Arriving in Cambodia: Customs, Visas, SIM cards, and Transport in Phnom Penh

phnom penh airport arrival in cambodia

Border crossings and customs interactions make me inexplicably nervous. I never have anything illegal, I’m never doing anything wrong. Yet still, there I am, shivering, palms sweaty. I don’t know why, but the only explanation I can think of is that I was a smuggler in a past life.

It helps me to know about a border layout ahead of time, to know what to expect when I’m arriving for the first time in a strange land. Visas still set me on edge, since I’m the kind of person who wants to know what i’s will be dotted and which t’s crossed in advance so I can have all the paperwork and ID photos and be fully prepared for my gold star (I mean, entry visa? Damn, 22 years of school really did a number on my personal motivation factors).

Chances are, if you’re arriving in Cambodia from overseas, you’re coming in through Phnom Penh airport (PNH). Here’s what you can expect from the border crossing experience (at least as a white American woman. Sorry, that’s all I’ve got).

Customs in Phnom Penh

I recommend using the toilet on the plane. If you don’t, and like me you arrive with a bladder that is ready to explode, well. For your sake, I hope there are short lines at the visa desk, because you have to get your paperwork sorted before you can do anything else.

Very stern-looking customs agents wave you up the the queue where you wait your turn in the humidity. Step up to the counter, hand off your passport and passport photo (if you came prepared—otherwise they charge you $2 to photocopy your actual passport photo) and then shuffle over to wait nervously at the next window in the huddle of other travelers and returning expats.

When they are finished processing everything, they wave your passport in the air so you know to come forward and pay the $30 (cash, USD) for your single-entry, month long tourist visa (seen in the photo above. Shiny). They hand you an entry and exit sheet to fill out and you’re on your merry way.

From there, you can finally, finally run to the bathroom. Fill out the entry form, and go collect your bags. Then the border official. The guy I talked to didn’t say a word to me, just gruffly glared at me for a moment and then waved me through.

From there, grab any checked bags and stroll through the lane with nothing to declare, and you’re out of there.

SIM Card

Directly outside the airport doors, a barrage of taxi drivers and tuk tuk drivers greets you. We shuffled right around and over to the phone company booths, though, hungry for data. We chose the company for our SIM cards based solely on the fact that there were other people in line as well. It’s called Smart, and we had good service consistently with throughout Siem Reap, where we spent the majority of our stay.

The whole process was slightly arduous. My phone has recently been doing this fun thing where it takes forever to find new networks. I freak out, think my phone is broken, and then proceed straight into panic attack mode. And then ten minutes later, it finds the damn signal. I think I’ve finally resolved the issue—it needed to update carrier settings or some other nonsense that I always just ignored when it would pop up on the screen.

It decided to be equally slow to connect on arrival in Cambodia, to such a degree that the phone company employees were convinced that I was insane and my phone just wasn’t unlocked for use outside of the US. I knew it was and had used it with international SIMs several times already, so I had to do some work to get them to keep trying.

After about 15 minutes, and two different SIM cards, the phone finally found the signal.

As I’ve mentioned before handing off my unlocked phone to random strangers makes me very nervous. But that’s what you have to do if you want a local SIM.

We got something like 8 gigs of data per phone for $10 each. There was a $6 plan, but they had an $8 minimum payment anyway, and we didn’t need local calling to add on to meet the minimum. So, hey. Extra data is always nice. I was working remotely while we were in Cambodia, and I didn’t trust that we would always have fast wifi (for good reason). Even with tethering for work, I don’t think I burned through all eight gigs in the ten days we were in the country.

Airport Transport to Phnom Penh

The second we stepped away from the phone company kiosks, we were accosted. Men in uniform descended from all sides, official looking badges pinned to the sleeves of crisp button down shirts. Turns out the mob was tuk tuk and taxi drivers, but I didn’t pick up on that right away. My self defense instincts kicked in, and I just said “no” and walked past them.

That turned out to be fine, since we knew we wanted to take a taxi and get out of the heat. The taxi station sits just outside the front doors to the airport, across a single pickup lane on the opposite curb. A taxi driver snatched us up and we were on our way. There’s a set standard price for taxis to the city—about $12-$14. It shouldn’t be more than this, so if you get a higher price when you ask, insist on the price you know is the right one.

I have never been so happy to sit in an air-conditioned car in my whole life. While the heat and humidity wasn’t as oppressive as I had feared—at least not at that moment—we spent about fifteen minutes sitting at the exit to the airport parking lot. The president of China was visiting Cambodia, so the road to the airport was closed for his motorcade. It was a delight to sit and stare out through the nice window, trying to spot the state cars through the crowds of people lining the road. A delight, that is, because of the cold air blasting in my face.

chinese king arriving in cambodia

It was genuinely exciting, just not enough to leave the sweet, beautiful air-con.

 

Hi! This is part two in my month of March daily blogging. Click here to see yesterday’s post, a love letter to Villa Sweet Angkor, my favorite hotel in all the land. Find tomorrow’s post filled with dubious fashion advice for the Angkor Wat visitor here. To see more on Cambodia, click here. To join the betting pool on how long it will take me to miss a day of posting this month click here! Just kidding. That’s my Instagram account, which you should absolutely follow if you enjoy travel porn.

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