With a toothy grin that extended longer than the Great Wall of China, I couldn’t help but notice the crimson stains of betel nut juice all over his mouth. This jolly rotund Myanmar Immigration Officer was laughing joyfully, telling jokes and smiling at foreigners who walked past him after officially being stamped into the country. It felt as though a welcoming party was being thrown in our honor. As ‘distinguished guests’ we were being welcomed into a foreign land with open arms as opposed to scrutiny. I found myself feeling totally relaxed and at ease, as opposed to feeling on edge.
This positive experience recently along the Thai-Myanmar border helped reinforce one of my ultimate travel pet peeves:
Poor treatment by Immigration Officers in certain parts of the world
As I pondered some of my more negative experiences my mind immediately was cast back to the time I arrived in Chicago, Illinois after an impossibly long flight from Seoul, Korea. In front of me was this cute as a button Korean girl. She looked so tiny and insecure standing before the imposing Immigration Officer who started barking at her. Speaking rapidly, the interrogation began. As she looked puzzled from the questions he was asking her, his voice became louder and increasingly more impatient. The Korean child looked terrified. It was inevitable; she started to cry. Without a modicum of sensitivity to the situation, cultural understanding or comprehension that not everyone in the world speaks fluent English, he pressed on. The tears continued to flow. At that moment, I was transferred to another line. I’m not sure what happened next.
On a separate occasion, upon returning home to Canada after completing the most epic backpacking journey of my life, I was thrilled to be back on home soil. However, the Immigration Officer at Vancouver International Airport didn’t share my enthusiasm. As he flipped through my passport the questions began: “Why did you travel to all of these countries?” “How did you fund your travels?” “You’ve been to Cambodia more than three times. What were you doing there?” Calmly, I answered each question, but I couldn’t help but sense the distrust in his eyes amplified by the harsh tone of his voice. Instead of being a smile and a welcome home, I continued to answer questions for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, it ended, yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about the experience afterwards. It felt as though I was being put on trial after committing some heinous crime. Why does one have to feel treated like they are a criminal when they’ve done nothing wrong? At that moment in time I felt like a stranger in my own country.
Over the years I’ve experienced both my fair share of pleasant and challenging border crossings. I’ve always felt somewhat violated when procedures have been especially unpleasant. It’s the contrast between feeling as though I’m a guest crossing a border versus being branded as a suspicious foreigner.
What have been your experiences? Please share in the comments below.
Your experience coming back into Canada is similar to our own back in 2011. I’m British but my Canadian boyfriend was questioned twice as long than I was. They couldn’t understand how he could possibly had been away from Canada for over two years and wasn’t returning with any goods to declare. It just didn’t make any sense to them, no matter how much he explained that he lives out a backpack and though he was returning to Canada, he was still thousands of kilometres from ‘home’ anyway (NB to BC). Your decription of being violated is perfectly ept.
Canadian officers are slowly starting to become more like the US officers, in that they will pull a returning Canadian citizen aside and treat that citizen like an enemy of the state, even for a short trip to the US, when such a thorough interrogation is not deserved. And they come out with the stupidest questions, over a newly-renewed passport or regarding a laptop used for business.
on the positive side, the difference is that they are still polite and haven’t yet become nasty and abusive like the “John Wayne Wannabees” that police the US border.
My fave question from the US border officers, which I was asked on my last two trips from Canada to the US.. first question out of their mouth, after I handed them a Canadian passport – ‘what is your nationality?”
well. hmm.. let me think about that one.. err.. hmm.. well.. DOH!! what does it say on the passport I just handed to you, Einstein? LOL
LOL, those are some funny stories.
I’m wondering how my next crossing is going to go 😉
I recently passed through Phoenix (Phoenix being in the state of Arizona in which Latinos are considered guilty until they prove themselves innocent) on my way from Mexico to Hawaii. With my US passport and white skin, I waltzed through with barely more than a “welcome home”, but I heard darker skinned travelers on either side of me being given a grilling. It was enough to make me not want to travel through there again.
I fear this kind of stuff is getting worse and worse. More people are traveling, and more people are going for longer periods of time, but the border agents haven’t caught up to reality yet. I’ve been pretty lucky so far though. My most annoying experience was flying back to the US after traveling for 4 months, and prior to that I had moved to Germany. I was going to visit friends and family, but I didn’t know the address of my first stop, so I just wrote the town and state. The agent questioned me on it, didn’t like that I didn’t know the address off the top of my head, pointed out that I no longer live in the US, and made me get out of line to find the address and fill it in. I feel that as a US citizen I’m allowed to be in the US, so it seems strange to make such a big deal about it. Plus I was only staying with that friend for 3 or 4 days. I think from now on I will simply put my parents’ address and be done with it.
