Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

The US of A(lot-of-difficulty-entering-the-country)

on June 7, 2013

So just as a warning… this will mostly be a text-heavy rant (which some of you will probably have already heard first hand) but just in case you can’t be bothered reading my whinging or don’t want to hear it a second time, leave now! BUT if you are planning on travelling anywhere overland from the States, maybe read on, you may learn something from my mistakes!

Ok. So when I last left off, it was 4am (4AM!) and I was off to Bangkok Airport to catch my flight to LAX to visit my cousin Kirsty and her family in Ensenada, Mexico.  Got to the airport in 10 minutes on the handy transport service from the airport hotel, no worries. Jumped in the short queue at Malaysia Airlines to check in and when I got to the front was asked a few questions by a woman wearing an up-do, heavy black liquid eyeliner and glittery eye-shadow (I did mention it was 4am right?):

‘Do you have a visa?’ No, I don’t need one with an Australian passport.

‘So you have an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) then?’ Yes ma’am

‘Do you have a copy of it?’ No, it said I didn’t need to print it or present it at the airport, but I have a copy of it on my computer if you need the number?

‘You can print upstairs on the 6th floor at CAT telecom, then come back and see me…’

So off I dash, and after waking the lady sleeping on the desk with a jacket over her head, asked how much it is to print… Luckily it was only 10 baht, about all I had after leaving the last of my Thai currency with Ben who had one more day in Bangkok. She said it needed to be emailed to her, but I had it on my laptop and there was no free wifi… Thankfully she had a USB I could borrow (mine were in my checked bag downstairs) and I got the document printed.

I went back downstairs with a copy of my ESTA and handed it to the lady. She looked at it and put it on her desk then handed me a piece of paper and said:

‘Could you write down the address of where you will be staying in America?’ I’m not staying in America; I’m just passing through on my way to Mexico. It said on my ESTA I could just put ‘in transit’, so maybe you could just write that…

‘Hmm, could you show me your ticket to Mexico?’ No, I don’t have one. I’m going to travel overland by car with my cousin who lives there.

‘What about your ticket home?’ I don’t have one; I don’t know when I’m going home yet!

‘Well you need a ticket out of America. We need to make sure you have all the correct documentation or we will get a fine if you don’t get let in at immigration…’ I have done this trip before… I’m sure if I explain at the other end it will all be fine!

‘Did you have a ticket home then?’ Well, yes, but…

Lady confers with other staff… Another lady chimes in, ‘It’s true, one time we had a girl sent all the way back because she didn’t have all of the right papers…’

My lady says: ‘Do you have your cousin’s address?’ Um, no, but I could get it on the internet if that is what I need to get on this flight…

‘Yes that would be good…’

So off to the 6th floor to wake the CAT telecom lady again, and ask if I could use the internet. She said ‘100 baht’ which was the price for 20 minutes and I said ‘But I only need 5 minutes! Can you give me less?’ and she said, ‘sorry, minimum 100 baht’. Damn!

So it was back down to the check-in floor to the ATM to get cash out (which I didn’t want to do because I had to use my credit card since my travel cashcard didn’t work- another long story!). Then back up to CAT telecom to again badger the sleeping lady (I guess night shift isn’t normally this eventful?) and got on the internet. Found Kirsty’s address on the YWAM (Youth With A Mission) website, and thought while I was there I’d buy a train ticket to San Diego (even though this is still in the states) just to help strengthen my case that I was actually going there to meet Kirsty after I arrived in LA.

So after all of that, I went back downstairs, and passed the lady I had been dealing with walking in the other direction. I was like ‘Hey!’ and she said ‘Just go and see one of the other staff’. Thankfully there was still no line, but time was ticking and I was anxious to get on this plane…

After I’d re-explained my story, the new, less heavily made-up lady, said ‘You need a flight out of the US, that is the rule of the ESTA’ and proceeded to give me a print out of said rules with the pertinent point of having ‘an onward or return ticket’ highlighted in yellow. I pointed out that this did not say ‘plane ticket’ and wanted to know if I could just book a bus as it was stupid for me to pay for a flight when I could get there a lot cheaper in a few hours on the road! And that it was too expensive for me to book a flight home if I wasn’t actually going to use it!

‘Why don’t you book a flight somewhere cheaper than Australia, like Japan, or Korea?’ Because I’m not going to Korea or Japan! It’s just hundreds of dollars down the drain! I can’t afford to pay that much to PASS THROUGH the US for 6 HOURS! (The lack of sleep was finally getting to me… I felt a bit bad for taking this out on the poor airline ladies, but I just wanted them to LET ME ON THE PLANE! So I could at least TRY to speak to someone in the US…)

angry bear

Except no-one seemed to know the exact rules of what kind of ticket I needed, and I was reluctant to fritter away hundreds of dollars for nothing. However, when I was finally ready to relent and said ‘Fine, I’ll just go book a flight now’, they said, ‘Sorry, you can’t now, the flight is closed’. I looked at my watch- 5.30am.

