Readers' Submissions

How to Get a Myanmar Passport

  • Written by Anonymous
  • November 19th, 2012
  • 18 min read



This is the story of my girlfriend, who recently acquired a Myanmar passport. I've chosen to post here on Stick's site for the benefit of anyone who may find themselves in a similar position. For some, the process may be simpler. But she, like many in Myanmar, did not even have an ID card, which is one prerequisite to a passport.

Note that I have converted all the costs herein to THB, but in Myanmar they don't generally deal in any currency other than the local kyat, and USD.

Ordinary citizens of Myanmar can get one of 2 different passports. The first, known as a "temporary passport", can be obtained in Bangkok for around THB15K, including a 2-year visa with the usual 90-day border bouncing. This passport is only valid, however, for travel between Thailand and Myanmar, and must be accompanied by a work permit (obtained after the passport itself) if the passport holder wishes to return to Thailand. The second is a "real" passport, valid for travel anywhere. It is much more difficult to obtain, and the subject of this article, which was assembled from my notes of her experiences, made as we awaited departure from Yangon.

You should understand that, at present, there is no viable way to do bank transfers across the Myanmar border. Phone service is spotty at best, insofar as international calls are concerned. One might suppose that this should improve in the coming years, if in fact the liberalization of the country is to be believed. But it hasn't happened yet. Naturally, the combination of these factors, in addition to usual third world pollution and decrepitude of the place, only adds to the tremendous roadblock which the corrupt bureaucracy already provides.

Please, if your special someone from Myanmar needs a "real" passport, then do everything possible in order to obtain an ID card in Thailand, and from that point, a Thai passport. It might cost THB100K, if the rumors are true, but the cost would not be much more than the real cost of obtaining a Myanmar passport for a Myanmar citizen. If you want to know the details of getting a Thai ID, ask around Bangkok's Myanmarese population, particularly the passport service touts. Just be careful how much you spend up front. You see, once a Myanmar national returns home, it can be very difficult for them to return back across the same Thai border, especially if they lack a Thai work permit.

But if you can't go the Thai route, then continue reading. Her case, from zero to passport, took her nearly a month and involved a byzantine tour of bureaucratic insanity. If you think that the Thai immigration process is anything less than a miracle of efficiency, then you obviously haven't been to Myanmar.

There are a number of stories on the web about people who have paid as little as THB10K in order to obtain a passport. While this may be true, it probably applies to Myanmar citizens who already have an ID card, and the other required paperwork, and live near the passport center in Yangon or Mandalay. The reality is more like THB90K. Based on her conversations with others who have tried, the process sometimes doesn't work at all, leaving the aspiring passport holder with nothing but a deep hole in their wallet. On the plus side, however, it does sound like most of these failed cases involved a refusal to pay bribes, opting instead to wait the standard 3 weeks for the passport after filing all required paperwork. So in theory, if you pay for faster service, then you will likely get the passport, and generally within a week of paperwork submission.

Apart from some cash I gave her upfront, based on my own gross underestimation of the actual requirements, she was not reimbursed for any of these expenses. Otherwise, there would be a temptation to inflate the numbers. She has paid the difference herself.

So without further ado, our adventure begins a at Thai border checkpoint with Myanmar. She paid THB500 to a Thai immigration officer in order to allow her to exit the country, despite the lack of a Thai work permit. (No, this makes no sense, because she certainly didn't need such a permit to enter Myanmar. But that's what happened.)

Next she had to pay THB270 to get to her aunt's house, which was a long motorbike ride from the border. From there, it was a THB2K car ride to her village. (Transportation in Myanmar is cheap by the kilometer, but expesive in absolute terms, on account of the large distances spent on winding roads between isolated villages, or the constant traffic jams in the cities.) This car, by the way, was a police station wagon into which, she said, was heavily overloaded with passengers. While it's not necessary to pay the police to ride in their car, it's helpful, as it can keep one out of trouble on the desolate stretches between towns. Yes of course this probably constitutes gross neglect of duty on the part of the police, but, seriously, this is Myanmar.

