Permits

The China and Russia Tourist Visas

The other day, I wrote about the process of securing tourist visas for all of the countries we’re visiting on our trip.  As I mentioned, there were only two visas that required a bit of effort: China and Russia.

We found that the process to secure a Chinese visa requires painstaking detail and precise planning. First off, it should be noted that the Chinese consulate might very well be the least convenient government type building in New York City. While most consulates and embassies are located in cozy brownstones on the Upper East Side or in nice offices adjacent to the United Nations, China has built an imposing fortress at 42nd Street and 12th Avenue. If you’re unfamiliar with Manhattan, that address is close to exactly nothing. And I made the trip out there three times.

Alas, that was just the first of a dozen small hassles that we encountered when applying for a China Tourist Visa. First, the hours of operation listed on the website are wrong. (That’s one wasted trip to the desolate west, west side). Second, it is not clear online exactly which form is needed. And the forms themselves are confusing. For the record, it is the four-page intense questionnaire called “V.2011A”. The forms are known to provide such perplexity that an enterprising team has set up a van just outside the consulate to assist/charge wayward potential visitors. Finally, building security will only let you enter after you show you have all the right documents in hand. We suggest you arrive early because the wait can be up to 90 minutes during busy times.

Once you wind your way to the DMV like window, the staff is curt but incredibly efficient. They expect all paperwork to be ready and they don’t seem to like questions. At one point, the official pointed out that I had not listed where I was staying in China. When I tried to explain that we haven’t scheduled a place to stay yet (“Figuring it out as we go! What fun! Right?”), I was told to come back when the form had an address where were staying. Thank Cupertino for the iPhone, because I was able to look up the address to the Guangzhou Hilton, make a reservation and keep my place in line (avoiding a fourth trip). After a five day processing period during which they kept our passports, our application was reviewed and accepted. Conveniently, you can drop off applications/pick up visas for several people if needed.

Each visa is good for 90 days and is valid for a year from the date of issue (so, in theory, we have till June 2013 to start our visit). Total cost? $140 per person. Ooof! It is all going to be worth it when we step off the plane in Guangzhou and into China! Again, living in New York worked to our advantage because we found if you can’t apply in person at a regional consulate, you must use a private service to secure the visa which comes with a significant additional charge.

The Russia visa was the one visa that just never ended up materializing. It turns out that, loosely translated, Visa means “Bureaucratic Red Tape” in Russian. We’ve learned that wrapping your fingers around a Russia Tourist Visa is trickier that a David Blaine illusion. You must have a sponsor in the form of an authorized hosting Russian traveling agency before you can even apply. And that’s apparently just the beginning of the needed paperwork.

If you’re booking a trip to Russia knowing where and when you’ll be staying (or if you’re part of a tour), this isn’t terribly overwhelming. But if you are flying by the ole seat of your pants, the visa process is enough to make you go cross-eyed. We’ve heard stories of corruption, bribes, and hassles. The more we learned about what we needed, the more complicated it seemed. Lucky for us, we’re visiting St. Petersburg as part of a Norwegian Cruise that offers a variety of Shore Excursions. We were a bit hesitant to book one since that’s not the preferred way we hope to explore new nations, but it appears to be our best and simplest bet for getting ashore.  The cruise line has a blanket visa that covers all passengers…but only for these tours. So, we’ll see a great chunk of St. Petersburg, but unfortunately we probably won’t have any adventurous exploring here.

Our one piece of advice based on our experience with the China, Russia or even Vietnam visa is to research, read and prepare well in advance of a trip to any country that you haven’t visited before. And don’t be afraid if the process seems a touch shady; every country seems to have their own way of doing things. A little knowledge and prep goes a long way to making sure you’re going to get into the countries you want to visit.

-Phil

Advertisements
Categories: Customs, Destinations, Doccuments, New Zealand, Packing, Permits, Transportation, Trip Prep, Visas | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Securing Visas for our Trip

Truth be told, there are only a few things that one must do before embarking on a Round The World trip. Don’t misunderstand: there are boatloads of tasks that one probably should do to ensure an easier, lower-drama journey with minimal hassles. But one mandatory need that should be set before showing up at the airport is making sure that Visa and Entry Documents are all set.

