“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!
By Angela April 19, 2011 - 8:55 am
Very useful post, I so hate the visa process, and the feeling that the embassy might reject the application…
By Emily April 19, 2011 - 10:04 am
Thanks so much for posting a checklist. I’ve been halfway through the Visa process, have realized I’ve forgotten something, then tripled my intimidation level. Less daunting when so very systematized!
By Aly April 19, 2011 - 11:15 am
Good to know about the Visa Machine but even better is the list you’ve made as even if you did do it yourself you’d need all that info ready ahead of time. I think I’m more impressed with you getting all this paperwork done than even the fact that you’re doing the Rally 🙂 ha ha!
By Brad Benner April 19, 2011 - 11:34 am
Great article! I left on a five-month trip in February with a plan to visit India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, and Mongolia. I worked with a document processing company in San Francisco that provided a similar service — they were able to deal with most of the headache involved, but I did have to complete all of the paperwork and provide photos, etc. matching the specifications for each country (e.g. some require that you not be wearing glasses).
One thing that I discovered (and which I blogged about at: http://www.howtotraveler.com/2011/03/a-second-passport-eases-border-crossings/) is that having a second passport can be a good tool for certain visa situations. For example, I didn’t learn until I had already left that visiting Nepal – Tibet – China (in that order) is challenging because China will cancel your China visa upon entering Tibet from Nepal, making an onward journey into China difficult. Would have know? I think situation, a second passport would have come in handy.
By @AlexBerger April 19, 2011 - 12:20 pm
Great post! Lot of useful data. Having traveled mostly in latin America and Europe it’s something I have very little experience with and need to prepare for.
By Megan April 19, 2011 - 1:14 pm
Central Asian visas are a pain but if you have time it can be done. I have to warn you that the Uzbek embassy in the US is a waste of time and held my passport for weeks, not answering calls. I finally applied for my Uzbek visa in Kyrgzstan which required finding a Russian translator for my interview. I guess waiting around for a week during the rally wouldn’t be an option.
I’m not surprised that they care about your marital status—I had to endure a lecture from a friendly Tajik ambassador about my age (27 at the time) and my fertility. When they’re holding your passport you just nod and smile!
By Anil April 19, 2011 - 1:45 pm
The second paragraph had me laughing out loud! 😀
By [email protected] April 19, 2011 - 3:11 pm
Looks like a great service – too bad their country list is pretty sparse (to date just 15, looks like mainly for the Mongol Rally.)
But hopefully they’ll swiftly add more countries, so I’ve bookmarked the site for future reference – thanks!
By Anya April 19, 2011 - 4:45 pm
The process of applying for a Russian visa is really frustrating but it is even harder to obtain a U.S. visa for a Russian national, so I guess it is a “lose-lose” situation. I wish governments would just cancel visas as an unnecessary obstacle for impassioned travelers. 🙂 Great tips by the way!
By Randy April 19, 2011 - 9:13 pm
Excellent post! I haven’t had to deal with any difficult visas yet, but this great information to have in my back pocket.
By Barbara Weibel April 19, 2011 - 9:58 pm
I have now officially scratched Russia off my list.
By CanCan April 20, 2011 - 1:59 am
Dang, keep your country to yourself, then!
By Audrey April 20, 2011 - 3:52 am
This left me nodding and laughing throughout. The bureaucracy and paperwork for this part of the world is rather unrivaled. I remember we had to print part of the Kazakh visa law (from 6 months prior) and submit it with our application to the Kazakh consulate in Uzbekistan to prove to them that we didn’t need Letters of Invitations. Then, I got into a test of the wills with the Kazakh consulate when I went to pick up the visas because we insisted we have a sponsor in Kazakhstan to “take care of us because your embassy won’t.”
Haven’t attempted a Russian visa since they changed regulations and made it more difficult. Good luck and keeping fingers crossed it all comes through soon!
By Cailin April 22, 2011 - 4:19 pm
I never realized getting a Russian Visa was such tough work! I wonder if that is just an American thing? It will be interesting to see how Dave and Deb make out with it, fellow Canadians and all 🙂
By Jacquie Whitt April 26, 2011 - 8:58 pm
This story on visas caught my eye because I was stuck in Peru for a week last month trying to get a visa for a Cambodian student who was traveling with my school group.
