Why is it so hard
“England Trip?? Spring break”
“If we do decide to go to Europe/UK, let me know a bit early! I will have to get a visa :')))”
Around mid-February, after our initial thoughts of going to England, my friends and I looked up other potential travel destinations and decided we’d rather go to Canada, as it was cheaper. That was when the Catch-22 started. By the time we planned out an itinerary for the Canada trip, ambitious to visit Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec, as opposed to just one city, it was already too late. It was still a month away from spring break, but in the timeframe of visas, this was nothing.
Some people have been surprised to learn that I need a visa to visit the neighbor up north for spring break. At this point, I just assume I need a visa for every country I think of visiting, except for Southeast Asian and East Asian countries. A Thai passport just isn’t powerful enough to spontaneously visit another country, and this is what I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.
Initially, feeling hopeful, I thought I might be able to obtain a visa to Canada within one month. I filled out the application, which was eight pages long and similar to a tax form. It wasn’t extremely difficult, but I needed to tediously dig up a lot of random information about my life. I gathered documents, including the required detailed itinerary (which was why I couldn’t have applied earlier), a history of countries I’ve been in the past ten years, my bank statements for the past three months, and documentation certifying that I’m residing in the U.S. legally with my student visa. Isn’t that quite a pain? Why does a country's government need so much personal information about my life just for me to visit for a few days? I was about to send all of that in and pay the $185 fee, but went first to check the wait time for a Canadian tourist visa for a person applying from the United States.
That was a whole four months, way past spring break. Simply put, it was impossible for me to get a visa to Canada in time. As such, we had to change our destination for spring break.
So my spring break trip to Puerto Rico was fun. But I still felt bad that after planning and being all hyped up for Canada, I, and the bureaucracy required to move this person across a border, was the bottleneck for where my friends could travel. I felt a bit existential — we're all just flesh and bones, but somehow, this particular body is not permitted to cross a border lmao. It let me down for a while. I complained. I sighed.
“You guys are lucky to be born in this country and not have to deal with this bullshit.”
Then it was April. I got my hopes up again with a new plan to go to Europe at the end of the summer. Surely half a year is enough to go through this bureaucracy, right?
The United Kingdom is not part of the Schengen Area, a conglomerate of countries in Europe that allow free travel between them, and as such, my plans to go visit my brother in Scotland and then hop to mainland Europe required two visas. The U.K. visa is kinder in that it doesn’t require a detailed itinerary to apply, and it allows for multiple visits as long as they’re within six months. But I had a pretty bad experience with the U.K. visa system when I tried to attend my brother’s graduation three years ago, so I set my expectations incredibly low. Given my prior experience, I knew I had to start early.
I started my application mid-April, filled in the 14-pages, and booked an in-person appointment for late May in Pittsburgh, because that was where I could get the earliest appointment. There weren't any more Boston dates left for the rest of the semester, so I had to take off during a work day in the first week of my internship. A lot of people don't realize you have to appear in person for an appointment to get a visa — they usually assume it's an online application that magically works out, but this isn't the case. The visa application process includes going to a DMV-ish office (sometimes the DMV itself) to get my fingerprints and photo taken. I’m lucky that I found an office within the same city that I was going to be living in for the summer. Some states have a single office to handle this.
$135 for the U.K. visa application,
my student visa to prove I’m here legitimately,
and $120 more, apparently for this third party company VFS Global, to assist me with sending my documents to the U.K. Embassy in New York and back to Pittsburgh,
I dropped off my passport at a UPS store in Pittsburgh right after my biometric appointment in late May, and off it went. One ding of a notification from VFS Global came after Memorial Day weekend, to tell me my documents were now at U.K. Visas and Immigration.
And that was the last time I heard from VFS Global.
See, the visa application process is incredibly opaque and untrackable, even with these companies advertising trackability. Why can’t I see any queue or updates regarding my most precious possession, my passport? Even concert tickets have this figured out way better — this is 2022, right?! This was the most information I had about how long the process was going to take:
Standard visitor visa applications are currently taking on average 6 weeks to process. We are working hard to process applications to get back to the 3-week service standard.
You should get a decision on your visa within 3 weeks once you attend your appointment at the visa application centre… 
I read this and was filled with anger. I wish it wasn’t so hard to move this person that longs to travel from one place to another. After calming down, I told myself:
At least it isn’t 124 days.
What could I do other than praying that my passport would come back soon, just so that I could repeat this whole process for the Schengen visa? There was no time to waste, though — I started my application for the Schengen visa right after I sent off my passport, before my passport came back to me, and booked an appointment, playing with the risk that I might not have my passport in time for the appointment. The Schengen Area visa has to be applied for through the main country of destination, so I filled out Switzerland’s four page application, paid 80 euros…
For a Schengen visa, the entire U.S. has four offices to handle biometrics.
