Unfriendly welcome – by leesan

Going through airport immigration can be one of the worst things about any trip.

I HAVE travelled to 137 countries and territories, and I have come across my fair share of very unpleasant experiences at airport immigration counters.

Some of the reasons for immigration officers to try and deny me entry are: Passport “untidy”, e-visa not applicable, I do not have valid reasons to visit the place, I have inadequate documents, I don’t have printed copies of my hotel accommodation or my return flight tickets, my travel insurance is not recognised in the country and I have insufficient cash to see me through the duration of my stay.

One common characteristic these airports with “trouble-seeking immigration officers” share is that they are located in poor or underdeveloped countries. Some of these officers have directly told me that “small tips can do wonders”, while a few have even unashamedly demanded a massive sum of “tips” in exchange for entry into their country.

As for airports in the United States, they will invariably treat everyone as if they were potential “troublemakers”, or someone who would illegally overstay their welcome!

Long queues at the airports are normal … but why does it have to be like this all the time? — Leesan

Luckily, I have never been locked up in a small dark room at any airport around the world. From what I’ve heard, a person of interest can be held back for more than 15 hours! Terrible, right?

I do believe that travellers who have been held back for so long in one of these interview rooms would feel utterly miserable.

Moreover, their mobile phones would have been confiscated and there is no way for them to get in touch with their friends or contact person who may be waiting for them at the airport.

And as if that’s not enough, I have heard that during these long hours of interrogation, the traveller might also be denied food and water, or be forced to stay the night in a freezing room without anything to keep them warm. Who would ever want to go on holiday to a country where there is a chance that immigration officers would treat their foreign guests so terribly? Some on social media have said that an airport immigration counter is akin to a “gateway to hell”.

Normally, some unsavoury officers would have a few “tricks” up their sleeves. This includes purposely leaving out the arrival stamp on your passport – some tour groups at South American airports have come across such incidents. When there is no arrival stamp on your passport, there is a high chance that you will not be able to leave the country, or that you will be faced with a world of problems upon exit. Officers will question how you managed to get into the country in the first place, and whether you had entered illegally.

After that, you will be escorted by another officer to an office, where you will be left to wait for some time before someone finally comes in to “handle” your case.

Of course, you would probably feel extremely anxious because the clock is ticking and it is getting closer and closer to boarding time. Finally, an officer will show up, question you further as he or she prepares a report, all the while warning that you may have to go to jail or be fined heavily, and that you won’t get to board your flight. But of course, this problem can be instantly settled if you are willing to pay.

There are some people who think that a problem which can be “settled with money” is not a problem at all. So, if you don’t have an arrival stamp on your passport, the “price” to pay is about RM300; if you don’t have hard copies of your air tickets, it is RM50 each, and upwards of RM3,000 if you are forced to buy a return ticket home; and over RM10,000 for “re-approval” of your entry application.

Additionally, at the end of your trip in, let’s say a country in the African continent, there will be plenty of plainclothes customs officers at the airport staring at your carry-on luggage just as you are about to leave the country for your next destination. They will show up before you, identify themselves, and ask, “Do you have any foreign currency? How much? You’re not allowed to take out of the country more than US$3,000 in cash.”

The officers will then search your whole body, take you into their office, deny you an interpreter, and threaten to stop you from boarding your flight. In the end, they will return some of the cash you’ve been forced to hand over, and pocket the rest. As if that’s not enough, most of the time, you would have probably missed your flight and you’d have to fork out even more money to buy a new ticket .

This is the reason why all travellers must be aware of the currency regulations before departing (or entering) a country, in addition to getting all the necessary medical certificates such as vaccination for yellow fever and Covid-19. Besides that, you must also have photocopies of all relevant documents, your itineraries, hotel accommodation, onward flight tickets, and the contact numbers of some local friends or relatives if any.

For example, when I went to China recently, I was required to provide the name, address and telephone number of the person whom I knew in the country.

Of course, even if you have all the particulars ready, it doesn’t mean you can always enter a country without a problem. At the immigration counters of some countries – owing to the aged computer network and hardware – there may be long queues of travellers waiting to get processed. Travellers may end up having to wait for up to three hours, but that is nothing compared to getting treated badly by arrogant officers.

I really can’t understand why some officers just can’t diligently follow the laws and regulations drawn up by their lawmakers? How can these enforcers of laws flout the laws themselves?

The writer thinks that the ground staff at both the KlIA terminals are enthusiastic and helpful, with most of them being able to speak in several different languages. — MaHB

Many of the international airports in Japan are equipped with automated and biometric gate systems, which tourists can use. It is worth mentioning that arriving tourists in Malaysia will be able to enjoy this autogate soon, too. — Panasonic Corp

We are fortunate to be able to see the clear blue sky and travel the world once again after all those lockdowns. The tourism industry is also steadily on the path of recovery. We simply cannot withstand another disastrous event that may spoil all our efforts.

However, like what those folks are saying on social media, airport immigration counters which are supposed to be the gateway to countries can become nightmarish experiences instead.

If you are one of these folks who are involved in or contribute to these bad experiences, perhaps you should ask yourself whether your conscience is clear.

Leesan, the globe-trotting traveller who has visited 137 countries and seven continents, enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.

Published in STAR 2, 9 July 2023