Photo by Mike
VISA-FREE TRAVEL is kind of like having a great partner — you don’t fully realize how lucky you are until the other party ends it. The recent developments between the European Parliament and the United States in the visa reciprocity issue puts us in this exact scenario.
On March 3rd, the EU Parliament announced that due to the US Government’s refusal to grant visa-free entry for people from Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania, the EU will impose travel visas on US citizens. Reactions on the web have been mixed, ranging from sympathy and understanding to annoyance and criticism of the EU.
Those against the new European restrictions might argue that any law that limits the free travel between people isn’t a good thing. This is a fair point, but as a Bulgarian citizen who has spent a third of her life in the US and I’ll tell you why I think the move by the EU is fair.
The ability to travel has changed our lives.
Having broken free from the Soviet Union in 1991, Bulgaria looked towards the West and finally joined the European Union in 2007. Bulgarian Millennials will argue that this is the greatest day in our recent history. Establishing free movement within the European countries has been an absolute game changer for us.
If you follow travel photographers on Instagram, it’s worth noting that a lot of the Bulgarian and other Eastern European accounts are fairly recent. Why? It’s because only recently we were allowed to pack a backpack and hop on a plane to Germany, Spain or Holland without having to go through a torturous process of visa interviews and screenings. Thanks to our entry in the EU, we can now study and work abroad, rubbing shoulders with people from diverse cultures from all over the globe (and explain how yogurt is actually Bulgarian, not Greek).
Though we were granted this freedom ten years ago, we still feel like second-class citizens. A huge contributing factor to that is the treatment we have been and continue to receive from superpowers like the United States.
What we have to do to come to the US
I moved to the US in 2009 to go to school and ended up staying for 7 years of study and work. I’ve since left and settled in Europe, but I naturally feel a draw to go back to my old home and visit my college friends. The problem is that entering the United States on a Bulgarian passport is very complicated because of visa regulations.
This is what I have to do in order to board a plane to the United States (even if I wish to visit for a day):
I have to fill out a form on the US embassy website, accompanied by a photo with specific quality and dimensions. I have to schedule an appointment at the US Embassy (I either have to fly home to Bulgaria, or go to Madrid, since I now live in Spain). I have to pay a fee of $160, nonrefundable. I have to show up for an in-person interview, but it doesn’t end there.
At the interview, I have to present a body of evidence proving that I don’t aim to immigrate to the United States, but only want to have a good vacation and eat chicken wings in LA’s Chinatown, like any other traveler would. This “evidence” includes my work contract, my apartment lease, an invite from whoever I am visiting in the US with his/her address and a document that proves his/her status in the country (Good luck visiting a non-citizen). I have to specify where I will be staying, how long and provide a phone number where I can be reached at all times.
Hopefully, this would grant me a visa, but the embassy officials have the right to decline without providing any explanation. So this is the process I have to go through in order to board a plane to the United States as a Bulgarian citizen. In comparison, if my friend from Los Angeles wants to visit me, all he needs to do is hop on a plane and get his passport stamped upon arrival in Spain.
Openness to other cultures has to go both ways
Americans might be justifiably annoyed at losing easy access to so much of the world, but this is what we have to go through every time we want to visit you. That was the whole point of the 2014 reciprocity agreement. It’s a great idea which makes everyone’s life easier. The only issue is that both the EU and US have to abide by the agreement.
To my pleasant surprise, most of the comments on the articles announcing this change which have been circulating over the past week have been positive. The vast majority of those who can travel free of visas sympathize with us who still need to be thoroughly screened and questioned just to go on a road trip, which demonstrates international solidarity.
Though the implementation of these measures will not be immediate, the European Union’s decision to finally stand up for Bulgaria and the other four countries affected comes as a reminder that at a time when world politics resemble a circus with the potential for a catastrophic ending, we can still manage to unite.
Fellow travelers from the US, thank you for understanding. Don’t let this situation deter you from visiting Europe. You are still very welcome, we just want to feel the same way.