My immigration story – we all have one!

by Chris Harrison
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“The bigger picture is that the world is becoming smaller and we are learning to live together but the truth is that we come from two different worlds and we are all in a state of transition.”

I recently left my local Thai immigration office in tears, holding the hand of my 10 year old daughter who was ill with the chicken pox, walking with my equally frustrated husband because we had failed yet again to complete our annual visa applications correctly. I thought that surely this year I had completed everything the “right way”. In fact I was so proud of my beautiful stacks of (very not eco friendly) papers that I took photos to commemorate the moment of completion. I crossed every t, dotted every I and triple copied everything to be completely sure that I had what I needed but yet again, I failed.

My initial reaction was that I am tired of this and I am not sure if I still want to live in this country which I have called home for nearly all of my daughter’s life. I wondered what my options were and gave serious thought to moving on. Once I calmed down I did what I do every year and sat down to remake my applications. This is not an article meant to complain but rather to observe the issues at hand and consider the options for moving forward. To begin I would like to share with you my most recent story which many expats have their own similar version of.

It started with a three hour drive to my “local immigration office”. Thankfully we can check in by mail and do not have to drive there every 90 days anymore. I did this trip to change my address and check in as I was new to the area. I was met with super friendly Thai smiles and photos and all the rest. I quickly and easily did my change of address and then 90 day check in. The service was superb and I thought I was super lucky to have move to an area with such friendly immigration officers. I asked them about renewing my one year visa for myself and my daughter as it was coming up in the end of the year to which they smiled and said “super easy! Just go on the website and look at the list needed then bring us those documents and you will be done in a day”. WOW, so easy! They even had example copies hanging on the wall for us to look at. As a stay at home mom to my daughter with my hands full I was so relieved by this because I thought, “Finally, this year will be different.” I went on my three hour drive back home with a smile on my face and a new 90 day check in. Great!

Fast forward to about a month or so before visa renewal time. I started to do my search on the web for this list that I was told of. After finding many agencies that had lists, which all varied from each other and were written only in English, I finally decided to just make all of the documents on all of the lists.

I also found on the official Thai Immigration website a list in Thai which I printed up to bring with me to the officials which I would have to request the documents from. I was going to cover all of my bases and be sure to walk into immigration smiling with completed applications in hand and walk out happy for another year. I am married to a Thai man and am living a very simple life in rural Thailand. I am not a male running an illegal business in a sketchy area of the country and I have a daughter who I want to keep safe and healthy. I do not think I am someone that would ever make a problem for immigration or Thailand so I think this process should be very easy.

Off I went to compile all of my forms. I started with downloading and printing the Tm.7s that they asked for and got all of our photos completed, you know all the basics. Then I went to some of the government offices to get the required forms. I was met with confusion because they did not know what exactly I was asking for. I had given them the list in Thai from the Thai Immigration website but it was still unclear. I was told that the way things were written on the list was so confusing that the average

Thai person would not understand. I thought, “no problem!” we can just call the immigration officers and ask them to explain what they need us to bring to the officials in the office. Big mistake. I was basically told that the immigration officer could not explain what we needed because she was not sure and that she was too busy to talk with us. Then I was told that the best thing for me to do was to bring all the required documents to them to have them checked and if needed we could go back again on another day to complete the process. Mind you, I live three hours each way from the office and we were still unsure of what documents were even needed. I remained calm and gave the phone to the Thai people who got the same answers and basically just told me that “this is normal in Thailand”.

Fortunately at the next government office the woman was very professional and helpful and had actually assisted with paperwork for a visa before so she just did the best she could to give us all the same documents and more. She even made some multiple times with different wording because she too, was not sure what the correct way was. I then emailed photos of all of our documents to immigration and told them we would be coming and if they required any other documents to please let us know. At that point we had all of our papers after many trips to other towns and different offices and to some multiple times but we were pretty sure that we had covered all of our bases and it was now time to go back to immigration.

I remember feeling calm and relieved on my three hour drive back to immigration because I would be finished for another year. Talk about counting the chickens before they hatched because we were greeted by the same friendly smiles and photos and wais then slammed down with rejection yet again. I honestly felt heartbroken because I had tried so hard and no one there was willing to help us on the phone or by email. Another thing to keep in mind is that my husband lost money every time we made that trip because he could not work, plus we had to pay for gas and the visa application itself. This is not a little bit of money when you live as simply as we do.

We were told that our Tm.7 was unacceptable because it was not printed on 2 sides of the same paper. Presumably that is to save paper but they made me do it over and had us throw away the old paper which is not very earth friendly. They told me that I had come too early to renew the visa because they looked only at the 90 day check in date initially however the visa was actually about to expire and had I listened to them and left and not gone back until the date they initially told me we would have overstayed by nearly 2 months which I am sure they would have gladly penalised us for. I knew the rules however so I asked them to double check that which they did and then agreed that it was indeed time to renew.

I think by that point in time I had already lost all chances of getting my visa completed smoothly. The woman who I had spoken to on the phone already did not like me and now I had shown them that they were wrong about the renewal date. I honestly did not mean to make a problem; I was trying to prevent the very problems we ended up having. I am not sure what else I was supposed to do. I never yelled at anyone, I kept my smile on my face and acted as humbly as possible but nothing worked. They continued to pick apart my applications piece by piece. They asked for one form that was not listed on any site that I found as well as two other documents, again not listed anywhere. They said that our map to our house had to be drawn in on their form and that our photos had to be in colour two photos to a page.