They gave me back my luggage and barely holding back the tears of frustration asked them ‘Well, what do I do now?’ They said to come back to the Malaysia airlines office at the airport after 9am, book an onward flight and then once I had that, change my flight over (and pay the flight change fee…). I said ‘But there’s no flight to LA tomorrow is there?’ as I remembered from when I was booking, but she said she didn’t know and just to check at the bookings desk later.

Right. Well lucky for me, Ben was still at the airport hotel, so struggling my way out to the taxi level (the escalators don’t make any sense in there and don’t go to all floors, so wandering around and around each level trying to get the hell out just added to my early morning frustration!) I got back there at about 6 and sheepishly said to the reception staff ‘I wasn’t allowed to board the plane…’

I told them which room I’d been in and they sent a guy with a pass up with me, which was lucky, because when we got there despite hearing the TV blasting the news through the door and knocking loudly several times, nothing happened… so then the guy used the pass, but Ben being very secure had done up the safety latch so it was more knocking loudly and shouting through the 3 inch gap ‘Ben! BEN! It’s Mandy… WAKE UP!’ before he finally stirred and opened the door looking mighty confused.

I gave the first version of this rant to Ben, and then tried to text Kirsty to let her know not to go to San Diego on the Monday to get me. In a very happy coincidence, it was Sunday afternoon in Mexico and Kirsty was on Skype, so received the second version of this rant, with the conclusion that I would keep her posted on my progress… After that, I finally went back to sleep for a few more hours.

When I woke, it was back to the airport. Malaysia Airlines confirmed that there was no flight to LA til Wednesday and that to change me to that flight would cost 3900 baht (~AU$130). The lady told me she would book me when I had the onward flight. I asked if it had to be a flight or could it be a bus (Kirsty had suggested booking a Greyhound which would at least be a ticket out, but cheaper than a plane!) but the lady didn’t know. She said I should go to the US Embassy to find out, but said it might be best to call them first as today is a public holiday in Bangkok (of course it was…) and it might not be open.

She gave me the phone number and then I went to the info desk to get a map with the location. They helped me change my notes for coins for the pay phone, and when I rang a girl answered and said yes, the embassy was closed today. I said I just need to ask a question about coming in with the ESTA, is there anyone I could ask? And she said they don’t answer questions over the phone, I would have to go to the embassy tomorrow.

Well that was a pain. I went back up to CAT telecom after that to see if there was anyone I could email, and ended up sending an enquiry to the US embassy in Canberra to see if that would get me a quicker answer than waiting to visit the embassy tomorrow. After that, Ben and I grabbed some brunch and decided to head back into the city for one more day.

We visited Jim Thompson’s house first. Jim Thompson was an American architect who later came to Bangkok as a military officer and fell in love with the place. After he left the army he came back to live in Thailand. He helped with reviving and growing the Thai craft of hand woven silk and promoting it internationally. His house combines 6 teak buildings up to 200 years old built in the traditional Thai style, which were brought from around the country to Bangkok. He filled it with traditional pieces of furniture, ceramics and art and he decided to open it to the public, donating proceeds to Thai charities and projects aimed at preserving Thailand’s cultural heritage. Unfortunately, when he was 60, Jim Thompson disappeared while visiting the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Not a trace has ever been found to say what happened to him, it’s crazy. After that we hit the shops for a bit, had our last street pad thai and made our way back to the airport hotel.

thompson1

Next morning Ben’s flight was at 8am, so I decided I’d catch the airport transport with him at 6am. Unfortunately the hotel staff must have thought the flight was at 6am because they called a couple of times at 4am checking if we were coming down to get on the bus! Anyway, later on arrival at the airport we were greeted by a mass onslaught of people, as Thai Airways has one of those everyone-for-every-flight-line-up-here systems. We must’ve waited more than an hour, and then Ben had to go straight through security. After saying goodbye, I took the train into the city for my adventure to the US Embassy.

I found the embassy easily enough, but already before 9am there was a massive line of Thais with arm-fulls of paperwork out front. The girls checking people in eventually got to me and asked if I had an appointment and when I said no, told my story and said I need just need to clarify with someone exactly what ‘ticket’ I need to get in to the US, so they pulled me out of the line and said ‘wait here’. The girl went in and talked on the phone then came back out with the ESTA website written on a piece of paper. I said, ‘No, I already have that, but I was told I need an onward ticket and I want to know if it has to be a flight and if it has to be within the 90 days. I just need to ask someone who knows!’ she went inside again and I waited again in the sweltering heat. After a bit more to-ing and fro-ing over the next half hour, I was finally provided with the details of the US homeland security who were conveniently located across the road.

Over I went to see them and after handing in my phone and ID at reception was shown through to the waiting area. After waiting a while for the one person who was working to finish up with the guy ahead of me I went up and again told my story and the lady said, ‘oh, you need the border protection office next door. Just ask the security guard’. Sigh.

