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My Schengen Visa Application (Estonia c/o Norway)

I love traveling to Europe. I’ve been lucky enough to make the trip a number of times, and they all leave lasting memories for me to fondly remember. But what I do hate is the preparation. After the initial excitement fades, the weeks leading to the actual departure is riddled with anxiety and second thoughts about pushing through. Can I afford it? What am I going to do if something goes wrong? Isn’t there something more important for me to spend my money on first? Will I be able to eat anything there? All these questions circulate in my head.

The anxiety comes to a head when I start the Schengen Visa Application process. In my experience, it was by far, the most tedious process to go through as far as visa applications went. My first two times were in the Netherlands embassy which subjected me and my documents through a long and strict process. I’m not complaining, though. I distinctly remember sharing the waiting area with a lot of people having a more difficult time. The third time was in the Belgian embassy, which was even stricter and dealing with them was a less pleasant experience. By the time I prepared for my fourth trip, this time to Hungary and Austria, VFS Global had taken over just about all the embassies of the countries in the Schengen area, at least as far as dealing directly with applicants are concerned. With the whole thing now having a middleman, the overall cost of applying for a Schengen visa increased. But in exchange, you get a friendlier vibe where you get the feeling that you’re being assisted by people to ensure approval rather than being interrogated with the intention of being caught with something that would be grounds for the rejection of your application. It also sped up the process with the booking of appointments being so much less of a pain, with queues being significantly shorter, without processing time having any apparent delay due to having a middleman.

I recently went through the process for a fifth time. I was now heading to Estonia, who’s represented by the Norweigian embassy in the Philippines. It meant I’d be heading back to VFS Global in Manila, but before that, I encountered Norway’s online application form. It was a lot more convenient than what I was used to in the past. Printing the form wasn’t even necessary. I did leave it hanging longer than I wanted, though, due to circumstances affecting my schedule and finances.

Scheduling my appointment to submit the necessary documents was also easy. It’s probably even possible to set it the day after on many cases, which is just as well. I tend to err towards the side of caution, making sure I already have all the documents I need in hand before setting that appointment. In that regard, there was nothing outside the usual for Schengen visa applications — invitation, certificate of employment, permission from your employer, bank statement, itinerary… those sorts of things. I did note that I didn’t need to submit a copy of my income tax return this time (I’ve needed to in two out of the four previous applications).

So, I set my appointment on Wednesday, August 22. I could have booked it the following day, but opted for August 24, Friday, 8:45AM instead. I arrived at the building early (6:45AM) to avoid traffic. So I tried to take a short nap in the car. By 7:45AM, I went to the entrance to check if they’d let me in early. They did. Once again, I noted how friendlier VFS Global staff are, compared to those in the actual embassies. Considering how much they charge for processing visas (on top of the 60 Euros charged upon submission of the online form, I paid nearly 2,000 Pesos for the processing and courier fee), I suppose it’s something I should expect. I also noted that people are now allowed to use their mobile devices more freely. Picture taking is probably the only thing that’s explicitly prohibited now. There’s no need to check bags in a locker anymore. If I knew that prior, I’d probably have been able to bring in a book to read. I was hoping that I’d be processed early. But it looked like everyone who booked appointments before me were there, as well. But to VFS Global’s credit, I was called right on the clock at 8:45AM. And in 15 minutes, all my documents were inspected and accepted. By 9:20AM, I was done with my biometrics and was on my way to the parking area.

That was pretty fast. But what I found even more surprising was that by Monday, September 27, I had already received a text message that my visa has been approved. And by the following day, my passport had been delivered. I got it back within three business days. This was the fastest visa application I’ve ever gone through.

This was not the end of my headaches as I had other problems to deal with regarding my travel plan, but this part was surprisingly quick and hassle-free. It certainly helped in lowering my anxiety. I have a few other visa applications looming already. But this experience has given me confidence that they won’t be much of a problem when the time comes.

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Uncertainty with Aidan in Taichung City

Taichung City, Taiwan, March 2016

I brought my family to Taiwan. We offered to help out a friend who was working on an art installation in the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung City. It was a relatively short trip that had its share of ups and downs. But what loomed over my head insidiously was an unmistakable change in the behavior of my son that started a month prior. It was something I tried to dismiss, but really couldn’t. It wasn’t until much later when the pieces were put together that I had a better understanding of what was going on.