So, I had to go from Pittsburgh to New York so that I could put my fingers on this funky machine, just to turn around and go back.
The New York consulate’s first available date for the Switzerland visa was … September 1. That would be after the start of my trip. And I had already paid 80 euros just to see that I couldn’t do it. What kind of terrible user interface is this — where I couldn’t even see available appointment dates until after I paid for the application?!
“Contingency plan: search up every fucking country in the EU's application process and appointment dates for New York… Manually… Sorry I’m spamming, I’m fuming”
Indeed I was. I actually did consider going instead to San Francisco … or Washington, D.C. … or even Atlanta … but because I couldn’t see available appointment dates unless I paid for the application (which doesn’t transfer between the countries’ offices, by the way). I didn’t want to risk throwing my money down the drain. I looked at Danish embassies instead, which allowed me to see appointment dates before applying (see, it isn’t too hard to not suck) and found out that there were availabilities for July 1 in Washington DC and July 15 in New York. Because I couldn’t be sure that my passport was going to come back to me on July 1, four weeks after I sent in my passport, I went for the New York one instead. I paid 80 euros a second time.
If you’re getting confused about the whole process so far, I’d like to say you’re not alone. I was confused at first too, before complaining, giving up, then following along and untangling all the logistics. I interlaced two visa application processes together because I just didn’t have enough time: a few months is still a few months short for this extreme bureaucracy. If you'd like guidance on the process and see more illustratively why it got me frustrated, see the simplified timeline in the form of a Candy Land board accompanying this article.
Without my passport, I couldn’t travel by plane. This meant, assuming first and foremost that I got my passport back before July 15, either I would take the train from New York on the way back, or, to solve this problem in the long run, apply to get a Massachusetts state ID so I could fly back, which would require travel to Boston. Possibly by train because of this mess. So I did the reasonable thing … and booked both flights and trains to Boston, juggling my PTO days for this feat of logistics.
By late June, my anxiety was rising. Time was ticking. Where was my passport?
“idk why i got myself into this labyrinth of two visas, one mass id and several out-of-state trips ;-;”
Miraculously, on the 23rd, a mysterious UPS delivery notice appeared on my front door. It was truly amazing news, despite the fact that I had to wait another day to catch the UPS driver! All my trains could now be canceled. June 30, Boston, for the Mass ID. It took two weeks for the ID to arrive, leaving three days to spare before I had to fly to New York for the Denmark biometrics appointment. Again: four pages of application, recently taken photos, my U.S. student visa for legitimacy, three months of bank statements, proof of enrollment in MIT, detailed itinerary, hotel and flight bookings, and travel insurance certificate of coverage. That was a mouthful — the Schengen asked for so much. As you may notice, there’s another Catch-22 situation here: hotel and flight bookings are needed to apply for a visa, and the visa is needed before you can fly to the country and sleep in a hotel. Ridiculous, right?! For this, one can either purchase cancelable flights and hotels, or go use a sketchy dummy ticket service that costs a hundred dollars and “guarantees acceptance by Schengen visa.”
Oh, VFS Global “assists” the Denmark visa application process as well. My Denmark biometric appointment was at VFS headquarters, where employees also went through my documents and sent them to the Danish consulate for me. $65 for a one way delivery of my passport back to Pittsburgh, since I went all the way to New York myself already. What’s the grand total now? Four hundred and eighty dollars. One ding of a notification from VFS, and my passport went away into the unknown again.
Almost three weeks later, August 4, is the date this article was written. My anxiety has risen, yet again, because my passport has essentially gone missing for all this time. Yesterday, the Danish consulate called me to ask for additional documents, because I missed some.
“bruh. BRUH. I NEED TO SEND MORE DOCUMENTS WITHIN THE NEXT 2-3 DAYS, ONE OF WHICH I BROUGHT TO NEW YORK BUT SOME WORKER SAID I DON’T NEED TO SEND IT IN. I’M LIKE. UGH”
VFS Global assists the Denmark visa application process
I scrambled, during work, to regather additional documents, get a FedEx shipping label, go home for one original document, and go to FedEx before it closed at 7 p.m. I was not successful, so I bussed to the main FedEx ship center of Pittsburgh, which closed at 8:30 p.m. Success. Small win. My documents were delivered this morning, and the Danish consulate sent me an email:
The documents were received by email and by Fedex. There are no other requests for further information at this time. The application will continue processing.
I have one week left in Pittsburgh before I go on the trip I started planning half a year ago, and I’m still waiting for my passport. This whole trip can still fall through. Last Catch-22, for those wondering if I could start earlier: I’m close to hitting the limit for the earliest time to apply for a visa. Most countries only allow visa applications for trips three or six months in advance.
Take your guess if I made it to the U.K. and Europe.
There are priority tracks, but it comes at the cost of about a couple brass rats or so.