Planning for Visas and Travel Itinerary
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Our Experience Applying for a South African visa in Los Angeles

We knew it wasn’t going too well, when she said, “Are you even legally in the United States?” Applying for a South African visa in Los Angeles, did come with its challenges, to say the least. Here is our experience through the process.

We were temporarily back in the United States and were planning our next 6 months of travel. South Africa – and more specifically Cape Town – was a “must visit” on our sabbatical. We figured it would be a good time to start looking into the visa application procedure.

Challenges

There were some challenges from the get go:

  • We are both Indian citizens, and even though there are no visa fees, we still have to apply for a visa to enter South Africa (list of countries exempt from South African visa). There is no option for an e-visa or “visa on arrival” for us as of writing this post.
  • It is not possible to apply for the visa “on the road”. We had to apply for the visa while we were in the US.
  • We had to file the visa application, in-person, at the nearest consulate. For us, this was close 1,200 miles away.  Seattle does not have a South African consulate, and one has to apply for the visa in Los Angeles. This meant that we would have to book flight tickets, hotels and make sure all our paperwork was in order.
  • We wanted to go to South Africa, but not until 4 months later. Based on a few phone calls, we knew that the South African consulate – like most others – does not issue visas so far in advance. Given that it’s cold and rainy in Cape Town, we did not want to go before October.
  • We didn’t have a fixed itinerary, so we weren’t sure exactly when we were going to get to SA. Consulates generally require a set itinerary of when we plan on entering the country and more importantly – from their perspective – when we intend on leaving. As nomads, we like to believe “the world is our oyster”. Why book round trip tickets when you can book one way tickets as and when you please. We had no idea when we were reaching SA, or exactly when we were going to be leaving.

Preparing for the visa

I am always apprehensive about visas, based on my experiences through multiple visits to the US consulate in India.They are intimidating to say the least. So far, south east Asia has been a breeze (we, literally, walked in to Vietnam), but South Africa seemed closer to the US process. You really never know what they are going to say. We checked all the requirements for a South African visa, and knew we had all the paperwork necessary. However, given our challenge of not wanting to go right away, we were unsure of what they were going to say. We definitely, did not want to lose the opportunity of applying for the visa, since we knew that it would be impossible to get it after we left the US. We weren’t feeling entirely confident when we hit “Submit” on the Spirit Airlines booking page, but we had hope!

Applying for the South African Visa in Los Angeles

So there we were in LA, for one night, ready with all our paperwork, and completely unsure if we would get approved for the visa. We spent the evening milling about in our neighborhood. The next morning, after reaching the consulate we were told that we would have to talk to a visa officer given our situation.

The officer, a pretty stern looking lady, came out and soon started her inquisition, “Why do you want to go to South Africa?”, “Why are you in the United States?”, “Are you even legally in the United States?”, “Why do you want to apply for a visa so early?” She really figured that we were up to no good. However, we were confident with our responses … “We really want to visit Cape Town, since we have heard so much about it”, “We work in the United States”, “Yes, we are green card holders”, “We are on a sabbatical and are traveling long term. We have been traveling for the last 6 months, and want to continue traveling for the next 6 until our sabbatical ends.” I believe that it was the last 2 responses that put her at a little bit of ease.

The one question that did have us stumped, was “What is your itinerary from now until October?” Although we had made temporary bookings for our flight into and out of South Africa, we hadn’t planned our entire itinerary until October, thinking that they would surely not need that.

For this question, we simply responded that we didn’t know, since our style of traveling is more “plan on the go” rather than “plan well in advance”. She wouldn’t have any of that, and said that she needed an itinerary. Thankfully, any itinerary would do, and we didn’t need any bookings. What is better, we could email that to her later. Phew! and Phew! This was easy to put together, through any booking site, and we had that to her within a few hours.

Sigh of relief

It was when she finally said, “Let me take your passports, and see what I can do. I wish I was on a sabbatical as well” that we breathed a sigh of relief and felt pretty confident that we would get the visa.

10 days later we received our passports back and to our surprise the visa was valid until November 5, and for 35 days. Woohooo! A month of extra validity (even better weather!) and 5 extra days in Cape Town. Thank you South Africa! Here we come.

Takeaway

Be prepared

One thing that really helped in our research was asking questions. Starting from pretty obvious ones like, “Can we get a visa while we are traveling at a consulate that is not in our home country?” to outright asking the receptionist, “Do they consider giving visas in our situation?” Every little bit of information helped us prepare, and formulate our story.

Talking about being prepared, we actually had two different cover letters – along with itineraries – based on when we would go to SA. One was stating that we wanted to go right away, since a part of us thought that they would not give us the visa 4 months out. The other, showed that we wanted to go 4 months later in October. The plan was to use the one based on the vibe we got after reaching the consulate.

Know what you want

As mentioned earlier, although we had two cover letters prepared, we went with what we wanted. We knew that we wanted to go in October, when the weather would be considerably better than June/July. So, even before getting to the consulate, that is what we went with. Seems like a no-brainer now; we were definitely over-thinking the whole issue in hindsight.

Ask for what you want, preferably in person

I truly believe that we got the visa because we showed up in person, and talked to the visa officer directly. We would have not gotten the visa had we stopped at a phone call or an email. Clearly, an in-person conversation is not overrated. And it’s important to ask for what you want, and then go from there.

Be confident

Furthermore, it’s important to be confident in one’s responses. This is probably applicable to many different situations in life, but the more unsure one is, the more cause for alarm. If you have thought through things, then the rest of the process becomes a lot easier down the line, and the confidence can shine through.

If you have had a similar experience, or something completely different with visas, we would love to hear about it. Comment below!

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