India requires visas from most countries, including the US and UK. Before we started our travel planning, I vaguely recalled this from my discussions with other travelers, so once we were committed to making India our destination for this summer, I knew that we needed to take care of arranging our visas.
At least in the US, the Indian consulates have outsourced the application process for most visa types to a third party called Travisa. The process goes something like this:
a. Fill out the appropriate application on the Indian government website, one for each person. Be prepared to provide your religion, information about multiple generations of your family, your occupation, your port of arrival in India, your address in India (remember – they tell you not to book any travel until you have received your visa!), shoe size, favorite TV show, …. Perhaps my favorite question was list all countries you have visited in the last ten years. Suffice is to say that the space allocated for this ran out well before I got to the end of the list. Since there wasn’t enough space to list every country we have visited in that time, what was the point?
b. Certify the application online and get a reference number.
c. Have a passport sized photo and signature for each applicant. Scan these together (individually won’t work!)
d. Complete an online processing form with Travisa including the application reference number and re-entering some of the same data from the Indian government application form. Choose whether to do everything by post (estimated processing time up to 4-6 weeks), or in person with theoretical same day service at your nearest Travisa office, which for us is a 2.5 hour drive away in Houston.
Rinse and repeat once per person, without being able to save any data that would be same across all applications. With everything I needed to do, I estimate it took me about 1 hour per application.
e. Submit everything online and then print the application, which includes 10 pages of instructions. Either bring in person to your designated appointment time, or send in the post along with your passports and other documentation. Since 4-6 weeks would be cutting it very close for us, we chose to make the drive down to Houston. The granting of visas is at the discretion of the Indian consulate so they tell you there are no guarantees, but applications made by 11am are usually ready for pickup that same night at 5pm. Accordingly we made an appointment for 10:40am a few days later.
Let me pause for a second to note that the complexity factor in doing visa apps goes up big time when you have two sons, neither of whom live at home. Luckily I had visa/passport photos that were only a year or two old for all of us, but how to get the signatures? For Ben this could have been done with a cross town drive, but for Aaron, who is in college in Atlanta, I suppose the expectation of the Indian government was either that he would take care of the whole process at his local consulate/application center (good luck with that, especially since his passport was in our safe in Austin), or that we would mail forms back and forth.
To give you an idea of how finicky the process is, there are a couple of places where you have to sign, including a box where if you go over the edge, even slightly, your application will be rejected.
The solution was for me to get scans of everyone’s signature and layout a document that placed and scaled the signatures to be exactly where they needed. Something that isn’t too difficult for me since I work with visual editing software all the time, but a pain none the less.
After I had filled out an submitted each of the apps, I noticed that there was a small problem with Ben and mine. On Ben’s I think I listed his birthplace as Austin, rather than Tarzana, CA and on mine, I had listed my parents by their first names, but it turned out that for the parents’ name only, this should be first and last name. A long wait on hold that was never answered and some online research revealed that applications could not be edited and that I should redo the process and reprint the forms. Grrr.
Our appointed appointment time arrived – we had picked 10:40 am to get in under the 11am deadline, yet give us time to drive to Houston without getting up in the middle of the night. I must say that the Travisa process was pretty painless at this point. A receptionist looked over all our paperwork to double check it. Copies of everyone’s drivers’ licenses.were also needed, but I had made sure to bring those.
Then we dropped off everything (forms, photos, passports) at the counter and paid our fees (something like $70 per person for the recommended 6 month multiple entry visa). From there we did a little shopping, and art viewing and came back after 5pm only to find out that two of the passports had come back with the visas and the other two were still in progress. Which ones came back? Ben and mine, i.e. the ones that got resubmitted a day after Kelly and Aaron’s! We paid an extra $25 or so to have the other passports shipped back to us and they arrived two days later. Had we known this, we could have simply had all the passports mailed back to us and driven right back to Austin, saving ourselves half a day. Oh well.
One nice thing is that Travisa provides the ability to track everything on their website, so you can see where you are in the process. Likely this would have been much more useful had we done the whole thing via post, but in the end we got the visas we needed. To be honest, I can’t really understand why doing this via post should take 4-6 weeks when if you show up at the counter it can be done in a day (or two). Perhaps they are just being cautious on their website with the processing times. Either way, the only difference in cost is that actual shipping fee (FedEx).
India has a reputation for lots of bureaucracy and (from a western perspective) inefficiency, so maybe this is just another step in the cultural acclimatization process. Keep in mind that if you have a very large population, finding jobs for people may be more important than saving a few minutes for each applicant. I’ve experienced this before in other places I’ve traveled and it takes some adjustment.
As the prayer goes, “Oh Lord give me patience, but I want it right now.”