A couple of times now, I’ve touched on the time we tried and failed to get into China, and almost always, I’ll get a handful of comments asking what happened. I always summarise the story as succinctly as I can, but truthfully it’s hard to tell the story properly in one quick comment.
The story isn’t THAT exciting, and involves one big fail on my part, and also isn’t worth a blog post in itself, but then I started thinking of other stories from getting visas and also going through immigration, because I’ve suddenly realised that I have quite a lot of stories to tell!
So it’s time to share them with you – if you want to hear about the time an immigration officer waved my underwear around in front of a load of people, strap in because you’re in for a fun read!
Here are just some of my visa & immigration adventures.
Alright, so let’s start with The One Everyone Asks About.
Our big plan was to fly into Hong Kong and apply for a visa to China while we were there. We would take the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, then on to Nanning. From there, we would take a bus to Hanoi in Vietnam. I was so excited. What an adventure!
I turned up to the Chinese embassy giddy. They gave us a form to fill in, and when I proudly handed it back in complete with train and bus numbers and times, she looked it over for a split second.
“But where are you staying?” she asked, pointing to the accommodation section that I had left blank.
“On the train.”
“But you need accommodation.”
I explained our plan, even though I had clearly written it down.
“Okay…” She glanced back over the form. “So you need to book the bus from Nanning to Hanoi. We need proof that you’re leaving China.”
“But… I don’t think we can book it in advance,” I said nervously, already knowing that this wasn’t going to end well.
“Well you’ll have to, otherwise we can’t grant you a visa.”
We left the embassy dejected, and sat outside looking up at all the tall buildings around us. We were in Hong Kong, at the start of what would be at least a year backpacking, and one day into the trip we had run head first into a large obstacle.
On the advice from the lady at the embassy, we visited a local travel agency and enquired about booking the bus from Nanning to Vietnam. They looked it up and after a few minutes of researching our options, told us that you indeed had to book it in China.
I immediately started formulating another plan, and decided to book expensive but refundable flights from Guangzhou to Hanoi. We went back to the embassy with our new plan, and were told in this case we would just need a transit visa. We wouldn’t need an actual visa.
Knowing that this wasn’t our ACTUAL plan, we couldn’t take it (I’m also sure that somewhere down the line this could have been counted as visa fraud, but you know, that’s neither here nor there now).
Finally, we spoke to our hostel about our frustration, and he told us he could get us an express visa by Friday. It would be quite a lot more expensive than the regular visa, and we mulled it over – after all, we basically weren’t even visiting China, and paying that much money just to pass through seemed nonsensical.
In the end, it seemed like the only way we would be able to do it was if we found a way to book the bus online. I searched frantically, getting more and more angry about the whole situation, while a girl in the hostel was telling us about her onward plans to the Philippines. At this point, I was tempted to say sod it and just go there instead!
Anyway, we didn’t. We did get to Vietnam. By booking expensive last minute flight tickets direct from Hong Kong to Hanoi.
It was only weeks later that I found, at the back of my notebook, that I’d written down a website link, and next to it “we may be able to book the bus from Nanning to Hanoi here if we need to”.
Still, on the upside, the exchange rate meant that the refund we got for the refundable flights made us a tenner.
We were finally in Vietnam, and needed to think about what to do about Thailand. Do we just get a 30 day visa on the border and have to do a border run to extend it? I looked over our 6-week itinerary, and it potentially wasn’t going to be very plausible. Instead, we opted to get a 60 day visa in advance to save ourselves the hassle.
This seemed easy enough to do – we just needed to go to the embassy in Hanoi with our passports and passport photos, with evidence that we were leaving (they accepted our onward flight from Singapore within the 60 days) and we would be on our merry way.
On the way to the embassy, two women at a market stall shoved something under my nose and I stopped in my tracks. “Không cám ơn!” I said, waving them away with a firm “no, thank you”. They persisted. I can’t even remember what it was they were trying to sell me now, although to be fair whatever it was must have been delicious because I ended up buying one, rifling through my bag to find some coins to pay them.
We swiftly moved on and got to the embassy. I took everything out that we needed as we queued – and our passport photos were missing!! They must have fallen out in the kerfuffle.