On our walks in the city, he had this penchant of walking ahead of me with no regard to anything around him. He never looked behind to check if either of his parents was still nearby. He tried to break free every time I tried to hold on to him. I always found myself having to catch up to him in corridors and walkways as he kept moving. The pictures below will offer you glimpses of what I dealt with.

We also spent time with an artist couple who had a daughter roughly the same age  who I understood had her own little developmental issues. But even then, she was significantly ahead in many aspects and was more conscious of her surroundings.

At nearly two years old, close friends and his grandparents were already noticing how he actively avoided eye contact and wanted no part of anybody other than his mother. Even I had a difficult time interacting with him. It was a stark contrast to the baby boy that always smiled and laughed to the delight of everyone around him.

Little did I know back then that autism had become a distinct possibility for him.

Perhaps my ignorance back then was a blessing in disguise. It would be months before I was adequately educated of my son’s condition. By then I could already look back at the pictures below with amusement. Otherwise, I’d be picking up a very different story immediately after taking these pictures.

These seemingly symbolic scenes of him walking alone in the huge expanse offered by the parks in the city evoke strong emotions that haunt me, which I am sure some of you can relate to. I still choke up a little bit as I type this post.

The difference seen in the pictures here and our Hanoi trip more than eight months later was dramatic. It was almost like he was in his own world in Taichung. Hanoi saw a boy significantly more engaged with his surroundings and the doting people around him.

Nearly one year after, I am relieved to say that things have improved significantly. The doctor still doesn’t want to completely rule out autism, and he continues to attend therapy sessions to address his issues. But at this stage, the possibility of the condition that I dread for my son has become highly unlikely.

There is still a fairly long trail that lies ahead. But at least now, I am confident that the worst of this issue is over and things will be looking up.

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Hanoi trip notes (December 2016)

It is in this trip where it occurred to me that I can now start to live vicariously through my son. I didn’t think it would come so early. He’s years away from shooting his first hoop or playing his first three guitar chords.

From start to finish, there was always something.

He was quite a center of attention during the conference amusing everyone in sight. I had officemates more than willing to look after him. I was told a Vietnamese student offered to change his diapers. He stole the show for a short while during his mom’s presentation.

At Ba Dinh Square, just before I took this picture, there was another family with whom we stuck around with for a few moments. They had a friendly little girl who wanted to play. I’d have let them if I wasn’t so worried about Aidan’s habit of pushing other kids (we’re still working on that).

Before we checked out of the hotel, the receptionist asked what time we were leaving. When she realized she wouldn’t be seeing us again, she gave Aidan a hug then asked if he wanted to stay with her (lol, like that’s gonna happen), then said she hoped to see us again.

The man who drove us to the airport was quite feisty on the road and some of us felt he had a bad attitude. But what the rest of the group didn’t know was that before we left, I was standing outside the hotel with Aidan. The driver approached us, smiled, lightly pinched my son at the cheek, then gave me a thumbs up. He was a bit stiff, but I don’t think he’s a bad guy.

Then while we were waiting to check in at the airport, a middle aged Korean man approached my wife. He recognized them, turned his camera on, and showed a picture he took of Aidan while we were at the coffee shop beside the Vietnam Military History Museum the day before. His group was seated some tables away and took the picture (in hindsight, I probably should’ve asked for a copy).

I know he’s cute. But so are a lot of kids. So, it can’t be just that. As my former boss once said — he has a certain character about him, which is now being tempered by his time at A.B.L.E. Center and Bahay-bahayan ni Mariang Makiling — it’s the things he learned from both of them which the other people see. But no one deserves more credit than his own mother. It’s been an arduous learning process not without its share of mistakes on both our parts. But it’s her effort and sacrifice that keeps everything else going.

 

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Visa Application: United Kingdom

As I write this, I still may or may not make this trip to London which I had been thinking about for the past month. But it didn’t stop me from applying for a visa despite the cost, anyway.

Applying for a visa is always a stressful undertaking for me, as it may be for many of you. I believe I have already earned the credentials to go to just about wherever I want and be allowed to do so. Being an academic makes things even easier. But still, the thought of someone you don’t know judging as to whether or not you are worthy of entering another country kind of affects my self-esteem. Even more stressful is having to compile all the documents required of you and have those closely examined. Applying for a Schengen visa is just that.

However, the UK visa application process outwardly looked more similar to the US visa application as far as requirements are concerned — an exhaustive application form, a rather high application/processing fee and a suspiciously short list of required supporting documents. After all, being used to going through the eye of a needle with Schengen visa applications, I can’t help but think that what if they suddenly ask for something I did not bring with me and all that shit.

