I remember being 13 years old and my father handing me a form, instructing me to fill it out neatly. It was the first visa form I filled by myself.
At 25, while I’m no longer overwhelmed by official-emblemed forms asking questions about criminal records and permanent addresses; I am always apprehensive about a rejected visa application.
A rejected visa application isn’t just destroying one trip, it has implications for almost every other visa form I’ll have to fill out. The last thing you want to hear from a consular official is, ‘I regret to inform you that your visa application has been unsuccessful’.
Those of us who possess a passport from a magical country that has visa-free/on-arrival status for most parts of the world, may never have to know the nail-biting, gut-wrenching feeling of submitting visa papers and explaining (without stuttering) your purpose of visit. You’ll probably never have to deal with taking a deep, calming breath before checking your passport to see if you have a visa stamp (usually featuring a hideously unflattering photograph of yourself). You’ll probably never breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that now you can book your tickets because they’ll actually let you on the plane!
If, for some reason, you need to apply for a tourist visa in advance (see: Vietnam, China, Russia, sometimes India)- a few tips from an old hand:
Always verify if you need a tourist visa to enter the country. Always.
I know someone who rocked up in Vietnam without a visa, assuming they could get one on arrival. Rookie mistake. While Visa HQ can be quite a reliable resource, do double check by using the consular/embassy websites. If the information isn’t available, do e-mail/ring them to check. Better sure than terrified in a strange airport with a disapproving immigration official.
Don’t buy tickets, just get a booking confirmation/reservation.
A booking confirmation and/or a reservation is usually enough for a visa application. Buying your ticket is ill-advised in case your application is unsuccessful.
Fill in the form as accurately and truthfully as possible.
This is about national borders and therefore, about national security. You really do not want to lie on these forms.
Make sure you’re applying for the correct visa, and paying the correct amount.
It’s usually unadvised to apply for a tourist visa if you’re popping over for a 6 month paid internship or a conference or something that doesn’t fall under ‘tourism purposes’. It could get you, and your employers/colleagues in a lot of trouble. A lot of people get away with this on a regular basis, but it is always better to apply for the correct visa.All embassies explain the categories that fall under each visa type.
Sometimes, visa applications have a processing fee. They may differ from visa type to visa type. Double check this.
Sort out your paperwork.
Most countries want proof that you’re not going to their country and never leaving, that you’re not going to have to rely on their resources, and that you’re not going to blow anything up. There’s usually a list of required documents that you submit with your visa form. Things like insurance, pay slips/proof of financial solvency, a return/onward ticket, and even proof of employment in country of origin are standard documents for applications. You may need to (depending on the kind of visa) supply a letter of invitation to your destination, and contact details whilst in the country.Your dates and details should correspond. You may select a multiple entry visa for a longer period of time, but this may lead to questions and require further clarifications.
Visa forms can be rather specific about what your photographs should look like. A general requirement is that they should be taken less than 6 months to date of application. Other embassies might specify the colour of the background, the size of the photograph, and whether they need to see your ears or not. Sometimes, they have guidelines on how not to smile for a photo.
Either way, resign yourself to having an awful photograph for your visa application. This is standard.
Sometimes, you’re required to submit your application in person. Then, the officer that collects your application may ask you a few questions. It may not feel like an interview, but it does weigh-in on the process. Other embassies (see: UK, USA, any EU country) conduct interviews. You have to ring in advance to set up an appointment and only then can you actually visit the embassy in person (again, USA, most EU countries). Sometimes, the appointments are booked months in advance.
Always use black ink to fill in a form.
This is a personal preference, but I do think forms filled in black ink carry a lot more gravitas than those written in blue. Also, I once witnessed a visa officer berating someone for their awful form- it was filled in blue ink.
Check visa processing time.
It can take anywhere between a day to a few weeks, sometimes months to get your passport back. Make sure you ask when you submit your documents, when you should collect it. Usually, they hand you a stub with the collection date on it. You can opt for ‘fast-track’ or other processing options that make take less time. This service is usually available at an added cost.Some embassies/consular services will tell you immediately (see the U.S embassy) if your application has been successful. Others will require you to wait until your application has been assessed by another officer, and you may only find out when you pick up your passport.
Secret weapon: charm.
Be as charming (not smarmy!) as possible. Charm your visa officer, make friends with the security guard (you may need to bring ID that is not your passport to leave your phone/belongings with him); smile naturally to prove you look nothing like the serial killer in your photograph, and be as genuine as possible. The visa officer for the Vietnamese embassy in Manila still remembers me from the time we chatted about his wife, his religious beliefs, and what he loves about India.
Or you could avoid the headache and the logistical hellhole that visa processes are, and pick a country that offers visa-free/on arrival entry (Hong Kong). Or, pay a travel agent and let them deal with the mess.