I picked up my passport containing my brand new visa to visit China from the Consulate in New York City this morning. I didn’t use a service or expeditor to handle my request; I did it in person. And it was most definitely an interesting experience.
For starters, the application must be completed digitally rather than by hand. This policy change went into play a few months ago and it is reasonably well publicized on the web site. That apparently doesn’t stop many people from showing up with hand written copies. As I waited in line to drop off my visa application last week I saw no fewer than three folks turned away before they even got to the security checkpoint because they had handwritten applications. One of them was rather frantic about the situation, nearly attacking the guard outside when he refused to let her in to the building. Fortunately, I made it past that little fracas and inside before things got too out of hand.
It is also worth noting that a few enterprising folks have seen the plight of these applicants who are turned away with their handwritten applications. Running out of a rental van parked on the side of 42nd Street they have a print service available. Assuming you have your paperwork in hand and can fill in the form quickly the process to get it typed into the computer they’ve got in the back and printed out on the attached printer isn’t all that bad. I didn’t stop to ask how much they charge for the service but they had a line of folks waiting to pay them so it definitely isn’t a horrible business to be in.
Next up is the application submission process. The application is four pages long and includes very detailed instructions. Apparently, however, those instructions are not complete. Each application requires a photocopy of the passport even though that isn’t noted anywhere. If you have a previous visa to enter China a copy of that is required, too. But no one tells you that until you get to the front of the line. Oy.
There is a copier in the building so you can make the copies needed and then fight back to the window to finish the application submission but it is ancient and ornery. Copies cost 25 cents each, which isn’t really all that bad considering that they’ve basically got you over the barrel at that point. And the machine takes dollars but doesn’t always manage to give change. Needless to say, the three folks behind me in line all got free copies while mine cost a buck.
Once all the paperwork is in order and you get to the front of the line the process is actually pretty easy. An agent quickly flips through the papers and hands you a receipt. Come back in a few days to collect your passport and pay the fees.
As I left the Consulate – roughly two hours after I started my morning there – I chatted with the aforementioned security guard to find out if it was always that crazy inside. He assured me it wasn’t, though I’m not all that convinced. I was back today to collect my passport and the lines were better, but still not great. There is also a distinct lack of signage inside so figuring out where to go was a bit of a process. Basically I stood around looking dumbfounded until others who had just done the same explained where to go, a favor I paid back a few minutes later.
First you drop off your receipt and collect another receipt from one agent. That’s assuming you can figure out which line you’re supposed to be in, but let’s not get caught up with such a trifling detail. After making it through that line it is off to another line – now with your new receipt – to await the opportunity to pay and recover your passport.
The payment is apparently another problem for some folks to figure out. The Consulate has been only accepting credit cards, bank checks or money orders for roughly 18 months now. They stamp the receipt they give you with the words "No Cash" in both English and Mandarin in really big, red letters. And the woman in front of me was fighting with the agent behind the glass to pay for her visa with two crisp, clean $100 bills. Literally shoving the bills under the little window thing and not letting the agent push them back. It was nuts.
This trip was only about 30 minutes to get my passport and pay the Visa fees. Now I’m all set for my visit. But, wow, was there a lot of crazy involved. And that doesn’t include the various other folks choosing to ignore the lines, shouting at each other in various languages and all sorts of other fun that kept me entertained during my waits.
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