embassies, consulates, and visas oh my!

Alright, let’s do this.  I’ve been putting it off, because I just don’t want to think about it. But really it isn’t that bad. Let’s talk about VISAS.  Sometimes they are a necessary evil, granting you entry into those special places that the hope of visiting is worth the effort involved in requesting entrance.

Really it isn’t that bad.  Have I said that already?  Let’s start with the positives:

1. Entry into a cool place.

2. Fun new addition to your passport stamp collection.

3. TBD

The most important thing to do to make your visa acquisition a smooth and happy process is to PLAN AHEAD.  As soon as you have decided to take a trip to a foreign country, check to see if you’ll need a visa to go there.  To check, go to that nation’s embassy or consulate webpage (for your own country).  That sounds confusing. Rewind.

In a foreign nation, a country can establish consulates and embassies.  Embassies are big deals, they are the official representation of one country in another.  Ambassadors can hang out there.  They (embassies and ambassadors) do big, important things.  Consulates are a little smaller or more numerous and found in many major cities.  They issue visas.  To begin your visa process, go onto Google and search for the embassy website for the country  you’d like to visit.  So if I live in America (I do) and I want to go to Russia (I do) I’d search “Russian Embassy in USA”, or “Washington D.C. Russian Embassy” because that is mostly likely where the embassy nearest to me will be. If you don’t know, be sure to find out where the consulate closest to YOU will be.

Once on the website, look for a link for “consular services” or “visas” or something like that, and read around to see if you’ll need a visa for your trip.

If you do, keep reading.  Get a rough idea of the paperwork: required forms, records, fees, and the visa issuance timeline.  The timeline is extremely important.  Usually there is a magic window- you can’t apply for the visa too far out from your trip, but you don’t want to wait too long to apply and risk not being prepared either. For example, I could not apply for a Russian visa more than 90 days before my intended arrival date.

Anyway, I like to print out everything that looks important so I can pour over it later and in great detail.  Sometimes the website contradicts itself: something will be listed as required on one list and not on another, one page says give them a week to process and another says give them a month, total fees range between $20 and $200+. Whenever you see a contradiction- err on the side of caution.  Most embassies require you to make an appointment and personally deliver your application.  It is better to bring too many forms than to get all the way there and be turned away because you are missing something- especially if time is of the essence.

As soon as you can, schedule your appointment.  Then use the intervening time to gather the necessary forms, medical records, passport sized photos (from the post office), cash (often the embassies cannot or will not accept credit cards or checks, they’ll accept cash or money orders), etc.  Sometimes travel tickets and hotel reservations are required, and sometimes it recommended not to buy tickets until after the visa is acquired.  Every country is different, you’ll just have to read up on their preferences.

Also err on the side of excess when deciding what type of visa or trip duration to request. I like to leave at least a day or two buffer on either end of the trip, just in case.  However, some visas are more easily granted than others- work permit visas are often more difficult than general tourist visas, and long term (stays of more than 90 days) are more difficult than short term visas- so don’t bother applying for a difficult visa if you are certain you won’t need the added permissions.

On the day of, show up on time for your appointment but be prepared to wait.  If accepted, you’ll turn in your passport along with all the paperwork and the consulate will process it.  When it is ready, you return to pick up your passport.  Most offices do not want to receive applications or send passports via mail.

There are many third parties that (for a fee) offer visa consulting services, going to the appointments in your stead, and talking you through the application process.  I have never found it necessary to use these third parties.  Though I am lucky enough to live close to Washington D.C. where most countries have at least one consular office.  I suppose if I lived more than a few hours journey from these offices, than the third party services might be more appealing.  But I definitely wouldn’t recommend paying for their services if you’re just confused by the process.  Try it for yourself! You’ll be surprised at how confident you feel about your travel abilities after navigating those waters!

And that is it. Not so bad, right? Just a lot of bureaucracy, but for good cause I suppose.  And the trials make the joy of travel all the sweeter.

Cheers and good luck!

~ Aeri