Photo: Rafael Castillo
WHILE THE PHILIPPINES allows nationals from 157 countries to enter its borders visa-free, Philippine passport holders are allowed to enter only 58 countries and territories without a visa.
As I’ve learned from my grandmother, a retired US immigration officer, the way some Filipinos behave (or misbehave) abroad has made it difficult for the rest of us to secure a visa.
1. I was a suspected drug mule
“My friend Dyan and I arrived in Bali for our birthdays in 2011. We came from Singapore and were the only Filipinos on the plane. The moment the airport officer saw my Philippine passport, he carried my luggage. ‘Is this yours?’ he asked, and I said yes. He scanned our hands. We asked him what it was for, to which he answered, ‘Secret.’ He asked us to follow him. I was nervous.
In the holding room, there were three officers. ‘Meet my Filipina friend,’ one said, pointing to a photo framed on the wall. ‘She was caught hiding packs of heroin in her luggage.’ He also reminded us that death is the penalty for drug trafficking. They started the interrogation. ‘Do you know her? (pointing to the photo) Did you take drugs? Did you have drugs hidden in your body?’ We answered no to everything. I’ve never taken prohibited drugs in my life. I was angry at how they spoke to us.
They thoroughly searched our luggage. When he found nothing, I asked the officer what’s wrong and why he was checking us. ‘Because the two of you are beautiful girls,’ he replied. For the third time, they went outside to scan the bags. We were afraid of getting framed because we no longer had our bags with us. ‘Why is your belly big?’ he asked Dyan. Offended, Dyan replied, “Because I’m fat!” but they frisked her body for drugs anyway. After 1.5 hours, the finally let us go and thanked us for being cooperative. They tried to shake our hands, but we ignored it because we were so offended. We filed a complaint at the DFA, and the Indonesian Ambassador apologized for the incident.”
2. We’ll always have Paris… or not
“In 2003 my best friend and I wanted to pursue our dream of exploring Europe. We enlisted the help of a family friend who works in a travel agency, and he gave us a long list of requirements for applying for a Schengen visa through the French embassy. ‘You have to prove that you’re financially capable to afford this trip,’ he said. We thought that since we’ve been traveling to the US and other countries since we were kids, this would be easy.
We spent weeks gathering our bank statements and employment documents. Because we were fresh college graduates, the agent told us to ask our fathers to write affidavits of support, stating that they will shoulder our expenses. We also had to get our family’s bank account statements and property documents. I even secured a document proving that I’m the legal heiress of one of my father’s businesses. We ticked every item on the checklist, paid a lawyer to verify the papers, and paid thousands of pesos for the processing fee. During our separate interviews, they kept asking if we had relatives in France. We said no. Weeks later, we received mail saying that our application was denied. We were heartbroken.
Months later I met someone who works in the French embassy. He revealed to me, ‘You were denied because you and your friend are young, single, and have small-paying jobs in Manila. You seem like the type who’d want to move to Europe to find a husband or illegally get a job and never return.’ Ouch.”
3. No relatives allowed
“A few years ago my two sisters and I applied for a US tourist visa. We were told that it would be hard because our parents are US immigrants, and that makes us automatically suspicious of becoming TNTs (tago ng tago or ‘always hiding,’ a term given to Filipinos overstaying and illegally working in the US). We still applied because all we wanted was to go on vacation and attend a family reunion in the US. My eldest sister made that clear during our group interview, but the immigration officer replied, ‘No strong ties here.’ Our visa was denied right then and there.
4. Oh, Philippines
“I arrived at the Munich Airport for the first time a few years ago. During my turn at the immigration booth, the officer smiled at me and asked for my passport. When I handed it to him, the big smile on his face disappeared and he said, ‘Oh, Philippines.’ He began asking repetitive questions such as ‘Who is paying for your trip? How much money do you have? Why are you staying in Europe for a month? What’s your source of income?’ and many other questions that I already answered at the German embassy back in the Philippines.”
5. Visit us every day!
“We secured a Schengen visa not as tourists, but as ‘visiting friends.’ My mom’s friend in Belgium gave the embassy in Manila a formal letter of invite. During our interview, they asked questions like, ‘How many square meters does your friend live in?’ and ‘How many people live in their property?’ After our visa was approved, they told us to report to their town office when we arrive in Belgium. When we got there, the Belgian officials told us that we are required to report to their office every day during our stay! It was ridiculous, especially since we had plans of visiting Paris and other places in Europe. Thank goodness my mom’s friend’s son accompanied us and managed to charm the officials from imposing this silly rule.”
6. Six months means six weeks
“My sister, mom, and I were having our US visa renewed. Since we’ve been traveling to the US since I was 3 years old, I thought that the interview would be easy. The immigration officer was browsing through our passports when he did a double take and asked, ‘Who was in the US for four months last year?’ I raised my hand. ‘Why did you stay there for four months?’ I was surprised because Filipinos with US tourist visas are allowed to stay in America for a maximum of six months at a time. ‘I was on a soul-searching trip,’ I told him. ‘Where did you stay?’ I explained how I saved up to go on this solo adventure and stayed at different hotels and inns from California to New York. ‘Don’t ever do that again, or we won’t approve your visa the next time you have it renewed,’ he said. I was in shock and just nodded. Weeks later, we got our 10-year US visa, but now I’m afraid to stay longer than two months in the US.”
7. The rise and fall of the fixers
“I’ve been traveling to the US since the ’70s. Back then people applied for a visa at the American Embassy at Roxas Blvd. in Manila on a first-come, first-served basis. You had to bring all the required documents, fall in line at the embassy, get a number, and wait for your number to get called. When it’s your turn, everything is done in one sitting—processing of papers, interview, and the immediate decision on whether or not your visa is approved. Because there was a quota on the number of individuals that could be processed per day, Filipinos began falling in line hours before the office opened.
The long lines spawned ‘fixers,’ random people who offered to fall in line and secure a number for you. For a fee, they will even fall in line as early as 3 am and sleep on the ground outside the embassy. You can come hours later when the office opens, and the fixer will hand you the number. I personally never tried hiring fixers, just a travel agent. Through the years the process got stricter. These days visa application is done at the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs). Whenever I see the ‘No Fixers’ sign plastered at the entrance, I remember the days I would drive by Roxas Blvd. and see dozens of fixers camping outside the embassy.