Think flying is stressful right now? Try traveling with an Indian passport

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This one is personal.

A few days ago I read a scathing review in The Guardian, titled “Only a country as complacent as the United Kingdom could give up its border privilege so easily”. Oh, burn! Author, Nesrine Malik, writes about lower-ranking passports and passport privileges: “Someone with a lower-ranking passport will tell you that in all interactions with this border official, you absolutely must keep your lawyer , knowing that this guard who has your passport in their hands is, for the next few minutes, the most powerful person in your life.

As an Indian passport holder, reaching the immigration counter at the airport is perhaps the 10th step. First, I have to apply for a visa, sometimes months in advance. Indians can travel visa-free to 60 countries, but most Western countries aren’t welcoming enough to let us in without jumping through hoops.

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Have you ever had to apply for a visa? Or know someone who has been denied one? Nope? So let me enlighten you.

First, you need to check if you need a visa. If you are an average Indian traveler, the answer will probably be yes for most countries. Then you need to know the category and the process. This can range from a simple online, paid form (Sri Lanka and Singapore) to a multi-step process including a stack of documents and a visit at the embassy.

For most of Europe and the United States, it is the latter. Forms, proof of travel and stay, insurance, letter from an employer, payslips and bank statements, proof of income tax, references in the country of visit and biometric data are some of the things you may need to provide. It also requires a non-refundable processing fee (Schengen area visa the fee is $80; US Visa the fee is $160; and the British visa fees start at $126 and can go up to $1,000).

[T]hey can always reject you without refunding you the money you spent.

You can then make an appointment to submit those documents and your passport, but make sure you have a checklist before you go because there’s no shuffling, people. Once the envelope is sealed and in their hands, you can return to collect your passport or have it delivered to your address for an additional fee. And, they can always reject you, without refunding you the money you spent.

Charming.

For reference, here is a list of documents you need for a US tourist visa, and that’s what you need for a British visa. Take a look at this tweet by an Indian traveler who submitted a document book for obtaining a visa to get an idea of ​​the paperwork. Each country has different rules, of course. Some want you to book tickets and hotels in advance; others advise you not to pay until you have obtained your visa.

And for your quiet reading, here are all the restrictive elements that you are not permitted to bring inside the U.S. Consulate, including cell phones and bags. How to go from one state to another (I live in Gurgaon, and the embassy is in Delhi) without a phone or a handbag? I could not. Luckily, there was a street-side locker room—few business opportunities anywhere—where I could store my phone, which I needed to book an Uber, and cross the street to my appointment.

It’s nothing. I had so many visa appointments that I found myself in interesting situations. I once took the metro from Gurgaon to Delhi for my visa appointment at the VFS center (which handles visas for several destinations like Australia, South Africa, Schengen countries, but not United States -United). I wasn’t allowed to carry food or water inside, so I sat on the steps of the subway station and finished my food (which was a typical northern lunch India consisting of cottage cheese and rice) while people were trampling all around. I then kept my empty lunch box and bottle in the discarded box and picked them up afterwards. The security personnel were very amused.

It’s not over yet. Now wait weeks without knowing if you will get the desired visa in time for your flight.

Once inside you get a token because you have an appointment for a slot, but 15 other people too. Then you do a hurdle race, documents here, biometrics there, acknowledgment elsewhere.

It’s not over yet. Now wait weeks without knowing if you will get the desired visa in time for your flight.

The UK rejected me twice because I messed up my documents, and they explained in the rejection letters (yeah they send you a letter saying why you can’t enter their country) that I didn’t look like someone who would return from their pre-Brexit country. It was quite formal and a little condescending, and the second time I got it after my flight left without me.

You imagine that if you pay money to spend more money in a foreign country, the least they can do is call to clarify or provide more documents (the Australian Embassy granted this courtesy Once). No – one and done. Did I mention I tried to challenge it, and you can’t go that route either?

I was 21 the first time and had just received my passport. I had applied for a passport with the intention of going to Bath, England, to please the Jane Austen fan in me. I didn’t even know what a visa looked like, and I read the rejection letter with all my family members present – I don’t recommend it.

