Thursday, December 11, 2014

Getting My Work Visa: "Fun" at Thai Immigration and 12 Crazy Hours in Singapore

Back in July, I wrote about spending part of my summer at home chasing down paperwork just to prove I am who I say I am, and having to change my visa so I can work here. Well, for part of the past two weeks, I had been dealing with the second part of this process -- changing my visa status, and it's been time-consuming, frustrating, expensive, and stressful as hell.

I had known since day one of this job that I would be required to leave Thailand at some point just to change my visa status at a Thai embassy in another country. What the Human Resources office failed to inform me last year (and there are so many of those moments!) was that, in order for me to change my visa status, I first needed to cancel the multiple-entry permit I had purchased at the end of last year so I could re-enter the country with a single-entry permit. The reason I was given for this requirement was that the re-entry permit was attached to my spousal visa, and couldn't be transferred to my new work visa. And there were no refunds either. I had paid hundreds of dollars for that multiple-entry permit, having anticipated traveling to other countries multiple times this year! Knowing how incompetent the HR staff could be and how lacking in knowledge they are, I checked multiple times that the cancellation of my re-entry permit was a necessary step in this process.

So the plan was for me to be able to use that multiple re-entry permit during our October break, when we went to Japan, and I was to go to the Thai immigration office to cancel the permit after the trip. But there was always one crisis or another with my students, so I never got around to it. Weeks went by, and I thought that maybe I could get away with keeping my current visa status and multiple-entry permit since I had already worked for four months without doing a thing! Finally, a couple of weeks ago, HR told me I needed to take care of this because they needed to apply for my work permit before our upcoming December break.

So last Thursday, the day before the King's birthday holiday, I went with an HR staff member, and a student who also had a visa issue, to the Thai immigration office. What was supposed to be a quick trip turned out to be 5 1/2 hours of agony and mindlessness, causing me to miss an entire work day. And that didn't even include the almost-two-hour drive to get there (without traffic, it would've taken less than an hour).

The entire experience reminded me of the horrors of visiting the motor vehicles department back in the U.S., only multiplied by at least 100. It was even set up the exact same way: you get a number, get in queue, and wait until your number is called to go to a particular "station." I was number 12, which came up only about 10 minutes after our arrival. Great, I thought. Before I could move, however, the accompanying HR staff member came to me and informed me that HR had made a mistake: it was not my multiple re-entry permit that I needed to cancel, but my spousal visa! Really?! They didn't think to double-check during the four months I had been asking them about which document to cancel?! And surely this wasn't the first time they had to deal with this! Because of this mistake, he had brought the incorrect documents for me! So, he informed me, someone from HR was to draw up the correct documents and bring them over to the immigration office! We could be there for hours! Yippee.

So we waited. And waited. Along with at least 70 or 80 others. To make the wait even longer, the immigration office closed at noon, when everyone was ordered to leave and not to return for an hour. Right before the office closed at noon, the HR staff member finally received new documents for me via email, printed them out at a nearby copy center, and submitted them to the Thai immigration officers for review. Just as my papers were getting reviewed, we were booted out.

When we returned an hour later, we had to wait around for another hour or so until the head honcho returned and could sign off on the cancellation. Yup, waited an hour just for a damn signature. Then we waited another hour while the student waited for a signature as well. It really was bureaucracy at its worst. It was horrible to be waiting in a dreary building all day. I was so glad when we were done with that part of the ordeal.

Then, yesterday (Wednesday), I went to the Thai embassy in Singapore to get my visa status changed. The original plan was for my family to go with me, stay overnight, and sightsee a little while I was waiting on my visa status change. Alas, it was not to be since my son fractured his arm and couldn't fly with a cast on, so I decided to get my visa status changed and fly home on the same day. Earlier in the week, I had double-checked with the HR office to make sure I had all the documents I needed to change my visa. I was told I was all set.

I was originally scheduled to fly out at 7:00 that morning, but someone from HR told me I had to submit my paperwork to the embassy by 10:30 a.m. to get my visa on the same day, so I paid extra money to change my flight to the 6:00 a.m. flight, which would arrive in Singapore at 9:30 a.m. Singapore time (one hour ahead of Bangkok). Well, we didn't even start boarding until almost 6:00 a.m., so the flight arrived about 10 minutes late. Between that, immigration and customs (which was quick, thank goodness), a quick stop in the bathroom, exchanging currency at the airport, and waiting for a taxi, I didn't even get on the road until almost 10:00! I arrived at the embassy right at 10:30. But my heart sank when I walked in -- there was a line a mile long for visas.
I didn't get to the counter until after 11:00. I explained who I was because someone from HR at school supposedly had notified the embassy that I was to be there that day. The lady reviewed the paperwork I was given by the school HR office. I was asked if I had already filled out a visa application and if I had passport-sized photos with me -- two items that HR had told me they would (but obviously failed to) provide, so the answers would be "no" and "no". She asked me to get my photos taken, as well as make copies of my marriage certificate, my return airline ticket to Bangkok (to show that I was, indeed, returning there after getting my visa), and my transcript (she couldn't make copies for me with the copier right behind her!?). She told me about a mall a block away that had a photo booth and a copy center, and instructed me to return to the embassy with those items.