The UK has been my worst story. In then end, they just wanted an address on some form. One I was actually staying at sure, but not more than a day or two. THe flip side is when I have entered the UK by boat and told the officer I was only staying a few hours, long enough to change trains, he gave me 30 days no questions.
I got questions going into the US for living in Germany so long, but not much more than a few questions. Coming into Germany has always been good. They look at my permanent visa and sometimes say “welcome home.”
Shaun does have a point though. Their job is to interrogate and we should not take such things as personal. I would like to believe that there should be a sense of them not treating people as if they were assumed to be criminals. There is human decency that should be enforced as well.
I have experienced both easy and complicated crossing and, while my personal beliefs extend much further than the current institutions and systems running in our world, I believe that most people on the planet are good willed. But, I am going to play devil’s advocate and try and explain their perspective.
Simply put, their job is to interrogate you. Make you uncomfortable and see if you can slip in any of your stories. Not everyone travels to a country like we do. The smallest percentage have a malicious intent. You know you’re a good person, but do they?
The trick is to not take it personally, which most people do. It’s not personal, it’s a part of public safety and you need officers to take it seriously. Sure like anyone else there are people who take it too far, normally the newbies. The system is not fubar (imho) it’s just not perfect, but anyone has a better one I’m all ears.
The polite petite Koren girl, a burly biker looking dude, a guy with a turban & beard or a suit and tie business man. They don’t assume. They can’t. That’s why everyone seems to have a bad story about border crossings.
We flew into Vancouver from Costa Rica, looking very presentable and being very polite, we were taken aside and had all our bags searched/ It’s that feeling of being violated, other than our departure point there was surely no other evidence that we deserved to have our dirty laundry literally aired in immigration. While I understand that security is paramount I think perhaps the issue could be handled in a little more gentile manner. Consequently I always feel guilty when talking to an immigration officer, they intimidate me more than any other officials I have ever had to deal with. Perhaps I just have a guilty conscious?! Or maybe the incident in Vancouver scared me for life?!!
I find it a little strange that you would be interrogated so much when returning to your home country. Like you say, you should be made to feel welcome to come home.
Thankfully I’ve never received a major interrogation from my home immigration officers.
I’ve always found US passport control a real hit/miss as to how they are with you. If you get a polite officer you can breeze through. Sometimes you get someone who looks as though they just swallowed a wasp so they quiz and quiz you. The thing to do is remain absolutely calm and not rise to their bait.
I spent nearly a year and a half working and living in Saudi Arabia between 2000 and 2001. Naturally I had quite a few Saudi visas in my passport. Some US immigration officers ignored this whilst some others made a big deal out of it. What I found strange was that I got the most hassle about it in around 2006/7, long after the major terror event occurred.
Passport control is a necessary in the modern world. I just wish that all the staff who worked there had a more human approach to people arriving, rather than treating some like animals.
I absolutely agree with what you’re saying here. I understand it’s essential for security purposes; however, they seem to be – far too often – targeting the wrong kinds of people.
I always hate crossing the border – especially in Asia. Sometimes you get these mysterious little “extra costs” that pop up and you never know whether you actually have to pay them or you’re being ripped off. Naturally, I always pay because I want to cross the border!
I know what you mean Si! Out of principle I want to stand up for myself and challenge them on it; however, I always go the route of just paying because I’d be afraid of not being let in.
Oh, the border stories we could tell.
As Barbara said above, “the system is totally FUBAR.”
We have made literally dozens of North American crossings, mostly between Canada and the U.S., but also many between the U.S. and Mexico.
In our experience it is the Unites States border guards that are over the top. I mean c’mon guys, you can do your jobs and do your jobs efficiently with being so intimidating and bull headed. This is not all of them of course, but it’s a good generality. On the other hand, we have also encountered the odd Canadian border guard who didn’t like our story of why we were out of the country and for how long. Almost like they simply didn’t believe us. But for the most part, we have been welcomed back to Canada.
There was one strange Canadian incident where the guy already had our passports, but he insisted on seeing my drivers license. I didn’t question him (obviously!) but thought it was odd.
And we have also seen one incident at a crossing into the U.S. where the American border guard had an older Chinese lady in tears because she hadn’t reported that she had an orange or something in her car and he was threatening to confiscate her car and not let her in the country. Wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard the whole thing myself.
Wait a minute…I’m telling you all our good stories! Thinking maybe this will make a good blog post of our own…
Wow! You have some good stories to tell. Maybe over the years you’ll be able to collect enough stories to write a whole book 😉
Interesting to see that everyone else has gone through this too. I had the worst travel experience of my life when trying to take the Eurostar from Paris to London. I was detained for three and a half hours for no reason and had to watch the immigration officers not only treat me like a criminal, but scream at (note the racial profiling) a small Asian girl. I was eventually denied entry for some bullshit non-reasons. Just thinking about it makes me want to vomit.