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My greyscale photos with one on each page were unacceptable. They laughed at the wording on our documents that the kind lady at the government office had tried so hard to prepare for them and said that it was all wrong. Had I said to them that I had called but no one would help or that I was unable to find a proper list of what was needed they probably would have made even more problems for us. I simply smiled and took it all like a knife right through my heart tainting my love for the country I live in.

At this point my application is still not completed. I am awaiting the offices to reword the documents and I will drive back again for another attempt at this application. If all goes well I will pay them 4,000B (2,000B per person) and then return a month later to pick up my visa. In total we will have driven 24 hours, lost 4 days of work for my husband, paid over 3,000 B in petrol and that’s not including all of the trips to government offices. Sadly I am not the only person that goes through this and I have known many good friends and qualified English teachers who have given up and left Thailand due to this problem happening year after year.

Let’s summarise the issues before we discuss the solutions. I promise I am not here to complain but rather to explain and bring things to light. Firstly, the visa requirements are inconsistent and not only do they change from year to year but from place to place and person to person. Secondly, the officers do not always know the answers to questions regarding the visas so you get different answers and occasionally wrong information. Although I have always found immigration officers friendly this year I was actually told that they were too busy to help me so I am not sure if they do not have time or resources to assist people but that leaves me confused as to why we pay to process our applications? Lastly, the websites are not in English. I found many regions that had home pages in English but once I clicked past the home page it was all in Thai which made finding anything impossible for me. My Thai husband did his best to help but even the Thai people do not understand what is written in Thai.

These problems have led to some very serious and sad consequences for this country. As I previously stated many foreigners have simply decided to go elsewhere and along with that they take their education, influence and money. That has left Thailand with a shortage of qualified English teachers which has left some schools and agencies so desperate that they allow unqualified people to work with Thai children. This has also broken up families because the foreign spouse gets fed up and leaves the country. This can be a massive drain on the economy and the health of the society.

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Now I would like to discuss the most important point I would like to make here. The Thais, the system, immigration, the farang etc., are not the problem! 99% of the officers I have met here are kind, helpful and sometimes overly helpful. I have actually been driven around on motorbikes by more than one officer to try to track down some new document they need. That is above beyond their call of duty.

The bigger picture is that the world is becoming smaller and we are learning to live together but the truth is that we come from two different worlds and we are all in a state of transition.

What I hope to accomplish with this article is the creation of a bridge. A bridge that connects the two vastly different worlds and helps to create a future where we can all benefit from each other’s cultural backgrounds. The foreigners who have decided to stay and who value this country can be utilised and can assist in this new world we are creating together. I can see some very simple and small changes that could be made overnight that could have a dramatic effect on this countries interaction with its valued expats.

So how do we fix this? I see many solutions which start with first standardizing the visa application process for the entire country. I would like to see a simple list available on the official immigration website, in Thai and English, with the documents required, the options to print the forms needed and photos of examples. If this is the same for all offices in the country then there is no room for things to suddenly change from time to time. This would make life easier for the officers and applicants during the process.

The great thing about websites is that they can be easily and instantly updated so as the country’s needs change the new requirements can go into effect and be communicated at the touch of a button. Expats mostly come from countries where they are used to applications and paperwork processes. They will happily comply with the rules of Immigration because at the end of the day the rules are not that complicated and they are not even “bad” or unfair they are simply not understood. I believe that any foreigner given the clear guidelines would be more than happy to comply in order to remain in this beautiful country.

Next, there must be accountability. I know that many people have worked very hard to make great changes in this country. Thailand has come a very long way in a very short time and we must keep that in mind. As we transition out of some of the old ways of doing things there must be a way for people to contact people above the officers that they are working with in the case of incorrect procedures being followed. I assume that this is already in place but as a foreigner getting access to that is difficult. As a foreigner I have often felt completely helpless and that my only option is to smile and do whatever I am told because the person standing in front of me literally has my life in their hands. If I did not have family here and was, for example, a qualified single teacher in that situation I would simply not stay after being subjected to that. If we were able to call for assistance in both English and Thai then we can have misunderstandings explained to government offices who do not know what all of the required documents are. This would eliminate so much time and money spent on going back and forth.

Let’s work together. I propose that the government engages with its valued expats and employs them to assist in the process. For example, those of us who live hours from immigration may have simple questions and if there is an expat volunteer or employee in our area they can contact for assistance many problems can be sorted out before they become big frustrations. I believe that the majority of expats who really live here with families or businesses are more than willing to help out in some way. At the end of the day we are a part of your communities and want to be or believe me we would have left a long time ago. Please also remember that we are used to doing things differently and need your patience at times as well.

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Allow us to work with you and to be utilised because we too want to contribute to our society’s growth and health.

Anyone who only wants to complain but offers no solution can keep right on going to Vietnam or whatever other country they believe is so much better but as for the rest of us let’s build this bridge together and continue developing Thailand into all it can be.

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