Expat Magazine

In Which I Narrowly Escape Being Thrown into a Turkish Prison

By Ellen @ElleninTurkey
I'm in Ataturk Airport on my way to meet my parents in Rome for a few days. They live in California, and I only make the trip to the States once a year. So their cruise leaving from Rome was a great opportunity to see each other. Rome isn't really very far from Antalya, but of course I have to go through Istanbul, so it takes a whole day. But I almost didnt make it at all. Heres why:
I'm at Ataturk airport, having just stood on line for an hour to check in, even though I was in transit. Why can't Turkish Airlines check me all the way through?
After waiting on line again, this time for passport control, it's finally my turn.
"Merhaba. Kolay gelsin." I say politely as I hand over my passport.
"Residence permit" says the passport control officer.
Uh oh, I thought. I'd neglected to renew my permit because I knew I was leaving the country before the 3 month visa limit. I figured I'd get to it in November.
"I need your Residency Permit" he repeats, switching to English, thinking my stammering was language-related.
" I don't have one. I arrived in September, less than two months ago. I'm allowed to stay three months, right?"
"Yes, with a visa."
Aha, now I see the problem. When I left in July I'd had my permit, which I needed because I'd been in Turkey almost a year. But when I returned, my permit had expired. I was just entering Turkey as a plain old tourist, and should have been sent to the line to pay my $20 and get my visa.
But I keep my residence permit in a cute case together with my passport. Apparently the officer who checked me in misread my visa from the year before and just stamped it without having me buy a new visa. Having my residence permit next to my passport probably gave the impression that I knew what I was doing.
Yes, I should have known I needed a visa, but I'd just arrived from NY on a 12 hour flight that was three hours late and I'd missed my connection to Antalya. I was thinking about how I was going to get home, not what stamps my passport would need in order for me to be able to leave.
I explain this to the officer, but he just repeats "You need a visa".
"Let me buy a visa," I plead, "It's not my fault I was let in without one". Kind of true, actually.
But Memur Bey was not convinced. "Please wait over there" he says as he picks up the phone.
Allah Allah, I thought, here we go. Please god, let his superior be capable of independant thought. I was dreading the "by the book" type: No visa, no exit. I'd heard of people detained because of expired visas.
I had visions of a night in jail, with my parents paniking when I fail to show up in Rome. I wonder if you even get a phone call when you're arrested in Turkey?
So, the next officer shows up and I go through the explanation again. He takes my passport and disappears. I'm holding my breath.
When he returns, he hands my passport to the guy at the counter. I run up to the counter and see the officer stamp my passport. I exhale.
"Next time, get a visa" he advises as he hands me my passport.
No kidding.

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