Queueing away again in Margaritaville

When you live in the Philippines, one thing that takes a bit of getting used to, at least for me, is the amount of queueing that you do here. Whether it is at the bank, the mall, the grocery store, Immigration, the airport… Virtually everything you do will have a lengthy queue or line of some sort associated with that activity.

Queueing theory is a discipline related to statistics. Yes, you can actually get a degree in studying lines, queues, how they form, how they move, how they behave, and their impact on productivity. Really fascinating science. A bit of math, a bit of psychology, a bit of statistics, and a bit of management, all rolled into a single discipline.

Recently, I believe the Philippine Government has hired some people who specialize in queueing. Why? I’ve noticed new queues at government offices. DFA, new procedures. BI, new procedures. The Airport, new procedures. SSS, new procedures. All, however, follow the same new pattern, and they seem to be more efficient, at least at first glance.


I think that, especially for my fellow Americans, this can be a difficult adjustment to make. Not so much the idea of waiting your turn: We are generally, as a people, raised to respect other people’s rights and “space”. Moreso with respect to the fact that most Americans have come to associate good service with speedy service… and long, seemingly interminable queues fly directly in the face of those expectations.

I was thinking about this just today. Due to some bank holidays here and abroad, my salary transfer was delayed. I needed to get cash and deposit it into one of our bank accounts for rent. So, I head to the bank. Go inside and the guard gives me a number… No big deal, I think, as I glance at the number. Only eight or so to go. Wanna take a guess how long it took to go through those eight numbers? About an hour.

Now, I generally don’t get bothered by queues here. You adapt and start to expect a queue pretty much everywhere. I’m laid back in that regard. I wait my turn.

Why I was writing this article, I was thinking about how things were 25 years ago. I was paid twice a month, by check. I took the check to my bank, in person, after getting off work, and they deposited the check. Wait a few days, and the money was in my account.

I have not been paid by check ever since. Direct deposit or ACH in the States, wire transfer once I moved abroad. I’ve had online banking, through multiple banks, for ten years (Really fifteen… I vividly remember when Citibank debuted online banking with AOL, sometime around 1994). I haven’t written a paper check in at least that long. It really seemed anachronistic… Something I haven’t experienced in a while.

Here in the Philippines, though I have online accounts, many, many people here do not. People still go to the bank, in person, to deposit their salary. Or to access their account. Hence, on the few occasions when I need to visit a bank, there is always a queue, sometimes quite long. I really don’t mind, though. Is it frustrating? Yes. However, I wait my turn.  Everyone else there has things to do, places to be. The revelation is that many, many services in the Philippines, whether banking or otherwise, seem to be in a time tunnel, 25 years back. It’s just how it’s done.

So, recently, I’ve had some airline issues. Air travel regulation in the Philippines dates back 25 years or so. There are rules, for instance, as to where you can buy your tickets, how much you pay, and how you are taxed. For foreigners just visiting here, most of this is transparent, and you will never notice. When you live here, this can be an issue. What happened? Well, I purchased a ticket on Cathay Pacific’s web site. About an hour after buying the ticket, I needed to make a change. Cathay in Hong Kong couldn’t help… I live in the Philippines. So, the office here was going to re-issue the ticket. What did they want? A FAX of my passport (I haven’t had to FAX anything in years… They have gone the way of the dodo). Why? TIEZA tax. Huh?

I bought the original ticket, no problem, entering credit card and passport number. Pay the tax at the airport, just like it says on the E-ticket. Easy. However, make a change, and it’s like pulling teeth. Ahhh… The ticket will be re-issued in the Philippines. I have a FAX that has never been used… I don’t even know if it works. I’m not sure if I even remember how to use a FAX. Can I scan it and email? No. Visit the ticket office in Makati (big queues and at least an hour out there) or FAX. So, I say “Screw it… I’ll just buy another ticket. Issue a refund.”

“That will take six weeks Sir.”

My response: “Well, you took the money immediately an hour ago, didn’t you?”

“It’s procedure, sir”

I must admit, I started to blow my top at this point. I calmed down. I’ll deal with it in Hong Kong later. A lot less hassle. Really, an airline is electronic nowadays. Funds transfer is electronic, and immediate. However, procedures are stuck in the 1970’s time warp. Should have followed my instinct and just lied and called Hong Kong.

Paying your bills here? I’m able to pay “most” bills online. However, there are a couple of outliers. See, some companies have arrangements with specific banks or payment centers. Paper bills come monthly, but, sometimes the bills are late. Why? Philpost and the courier services deliver to the guard in our compound, and he distributes them. Normally, this is OK, but once in a while….

One gets lost.