Once in her village, she waited several days for transport to the local police office in order to obtain an ID card. When at last she was able to procure a motorbike with a driver, she paid about THB2K in order to get there, with the understanding that her driver would escort her through the entire ID card procurement process. Upon arrival, she paid THB40 in bribes in order to permit the acceptance of a paper on which was recorded her name and her father's name. I suppose this is a way of officializing birth records in the absence of a birth certificate. She then went to another office to collect the ID card. After waiting 4 hours, she was told that she needed a "family paper", listing the names of various family members, plus a photo for the card itself. The faithful motorbike driver, who I shall call Mr. Bike, took her back to her town in order to fill out the paper and obtain photos, which in total cost THB80.

Afterward, she returned to the police office, and paid THB120 in bribes to secure their acceptance. Now, of course, there were new requirements. She was told that she needed a blood test. Fortunately, the test only cost THB40 at the local "hospital" (and more wasted hours for her and Mr. Bike). The next day, she then returned to the police office.

At this point, she was told that she needed a paper from her school, which she had attended as a child and left many years ago. So after another hour sucking pollution with Mr. Bike, she arrived at her school. She met a male teacher there, with whom she inquired about the matter. He sent her to a another government office in order to obtain the stamped school paper, explaining that he didn't know what information it was required to contain.

She then rode to the office with Mr. Bike. After arriving, she met a lady who explained that although she knew how to write the school document, she couldn't notarize it, as she didn't have the school's official stamp. For that purpose, another trip to the school would be necessary.

Upon returning to the school, she and Mr. Bike found it closed. Fortunately, the staff had only just left, so she was able to find a different teacher at a roadside cafe, who directed her to the original teacher's home. So she set off with Mr. Bike once again.

Upon arriving at the teacher's home, she explained the problem with the stamp. He understood and said that he would be happy to stamp the document, but that the government lady must write it, as he didn't know how. So, yet again, the pair returned to the government office.

Fortunately, the office was still open when they arrived. For the modest sum of THB80, the lady wrote all the required information for her. They then departed, one more time, for the teacher's home.

But this time, they arrived to learn that he kept the stamp at the school. So the group headed back there, whereupon, she finally obtained her stamped school document. She happily paid THB120 for his assistance.

Afterwards, Mr. Bike ferried her an hour back to the police office, which was closed by the time they arrived. So they opted to try again the next morning.

They did so. She then presented the stamped school paper. However, the policeman in charge of her case said that the paper was wrong. Fortunately, he accepted it anyway. For the next several hours, he alternated between writing a few words on paper as required for her ID card, eating lunch, talking to colleauges, and relaxing in another office. Finally, he explained that she needed another paper, which could only be processed by another policeman who was currently out to lunch.

Hours later, just before closing time, the officer returned. He looked at the stamped school paper, and said that it was unnecessary, presumably because she had left school so many years ago. He then stamped the pile of papers relating to her case. The first policeman then proceeded to produce an ID card on the spot. (This is not the sort of tamperproof ID card which one might find in other countries. It was more like a glorified name tag that might be worn by a kindergartener on the first day of school.) After half an hour, he finished, and handed her the card.

Granted, such diligence on the part of the first policeman deserved a reward, and he knew it. After all, he had spent at least 10 minutes of the day actually working. For this, he insisted that she pay THB7700. Angrily, but resigned to the utter injustice of the entire system, she did so.

Now, mind you, this "ID card" is rather like a business card with a photo, so it needed to be laminated, for which she paid THB15 before returning home with Mr. Bike.

However, they had told her that more documents were required. She needed a paper which was to be taken to the passport office in Yangon. As far as I can ascertain, it was a permission slip, giving the bearer the right to a passport. What kind of idiotic system requires its citizens to get permission from their local mafia — I mean, police station — in order to obtain a passport? The Myanmar system! She had been told to return to the police station 3 days hence, in order to obtain this paper.