I don’t know who was more angry – Ash at me, or me at myself.
We retraced our steps and lo and behold, we found our faces on the floor near where the two women had been – who had now disappeared. Wiping the mud off the photos, I realised it was now too late to go back to the embassy, so we had to do it the next day, which meant one less day to get our passports back.
Luckily it all worked out fine – and the process was in fact incredibly easy – but it was annoying having to take three trips to the embassy during our time in Hanoi. We’d had enough of embassies already and we were only just over a week into our trip!
This one is quite a funny one – when I arrived in the USA for the first time back in 2008, it was on a J1 visa to work on a summer camp. One of the girls on my flight was freaking out because she had dropped her passport in a lake the week before, and it was… not in a good shape (literally). Thankfully, she was waved straight through.
This was my first experience with immigration, and knowing that it was America, I was pretty nervous. My immigration officer, amazingly, had a sense of humour. He asked what I was doing in America – I told him I’ll be working on a summer camp. He asked what type of camp, and I told him it’s a Christian one.
“Hold on,” he said, putting his hand up. “You’re going to work on a camp for the entire summer with American Christian children?” I wasn’t sure whether to say anything in the pause, so I just nodded nervously. “Yeah, good luck with that.”
He laughed and stamped my passport.
USA / Canada
After camp, I spent a few days in New York City and then headed up to Canada to visit a friend near Toronto. I took the Megabus, and I managed to get both overnight journeys for cheaper than a hostel would have been.
It was brilliant – Megabus was a brand new thing in the USA and I don’t think many people were on board (ha ha) with them yet, so I managed to get the entire back row to myself and I slept like a log.
…Which meant that when we arrived at immigration into Canada, I was awoken with a start by an immigration officer prodding me.
I sleepily dragged myself off the bus, and found myself face to face with my bag, open and being searched. An immigration officer waved my underwear in front of the rest of the passengers, who were clearly wondering what on earth was going on.
“That’s… that’s my bag!” I said wearily, although suddenly starkly more awake than I was.
“Ah,” he said, raising a vaguely annoyed eyebrow. “Nobody had claimed it so we were searching it in case it had been abandoned.”
I’m pretty sure everybody hated me as we got back on the bus, but I was just glad that my clothes, underwear and all, hadn’t been blown up in a controlled explosion.
USA / Canada part 2
My journey back from Canada into the USA was a lot less eventful. However, I do have a fun little story – two girls in the queue had Camp America stickers on their passports, and I got chatting to them – they were Scottish too!
“Oh! We go to university with a girl from Orkney,” one of them said, when I told them where I was from. They told me her name – it was someone I knew from school!!! What are the chances of that?!?
USA part 3 – LAX Airport
This one isn’t strictly an immigration story; more a security one. It’s both funny and terrifying and actually kind of raises some topical points about racism.
Coming home from LAX after over three months in the States, I was heading through security when I suddenly realised with horror that I had nail scissors in my bag, and I panicked and told the attendant. She laughed and said, “no that’s fine, it needs to be longer than that.” I pointed out that I could still kill someone with them.
“But you won’t – you don’t look like the type of person who would.”
…I’m sorry?!?? At the time I found this hilarious, and I still do, but actually it’s kind of terrifying. I am now sure that if I had been black or brown, I would not have got that same reaction. I was a 19-year-old white girl who probably looked innocent as hell, but who’s to say I wouldn’t have stabbed someone?!
It’s just one of many things that has made me realise my privilege.
Canada – Toronto Airport
It’s no secret that I loathe Toronto airport. Detest it. I’ve only ever been there for connections, and every single time it’s been a damn nightmare. The first time, we arrived at our gate to find FOUR queues crossing over each other to the neighbouring gates. It was the most chaotic thing I’ve ever seen in my life (or so I thought), nobody could even get into the toilets because of all the queues, and I swear we almost boarded the wrong plane.
This time, I was arriving in Canada on a working holiday visa, which meant I had to queue up to scan everything at machines that didn’t work properly, stand in a pretty painless queue through normal immigration, and then be directed through to the queue for more complex immigration. This was fine, I thought. The queue was fairly long, but it wasn’t TOO bad.