So, that means that if we want to pay our bills all at once, we head to Bayad Center (Always a queue). Bayad Center is like the Western Union offices in California or the “Currency Exchanges” in Chicago… Banking for those without checking or bank accounts. You pay a small fee to pay your bills there. With us, the most urgent bill is MERALCO. Later than three days past due date, your electric is cut off. So, we use that as our index. MERALCO due, start gathering the bills together. First stop, ATM to get cash. Next stop, Bayad. In a way, it can be convenient. For me, it’s a toss up… Wait in a queue and pay all at once, or pay most online and wait in a queue anyway to pay a couple. I normally choose the former. I have noticed, though, that most of the time, Bayad Center’s queues are short in the early morning. So, you bring your bills, the cashier adds them all up, and enters each payment into the computer. Bill is stuck in an old dot matrix printer, that prints a payment confirmation on the bill. You keep this. NEVER throw away. Why? If, for some reason, a payment doesn’t reach the company, you have proof of payment. This happened to us once with water and once with PLDT.

So, how long does bill paying take? Can be as much as an hour, depending on queue and how fast Bayad’s computers are at that location.

Grocery stores (or department stores). Same queues. Why does it take so many people to check you out? Procedure. Shoplifting. Internal theft. Employees with zero empowerment. All are reasons.

About six weeks ago, I went to buy some office supplies. My paper shredder died, and I needed a new one, along with around ten other items. Total bill was around P2,500… No big deal. No queue at the register. 35 minutes to check out. Why? A second clerk was manually writing the serial numbers for each item on individual chits. I was incredulous. I’ve seen serial numbers recorded in the Philippines before, and in the US, on high value items. But on a P40 box of paper clips? No griping on my part. Never offered a single complaint. However, I’ve never seen this type of thing taken to such lengths, especially with a bar code reader on the register and on such low-value items. I truly was a little dumbstruck.

In any event, keep your cool… Getting aggravated doesn’t make the queue move faster. It doesn’t eliminate asinine or obsolete procedures. Deep breaths, and a prayer to St Michael for his refreshing pilsen medication.

Post Author: JohnM (207 Posts)

John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.

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  1. BillB says

    John, I have to agree with you on everything in that article. Queueing here is something that takes someone from a the US or the UK awhile to adjust to. I know that I have learned to go early morning as that is when the lines are the fastest. I will go with the wife to shop for the food and such, but not on a Friday or Saturday after 4 PM or on Sunday after 12 PM. I have been in line at SM supermarket for over 2 hours before. I was about ready to just walk out and leave the cart there, but I had waited about 1 1/2 hour by that time, so I stayed and it only took about about 30 mins.

    Lines Queueing and waiting, waiting, waiting, something that you have to adjust and get use to if your going to live here in the Philippines.

    • John Miele says

      Bill: I re-read this, and though it may sound like a rant, I’ve gotten used to the queues here and it usually doesn’t bother me. Like you, I’ve found that early morning is best at the supermarket, etc. Worst time? SM on Sunday evening.

  2. Don says

    I agree on the timing. Do most shopping in the morning before the crowds arrive. For my bill payments, our Meralco and water/gas are paid by the condo and rebilled, so all we do is drop off the check at the drop box. Globe and cable are via online visa. Saves a lot of hassle. The only thing I have to queue up for is my Metro Bank dollar mastercard. The biggest problem I see is that the customers like to chat with the tellers….

    • John Miele says

      Don: That’s a good arrangement with the condo. The bills I need to visit Bayad for (or the bank) are insurance (No online for them) and water (usually late for some reason).

  3. petejoy says

    YES mate it is very hard to put up with that waiting ok and it is more harder to put up with if u are in sm and in a bad need to run to the bloody loo after eating some thing that did not sit right in ur tummy the night be for and off u run to get there as soon as u can just to find there is about 30 men wait in line with the same think in mind as u so what do u do well mate there is very little u can do about that part from try and wait it out and hope that u dont walk out with a brown mark where every one can see it……..lol peter martin tassie

    • JohnM says

      Peterjoy… Funny you should mention that. The other night in Landmark, I was getting sort of “mission critical” by the time I got to the front of the queue.

  4. jonnijon says

    Yesterday in the mall, we bought some microwave popcorn from the imported goods shelf. When we get to the checkout the barcode on our popcorn cant be read, so lots of head scratching, they decide to open the box to examine the packets inside but they have no bar code on them, so they send the packer to get a single pack from the shelf that does have a barcode . but the single packs are more expensive than the box,but by this time I could not be bothered to complain. I mean after only 25 mins at the checkout how can you lol.

    • JohnM says

      Jon: Right… Sometimes, it’s best just to let it go. I remember right before I moved from the States the supermarkets there had started the self-checkout. It never failed that whenever I tried to use those, something wouldn’t scan and it ended up taking more time than simply waiting in the queue.