Which she did. Upon returning to the station, however, she met another policeman, who informed her that she needed yet another family listing paper. He then sent her back to the first and most lazy policeman in order to get it done. After about 4 hours, involving mostly lunch and socializing, he produced the document. Another policeman then stamped it, whereupon the first policeman dropped into a tray on his desk. She promptly grabbed it before he could ask for money.

Nonetheless, he proceeded to explain how he needed some money in order to help cover some personal expenses. Mr. Bike, wary of the situation and very urgent to depart, offered a token sum, which was then promptly refused. The first policeman insisted on THB800. She said that she had not expected to pay more than the THB7700 that she had paid already, so had not brought any money, and would pay him later (later, as in, after he finds himself rotting in hell), and the pair rapidly departed. They were lucky that the police were, as a group, so utterly lazy that they elected not to pursue. A scene from the Vog bureaucracy in "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" comes to mind.

She knew they then needed to go to a second police station in order to desposit these papers. After a quick THB60 for copies at nearby shop, they headed for the second station.

An official rejected the copies, stating that 4 were required. They returned to the copy shop, but, upon finding it closed, searched for another. THB160 and half an hour later, they returned to the second station.

Upon presenting the extra copies, she was ushered into a room. An official explained to her that they actually just wanted to help her, and didn't want to ask for a bribe. He asked her what she did for a living, that would have afforded her enough money to pay the bribes that they knew had been required in order to get this far. He further inquired where she wanted to travel. Likely as not, he was trying to catch her offguard, looking for answers that would reveal her to be wealthy enough to justify another large bribe. She was smart enough to disappoint him with her modest employment and desire to travel only to Thailand, initially, but perhaps elsewhere if she saved enough money later. The official then stamped her documents, and repeated that he was not looking for a bribe, however, it was standard operating procedure for the local office to collect THB4K in paperwork fees. I find this hard to believe, considering that the official price of a passport is USD22 (yes, twenty-two dollars). Nevertheless, he gave her the option not to pay. Fortunately, she was smart enough not to risk the consequences of not paying, and handed him the cash. Unfortunately, she fell for his specious earnesty, and gave him double that, as appreciation for his rapid service. Oops!

Mr. Bike then returned her to her village home, and she paid him THB1200 as a tip for his service, which was probably justified, after all the trouble. Now it was time to go to Yangon to visit the notorious passport office.

The bus ticket was only THB220 (more, in her case, as she was to be accompanied by a small entourage), but she needed to hire a car to drive to the bus station. This is a nontrivial task in rural Myanmar, and took about 10 days of searching, negotiating, and waiting. Finally, she got a ride out, and many hours and pollution clouds later, arrived in Yangon.

At this point, she was travelling with a friend from her village who had offerred to guide her to decent lodging and food during the arduous process that lay before them. For this service, my girlfriend had paid THB16K, all upfront. Bad idea. She also brought with her a couple of relatives for safety's sake. Good idea.

When they arrived in Yangon, they had to spend THB600 to ride from the bus station to a house where they wanted to stay. Not because taxis are so expensive in that city, but because this "friend" apparently knew nothing about the place, and had simply lied in order to be paid as a tour guide. My girlfriend was kind enough to pay for her food and lodging for several days, nonetheless, until she could be sent back home. (Despite the scam, this is still a realistic expense for anyone seeking to obtain a passport there, as some help navigating the city and the bureaucracy will likely be required.)

In order to save on expenses, the group stayed in a local home. (Apparently, it's commonplace for the locals to rent out their homes to visitors, as the hotels are often too expensive for the middle class to afford.) For this, she paid the pittance of THB1120 for an entire week. Granted, the facilities were not exactly opulent, but she survived.

After a week, and after the "tour guide" had left, she and her relatives moved to a local wat (temple), for which they paid THB1600 for the night. This was immensely expensive, but entirely voluntary. She is quite generous despite her very modest means, and is proud of it. Realistically, a night in Yangon in a decent hotel could be had for such a price.

