Saturday, June 04, 2016

I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien

I have just been through the rigmarole of applying for a new passport and foreign visas.

What follows is a review/rant of the entire process.

It will be long and detailed.

Before I start, let me clarify a few things. I have been traveling since I was five years old and, other than a 10 year gap, have obtained a passport and visas, relatively easily. The problem for me is HOW you go about getting these documents.

Before anything else, my first step was to get passport photos. The closest photo studio asks 475gdes for 4 photos + 1 file on CD. I find the price a bit high but at least it's near instant delivery.

Now, I needed a new passport. I let my passport and accompanying visas lapse because I simply could not afford to do otherwise. A major project that took all my funds. I realize now that this was a mistake that I vow never to repeat again.

So, I had my passport renewed through a travel agency that is physically close to the Immigration offices and, thus, has a well-earned reputation for having their contacts inside. I chose to do so because the prospect of going through the normal channels was harrowing.

Who isn't shocked at the sight of all these people standing for hours in the sun on the sidewalk in front of the Immigration office? Who isn't disgusted by this sorry spectacle? The government still doesn't offer passport services in every département in the country, forcing most people to travel and reside here in the capital, some times for several days or weeks!

The agency has a rather high fee of 4000 gdes per passport. This is the emergency fee (at least double the normal cost of the passport + their profit). So I paid three to four times the base price…just so I didn't have to personally deal with local administration.

Most people who can afford it choose this route. Draw all necessary conclusions.

About three week after paying the agency and filing out the forms, we got a call that we were needed at the Immigration office for fingerprinting and photography. Though I was going through this process with my mother, given her age (74), she is exempted from these additional procedures.

The rant for this part of the process is two-fold.

First, and sadly unsurprisingly, the computer system went down the day of my appointment so I had to return the next day. Making me late for work two days in a row since public officials here are not early risers (unlike me!). So there was that issue to negotiate with my boss.

Second, the travel agency clearly is in a situation of monopoly and feels no need to exert more than minimal service. Other than calling me at dawn to tell me to come for the Immigration office, they did not tell me to bring a copy of my id, forcing me to pay an exorbitant price at a conveniently close street photocopy service. Literally, a guy with a photocopier on a wood table, with an extension cord illegally hooked up to the electrical pole.

Worse still, the agency filled out the passport form me and wanted to put down that I was 1m57 (5'2) and 55kg (121 lbs). I'm actually 1m53 (5ft 1/4in) and 53kg (116 lbs) so had them correct that. The implications of that are consternating.

Then, after the fingerprinting, no news from them at all. For weeks. I was really busy with work then and didn't realize three weeks had gone by when I finally called them.

My passport is dated Feb 12th, two weeks after I went to Immigration. And it was clear that they would not call me themselves.

On to the visa application. I applied for both a Canadian tourist visa  and a United States tourist visa.

I must clarify that I chose to go through the process alone because agencies ask a $50US fee or the equivalent in gourdes to do the filing for you. I think that is too expensive for the minimal work that they do.

The Canadian tourist visa application was done entirely online. I strongly recommend scanning all your document BEFORE going online.

So the process is to first, take a quiz to determine what supporting documents you will have to submit. It's interactive so whatever you input, you will be required to provide written proof of later on. At the end of the quiz, you get a checklist.

Then, you need to sign up for a profile on the CA government's immigration website. Be warned that this requires half a dozen or more secret questions and answers, most of which you have to create yourself. Since I was filing for both my mother and myself, I was quickly annoyed with all of that!!!

So you sign in and after secret questions and dire warnings, you get to the upload page were you have to fill out the relevant forms and add each of the documents from your check list (in table form with upload buttons).

This is where I lost the most time. The CA website says it takes 15-20 minutes to go through the process. That wasn't my experience AT ALL!!!

We were going through a bad patch with our internet access (at home AND at work!!!) and downloading, filling out and uploading the main form was a constant struggle. First, I could not get the interactive PDF form to download. I dug up a copy of the form I must have downloaded some time in the past. Then I couldn't get the 4-page form to generate the fifth, bar code, page. That code page is the whole point of the online process.

There is a second form to fill out on the family but that is a plain PDF that I quickly filled out, printed out, signed, scanned and then uploaded.

You MUST upload ALL the documents on the table to access the payment page. Thankfully, that was easy-peasy and I was able to pay online with my local credit card. I got a couple of emails confirmations the same day.

The cost of the CA visa is $100 CAN for the visa fees and $185 CAN for the biometrics (fingerprinting and photography). I'm not sure I understand why a few minutes of face time with a CA employee has to cost $85 but whatever.

From that point on, it went fairly quickly. Two days after the upload, I got an email with an appointment letter for the biometrics, fingerprinting and photograph. I went to the designated office in Pétion-ville. Note, the horrible traffic jams in that sector, offset  The next day, got an email requesting our passport, took them to the PV office and was told I would be alert via text or email when the passports were ready.

