Thursday, 6 July 2017

Adventures in bureaucracy

It used to be (ie until a few months ago), Australian citizens could apply for their long-stay student exchange visa by mail. Simply gather all the required documentation, whack it in an envelope and send it off. Easy peasy. Now, we need to present ourselves for an appointment in Sydney (so they can do fingerprint scans, and take your photo). On the one hand, I get it. You don't want to be the shmuck who lets in the next person to blow the place up, but on the other, I would have thought we're still a pretty low-risk category. But, as Justin pointed out, there's a reason "bureaucracy" is a French word.

So here is my step-by-step guide to applying for a Long-Stay Student Exchange visa.

Step 1: locate the relevant checklist of documents on the French Embassy website. You may need to visit it multiple times on multiple days, as often it won't load properly. If you do manage to get the form you're after to display, download that sucker. You may not be able to access it again for weeks. (I'd link the form, but it's currently failing to load.)

Step 2: repeat above for other documents that also need to obtained from the website. Note that the only way to access the other forms you need is via the checklist, which may or may not load (even if it worked a minute ago). Download those suckers too.

Step 3: closer to the date of your appointment, repeat steps 1 and 2, as the forms may have changed. Note that the version number might be identical, but the form is different. Yes, really.

Step 4: start gathering all the documents you require. This includes an original of the student acceptance letter "duly dated, signed and stamped" from the academic institution in France. It also includes a recent certificate (their emphasis, not mine) issued by the Australian University confirming participation in an exchange program. My uni (UNE) has been doing these exchanges for yonks, and no-one knew what document was required. They made one up for me.

Step 5: Work out when you are going to (try to) book an appointment. Your appointment must be not more than three months before your arrival in France, and you cannot book it more than two months in advance. Appointment times book out within a hour or so of becoming available. But don't think of trying to book just after midnight on the day you have picked to make an appointment - they system only operates during business hours. (And you thought trying to get a same-day appointment at your GP was tricky!)

Step 6: Now book your flights to and from Sydney, and arrange to take the day off work (I planned my jaunt for my normal Wednesday off).

Step 7: Once you have booked everything, and paid for your non-refundable flight, find out that the Consulate has realised there are rather a few students who go on exchange and their system is utterly overwhelmed and no-one can get appointments (remember, you need a separate appointment for each passport, so a family of five needs to book five appointments). So they then contact you (via the universities) to say you must now cancel your existing appointment, and instead email them requesting a new appointment, which might be on a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon. If you are feeling particularly ballsy, you do not cancel your appointment, but instead send through all the required information but firmly request they honour your existing booking as you have already paid for the flights (attach copy of flight itinerary). Wait on tenterhooks for a week until they deign to get back to you and agree that you can keep your existing booking.

Step 8: Discover that the bank with whom you have your savings account has a serious system issue and cannot generate a bank statement for the last six months until a week after your appointment. (One of the items required is evidence of financial resources, including last three bank statements.) Ring said bank, and after proving you are not an idiot, and no, it actually cannot be done, get them to generate an interim bank statement as a special favour and to get it to you within 24 hours (important, as you leave for your flight in 36 hours).

Step 9: On the day before your appointment, go through each of the items in your list, carefully arranging them in the required order, double checking each and every item is there and properly completed. Check you have any other document that might possibly be relevant (translated birth certificate, accommodation contract that finally arrived last week, every other form or relevant document you received from either UNE or UA). Pack your bag the night before, including your parcel of documents, the Opal card you bought last time you were in Sydney, plus study materials and essential medicines/change of undies/toothbrush etc, in case you get stuck in Sydney overnight. Set the alarm for 4:30am. Go to bed early, dosing yourself with melatonin so you have a chance of getting enough sleep.

Step 10: Get up when that alarm goes off, and catch that plane. Find somewhere near the Consultate to kill a couple of hours until your appointment. You can rent a desk at a café by buying a cuppa tea or coffee.

Step 11: Turn up sufficiently early for your appointment (recommended at least 10 minutes before), but not too early, because they won't let you in. Then wait in the partitioned section while the woman two ahead of you is doing her absolute darnedest not to burst into tears because one of her required forms lacked the requisite signature from the director of her erstwhile employer. And no, she couldn't leave her documents and return later with the required form, she would have to make a new appointment (see item 5, above, as to why that might be a tad disheartening). Then, wait also while the next woman, a Chinese national with permanent Australian residency, tries to get a Schengen visa (short-term visa, not required for Australian nationals). She is also lacking one of the key bits of information, but mentions in passing that her husband is an EU national, and all of sudden, she can now apply for a much broader visa, for no charge, and the missing information is no longer relevant. Oh, and it appears she made her appointment only last night, so perhaps the first woman isn't as shit out of luck as it first appeared. However, it does take her ten minutes to be able to convince the fingerprint reader that it can in fact read her finger prints.

Step 12: It is now your turn, and it's only ten minutes past the allotted appointment time. As you hand over your documents, realise with horror that you haven't got one of the required documents, specifically the flight itinerary showing when, where and how you actually enter France. (But you do have the one showing you leaving France.) Quickly try to contact your travel agent, leaving a voice mail asking her to send a copy of it toot sweet, see voo play. Breathe a massive sigh of relief when the consular official assures you that you can drop it in later (but note that they close at 12:15pm for the day), or post it later, but don't email it, because it will likely get lost. Pay your €99 (AU$148) fee, have your fingerprints and photo taken, and you're done.

Step 13: Go and find somewhere for a quiet cup of tea, where you might get a bit of study done. As soon as you have ordered your tea, discover that your travel agent has come through, and emailed the required documents. Ask the waiter where one might get such a document printed (Officeworks, less than five minutes away), and then drink your tea.

Step 14: Go to Officeworks, and stand in line for ten minutes to get served. In hindsight, I should have forked over the money to buy a (non-refundable) charge card, but I knew I only needed three or four pages printed. When you are finally served, discover that printing colour double-sided seems to be utterly beyond them for what ever reason, so suggest black and white single sided would be fine, but now would be better.

Step 15: Return to the Consulate to deliver these documents, and trust that the lovely security guard will in fact hand on the documents to the required people.

Step 16: Return to the airport, and find some (a) lunch, (b) a(n alcoholic) drink and (c) a table at which to do some study. Explain/apologise when the person next to you looks at you oddly as you mutter your Latin verb conjugations while writing them out.

Step 17: Board your flight on time, but sit on the tarmac for another forty minutes while ?something to do with slow loading of baggage? happens. Get home, pay the extortionate parking fee ($39), and then drive home, utterly knackered. Kiss your husband, sons, dogs, eat some dinner, then collapse into bed.

Step 18: Check the status of your application periodically online. They will not contact you to tell you it's available, and if you're collecting it in person, it's up to you to find out when it is ready for collection. Or you can provide a "large" Express Post Platinum envelope (recommended, regular Express Post okay, but on your head be it), and they'll send it to you when it's done (or if they refuse to grant one).

See? Easy and straightforward process!

1 comment:

  1. I am delighted to advise that I have now received my visa! Wheeee...