I ran to the mall and located the photo booth almost immediately. I stepped inside and realized it took only dollar coins. So I ran to the convenience store next to it and bought something small just to get change. But the cashier there didn't have enough dollar coins for me, so I grabbed the bills she gave me and ran next door to a hardware store to get dollar coins. Finally, I got my photos taken, located a copy center, and made copies. Yes!

I ran back to the embassy about 10 minutes later, at 11:35, and asked the guard to let me in. He looked at me, looked at his watch, and said, "No, you're too late!" What?! He said he had been instructed not to let anyone in after 11:30. I looked at him, dumbfounded. I reminded him I had just left 10 minutes earlier, when he told me where to go to make copies. He again repeated that the embassy was closed and I couldn't return until THE NEXT DAY! I explained that the lady inside had specifically told me to return to the embassy with the requested copies and photos, but the guards were adamant that they couldn't let me in because they had not received a phone call to allow anyone back in. I asked them to call inside, but they wouldn't. Finally, because I was in such utter disbelief over what was happening, so exhausted after having been up since 3:00 a.m., and so stressed after rushing around, I just burst into tears in front of these strangers (first in my lifetime)! I just couldn't believe what had just happened! I was thisclose to getting everything done and now I had to wait a whole other day?! I didn't even have a place to stay that night and I was scheduled to return to Bangkok that night!

Desperate, I stayed and begged and pleaded with them to call inside the embassy so they could see I was telling the truth. What did I have to lose? I had already humiliated myself by crying like a little baby, so what was more groveling going to matter? The guards finally relented and called inside to check if I was allowed back in. Within a few minutes, the lady who had reviewed my documents came out to fetch me. Then she reviewed my documents again, which literally took less than a minute, took my S$100 for the visa, and gave me a receipt to return at 2:00 p.m. Seeing the embassy hours on the receipt, it was then that I realized that the embassy was open only from 9:15 to 11:30, and from 2:00 to 3:00, every day! How's that for inconvenience? It would've been nice had someone told me that.

Singapore from a taxi:

From 11:30 to 2:00, I hung out in the mall next door. I had planned on taking in some sights, but after the morning I had had, I was spent and wanted nothing more than just to sit and zone out. At least I was able to indulge in my favorite pastimes -- people watching and reading -- for hours. I realized that of the different groups of people of the world I have observed and interacted with so far in my life, the Thai people seemed the most happy and relaxed; the Malaysians seemed subdued, but relaxed; the Vietnamese people seemed aggressive and sneaky; and the Singaporeans seemed like Americans -- harried and stressed.

I also wandered around the mall a little bit. At some point, I wandered down a small, quiet side corridor in the mall. Immediately after turning down this corridor, I encountered a row of shops with scantily clad women sitting in front of each shop! The ladies giggled when they saw me, and said something in a language I didn't recognize. At the end of the corridor, I saw a shop with a huge, blinking, neon sign advertising "sex" inside. I had apparently wandered down "prostitutes' corridor"! Oops!!
At 2:00 p.m. on the dot, I returned to the embassy, and of course, my visa and passport were ready for pickup. I was so glad I had stuck around and persisted in convincing the guards to let me back in since the embassy was obviously able to get my visa ready with such short notice.

Afterwards, instead of sightseeing, which I was not in the mood for, I decided to head back to the airport right away to see if I could bump up my flight home, originally at 10:45 p.m., to an earlier flight. The airline wouldn't allow flight changes with less than two days' notice, though, so I had to stick around until boarding time at 10:05. But at least the Singapore airport wasn't the worst airport to be stuck in. It had public desktop computers and free internet access, a movie theater, an outdoor garden, a swimming pool, a cactus garden, a spa, a children's play area, a family fun area, lounges, restaurants, beautiful holiday displays, and high-end shops galore. I walked around and browsed for quite some time, check out the outdoor garden (which was underwhelming, but what can you expect from a garden at an airport?), sat and read, ate, and people watched some more. I quite enjoyed having all that time to myself and being able to just relax.

Then I decided to check my work email. The first email I saw was from the school's HR office to the Thai embassy (copying me and a few other HR staff members), stating that I had forgotten some required documents when I left Thailand that morning, and asking them to consider the documents as attachments to the email instead of the originals. I could feel my blood pressure rising again. I had specifically asked them prior to my departure if I needed additional documents and was told no, but now I was getting blamed for their incompetence! I couldn't let it go after the day I had had. I responded to all that it was interesting to see this email considering that I had been told explicitly that all the documents I needed were already with me. Of course, no one responded to that email! At this point, I don't even care if there are repercussions for speaking out and making everyone lose face; I've had it with their incompetence and inability to do anything right. This is what happens when people have the positions they do because of their connections and relatives and not because of any actual qualifications they have.

But now it's over, and I've got my visa. Let's just hope they don't botch our paperwork when processing us for our separation from the school next year!
Look at all that's available at the airport! 
Children's play area. 
The outdoor garden with a walkway to walk up on to watch planes.
Holiday display.
Holiday display.
Yup, holiday display.
One more.
Beautiful orchids at the airport.
I loved the indoor gardens at the airport.

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