Russian Visa Shakedown

Ran into the following requirement of the Russian Embassy when trying to apply for a tourist visa in New Delhi:

The original tourist/hotel voucher issued by a Russian tourist agency/hotel, which is registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs  (MFA) of the Russian Federation containing the necessary data of a traveler (name, date of birth, etc.), period of stay (date of entry and departure), name of receiving Russian travel agency, list of services paid for (transportation, accommodation, sightseeing, etc.), signed by a representative of the tourist agency, stamped with the agency’s seal and bearing an official MFA reference number. Faxed and scanned copies are not accepted.

I consulted my trusted travel agent on this and learned that the voucher has to come from a registered travel agency in Russia. And these travel agencies demand INR 20,000 (USD 300 approx.) for issuing a letter for one traveller.

Ain’t nothing but an old fashioned shake-down. Needless to say, Russia trip postponed till their Ministry of Foreign Affairs becomes more tourist friendly.

Update: I wrote to 2 separate hotels (in Moscow and St. Petersburg). Both confirmed that they will send me the required letters in Scan copy via email. But there are some further complications:

  • The local visa application centre here in Delhi refuses to accept scan copies – their website clearly says that the original must be couriered or mailed – impossible to predict how long that will take.
  • The hotel gives the letter for free, but says that they will charge 2000-3500 roubles if I take the letter but then cancel my hotel reservation.

In short – it is way too complicated and potentially expensive for a short casual visit. Russia visit cancelled for now.

Advertisements

UK Transit Visa Waiver – Denied

My wife and I were in transit in London yesterday. We had arrived on a flight from Los Angeles and were going to catch a flight to New Delhi. The UKBA website has some confusing information on a Transit Visa and a visa waiver.

Apparently, if you are flying to/from the USA/Canada/Australia/New Zealand, then you can get a transit visa waiver – at the discretion of the immigration officer. This means three things for us Indians:

  • If we are flying to a country not in the above list, from a country not in the above list and transiting in the UK, we need to apply for a Transit Visa before we travel. I.e. if we are flying, say from India to Argentina via London, we would need to get a transit visa before traveling. This applies even if we are NOT passing through immigration in the UK and NOT exiting the airport.
  • If we are flying to/from the above countries we can transit air-side (i.e. not exit the airport or go through immigration) without a transit visa. In my experience, flying from India to the USA and from the USA to India via London was pretty smooth WITHOUT a transit visa, as long as we stayed air-side.
  • Now comes the tricky part. If you are flying to/from the above countries via the UK, and want to GO THROUGH immigration (i.e. leave the airport), and don’t have a visitor visa, it is at the immigration officer’s discretion whether they will grant you a visa waiver or not.

We got caught up in the last point on our way from LA to Delhi. We had 7 hours to kill at Heathrow in transit, and thought we’d try our luck with the visa waiver. The immigration officer asked us detailed questions about our visa history and the history of our visits to Britain. Finally he told us 2 things:

  1. If we had a legitimate reason to enter the UK, like “collection & rechecking baggage” we could be given the visa waiver
  2. Because we had taken UK visas before, we know the visa law, hence we are knowingly in violation of the visa law by trying to enter without a visa.

Anyway, in the end, he didn’t let us enter. We had to stay airside. He didn’t give us any ‘entry denied’ stamp or anything similar – which was nice of him.

UK Tier 2 Visa – oh what a mess

Target country: United Kingdom
Passport country: India
Type of Visa: Employer sponsored Tier-2 General work visa

Experience:
UK Home Office is seriously trying to limit immigration into the country. This means they have tightened up a lot of processes that made it easier to get a Tier 2 or Tier 1 in the past.

I did not have time to apply for my Tier 2 by post, because of essential travel plans. The postal application takes upto 3 months to process.

So I had to go for a ‘premium appointment’. I had a look through the UKBA website, and there were no premium appointments available for the whole year! Crazy! In the past it was possible to call the UKBA and get an appointment over the phone. Now that phone number has been withdrawn. Also, in the past, Lawyers were able to access the appointment system through a separate interface and get premium appointments for an extra fee. That has also been shut down.

So, after much fretting, my lawyer (Fragomen Plc) was able to get me a premium appointment at the Sheffield public enquiry office. I went there on the day with all my paperwork, to find that there was a ‘problem with the computers’. I had to wait all day (6 hours) at the office. Even then, my passport wasn’t returned the same day (as it used to be in the past). The passport and biometric visa card came in the post almost a week later.

All in all, very frustrating and stress inducing.

To top it all off, when I tried to enter the UK at Heathrow for the first time on my new Tier 2 visa, I was ‘detained’ at the border for 15 mins. Apparently they recorded the wrong fingerprints on my biometric card. So now every time I travel to the UK, I will have to wait around for 15 mins while the officers perform additional checks before letting me in.

But here are some photos to inspire you to go live in the UK!
London Central Mosque on a Snowy Afternoon Inverness by Night Cove near Fistral Beach, Newquay

An Indian in Luxembourg

Hello Travellers & Visa Lovers 🙂

The better-half and I recently spent a weekend in Luxembourg. I know! Who goes to Luxembourg!! But it was totally worth it. An affordable luxury holiday in beautiful surroundings.

Highlights of the trip were:
1. Excellent Hotel — we stayed at the Sofitel Grand Ducal, which Tripadvisor ranks as the best hotel in Luxembourg. And it was surprisingly affordable! Service was impeccable and location was great too.

2. Beautiful Country — Luxembourg City itself is quite striking in appearance. Its full of beautiful valleys and via ducts. Think of it as Edinburgh without the grunge and drunk teenagers. Echternach and Remich were beautiful too!