So, I searched the Web for all the instructions and pointers I could fine. Aside from the information from the UK Embassy’s own website, I came across Wanderlass’s blog, which I found to be helpful and encouraging. I will now attempt to fill in whatever blanks her blog left and updates to what she laid out (the blog was written back in 2011) which I think might prove useful for everyone.

Everything starts with the online application form. It is long — perhaps longer than the US Embassy’s DS160. It requires information whose relevance you might question. For example, I can’t for the life of me, understand why a savings accounts’ income (interest rate for the rest of us) be more relevant than the actual balance. But I filled it, anyway (which turns out to be close to nothing).

After taking a few days to gradually fill that form, I finally submitted it, and set my appointment for the biometric scan and whatever interview that may arise. This was back in February 10, 2016. The good news is that I had the option to schedule my appointment for as early as February 12, and that’s exactly what I did. I chose to be processed at 8:10AM and then paid US$128 by credit card. Then I waited.

The UK Embassy doesn’t deal with applicants directly. Instead, a third party, VFS Global along Chino Roces Ave. extension at Makati, does it for them. Apparently, they process visas for many other countries, including Australia and some Schengen states, which I found surprising. Maybe I can experience applying for one through them next time. But at the time, I was focused on my immediate need.

I was there early and relaxed a bit. I fell in line exactly at 8:10AM. Then I realized that bags are not allowed beyond the waiting area. It would have been nice to know that prior to my going there. The good news is that VFS Global offers a locker service. The not so good news is that it will cost you P150.

Coming in to the processing area, I was surprised to see a largely vacant seat of benches, especially when you’re accounting for all the countries they represent. This was no US embassy, that’s for sure. I have barely started filling the checklist the receptionist gave me when my number was called. I took a deep breath, assuming that if there was going to be an interview, it would be then and there. I was expecting to have to answer questions of why I did not carry this or that supporting document. Instead, the young man at the counter asked me:

Man: Is this all that your going to submit?
Me: Well, is there anything else I need to submit?
Man: That’s up to you, sir.
Me: Uh… ok. If that’s the case, that’s all of them.

I mostly felt relieved, but not completely, lol. I submitted a certificate of employment, a bank statement, information on the conference I was planning on attending and a hotel reservation confirmation. I thought it was enough, but I can never really know and that would be totally on me. Well played, VFS Global.

I was then asked if I would prefer my passport to be sent back to me via courier and be sent notifications via SMS. I quickly said yes to both, and then got surprised when I looked down at his counter. I saw that the return delivery cost P500 and the SMS notification cost P150. Wow. I was beginning to realize how lucrative a business VFS Global has going. Then again, it is hardly my concern. I just wanted to get this over with.

I waited for a bit to have my picture taken and fingerprints scanned. Then I was done. I fell in line on time at 8:10AM and was out of the building before 9:00AM.

I was told to wait three weeks. But I knew full well that it was a safe and conservative estimate. I was confident that this will not take long in my case. My guess my application will be processed within two weeks. But on February 17, I received my SMS notification that my application has been processed. My passport was delivered back to me the following day. That was six days from my personal appearance at VFS Global to my passport being delivered back to me. Even my original supporting documents along with the passport were returned to me.

This application is on the costly side, but it was quick and smooth. Not bad at all.

 

 

 

 

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Visa Application: United States of America (2013)

I previously wrote about how I did not look forward to having my passport renewed. I did so, anyway, and much earlier than I expected. Here’s why.

I got scheduled for a trip to the US, but it fell within six months before my passport’s expiration. I might not be allowed to travel when I go to what is perhaps one of the things I looked forward to the least — falling in line to apply for a visa at the US Embassy in Manila.

I’ve already applied for other visas and would not hesitate to reapply given the need. But I’ve always thought it wouldn’t be a loss nor would I ever feel unfulfilled if I end up never setting foot anywhere in the US. (Un)fortunately, an good opportunity to do so arose. It was hard to pass up. So, yes, I had my passport renewed early just for this.

August 22 — The first stage of the process was strange. The online application consisted mainly of the DS-160 — easily the most exhaustive visa application form I’d ever seen so far (it’s worth seven pages when you print it). It took me a while to finish. The first dilemma came when I had to declare whether or not I had been to the US in the past. I’d make it easier for myself and say no, but that wouldn’t be true. I was barely a year old and hardly remember anything from that time, but my family lived in Indiana for a while when my dad was taking his PhD. I didn’t want to be accused of lying in case they actually still have my old visa on record. The problem was I had very little idea how long I stayed exactly. I had to ask my dad, who didn’t remember either. It was a good thing he didn’t throw my old passport away. I had to dig deep into the old documents in storage, but I found it. When I checked, the visa was so old it didn’t have the 10 digit number that is standard today. The DS160 did not accept the number, anyway. It felt like a waste of time, but I figure I’d just bring the old passport with me at the embassy, just in case.

