Odd visa policies in Southeast Asia for expats

Most Americans rarely have to think about travel visas. For short duration trips and vacations less than 30 days, all that is usually required is a valid U.S. passport.

In fact, the United States has agreements with well over 100 other nations that provide for ‘visa free’ visits for American passport holders. Over 50 other countries offer short term ‘visa on arrival’ options.

But longer stays require knowledge and compliance with differing requirements worldwide. Visa policies in Southeast Asia can confuse expats. But as constant slow-travelers, we’ve become familiar with visa issues in this part of the world throughout the past year.

First, to be clear, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia all offer U.S. passport holders a free-of-charge ‘tourist visa’ good for up to 30 days. Actually, Malaysia and Singapore are even more generous (and digitally advanced) — allowing stays of up to 90 days. But before the ‘free’ periods expire, those wishing to stay longer must either leave the county and return (a visa run) or file paperwork and make payment to stay on.

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Our recent visa renewal in Indonesia was the most convoluted experience we’ve had yet. AND you cannot extend the ‘free’ 30-day visa. If you plan to extend in Indonesia, you MUST request and pay for the alternate $30 visa-on-arrival at the airport. Only THAT visa CAN be extended. If you accept the ‘free’ 30-day stay — no extension is possible.

visa policies in southeast asia can include three visits or more in indonesian immigration offices like this one
An immigration office in Indonesia.

The tourist visa extension process (30 additional days) in Indonesia requires most travelers to make at least three separate trips to a local immigration office over a period of five to 10 days. This alone can be a hassle for those wanting to move around and explore the huge multi-island nation.

TIPS: 1. Go in the morning – beat the crowds – & avoid Mondays. 2. Long pants and shoes are required.

You MUST make the three visits at the same immigration office. Thus you are basically ‘stuck’ in one place until the process is completed.

On the first visit, you must bring paper copies of your passport photo page, immigration ‘entry stamp’, and airline or boat ticket proving onward travel within 60 days of your first arrival. You are then issued a large bright-pink folder containing the paperwork and further instructions for completing your visa extension application.

visa policies in southeast asia can include lengthy paperwork applications like this one in a packet in indonesia
Tedly fills out immigration applications for visa extensions of 30 days.

You return to the office a second time once you have filled out the forms – which are mildly confusing. You must now also physically hand over your passport (a printed ‘receipt’ is issued). And, if the computer system is ‘online’, you will be photographed and fingerprinted at this time. (In case of system hiccups – like we had – you may have to return yet another time for photos/prints.)

At the second visit you will be given a third date when you can then return and pick up your passport and approved visa extension – AFTER paying the 1 million Rupiah ($35) fee at the cashier.

In all, it’s a very cumbersome system to handle what is ‘possible’ to do in seconds with the swipe of a passport at a computer terminal/reader. Still, it is the Indonesian system and if you want to remain in their country more than 30 days – you comply.

visa policies in southeast asia can mean waiting in lines and taking numbers in crowded offices
Tedly is first in line at an immigration office in Indonesia.

Obviously, you must be there for photos and fingerprints, but in actuality, an approved third party (agent) can both pick-up your pink packet (once they have your passport and ticket photo-copies) and retrieve the finished approved passport/extension (after submitting your payment). And there are businesses that will do it — for additional fees, of course.

It’s obvious that the visa extension ‘business’ is a money maker and the ‘employer’ of a significant number of personnel too. But Indonesia is not alone in this regard.

We have extended visas twice in Thailand. Both times I marveled at how many uniformed Thai workers were busy in rooms full of mostly Caucasian visitors. In fact, in Hua Hin, Thailand, I nearly burst out laughing when the immigration official spent what seemed like 10 minutes stamping and dating and signing and shuffling many different papers in front of us – then checking and admiring his work.  

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Meanwhile, another officer recorded each transaction in a huge leather-bound book like was used for land records in the early 20th century. Again, an archaic process for what could easily be computerized; but a process that creates jobs and revenues in a country where I want to stay longer. No problem. Here’s my payment.

visa policies in southeast asia allowed us to stay longer in hua hin, thailand, pictured here from a hill.
Hua Hin, Thailand.

Vietnam also has created secondary employment with its visa policy. The country requires visitors to ‘apply’ for an automatic visa-on-arrival available at any international airport in Vietnam.  

The application is filled out online and submitted, but then ‘filed’ by one of the many government ‘approved’ agencies – for a fee. Then the country imposes a separate ‘stamping fee’ at the airport when a visitor collects their pre-approved visa-on-arrival and enters.

We avoided this whole process by visiting the Vietnamese embassy in Malaysia and securing, in advance, 90-day visas accepted at any entry point; land, sea, or airport.

Finally, our only other Southeast Asia border crossing was Cambodia where we filled out the papers then paid an agent to conduct the whole process – visas-on-arrival – at the Thai border as we sat on the air conditioned bus.

an air-conditioned bus that goes from thailand to cambodia
Our bus that went from Thailand to Cambodia, at a border crossing break.

Our understanding is that the process in Laos is similar to Cambodia, but we don’t have first-hand experience. And of course, there are plenty of other Southeast Asian nations: Myanmar, Brunei, East Timor, Philippines, etc. We don’t know their policies — yet.  

The best way to figure out visa policies in Southeast Asia

Our advice: anyone traveling to any foreign country better know and abide by the immigration and customs requirements.

Visa policies in Southeast Asia change all the time. The most reliable information always comes from a country’s immigration website.

That said, here is a great website which shows and compares passports and visas around the globe.

Full disclosure: only one time have we overstayed a visa – by one day! We miscalculated. It only cost us a $15 fine at the airport upon departure.

visa policies in southeast asia are easy for americans - picture of american passports - tickets to the world
Always check with a country’s official website for up-to-date visa information.

As global travelers, we are always fascinated by how things work in other places and cultures. As such, none of this is a complaint of any kind. Indeed, we feel lucky to be allowed and accepted into so many places with so little scrutiny.

Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, the people from many of the countries where we can visit on a whim are not afforded the same welcome in our own country.

As always, happy trails and more beer. Life is now!

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