Anyone who has done a lot of travel understands that travel-related bureaucracy falls into its own special category of weird and unusual. The bizarre questions you get asked on customs forms or during the immigration process can leave you scratching your head, and now a new survey has revealed the truly wacko questions that are sometimes asked during the visa application process.
A poll by a visa submission website asked travelers to recount the most unusual questions they had ever been asked. Among the strangest, was a question on a Mexican visa form asking the applicant to “describe their beard/mustache.” The responses applicants could choose from included “scanty,” “bushy” or “clipped.” Meanwhile, a man traveling to a Middle Eastern country was asked “how many wives do you intend to bring?” during his application process.Some seemingly odd questions may have a rational basis for being on the application form — Australia, for instance, which takes quarantine very seriously, asks if travelers “have been to a farm in the past six weeks.” Others just boggle the mind. Several travelers were asked, “What side of the bed does your wife sleep on?” when applying for a U.S. visa, while those heading to China were asked about the reason for visiting, with “visit” being one of the available responses.
Those behind the survey say that while the questions may seem weird to us, it’s simply a sign of cultural differences, and travelers should be careful not to joke when filling out visa forms or answering immigration questions.
Tell us, what’s the strangest visa question you’ve ever been asked?
Delta CEO Richard Anderson made news on Wednesday when he vented about U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) alleged inability to quickly screen passengers coming off of international flights at major U.S. airports.
“I must say I think it’s an embarrassment for our government that as much as we as an industry pay into Customs And Border Patrol that we have issues at not just JFK but at Newark, at Chicago, at Los Angeles where we cannot seem to get our government to perform a very basic service,” he told Airline analyst Helane Becker of Cowen and Co, according to a story in the Dallas Morning News.
I don’t disagree with Anderson. In fact, I wrote a piece venting about the fact that I waited 90 minutes to clear customs in Houston in February. But as a former Foreign Service Officer who has interviewed thousands of foreign nationals applying for U.S. visas and once spent a day alongside a CBP officer working at JFK, I can offer a little more context as to why the lines are so long, other than the obvious fact that there aren’t enough CPB officers to control the crowds.Most U.S. airports have two lines: one for U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents (LPR’s or green card holders) and another for foreign nationals. Interviews with American citizens are nearly always perfunctory but screening LPR’s can take longer. Many Americans don’t realize that green card holders can lose their legal status if they remain outside the U.S. for more than a year unless they can prove extenuating circumstances.
Because we don’t typically stamp travelers on their way out of the country, it can be time consuming for CBP officers to verify how long legal residents were outside the country. Also, many LPR’s don’t speak English, which can slow down the screening process. If we want to speed up the screening process for Americans returning home, the easiest way to do so would be to have LPR’s use the line for foreign nationals. They would hate that solution but if they aren’t U.S. citizens, technically, they are foreign nationals.
Obviously it would be preferable to simply increase CBP staffing, but with government coffers stretched thin across the board, this option seems unlikely. Why are the lines to screen foreign nationals so long? In short, because CBP officers face a very difficult task.
They have just a couple minutes to try to ascertain if the individual standing before them intends to abide by U.S. laws or not. Often times, these travelers speak no English — and most officers can also speak a second language, usually Spanish, but travelers come to the U.S. from every corner of the globe. They have a tough, thankless job and some are better than others at being friendly and welcoming.
If you’ve visited Istanbul or any of the country of Turkey in the past, you had to stand in line to buy a tourist visa sticker (in cash only, payable in USD or Euro) before getting in a longer line to get through border control and out of the airport. If you forgot to buy the Turkish visa first, you’d have to get out of line and hope that a nice person would let you cut back in once you got the sticker. Now, you can apply online and sail right through to the Immigration line, eliminating one step.
The new e-Visa program is available to citizens of most countries, including the United States, Canada, and European Union. Like the sticker system, it costs $20 and your visa is valid for multiple entries for 90 days (the visa is valid for 180 days but you can only stay up to 90 without applying for residency). You can apply up to 24 hours before departure, though they advise one week. If you forget to apply online, don’t worry, the old visa desk will still be available at the airport.
