Saturday, February 16, 2008

European Red Tape

One of the joys (I'm being sarcastic) of traveling on an Indian passport is heightened scrutiny at borders. Indian citizens also require a visa to visit pretty much all countries in the West, and most other countries in the world as well (I think the exceptions might be limited to Nepal, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand and perhaps a few African nations).

Since I'm stopping over in Italy on my way back, I needed to apply for a tourist visa. Italy is part of the Schengen treaty, and visitors normally get Schengen Visas that allow entry to a host of EU countries (Not all though. The UK, for instance, is not party to the treaty.). Indian tourists require to apply for a Schengen visa every time they visit. Which country's mission one applies at is determined by a variety of factors: what is the primary destination, where one is going to be spending most of one's time, where one enters the Schengen area, etc.

Being a Lawful Permanent Resident of the United States does make it unlikely that one will be refused a visa -- US residents are unlikely to be potential illegal immigrants to Europe; the procedure, however, remains the same. One submits a host of documents (travel reservations, hotel reservations for every night of one's proposed stay, or a notarized invitation letter from an EU resident, proof of financial support, travel health insurance, employment) along with a visa fee (around USD100) and get a colorful stamp on of the pages of one's passport that lets one travel to the Schengen treaty area of Europe.

As I was busy packing and moving before coming to India in January, I figured I'd just apply for a visa here. No problem. I've done this before. Right?

WRONG!

With increased tourist and business traffic from India, most Schengen countries have now outsourced their visa applications to a private company, VFS. And there are now strict residency rules: only Indian residents may apply. Since I reside in the US, I should apply in the US. The Italian consulate in Bombay sent me an email (beautiful bureaucratese! I copy it below for your pleasure) saying they might make an exception for a non-resident Indian, however, I'd need to get clearance from the relevant Italian mission in the US. An Italian friend who works with the honorary Italian Consul in Charleston, SC (I am a South Carolina resident) contacted the Italian Consulate in Miami which said that the request had to come directly from the Italian authorities in Bombay. The Consulate in Bombay said they couldn't do anything until I got a no-objection certificate from Miami. Classic bureaucratic Catch-22.

I decided to ditch the Italians and try my luck with the Dutch, since I was entering the EU via Amsterdam (traveling KLM/Northwest one inevitably passes through Schiphol). I sent an email to the Embassy of the Netherlands in New Delhi. No response. I finally got through to a real live human being in the consular section who said that as long as I had the relevant documents, I could apply through the normal channels through VFS. "It doesn't matter that you're not a resident."

Excellent! The sensible Dutch! So, I made an appointment at the VFS office in New Delhi for last Monday. I showed up with all my documents and nearly four thousand rupees in cash. The guys there were very polite. "Why not you applying in the US sir?" They called the Embassy, and reconfirmed that I could indeed apply. "Ok sir. Here is your receipt. It should take a couple of days." Unfortunately, they couldn't send my passport to Baroda. "Sir, if you are in Gujarat you should be going to the Mumbai office. Do you have a Delhi address?" Sure, send it to my brother's place.

All done?

Well, not quite. When I got back to Baroda Monday night and checked my email, there was a reply from the Consular Section of the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands to my email query from eleven days back. "Since you are resident of the US, you should apply in the US. Thank you."

Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot!

On the phone, VFS informed me that they were unable to confirm or deny whether a visa would be issued or not. "Sorry sir, that information is not in our database."

On Wednesday, they confirmed that the passport was being returned to the address I had specified.

On Thursday morning, I called my brother's house. The staff informed me that the courier services would not release the passport unless I was present in person, or left a letter authorizing the delivery of the passport in my absence, along with the receipt that I had gotten from VFS (Thanks for letting me know all this in advance!). So, I prepared an authorization letter and overnighted it to my brother, as well as sending an electronic copy via email for him to print out.

On Friday, my sister-in-law called: my overnight package had not yet arrived, but she had persuaded the courier to deliver my passport on the strength of the authorization letter I'd emailed my brother, which he had signed in my name. YAY! "Can you check if the darn visa was issued?" "Oh, I've left for work. Tonight." Ok. Except yesterday was their wedding anniversary, and they weren't home till late.

This afternoon I got a text message from the brother: "Confirm, visa issued."

PHEW.

St. Izzy had suggested that I pray to Sts. Jude (patron of lost/desperate causes) and Dymphna (patron of the mentally ill). I did. And I asked Our Lady for help too.

Saga over. Now just say a prayer that my passport reaches me safely (bro's going to overnight it on Monday).

And this is peanuts compared to the travails that I underwent navigating the maze of the erstwhile US INS.

Good Lenten penance, though.

For your reading pleasure, here is the email from the Italian Consulate in Bombay:
Mumbai, 01.02.208

Dear Sir,

With reference to your e-mail dated 31.01.2008 kindly note that normally the Italian Consular authority in the place of residence is territorially competent to issue the visa. However is excepted the authority of the Head of Mission, on the basis of his own discretional evaluation and in the presence of adequate motives, the issuance of a visa even to a non-resident Indian. In very exceptional cases the issuance of a visa could be considered but the time taken will be longer, additional documents will be required and these cases cannot be considered as priority. In all these types of cases, the opinion of the territorially compentent Italian Mission must be acquired by this Consulate General, prior to the issuance of the visa.

In order to be able to issue this type of visa this Consulate General should first receive the no objection from the territorially competent Italian Authority in your place of residence. In case this no objection is not received, this Consulate General is not in a position to issue the visa.

You may present your visa application to this Consulate General with a prior appointment, to permit an evaluation of the case. Kindly note that a prior appointment should be taken with The Receptionist from Monday to Thursday from 14.30 to 16.00 hrs. and on Friday from 12 noon to 13.00 hrs.

For visa related information and to download the visa application form kindly visit the following websites:

www.esteri.it
www.vfs-italy.co.in



xxxx
For The Consul General

2 comments:

mike said...

I was biting my nails till the end.

Zadok the Roman said...

Phew! Everything worked out! :)