Five minutes later, we hadn’t even moved. Every single person took forever. If it continued like this, I was going to miss my flight to Vancouver. Several people around me were also arriving on a working holiday, but they were staying in Toronto, so they shuffled me in front of them which was nice.
We ended up being in that queue for over two hours. My connection was three, and I’d already spent half an hour getting to this queue. The only memorable part of that queue was spotting Stephen Fry behind us in the next line – if only it hadn’t been immigration, I would have totally asked him for a photo!!
It took me less than a couple of minutes to be granted my visa – I finally made it through to the baggage reclaim area, and I ran through the chaos; my connecting flight was the same airline, thank goodness.
Except – then I noticed a sign saying “IF YOUR FLIGHT IS ONE OF THESE, YOU MUST COLLECT YOUR LUGGAGE AND CHECK IN AGAIN”. My eyes barely glanced over the sign, but my heart had already sunk. My flight number was on it.
I had to turn around into a sea of people pushing through the exit (I have never seen anything like this at an airport) and they were all angry that I had made such an egregious error. I didn’t see any pitchforks or torches, but I might as well have done.
Finally, I made it back to the conveyor belts and looked around in a panic. There were bags – and I am not exaggerating – EVERYWHERE. Literally piles and piles of bags in every corner of the room, along all the walls, alongside the conveyor belts, covering benches and all the space between the benches. How on earth was I supposed to find my bag?! After all, it had probably been there for at least two hours. Entire families had probably been lost and presumed dead in this madness.
I found a desk and the people there just shrugged, clearly resigned to the fact they had to work in this hell hole.
My eyes adjusted, focusing on the colour of my backpack. Incredibly, I found it within five minutes and ran towards the exit. Less than 20 minutes until my flight was due to leave.
Once I’d got out of the madness, a sign directed me to connecting flights, and I turned a corner. Thankfully I didn’t need to check back in, but there was a really awkward bag drop conveyor belt and I couldn’t get my backpack on it because it was going too fast. I looked around for help, and a man stood there with a smirk on his face. I eventually got it on the belt, practically with tears running down my face.
I ran – and hit another block. SECURITY. I had to go through security. In my rush, I forgot to take everything out of my pockets and had to be patted down when the buzzer went off. I had put change in the tray and the woman had angrily thrown it back in my face saying I don’t need to put that in there (what?), as if I was deliberately wasting her time. They then searched my hand luggage bag. They took out my laptop and asked me to turn it on.
“Please,” I begged, “my flight is in ten minutes.”
She glared at me and told me I shouldn’t have left it so late. I was so close to tears that I didn’t even respond.
I had to completely repack my hand luggage bag, and by the time I had set off down the corridor, my flight was in five minutes. I had missed it. There was just no way.
Naturally, the gate was about the furthest away it could be. I ran, and several others were running as well – it turned out I wasn’t the only one! – and then, THEN, we couldn’t find the gate. See, instead of it being gate 2 or gate B2 or something simple, it was gate B2C, and suddenly the signs for it stopped. We were in a panicked frenzy now – where the hell was the gate?!? We looked around and found it down a random escalator (“DOWN HERE!” someone cried dramatically), and INCREDIBLY the gate was still open because of the other people who had checked in.
I had MADE IT! Completely out of breath, but I’d made it.
I was going to Vancouver, and I was making quite the entrance.
Thankfully, most of my border crossings have been fairly uneventful and mundane. I haven’t seen anyone being arrested, I haven’t seen any massive drama apart from entire cars being searched inside out, and I haven’t had any real disasters other than the inability to get into China (and then our second attempt this year, a day’s layover on the way to Japan, was thwarted by Covid!).
Our bus from Vietnam into Cambodia threatened to leave without us if we didn’t pay an extra $5 each, and the border crossing from Cambodia into Thailand was a tumultuous ride in a truck between the borders, after which we managed to somehow find the friend that we were travelling with after we lost him, but there is nothing particular about them to write home about.
One of my many, many border crossings last year in the Balkans involved immigration police boarding our bus and holding guns as they walked down the aisle – a little unnerving, but nothing actually happened!
But I think I’ve had a decent share of bad and funny stories to tell!