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Getting through Immigration at Bangkok International Airport with a Big Family

"Honey.  Psst.  Hey, Honey!  I need your passports so I can fill out these forms."  I heard that said on a recent flight, very late at night, and I thought to myself, Hmm, now there's an article right there. So, take a moment to read this post if, like me, you never want to find yourself in that situation, scrambling for passports so you can fill out a tiny customs and immigration form at some inconvenient time of night or in the wee hours right before your plane lands...

It took us exactly one flight to encounter that situation, on a long international journey with our kids. On an international flight, there's always a form to be filled out and handed in upon arrival, in each new destination country. I carry about half of the passports and my wife carries the other half. We don't always get to sit right next to one another, so it's definitely a hassle to have to dig out even one passport - let alone six!

Of course, airlines, as a rule, tend to have an extremely bad sense of timing for the best time to hand out the forms that require your passport information. I've only seen it done at two times:
  1. As soon as you board.  Yeah, great timing, that. Sure, instead of settling in and finding my headphones and passing out snacks and entertainment for the kids, I'll just stop and do some paperwork that I won't need until tomorrow  And then I'll just happily keep up with this tiny slip of paper, and somehow avoid losing it in the seat pocket, for, oh, I dunno, maybe the next 13 hours, while half-asleep. Sure, why not?
  2. 30 minutes before landing.  This is another horrible timeslot for paperwork.  I'm generally either just waking up from a 3-minute nap that will have to suffice as my night's sleep, or, I'm finally, mercifully drifting off to never-neverland for the first time, when they decide to crank up the lights and start handing out coffee and customs forms. For my brain this "Hey ho, everybody wake up!" moment, when the cabin is cruelly flooded with harsh sunlight, is the jarring equivalent of a fire truck siren going off 3 feet away from me at the precise moment that a basket of feral cats falls out of a closet onto my head. That moment is basically the worst thing about traveling. And it comes with paperwork.
So yeah I definitely wish governments would come up with a way not to need these forms at all.  And failing that, that the airlines would somehow find a way to time it a little better, somehow. Or, hey, you developers, why isn't there an app for this yet?

Traveling with a big family through passport control in Southeast Asia
Idols New and Old, at Suvarnabhumi Airport,
Bangkok, Thailand

The Scramble
By the time we've taken our seats at the beginning of a flight, our passports are well stowed away. They are not easy to get at, or easy to put away. Then, once you have them - you've got this huge little stack of books to try not to drop on the floor and lose. It's just extremely cumbersome trying to open 6 little booklets with stiff covers that want to stay shut, and then trying to hold them open with one hand while using the other hand to fill out the form, all while balancing everything on top of that teeny tiny airplane table (which is, by now, stained with spilled apple juice and the crumbs from multiple packs of snacks - and yes, I mean there have been snacks even if I've only been on the plane for 30 minutes when they hand out the forms). But there is a solution...

The Big Family Solution
Before any trip that involves one or more international flights, I type up a little reference chart. Then I print it, and cover it in clear or invisible tape as a homemade means of laminating it. (I want it to stay dry and legible for the duration of the trip, so some type of lamination will go a long way towards preserving it.) The essential elements to put on your customs/immigration reference chart are:
  • Everybody's full names
  • Passport numbers
  • Dates of birth 
  • Passport issue dates
  • Passport expiration dates
  • (And a few more things as noted below, but first an explanation...)

Why the full names?  I mean, sure, you know all of your kids' middle names, right? Most of the time, at least. But for me, just having it in writing is a good way to avoid needing to scratch out a mistake on a form, or asking for another blank form. And why do I make a note of the dates of birth?  Well, okay, so I'm not Dad of the Year; I can't necessarily instantly recall six birthdays at 4:03am after a TransAtlantic flight.

And by the way, it helps to write down dates of birth in the standard international format, of Day-Month-Year. On the customs/immigration forms of nearly every country I've ever visited, a May 07, 2014 birthday would be recorded as 07-05-14. This helps when the forms request DOBs in that order, and avoids the tiny mental strain of making sure to switch them around from the standard U.S. order.

How to get through immigration when traveling with children
Immigration Forms Almost Always Want
Dates of Birth in DD/MM/YY Format

But Wait, There's More
Every country has its own standards for how much information they are going to demand before stamping your passport on entry. Some countries are pretty invasive, asking for your place of birth, email address, and very often the name of your hotel (or if you don't have a hotel reservation, then the name, address, and phone number of an in-country contact or friend).  So, based on a compilation of all the various standards I've seen when entering Central and South America, Europe, and Asia, I always add the following info to the same reference chart:
  • Everybody's place of birth (city & state)
  • Everybody's occupation (kids under 18 do have an occupation; it's "student")
  • Everybody's employer/company name
  • The parents' cell phone number(s)
  • At least one email address you don't mind Cambodia (or wherever) having
How to get through the airport with young children on an international journey
That Plane Seems Kinda Big

