Part II: Detained at the Denpasar Airport in Bali
Not allowed to enter Bali with an emergency passport
Matt and I flew from Singapore to Bali (Denpasar Airport) the afternoon of Wednesday, October 11th. Bali is one of the locations we had both been looking forward to most on our trip. We were excited about the beaches, waterfalls, temples, mountains, world-class surfing, $7 hour-long massages, friendly locals, tropical fruit, and backpacker friendly prices – we couldn’t wait to spend almost a month on this beautiful island.
When we arrived at customs in Bali, we proceeded to the foreign entry line. There was a station beforehand where you could pay for a visa upon entry, but that is only necessary if you planned to exceed a stay of 30 days. Matt and I had a flight booked out of Bali (to Malaysia) a little under 30 days so that we would qualify for the free visa upon entry.
When the immigration officer scanned my passport, he asked if it was an emergency passport and I said yes, and told him I had another passport if he wanted to see it, but he said no and walked away with it to show it to another customs desk several rows away. His English was not very good, which didn’t help the situation. Matt had already made it through customs without any issue and was waiting behind the red line after the customs desk for me.
When the officer came back, he told me I wasn’t allowed in Indonesia. I asked why and he wouldn’t answer. I asked again and he told me my passport wasn’t valid. As I tried to plead with him, he told me to follow him into a back room. Matt followed from the other side of the line, but then I was taken into a room behind the line and customs, where Matt was not allowed to enter.
No one would answer my questions as they left me in a waiting room and then I was met by a representative from Air Asia. She asked where I was from, and I told her the United States and she told me I would be put back on a flight from where I came from. Since Air Asia doesn’t have flights to the U.S. and since I came from Singapore, I would be sent back.
I tried to ask her for all other possible options to get entry into Bali (getting a visa at the airport or visiting a consulate in Bali), but she said there was nothing I could do to enter Indonesia since my passport had already been rejected by the officer. I sat in the waiting room as the officers worked on my paperwork. I asked her if Matt could join me in the room so he would know what was going on, and she told me I had to wait for the immigration officers’ approval.
I found out we would be put on the next flight back to Singapore, and when I learned it wasn’t until 7 a.m. the next morning, I was devastated (it was about 7 p.m.). Luckily (if I can even say that) the cost of my ticket back to Singapore was covered by Air Asia. I would have to buy a new ticket for Matt to return to Singapore ($106 with a checked bag at last minute fare).
When the customs officers returned with my paperwork, I showed them my original punched passport with its still valid expiration date (2020), which they grabbed to look at and were clearly confused. One officer pointed it out to another, and I couldn’t understand what they said as it wasn’t in English, but it appeared to me like they might have considered helping me out if I hadn’t already been rejected. With the exception of the first officer I met with, who was relentless, everyone else seemed sympathetic to my situation and that they wanted to try to help. Man did I get stuck with the wrong customs guy.
The customs officers at the airport told me to the go the Indonesian embassy in Singapore the following day to apply and pay for a regular tourist visa. Eventually, they let Matt back into the waiting room (he was livid).
When we informed our Airbnb host that we wouldn’t be coming that night (since she had sent someone to the airport to pick us up), she told us she had a contact at the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore and gave us his number. At that point, we still hoped we could return to Bali after I got a visa in the next day or two.
We messaged the Indonesian embassy’s contact about the scenario and asked if it was possible to get a visa in one day, but he informed us that it is no longer possible get an Indonesian visa with an emergency passport. This meant I would not be able to come back to Bali without a regular passport.
I could not believe this was happening again. The most frustrating part was that everyone always has different and conflicting information when it comes to visa entry. The immigration officers at the airport told me I could get one at the Indonesian consulate in Singapore, but a man who worked at the consulate said I couldn’t get one at all with an emergency passport, while the U.S. travel page for Indonesia has this information buried in the fine print. The airline staff who checked my passport at two separate points before boarding the plane in Singapore also must have been oblivious to this rule.
Escorted through the Denpasar Airport
I was told I would get my passport back in the morning when I boarded my flight back to Singapore. Another representative from the airline led us to their office as they looked to book Matt on my flight.
There was an Australian teenager who left his passport on the airplane and the plane had already left to another destination, so he was also stuck with us and the escorts.
We were taken through a security check that led to the main terminal with boarding gates. We had all of our baggage (Matt had collected it while I was first taken into the customs office) and our bags were heavy. My 70-liter backpack was nearly 20 kg/44 pounds, and we each carried messenger bags, plus I carried a small camera bag and Matt carried our drone bag. We wanted to put our stuff down where we were staying so we could use the bathroom and eat. Our guard was limited in English and it took us a painfully long time to communicate to him what we wanted to do.
Spending a night in Immigration Holding at the airport in Bali
We were escorted through the main terminal, the duty-free shop, and then passed by customs and security, the reverse direction that a traveler would be heading on a flight.
Adjacent to the security line was a room with a sign on the glass door that read “Immigration Holding Room.” We entered a big white room, bright with fluorescent lights. It was mostly empty, with the exception of two brown armchairs and a table lined up against the wall next to the door. A big flat screen monitor (that looked like a giant TV) was mounted on the wall above the chairs, switched off.
A small brown couch (I would say love seat but that seems inappropriate here) was on the long wall perpendicular from the chairs. There were two random desk/table things in the corner opposite of the door and above them a panel of the ceiling was missing. It made me think of movies where the missing panel might have been an escape route for spies or convicts.
After claiming the couch with our bags, we had to go back through airport security to re-enter the main terminal to eat. Since we were in no rush to return to the room, we picked a sit-down restaurant as our guard waited outside.
