As someone who has been to 20 countries, lived in China where I frequently get my passport stamped in Hong Kong and Macau and crossed borders more than I count my own hair, immigration still strikes fear in me. Think of it – immigration is nothing more than people standing behind a box that stands between you and your travel adventures.
As a Filipino even leaving my own country drives me into an anxiety filled spiral. Since so many of us work illegally around the world, my country makes it a point to make life difficult for us to leave the country if we don’t have a return ticket and an exit permit/travel tax exit. We are grilled when we leave our home shores and grilled again as soon as we arrive in our destination.
I also encounter many different probing/inquiring tactics at different borders and customs. Some, I’ve answered well and some I didn’t prompting close calls with the risk being detained.
Here are my experiences and tips when handling immigration:
- Know the officer’s intent
The immigration’s officer’s job is to ascertain which passenger would likely cause trouble to the country, commit a crime or reside illegally. Your task is to make sure their suspicions aren’t aroused. For them everybody is guilty till proven innocent.
Sometimes immigration officers might just want to fill their quotas of suspicious people interrogated questioned (hint: post 9/11 USA). If you’re lucky enough to be randomly chosen for a second screening, do not take it too personally – you’re just a number to them after all. Do not look too nervous and just answer their questions. Looking nervous would just arouse their suspicion. When you’ve reached that point, the immigration’s officer’s intent now is to harass you to submission so they can finally pat themselves in the back for catching a criminal or they just want a break from their monotony of stamping passport all days and surprise! you’re there to provide them the entertainment their day needs. Think of all cop movies you saw in the interrogation room – playing good cop/bad cop. The immigration officer want to feel like those cops.
In some immigration like the US, the person is actually stripped bare of their rights and treated like a criminal because technically in the customs area, they haven’t arrived in US soil yet. They would harass you, search your belongings and if they find one shred of evidence that you are guilty, they would detain you and wouldn’t even allow you to make a single phone call to your family or friends who might be waiting for you. It’s that bad. When they think they’ve proven you’re guilty, they would sometimes force you to sign papers (do not sign any papers, you at least have the right to do so). It’s like the immigration officers want to turn US immigration into Guantanamo Bay. I can’t even imagine how many people they “tortured” and deposited into their cells and tower over them feeling like dictators. I read a story they put a poor 64 year old woman into a cell when all she wanted was to attend her daughter’s wedding.
My cousin Lloyd was selected for random screening at the Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida. He was detained for 2 hours in a room because they found he brought his work documents with him because he wanted to apply for a Japanese visa in the States. Only when he insisted on his torturer’s ID badge number and to speak to his supervisor was he let go.
My friend Shirley was also interrogated as soon as she reached Australia customs. For no apparent reason that she is brown and looks like an immigrant (yes, immigration officers love profiling.) Never mind she’s traveled to 30 countries. She was horrified at being treated like she was less of a human being. After the horrific experience, she later realized there was a reality show in Australia called Border Security where immigration officers catch passengers who planned on staying in Australia illegally or were sneaking drugs in. These officers were probably harassing her hoping for their lucky break on that show.
- Know how to answer questions. Be detailed but not too detailed
Immigration officers would sometimes ask you queries to determine your intent in coming to their country. Immigration officers in developed countries (USA, Canada, France,etc. ) would often ask these questions:
- Why are you here?
- Where will you be staying?
- Who will you be visiting?
- How long will you be staying?
- How much money are you bringing?
It was Alice’s first time to visit Hong Kong from the Philippines. As a first time traveler she was very naïve and answered all questioned truthfully. When asked by the Philippine immigration officer before departing, “Why are you going to HK?” She answered enthusiastically, “To see my boyfriend in HK!”
She wasn’t allowed to leave. The immigration officer in the Philippines thought she was going to stay there illegally. Also, one must never answer seeing a boyfriend when it’s your first time traveling.
When I first arrived in LAX airport, I was jet lagged and hurting from a 14 hour flight from Japan where I barely slept on the plane. When asked the customary question, “Why are you here?”
I answered, “To see my family and friends.”
When he asked, “Why is your visa issued in China?”
I said, “I used to work there.”
The immigration officer’s expression remained nonchalant.
Which baffled me that I was given second screening by that officer. That had never happened to me before in the US. I was getting nervous. The officer in charge of searching my luggage was a huge bouncer looking guy. He looked at my things and then my I-94 customs form.
“You’re visiting family and friends right?”
“You’re supposed to give them gifts. Why did you write $0 for the value of their gifts?”
