I travel all over Asia often. Used to welcoming and friendly immigration officers at most airports in the region, it’s always horrible to leave or return to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and be faced with the surly and decidedly unwelcoming immigration officers. More noticeable as Thailand is known throughout the world as ‘The Land of Smiles’, this bunch wouldn’t smile if told the world’s funniest joke.
In fact, two years ago, after many complaints from tourists, the Immigration Bureau sent their staff on a training course. Named the Sawasdee Project (‘Sawasdee’ being the Thai friendly greeting), it obviously didn’t help much. To this end, getting through immigration and passport control at Suvarnabhumi Airport easily can be a trial.
Here’s how to do it so it’s less painful for you and the immigration officer.
When Leaving Thailand, Arrive at Suvarnabhumi Early – I’ve gone through immigration at Suvarnabhumi Airport at various times of the day. No matter what time you attempt to get through, you’ll be faced with long lines and, at the end of the line, a stony faced immigration officer who looks like he/she really wants you to get the hell out of their country and as quickly as possible, please.
Make sure you arrive in plenty of time before your flight leaves, as you can guarantee an initial 15 minute check-in at your airline desk, followed by up to 2 hours going through Thai immigration. Suvarnabhumi Airport is also impossibly huge, you often have to trek half a mile down to the entrance to immigration, then have to trek the half mile back again to get to your gate.
Both Leaving and Arriving, Have Your Paperwork Ready – Getting through Suvarnabhumi immigration or passport control, make sure you have all your paperwork in your hand, ready to be handed over to the immigration officer.
When leaving Thailand, you’ll need your passport, the white exit card stapled into your passport when you arrived, and your plane ticket. If you don’t have one of these, please don’t stand in a line and hold up everyone else behind you. Instead, find an immigration officer that’s not busy and ask them what to do.
Upon arriving in Thailand, you’ll need your passport, airline ticket and proof you’ll be flying out of Thailand again within 30 or 60 days, depending on what visa you have. The immigration officer often doesn’t ask for the proof of departure by plane, but sometimes they do. Make sure you have one because, if not, it’s up to the officer’s discretion to refuse you entry to the country.
Don’t Attempt to Talk to the Immigration Officer Unless Necessary – As I said, they are singularly the most unfriendly people you’ll find in Thailand. Don’t attempt to engage them in conversation or ask questions not absolutely vital. You’re not likely to get much of an answer and they’ll probably spend even longer processing you.
Stand on the Feet on the Floor and Look at the Camera – Thai immigration takes their feet outline on the floor and their camera directed at your head seriously. Make sure you’re standing in the feet when it’s your turn at the counter and look directly at the camera. If not, they’ll repeatedly request you to reposition yourself, which wastes time.
If You Have an Overstay, Be Prepared to Pay – If you’re leaving Thailand, you’ve made a mistake and your visa has expired, be prepared to pay a fine and have your money at hand. Immigration will charge you 500 baht per day of overstay, up to 20,000 baht, and you will be expected to have cash to pay for it. If you don’t, you could end up in Immigration jail waiting for someone to send you the money. And that’s not fun.
Re-Entry Permits No Longer Available at Suvarnabhumi – If you have a work permit or long-term visa for Thailand, you must get a re-entry permit if you want to keep that work permit or visa on arriving back in Thailand.
Used to be getting one was convenient, as you could get it at the airport on the day you left the country. Not anymore. Now, you have to go to Immigration in far north Bangkok a day or two before you leave. So, don’t arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport without one. The immigration officer won’t even bother to tell you you need one as you’re leaving (why should she? There’s nothing you can do about it now), so you’ll be unhappily surprised on arrival back in the country to see your work permit canceled.
Expect Long Delays on Arrival in Thailand – With just about the slowest immigration staff I’ve ever come across, it takes forever to get through passport control at Suvarnabhumi. The last time I arrived, there were more than 25 lines with 60-80 people in each line. It was almost 40 minutes before I got through to my luggage. I was amazed it was still there.
Not quite as unpleasant as immigration and passport control in America, Suvarnabhumi Airport is getting there. Follow these small tips and you should have less problems getting through immigration at Suvarnabhumi. And remember, the rest of Thailand isn’t like this. Grin and bear it. Get into the country and then meet the ‘real Thai people’. People who are happy you’re here and will make you feel welcome. Because Suvarnabhumi Airport’s immigration department certainly won’t.
Photo – The usual long lines at Suvarnabhumi Airport’s terrible immigration