I am Shocked! Shocked! To Find Out That Payoffs are Going on Here!

I’ve never entirely understood how VIP immigration services work in much of the world — how private firms are able to arrange for expedited immigration clearance, in some places you do not even have to be present when the ‘service’ gets your passport stamped.

No doubt there are places where there is an official fee charged, and the firm has a contract or official arrangement. But I’ve also used services where it’s seemed there’s an ‘understanding’ between the person escorting me and the official working the VIP or diplomatic immigration queue with no line.

It’s against U.S. law of course to bribe a public official of another country. Fortunately the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is specific in its prohibition, focusing on intent to obtain or retain business.

Still, bribery is frowned upon when made public in much of the world, even in places where it’s widespread.

I am shocked, shocked, to find that immigration officers in Phuket have been soliciting cash from tourists in exchange for expedited immigration!

There’s apparently a mini-scandal in the resort city of Phuket, Thailand where immigration queues can back up but where such petty annoyances can be circumvented for a fee. It sounds as though the issue is that immigration wasn’t fully staffing its booths, backing up, and then officers would directly solicit (rather than work with a third party to sell to) tourists.

“We have heard that many immigration counters are not open when tourists arrive on international flights, so officers are supposedly soliciting money from them to use a ‘VIP’ lane to avoid the long queues,” said Capt Somphong Narkthong of the Royal Thai Navy Third Area Command.

“A total of 19 counters are supposed to be open during international arrivals to support incoming tourists. From now on, every time a counter is closed during this time, immigration will have to explain the reason to Army officers.”

…Col Watcharapol told the national media, including television reporters, “In the past, we have had problems with our computer systems and a lack of staff on hand. But right now we are fully prepared to serve all incoming tourists.”

Have you ever paid a fee to expedite an immigration process?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Sort of. At St. Thomas, flights back to the mainland require clearing immigration and customs. You have to check in at the ticket counter, and then carry your own luggage through passport control before dropping it off prior to the TSA checkpoint. You can hire a porter for $5 per bag, and the porter picks up your luggage at the ticket counter, takes you through a special line and up to the front of the customs area, waits until you clear customs, and then drops off your luggage at the appropriate place.

    On an extended family trip last year, my in-laws decided this would be a good investment for my wife’s elderly grandmother. Though we carried our own luggage and did not pay, my wife and I were considered part of the same party and accompanied the porter up to the front of the line. With only two CBP officers on duty, we got a lot of glares and stares from travelers waiting in the regular line. The CBP inspection process was the same regardless of whether you used the porter, but I was still part of a group that got expedited clearance nonetheless.

  2. Anyone who’s ever crossed a border via bus in SE Asia has paid for “expedited” immigration, if they’re smart. You’re on a bus with 40 other people, and 5 other buses are also waiting to get Visa stamps. You can either a) pay someone $5 to throw your passport in a pile and do all the work while you sit and eat/drink, or b) First convince the person you won’t pay, depriving everyone most of their real income, then navigate the process yourself with everyone now angry with you being so cheap. I’ve seen others (the cheapest of the cheapest backpackers) do the latter, but it’s not worth it if you ask me.

  3. About 4 years ago Newark to Beijing. I contacted my hotel (the St. Regis) a few days before arriving to arrange a car to the hotel. Upon deplaning, a well dressed man met me at the gate, walked me to the front of passport control, handed the officer my paperwork and walked around to the other side of the turnstile. Once I passed through (maybe 30 seconds later) he walked with me to get my bags (which were already waiting for me, and proceeded down a back elevator to the underground driveway where my driver was waiting. The best passport / customs experience ever.

  4. And what if the immigration officers also bribe the army that is not as brave as in monty python? 😀

  5. was in fuket a month ago.
    horrible tourist trap.
    overpriced. rude locals. didnt want to bargain. awful service. theyll come around once they get hungry

  6. Headed to Phuket for the first time later this year, and it’s been interesting to read the news over the past few weeks. First the big taxi mafia crackdown and now this. Sounds like the military isn’t fooling around. I hope it sticks – hopefully they realize that cleaning up these sorts of petty hassles is good for business, especially with many tourists already wary.

  7. Not shocked at all. Not knowing this happens in Phuket. As Shawn mentioned above the service he got in Beijing I had the same service in Jakarta (where you need to get a visa on arrival). I thought someone would be waiting for me after I cleared customs but no. The person was waiting me by the airplane door holding a paper with my name on and he asked for my passport and for me to follow him. It happened exactly what Shawn described above. Best immigration service ever.

  8. Like Shawn and Santastico, I’ve had the same service in Jakarta. Makes life quite easy!

  9. Maybe the USA TSA folks could open optional speed lanes that you pay extra for instead of just raising the fee’s across the board like they are getting ready to do.

  10. Yes this is an big issues with SE Asia, and on our recent trip to Cambodia via Bus tour. We also had to do the same as above… to speed thur the line they requested us to spend $5 and we go thru custom quick and easy. Crossing the border on both side was the same. It seem to be a common deal. Entire bus just walk thru a special line while other just stare at us.

    Back then I remember we had to stick some USD inside our passport in order to go thru airport custom without any issues. Otherwise they just waste your time with question about everything and anything. Just to kill time and make other wait.

  11. Immigration is corrupt just about everywhere, because most of the time, as an alien, you really don’t have much power to do anything.

