Travelling while Indian generally means visas wherever you want to go. I can remember one glorious occasion when I didn’t need a visa and everyone else on my flight did. The year was 1980 and I was flying from London to Cairo on Bulgaria’s national carrier, Balkan Airlines. It was the cheapest way of getting to Cairo and it meant a 24-hour stopover in Sofia. The stewardesses were sturdily eastern European, the plane was sketchily furnished and when it took off it bucketed about so much that it felt like it was flying by the simple expedient of flapping its wings.
But when we landed we were driven to a transit hotel where my frugal English fellow passengers were confined to quarters because they needed a visa whereas I, son of India, bona fide friend of fraternal socialisms east of the Iron Curtain, didn’t. So I got to spend a day walking around a snowbound Sofia doing the sights: echoing churches filled with old people, closed shops with nothing in their windows and Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s sub-Lenin, lying suited and stuffed in his basement vault, the mummy of a once-famous socialist daddy. Sofia wasn’t exactly a riot, it was also bitterly cold, but I was warmed by the knowledge that I was free to explore it while the others had to mooch about indoors under a kind of house arrest. It was nice to be ahead, for once, in that zero-sum game called Life.
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I was reminded of that golden moment while applying for visas to the United States of America and Britain this summer. It was an odd business, at once tedious and tense. The tension consisted of timing visa submissions and interviews so that you got your passport back from one bureaucracy in time to submit it to the other one. The tedium was a by-product of the time spent gathering the information that the visa forms demanded. I had no objection in principle to supplying it, but it meant leafing through dead passports, squinting at immigration stamps, trying to find dates for the time I had entered and exited Myanmar in 2014 or entered Turkey in 2009. HMG wanted me to itemize the countries I had visited over the last ten years. Complaining about a country’s visa processes is pointless (no one is forcing you to visit it) but the experience of filling the UK form is worth documenting because it’s rare: it’s like confessing online in super slow motion to an exceptionally literal interrogator.
The American process is easier on the applicant in every way and in the spirit of visa connoisseurship, a comparison is useful. While both forms have to be filled online, only the Americans see this as a digital exercise. The British want you to submit a hard copy of the form as well. They also want paper copies of every document that might support your application. The Americans expect you to show them original documents on demand; the British want you to compile a dossier on yourself and submit it to them hoping, perhaps, for self-incrimination.
There’s a frank section in the UK visa form that asks you if you’ve visited first world countries that matter. Not quite in those terms, but that’s the drift of it. This includes EU countries but what the form really wants to know is if you’ve been processed by Britain’s settler colonies: the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps this is rational, perhaps these countries have rigorous visa processes, but if this line of argument was to be taken to its logical conclusion, the United Kingdom ought to allow automatic entry to anyone who holds, say, a valid US visa. Why bother with one of its own?
The British process is both longer and more opaque than the American one. Despite the fact that the Americans require two separate appointments, one for biometric details and then a consular interview, once those are done the passport is returned within four business days. Best of all, the applicant knows by the end of the consular interview whether he or she has got the visa or not because the immigration officer conducting the interview tells him or her as much by the time it’s over.
In contrast, the British visa application takes fifteen working days to process (which, counting weekends, can add up to twenty days and more) and you don’t know till you physically pick up the returned passport from the agency that administers the process whether a visa has been declined or granted. The message from the British high commission saying that your passport is on the way back to you is content to note enigmatically that a decision has been taken on your application without specifying what this decision might be. There must be a reason for stringing out the suspense but it isn’t one that is apparent to the applicant who has a journey to organize and needs a yes or a no as early as possible.
But the contrast between the visa processes of the US and the UK is starkest in the matter of money. For a visitor’s visa, the US charges a single, uniform fee. Whether your application is turned down or stamped with a ten year visa, the price of the process is fixed. The British, however, allow applicants to jump the queue and shorten the process for a price. Several prices, actually. If you can’t get an appointment early enough in the normal course to submit the application, you can, for a few thousand rupees, get a ‘prime time’ slot. Two and a half thousand rupees will win you a walk-in appointment. Should you wish not to wait your turn in a long queue, the comfort of a priority lounge is available – for a fee.
These are merely the add-on fees that speed up the submission of the application. There’s another set of optional fees designed to accelerate the processing of the application. For Rs 15,000 over and above the standard visa fee, the application can be processed in four working days instead of the customary fifteen. If you need it more urgently still, the application can be processed in a day for more than four times the fee for four-day processing.
It doesn’t stop here. The applicant is encouraged to pay for a texting service that is meant to send his phone three messages tracking the progress of his application. With me and several others I know, the only text message we received was one telling us that we had submitted our application. This wasn’t very useful; it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know given that we had personally submitted them. The other two messages never arrived because of a ‘technical’ problem. No refund for the SMS service was forthcoming. The final touch was the information that should we wish to collect our returned passports on a Saturday, that would be an extra Rs 500 per passport.
Neither process is ‘better’ than the other; they serve different purposes. The Americans treat the issuing of visas as a consular task that ought to pay for itself. The British treat visa applicants as paying customers in a seller’s market. They monetize every step of the process and turn the issuing of visas into a commercial enterprise. Ironically, the self-consciously republican Americans bring an imperial confidence to a brisk, transparent transaction. In contrast, the United Kingdom, the legatee of a storied empire, chooses to play variations on an opaque process in the profiteering style of the East India Company: not so much a nation of shopkeepers, then, as a nation of rent-seekers.