Fair warning, this is a rather word heavy blog entry!
When you travel there are certain things that are necessary before even thinking of leaving home. One of these is looking into visa requirements.
When we returned from our camper van trip we knew that we had to apply for 4 visas before heading out again. All four of these required their own trip to London in order to apply, their own paperwork, turn-around time and would cost a small fortune.
British passport holders are (currently) very lucky – there are over 170 countries that British passport holders can visa free for a specific period of time ranging from 14 days to indefinite stay, and many more where you can obtain a visa on arrival. That being said, there are some places where it is beneficial to gain a visa in your home country, for example, it is possible to get a 2, 5 or even 10 year visa for China from the embassy in London, but only a one month visa from embassies outside of the UK. Naturally, longer visas cost more, but they also offer more opportunities.
So, 4 visas: each say they require a week turnaround (although you can pay for it to be quicker!)
China, Mongolia, Russia and Belarus. This is essentially our trip backwards, but it is necessary to go in that order for us. Mongolia wouldn’t offer our visa without the Chinese one as that is our stated country of exit, same when it comes to Russia needing to know that we are allowed to enter Mongolia and Belarus won’t give a visa without proving you are allowed to leave into Russia.
But even one of them requires hoops of different sorts to be jumped through! These were our experiences in applying for the 4 above.
For British citizens applying from the UK the visa is now 2 year, multiple-entry as standard. But they have yet to update their forms, so they only offer one month – it is up to you to cross out that option and write in the 2 year bit. Every person applying for a visa must be present, and you must book your appointment in advance (the first appointment is often a good 3 weeks in the future, but if you go though a company then your visa meeting can usually be fitted in that day or the next…) This is somewhat annoying as it costs quite a bit more to apply through a travel company than it does to apply individually – and the price is already quite high at £151 per person for a 2 year.
You must also provide your travel arrangements, booking of any places that you are to stay and a full itinerary list for your entire stay. Naturally, if you are going with a tour company, this information is easy to come by. But when you travel as we do – finding places to stay as you go, changing plans on a day-to-day basis (if you even make a plan to begin with) and generally making it up as you go along, then this is quite tough! The general consensus from forums was that you make hotel bookings on booking.com with a free cancellation policy and then once you have been given your visa you can cancel them and travel how you normally do. Whatever your actual plans though, it is best not to put down if you are travelling to Tibet, as your visa is most likely to get rejected. And annoyingly, if your visa is rejected for any reason, you still have to pay the £151 fee!
Our biggest issue was that we were travelling by train through China, and train tickets are not released until 45 days before travel – by which point we would be half way across Russia. So we did not have tickets to leave the country. When we arrived for our visa meeting we were told that it would be OK, but that we needed to write a letter stating that we would be leaving by train and this would go in our application files. We did this. We then had the following conversation…
Visa Official: How are you leaving China?
Us: By train, but we can’t buy the tickets because they aren’t yet released.
Visa Official: Then we don’t think you will leave China.
Us: We will, we just can’t book the train yet.
VO: Then you need to book your flight back to England.
Us: We aren’t going back to England.
VO: Why not? You have to go back to England from China.
Us: We are continuing on travelling. We are moving to New Zealand.
VO: then we need your flight to New Zealand. Because otherwise we don’t think you are leaving China.
Us: We haven’t booked our flight to New Zealand yet, we don’t know when we are going to arrive.
VO: Then you have to write a letter promising that you will leave China.
Us: We already have, it’s in the file.
VO: Oh, well that’s OK then. But how do you get to China?
Us: By train, we arrive from Mongolia on [date] on [train number]
VO: So you aren’t flying? How do you get to Mongolia?
Us: We are travelling on the Trans-Siberian through to China.
VO: Well then we need your flight into Moscow.
US: We aren’t flying into Moscow, we are catching the train from England.
VO: Well we need your train booking.
Us: We haven’t booked it yet.
VO: Then we don’t believe you are leaving England.
Us: … (All I wanted to do was laugh and cry a little whilst informing them that if we make it to the Chinese border, we have left England)
So, we booked our trains, had to book our flight to NZ and were granted our visas. The kicker: it is a multiple-entry, 2 year visa where we can now enter China as many times as we like across the next 2 years for up to 90 days at a time WITHOUT offering any travel plans. Visa applications are often just bureaucracy for bureaucracy sake.