My first US Visa.

My first US Visa.

With the DS-160 finally accomplished and confirmed, the next thing to do was pay for the processing fee. A hundred and sixty US Dollars is steep, but what choice do I have, no? I opted to pay online. I love BPI’s online banking, but payment does not register immediately in the embassy’s system. I was worried, as I was paying in the midst of a typhoon and there was an upcoming holiday. One banking day may as well be one week in reality.

What made this bad news was the set of appointment dates that were available to me. According to the system, the earliest date for an appointment was October 18. I had to fly on the 19th. I promptly told my colleagues they may have to travel without me. Still, I was advised to keep checking. While I felt like it was fine if I wasn’t going to be able to go, I did check regularly. It surprisingly paid off. By August 29, new appointment slots suddenly opened for September 5 and 6. I got myself signed up for the 6th at 6:30AM

September 6 — The drive from Los Baños to Manila was quick, as expected, being so early. I made it outside the premises and found a parking slot nearby across Roxas Boulevard at 6:00AM. By the parking lot and around the overpass, there were lots of vendors, selling pens and offering storage of electronic devices. Even USB flash drives weren’t allowed in the embassy. But I already knew that. I made sure my bag only contained my documents, a notebook and two pens. Everything else, I left in the car.

The lines were already long, by the time I joined it. It was thankfully still cool and it wasn’t raining. I can only imagine how much worse it is for those who have to endure both conditions later in the day. Fortunately for everyone, the queue moved at a quick pace. Soon enough, I was ushered inside the building. The queue was unsurprisingly long, filling a large area to capacity. But I have to commend the personnel at the embassy for their efficiency and ability to keep things in order.

The application itself is a three-stage process that involves getting a biometric scan, verifying your documents and the actual interview. The online application stage explicitly states that I do not bring any other additional documents that is not mentioned in their checklist. It even said not to print the DS-160. I did so, anyway (in typical Filipino segurista fashion). Needless to say, that was a waste of paper and printer ink.

It was during the verification step that I asked if my going to the US as a baby count. I showed the old passport to the person going over my stuff. I don’t remember getting a clear answer from her. She barely looked at it and told me it’s ok or something.

The final stage involved the interview conducted by Americans. As I waited, I couldn’t help but observe the row of windows manned by the interview officers. Each one handled interviews differently. Among those that I could see, there was a dour older guy, a no-nonsense guy that probably wasn’t that much older than me, and there was the affable lady that was all-smiles. I ended up in front of a no-nonsense guy.  The interview went something like this:

Officer: How are you today?
Me: A little anxious, to be honest…
Officer: What do you do?
Me: I teach at the University of the Philippines
Officer: What’ll you be going for? (I couldn’t hear him clearly.)
Me: … I’m sorry?
Officer: Where’ll you be going?
Me: Oh, I’ll be attending a conference in Las Vegas.
Officer: What’s it about?
Me: It’s a conference on e-Learning.
Officer: How long will you be there?
Me: Two or three days, then I’ll head to San Francisco for four days, if I can.
Officer: [Looks over my documents one last time, and then…] Ok, we’ll just send your passport back to you after a week or so… Good day.

That was quick…

I wrote down the times. I was led inside the embassy at 6:18AM. I got out at 8:07AM. By 8:30AM, I was enjoying a mug of coffee at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shop across the street. The anxiety was gone.

I received my passport with a 10-year multiple entry B1/B2 US visa within five days. Everything eventually went as planned. It’s going to be a while before I will have to go back in there to have my visa renewed. But when that time comes, I don’t think I will be anywhere as apprehensive as I was during this first application. It wasn’t the easiest process I’ve ever experienced, but it sure wasn’t nearly as hard as I first imagined.

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Like day and night: passport renewal then and now

There are two renewals which I don’t look forward to. One is for my driver’s license, where I have to endure long slow-moving lines every three years. I hate falling in line. Who doesn’t, right? But what beat all the lines I queued up for in the four LTO offices I’ve had my license renewed in was the one in the old Department of Foreign Affairs compound more than four years ago. I was overdue to have my passport renewed. I dreaded the thought of it, but I needed my passport for an upcoming business trip to Australia. It was my first time to go overseas as a UPOU faculty and the person coordinating the thing was incessantly pestering me about it, which, as I look back, I am actually thankful for, by the way.