Because sometimes we don’t give friends gifts when visiting! Use your common sense! I bit my lip. Now was not the time to be a wise guy. So I wrote $20 in the value. He looked at it and typed something in his computer and let me go.
I realized perhaps I was too vague in my answers which prompted the officer to give me a second screening. Instead of answering “visiting friends and family” maybe I should’ve said, “I’m visiting my Uncle Willo in LA and then visiting my friend Brett in Chicago and do a road trip up north to check out the great lakes in Minnesota. Then fly to NYC to see the Statue of Liberty.” Instead of “I used to work in China.” I should’ve added my current work status to dispel any suspicion I was going to look for work in the US. “I used to work in China but now I’m the marketing manager of my family’s plastic and retail business in the Philippines.”
But who knows anyway how immigration officers conduct their screening? It could also be random or any kind of unfair racial profiling. In China, immigration officers stop any black person they see and open their luggage. Whenever I used to cross the sea borders in China, the officers search my luggage when they see I hold a foreigner passport.
- Be careful of questions that trap you
Sometimes officers in developing countries probe you to look for loopholes they can use in their power to keep you from entering or departing the country. Their reason is so you can offer them a bribe. They just want money.
I noticed this immigration officer in the Philippines was looking for red flags in my answers.
“What type of business does your family operate?”
“What do you sell?”
“What are your responsibilities?”
“What type of plastic do you sell?”
Questions which are awfully detailed and probing for my job. Luckily I do work in my family business and was able to answer. I offered simple and concise answers that didn’t prompt him to ask for follow up.
“Plastic retail and distribution.”
“Plastic and household supplies.”
“I supervise and liaise between the sales staff and management.”
“Canada plastic bags.”
The guy seemed kind of bummed when I left.
My friend Joe was legally employed by a school in Hanoi but because he had was asked to pay an exorbitant amount to get unnecessary translation for his documents to Vietnamese, he decided that getting a 3 month business visa and exiting Vietnam was cheaper than the fee. He spent most of the year exiting Vietnam and coming back. He went back to the Philippines for the summer break. Upon departing the Philippines to return to Vietnam, the immigration officer questioned him, “Why did you exit and enter Vietnam many times in a year?”
Joe said, “Sir, I was on vacation and wanted to explore Vietnam.”
“Don’t kid me! For a year? You were obviously working there illegally. I noticed you have a previous work visa in Vietnam.”
Joe tried to explain his translation situation but the officer would hear none of it. In desperation, Joe fished out a P1,000 (USD23) bill. The officer’s eyes lit up and stamped his passport.
- Do not bring unnecessary merchandise that might implicate you
Traveling with all your documents (birth certificate, security clearance, bank statements, etc.) can be tricky because if found in your luggage, the officers will use these to lay charges on you especially in Australia and the US that you are going to look for work in their country.
My couin Lloyd brought documents with him so he can apply for a Japanese tourist visa in the Japan consul in the States. Unfortunately, the officers found them and questioned him about it.
By sheer naiveté, I bought some Kim Il-Sung pins in China and brought them with me when I crossed the border to North Korea not knowing that these pins weren’t supposed to be sold. A little background, Kim Il-Sung was the maniacal dictator of North Korea and they were worship him there after his death. To show their loyalty, North Koreans pin a picture of him on their clothes.
You are also cautioned in bringing too many gadgets into North Korea because well, simply they would think it was a spying device. Unfortunately, I had brought my laptop, my mp3 player and my banking USB stick with me and a DVD copy of (wait for it) Captain America (swear total coincidence).
Customs took a lot longer in examining my suitcase and trying out all the gadgets (fortunately, Captain America was laid aside). When they got to my Kim Il Sung pins, they questioned me aside and grilled me on where I had found them (you can find the complete story here) to the point I got scared and thought they were going to detain me.
When I promised I had no idea that the dear Leader shouldn’t be bought as souvenirs and threw them away, I was finally allowed entry into North Korea.
- Show your return plane ticket, if necessary
Immigration officers often want you to show proof you will be exiting the country. In fact most countries won’t let you in unless you have an outgoing flight.
If prompted, you can show the ticket to prove you will be leaving the country soon. That would increase the chances of the officer being more at ease with letting you in.
Other interesting questions Immigration had asked me:
Sometimes immigration officers ask peculiar questions I’ve never heard of, especially in developing countries.
When entering Vietnam, the officer asked me, “Can you say ‘I love you’ in Vietnamese?”
When entering China, “Were you shooting a film in Macau?”
When entering India, “Are you single?”
The important thing is to keep calm and answer the questions that would satisfy the immigration interviewer and allow you into the country. :)