Wanderlust shares some tips on getting that all important travel visa, and lifts the lid on the results of its great visa survey
Every traveller has their favourite story of visa hell. Whether you’re bribing corrupt guards on a flyblown border or tackling endless paperwork in Belgravia, acquiring that all-important stamp in your passport is one of travel’s essential experiences. And it’s not getting any easier.
Despite the fact that, for British citizens, the overall number of countries requiring pre-arranged visas is diminishing, travellers today are venturing further off the beaten track, booking at shorter notice and visiting developing countries more frequently.
So how hard is it to get a visa these days? Which countries open their arms to travellers and which befuddle you with bureaucracy? We carried out a survey with The Visa Company – one of the UK’s leading independent visa agencies – to learn more about your experiences.
Hundreds of you responded, telling us where you went for information, which embassies had the most complicated forms and the longest queues, who stamped your passport with the least hassle and whether using a visa agency saved you time and trouble. Many of you also told us about your experiences of acquiring visas while on the road, but for the purposes of the survey we were mainly interested in getting visas before you left the UK.
Despite the general opening-up of international borders, our survey showed that just 12% of you have not had to apply for a visa in the past three years. The other 88% have had to tackle an increasingly complex range of visa options: some have restricted validity, some are obtained on arrival, and others are not available if you have specific stamps in your passport. With 190-odd countries in the world, more than 1.3 million visa permutations are theoretically possible for all nationalities going to all countries for different purposes – that means tourist visas, transit and business visas, long-stays, working holidays, dual citizenship, matrimonial visas… need we go on?
What’s more, in an age of heightened security, messing up your application can lead to delays or even a missed trip. “At one time visas were considered almost a formality,” says Malcolm Bluemel of The Visa Company, “but in recent years, many countries have increased the complexity of the process and are using the application process as an anti-terrorist device.”
According to our survey, from form-filling to final stamp, you spend an average NINE HOURS getting a visa. That’s a whole working day before you can think about packing your bags.
Many of you cited frustrating battles to acquire your visas, although failed applications are mainly due to incorrect documentation (letters of invitation; insufficient pages in the passport). Other difficulties stem from language barriers, not leaving enough time, and visa quotas for a given day or period having been exceeded.
You also encountered problems of timing, especially with multi-country visits. Reader Nigel Boorman pointed out, for example, that “the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies are a short distance apart but it is not possible to deal with both on the same day. Both will retain your passport for three days. They only accept applications in the mornings and only issue visas in the afternoons. Hence it is necessary to make four trips in order to obtain both visas.” (For those who prefer to queue when they get there – and run the risk of rejection – both countries offer single-entry tourist visas on arrival)
When we asked about your worst experiences, two countries came up time and again – India and Russia. Your gripes focused mainly on the length of the queues at these embassies (“I dared not go to the coffee machine in case I missed my turn”, was one comment about the Indian experience), although Russian paperwork was also singled out for censure (“endless letters needed translating”; “sheer tedium”).
At these, and other embassies, you also expressed frustration with administrative systems – phones ringing forever, morose officials, unexpected (and unannounced) closures midweek, and incorrect details being issued causing problems later.
If you’re heading to an embassy in person, the general message was: allow plenty of time, check your documents carefully, and go with a philosophical outlook. One enviably calm respondent described waiting in queues at the Indian High Commission as “very exciting – you learn lots from others around you”!
On the plus side, you raved about countries offering a visa-on-arrival service (including Kenya, Jordan, Thailand and Indonesia) and online options (Australia). Some of you found postal applications – particularly for India – a less stressful option, though others were nervous of abandoning their passports for an indefinite period. Despite reservations about price, visa agencies were frequently mentioned as providing an efficient service.
Perhaps the biggest problem you faced was assessing your visa requirements in the first place. With regulations changing fast, you found guidebooks of little help – less than half of you considered them a reliable source of information. Instead, most of you headed to the embassies’ websites. An impressive 90% of those who had done so found the information there accurate and up-to-date.
Visa agencies also scored highly here – although less of you had used them; you found them almost as reliable as the embassies themselves. Many agencies put their information online so you can check requirements, whether you sign up to their service or not.
So if agencies offer up-to-the-minute information and minimum hassle, are they the solution to your nightmares? Well, that depends on the amount of time and money you can spare.
Visa agencies are particularly useful where the application process is complex or lengthy, or where you need a visa in a hurry. They can’t fill forms out for you, but they can check they’re completed correctly and often speed them through embassy queues. Our survey indicated that most of you found agencies very convenient but costly – with a typical handling fee of £30-£40 in addition to the visa itself, only a third of you considered them value for money.
However, for those who live a long way from embassies and don’t want to trust the post, visa agencies are more attractive. Our survey showed half the Londoners who visited embassies in person got their visas in less than five hours. For the rest of the UK, only 33% of you managed to do it in half a day – in many cases it took much longer.
Ultimately, what emerged from the survey was the need to assess each visa on a case-by-case basis. Many visas are very straightforward – for example, Egypt’s visa-on-arrival is generally quicker and cheaper than applying from the UK. For longer trips such as overlanding across Asia or Africa, you may be better advised to organise your visas on the road using local ground agents or overseas embassies: Bangkok, for example, is an obvious place to get visas for Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Most visas have limited validity, so organising too much in advance is impossible for longer trips anyway.
Finally, one group that visa agencies can’t help are the 8% of you that recall disputes at the point of entry with varying degrees of interest and annoyance. Whether it’s a missing hotel voucher, insufficient pages in your passport or simply the odd corrupt border guard, you’re pretty much on your own. Our advice? Pack some cigarettes, US dollars in small denominations and a big, friendly smile.
Many thanks to The Visa Company and Vanson Bourne, who conducted the survey.