So I went back to security who let me into the correct office and then repeated myself again to the girl there, Maysa. She was not sure of the answer, and her boss was in Vientiane (Laos), but she said that she would email for me. It seemed the only option, so I went downstairs and found a coffee shop with wifi to email Maysa the problem and she said she would get back to me ASAP- I stressed that I really needed to know today to sort everything out as I wanted to be on a flight tomorrow!

Meanwhile, my email barrage with the US embassy in Canberra was proving slow and fruitless. They insisted on either not answering the actual question or only answering part of it! The first response to my spiel and questions ‘Does a bus ticket to Mexico suffice? Or if I do need a flight, does it need to be within 90 days of my initial entry to the US or can I book it for the end of the year?’ was: ‘ In regard to your query, it is a requirement that you hold a return or onward ticket for you travel under the Visa Waiver Program.’ Well thanks, but I have already been made well aware of that… However they did point out that ‘Travelers with onward tickets terminating in Mexico, Canada, Bermuda or the Caribbean Islands must be legal residents of these areas.’ Well, there’s a point I had not noticed before…

I then asked if this ticket could be for December, thinking maybe I could just book to go home for Christmas and in the meantime be in Mexico and Central America, but the response I got was: ‘In regard to your query, your onward ticket should be the ticket that you will use going back to Australia.’ WHICH WASN’T THE QUESTION!!

I wrote back asking again if it needed to be within 90 days and again specifying I will be travelling for several months and added that I may look for work in Canada after this, to which they then said the visa waiver program may not be appropriate and I might be better off with a tourist visa. However looking at the link provided, I would need to spend $160 and be somewhere for long enough that I could have an interview, to which I would have to bring ‘Current proof of income, tax payments, property or business ownership, or assets; Your travel itinerary and/or other explanation about your planned trip; Criminal/court records pertaining to any arrest or conviction anywhere, even if you completed your sentence or were later pardoned; and your current and all old passports. Original documents are always preferred over photocopies’!! Soooooo not likely from Mexico/ Guatemala/ Honduras!!

Luckily, amidst all this mess, good old Maysa from border protection delivered within the hour. A clear and concise:

‘Dear Ms. Amanda,

If you enter the US (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) by air, in order to use the Visa Waiver, you must have an onward ticket that takes you to some place that is not Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. The ticket must take you out within 90 days. The 90-day clock starts ticking as soon as you clear immigration.

Rgds,

Maysa’

Phew. So I went ahead and booked a cheap Air NZ flight just at the end of my 90 days to Melbourne thinking at least I could change it later and would end up getting some use from it… Then it was back to the airport to show the lady my documentation and change my flight. With all of that sorted, I went back to the hotel exhausted, texted/emailed all concerned parties that I was to fly tomorrow and vegged in my room all afternoon eating cup noodles. I had an early night because I was up again at 3.30am for my airport transfer at 4am.

This time I went through with no issues, they didn’t ask me for an onward ticket (maybe the lady doing my booking had noted it?) and let me go through. So after a total of around 20 hours in the air and a few more hours on stopovers in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo, I finally got to LAX. I waited nervously in the long line at immigration hoping that I wouldn’t run into any problems…

The guy who checked me through asked what I was doing in the states, I said I was going to Mexico to visit my cousin tonight. He asked, where to next? And I said central America. He then asked me how I got so much time off, what I did for work in Australia, do I work privately or in a hospital and a whole bunch of other random stuff while he took my full set of fingerprints and then my photo, and let me through without asking me for any details on my trip to Mexico or my stupid $720 onward ticket!!

Oh well… At least I was prepared had I needed it… Since this has been so text heavy I will leave you with a few pics from the Pacific Surfliner – the train from LA to San Diego.

IMG_2397 IMG_2396

I met Kirsty, Oscar and 2-year-old Sammy in San Diego and after the mandatory stops at Oscar’s favourite burger joint In and Out for dinner, and Starbucks for vanilla lattes, I finally made it to Ensenada…

So team, remember to read the fine print, and for future reference, if you are travelling overland through the States, not only Mexico and Canada but ALL of the following countries also count in your 90-day visit: Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe,  Haiti, Jamaica, Marie-Galante, Martinique, Mexico, Miquelon, Montserrat, Saba, Saint-Barthelemy, Saint Christopher, Saint Eustatius, Saint Kitts-Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Maarten, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre, Saint Vincent, Grenadines, Trinidad, Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Other British, French and Netherlands territory or possessions bordering on the Caribbean Sea.

Easy! 😉 Happy travels!

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3 responses to “The US of A(lot-of-difficulty-entering-the-country)

  1. Nancy says:

    It was loooong, I was frustrated as well with your ordeal
    . I hope that was your intention. 🙂

  2. Keith Hill says:

    At least you know you are keeping a lot of bureaucrats at embassies etc well employed! Well done on surviving all of that!

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