I would dare say, the majority of folks understand a passport is needed for travel outside of your country. For many, a visa is needed as well. This is a special access permit for you to gain entry to a country with higher protocol than just a passport. To make matters even more convoluted, these requirements can and do, change over time. Just because it was one way 3 years ago, does not mean it will be the same today.
Adding to the mix, every country is completely different, and behaves differently depending on what country your passport is issued in. The United States, the EU and Australia tend to have the most widely accepted passports without visas. The rest of the world, has a much stricter guideline for travel, and even being an American, visa’s are sometimes required. Some examples:
As a “yank” you can gain access to Australia; you must request a specific visa for your time spent in the land down under, which can last from a tourism visa of 3 months, to up to a year, depending on your situation.
When visiting Vietnam, I had to personally visit with a gentleman at the Vietnamese Embassy and have a discussion about why I wanted to visit and what I planned on doing once I arrived. He then gave me a note, to give to immigration and customs upon arrival, which may or may not have been approved. I can only relate to the positive, as I had no problems once I landed into Saigon, or anywhere else inside the country I traveled.
In Mexico, it is a bit more under the radar, a visa is given to you upon arrival, a small piece of paper. You need this form to depart the country, or you will be fined. Nobody tells you this ahead of time.
China, however, is a whole ‘nother ball game.
You need a letter from someone within China specifying where you will be, where you are staying, where you will go within the country and for the most part confirming that you are not going to just be wandering around aimlessly. You also have to manually fill out a visa request form, which is in Chinese and 4 pages long. You need a passport photo, or two, or maybe even three, it is recommended you bring all of the above….and you need several copies of your passport.
With that said, herein are where my problems began.....After submitting a request to attend a Tourism Trade Show representing an Australian company I provide contract work for, which was going to be in Hangzhou, China, late October, I received word Coral Bay EcoTours was accepted. This was in mid July. At that time I was in Mexico. I needed to attain a visa for China, and the only acceptable way was to either send in my passport for an unspecified time, with the mandatory fee and a whole pile of specific paperwork, or physically go to my nearest Chinese Consulate. Guess what? There is no said consulate in Mexico. Closest for me, was Washington DC. I couldn’t mail my passport in, as I needed it to travel within Mexico, as well as to return to the US in early September. That and the fact that mail delivery south of the border is sketchy, at best. Have I lost you yet?
Knowing I would be in the States for a short period of time in September, I thought perhaps I could sort this out with an additional stop in DC. Well then, nature would have it, and a whole slew of storms blew onto the Eastern Seaboard, wreaking havoc with my travel plans and making it completely cost ineffective to go to Washington for up to a week….as you don’t have any idea how long it will take for said consulate to accept your paperwork and return your visa, even if “rush” is requested.
My next stop was Spain, the only Chinese Consulate being in Madrid, I would have to revise my plans and give it a go. What other choice did I have?
Here I am, an American, working for an Australian Company, going to a trade show in Hangzhou, China, asking for a rush visa, in Spain, a country I speak only minimal language….with 100% of my paperwork in English or Chinese. Oy. What a mess.
I was able to manage the consulates website appointment calendar, and requested a 9 am time slot. The site only gave 5 time slots, and it looked like I was the first to sign up. How many Spaniards would be heading to Asia, I thought with a smile, this is a good sign. In looking ahead, I thought I would need to explain why I was in Spain making my request, so I also went ahead and printed all of my travel arrangements while in the country, my airline tickets booked into España, as well as those departing for China and the plane tickets showing my departure to Australia, after the trade show.
Upon arriving at their nefarious and somewhat hidden office location in a remote area of Madrid, at 8:30 the morning of appointment, I found over 50 Spaniards piled high into the hallway outside the entry, all holding paperwork and passports such as mine. So much for having an easy start to my day.
Once the doors opened, around 9:10….we all queued up to be granted a number and then the waiting began. Several hours later, my number was finally being called out. The young Chinese gal at the counter spoke Spanish ( of course) , and was not overly thrilled with my complicated case. Many people had to be asked what to do with me, apparently going for a trade show was not acceptable. My forms had to be changed to the "tourist" option. Additionally, my paperwork reflecting travel plans back to Perth, where not acceptable. I was told to leave and make a new copy and then return. WHAT? Good thing I was in for the long haul. After managing to find a printing shop relatively nearby, I was shocked to discover that every single email I sent for said printing, arrived to their inbox, blank. I am not a millennial, this entire process was on my phone, a challenge in itself.
This took what seemed hours to overcome. Eventually I took a screen shot of my air confirmation, manipulating it to to show the confirmation code and my full name and passport number, as this is why my original document was declined. A trying situation, at best. Arriving back at the consulate, and going back to the same gal (cutting in front of someone to do so, gotta be cutthroat on occasion) …she finally accepted the pile of papers and confirmed I wanted rush delivery, with a price tag of close to $300 US. I was told I could pick up my passport the next day at noon.
A bit shy of 24 hours later, once again I found myself waiting in the same lobby of the same office. The security guard told me I didn’t need a number and they didn’t need my name, just to sit and wait. Once called to the counter a little over an hour later, I was told that they had approved me for a visa good for 10 years! Yay for me! I think anyway…. off I went to celebrate.
Lessons from this experience; never assume anything, breath, remain calm, take a break if you need to. Though I truly doubt any of you will have to go through such trauma, you can use the same behaviors in your own country. Be kind, be polite, stay patient. Have FUN!
Stay tuned for my “Having fun in Hangzhou” blog post coming out soon!