International Travel and Bureaucracy - Lessons Learned in Pursuit of a Canadian Visa
The Back Story
It all began with a Chile - USA Skype conversation last June with our future exchange student, Juanchi. When asked what he didn't want to miss during his time in the US he replied, "Visit Canada, Can we do that please?". He said he had been looking at the map and how close we are to Canada etc. Not wanting to squelch his enthusiasm, I promised to look into planning a long weekend trip to Victoria, BC as long as he took care of acquiring the necessary visa.
Well now, this wouldn't be much of a story if it were as easy as that.
Using our Worldmark points, I did book 2 nights in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, where we have never visited before, for the second weekend in October.
Flash forward to the end of September, when Juanchi informs us that he decided it would be easier to get a visa once he was in Seattle.
We managed to track down the required paperwork from AFS (exchange organization) so that Juanchi can get back into the USA from Canada but we still didn't have a Canadian Visa for him and I was scrambling to find someone to tell me what I needed to do to make that happen. I made a study of the Canada Immigration Website. Although they don't accept phone inquires, the Seattle Canadian Consulate office DOES take visa applications...in person...between 8:00 - 10:00am....Monday-Friday.
So, I decide to take the day off work, write Juanchi a note to miss school, throw every document I can think of into my bag, and head downtown. In my naiveté, I imagined sitting down with a helpful woman dressed in a hand knit maple leaf jumper who would patiently walk us through the visa application process.
Misconception #1 -- The Consulate Staff are there to help.
The Consulate Office is one of the least hospitable places I have ever been. We had to pass through a security gate where the guard confiscated my tea and warned me about turning off my cell phone. There were rows of uncomfortable chairs filled with uncomfortable people and not a magazine in sight -- just a ticket dispenser (old school bakery style) and a digital display of the next number being served. Consulate personnel are safely ensconced behind bulletproof glass. When Juanchi began a conversation with a family from Colombia - we were warned (over the loud speaker) to keep quiet.
Our number flashes on the display and we proceed to the designated immigration officer. I slide our documents through to him and then attempt to explain that J is an exchange student, living with an American family, etc,. and that we just want to go to Victoria for the weekend.
He (IO) says, "This application is incomplete".
Me:"OK, can you please give me the missing form and we can fill it out?"
Me: "Where can I get the form?"
IO: "The Internet"
Me: "OK, what should we do?"
IO: "Not my job. You should have come prepared. No applications will be accepted after 10am."
Misconception #2 -- Watching the reality series "The Amazing Race" for the past 10 years has been a waste of time.
Oh no! Thank You Amazing Race! It is now 9:05am. We race from the building (after grabbing my now cold tea back from the security guard), ask the first non-touristy looking pedestrian we see if there is a nearby place with computer, speed walk the 7 blocks to the Fed/Ex Kinkos, insert credit card, and call up the Canadian Consulate Website on the computer.
Meanwhile, the Colombians are in the same boat - entering Kinkos just after us. Juanchi turns to me and whispers, "Think Amazing Race, we can beat this team!" Ha! Love this kid! Juanchi gets on the computer, fills out the forms, prints them out, and we are off racing back to the consulate (Colombians in hot pursuit).
Misconception #3 -- Speaking English is an advantage when dealing with Canadian Bureaucrats.
Back through the security gate we go, bye bye tea, hello new service number. At this point it is 9:38am. We are hopeful and upbeat, and a little short of breath. I glance over to the lady next to me and notice that her application has a fancy cashiers check on the top. Crap! I bet they require a fancy check to pay for the visa. I whisper to the woman and she says that yes, they don't accept personal check or credit cards. I take a deep breath as I remember that there is a bank on the main floor of the building. No problem, I'll just run down there and be back with a cashiers check before our number gets called. But for how much? I clearly recall that there are different fees for different types of visas.
Of course there is no one to ask. So, I pull out my iphone to find that information on the website. Bad idea! The security guard comes storming over to me and insists that I follow the rules or I'll be forced to leave. He then points to the sign that says, "no phones, no food, no beverages". I begin to explain that I wasn't using it as a "phone" per-se but he just glares at me and announces in a loud voice, "Turn off your phone NOW Madam". Just then our number appears on the display.
We are assigned the same consulate guy and he begins to look through our forms. "How are you paying for this?" he asks. Sheepishly I admit that I just discovered that we needed a cashiers check or money order.
Me: "Can you please tell me how much the check needs to be?"
IO: "That information is on our website."
Me: "Can't you just tell me the amount?"
IO: "No. You should have followed the pink checklist. Here are your forms back. Next time come prepared."
Me: "Pink checklist?"
IO: offers us an eye roll and points across the room to a small table.
Aw, gee. That would have been helpful! Time 9:51am. I leave J and our pink sheet in the waiting room and tell him to pull another number in 2 minutes. Dashing downstairs to the bank, I call up the info on my phone, find out that it is a $75 fee and, thanks to a speedy teller, am back up upstairs by 9:57am.
Ah Ha! This time we get called to a different immigration officer. She collects all of our documents and says our application is complete. I ask about the fact that he hasn't included a bank statement since he doesn't have a US Bank Account and she says that is fine since he is under our guardianship.
She gives Juanchi a slip of paper and tells him he needs to pick up his passport (with his new visa) the next day between 10:30 - 11:00am.
Misconception #4 -- Just because an application is accepted does NOT mean it is granted . . .
Since there is no way to be downtown from 10:30 - 11:00 and go to High School at the same time - I write Juanchi ANOTHER note and he catches the bus for a second visit to the Canadian Consulate. At 10:45am I get a phone call from an unlisted number. It is a pleasant sounding Immigration Officer who informs me that she is seriously considering denying Juan's visa application.
The mostly one sided conversation went something like this:
IO: Juan's application is incomplete.
Me: Oh, sorry. What is missing?
IO: There is nothing here proving that he can afford the cost of a visit. He is making a verbal CLAIM that you are his guardians and will be paying his food and lodging.
Me: That is true
IO: His application just shows that he is an 18 year old from Chile and a student in the US.
Me: I thought that his status and our guardianship were stated in his AFS paperwork.
IO: Did you use the checklist on the pink sheet?
Me: Yes, and I'm sorry that there was room for confusion.
IO: You should have included a certified letter verifying your financial responsibility for Juan.
Me: (at this point pulling out my best customer service voice -- despite what I WANTED to say) Oh, I am so SORRY. I hope you won't deny Juan's chance to visit Canada because of my stupid mistake.
IO: Well . . . I will make a note that I have verbal confirmation of financial competence and grant the visa. But . . . Madam. Next time come prepared with the proper documents.
What are we in for as we begin to make our own travel arrangements and visa applications?
How can we use the lessons learned by my first foray into that morass?
But first . . . Victoria awaits!