By the way, as to food, we estimate that it cost about THB3200 for her group for 8 days in Yangon. In her village, her family had provided food, but others may need to allocate a larger food budget. As to taxis in Yangon, the total was about THB3K.

Finally, she set off for the passport office, paying THB200 upon submission of the first paper demanded, then THB800 upon the second, and THB80 for the third, then finally THB40 to convince one policeman to hand a paper to another policeman. I have no way to explain the wide discrepency in required "fees".

Once this process was done, she was told that she could either pay THB24K (yes, twenty-four thousand baht, equivalent in kyat or USD) or else wait 21 days (and quite possibly never receive a passport). Wisely, she paid, and was told that the passport would be ready in 4 business days.

She was then given another paper (oh, joy!) and told to take it to another office. After a taxi ride at THB80, she arrived at the new office and met with another official. This official again asked where she wanted to go (i.e. how rich are you based on your social connections?), to which she once again replied "Thailand", then maybe elsewhere if she saved money. She was then left to wait for an hour, after which she was ushered into a room. They wrote her name on a piece of paper, and sent her to a third room. She had to pay THB20 to make another photocopy. Finally, she was told to return in 4 business days in order to collect the passport.

Amazingly, right on schedule, she was able to collect it. But her adventure was not yet over. She had to get a visa back into Thailand. I can't go into detail about this, for sake of protecting her identity. Suffice to say, it ultimately cost her about THB5600, well above the theoretical price of THB2K.

Now, however, she was nearly out of cash in a city with no ATMs. She called to tell me not to worry, however, as she could find cheap loging and purchase a plane ticket back to Bangkok for cash, while awaiting the Thai visa processing. The plan was to drop her relatives at the bus station, then proceed to the airport for departure.

As much as I appreciated her efforts to save me money and a trip to Yangon, I knew better. After all, this was a government that had only several years ago murdered untold numbers of its people. So I reserved a few nights in a hotel, and purchased plane tickets for us, all on the Internet, so I could minimize my cash carriage requirements. I also secured a Myanmar visa ahead of time, as their visa-on-arrival system is widely reported to be dysfunctional. For all of this, in addition to all the food we ate in Yangon, and taxis we took, the cost was about THB25K.

That leaves only one other important matter for your understanding: the so-called "D form" ("departure form"?). They may never tell you that citizens (not tourists) need one of these things in order to leave the country. Yes, I cringe at the thought of a Stanlinist government knowing the names of the family members of my girlfriend, and exactly when and how she left the country, but nothing is to be done about it. If she didn't have one of these (or it if were not filled out properly), which can apparently be downloaded and printed at a local Internet shop, then she might well not have been allowed to leave the country at all. Speaking of which, plan on arriving at least 3 hours before the flight in order to deal with the glacial pace of airport immigration. And don't dare allow your loved one to enter the airport without cash enough for a week hidden somewhere in their clothes (ideally, sewed in), as they might be turned back to remain in the city until the D form is properly executed. Keep USD100 in small bills in a wallet or purse, for bribes, above and beyond what is embedded into the clothes. Bribes are not always necessary, but it pays to be prepared.

In conclusion, this bureaucracy doesn't need to be "liberalized" or "improved". It needs to be fired, if not arrested in large part, and the laws rewritten wholesale. But change happens slowly. Having experienced the utter quagmire of Myanmar government services through her travails and my firsthand experience there, I am decidedly less optimistic than the hoard of investors currently flocking the place. This isn't China: it's not an authoritarian government which is at least smart enough to organize itself. It's an ideological basketcase at the geographic nexus of Thailand and India, barely easing itself out from under a fascist dictatorship. I have posted this article in the hopes that I can help even a single person to avoid the misery which that government has put us through, which is trivial compared to the daily life of most of its citizens. I can only hope, furthermore, that democracy will come swiftly, as opposed to the human rights window dressing of late.



Stickman's thoughts:

That really is an incredibly painful process to have to go through and paints an even worse picture of the bureaucracy in Myanmar than I had imagined. Imagine actually living in a regime like that. It really does make you thankful to have been born in a developed country!