One word of advice to everyone. Even after you get your precious visas! Please, review and go over every single detail. People make mistakes. Best to find that little mistake while you sit on your own comfy couch.
The student in my group was not allowed to board our return flight because of a tiny error on her visa that was not caught by anyone (even this eagle-eye teacher). I had to send the other students back to the US without me and she and I stayed behind. The process to get the problem fixed turned out to be the process one takes to get an ordinary visa! Contrary to what you may have been taught about US embassies, you don’t just walk in and talk to an “American”. They have guns!
In other words, no urgency! We had to get our congressman to contact the state department to explain that is was an “emergency” visa application. Rest assured, this teacher learned her lesson about checking the fine print.
By Adam Pervez April 28, 2011 - 2:20 am
Thanks for this useful post. I’m going to start traveling soon. Although I won’t need any visas in the beginning, as I get going I will. Thanks!
By Sherry April 30, 2011 - 6:52 pm
Good luck with your upcoming travels and planning! I just heard that I have received my Russia visa…so only 3 more to go…fingers crossed!
By Leif Harum September 20, 2011 - 3:43 pm
O lord, what a visa nightmare. Visa’s and their costs make me so resentful. If you ask me, it shouldn’t cost a thing to traverse the worlds borders.
By Derek4Real September 23, 2011 - 11:42 am
Wildly awesome post! I’ve never heard of the Visa Machine but I am checking it out now… And I do agree with Leif, although I understand why that will never be; if you have the money to travel, they figure you can afford to grease a few palms along the way.
I’ve been trying to obtain a Visa to DPRK but now I’m going to put the team @ Visa Machine on it. Thanks for the tip, I’ll let y’all know how it goes!
By Savio December 20, 2012 - 10:45 pm
Definition of visa:
1. The bane of all travellers.
2. A form of money grab.
3. A type of entertainment except it is often costly.
I have the ‘pleasure’ of applying for a Russian and a Chinese visa. In both cases, I was reminded of Kafka. I lived near Toronto but the Chinese Counsulate has outsourced the visa business. So, in addition to the visa, one has to pay a handling fee.
The following was the exchange between the agent and me:
A: why do you want a visa?
Me: to travel to Beijing.
A. Why do you want to go there?
Me: to travel.
A: who invited you?
A: without an invitation, you won’t get a visa.
Me: but I don’t know anybody in China.
A: Just find anyone who wold give you a photocopy of his or her ID card.
A: or provide the address and phone number of the hotel you will be staying. Don’t forget o fill in the phone number.
After the paperwork and submitting a photo with the exact dimensions on a pure white background, the visa was ready 3 weeks later. Oh, it is $138 for double entries within six months. Of course, the visas are valid from the date the application was issued.
By Jakeq June 18, 2014 - 7:20 am
The Visa machine is a crock of proverbial.
It is not only incompetence. but the information seems not to be passed down throughout its ranks.
I sent my visa in two month ahead of time and missed my flight/tour because of their incompetence.
Beware. They are useless.
By John March 30, 2015 - 11:41 am
The Visa Machine are useless Im afraid.
They are doing our mongol rally visas, and managed to send all teams the wrong forms to fill out.
You can email them all day, but they will never reply.
Phoning them leads to getting whatever answer will get you off the phone fastest. Regardless if it’s correct or not.
By Sherry April 1, 2015 - 1:39 am
sorry to hear you are having a bad experience – I understand it can be frustrating. Hope it all gets worked out. Are you doing the rally this summer?
By Damien Redfern January 9, 2016 - 8:26 pm
DO NOT USE THE VISA MACHINE!!!!!!!!!!! I have been waiting for 2 months for my payment to be returned and they have made no effort what so ever despite countless emails. Use a trusted visa service not this one. Maybe they are good if you have no problem but if you have any issues they will keep all your cash and genrally keep making excuses. I have been travelling for 8 years and this is the worst visa company I have ever used.