I hope what Barbara said above isn’t true. I don’t think I could handle going through that crap when returning to my home country.
That’s appalling Gigi!
The worst part is that the immigration officers aren’t accountable in any way, shape or form. I really feel as if they can get away with anything.
Exactly. They have way too much power.
It really is sad that these are stories that are now a part of most travelers lives. And like plenty of people have said, that that is some people’s first impression of a country. Terrible.
I totally agree with you Karen!
I had a similar experience when entering Canada earlier this year. I was stopping over for a few nights in Toronto to catch the Blue Jays opening day when the officer began grilling me about why I was coming to Canada and if I was a fan of either team. When I said no, I’m just a huge baseball fan, she didn’t seem to comprehend that.
Eric, it appears Canada is becoming worse by the day/month/year when it comes to border crossings. You’d think they’d appreciate someone willing to watch the Jays – fan or not; they’ve been bad for a while now 😉
My worst ever travel experience was at the Chile / Peru border. It was quite late and the queue was massive. We were in line for about 10 minutes or so when the guards came over and gestured for us to jump the queue. We tried to say we were perfectly happy waiting, when they grabbed us by the arms and forced us forward. We protested and they started hitting the Peruvians in front of us with truncheons to get them out of the way. When we saw them getting hurt we relented and went through. It was horrible, and we spent the next half hour in floods of tears. I still have no idea why they didn’t want us to wait in the queue.
Fiona, that’s just brutal and so insensitive on the part of those guards. Sometimes people in a position of power and authority get a kick out of treating others poorly.
Life would be so much better without the necessity of borders.
Oh my! Would it EVER! 🙂
The immigration officer at the Canadian border at Niagara Falls was one of the rudest I’ve ever had. When I answered “Florida” to where I lived, he replied, “It’s a big state.” Now, I don’t really live anywhere; I travel perpetually and Florida is my residence of record, though it’s only a PO Box. So when he wanted to know where I lived precisely, all this stuff started going through my brain. If I tell him Green Cove Springs, and he asks me something about the town, I can;t answer it because I’ve never been there, etc. etc. But I knew if I told him I don’t have a home, it would raise all kinds of red flags. He duly noted my hesitation and grilled me; almost didn’t let me through. Now, since the Boston Marathon bombing, I read that the government is going to scrutinize those who travel abroad for long periods of time. Should be interesting when I return in December after eight months of travel. The system is totally FUBAR.
I almost had no problems when crossing international borders.
Yikes! I honestly think the US-Canada border is the worst now for crossings. It’s sad because I remember a time when it wasn’t like this.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the officers receive training on how to be more hostile and narrow minded.
I had poor treatment entering Toronto just two weeks ago. I had poor treatment leaving Morocco in January. In my years of traveling, this has just now started happening to me – it’s annoying and really puts a damper on my whole trip. Morocco I could maybe understand, but Toronto, really? I was just going for 1 night for work, from NYC.
I’m sorry to hear about your experience in Toronto. To be honest, I’m not terribly surprised though. Even as a Canadian, I’ve been getting grilled lately whenever I come back home and I don’t particularly appreciate it.
I came back home to the US from Canada a few weeks ago. Getting through the border was an ordeal because the agent had a problem with believing that I would travel to Canada solo. Uh, look at all the stamps in my passport. I went to all those places solo too.
Hey Jennifer, that sounds like a horror story. Sometimes I think they offer special training to the US and Canadian Immigration agents on how to be as rude, surly and narrow minded as possible.
It’s really sad that foreigners are treated poorly by Immigration Officers, but I’ve seen it happen in both Western countries and here in Asia.
When I was returning from Japan last year, a US Officer started barking at this poor Asian girl, similarly to your story. She girl just didn’t understand English well and had no clue what was going on, and the officer was giving her a hard time about not knowing English.
Finally she understood that she needed to fill out an embarkation form and when she kindly asked the officer if she had a pen to borrow, the officer started screaming at her and even used the f-word. Totally unprofessional. I felt horrified at that point that this was the first impression this poor girl was having of my country.
But on the flipside, I was treated unfairly and scammed when entering Thailand by an Immigration Officer. It was definitely not the warm greeting I was expecting in the ‘Land of Smiles’.
I’m sorry to hear you weren’t greeted kindly when entering Thailand. Recently, we dealt with a really rude officer in Cambodia – a country where I’ve only had flawlessly positive experiences crossing in the past.
Not your fault ;P
And it still wasn’t bad enough to deter me from visiting again– I’m hoping to explore the northern side of Thailand (as well as Cambodia) later this fall! Hopefully all immigration experiences will go smoothly this time.
I understand the reason for it but all the bureaucracy of travel sure is stressful. It would be so much easier without all the red tape.
I’ve luckily never had a bad experience with a border official and my fingers are crossed that my luck will continue …knock on wood
Thanks Wil! I hope your good luck continues!