The Great Schengen Adventure

In the previous post, I complained at length about my visa struggles. However, the one visa that is the bane of my existence (and thus deserves special mention) is the Schengen visa, which allows entry to the Schengen Zone (EU minus the UK and Ireland, but plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein). While the US makes an effort to expedite applications of those who have been to the US before and will grant longer-term visitor visas, the Schengen countries will give you just enough for your visit and make you reapply again. And again. And again. The requirements are also quite elaborate and seem to be at the whims of the visa officer. The insurance letter, for example, MUST state a very specific combination of words (never mind synonyms), and be prepared to give your last three pay stubs, bank statements for the last three months, flight reservations, and accommodation reservations. If you want to stay with a friend or family, be prepared to deal with the letter of invitation. As I usually stay with my aunt in France, she has to provide me with an Attestation d’Accueil, which is essentially a form that says that she has a house and is willing to host me. To get this form, she must go to the local mairie, fill out a form, pay a fee, wait for a week before picking it up, and then mail it to me. Yes, snail mail (this may be France-specific, as I recall reading that the Austrians let you do this all online). Then I must take the form to my visa appointment, which usually has to be planned at least a month in advance. If something happens to your visa application and you must reapply? Too bad; once the Attestation d’Accueil is used in a failed application, you have to get a new one. From France. By snail mail. Maybe I’ll just go to Las Vegas and see the Eiffel Tower there…

The consulates also vary in their policies. The French consulate in New York is wildly inconsistent in attitude (here is their Yelp page for reference), while the French consulate in Los Angeles was a delight to deal with (and seemed very short-staffed, so I really appreciated the effort). Also, last I checked, for whatever reason, Vietnam is in a list of countries that requires extra time for processing, so lucky us (we’re mysteriously on this list only in New York but not at other consulates in the US). I’ve heard the French are moving some of their visa procedures online, but as with most things related to French bureaucracy, I’m not keen to try it out unless I have to.

You also have to carry all these papers with you when you travel. This happened to me, my mother, and my sister as we were going from Cairo back to Paris to catch a flight to New York. A German guy with CSA Czech Airlines (to this day I don’t know what his official capacity is) refused to let us board because we didn’t have our insurance letter with us, even though this insurance was a necessity for getting the visa in the first place. We tried to explain this to him to no avail – he did not speak English or French, and the Egyptians could not help us since he also did not speak Arabic. Goodness knows what he was doing there. And because European airlines are especially awful, we had to buy a new ticket with Cypriot Airways, and, armed with our insurance paper, went back to the airport the next day where the Greek guy at the counter asked for…nothing. I have also never been asked for this form since, but I still always carry it. Arbitrary bureaucracy at its best. Don’t expect to get sympathy from many Europeans either – when I told a Dutch cyclist I ran into in Uzbekistan about this, he sneered and told me that it was necessary to “keep out the migrants”. I suppose transparency and efficiency are too much to ask for.

As harrowing as these experiences sound, they are far from uncommon. A Vietnamese friend studying at a well-known university in the US wanted to do an internship in France for the summer, so she went to the French consulate in New York. No such luck, since her US visa expires before she leaves France, even though her round-trip ticket was from Vietnam (where she would also be renewing her US visa). No matter, she thought; she tries to apply for it in Vietnam, only to be told that since she spends more than six months out of the year in the US, she cannot apply in Vietnam since she is not a resident (never mind that she is a citizen). It also doesn’t seem to be limited only to the French – a Chinese friend of mine had to shuttle back and forth from central Virginia to Washington, DC because of some paper technicalities demanded by the German embassy. Such is life.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The US, as already mentioned, allows visa renewals to be done by mail. The UK will give six months automatically. Australia allows online applications. Canada encourages people to apply for longer visas, and in my experience, their consulates have been unfailingly polite. Of course, all this has enormous implications for my travel patterns, and I’d imagine the travel patterns of lots of other Vietnamese. This summer, for example, my mother wants to treat herself and take her first proper holiday in many years. She really wants to go to Greece, but decided not to based on the onerous visa requirements (which would have meant that she had to go to Hanoi to do an interview). Instead, it looks like we might go to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, both of which offer visas on arrival for us. So long, Santorini, I guess. Europe has made its priorities clear, so we have to make our choices accordingly.