No Wait, There's Still More!
Then, after everyone's personal info, I add country-specific info that may be (almost definitely will be) requested at every port of entry. If you don't have this on a handy reference chart, you'll be scrambling to dig through your carry-on bag and locate your hotel reservation, and your plane tickets for the flight out (why they want to know your departure flight number so far in advance is beyond me), and all the rest of these minor details. This section on my chart looks like this:
    • Flight/Vessel#_____ 
    • Port/Airport of Entry______
    • Date of Entry (DD-MM-YY)______, 
    • Date of Departure (DD-MM-YY)______  
    • Duration of Stay_______ nights
    • Hotel Name __________ Hotel Address ___________ Hotel Phone_____________
    • Port/Airport of Planned Exit:__________
    • Exit Transportation:__________ (flight number, or train route, etc.)
    • Cities to be visited:_________, _________, _________
    • Flight/Vessel#_____ 
    • Port/Airport of Entry______
    • Date of Entry (DD-MM-YY)______, 
    • Date of Departure (DD-MM-YY)______  
    • Duration of Stay_______ nights
    • Hotel Name __________ Hotel Address ___________ Hotel Phone_____________
    • Port/Airport of Planned Exit:__________
    • Exit Transpo:__________ (flight #, or train route, etc.)
    • Cities to be visited:_________, _________, _________
  • [Repeat the above for each change of countries]

With a really small typefont, I can get all of the above, from the personal info through destination info, to fit onto about one-quarter of a standard-sized sheet of paper, assuming there are just a handful of country changes involved in the trip.

    How to sort out everyone's passports when traveling with children
    Color Coding Passports Also Helps
    with the Document Juggling at Immigration Lines

    Get Your Story Straight
    If there is any question as to how anyone in your party might describe his or her occupation, be sure to discuss this before the trip. I don't think it would go well for my spouse to verbally provide a different occupation than what she just handed in on a form (a form which I filled out for her). This isn't indicative of any kind of intent to deceive, either - it's just that there are various words one can use to describe what you do for a living. For instance, I can easily picture someone's relative saying, "Oh, I'm an artist," when asked for an occupation, when their family member had already written down and turned in the occupation as "Retired Schoolteacher." 

    When you're dealing with an airport bureaucrat, and you are both struggling with a language barrier, and you are feeling exhausted and/or cranky due to lack of sleep, it's usually best not to confuse them with conflicting or contradictory information.

    Remind your party that the purpose of your visit is "tourism."  Again, it's best not to confuse bureaucrats with lots of words or descriptions of activities and places you intend to visit or what exactly you intend to do. In 90 percent of the countries I've visited, my one-word answer, "Tourism," has been enough. Only on a few occasions have I been questioned further, and I've answered with very brief replies, like:  relax, eat, swim, have fun.  I certainly wouldn't lead off with "We're going out to to a rural area to visit our missionary friends" or "I'm here to break the record for the fastest climb of your tallest mountain without supplemental oxygen." 

    If you want to be stuck in immigration for a long time, or to potentially get into an argument with a bureaucrat, just try giving out someone's home address (like an Airbnb address) instead of a hotel name. Sure, that works sometimes - but not all the time.

    Some countries are fine with just a hotel name, while others want an address and a phone number. In extreme cases, they may even demand to see your printed hotel reservation. If your destination is anywhere near any source of current or recent or anticipated armed conflict, expect this information to be subjected to cross-examination, and you may be repeatedly questioned about your plans. Or I don't know, maybe it's just because of my short hair (which some people say gives me a sort of military look) that I continually find myself in this situation.

    And of course, if visiting any country that is under an authoritarian regime, you might literally be followed to your hotel, and/or be required to register again with local police after checking in to your hotel.  This would be a very, very bad time to be giving out an address other than the one where you have every intention of staying. But on the other end of that extreme, there are numerous countries that won't even ask you where you are staying, or which won't give that information even a cursory glance. Just check out entry requirements, and if it is suggested that you bring a hotel reservation for immigration, I wouldn't leave home without one.

    My policy is as follows: when we are traveling as a big family, with a bunch of kids, we do not submit to baggage inspection at customs, unless the airport staff demands it. When I'm exiting an airport, and have already passed through passport control and the freedom of being outside of the airport is in sight, and then at the very last second we approach an x-ray conveyor belt with a couple of bored-looking dudes sitting next to it with their chins propped on their hands, I just stride right past their little machine, just like I own the place. This works for us at least half the time. These fellows just aren't targeting parents with a bunch of kids, as we aren't exactly the likeliest suspects to be smuggling uncut diamonds or a twelve-pack of live baby cobras or whatever.

    But of course, we might be stopped and searched, or stopped and told to go back and scan our luggage. So for each country we visit, we read up on the customs rules to make sure we aren't importing "contraband" which can include items as innocent as a foreign apple.  (See also, "Avoid Accidental Smuggling" which is part of this prior post.)

    What is it like going through the airport at Bangkok?
    Early Morning at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, Thailand

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