Visit to Visaland

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Holding a 30-day tourist visa never bothered me before. I was not concerned about any residence issues. For me, Phuket was for sightseeing. I was just an ordinary tourist, not in any way connected to Phuket, not involved in the expat life and nothing to talk about with my new friends. In other words I was a total outsider here.

But things are changing for me. On my 22nd day on the island, with a 90-day non-immigrant O visa in hand, I went to get a one-year resident visa based on my new husband’s retirement visa. After that experience, I understand why visas are ALWAYS a primary topic of conversation whenever expats meet. You never know what additional paperwork the immigration officers will require. You never know how long you are going to be waiting in the queue. If you’re missing one piece of paper — for instance, your birth certificate, a copy of your landlord’s ID, a copy of your house lease – then you must start all over again.

There seems to be many unwritten rules about all kinds of visas, rules which change daily. Even though I had done quite a lot of preparation, a fear of rejection or failure hovered over my head like a Thai ghost. I needed original documents, certified copies of this and that… more than I could have imagined or foreseen.

My visit was carefully timed after the King’s birthday holiday. To avoid the predictable morning crowd we chose to go in the afternoon. We arrived at Phuket Town Immigration Office at 1pm sharp. Everything seemed fine. It was a day of beautiful sunshine, calm breezes, and quiet streets, all signs for a good start. I hoped and prayed to get my visa done, that’s all.

Upstairs was a multinational crowd. Two winding lines of multiple complextions, men and women, short and tall, but with same sweaty frowning forheads and puzzling looks in their eyes. Right at the door, two expat officers manned the information desk, wearing various flag badges on their uniforms to show the languages they could speak. People who needed information or forms were queuing into two lines, with anxious looks in their eyes. If they had all the paperwork required, the information officers gave them a queue number. In the middle of the room at a long counter sat Thai officers, who dealt with visa applications. They shouted out the numbers of the applicants as there was no LED display board. Then the applicant handed over all the documents.

Behind the four visa officers sat Thai assistants, mainly ladies, who dealt with fees and filing. They had the only smiling faces in the room, stopping once in a while for a candy, to check their make-up, or just to have a little chat with each other. By contrast, the front-line officers, their “glancing eyes” serious looks are well being magnified by thick glasses.

Supervisors were at the back of the room, where the ranking staff members was a pretty young woman without a smile, busy and grumpy, looking like someone just grabs her favorite toy or, someone owes her big loaf of money and doesn’t repay on time. If I were her, seeing piles and piles of applications on the desk, I would be grumpy too. The big boss was making phone calls in a separate room in the right corner. Periodically, officers went in asking for advice or final approval.

Over on the left side of the big room, applicants waited to get their passports back with new visas: the last step. Some looked calm, reading books, playing with phones, listening to music, relaxing. Others had worried looks, holding different files and queue numbers, fidgeting, filling out the forms, pricking up their ears to check which number is on. Others walked around impatiently, exchanging tips or giving advice. Everybody checked their files again and again in case something was missing..

We happened to meet our friend J, also at immigration to renew her visa. While I filled out application forms, she told us about her study visa and her brother’s work visa… different stories but the same roadblocks.

On that day, Paul needed to do the required regular 90-day police check downstairs in the same building. This involved no payment to push the papers, but he had to show up with the previous police check receipt and report in person to the immigration officers his (unchanged) address again. So he left to do his duty while I hung around upstairs like patio furniture.

Waiting in long lines was a pain, but waiting with no certainty and no guarantee was surely worse. As a part of my preparation, I had brought a magazine with nice photos of food and interesting articles for entertainment, but I did not even bother to take one glance. I could not focus on it. I walked around and around, using my ears as radar to track the numbers the officers called. “Number 58… 58” the officer said.

Surely my number was getting closer. At 20 minutes per person and with 4 officers in total, by 2pm I was meeting officer No.4. He seemed nice, a large round faced man with black framed glasses; a dark skinned, younger version of Santa Claus. He made friendly noises and accepted my complete application, with several documents attached.

