In all those times I had traveled out of the Philippines via NAIA, I know immigration interview questions can be tedious and long-winding. It would be easy for one to think that the immigration officers are just being thorough, but when you’re anxious you won’t make it to the boarding gate on time, you can’t help but think the odds are against you. I had never experienced getting offloaded by immigration. Almost, yes. In this regard, I would like to share my experience in handling immigration interview questions in NAIA.
Deferred I first got out of the country when I worked for a company in Malaysia in December 2007. I had all the relevant documents for my employment there so it wasn’t as challenging as the immigration interview I faced when I was at NAIA I bound for Darwin, Australia.
February 2012. My return trip is It was a long queue yet the immigration officer took her time with me. She asked me, “What is your purpose for this Australian trip?”, “Do you have a boyfriend there?”, “Do you have a sponsor?”, “How long are you staying there?”
I was there for more than 5 minutes. I answered all her questions truthfully yet she rose from her seat for a split second to consult with her supervisor perhaps but she quickly decided against it and told me, “Alam mo naman siguro anong gagawin mo ‘dun. Bahala ka na sa buhay mo, malaki ka na.” (I trust you know what you’re doing as an adult.) And with that biting humour, she stamped my passport and let me through.
Why did she not decide on getting me offloaded? Although she didn’t address it directly, I knew she had her doubts because of the original travel plan indicated when I applied for my Australian tourist visa back in October 2011. I got myself a booking certificate (not a confirmed ticket) from a travel agency for a tentative travel date, November 11-15, 2011. My final itinerary was February 2012 to March 2012. TIP: Be consistent with the supposed itinerary indicated in your tourist visa application.
August 2008. It was an annual company trip to Taipei, Taiwan and I was still working for a company in Malaysia then. My palate didn’t really favour the Malaysian cuisine that much and I was emaciated. I also endured bad acne which contradicted the cleaner passport version of my face. It was so embarrassing being held up by Taiwanese immigration solely because I did not look anywhere near the person on my passport. I felt like I stole someone else’s identity even though I had an approved visa to show them. I think the only people in the world who ever knew about this experience were my co-workers as I did not feel comfortable talking about it even in jest to my friends. There recently has been news about a Filipina getting offloaded for the mere change in hair colour. I do not know if this news bit is related. TIP: It’s obvious. Don’t change your appearance too much if you can help it.
May 2016. I was in NAIA 3 and Hong Kong bound for a short birthday trip. The immigration officer asked me, “What do you do for a living?” “Have you ever traveled outside the Philippines before this?” “Where would you be staying in Hong Kong?” “What was your job then in Malaysia?” “You traveled to Australia before. What did you do there?” “Did you have a sponsor for that Australian trip?” “Did you travel by yourself?” “Did you have a boyfriend there?” “Do you have a credit card?” “Can you show me your birth certificate?” It was longer than the immigration interview in February 2012 and he mostly addressed the Australian trip 4 years ago. TIP: It was at this point that I realised I had to have a clear folder with all my documents in it so all the immigration officer would do is browse through them and ask less questions. My clear folder contains the Booking.com accommodation, my return ticket, my Upwork’s certificate of earnings, a photocopy of my USD savings account’s passbook, and my birth certificate.
October 2017. Mactan International Airport in Cebu. This time I was Kuala Lumpur-bound but my return ticket (a faux one) was departing from Bangkok and arriving in Manila 2 weeks from date of departure in Cebu. I did have a clear folder with me with all my papers in it but the immigration officer wouldn’t have it. He took out a form and told me an immigration officer would interview me after I fill out the form. It was a form for a potential deferred departure and it was to be assessed by an immigration officer. I honestly was more worried about being late for boarding (even though I was an hour early) than for the prospect of being offloaded, which I cared little about because my gut told me not to worry.
The form was so-so. I remember writing down my permanent address in Cagayan de Oro, my purpose for traveling overseas for two weeks, my contact number, my email address, my employer’s address, etc. I sat down with an immigration officer and she asked me, “What are you going to do in Malaysia?” “What are you going to do in Bangkok?” “What is your job?” “You’re staying overseas for a total of 2 weeks. What are you going to do there?” “Why did you not book a return ticket for Cagayan de Oro?” It obviously wasn’t enough for her that I had a return ticket that states I would be landing in Manila. Manila is still Philippines, Ma’am. She then wrote some comments on the last page of the form. She cleared me for travel because what was in my clear book was proof enough that I could take care of myself financially overseas. TIP: Be consistent with your return ticket – if you go to Malaysia, your return ticket should show you would be departing from Malaysia before coming back to your home country.
This was a serious blunder I overlooked as I had always shown my consistent return ticket before. Even if you have financial documents to support your two-country destinations, the immigration officers will flag you for it even before they see your income on paper. In my previous travels, I would book a separate return ticket slated for 2 weeks from Philippine departure date. I would not use this return ticket that is why I call it a faux return ticket because I use up the destination country’s allowable period for a Philippine passport holder. What happens to the faux ticket? I file a reimbursement for the airport tax with the airline. At least with AirAsia this is possible, provided the faux ticket is for an international travel and not a domestic one. I’ve done it a few times and got refunded. My travels last year and the present year has been primarily in Indochina and AirAsia always has promo seats. For the purpose of sticking to the topic of how to avoid getting offloaded by immigration, this is the short of it as the long one is for another article.
April 2018. I departed Hanoi and arrived in Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok. I pushed my trolley past through the NOTHING TO DECLARE gate and unloaded my luggage from the trolley for machine inspection. The Thai customs officer signaled me to halt and called his supervisor. The supervisor who knew English requested to open my luggage for inspection. The problem was that I wrapped my travel organizers with a plastic food wrap – yes, the kind that you use for food storage. Prior to traveling, I had washed my luggage inside and out and I wasn’t confident it was perfectly dry for my clothes to put in. In an obsessive-compulsive move I wrapped my travel organizers with a plastic food wrap that it was hard for the machine to see through the clothes that were actually in them. Of course, I realised too late that to the customs officers thick plastic food wrap smells like drug paraphernalia. This was a huge mistake. The germophobic part of me cringed at having to open my suitcase and finding out my use of plastic food wrap was justified because the bottom part of the suitcase was a little wet. Sigh. Yes, I was worried about the cleanliness part more than the fact that they could have wrongly detained me. TIP: Do not use plastic food wrap for maximizing the space in your suitcase. I found an alternative: wrap the travel organizer with another travel organizer. (Yes, I have OCD.)