Metro Manila · Lost in the Bureau of Immigration

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'In order to save some money and because I was curious getting to know the notorious Philippine Bureau(crazy) of Immigration, I dared to take care of the paperworks myself instead of just hiring a travel and visa agency', Jo, Megacitizen

After resigning from my old job, I had to downgrade my working visa to tourist visa and already get a two month extension for that new visa. In order to save some money and also because I was curious to get to know the notorious Philippine Bureau(crazy) of Immigration, I dared to take care of the paperworks myself instead of just hiring a travel and visa agency. But as you will see, spending a few thousand Pesos for an agency would spare a lot of time and nerves.

I had to go to one of the extension offices of the Bureau of Immigration (BOI), located on the ground floor of an office building at Roxas Boulevard. The office's small entrance and waiting area of not much more than 30 square meters is cramped with four narrow rows of old plastic seats. People come and go all the time, but the only ones who seem to know what they have to do are the accredited agents who take care of clients' applications. In one corner a TV screen shows the highlights of day-time television. A paper on the wall says: "We are not checking out on you, we just want to know you better."

Behind the entrance area is a similarly cramped office space for about a dozen people who take care of visa applications and other immigration matters. Over time, I had to discuss with at least half a dozen different officials that would ask me questions, fill out forms or give me a stamp, and then send me to the next colleague or back to the waiting area ("For a while, sir"). Applicants have to constantly navigate through a tiny labyrinth of chairs and low desks standing extremely close together, loaded with huge piles of files. None of the workstations indicates in any way who is working where on what.

On my first day at the BOI extension office, I only spoke to the guard, a nice and calm guy who seems to serve as a factotum for the understaffed office. Unfortunately, he had to look for my file first. This was the first of many times when I would be asked to “come back tomorrow, please". On my second day at the BOI, the office was cramped and many people had to stand around or lean against the wall. After an hour of waiting, I was given a document regarding my working visa, which i would have to copy. Although the visa downgrading alone costs up to 5.000 Pesos in fees, the office for some reason could not afford a copier. Instead, they routinely send applicants around the block to the next copy shop, no matter if the sun burns or if it rains cats and dogs. Once when I had to copy some paper, I asked the young woman if there was anything else to xerox. She answered with a smile: "Yes, your passport, but I can only hand that out after you've copied this document."

When I came back from copying on the second day at the BOI, most of the staff was already out for lunch (nobody bothered to indicate office hours anywhere on the door or on the website), so I had no choice but to come back after 90 minutes. Commuting from my home took about 20 minutes, if I avoided rush hour. I did not expect that everything would run smooth, but neither did I expect that I would have to make all in all six trips to the BOI for a routine matter.

Some tips to speed up the process: After handing in an application, always try to keep eye contact with the staff, to show them you are still around, and ask every once in a while how it is going. When you are asked to come back in a couple of days, e.g. because things have to be approved by another department, call every now and then to follow up on how things are proceeding.

The whole process of downgrading, visa extension and preparing my I-Card took about three weeks, which is not too bad. But added up, I spent more than seven hours at the BOI extension office, waiting for documents to be checked and applications to be proceeded, plus more than 40 minutes of commuting each time. For me it was annoying but not a big problem, as I lived relatively nearby and worked only part-time. However, I started wondering what people with a regular job and only a handful of annual vacation leaves do, if for some reason they cannot assign an agency. Do they spend all their holidays at the BOI?

+++ Update May 2014 +++

A of May 2014, the PEZA Extension Office of the Bureau of Immigration, which is featured in this story, does not process visa extensions anymore. The main office in Intramuros is better structured and less confusing for newcomers, as you can read in this article