes to non-EU immigration queues, we always seem to get stuck behind the stick-thin Cameroonian, who has somehow contrived to land in England without a penny to his name and no worldly possessions save for the address of a guy he met twenty years ago written on the back of a fag packet - or a Ladbrokes betting slip if he's the organized type. And as his wife and four kids cling to his trouser legs and wonder exactly what the future holds, the officer asks him where the family is heading to once they're allowed into the country.

"I come stay friend"

"Yes, I know you are staying at your friend's home Mr Bucpapa but"

The stick-thin Cameroonian thinks for a moment.

"I come stay friend"

I shoot my wife that look - that look that means we're in it for the long haul. All the other passengers on our flight have long gone. There are just our two suitcases going round and round on the carousel under the watchful eye of two bored baggage handlers. Eventually one turns to the other and says "let's give it another ten minutes and if they don't show up, we''ll burn them"

I've just this minute heard that my wife has been granted her visa for The Netherlands. What adventures lie ahead I wonder. I'm literally trembling with excitement.


Funny, and very readable and well written (as usual), story Phil!
I was a bit confused, in the beginning though, at The Dutch Embassy. "What side does he dress on?" What does that mean? :)

By Jason Alavi, Rangsit (17th April 2011)

I was annoyed to hear of your wife's experience. If you're a UK passport holder and you were traveling together, your wife should have got a free, facilitated, visa issued under an accelerated procedure see directive 2004/38/EC. The Schengen visa form should have made this clear.

By j, uk (3rd April 2011)

Phil should give Ian BKK a blog space, or maybe he is too busy with his job as a custom officer at Christchurch airport ??
Jokes aside, very well written, and glad she got the visa

By Mark, Korat (3rd April 2011)

I really enjoyed your tales of passport heaven and hell, its no surprise that its one of the most crazy aspects of modern life. I'm lucky to have travelled a lot, it is something I always wanted to do, so I done it... sacrificed the fancy cars, worked hard and saved.

I'm realistic about travel, I accept the fact it never runs to time, or goes smoothly, things are always different to what you expect and there will be delays, so book, ipod, and the ability to sleep standing up has served me well over the years.... I take the view I will get to where I am going at some point, thus mostly very laid back.

Being British any trip around Europe is normally uneventful, never had much of an issue anywhere, even made it in to Latvia, and Russia without even showing my passport at all, more fun coming out of Russia trying to explain how I got in with out a stamp on my visa though!

Anyway, the best or most speedy entrance was in Japan, I think there were 8 or 9 immigration officials checking passports, one look at my UK one and a simple 90 stay stamp... "Enjoy Japan" ( under 10 seconds).

A very close second was Cape Town, overnight flight arrived 6ish am very red eyed...(25 seconds including waiting inline)... "Enjoy Cape Town Sir!"

Brazil was good as well... Air France flight ( first and last time) most ignorant cabin crew anywhere....Through passport control (Rio) in 3 minutes.... "Enjoy Brazzzzzil Sir!"

Egypt a joy be it Cairo or anywhere even with the pay on arrival visa stamp, simple polite easy..... "Welcome to Egypt Sir!"

In fact anywhere in Middle East..... Jordan, Saudi, Qatar, UAE,.... all the same simple, polite easy "Welcome to wherever!"

Now..... there are down sides.... thankfully not many but dare I say and maybe there is a connection, they have always been with younger passport officers, now they might be going through training, or just love the new power trip they have..... or dare I say uneducated!!

Second worst was entering the US.... now as I said I travel, its been my life, and hopefully I have a few more years of it. So there are some odd visa stamps floating around in my passports. Many years ago I lived on the little island of Malta, worked in the summer and make a few friends and stayed during the winter... My little place backed on the Lybian embassy, so as you do walking past the place every day you get to know the people..... One weekend I visited Tripoli with a friend, different life, culture but very enjoyable..... Now a few years later try getting into the US with a Lybian visa stamp in your passport! (6 hours with really ignorant and brain dead officials) Should have been 5 hours... but when asked what will be the first thing I do if I get admitted to the US. My reply was I'll find the nearest bar and try to forget being quized about my life from birth by someone who is both rude and obviously does not have a clue about travelling... QED extra hour!... Yes I know security etc etc, but when they want to know about what's you favorite colour and sport you played as a kid... enough is enough... saying mind your own business is not really a bright thing to do! Still I made it in.... and yes I found that bar :-)

However worst was Israel.... Now I have some really nice Isreali friends... At the time I worked for a big company and was going to Tel Aviv for an exhibution, but took a few days holiday before and after....

My holiday started in Taba Egypt.. lovely place... very chilled relaxed and quiet. Just a stones throw from the Israel border at Eliat... doing the walk through across the border there is always a minor pain, Egyptians take their time (aka Thailand) but pleasent enough..... Israeli border staff, all national service conscripts (18-21) mostly women, who have never travelled outside of Israel... so a simple Q&A session in a very quiet crossing takes about 30 minutes! ( plus they are really rude).

However managed to get through, eventually after being told twice that I might not be admitted because I was not giving the right answers!!

Ok... now a short taxi to Eilat airport, very small regional airport simple dont you think?.... Oh no its not. At Check in its 4 check-in staff and they all ask questions about everything, your parents, your children, your school... even your breakfast and sleeping habits! I refused to answer all on the grounds it had nothing to do with travelling on an internal flight which all my documents were upto date and the had contact names, numbers and address of my whole stay in Israel......

QED 8 hours in detention at the airport whilst they went through all my luggage, phones, books, socks, life history.... Funny thing the detention staff were fine, polite and civil, I just took up the oppertunity to sleep when I could. At this point its good getting stressed, just let them do what they have to, make sure you get plenty of food and water, toilet breaks as well. Then insist they repack your case with a full written inventory signed, simple really. I think I missed 3 regional flights and was booked in on a military special. Most the passengers were army!.. anyway it was different and quite interesting.

Oh for the record I got the same treatment coming back from Tel Aviv to Eilat a few days later... I can say the foods good.

So when it comes to immigration anywhere, they will do what they want, when they want and at their own speed. Just accept it is going to take time and look as board with the whole process as they are.... If they ask a question just give a short and simple answer, volenteer nothing else.

(On the Thai visa farce, it will only improve for us here when its easier for Thais to travel abroad. Our countries give their people a hard time, so they will do the same to us)....All very childish I know but I can assure you its true.

By Ian BKK, Bangkok (2nd April 2011)

If my Thai partner has a UK holiday visa and we would like to go to Spain for a few days (whilst in UK) Does my partner also need a visa for Spain or does the UK visa also cover Spain?

Phil - Hi Joe, yes your partner needs a seperate visa. The UK is not part of the schengen agreement so you need both a UK visa and a schengen visa. At about 3,000 baht a pop for each one, this always adds a nasty extra expense to the holiday I always feel.

By Joe, Thailand (2nd March 2011)

Given that you've been married for a while Phil, why not simply get your wife UK citizenship / passport etc?
My wife has an Australian passport and travels on that. Never had a single moment of trouble.

By Johnny, (1st March 2011)

Great blog. I look forward to the adventure of trying to get my Burmese Shan wife who lives in Thailand a visa to enter the UK!

By Andy, Thailand (1st March 2011)

It's karma for all that Thai visa and work permit BS

By D, (28th February 2011)

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