    Years ago, while I was trying to apply for citizenship for my wife, we would often go to Newark, NJ, to the US Immigration office there. Line was long just to get the forms, and we would often wait 2 hours to get inside the building, even when it’s freezing outside. Once, I was there very early, and was waiting at beginning of line. I couldn’t help but notice that many immigration lawyers would simply cut the line with their clients. They hand the guard an envelope (of money), and the guard hand them an envelope (with numbered ticket). It was obvious that the whole place was corrupt.

  12. In Cambodia, at airport immigration, the officer blatantly asks everyone “US Dollars.”. If you stick a few dollar bills inside the passport, you are processed quickly. Not sure what happens if you don’t.

    That’s why you should always carry some US dollars when you travel.

  13. “Have you ever paid a fee to expedite an immigration process?” – well I paid for Global Entry if that counts?

  14. I will be flying to New Delhi in October (Singapore Air First Class). On my last trip to Mumbai, even in First Class, immigration and baggage retrieval was a lengthy nightmare. So I am considering hiring a VIP arrival service at DEL and there are several according to a Google search. Does anyone have a recommendation?

  15. the real news is that the Junta seems to be cracking down on all sorts of corruption, including the taxi mafia in Phuket and elsewhere.


  16. When to Vietnam on business and thought I had a multiple entry visa from the first trip that was still good for the second. When going through immigration at SGN, I learned that I did not have a valid visa for my visit. Was put into some waiting area with a few others experiencing paperwork problems. It was a Sunday morning, so most business offices and government/embassies are unavailable. It took about 90 minutes of observations, but I quickly realized that there was a group of men, with no official ID or uniform, that were collecting passports and cash from individuals waiting. They would then enter the immigration office for about 15 minutes before returning with the paperwork all good to go. I eventually asked him the cost and it was the equivalent of about USD$140. Conveniently, there was a bank of ATMs located in the holding area (?). After 15 each of denial, anger, fear, frustration, sadness, and silence, I just had 15 minutes of hope before I was on my way. The kicker: Had I got my visa in the US prior to leaving, it would have costed me upwards of $200. SO this actually saved me money! Nothing like bribing the commies in the name of work. FCPA?? Huh?

  17. Like the post alludes to, the FCPA doesn’t apply to this, it is a very narrowly defined law, and for good reason. Facilitation payments are never ever illegal – paying someone to do something more quickly that they are supposed to do anyway is not illegal. If this sort of thing was made illegal US companies would be nearly unable to get anything done efficiently in most of the developing world, and it would be a huge disadvantage.

  18. Cambodia. Phnom penh airport has a problem because everything done by hand to issue visa. If u look like u have money, a customs guy will approach and offer fast service. Take it or leave it or waste an hour. At aranyapratet/ poipet cross, the only hassle is touts offering visa service for bt1200. Not have to use them at all and the khmer customs guys at the visa issue office were greatly helpful and not asked for anything. Only need to use customs at phuket if u are leaving thailand. Never had any problems in bkk and arrived over 100 times there

  19. Gary, not a bribery question but somewhat related. If I want to cut an immigration line for urgent medical reasons, how do you suggest doing it if there are no officials anywhere close to the back of the line. Only thing that occurs to me is just walk right past everyone to the very front of the line, chat with the person in front, and then mention my reasoning to the officer at the desk.

    I only did this once when I was returning to my country for my fathers funeral. Line was perhaps three hours due to bird flu, and I would have missed the funeral. Person at the top of the line said no you can not go, my father died yesterday and complained to the officer as I cut in front. Officer called the funeral home before taking care of my entry.

  20. In Denpasar we were about 60 people back in the line, had a connecting flight and each person was taking about 1minute each, they wanted 35 each, we got them down to 20 each and paid $40 and saved 1 hour which we spent in the lounge.

  21. Used VIP arrival service in DPS, Bali, 3 weeks ago. While new terminal was better staffed at VOA booth and immigration than old terminal was on trip 2 years ago, after arrival of several international flights, immigration area was backed up more than about 200 people.
    With VIP service,had VOA, passport stamped, through diplomat lane at immigration, had luggage retrieved and through customs to waiting car less than 15 minutes after deplaning. Well worth the small cost.

  22. @Andrea there will be a staff member (not just another traveler) at the front of the line, they’re the one to tell, and I agree with your approach

  23. Couple of thoughts:

    First, there’s a lot of misinformation about FCPA in the comments here. FCPA can definitely apply to bribes paid for things like border crossings; there have been enforcement cases for bribes paid to procure export permits. There is an exception for certain facilitation payments which would probably apply to the scenarios you describe, but don’t forget that FCPA is not the only anti-bribery law. The bribes likely violate other laws (such as the UK Bribery Act, which has broad extraterritorial reach and doesn’t have any exception for facilitation payments), as well as the law of the place you’re visiting.

    Which brings me to the second point. Paying the bribe, while it may be expedient in the short run, does long term harm to the place you’re visiting. It just encourages more corruption – especially when a payment in dollars might represent several days of an average income there. You’re harming the local people by encouraging an atmosphere of corruption among their local officials, and you’re also ensuring that the next visitors behind you also get shaken down.

  24. No bribes or fees, but I twice had the honor of getting my passport processed and stamped not in my presence. Had all our passports picked up on the airplane and given back to us at the hotel. Both times at ADW airport, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

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