Mongolian visa applications are far easier than Chinese ones. You don’t even have to be there to apply. The visa office only opens at very specific times and is down in a basement in the embassy house, and they offer a same-day turn around (provided that you pay £20 extra per application, which considering the transportation costs for us to get down to London, this cost was worth it for us)
The only ‘issue’ we had with this application was in paying for it. It is not possible to pay at the embassy, instead you must apply, be given a slip, take that to the bank round the corner, withdraw the cash (it must be cash) and pay the money into the account given with the reference number on your slip. Only then will your application be processed, so if you want same-day it is worth heading up there pretty sharpish!
No crazy conversations, but everyone must apply in person as you are required to give fingerprints before they will process your application. The room is insanely hot, and the finger print machines will not read your prints if your hands are not bone dry – so sweaty hands are not helpful! You will be given a visa for the exact dates on your application, so it is worth giving yourself a day either side of your expected entry and exit if you are travelling by train – you don’t want to find that you cross the border at 11.30pm and thus your visa isn’t valid because you are there half an hour early! You also need a ‘letter of invitation’ which you do need to pay a travel company to sort for you if you do not know anyone in the country. We found that Real Russia was incredibly good value for money for this, and also for booking our train tickets (I will write about the Trans-Siberian at a future date) The cost is not great £88 per person, and that is with a one week turnaround. For next day, the price jumps to £140 – for us this wasn’t a cost worth giving, especially as it would require another train trip down to pick up the passports the following afternoon, and we could only submit our next visa in the morning – with the longer wait, we could pick up in the morning, allowing us to submit the same day, thus saving a train fare along with the extra visa costs.
Our one big problem with the application form was the requirement that you must detail all countries you have visited, and what dates you entered and exited them, within the past 10 years. 10 years of travel is a lot, I could tell you all the countries I have visited in that time, I might even be able to tell you which years I went to them. But I could not tell you what dates we were there! And after the camper trip, I don’t even think I could say what dates we were in each country within the past 3 months! So, after a lot of panicking, digging through photo albums to find date stamps etc, we established that the only ones we needed to prove were the ones we already had visa stamps for – and they are all conveniently dated!
The application form for the Belarusian visa was really straight forward in comparison. All we need was to ensure that our Russian visa was accepted to prove our onward travel. The weird bit about that one though: paying for it. Embassy in London, the UK tends to work in GBP, but you can’t pay for it in pounds. You can’t pay by card or bank transfer either. You also can’t pay in Belarusian Roubles. You have to pay for it in Euros. This makes no sense, and there is nowhere that tells you this in advance, so then you have to go on the hunt for a Bureau de Change to turn your money into Euros. And depending on the exchange rate of the day, this means you visa can cost different amounts!
At the end of a long month of applications, waiting to find out if visas have been granted, and almost £700 later, we can depart the UK and we have been forced into a travel itinerary, so we know where we are going, and when we are going – something we are not quite used to!
Alongside all these, we have already had to apply for our working-holiday visas for New Zealand. We applied online and after a medical check involving chest x-rays, diabetes checks, other blood works, a small physical examination and medical history checks, we were granted our 23 month visa relatively hassle free. Of course it cost a small fortune (over £300 per person for the medical alone, and that can only be performed by specific doctors so there were travel costs involved there too) as well as over £100 for the visa application, not even mentioning the money you have to prove that you have to support yourself for the time on entry to the country… but the money is all worth it, the memories are the important part after all! Plus, you can always earn more (hopefully) Altogether we have spent around £1,500 on visa applications alone this year. Certain things involving travel are not cheap, but on the whole, travelling can be done on a very low budget if that is what you want.
Whenever you travel, it is always important to check the visa requirements – The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is the best place to look as it is always up to date and offers advice on other travel requirements such as vaccinations or travel warnings due to weather, natural disaster or conflict. Some places will not need a visa, some will be on arrival and some are best to pick up before you leave your home country. Personally, I would always recommend organising your visas yourself, purely from a cost point of view; although for an easy life (or if money is not a huge consideration) then sort your visas though a travel company and things will feel super smooth!
Check out my previous article about visas here: Those Pesky Visas
What are your visa experiences? Ever been asked to prove something ridiculous when applying? Let us know in the comments.