“After three months, I received the passport with a three-page letter in French rejecting my visa,” Ramy says bitterly.
Like many Egyptians, 25-year-old Ramy planned to apply for a visa to the Schengen area (a scheme that permits internal travel between a large block of European Union countries) after he had been accepted into a master’s programme in Belgium for 2012. He gathered the acceptance letter he received from the university in Belgium, his visa application, and the required fees and applied for a student visa at the Belgian embassy in Cairo.
“When I got to the embassy, I was given a pile of papers to fill out. I kept wondering, ‘why weren’t those papers available online on the embassy’s website?’ Some questions required essay answers. They also required a medical examination at a specific doctor that the embassy regularly deals with,” says Ramy.
According to Ramy, the doctor’s fees were around EGP 2,000 ($300).
“Without a thorough medical examination, I paid the money to get the doctor to sign one of the embassy forms. Yes, he was cooperative and the process was smooth, but for only signing some papers, the expense is too much. I also had to translate one page for around EGP 300,” he says.
Ramy then waited weeks while his student visa application was processed. By the time his master’s programme had begun he was still waiting and started to lose hope. He was enrolled in a Master’s in English programme, which was clarified in the university’s admission letter sent to the embassy. However the officer at the embassy insisted to speak to Ramy in French, but Ramy reiterated that his French is only basic. It was not until the end of the interview process was finished that the officer went back to communicating in English.
“I went back to the embassy and the visa officer who was handling my case treated me inappropriately and was uncooperative, although the rest of the officers were more diligent. At the end after my documents were complete I left my passport and was given a case number to follow up on my status,” he says.
Ramy has received Schengen visas before, for business trips to Europe. But this time he waited three months for his application to be processed. Nevertheless, the end was disappointing and Ramy’s visa was rejected.
“Even the rejection letter was written in French, despite informing the embassy over and over that I’m not fluent in French. Other embassies have translations even if it was informal translation, but they still respect the applicant,” he says.
To this day Ramy does not know why his visa was rejected, and because of this incident he does not intend to reapply again anywhere in Europe.
“Come what may, I’m not going back there. I have been accepted into another master’s programme in Canada and I’m travelling. The Canadian visa process was clear and straightforward compared to the European process,” he says.
Moustafa Khalil is an Egyptian PhD student and a resident of the UK. He has travelled to about 45 countries. Despite his frequent travels, he still faces occasional troubles when applying for visas to Europe, the UK and the US.
He complains about the time it takes to renew his student visa. According to him, the £400 visa renewal by post charge is too much, while it also takes about three months to be ready. At the same time a premium visa application that takes one day to process but costs about £900.
“The discrepancy between the two fees is huge, and if the student can take one day to renew a visa, why make the regular postal application take such a long time?” he explains.
Khalil has also struggled with the Schengen visa.
“Even though I have gotten the Schengen visa over 20 times, every time I apply it they (European embassies) treat me as if I’m applying for the first time… It’s like they assume that you’re a terrorist or a potential illegal immigrant. They discard the travelling history documented in your passport. They really need to come up with a way that facilitates the process especially for people who are frequent travellers,” he says.
In order to travel from Egypt to the Schengen countries for a short visit, the visa seeker is required to have a long list of documents to be completed before the interview. These documents generally include an invitation (if the purpose is not tourism), the visa application, a written testimony that the applicant is not affiliated with armed groups or organisations, health insurance that covers the period you are travelling, hotel and airline reservations, bank statements that cover at least three months preceding travelling, a human resources letter (if the purpose of travelling is business-related) and previous Schengen visas the applicant may have been granted.
“I do not know why they require us to have flight and hotel reservations, which are too much… Additionally, these things could be easily forged; they complicate the process for the traveller,” Khalil says.
The Daily New Egypt attempted several times to contact representatives from the EU delegation in Egypt to put across these views, but received no response.
The PhD student also criticises the policies of some embassies that outsource some of their services to private companies. For example, the US embassy and other European embassies outsource their interview appointment system to telephone companies in Egypt that charge higher fees for each phone call.