After the second rejection, which was for a media trip where all the other reporters got it, I vowed not to apply again. It was not only disappointing, but also embarrassing, both professionally and personally. I still feel stupid about all this because I have to declare it every time I fill out a visa form. My failed visa baggage accompanies me everywhere. So if I want to drink butterbeer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I’ll just go to the United States.

Not anytime soon, however. US visa appointment waiting time is currently 575 calendar days for tourists from Delhi. All visas are delayed for Indians after the pandemic, but the United States takes the cake. So, in two years, when I’m in America…

If you didn’t skip my long stories above, you would have realized I had a US visa once. I am a journalist, so I had the honor of having a media visa. Super fancy to say it, but it was issued for five years (a tourist visa is normally 10 years for the same cost). As I waited for the end of the pandemic at home, it expired and I am no longer eligible for a renewal of the same visa, which seems easier in theory.

Are the dimensions of the photo wrong? No, I do not understand [the visa]. Can’t speak English? Unable to enter. Can’t convince them of the purpose of your visit? Goodbye.

There are so many rules! It’s complicated, stressful and expensive to do these things. One mistake and you’re out of the running. When I went to my US visa appointment many years ago I was in a queue and saw people being rejected in front of me – the consulate only takes your passport if they gives you the visa, and it’s decided by the person at the counter. Are the dimensions of the photo wrong? No, not understood. Can’t speak English? Unable to enter. Can’t convince them of the purpose of your visit? Goodbye.

You can ask an agent to help you sort through your documents and prepare your case for the appointment, but you have to go to the appointment in person and you can always be absolutely rejected. Oh, and agents also don’t refund postage if you don’t receive it.

If you get this precious piece of paper, it is stamped in your passport whether it is a single entry visa or a multiple entry visa. Estonia issued me a multiple-entry Schengen visa for two years! It saved me so much stress as I followed this trip to Tallinn with Valencia and Rome during the most important travel years of my life. However, Switzerland gave me a visa for only 20 days.

Let’s check my privilege. I rant about visa hassles as I sit in a Costa cafe and have an almond milk flat white. Isn’t that crazy? According 2017 figures, only 5.5% of the Indian population have a passport, and I am one of those privileged people. I get to travel. I have the funds to travel. And I can always choose more welcoming countries (I love you, Estonia). Yet I am talking about the difficulty of traveling to the United States, United Kingdom and some European countries.

Can I please say you have it easy? You don’t have to fill out forms like your savings are on the line, because ours are.

Now let’s check the privilege of someone with a stronger passport. People who don’t need a visa to cross half of the world’s borders. People who can just book tickets and fly off into the sunset. People who have fast lanes (!) at immigration counters.

Can I please say you have it easy? You don’t have to fill out forms like your savings are on the line, because ours are. You don’t have to read 10,000 rules and guidelines to understand the process and expectations. You don’t have to feel scared and anxious for weeks before a consulate decides whether or not to grant you access. You feel no anxiety as you walk to the immigration counters – that of your own country and later that of the destination – as they flip through the pages of your passport. You don’t run the risk of landing somewhere and being asked to step aside (*raises hand*) as they double-check your passport details and ask questions about your visit.

Even when I fly to a country that allows visas on arrival (like the Maldives), I still get nervous. I always feel like they deduct points if you don’t have the confidence that you belong, but standing there you feel like a kid in front of the looming authority figure. You are intimidated when they ask you to hand over your passport, to take off your glasses, to look at the camera. Then they enter your details into a computer, staring at you to confirm that it is indeed you in the unflattering passport photo. Ding, ding, ding, you made it!

For a nervous pilot, a flight around the world is already not the most pleasant experience, then you land in a hostile environment where any reason can get you kicked out at your own expense. And don’t even get me started on airport security or customs – that’s another sensitive topic for Asians.

No one prepares you for all of this. No travel guide. No items. No list. No influencers.

You learn with experience to keep your head down and behave non-threateningly because, as Nesrine Malik said in her article for The Guardianwhoever has your passport in their hands becomes the most powerful person in your life.

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