On Thanksgiving Day, we decided to go to the Thai immigration office and get our 3 month Education Visa renewal processed. We researched online and many people told us not to bother getting up early, but they recommended that we go around 2 p.m. and we'd be good to go. Since our dinner reservation wasn't until 6 p.m. for Turkey Day supper, we thought we would finish immigration and have a nice relaxing dinner to celebrate our first visa renewal visit. WRONG!
As we sidled up to the counter we were curtly told, "Finished!" which is Thai code for, "You're nuts for thinking you could just show up here in the afternoon and breeze through this process!" I think we were a little in shock since we had heard several times that going in the afternoon isn't too much of an issue. We have heard horror stories of people getting to the immigration office at 5 a.m. just to queue up for when they open at 8 a.m. It looked like that nightmare was about to come true for us. The lady at the counter said to come back at 6 a.m. the next morning and wait in line. That didn't sound appealing, but we resigned ourselves to the fact that we just had to do it.
So, Lori and I set our alarms for 5 a.m. on Friday. Chiang Mai is not a busy town, especially at that time of the morning, so we thought it would be difficult to find a red taxi to take us to immigration since taxis were not out that early. We decided to just ride our bikes there, which was risky in the dark. We were happy to find that the roads were basically empty and we pedaled there easily in about 20 minutes.
We made great time getting there and rolled into the parking lot around 5:45 a.m.. Already, we counted 50+ people standing in line ahead of us. Oh, joy. So much for the early bird theory. We jumped quickly into the nearest group that was haphazardly separated into two semi-formed lines.
We asked which one was for education visas. No one knew. They just wearily pointed at these little signs that no one could seem to decipher.
We collected our number and realized that about 20 people were ahead of us for our visa line.
Once they checked all the boxes on our renewal packet and we paid about $60 each, the next step was to have our picture taken. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the ordeal. We were told to come back after lunch to get our completed passport and visa. So, this time we walked to Airport Plaza Shopping Mall, had a little lunch, and came back around 1:30. STILL no visa. We waited about another hour for them to finally call our names. The office lady smiled as she handed us our visas and said, 'See you in three months." We just smiled back and said, "Can't wait."
1. If you want to really be first in line, be there at 5 a.m. (or earlier). They start passing out numbers at 7 a.m., so you can go inside and get yet another number for your official position in the queue. Mosquito repellent is recommended. They were buzzing around everywhere!
2. Bring water and snacks. They do have a coffee shop but it doesn't open until 8 a.m. and no food was served, only coffee. I don't know why a little street vendor doesn't show up near the immigration office at 5 in the morning. He would make a killing on weary farangs (foreigners) waiting in line.
3. Depending on your visa type, observe how fast the line moves. Then you can determine if you have enough time to leave the office to go get something to eat. The Chiang Mai Airport is 200 meters west and Airport Plaza Shopping Mall is about 300 meters the other way. However, the mall doesn't open until 11 a.m.
4. Be patient. Really patient. These Thai immigration office workers have a mind-numbing, mundane job every single day, but they really do the best they can. It doesn't help any of us when one foreigner starts yelling at them or asking for things they know they can't get. It's better to just smile and appreciate their effort.
5. Like a Boy Scout, be prepared. Make sure you have all your proper documents completed in blue ink (yes, it matters), snacks, water, and something to kill the boredom. There is no free wifi at Thai immigration, so bring a book or your Kindle. This process can take as little as 30 minutes up to 8 hours, depending on the day of week and time of day that you arrive. It is not predictable at all.
The moral of this story is...when it's your time to go to immigration, put snacks in your bag and put a smile on your face. It's only one day. Make the best of it.