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.