In the West, randomness is a crucial, torturous pillar of border security. Those who have been to Asia know that active sadism is supplanted by bureaucracy, vanity and venality. In my opinion these are highly preferable alternatives. Once you know how land borders adopt these principals, they can be easily navigated with a bit of tact, patience and occasionally a small financial stimulus. I find these vagaries far easier to deal with than the gleaming desks and suspicious minds that protect Western countries against threats ex umbra. At least the caprices of Asia’s gatekeepers are motivated by personal incompetence, not institutional torment.
To make things easier, I’ve noticed after a long period of driving my own car around Asia, with all of the bureaucracy that entails, that there are some core motivations that drive Asia’s customs officials. These motivations result in eerily similar individuals from border to border. And so it is one of the peculiarities of driving overland for long distances that you can have a near-identical experience crossing the borders of countries so disparate as Iran and Cambodia.
I haven’t been to everywhere in Asia, so I can’t say these truths are universal. But the following four types of border official have shown up at almost every land crossing I’ve been to so far so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these were pan-Asian characters.The Break-Taker These guys just left and won’t be back for a couple of hours, sorry.
Entering Pakistan from Iran was a long process. We signed gigantic registers with entries dating back to ’80s and traipsed from building to building over barbed-wire fences. When were finally ready to go, having been in the borderlands for hours already, we had to wait for our security detail. We stood impatiently in the rapidly warming desert waiting to get under way. And waiting. And waiting some more. Where was this guy?
“He is having tea, of course,” someone informed us. “Would you like some?”
Time has no meaning when you’re dealing with authority, so we sat down for chai and were off promptly when we finished.
Later, in India…
“And so I can go now?” I asked, having laboriously acquired half a dozen stamps and bits of paper with Hindi scrawled all over them.
“You will have to get your car inspected by the safety officer.”
“And where is he then?”
“Oh, I am sorry sir, but he is unavailable right now. He is having his lunch and should return in a couple hours. Perhaps you would like some tea?”
Even later, in Cambodia…
“You cannot go,” the customs agent told me. “You need to have your car’s documents stamped by the head of customs.”
“Is he having tea?”
“No, lunch actually.”
“And when did he leave for lunch?”
“Two hours ago, maybe. He should return soon.”
The Wal-Mart Greeter Oblivious to his country’s immigration and customs protocols, he welcomes you like an old friend, often to your detriment.
Deep in leafy green forest in northern Malaysia there is a small border post with Thailand. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car’s papers and practically pushed me out of the country. I inched my car down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. Ah! A Thai guard at the end of the lane was watching me from the security lane and he beckoned me toward him. I drove up and rolled down my window. He smiled broadly at me and indicated I should just keep on driving.
I pulled away from the border and drove slowly down the road. I noted Thai people buying fruit from stalls and walking around with the evening groceries. I was in a bustling Thai market. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building and proceeded to confuse everybody.
“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?” I asked the immigration desk.
“Where is your Thai entry stamp?”
“That’s what I’m after.”
“When did you enter?”
“Three minutes ago.”
“You are leaving?”
“No, I’m coming.”
“Why do you come from Thailand?” he asked, seeing how I had walked over from the Thai side.
“I’m not sure.”
“Where is your Malaysia stamp?”
Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.
Later, in Laos…
A few months after, I entered Laos by way of vehicle barge, sharing the boat with two gigantic cargo trucks for the 4-minute ride across the Mekong. As I drove up the ramp to the main road at Huay Xai, I stopped and asked a uniformed man where to get a visa, showing him my empty passport. He only grinned and nodded. So I drove on, and I was suddenly in a town. I sat down at a riverside bar and drank a Beerlao, enjoying my minor transgression. Eventually I found the immigration checkpoint 3 miles downstream from where the barge had dropped me off. The customs officials seemed slightly perturbed because no passenger boat had come across for an hour, so where had I come from? This required a fairly taxing explanation, which they eventually and begrudgingly accepted.
The Smuggler’s Dream His only job is to check you’re not carrying anything illicit, but he’s either too trusting, confused, or it’s too hot outside today.
