What to Know About Applying for Visas: Become a Bureaucratic Ninja

This morning I arose after a night tossing and turning, with visions of paperwork and stamps in my head. I turned on NPR and jumped in the shower, carrying my pre-laid-out professional-but-not-flashy in person application outfit. I grabbed my Go Folder and headed out the door into a mini-snowstorm. Fifty minutes of intense winter driving later, I was at the Colorado Passport Agency.

Today, I renewed my trusty passport in preparation for moving to Shanghai, China. My international life had taken up too many pages. The passport that ushered me across the borders of 25 countries was suddenly no more, with two precise holes punched through it.

This is normal for me. I have applied for more than five full-pager visas. This is what they can look like.

Full-page sticker for my E-2 visa in the ROK
Full-page sticker for my E-2 visa in the ROK. Chile’s is above. 

I don’t know which process was more intense, the E-2 work visa for Korea or the Tier 4 student visa for the UK. Both were months long, involved huge amounts of paperwork, and required various biological data (biometrics for the UK, a full-blown health exam and fingerprinting for Korea). Italy’s Schengen study visa was the first I ever applied for. India required a full application even as a tourist. Chile’s took me far longer than my programme said it would because I lived in a tiny town in Patagonia. In seven years, five major visa applications. And I’m in the middle of my sixth.

You could say I’m familiar with immigration and visas.

I know from experience that this amount of involvement can feel less like red tape and more like a bureaucratic Ninja Warrior course. It’s not something that many people mention when talking about study and work abroad, perhaps because it would re-traumatise those who make it through. Being able to get a visa is the step that can make or break a trip abroad.

My best advice for getting yourself into Paperwork Warrior shape is here:

Before you do anything else, make certain that your passport is in hand. It must be valid for at least six months after you intend to leave your destination in most cases. You also need to consider how many pages you have available. Some countries (ahem, Korea and China) may discourage the use of ‘additional visa pages’ and require the originals. Renew as necessary.

 

Get a folder. Label it on the front in black, permanent, HUGE letters with words to reflect the seriousness of the process. Something to the effect of “VISA DOCUMENTS. Do not move, touch, re-arrange, or put away this folder or I will chuck my passport repeatedly at your thick head!” (don’t actually write that….). This will be your Folder of Doom.

Organize thyself!
Organize thyself!

Take this Folder of Doom and make sure it has a home. Always put it back in that home. It gets homesick if it’s out for even a few minutes, if it’s not doing the work for which it was born. Be consistent. Losing this shit will make you lose out on your trip.

Depending on the country to which you are applying, and the nature of the visa you require, the list of documents that must go into the Folder of Doom will change. For example, a student visa will generally require a letter of enrolment (official), proof of funding and means, and more. A work visa is generally more intensive, requiring criminal background checks, degrees that have been officially recognised, letters of reference, you firstborn, etc.

An FBI Background Check for a visa (required for work and some student visas) should be your first priority to submit. It requires:

  1. A set of fingerprints taken at your local police station.
  2. A completed form and payment (you can pay with a credit card).
  3. 14-16 WEEKS for processing (an international embarrassment; the UK takes two days). According to the FBI’s website as of 4 February 2015:

On September 7, 2014, CJIS installed a new IT system. As a result of this installation, we are experiencing delays in processing. Please be assured that each issue is being identified and resolved as quickly as possible, but at this time anticipated processing time for an Identity History Summary is approximately 14-16 weeks. Allow additional time for mail delivery. “

As soon as you possibly can, submit this. Even before you have a job secured in Korea or a place on your year-long study abroad program in Spain or Chile. Before applying for a passport, if you need one.

Get familiar with your local notary.

Get familiar with the term ‘apostille.’ This is a special recognition of the authenticity and importance and general expensiveness of an official document like a university degree or a criminal record check. It can be quite stressful to obtain, and takes time. Check your state’s Secretary of State website for more details, and consider going with a channeler.

Get familiar with being fingerprinted. It takes practice, believe it or not.

Always show up early for appointments at the embassy or any other official office. Leave time for getting lost/a giant random snowstorm. Bring only what is necessary for that appointment, and leave the Folder of Doom in its home.

Be stubborn, but practical. If necessary, ask to speak to a manager. I once sat down on the floor of the Chilean equivalent of the DMV and refused to leave until they gave me my passport back. It had been two weeks that I’d been walking around passportless, and I couldn’t go on a trip to Argentina without it. I gauged the situation carefully, and I don’t recommend this except as a last resort. The woman eventually opened an unlocked filing cabinet (!) and attempted to hand me a Russian passport. I walked out with the passport and that damn sticker, ready to complete the next step of any work permit: the residency card.

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures
Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures.

Keep all your receipts. ALLLL you receipts. You never know when you may need them. Put them in the Folder of Doom.

If your visa requires a health check, either before or after arrival, assume that you will be drug tested. Don’t take any risks. I live in Colorado now, and there are temptations. Just don’t do it. The laws regarding drug use of the country you are going to is all that anyone will care about. Get healthy and get used to giving up illegal activities. It’s just not worth the consequences.

Find something to do in offices and at home that will keep your hands busy while you wait. Crochet is a great one, I’ve found.

And finally, once you do send away the documents and your passport make certain that you get a tracking number. Put that tracking number into your Folder of Doom. Depending on the embassy and national holidays, you should get the package back in a few days to a few weeks. Make sure you have your ‘No Idle Hands’ activities ready.

 

Gathering all your documents and getting them to the embassy or consulate on time is enough to give me an ulcer. It comes and goes. It’s cool. Visas and immigration are a big part of my life, and it doesn’t look like they will be leaving it any time soon. When my husband and I go through the partner visa process in one of our countries, or emigrate to a third party country that will accept us both, I’ll post a guide.

If you have any questions, I will do my best to help you out. Contact me here:

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