Everything you need to know about getting a Visa

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The visa process is long and frustrating. When I say long, I’m estimating three months. It will take you at least a month to gather appropriate documentation, another month to smooth out any hiccups, and another month for your respective consulate to process and mail it to you.

I hate paperwork. I also hate bureaucracy. So this whole visa thing was unnecessarily stressful for me in the months before I came to Spain– which is why I want to help you! I scoured the internet for articles about what to expect during this application period, but I found next to nothing. Over time I figured out the process on my own by trial and error. Here is what to expect and some tips to get through it!  This advice is based on my experience applying for a 6-month au pair visa to Spain as an American citizen. Please note that all expectations and requirements differ based on country and individual consulate.

Visas and passports are two different things.

Person: Hey! You all ready for your trip?
Me: Just about! I’m just working out some kinks with my visa.
Person: Oh, I thought you already had one? You’ve been abroad before.
Me: I have a passport. Not a visa.
Person: Ohhhhhh.

A passport is a travel document required to enter a country that is not your native country. Visas are required for long-term international travel, and they are issued inside of passports. If you stay in a country long-term without a visa (a.k.a. illegally), there is a chance that you will be detained and/or charged when you try to leave that country.

“This is a lot of work for one little stamp.”

When you are making your travel plans, you need to figure out if your country of destination requires a visa for the amount of time you are going. I could explain to you all the regulations and laws I’ve learned in this process about the privileges of American, Canadian, and EU citizens, but I’ll spare you the political jargon.

Once you figure out what type of visa you need for your period of travel, you need to find your region’s consulate, and then you need to study their requirements. I went through a travel agency and I made the mistake of going by the travel agency’s checklist and not the Spanish consulate’s. (Read impassioned rant at the conclusion of the article, for help or entertainment).

Visa requirements differ for all countries, but generally ask for the following: passport, proof of international insurance, federal background check, proof of university enrollment (student visa), au pair contract (au pair visa), proof of employment (business visa), medical clearance from your physician. Most consulates conduct an in-person interview of the applicant for thorough assessment.

All about the consulate

Consulate vs. Embassy
Just like there is a difference between passports and visas, there is a mega difference between consulates and embassies. An embassy is the larger, more powerful government office, located in a country’s capital. An embassy is the home country’s representative and handles major diplomatic issues abroad. A consulate is a smaller government division which handles minor diplomatic relations, and these offices are scattered across each country, acting as smaller versions of an embassy. Consulates specifically handle visa documentation.

The Interview
The consular “interview” was not what I expected at all. Since it was called an interview, I expected that I would be called into a private area or room to be interviewed by the mysterious consulate, who may or may not be wearing some large and important-looking hat. No. I presented my papers to a person behind a Plexiglas barrier, and he spoke to me through a microphone. There were several people in the lobby area and they could hear our conversations. There was no privacy, and it wasn’t an interview.

These interactions are tricky because you absolutely must keep your cool, even if you’re being degraded. But at the same time you must stand your ground. I had studied the documentation so much that I knew the visa application requirements verbatim. So when the consulate tried to ask me for a legalized document that I knew I didn’t need, I could communicate that in a respectful manner to defend my application and my intelligence. You can’t let them walk all over you, or else you’ll never get your visa issued. At the same time, you can’t mouth off or disrespect the officers, or else you’ll never get your visa issued. Remind yourself that these consular officers are just doing their job. Be smart and stay calm.

In my time in the consulate’s lobby, I also witnessed some entitled American college boy and his dad demand they get a visa for a trip that was two weeks from that particular application date. I’m sure the consulate deals with people like that all the time, so be patient and kind and they will love you.

Consular discretion advised
Unfortunately you’re under the discretion of the individual processing your documents. They may have certain preferences that other individuals in the office do not, and you must comply with those. For example, my consular officer demanded that I take more extensive classes while I am in Spain although my class already fulfilled the requirement according to the visa checklist on the website. He refused to accept my documents until I registered for a larger class. Because that was his preference, I had to register for another class.

Travel agencies

The good, the bad, and the ugly
I decided to employ a travel agency because I’m no longer a student with an adviser to use as a resource. No one in my family has traveled abroad. So to the travel agencies I went. Unfortunately I did not have a good experience with mine. I chose TraVisa because I read great reviews that they do good work for a fair price; however, they were only minimally helpful to me. First of all, the checklist on their website is misleading and incorrect. I followed it religiously and when it came time to mail my application to them, they asked me for several documents that were not even listed on their website. Secondly, one of the main reasons I chose to go with a travel agency is because I wanted to use their liaison system and skip the 6 hour drive to Chicago to turn in my documents to the consulate. Along with the phone call about my missing documents, I learned that I had to turn them in myself! In Chicago. This was so inconvenient, unexpected, and unprofessional. To make matters worse, I scheduled my consular interview at 9:00am. TraVisa, who already had my documents, opens at 9:00am. No one from the agency gave me any warning about this, and I had to scramble into TraVisa headquarters five minutes before my consular appointment. If consular appoinments start at that time, wouldn’t you think TraVisa would open its doors earlier? I was told a TraVisa officer would escort me to the consulate, but no one did. I was sent out into rainy ChiTown on my own to find this place with only five minutes to spare. And finally, the worst part of it all happened when I actually had my consular interview and the consulate refused to take my documents, as I was missing pieces according to their standards. One of those was a medical certificate from my doctor stating that I am free of contagious diseases. My travel agent told me that the “medical certificate” was not a medical certificate, but actually proof of international insurance. So at the advice of my travel agent, I skipped the letter and got Spanish insurance. When it turns out that all along the certificate is the certificate. It was all so confusing. There were so many misunderstandings. TraVisa finally became helpful when I needed a liaison to return to the consulate with my completed application packWage. They saved me a second trip to Chicago. They also picked the visa up for me and FedEx it to me. This logistical help almost outweighs their bad communication.

Legalizing documents
My trip is under 180 days, so I thankfully got to skip this part of the application process. However, some people are required to have various documents legalized by the Apostille of the Hague. When I first read this, my initial reaction was What in the hell is the Apostille of the HAGUE? I had never heard of such a thing in my ENTIRE LIFE. Once I figured it out, I realized it sounds worse than it really is. I’ll summarize for you, but here is where you can read about it in depth.

Apostille Info

If you need a document legalized, first you have to acquire the document from the appropriate federal or state agency. The best example is the background check. You will go to your local police station or local fingerprinting agency, have that completed, then wait for the official results. Once you get the results, you have to mail them to the FBI department in your region that does legalizations. Sometimes you have to send the documents to Washington, D.C. Then you have to wait for the FBI to send it back to you. Overall this process can take up to 3 weeks when you add up all the waiting and postage. Although I didn’t have to do this, this is part of the process that had little to no information, so hopefully this is helpful!

Best of luck!

Hopefully some of this information saves you time and sanity! I got my visa very quickly after my documents were accepted– less than 2 weeks! Application and processing time differs everywhere, so be responsible and give yourself enough time for everything! Or else you will spend New Year’s Eve sipping champagne, weeping about whether or not your visa will come in time. 😉 Please comment with any questions. I’d love to help you out!

You can view my endless European Instagrams under @jamie.redman

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