Then I waited again for the visa to be issued by another officer in a different group at the back. If I obtained my new 1-year visa, I would finally be an official legal resident of the Kingdom of Thailand. After that I must apply for a multiple re-entry permit, so I could go back to China or to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia. My imagination sent me far, far away.
As some applicants were missing paperwork or had many questions, it took longer than I estimated. Finally a visa officer called my number at 2:45pm.

By then, Paul was back from downstairs but without success. His police check date was not the date required on his last police-check form. Instead it was due 18 January, 90 days after his last entry into the country. Another hour wasted…

Anyway, I felt safe and protected with Paul with me here. Right before we sat down Paul told me briefly that he had a bad experience last year with this particular officer. I felt black clouds passing over my head. We explained our situation and submitted all the documents and passports too. He seemed happy, like a high-school teacher seeing the students finish their homework right. Paul was pretty relaxed and kept telling me to smile. Everything went well. “Yes, you got this…yes, you got that…oh, you need Thai residence certificate. Go get it downstairs. When you get that, come back to me.”

We sat there only three minutes before the officer sent us downstairs. There,
the same routine: filled out the forms, got copies of all documents, needed another queue number, then waited in line. In this crowded office, an LED board showed the numbers and which counter to go to. I passed the time with a 5-year-old Thai boy who was there holding an iPad and asking questions about the game he was playing. After 30 minutes, it was our turn. The officer with my application stopped his work at hand to instruct the child. What was this? Take-your-kid-to-work day? But he did stamp my residence permit properly. This was a relatively easy operation so we had the right additional piece of paper by 3:30pm.

Back upstairs, again the visa officer had a large stack of applications on his desk, covered with all his ink stamps. I sat down again, showing my smile, placing my application on the edge of the desk, indicating that I was back with the required document. But it seemed that I was thin air to him. He ignored us, answering phone calls, seemingly busy, checking files, transferring them to assistants behind him.

I just sat there with a continuous smile, as I know I have everything now. The only problem was whether I would get my visa that day or the next. Feeling relaxed, I moved my files a little bit closer to the officer. He must have sensed my move and gestured that he only had two hands. Looking at the paper pile in front of him, he gave me a “hard work” look and a shrug. I showed him my nicest smile.

Twenty minutes later, he finished with other applications and re-checked mine. “Good, good”, he said like a teacher giving me exam grades. With a “bang, bang”, he stamped various seals on my forms, including a large red one right on my face in my photo. Everything was in order. “You pay 1900 baht now.”
“Yes!” I almost screamed out happily. “You wait over there,” he pointed.
It was time for payment and the supervisor’s final approval, a very promising development. I reveled in my first big pending success at the immigration office.

After 15 minutes of happy hope, the officer called us back. Regret floated in his eyes. “I have to cancel your application today. You have a 90 day non-immigrant O visa, so you can’t apply for dependent visa now. You can apply the visa after the 46th day of your stay. You come too early! Relax, enjoy Thailand more time. Come back to me, let’s see, second week in January. Here is your money and forms. Come next month again.” We were totally speechless at that moment.

After full preparation and many documents, 3 hours anxiously waiting in lines, upstairs, downstairs, we gained nothing, had no visa, no 90-day check, zero. That was extremely frustrating for us – we don’t like “no” for an answer. But as an optimist I did learn two things that day: 1) I knew what to do the next time for my visa application; and 2) for the first time ever, I saw a lovely living squirrel crawling along the telephone wires outside the office. That is a real wild animal we would seldom see in my hometown in China.
This is Thailand, this is the T-factor. Well done this time. Better luck next time.

Postscript:
On the afternoon of January 12 we went back to the Immigration office and waited again in line for 2 hours and 20 minutes to get my visa. There were no mistakes this time. The next day, we returned again to get my passport back with a new resident visa in it. Then we spent another 2 hours waiting for my multiple re-entry permit. Surely it was a good day to remember? … or maybe forget?

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