The Travel Adviser: What is a visa and why is it so problematic?

Often, visa requirements are wrapped up in a Catch-22, where up is down and down is up and logic is totally lacking from the process.

October 2, 2016 01:49
israel passport

Israeli passport [Illustrative]. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Most people are aware that to travel outside of one’s own country, a passport is required. Pundits love to pontificate on how long they must be valid for, but there is another category, more nefarious than a passport, that continues to bedevil the strongest of people – the visa.

A visa is an official document, usually stamped or glued inside a passport, giving permission from a foreign authority for you to enter a country. Every country has them, and the issuing and requirements to obtain one are dictated by a myriad of masters. If trade and tourism officials had their way, nobody would require a visa to visit their country. If security officials had their wish, everyone would be forced to submit to fingerprinting and retinal scans.

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It is truly a bureaucratic beehive that befuddles anyone who is in need of a visa. Often, the requirements are wrapped up in a Catch-22, where up is down and down is up and logic is totally lacking from the process.

The United States alone has nearly 185 types of visas, although to be equitable, the majority fall into two categories which are prevalent among all countries. Non-immigrant visas are for temporary visits, such as tourism, business, work or study, while immigrant visas are granted to people planning to move to a different country.

How each country determines its policy is not always apparent.

Turkey, for example, while not one of Israel’s best friends, has never required visas for Israeli tourists. But if you’re trying to enter Istanbul or Ankara on a US passport, you will most definitely need a visa to enter, and you will have to pay a symbolic amount. It’s not that the Turks are trying to punish US citizens, but more a matter of national pride. The US requires Turkish citizens to apply for a visa, hence the same policy is applied in reverse.

Many readers who do not possess a US passport have horror stories of the process required to obtain a visa to the United States. The US State Department is adamant that the traveler prove that he or she will not stay in the US. Woe to the applicant who has a family member living in the US, as there is immediate suspicion that he or she will decide to remain there.

Let me share the story of a young woman named Dana, wise beyond her years and fortunate enough to be accepted to complete her graduate degree at Oxford University. The acceptance process, filled though it was with interviews, essays, site visits and examinations, left her completely in the dark when applying for the student visa.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The formidable edifice housing the British Embassy in Tel Aviv plays no part in this process.

The British Home Office has decreed that all student visas to their country must be issued by the British Consulate General in Istanbul. Dana filled out her forms, filed them with the appropriate authorities, and turned in her passport. It was only a week later, when DHL returned her document with a letter denying her request for a student visa, that problems arose. It seems the British government felt she lacked the wherewithal to support herself financially while at the same time immersing herself in her studies.

While her tuition, along with her housing, had already been paid in full, she had not been required to submit any type of financial declaration. The admissions officials at Oxford were most apologetic and sent a stern missive to the home secretary that their student should be issued a student visa at once.

It only took the home office a week to apologize to Dana and ask that she send her passport back so that the overwrought staff in Istanbul could apply the stamp. Twenty four hours later, her passport made it to Istanbul, but her saga was far from over.

Orientation began on a Monday.

Her plane ticket had been purchased well in advance, she had been scheduled to depart on the preceding Tuesday in order to give her ample opportunity to settle into her dorm room, purchase any necessary items and meet the rest of the class of 2017. So she waited, and waited for her passport. Hours turned into days and her frustration grew. Contacting both the home office and a top UK immigration lawyer, she was informed that it would not be advisable for her to enter the UK on her second passport as a tourist. Typically understated, they hinted the repercussions could be costly. Still waiting on the delivery of her passport, and in the midst of a lengthy Eid al-Fitr celebration no less, panic began to set in. Turkey observed a nine day public holiday for the festival, and for some unfathomable reason, so did the British Consulate in Istanbul. The holiday, roughly translated as the Feast of the Sacrifices, left Dana feeling like she was being sacrificed.

Late Monday night, I reluctantly canceled her ticket and re-booked it for Friday morning.

It wasn’t until Wednesday that the consul general contacted Dana and said that, in spite of the holiday, if she showed up at the consulate, someone on the staff would return her passport with the student visa inside.

A ticket was reserved, and her problem seemed to be solved.

Then destiny arose. A good client and a friend reached out to me at the crack of dawn.

He had to switch his flight from Newark to Tel Aviv to Turkish Air, as he had meetings the next day in Istanbul. He wanted a 7:00 p.m. flight from New York, which would land at noon in Istanbul, and would then continue on to Israel on the 6:00 p.m. flight. I made the change, but didn’t say anything to Dana.

Later in my office, I issued Dana’s ticket, but when my friend, let’s call him Brock, called, I told him the story and that Dana would be on his flight from Istanbul back to Tel Aviv.

Upon hearing why she had to fly to Turkey, he insisted, nay demanded, that he pick up her passport and deliver it to her upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport so she wouldn’t have to make the trip.

Of course, I couldn’t make the decision on his generous offer until checking if the consul general would release her passport to a stranger. So I contacted Dana and personally spoke to the inept British visa official, who requested some documents but promised us that Brock could collect her passport. Dana was ecstatic and agreed to go to the airport and meet this Good Samaritan.

It was 1:15 a.m. when Brock called our emergency line.

Deeply shaken, he explained that he had worked too hard in New York and lost track of the time. With a sudden downpour in the Big Apple, he was unable to catch a cab and ultimately missed his flight to Istanbul.

He apologized profusely to my agent, and she re-booked him on a much later flight to Istanbul, now landing at 5:00 p.m.

When I awoke, I discovered his predicament and his plea that I call him, which I did. He promised me his driver would go to the consulate in his place and bring the passport to Istanbul Airport. At 8:00 a.m., I raced to my office to get new documentation sent to Istanbul.

Emails flew furiously back and forth, and I did my best to shield Dana from the disaster. Thank God, it only took them an hour to approve it.

At noon, the driver arrived at the consulate, but the guard said he didn’t have the proper documents. I tried calling the consul directly, but of course it went straight to his voice mail because of the holiday. I begged the driver not to leave the grounds.

Finally, after the fifth call, a consulate employee picked up, apologized profusely and went out to give the driver Dana’s passport. All hope now rested with Brock receiving the passport and getting on the plane, which would arrive in Israel at 10:45 p.m. He felt so guilty that he offered to drive up to Jerusalem to deliver it, although he himself resides in Tel Aviv.

In the end, Brock came through, and at 12:30 a.m. he arrived at the house in his threepiece suit with the most valuable item of all – her passport.

Five hours later, Dana was at Ben Gurion Airport, and later she was able to enter London on her student visa.

The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland said it best: “We’re all mad here.”

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]

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