I don’t officially advocate smuggling or anything. But boy, if it isn’t tempting when it’s so easy.
Entering notoriously strict Iran from Turkey, I had done the paperwork dance, and it was time for customs to inspect my car. I nervously led a gruff-looking man dressed in fatigues to where I had parked. He barked at me to open the trunk, which I did in haste. He glanced over the heap of gear from afar, his eyes lingering on the possibly suspicious-looking photography and electronic equipment, camping gear, backpacks, and food.
“What is that?” he asked, nodding at the pile. “Clothes?”
“Well, yes, among other…”
“OK!” he interrupted, signing the form. “You’re good.”
Later, in India…
As I entered India, a small moustachioed official eyed my car suspiciously.
“So you have some objectionable things then? Things from Pakistan?”
“Drugs, other things…” he trailed off, his hand moving in circles to fill in the blanks.
“Uh, no, but…” I began, because I certainly did have things from Pakistan. But I was interrupted, as in Iran.
“OK!” he exclaimed, “You’re good!”
Even later, in Thailand
In Cambodia I had picked up some fellow travelers and the trunk was packed with bags. The Thai customs officer looked through the window when we rolled up.
“What’s in there?” he asked pointing at the back.
I figured I’d keep it simple this time: “Just stuff.”
The Jailer Lonely, bored, vain or incompetent, he finds a way for you to hang around much longer than you want.
After my inadvertent entry to Thailand and the subsequent confusion about visas, I still needed to register my vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai customs house I found a fat uniformed man melting into his chair, as if squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two demure women as he fanned himself with my car’s customs documents. He seemed in no hurry to let me go, raising objections to every one of my attempts to move things along. After stonewalling my paperwork for a while, I realized the problem: he actually had no idea what he was doing, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.
Later, again in Thailand…
When I left Thailand from the north, I realized the ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The big man in the south had neglected to give me some obscure piece of paper that would allow my car to leave Thailand.
I insisted to the guard on duty that I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You need to get the papers where you entered the country,” he told me.
My words came to me slowly. “But… that’s 1,300 miles away…”
“Not my problem,” was his response
“So wait, wait. You will let me drive back to where I came from without any permits, but you won’t let me leave?”
About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair. I leaned my head into the small window and another official batted me away like a stray dog.
“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?” I called after him, a question he dutifully ignored.
So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for 10 minutes, whimpering softly, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me.
“Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.
He was now my best friend. I was on my way.
Bonus Guard: The Sleeper The sleepers will do whatever it takes to get you gone so they can get back to their dreams.
I still had to get my car’s customs documents stamped first before I could leave Thailand. I didn’t expect this to go any better. I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head through the slightly open door. A young guy in uniform was out cold at his desk, his belly rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I cleared my throat and he awoke with a full body spasm. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form.
“You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.”
He shrugged and started stamping, offering me a self-satisfied grin when finished, as if there were no easier task in the world.
Greek authorities have been cracking down on illegal immigrants to the country but a number of tourists have been detained as part of the sweep. Some of the travelers have even been beaten so badly by police that they ended up in the hospital, according to the BBC.
Greek police patrolling the streets are stopping anyone who looks foreign and asking to see their ID. However, many tourists claim to have been arrested and taken to a police station despite showing authorities their passport.
One tourist from Korea says a police officer punched him in the face after he handed over his passport when stopped in the street in Athens. He was then taken to the police station where he was attacked again in a stairwell.
Another man traveling with his family on a US passport says he was beaten so badly after being detained that he fell unconscious. He woke to find himself in a hospital.
“I went there to spend my money but they stopped me just because of my color. They are racist.” Christian Ukwuorji told the BBC.Greece has been clamping down on illegal immigration as the country’s economic woes make it increasingly difficult to support the growing numbers of immigrants. It’s believed that as much as 10 percent of the country’s population is living there illegally.
Greece is also under pressure from the European community because the country is viewed as a gateway to the EU – almost 95 percent of Europe’s illegal immigrants enter via Greece.
More than 60,000 people have been stopped in the streets since the operation began in August last year. The US State Department has updated its travel advisory to warn tourists of the potential harassment.