So, I forced myself to do it. I woke up early and took a drive, eventually making it outside one of the DFA building’s gates just before 7:00AM. I asked a security guard for directions and he directed me to the department’s covered basketball court. Much to my surprise (not to mention dismay), the court was packed with people and it took me a while to take care of all the documents and then actually find the end of the line. The queue was snaking across the court from end to end. I was finally able to join the queue outside the damn court. That took nearly three hours to go through. I spent another two hours inside the actual DFA building waiting in line. I haven’t forgotten how somebody puked in the waiting area and the rest of us had to smell it for half an hour before I mercifully made it to another stage of the application process. I finished the process just before lunchtime. Inhaling the smell of vomit notwithstanding, I still thought I came off lucky. Others don’t get through that fast. I just went  back to my car and thought to myself, god, I’m glad I won’t have to go through that again for another five years…

But yes, you guessed it. My five years were almost up.

Due to my ignorance back in 2009, I did not know that, as a government employee, I was actually eligible to avail of what is called the Courtesy Lane. Presumably, I would only have had to deal with a shorter and faster queue. The DFA also seemed to have significantly increased the speed and efficiency of the whole passport application process. They now have a nice online appointment system that allows you to choose from a number of offices. They even have one at SM Megamall.

I was told that it wouldn’t be necessary for me to set an appointment, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. I chose the day and time and set my appointment online, anyway. I was tempted to try the Megamall branch. But with me not being sure that there is a Courtesy Lane there, I chose Office of Consular Affairs building along Aseana Ave for a 7:30AM appointment.

So, once again, I anxiously drive early in the morning, making it to the area just before 6:30AM.

The gates were already open and the lines were already accumulating. Did I mention I hate falling in line? After having my forms verified, I asked where the Courtesy Lane was. Upon showing my UMID as proof that I worked for the government, I was directed to another door. It was by the door on a nearby bench I waited for about half an hour, writing a blog (not this one) to bide the time. My group was ushered in Door 5 and to the second floor at around 7:15AM. I got my counter number at 7:25AM — #7001, the first among the regular group. Well, what do you know? The actual application process started five minutes early.

I felt pretty relaxed. Even though there were a few people ahead of me who were slowing the queue (I may had been the first among the regular group, but there were other groups ahead of us). It was still early, and I was having a seat in a sparsely occupied air-conditioned room. I even had the time to help out the lady ahead of me who lost one of her receipts (it slipped through her daughter’s things under a bench) and after her thanking me, consequently listened while she gently, but a bit too loudly reprimanded her daughter for being careless. I don’t think she actually paused from talking the whole time. You know how some mothers are… But that’s ok. The overall mood in the room was light. I saw other people in the queues helpful to each other. The people in the booths hardly smiled, but were otherwise polite.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s still a copier machine to accommodate those who didn’t come in prepared. And yes, there were those in front of me who had to make use of it, including the lady I mentioned. Me, I had all my documents in good order and photocopied. And so, everything went smoothly on my part.

By 8:15AM, I was already by Gate 4, the exit, leisurely thinking about where to eat breakfast instead of lunch. I was done in less than an hour and have no horror stories to tell. I’m sure there will be people out there who will beg to differ (like that whose story is recounted here), which would indicate there is still room for improvement. But from my own experience, along with everyone else I was with in the Courtesy Lane, I was very happy with how quick and painless the process was — a complete turnaround from my experience back in 2009.

I acknowledge the fact that I availed of a perk and may have gotten off easier than most people. But one thing I haven’t mentioned yet was that I first heard about the Courtesy Lane from my dad, who had his own passport renewed shortly after mine. He was both a senior citizen and government employee, so he was spotted easily and promptly sent to the Courtesy Lane, but it still took him well beyond an hour to finish. I also have been hearing and reading good things about how it’s pretty fast in other branches. Good feedback is actually easier to come by than bad ones, which by itself is remarkable. That is why I plan on having my passport renewed elsewhere and maybe even forego the Courtesy Lane in 2018. Or maybe I can accompany someone sooner just to see. But for now, it’s nice to see a government agency dramatically improving their service. I wish more of them did the same.

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Copyright 2018 Al Francis D. Librero © All Rights Reserved.

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