I deposited our passports on the 5th, got the text on the 21st of the same month so, all in all, the CA visa process took three weeks or so.

While I appreciated being able to apply and pay online, my biggest frustration was that doing so requires a strong internet signal. I also do not understand why I had to wait 1h to 1h30 for the biometrics and retrieval of the passports.

But the biggest question is WHY WAS THE PAYMENT IN USD ON MY CREDIT CARD!!?!?!?!? $142 US, with a daily rate since I finished my mother's application a week before my own and there is about $1 of difference.

Why could this not be billed in gourdes or CA dollars?

We both got a five year visa so this means as long a reprieve from the ordeal.

On to the US visa application. It too is done online. First, I had to fill out the visa application form. I find it quite annoying that here too, they expect you to be able to fill this out in 15 minutes. Maybe in a country with real 4G internet but that wasn't my experience.

I advise anyone reading this and considering online application to save your form at each step. Every 15 minutes, the site stops, logs you out and you have to start over. Ask me how I know!

The hardest part of the US visa process is that you have to outline all your previous visas and visits to the US for the last decade. It is exhausting and if you don't have your old passports, rather difficult to do.

Once you have filed out the form, you have to print out a page headlined Confirmation that features a number and your uploaded photo. Be sure to bring it to the appointment, lest you be more or less humiliated at the US consulate.

The next step is to get an account on the US immigration website. Compared to the CA process, this was fairly straight forward and, best of all, all the steps in the process are clearly outlined on one page. I had to specify how many visas to pay.

Let's stop and rant a little. The US consulate requires that you pay in gourdes. Great, but they also fix their own exchange rate of 65 gdes. So the visa fees come to 10,400gdes (rate valid until end of May, 2016 when I applied).

I learned from various people that, if you show up to pay with $160 USD, you get denied, if only because your money is not enough. Because the banks post 62,50 gdes. Very frustrating.

So with that payment slip, I went to the nearest Sogexpress. Another annoyance. The Sogexpress has a separate entrance from the main bank so you essentially have to go into the bank, get a wad of cash, go outside and enter the side office. It might have been a couple of meters but I did not feel safe at all.

I had forgotten my passport so had to come back another day. The first clerk checked my application number, I paid at the till and got a receipt. Done!

Back at home, I signed into the same website, confirmed the payment using the receipt number and was able to set up an appointment. I tried out different dates, and they all strangely have a 12h30 time.

My appointment was about 21 days later. I went early, as advised on the website. After some 15 minutes in the midday sun, the logistics of the small red tent out front were revised and I got to make a new line in the shade this time.

For those who do not know the Tabarre road were the US embassy and consulate is situated, it's a dirty thoroughfare, perpetually either in works or flooded when it rains. Nothing but fun!

The personnel there checked my name on a list, then I had to give my cell phone, USB flash drive (?) and any liquids or foods I might have. Then metal detectors and scanners.

Though they let in a large group, by my estimate about 80 people came in at the same time as I did, we were made to wait on benches on an outside pagoda. Nothing happened until exactly 12h30 when we filed into the consular offices. 8 out of 10 counters were manned.

First, they checked my Confirmation number and passport. You will not be issued a visa on a passport with less than 6 months validity. This means I will have to spend money again in summer 2020.

Moving on. Then another line for the fingerprinting and photograph. And, finally, the longest line for the face-to-face interview with the two consuls.

I will say that only 1 employee was truly personable and polite. The others ranged from perfunctory and terse to borderline rude. I was particularly upset to witness one of the employees snarking on a white-haired little old lady. Really classy!

When my turn came up, I wasn't asked too many questions: how long I had been at my current job, if I had brought my old passports (I hadn't) and then I got the visa and was told to pick it up at DHL in PV (my selection on the appmnt website) in about a week.

In all it took me about 2h30 to go through the whole in-person process. Next time, I will renew my visa through an agency within 12 months of its expiration.

Ok, so that was not brief. But I wanted to recount precisely and faithfully everything that I went through. Often, my relatives abroad have a vague idea of exactly how things happen here.

If you've been keeping tabs, you must have realized that it takes about 3 months to get a passport made, and apply for two separate visas. I know this is relatively fast for this country but I wonder how long it takes in other countries.

I can't tell you why none of the 6 other people who sat next to me in the wait area did not get a US visa. I'm conscious that money helps a lot: you can pay for an intermediate to do all the work, a fat bank account will certainly help getting the visas.

But the disappointment of so many was so palpable, it was disturbing. It's like going to an exam and failing, despite giving it your all. One case struck me as rather odd. Two young men were applying for the US visa in order to volunteer at the same (religious?) camp. One got approved, the other not. I don't get it.

Most notable of all, is the underlining feeling of disdain for the public in the manner, if not the words, of those involved in the passport and visa processes. I better understand why some people just refuse to attempt the visas at all. I can't make that choice, too many loved ones live abroad. But I understand it.