Wednesday, February 3, 2010
One of the nice things about living in London is that seemingly every country in the world has an embassy, high commission, or other visa-dispensing diplomatic mission in the city. Sometimes this makes it really easy to get visas. It also sometimes works to my advantage when the UK visa fees are lower than the US ones, as sometimes I’m only required to pay the UK fee despite my blue-and-gold passport.
Other times, it’s not so easy. For example, my upcoming trip to Africa has proved to be a less-than-thrilling experience in terms of procuring the proper documentation to enter Mali, Kenya, and The Gambia.
First it was Mali. One would think that Mali would have an embassy or at least a visa office in London, but no. It doesn’t. The closest Mali embassy to London is in Brussels. The Brussels embassy offers a service whereby you can mail your passport to them and they will give you a visa. However, it requires a courier service to return the passport, which is astronomically expensive. So are expediters.
My frustrated boyfriend and I solved this problem as creatively as we could. I called the Mali embassy and put my French skills to use by asking them if we could bring in our passports in person. Yes. So we cashed in some of my boyfriend’s Eurostar points and sent him on a day trip to Brussels to get our visas. We benefited from the pay-less-in-Europe rule, forking over only 30 euros each instead of the US price of 131 dollars. And my boyfriend got to spend a lovely day in Brussels visiting the Horta House Museum and eating his fill of Belgian waffles and chocolate. Not bad.
The second issue was with our Kenya visas. Kenya has an embassy in London, and the process seemed pretty straightforward. We printed the forms, attached our passport sized photos, and got cash to pay for the visas. Then we read the fine print. Only UK passport holders can obtain multiple-entry visas for Kenya. Seeing as how we will have two separate sojourns in Kenya during our trip, that wasn’t very convenient.
We decided to solve that problem by ignoring it. When the woman at the embassy told us that we could only get single entry visas, we decided to beg. When that didn’t work, we left the embassy frustrated that we would have to get a second single-entry visa in Kenya, and it would cost $50 each (in addition to the 20 pounds for the first one) instead of the multiple entry fee of 30 pounds. Sigh.
The third problem came with the visas for The Gambia. UK citizens don’t need a visa to enter The Gambia. US citizens do, and the visa costs $100. Seriously? $100 for a country that small? It made me feel like visa fees should be proportional to the size of the country, and therefore The Gambia visas should cost around 3p. It would really be more fair that way. That said, I’m sure the Gambians that have to pay exorbitant fees to enter the US would argue that it should be based on per capita income of the country of origin, and I see their point. What a dilemma.
So with just four days to go until we leave for Africa, we’re still waiting to pick up our Kenya visas and the jury is out on whether we will pay $100 to get visas for just one day of travel in The Gambia. But even with all of the visa hassle and being-a-foreigner-is-so-frustrating moments, I’m very excited to travel to Africa and I can’t wait to explore Kenya, Mali, Senegal, and perhaps The Gambia.