WHEN I DECIDED to end my residency in Japan and travel to Thailand to work with a volunteer program, I knew the requirements for securing the proper visa, a non-immigrant type O:
- One designated application form signed with the same signature as appears on passport
- Passport (original & copy) with validity over 6 months
- One photo size 4.5 x 4 cm, color or black & white
- Airline ticket or flight confirmation sheet (original & copy)
- Recommendation letter from institute in Japan (original in English)
- Invitation letter from institute in Thailand
- Registration document of an institute in Thailand
What I failed to understand, however, was just how opposed the Royal Thai Consulate-General of in Japan was to me getting a visa into Thailand.
As an American citizen, I could buy one on arrival for 30 days, but if I chose to stay with the volunteer program for longer, I’d either have to leave and reenter the country or extend my visa with a local immigration office.
This being the less favorable of the two options, I needed to travel from Kagoshima to Osaka (five hours by train, and quite expensive), stay overnight for processing, and return the following day.
I arrived in Osaka and, within twenty minutes of stepping off the train, applied with the consulate. Having presented all documentation, I was told everything was in order, with the exception of the registration document.
I contacted my organization, and had them fax a different registration document to me. The next day, I applied again, only to be told that all the documents were in order, with the exception of the “corrected” registration document, which apparently was not the correct format: the copy my organization had provided was the official notification from the Thai government, but did not contain a statement of purpose.
I later found out such a document never existed.
Lacking the paperwork to even have my application accepted, I returned to Kagoshima and was informed, upon consultation between the Royal Thai Consulate-General Osaka and the manager of my volunteer organization, that it would be in my best interest to forgo the traditional volunteer visa and just apply for a two-month tourist visa.
A few weeks later, I returned to Osaka (again, expensive train fare) and applied for a two-month tourist visa, only to be told that my recommendation letter from a Japanese institute, which had previously been deemed acceptable by the consulate, was now unacceptable for some reason (the reason being a different consulate officer was working that day and had his own ideas of what was necessary).
Upon learning this, the visa section receptionist suggested I again return to Kagoshima and have the document rewritten… at whose expense, I might ask?
Long story short? I applied for the same visa at the Thai consulate in Beijing and had it processed in three days for a lesser price, and with no hassles.
When it comes to Japanese bureaucracy mixed with the paperwork usually associated with government visas, you should always be aware that, regardless of location, you may not get what visa you want on the first attempt.
Or the second. Or the third. There are some consulates and embassies that are rigorous about having you dot every last “i” or leave no ink outside the black boxes. Others might behave differently according to the day, the person working, the weather, your clothes, your breath, the political situation, even a butterfly flapping its wings.
6 Tips for obtaining visas when you’re living abroad.
1. Consult the embassy or consulate website to obtain a list of precisely what you need.
Better yet, find someone who has gone through the procedure – a friend of the same nationality or a detailed blog writeup.
Most foreign embassies and consulates provide English instructions when it comes to visa procedures, but there are some that don’t – if you’re unclear as to what’s required when you walk in that door, you should…
2. Bring every single piece of government-issued paperwork you have on hand.
When you’re dealing with bureaucracy, expect the unexpected. I don’t think you’ll have to send for anything in particular from home, but if you have it with you, bring it: diploma; copy of diploma; passport and copy; alien registration card; travel documents; regulation-size photos; any information you have received about where you’re going and what you’re planning to do.
3. Consider location a major factor.
Not all of us live in capital cities or even urban areas. Just as I had to pay thousands of Yen in travel expenses, so might you have to commute for hours or even days when applying for a foreign visa.
Although it’s unwise to put off applying for visas until the last possible second, doing so might save you something; if you have to travel to a large city to fly out anyway, you might as well time your visa run for a few days before departure.
Check to see if mail-in applications are accepted, or if a legal representative can present your passport and apply for you.
This includes the physical location of the embassy or consulate, which can be in some obscure areas; the American embassy in Beijing is located just behind the silk market, the Thai consulate on the 15th floor of an office building. They’re not always in plain view or readily accessible.
4. Consider processing time.
Whether you’re in a tight crunch between layovers, or you have plenty of days to locate the embassy and go over what’s needed, be careful. Say you’re planning a flight to Washington DC and have exactly three days to obtain your visa to Vietnam… what if the flight is delayed by 12 hours?
Can you still travel if your application is delayed or rejected? Can you pay extra to have the visa processed on the same working day?
5. Find out if there are other options.
- Visas on Arrival
Depending on your nationality and where you’re headed, some countries do not require visas (for example, most people can enter Hong Kong for 30 days without a visa) or will allow you to purchase one when you land.
- Online Visa Applications
Not a bad idea, but I can understand if you’re a bit weary about giving out so much personal information online. Services like this will always cost more than you simply doing it in person.
- Legal Representatives
If you’re unwilling to travel 1000 km to the nearest embassy, you might be able to appoint a legal representative to present your passport on your behalf.
This can be a friend whom you’ve given legal authority, or a paid service by a law firm.
6. Use the political muscle of your Senator or Representative.
Have a friend who holds some kind of elected office back home?
Even if not, you can still request a letter of assistance from your US representative. Contact the office of your favorite Congressperson.
An endorsement, or even a letter showing some kind of loose support from someone in office can reduce processing times and open doors.
It’s all about presenting that official government letterhead. Now the emassy isn’t just dealing with you; someone from your government is watching as well.
Interested in getting more information about visas from travelers living in different countries around the world?
Contact them directly and ask about their experiences by searching for travelers in the destinations page at Matador.