Maxing out the Schengen Visa in the Balkans

We travelled to a number of non-schengen countries in the Balkans recently, using our multiple entry Schengen visa issued by Slovenia. Some details are below.

  • Serbia. Technically Indian passport holders don’t need a visa. But the immigration authorities at Belgrade airport and at the Mali Dvornik road border crossing both checked and scanned our Schengen visa. At road border they also checked our car papers for car insurance documents.
  • Croatia. We entered Croatia at a number of road border crossings. Each time they checked our Schengen visa. They never checked car documents. Ours was a Serbia registered rental car.
  • Bosnia-i-Hercegovina. They also checked our Schengen visa and let us in (at two different border crossings including one between Montenegro and Bosnia). They also checked car insurance papers.
  • Montenegro. They also checked our Schengen visa and let us in . They also checked car insurance papers.

Overall the Schengen visa was very useful in the Balkans! And these countries are a pleasure to drive in. I found Bosnia to be especially beautiful.

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Russia – 3 Day Transit Visa

We flew to Europe via Moscow a few weeks back. We decided to stay 2 nights in Moscow. For this we were able to get a “Transit” visa rather than a full Tourist Visa. The Transit Visa is much easier to get. Key requirements are listed below:

Documents Needed:

  • Hotel bookings in Moscow
  • Flight bookings showing arrival and departure from Moscow
  • Filled Application form
  • Passport sized photos
  • Approx INR 2500 per person application fee

The visa took around 10 working days to process. We applied at the Russia Visa application centre at Barakhamba Road. Had to go there with an appointment after filling the application form online.

Restriction on this visa is that your stay can’t be more than 3 days. But it saves the hassle of finding a local sponsor etc.

Moscow is one the most beautiful and friendly cities I have seen. Well worth the hassle of getting a visa.

Slovenia – Schengen Visa

My wife and I recently got a multiple entry tourist Schengen visa from Slovenia in New Delhi. Below is an outline of the process and experience:

Application Centre: VFS at Baba Kharak Singh Marg in Delhi

Key Documents needed:

  • Filled Application Form
  • Hotel Bookings in Schengen Zone (had to have more time in Slovenia than in other countries).
  • Flight Bookings (they demanded confirmed paid-for flights)
  • Travel Insurance (I bought from ICICI Prudential).
  • About Rs. 13,000 (for two people) Application Fee paid in Cash (no credit card accepted) at VFS

We were also visiting Croatia on this trip and intended to use our Slovenia visa for Croatia as well. The VFS officer advised us that if we showed less time in Schengen zone than in Croatia, the visa will get denied.

We had to show that we were entering Slovenia multiple times, in order to get a multiple entry visa.

It took 3-4 working days to process after submitting the documents.

Overall easy process. And Slovenia is a country well worth visiting!

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.

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