Handy Visa GuideBy our math, our itinerary is sending us to at least twenty-three separate countries. We wanted to avoid any surprises and make sure we’re set lllllooong before arriving at customs. Lots of research ensued. The State Department has a handy, easy to navigate, up-to-date website that clearly lists the policies for Americans visiting just about every nation. We were delighted to find that the vast majority of countries we’re visiting have a similar policy: No advance paperwork or fee required for a 90 day tourist visa issued upon entry with a valid US Passport. Since we’re not planning on working or spending anywhere near 90 days in any one nation, this makes it easy breezy.

As with all things, there are a few exceptions. In remote and geographically isolated New Zealand, we’re told that officials often check that you have a round-trip or onward ticket (i.e. – a way to leave once your visa expires). They also check to see if you have funds to cover your time in New Zealand. Both Argentina and Chile have recently adopted a fee that reciprocates US Policy. In short, every American has to pay a $130 “Entry Fee” (not a Visa fee) as a sort of equalizing measure for what the United States government charges their citizens to enter America. Note that this Entry Fee is only collected at major International Airports. Sneaky, Sneaky. Therefore savvy tourists could enter through bordering countries.  Lastly, we learned that you seem to need passport sized photos for just about everything. Get a bunch because agency after agency keeps requesting them. Update:  just found out that it looks like the fee has gone up to $160. Joy.

In the end, there were only three countries that required us to secure Visas in advance of our visit: Vietnam, China and Russia.

Securing the Vietnam visa was a simple and intriguing process. We visited the Vietnamese Consulate in New York City which is right across the street from the United Nations in a non-descript office with other foreign government offices. Once in the office, we were directed to fill out some long forms that asked us to explain (in great detail) the nature of our visit.  They took our pictures, took our money (cash only), and told us they would have the Visas ready in a week. At first, they asked us to leave our passports behind, but we pushed back on that request a bit without a problem. In the end, the staff might have been a bit cold and not exactly helpful if you’re seeking any tourist info, but they got the job done efficiently and easily.  One week later, we picked up the visas and had them stapled into our passport. Total cost: $160 for both of us. In retrospect, we’re glad that we were physically in New York City and able to deal with the staff face-to-face. We are pretty sure that made things much easier.

The Russia and China Visa process were far more complicated but also a lot more interesting. They are deserving of their own blog posts that will be coming later this week.

We’re looking forward to having well-used passports stamped with the colors of the rainbow by the time we arrive home in November.

-Phil

Categories: Customs, Doccuments, Packing, Permits, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

International Driver’s License

Among the numerous “important documents” that we’ve amassed for our trip, the easiest to secure was the International Driving Permit. Fancy sounding, yes? The permit sounds more impressive than it actually is. I’d love to weave a fancy tale about how getting the license required me to meet up with a strict driving instructor named Sven who insisted I demonstrate International driving technique inside a 1992 stick shift Yugo. The truth is that it was a simple fifteen minute visit to AAA.

International Driver's Permit 2012

First, some background on what the International Driving Permit is. The permit works in conjunction with a valid US driver’s license but cannot be used for driving in the United States alone. The signed & stamped permit contains a number of pages in a number of languages that basically say the same thing: “The owner of this permit is legally certified to drive in his/her country and therefore should be allowed to drive in yours.” Since a car rental office in Ulaanbaatar likely can’t tell a US license from a library card, this gives us some legitimate street cred. The permit is widely recognized and good in over 150 countries.

The permit is good for a year from a start date of the owner’s choosing. The fee is a mere $15.00 and the application process is simple; all you need is a passport photo and your current license.  The permit is about the size of a passport, so a bit too big for the wallet but it is light and folds easily.

There are a few ways to secure the permit in the states, but a visit to a local AAA office is likely the easiest.  I stopped at the only AAA office in New York City a few weeks back. Although my AAA membership apparently expired last year, they were happy to assist. Oddly enough, almost everyone else in the office was also getting the same permit.  It is also odd that there is just one true AAA office in New York City, but that’s neither here nor there.

We’ve gotten some feedback regarding how much we’ll actually need the permit. Some have said that many places will probably just rent to us with our trusty New York state license.  But we subscribe to the better safe than sorry policy. Plus, this can serve as one more Picture ID as needed. We should be all set. Now we just need to get “Life is a Highway” on our iPhone so we can jam as we steer our Yugo down the Romanian Highway.

-Phil

Categories: Doccuments, Driving, Packing, Permits, Transportation, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.