“It’s just too hard…” People often say to me.
“…the airport security strip search, the extortionary bag fees, the long flight, my knees being crushed against the seat in front of me, customs, immigration, not knowing the language or the currency, the hassle of transportation, the fear of being ripped off, and then there’s the process of where to stay and what to do…it’s all just overwhelming. That’s why I don’t travel out of the US.”
Strangely – these are some of my favorite parts about international travel – minus the knees being crushed and the bag fees (which I think are robbery) . Strangely I don’t mind the security process…after all – a long-term solo traveler can use some ‘patting down’ once in a while!
However in my preparation for my Mongol Rally adventure (some would say absurdity), I had to go through an international travel process that about made me agree with all of the US international travel naysayers…getting visas.
My teammates and I are traveling through 15 countries this summer and I diligently went through the process of researching each country’s visa requirements for Americans. I was feeling pretty good when my research yielded the results of only needing 4 visas out of all of those countries…yippee!
Not too fast….
That yippee quickly turned to “Oh shit!” when I realized that the cost to get these 4 visas was be over $700 when all said and done.
Up until this experience, I had thought China and India would go down as the ‘worst and most expensive country visa processes’ – but now they were bumped by the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and the super ‘paperwork’ power – Russia. I was in the visa big leagues now.
Just when I was completely panicked looking through the myriads of forms, invitation letters, restrictions, and timeframes; ready to give up; I saw a light…a savior…a paperwork machine. Enter the Visa Machine.
No, this is not a George Jetson-like ATM device where you put in paperwork, scan your passport, and out spits a visa sticker (but damn that would be nice). It’s a service offered by the Adventurists who are responsible for creating and holding the Mongol Rally among other silly, absurd, scary international adventure races. They saw an opportunity and grabbed is…which is quite American of them…yet they are British. They put together a service and slick website where you can find out exactly what visa you need based on your nationality, order the visa, fill out the paperwork, mail it to them, and they will then be your bitches and run around to all of the embassies in London and get these ‘pain-in-the-ass-visas’ en mass. They are ‘experts’ at getting these hard to get visas since they have hundreds of Mongol Rally teams going through this process yearly. They know the ins and outs of the processes, forms, and silly requirements necessary to increase your chance of getting one of these visa’s issued.
I was sold. I was willing to pay a premium for them to handle this quickly as I would only be in the US for a couple of months and I certainly didn’t have plans to run around to various embassies or mail off my passport every few weeks.
As I started the process, I thought it would take a day to get it all organized and mailed to London. Five days later I realized it wasn’t as smooth of a process as I had hoped. Since I was the first of my teammates to go through this process I started taking notes for them so it would be easier. Being first is never easy. For those of you considering using the Visa Machine, here’s some information which might be helpful to you as you go through the process.
The first thing I learned is that you need some basic information prior to even being able to pay for the visas. Before you even start, you should have the following:
• A passport that isn’t expiring within 6 months with plenty of blank pages…duh.
• Access to a printer
• A glue stick
• A stapler
• Approximately 10 passport pictures 35mm by 40mm EXACTLY
• A ruler with mm on it!
• A copy of your resume/CV to refer to (for Russia)
• Your route for the rally with your entry and exit dates predicted for each country
• What city you will enter the border at in Russia
• A hotel in Russia and Uzbekistan with address and phone number that may be along your route. (Note that it is not necessary to have a reservation there or even stay there for that matter…you just need something close that you can enter on the form)
• In the absence of patience…have whiskey or cigarettes available in great quantities.
What is the process?
1. Go to the Visa Machine website, choose your nationality, and then choose the countries you will be driving through (note that you must know your driving route before you can even complete step 1). It will tell you if your nationality requires a visa or not. If a visa is required, add it to your ‘cart’.
2. Then go to your cart and fill out the basic data required (name, passport number, nationality, address, where you want your passport mailed back to, the entry and exit dates for each country you are applying for, and for Russia include the cities you will be passing through and the name/address of the hotel you will potentially stay at).
3. Then get out your credit card and kiss your money goodbye.
Don’t be fooled like me and think that was all there was to it; this was just the beginning. Get your payment confirmation via email and continue…
4. Next print off all of the applications for each country as well as the instructions on how to fill out each application.
5. Read through them without filling anything out at first and learn what type of information you are going to need to gather in order to fill them out. For example, I had to get letters from my insurance company as well as bank statements for 3 months stamped and signed by my bank for Russia visa)
6. Spend the next few days filling them out EXACTLY as the instructions say.
7. Then mail them out to London along with your passport and extra passport photos.
Some issues I ran into:
Quite frankly, the Visa Machine website didn’t really have this type of info on it and therefore I wasted a lot of time trying to get everything together that I needed in a quick manner. You don’t know what you really need until you pay and have committed.
Plus, I had very slow responses to my email I sent to the Visa Machine which added at least 2 days to the process waiting to hear back from them and hounding them on Twitter.
Due to some of this delay I had to expedite two of the visas in order to get my passport back in time.
Some oddities I ran into:
I found it very strange that each of these visa applications asked my marital status and gave me the choices of married, single, widowed, divorced. It left me wondering what they would use this information for or why it was relevant. Would they be trying to find me a husband as I pass through their country? Maybe in Russia I could become an American bride – that would be a switch! Or maybe they would offer their condolences that I was an old maid. Or maybe they would require me to marry a border guard in order to enter the country? Crazy.
For the Russia visa I also needed to provide my complete work and education history complete with dates of graduation/work, supervisors names, and addresses. Were they going to hire me for a job in their country?
In the end with expediting some of the visa’s it cost me the pretty penny of $930 (880 for visas + 50 for Fedex to London). Of course it’s also important to understand that you may not get any visa issues at all; the embassy can reject the paperwork. And even if you get the visa issued and in your passport, this does not fully guarantee entry into these countries at the border nor will you get your money refunded. Basically…it’s a gamble…get ok with that.
Now my precious passport is living it up in London without me. I wonder if it’s having separation anxiety as I am. Has found a nice place to stay among all of those great London hotels , is going to see Big Ben, and most importantly – will my passport attend the Royal Wedding and sit next to Elton John or Prince Harry?! I will be patiently waiting for its return into my life in a couple of months with (hopefully) 4 shiny, new visas attached to it!