At dinner, we received the message back from our Airbnb host’s contact at the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore that it wasn’t possible to get an Indonesian visa in an emergency passport. It was then we knew we wouldn’t be returning to Bali anytime soon and canceled our Airbnb reservation. When I looked up on my phone online if I could get real U.S. passport in Singapore, I didn’t think it was possible (although when I reread the page a few days later, I realized I misinterpreted the page, probably due to the stress I was under). Matt said this was the worst possible thing that could happen. I reminded him it wasn’t, and that we were both healthy and alive and safe, but he wasn’t in the mood to agree.
During dinner, we lost track of our escort, but he came up after we finished our meal and asked how much longer we would be. We said 10 minutes and he said he was going for a smoke so to wait there. He took a picture of us on his phone – we didn’t know if we should look at the camera and smile or not (lol). We assumed this was to send proof to his superiors that he was doing his job and that we hadn’t escaped.
When he returned, we were escorted back to the holding room. We pulled out our laptops to try to figure out our next move (where we were going to stay in Singapore and where we would go from there). We informed our parents what was going on and they began to worry, which escalated into minor panicking on their end.
At this point in our night, we began to find the whole situation comical and couldn’t help but make jokes and laugh at our misfortune. We never felt that we were in danger (as our parents feared) – the whole event was more just extremely inconvenient, disappointing, costly, and frustrating. We sent Matt’s parents a picture of the guards sleeping on the chair and the floor in hopes to lessen their worries.
As we researched flight options, we entertained the idea of flying to Hawaii to get me a new passport. But we realized it would be just as expensive to fly there as it would be to fly home to Seattle and at least in Seattle we could stay with our families. We booked a hotel in Singapore for a few nights and decided to hold off on flights back home until we were sure we could even get back into Singapore.
At one point of looking at all the expensive prices of our options, I broke down in tears. I was upset about missing out on all the adventures we had planned for in Bali. I was upset about throwing a bunch of my hard-earned money away.
Emotions of the experience went from disbelief to anger to frustration to “let’s figure this out” to “this is just comical,” to disappointment, sorrow, and finally exhaustion. We needed to get some sleep.
We attempted to sleep on the small couch. Since Matt is 6’6″, the fit was tight. I tried to snuggle up to him so we would both fit, but the room was warm and our body heat made it even hotter. It was uncomfortable. After no luck falling asleep on my end (my mind was still racing), I was debating sleeping on the tiled floor and ended up sleeping with my head at Matt’s feet. I put my sweatshirt sleeve over my eyes to block out the lights. It was nearly 2 a.m. and I had set an alarm at 5 a.m. for our 7 a.m. flight.
At some point in the early hours of the morning, someone turned off the lights. My alarm was apparently too quiet and we slept through it. We were woken by our guards, who were frantic. We looked at our phone at it was 6:15 a.m.!! Our flight was already boarding! The officer hustled us along as we tried to pack up our things as quickly as possible.
The employees were literally running, waving us to the front of the line. We were the last to check in for our flight, and the woman at the desk was shouting at the baggage guy to take our bags. We went through security again and I was escorted past the customs line with my guard, while we had to wait for Matt to get through the customs line to stamp out of Indonesia.
We narrowly made our flight back to Singapore. I still wasn’t given my passport back, as my escort went all the way with me onto the plane and handed my passport and paperwork to a flight attendant.
Escorted through the Singapore Airport
As I got off the plane in Singapore, a flight attendant handed my passport and paperwork to a security guard, who escorted me through the airport. I had thought this escorting business would be behind me when I got to Singapore, but I was wrong.
I was worried that being escorted here might be a red flag for customs in Singapore. I also had no idea what the paperwork said. My stomach twisted in knots as I feared being denied entry again.
I went to a special customs desk as the guard handed over my paperwork. A few minutes later, an immigration officer came over to me and asked me to explain what had happened in Bali, so I gave him my spiel.
One great thing about Singapore is that English is one of the official languages that nearly everyone speaks fluently. This was helpful at customs. The officer was understanding and I told him we would be flying home to Seattle the following week to get a new passport, which it seemed he was happy to hear.
Matt was allowed to pass through customs with me too, instead of waiting in the long regular line. I had my fingerprint scanned (as is customary when entering Singapore through customs) and then my passport stamped.
I was never more grateful to hear the words “welcome back to Singapore” by the immigration officer as she let us through the customs check.
What could I have done differently?
Looking back, I wonder what could I have done differently (which is pointless, because what’s done is done and I can’t change anything, but sometimes I am plagued with these thoughts).
If I never got the emergency passport in Germany, I could have got into India and I actually think I could have successfully gotten into Bali without two blank passport pages after seeing the customs process (despite what it said about needing two blank pages for Indonesia online). In that scenario, I would have had one page left in my original passport after India, which is the reason I got the emergency passport in the first place. I don’t think they would have deported me for only having one blank page like they deported me for having an emergency passport (after all, you only need room for two stamps, which takes up half a page, not even a full page, and especially not two pages). But of course, I don’t know this for certain. And I would have run into the problem of not actually having room for any stamps shortly after.
But let’s say I did go the Indian consulate and purchase a full Indian visa, and they allowed it to be in my emergency passport, and I actually got it in a day’s time, I still would not have been able to enter Bali with my emergency passport. I would have been rejected at arrival again there, held in immigration holding and been sent back to India (or maybe Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where my layover was if Malaysia would have even accepted me in the first place). That probably would have been a worse scenario.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of our misfortunes. We picked the wrong flight home to Seattle…