They're are the bane of traveller's lives. And often expensive to boot. Jenny Hunter explains how she tames visas for a living. And offers Wanderlust readers a discount too
Jenny Hunter cut her teeth hunting down some of the most complicated visas in the world for participants in the annual Mongol Rally. She became an expert at doing the sort of paperwork most organisations wouldn't touch, parlaying that expertise into The Visa Machine, an organisation that uses the most advanced visa processing technology to make applying for visas as easy as possible.
Jenny talks to Peter Moore about the challenges she faces each day. And how she's yet to let a visa beat her.
What do you actually do?
We help people get travel visas for work, study, expeditions, holidays, anything really. Visas can be a huge pain and cost a load of money so it can be a bit of a murky world trying to get the visas you need. The embassies themselves sometimes give out wrong information about their own visas. They change the rules, close with out warning, refuse visas without reason, decide that on Tuesday you can only use blue ink but on Thursday it must be blue grey and it can involve queuing for hours at 5am in London, so we're here to take the hassle out the process. You just fill in the forms following our instructions, send us your passport and applications, and get on with something more interesting while we do all the hard work.
How did The Visa Machine come about?
It was born out of an adventure company called The Adventurists, which dreams up stupid and dangerous things for people to do in their spare time, mostly in far flung parts of the world. Obviously the guys doing these adventures need visas for numerous countries, and so The Visa Machine was born to help make sure they could actually take part.
Any visa horror stories from the early days?
Back in 2008 we were getting visas for the Africa Rally. We had submitted all the passports to the Nigerian Embassy for processing but they were weeks late in returning them. On the day of the launch they still hadn't released anyone's passports and the chap running things for us at the time had to work all his diplomatic charm to get the passports released. After hours of begging we got them out but not before the teams had driven off the start line, round Hyde Park and back to the beginning again.
What is the trickiest visa to get?
This changes all the time depending on the latest set of rules issued by a given embassy. These change fairly frequently, and usually without much warning, so we have to be constantly abreast of the latest announcements from one country or another. At the moment, Iranian, Russian and Azeri visas are pretty complicated visas to get.
What are some of the obstacles you face securing visas?
There's a whole host of things that could go wrong. Visa application forms aren't always the easiest things in the world to fill out, so we have to check and double check that customers have done them correctly to avoid their application being rejected. Even the way you attach a photograph to the application form can mean it gets rejected. Some of them like staples, some only accept Pritt Stick, some of them will only have an old form available for download from their website but demand a new form you can only get once you try to apply with the old one. All manner of fun. Some people can be rejected because of the type of job they do.
Delays are another big obstacle to the process running smoothly. Like all organisations, embassies are staffed by human beings, and at busy times, they get stacked. This is really hard for our customers, especially if they already have their travel plans booked. The ideal thing is to make sure you have your visa before you book anything at all – but if that's not possible for you, you should make sure you give plenty of time for getting your visas. The later you leave it, the harder and more expensive it gets, and the more likely that mistakes will be made. It also means you have no margin at all for error or delays in embassies.
The most difficult issue for us is when the rules change suddenly, and it requires our customers to provide more documentation. That's really hard because our whole purpose is to make life easier for people, and so we hate having to get in touch half way through a process for extra information. But it's sometimes necessary to make sure we're sticking to the rules and getting the visa right!
What is your proudest achievement in hunting visas?
Probably processing 3,000 visas of varying dates all for the same deadline across a space of about three months for the Mongol Rally teams. We're a small and very hardworking team, so processing all those visas for so many people and getting them back to them in time so they can go off and enjoy their adventure is a pretty big achievement.
Is there any embassy that has beaten you?
Not yet. We can only get visas for the new country of South Sudan by flying the passport with a courier to Africa – so it's one we're working on.
Can you give us some real life examples of visa challenges that you have been set?
There are always problems for us to get our teeth stuck into. We had a group of motorcyclists who were half way through a massive tour but didn't have any of the visas they needed for the next step. Unfortunately the next step was Central Asia (some of the most complicated visas in the world) they were in Australia and we were in London. They wanted to keep riding while we got them their emergency visas. Because of this there was technically not enough time to get them all done. It took a couple bits of visa magic and heaps of planning but we got it done.
On your website you say that using The Visa Machine can sometimes work out cheaper than doing it yourself. How so?
If you work full time and/or live outside of London where the majority of embassies are based, then you'll find yourself needing to take days off work or pay for travel fares to London. This can mount up to quite an expense, especially if you're going on a trip that requires more than one visa. If you send your applications to us to handle, we'll do the waiting in queues and travelling around London for you. And we'll also check that all your paperwork is correct – mistakes or missing info can cost you a lot in rejected visas. And they won't give your money back, even if you end up with no visa in your passport.
Favourite embassy to deal with? Most difficult?
Favorite embassy at the moment is probably Ethiopia. They were extraordinarily friendly and helpful the last time I called them. Most difficult for us changes all the time as I said, but at the moment, Azerbaijan has some challenging rules.
Why are some visas available online on your site while some I have to contact you about?
This is simply to do with the visas we do all the time and those that crop up less regularly. If we get them all the time, they'll be up on the site, whereas if they're more obscure, we ask people to get in touch to chat through what they need. It's because the rules, paperwork and costs depend a lot on the person applying, their nationality and residence status.
As we grow and do more and more, we hope to have less instances where people have to get in touch rather than just ordering online. Though of course we'd welcome a good chin wag about visa woes anytime.
What is your background? How did you get involved in chasing visas?
I co-founded The Adventurists and so was around when we came up with the idea of The Visa Machine. I still work for both organisations, but find my time split more evenly between the two as The Visa Machine has expanded.
Any personal visa hell stories?
I've always been pretty lucky with my visas, but years ago my now husband and I went to Russia to study for a few months. His visa had been printed with the wrong dates (something that happens a fair bit as embassies have to process so many thousands of them) so he had to spend a couple of nights in the airport in Russia before he was allowed into the country. St Petersburg airport's arrivals lounge at the time wasn't overly comfortable and you couldn't really get any money to buy food or drink, but he lived.
What does the future hold for The Visa Machine?
We'll be popping up all over the place in the future. We're expanding what we offer to encompass more and more of the stuff that people need to travel the globe. In a world where security on borders is getting tighter and tighter, and countries are regulating people's entry more and more, we'll be there to keep the process as simple as possible.
We especially like to help with interesting trips that people have dreamt up. This year we're supporting a couple of chaps who are aiming to break a world record by driving a tuk-tuk around the world on a charity fundraising expedition called Tuk the High Road.
Our remit is to assist with some of the more complicated and boring bits behind the scenes that make a successful trip or expedition a reality. And the more we can do of that, for the more different people around the world, the better.
The Visa Machine specialises in securing the most complicated visas, using advanced visa processing technology to snag travellers the stamps and stickers they thought they had no chance of ever getting. If you need a visa for travel, business, work or study, visit TheVisaMachine.com. Wanderlusters are entitled to get £5 off each visa.- enter the code WL5U
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