The visa bug continues to bite

I apologize for leaving our readers breathless with anticipation for so long. A combination of intense activity and some electronic blackouts have interfered with my keeping up with the blog. And once again, the issues we have been contending with involve visas.

We felt pretty good about getting the Sri Lankan visa situation squared away. Since our intermediate destinations all involve us just being tourists, surely all countries want us to come and spend money, right? San Francisco has both a Chinese and Vietnamese consulate, so surely we can get both visas in a day, or at most two, right?

Not so fast. First, even if you pay for rush service, the Chinese consulate will not give you a visa until 2:30PM on that day. The Vietnamese consulate closes its doors at 12N. So, it will take two days at least.

So, we sleep in a little on Monday and arrive in the early afternoon at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. It had not occured to us that perhaps the consulate has some security issues to deal with. There is a SF police officer on watch on the sidewalk. There are five private security guards at the visa office door. Your bags are searched, you walk through a metal detector, and you are given a number. We sat down in the rows of chairs that face an electronic reader board. The reader board alternately displays information on what is required to get a visa (in both English and Chinese) and what number is being served at what window. The room is noisy with talkative patrons and hard surfaces everywhere. The room is modestly crowded with the only entertainment the adorably cute children accompanying their parents. We wait the better part of an hour until our number is called.

We approach our designated window. The window looks like something from a prison movie visitation rom, except the visitors (us) have no chairs. In the center of the bulletproof window is a two way speaker device that is controlled by the woman seated comfortably behind the window. I thought I was extremely well prepared with documents. We start by passing documents through a small slot at the bottom of the window. Then the first issue appears. It seems that the Chinese have divided the US up into regions and you are only allowed to apply for a visa at the consulate or ambassy in your home region! And the application process varies from region to region. Yikes! This issue is masterfully handled by Kris. She describes our situation and the visa officer is sympathetic that we are visiting family and our family is on the West Coast. So she allows us to change our home addresses to my parent’s address and accepts that thus the San Francisco consulate can handle our visa.

But then comes the second issue. To get a Chinese visa, you need to have a “letter of invitation” from a Chinese company.  In the case of a tourist visa, this is provided by the company that books your tour. Of course, I have brought this letter of invitation with me and pass it through the slot to the officer. Everything is in order, except that the tour company has not listed the names of each hotel we are staying in. Now they had sent that information in a separate email message describing our tour, but I had not printed that message out, assuming the official letter of invitation was sufficient. It was not. If I could have accessed my email there, no problem, but there were no facilities for that. It was too late for us to find an internet cafe and get back to the consulate before the 3PM closing time. So, we had struck out and we headed back to the East Bay bloody and bowed.

Rallying to try, try, again, we got up at the proverbial crack of dawn on Tuesday to get to the consulate at its opening time of 9AM. This time there was a thirty minute line just to get through the security at the front door. We did meet a former Fulbrighter who had spent his Fulbright time in Yugoslavia. Now he was going to China for the second year in a row to teach and consult at a provincial high school in China. Once inside, we waited another half hour for our number to be called. As luck would have it, we were assigned to the window next to the one we had been assigned the day before while the visa officers were in the same windows as before. Our new visa officer accepted our documentation without raising any new issues and we were to return at 2:30PM to learn their decision.

We thought this was promising and we took the free time to take advantage of the serendipitous fact that the relocated San Francisco Museum of Asian Arts and Cultures had a special exhibit of artifacts from the Ming Dynasty in China. It was a great show of pottery, metal work, robes, paintings, and more. Since it was convenient, we had lunch in the museum cafeteria. All the offerings were Asian dishes and the prices were on the high side. But much to our suprise, based on our past experiences in museum cafeterias, the meal was both delicious and quite substantial.

With some trepidation, we returned to the Chinese consulate to learn our fate. A group of maybe forty or fifty protestors had gathered outside the visa office entrance. More SF police had arrived and the protestors were surrounded by fencing and prevented from blocking the sidewalk or the entrance. The protesters chanted slogans protesting Chinese control of Tibet. We walked quickly to the entrance and the security guards waved us inside without searching us.

You do not need to get a number to pick up your visas, but there was a considerable line at the two pickup windows. Largely the length of the line was due to an angry applicant who did not like the decision made on his visa application and stod there the entire time we were there arguing with the woman behind one of the two windows. Then, just before it was our turn, a Chinese man rushed to the open window and gesticulated to the officer. I could see, without understanding a single word, that the document he had been issued had a problem and he was asking for it to be corrected. But the people in line behind me could not see what was occurring and so they tok it out on me for not defending the line! I was lectured at in a very patronizing tone by an American that I needed to be more aggressive as Chinese people did not respect lines. I blame this tension on the noisy environment and the anxiety many felt about their situations. I resisted responding to the jerk with anything more than a sarcastic verbal rebuke. As I could see, the visa officer was apologizing profusely to the man with the erroneous visa document and the matter was quickly cleared up.

And then it was our turn. No problem. We paid our $130 fee (each) for our visas and $30 fee (each) for same-day service, we took our passports with their pretty new visa stamps and headed for the door.

This has gotten long, so I will post a separate description of our experience at the Vietnamese embassy and with a fantastic travel agent.

Soon. I promise. But it might be tomorrow.



1 Comment

  1. May 3, 2009 at 11:21 am

    […] in the country. Long time blog readers will recall that we did have some trouble getting our Chinese visa. The Sri Lankan visa process was tricky, but then we were applying to reside in Sri Lanka, not just […]

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