Echternach
Vases in Luxembourg

3. Chilli Red Mini Convertible — From SixT rental. Was a pleasure to drive. The scenery was excellent too.

4. Very few tourists! — On the whole there were hardly any tourists. Only one group of Chinese school children and some pensioners.

5. Surprisingly Cheap — food, tourist attractions (or what few there were), public transport are all quite cheap for Western Europe standards!

6. Schengen — Visa lovers will love this 🙂 … we actually went to Schengen. The town where the agreement of the same name was signed, forming the Schengen zone and the ever elusive Schengen Visa. It was like a pilgrimage.

This is a pic of the scenery near Schengen …
Near Schengen

7. City tours that can only be described as ‘cute’. They had the offices of Arcelor Mittal on the tour. Awww … Luxembourg has a multinational.

The Downside …

1. Lack of decent vegetarian food … but we found a nice french style cafe (can’t remember the name for the life of me) near the main town square.
2. Bit dead overall — not much to do after Day 1 (we hoofed it to Brugge on Day 2).
3. Hard to get there from London, unless you fly.

Overall, I would recommend going there. But for no longer than 2 days.
If you have questions, message me on Twitter — @villdre

Ireland visa waiver for Indian Passport Holders

There’s been some buzz on the internet about being able to travel to the Republic of Ireland if you have a UK Visa in your Indian passport. For a while my Wife and I have been quite excited about this, since we both want to see Ireland.

But I checked up the exact wording of the visa waiver programme. It seems that you can only visit Ireland on a UK visa if you have a Tourist or Short term business visa. Bit of a bummer for us. I am here on a work visa and my wife on a dependant visa. Looks like we will need to get an Irish visa!

Here is the link to the exact wording on the Irish embassy website:
http://www.irelandinindia.com/home/index.aspx?id=86830

Update
Three of my friends have recently entered The Republic of Ireland under the visa-waiver programme, on a UK tourist visa. Also, my wife, who is on a UK resident visa (Tier-1 Dependant), had to apply for a tourist visa to Ireland (they gave her a single-entry visa). Note: The visa was issued to her FREE of cost and took 1 week to process.

New process for French Schengen Visa (guest post)

Guest post by Kunal. He is a US resident, currently in the UK on a short-term visa (6 to 9 months).
—————————————————–

Visa Type: Schengen Visa (tourist)
Issuing Country: France
Application Centre: TLS Contact Center, near Olympia Tube station, London

Duration of Visa Granted: 6 months
Number of days stay granted: 90 days
Time taken for processing: 2 days

Requirements:
All the standard Schengen visa documents — hotel bookings, flight bookings, photo, passport, application form, travel insurance, letter from employer, covering letter, bank statements, paychecks.

Experience:
We were able to make an appointment for one week later. There was a queue at the center and we were issued a number. Our number was not called and we saw people who came in after us being processed. When we brought that to the supervisor’s attention, she blamed it on a glitch and immediately asked us to proceed to the next available counter. The lady at the counter was nice and courteous and confirmed that we had submitted everything on the check list. The process took about 10 minutes.
We had submitted one confirmed itinerary and multiple travel plans over the next 4 months. We also had a one-year travel insurance policy. Our travel plans were for 10-12 days after the appointment. While they did not promise that we would receive the visa by that date, we received it on the third day.
Got an SMS e Email from VFS telling us that the application was sent to the French Embassy, and another SMS and Email when the Embassy returned our passports. Passport collection was painless as well.

Special Circumstances:
Since we are in London for a short-term (6-9 months) only, all our paychecks, bank statements were American. That did not seem to be a problem in obtaining the visa. There was also no problem with submitting printed copies of our paychecks and bank statements. We did have an employment verification letter from my employer in the UK.

Key points to keep in mind:
1. Book an appointment for applying. Plan ahead because appointments fill up fast.
2. Have all documents in order based on the checklist. They follow that checklist very strictly and having your documents in order will mean you spend less time on the counter.
3. List multiple travel plans over the duration that you wish to request visa for. This ensures that your need for a longer-term visa is explicit.
4. Make sure your travel insurance is valid across all planned trips otherwise you might end up with a shorter duration visa.

Tip about France: Get off the beaten path. Skip Paris and go south to the Alps. The pics below show a peak near Chamonix and sunset over Lac Leman.

Sunset over Lac Leman View from St Gervais

Belgium Schengen Visa experience in London

Visa Type: Schengen Visa (tourist)
Issuing Country: Belgium
Application Centre: VFS, Soho Square, London

Duration of Visa Granted: 3 months
Number of days stay granted: 14 days
Time taken for processing: 2 days

Requirements:
All the standard Schengen visa documents — hotel bookings, flight bookings, photo, passport, application form, travel insurance, letter from employer, covering letter.

Experience:
There was a long queue at the VFS centre, but it moved quickly. Once inside the centre, we were issued a number. Our number was called within 10 minutes. We spent another 10 mins with the lady at the counter.

Got an SMS and Email from VFS telling us when the application was sent to the Belgian Embassy, and another SMS and Email when the Embassy returned our passports.

There was another queue to collect the passports. No appointment system for collection.

Overall very smooth experience.

Key points to keep in mind:
1. Book an appointment for applying.
2. Arrive 10-15 mins before appointment time (no earlier than that).
3. Arrive 15 mins early for collecting passport
4. Be prepared to stand in line (in the open-air) for 15-20 minutes at application and collection.
5. Costs an extra £26 per head to apply at VFS.