  5. Phil R. says

    Life is more fun in the Philippines….I have just one bill to pay Electric and they built a new office so now it takes me 5 min. to pay the electric bill, before it was a 2 hour wait . .. Now thats nice…

  6. George says

    I guess the Phils and US have different levels of efficiency. No Problem. But what if you’re standing in a queue at hypermarket and u suddenly need to take a dump? Happened to me once and i had no choice but to DUMP my groceries (pardon the pun) and just walk out

  7. RandyL says

    I don’t see what the major problem is with a little waiting….I mean, aren’t most of you expats supposed to be retired. I surely wouldn’t be complaining much about doing nothing. Those folks in military boot camp always complain also. Hurry up and wait they say. I say get over it. Waiting is supposed to be More Fun in the Philippines!

      • RandyL says

        Yea I know, but almost everyone else complains about having to wait in lines. For those who remain gainfully employed (like John), Queuing up will simply refine and test your time management skills (and your patience). And that could be a good thing. 😉

  8. adam scott says

    Queuing is definitely something worth studying in the Philippines if you have a business or are working. We bank on a daily basis and there are certain days and times you should avoid if possible. Banks will only clear cheques that day from 9 till 11 so it is worth avoiding during these hours.
    Have also learnt over the years to check bar codes and prices are on the goods you plan to buy in the supermarket.

    • JohnM says

      Adam: It really is a fascinating science… As to bar codes, that was a habit I came up with long ago (I generally keep a running total in my head). Usually, though, I only notice it if something is supposed to be deeply discounted or I only have a few items… A couple of pesos would most likely go un-noticed by me.

  9. amapangarap says

    did you know that airlines still uses telex?

    i can understand though your frustration about them requiring you to fax a copy of your passport. most of the time airline agents are just following whatever is on their handbook, regardless if that handbook was written over 30 years ago.

    btw, my wife works for qantas and i with one of the biggest travel agencies here in the phils. lol

    • John Miele says

      Amapangarap: Doesn’t surprise me… For the record, I found out the Philippines Cathay office never cancelled the fligt only when I got the online checking notification. A 5 minute call to Hong Kong got the flight cancelled and the money refunded to my account in three days… Go figure.

      Should have followed my instinct.

  10. says

    Live in the province, not in the big cities and the lines are shorter. In Marinduque, I used to form in line with my banking needs. But after I opened a dollar account, I go straight to the office of the VP and do my transactions pronto. No waiting and I get to chat with the VP of the bank( a typical Filipina beauty). Cheers and Good day to All!

    • John Miele says

      David: Normally so, but I’ve encountered some huge queues at the supermarkets in Tuguegarao, Gensan, and other locations too…

  11. sugar says

    John, worst queue (or queuing) MRT – they go all the way the streets of EDSA, stinky peeps in hot condition. Ugh.

    As to paying bills, I prefer bayad centers at least way faster queue…

  12. says

    Haha 35 minutes to check out. Sounds like Sears and many US department stores, and a reason I avoid those places. How many numbers does it take to enter to check out each item.AND they have bar code scanners. It boggles the mind. Anyway they must have taken thier operations management courses from Sears/Kmart..ahahah..certainly not Walmart or Amazon.

  13. ScottF says

    John, You may have just convinced me to move to Arizona instead of the Philippines!!

    I’m a pretty impatient man, so I think I had better do a lot of self internal preparation before I head to the bank. When we visitied, we wiated only in short lines for the grocery store, and no line at the mall for a dress shop, or any other place we stopped and bought something. Maybe it’s different in the Provinces. I pray, because it could cause me to move back. :)

    • says

      If you don’t have patience, Scott, when you move, you will either become patient, or you won’t last in the Philippines. I know, because I had little patience when I moved here. I almost went crazy, but I worked through it.

    • John Miele says

      Scott: Agree with Bob… You will need to develop patience here, starting around the time when living here stops feeling like vacation (about two weeks)

  14. AlexB says


    You might say queuing that the Philippines has progressed. It wasn’t too long ago that queuing was unheard of. Also, even medium size employers are too chintzy to even write cheques, they pay them wads of cash and sencillo, so getting them to do bank transfers is unimaginable.

    As for the local airlines re refunds and changes to tickets, well, have heard a few horror stories from tourists. For the price, might as well, buy a new ticket. The good news though, the gov’t has approved airlines bundling all the taxes and terminal fees in the domestic ticket. Soon on all international tickets. One less queuing at the airport. Has it happened yet?


  15. rovineye says

    When we arrive to our province we seem to always stop at the mall and really load up for the months we are staying. 3 or 4 shopping carts of food and about the same of household goods. Yeah the checkout procedure takes forever! But you gotta admit, the packing job they do of all your goods is the best in the world! I am continually amazed.

  16. Local says

    I’ve been here all my life and I’m surprised at how calm you are despite having experienced much efficient service. I always get more than a little impatient waiting!

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