30 June 2014

On Visas

I carry a Filipino passport. This passport happens to be the 69th best passport in the world, as there are a total of 58 countries that would typically allow a Filipino to visit without a visa. Obviously, it's not the best, if you compare that to the Finnish, Swedish, or the UK passport, which are all tied at 1st place, with a total of 173 countries allowing entry without a visa. That means that whenever I travel, for the most part, I have to apply for a visa beforehand. And I have done that several times.

See, for the most part, I get the visas that I need (I only got rejected once, which I will talk about later). Many people find applying for visas a hassle, and I guess they are, but I am of the opinion that if all of your documents are in order, then chances are, you will get it. And most of the visa applications were also hassle-free, with a few exceptions.

When I applied for a Czech visa back in 2006, when the Czech Republic was not yet a part of the Schengen Area, my passport broke. I was in New York City at the time, my first visit to the Big Apple, and I was at the Czech Consulate, when the picture in my passport suddenly came out of my passport. So I had to run back to the Philippine Consulate and asked for an expedited new passport. That was an adventurous day. Passports issued by the Philippines back then weren't biometric, so it took just an hour to get a new one.

I applied for US visas several times in the past, mostly as a student. It's always a huge affair, as you have to fill in an application first online, pay a SEVIS fee (for students), pay the visa fee in a bank, and then set up an appointment, which takes the whole morning. Since the USA is a popular destination for Filipinos, there are plenty of people who want the visa. Hence, the US Embassy in Manila is always crowded and there is always a line. I recently applied for another US visa (as a tourist this time), and again, I answered an elaborate set of questions. They asked what languages I speak, what countries I have visited in the last 5 years (of which I listed 21 different countries in Europe, North America, and South America), and plenty of other questions about myself, and my travel. So when I showed at the interview, the consul asked me why I was traveling to the US (visiting the family), where my family is (New York City), and what I do for work (I am a research scientist). Then he said that my visa was approved. It took less than 60 seconds.

I applied for a UK visa as well. I did an online application, then went to this office in the middle of Berlin to send my passport and documents. The passport came back with a visa in it.

I have also applied for several long-term multiple-entry Canadian visas. They had a consulate in Buffalo, and since I had friends living in Toronto, I would see them every few weeks, riding the bus to go up to Toronto. Hence, I would apply for a multiple-entry visa valid for several months, and I always got it. The Canadians just looked at the validity of my student visa and they would just match the validity of the Canadian visa with it. Basically, as long as I was a student in the US and had a legal status, I was able to cross the border.

I applied for the Schengen visa three times, once with Austria in Manila, and with Denmark as well as Germany in New York City. I also applied for a German D visa (a visa that allows me to work) when I moved to Germany in 2012. All of these visas were hassle-free as well. They just want a clear reason for my trip, a confirmed itinerary, a hotel reservation, and most importantly, travel insurance. It might feel restrictive because these visas want people to have confirmed hotel bookings and so forth, but nowadays, there are plenty of hotels where one can make a booking, and cancel it for free later, without paying for it beforehand. So if people are Couchsurfing, that is a great help.

I applied for the Chilean visa in New York City as well. This was a little bit of a hassle, because I had to make two trips to New York City, and I lived in Buffalo. The first trip was to submit the passport, and the second trip was to pick it up ten days later.

Perhaps one of the easiest visas I applied for was the Armenian visa, which I applied for twice, actually. I first applied for it online, as they issue e-visas. Answer a few questions online, pay for it with a credit card, and receive the visa 2 days later via email. Print it and take it to the airport. And since I didn't plan to leave Armenia to head to Georgia, when I did that and had to come back to Armenia to catch my flight back to Berlin, I had to apply for another visa at the land border (I previously applied for a single-entry visa), which was also very painless.

The Georgian visa was another matter. I got stuck at the border because the border guards had a hard time determining which category applied for me. They knew that I can enter, they know that I am eligible for visa on arrival, but the fact that I had a German residence permit made things complicated, and they didn't know whether I can get a visa for free, or a visa with a small payment. They had to scan my passport and send it to Tbilisi (I was at a land border), and this process took a few hours, which meant that my marshrutka left me at the border, and I had to hitch-hike my way to Tbilisi once I finally got the visa to enter.

And yes, I also had a visa rejection. My one and only visa rejection was for the Lebanese visa, which didn't have the most transparent requirements. I followed their directions, submitted my paperwork well ahead of time, and yet they rejected my visa. Later on, someone told me it was for security reasons, as it isn't the most secure country at the moment. So perhaps that was a good thing, after all. Later on, when I was applying for the UK visa, the application form asked whether I had a visa application rejected, and I mentioned Lebanon, and gave "political instability" as a reason.

There were also several countries that allowed me without a visa, because I had some extra document, even though Filipinos typically would need visas to visit. Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras was like that, which allowed me entry because I was holding a valid US visa. Bulgaria also allowed me to enter, because I was holding a valid German residence permit. And of course, I visited countries that don't require visas from Filipinos as well, such as Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador.

Anyway, what am I trying to say here? I guess I am just annoyed every time I see Filipinos complaining on social media how Filipino passports are the best! when it comes to applying for visas, sarcastically, because it is a hassle. But come to think of it, the Filipino passport isn't that bad, when compared to the Chinese or Indian passport, which has more restrictions and less countries are willing to let them in without a visa (that's already 2 billion people with more hassle than Filipinos). And just imagine being a person with a Somali, Iraqi, or Lebanese passport, which are some of the worst passports when it comes to travel freedom.

I don't know. I am one of those people who think that as long as one has every document in order, and that one has a valid reason to travel, then one will be able to get a visa. I have heard of so many horror stories being passed around about how "everyone gets denied" the US visa, among others. I do admit that I would have less hassle if I had a different citizenship, but I don't use the fact that I have a Filipino passport to be discouraged from traveling, and I don't spread horror stories and false rumors about the visa application process either. I don't see the visa application process as a stressful affair.

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