“You end up spending a small fortune on the calls while they can create an online system for appointment scheduling or even implement an automated system. Other embassies hire companies to arrange the visa applicants’ papers,” he adds.
The long wait
Abdelrahman is a computer scientist who applied for a J1 student/ exchange/ training visa to the US. As a requirement of the visa process, he had to finish all his documents and receive his sponsor’s letter before heading to the embassy.
Abdelrahman’s training was planned to last 18 months.
Having had two American visas before, one business and one previous student visas, Abdelrahman was surprised that his application for a third visa was not approved on the spot and he had to go through the full administrative process.
For Abdelrahman, the embassy’s lack of communication regarding updates of his visa application was this biggest problem. “I don’t know what was happening or why the process was taking so much time,” he says.
The embassy asked him to send his passport and when he did, the embassy returned it a week after without the visa. Then they invited him to write a statement about his case. Even after writing the statement, the problem was still unresolved.
“I feel I have been left in limbo. The training I needed in the US was postponed and all my other plans are currently on hold because of the visa problem. I wish they either reject it or tell me what the problem is,” he says.
“The only difference between my application now and my applications before is that I’m staying for a longer period this time, so I’m speculating that this might be the reason,” he said.
“Additionally, I’m an unmarried 25-year-old Egyptian male, so I suspect I’m in the category of suspicious people who might stay illegally in the US. I understand what my case is, but I just wish they communicated the problem to me clearly.
“There is no one I know who did not face drama while applying to US visa.”
How the process works?
J. Richard Walsh is the consul general at the US embassy in Cairo. He asserts that over 90% of visas that Egyptians apply for to the US are for business and tourism.
“We are not limited to granting a quota for visas; we are limited by the capacity of our staff and physical space and we do our best to address the rising demand,” Walsh states.
“Approved visas usually take five days. If at the time of the interview the visa required additional administrative processing, then the applicant is given a number to track their visa status online, but this only happens to a minority of applicants,” the consul general adds. “That’s why we always encourage people to apply early on.”
The administrative processing usually takes between 45 and 60 days because the embassy at Cairo communicates with offices in Washington DC. Abdelrahman’s his visa required this administrative processing. Regarding this specific case, Walsh assumes that Abdelrahman’s problem is related to customer service rather than the visa process itself.
“At the US embassy, we urge our staff to deal with applicants according to professional standards. We also encourage the applicants to make their inquiries and ask us questions,” he says.
He explains that the US embassy deals with applicants according to section 214b of the US Immigrant and Nationality Act (INA) which stipulates the assumption that applicants are intending to immigrate through a non-immigrant visa until they convince the embassy’s officer otherwise.
“There are a number of things we look for; what will compel the applicant to return to their home country, what are the professional, financial, and family ties. Some people are in better positions than other when answering these questions. Also the period of stay can affect the process,” he explains.
These conditions apparently also apply to the UK and other European visa processes.
Regarding visa fees, Walsh explains that this fee is for the service the embassy provides; it is for the staff working with applicants, taking their fingerprints, interviewing them, and processing their online applications. It is for receiving a service no matter the outcome of the application.
Having worked with other embassies in addition to the US embassy in Cairo, Walsh says embassies outsource some of their services to be more efficient and to overcome problems of hiring and understaffing. However, applicants pay for services such as scheduling interview appointments; if they were to do it through the embassy that would have required more staff, and would have made the process slower.
“If you thought about it, when you have local banks and companies handling part of the process it is good for efficiency and for Egypt’s economy,” Walsh explains.
Walsh asserts that the current visa process has been established over the years and they are unlikely to change any time soon. However, the US embassy looks for ways to improve the process.
“For example, we have made visa renewals through mailing under certain conditions available on our website. This means that people do not have to come down to the embassy to renew their visas. Which gives our staff a better chance to handle applicants who are issuing visas for the first time,” he says.
Who is responsible?
PhD student Khalil thinks the responsibility for Egyptians struggling to get foreign visas is shared between Egypt and other foreign countries.
“I think our government needs to be more proactive in trying to work with foreign countries in grand visa-free entries to more countries. For example, Turkey has been trying to cancel visa requirements for its citizens when entering Egypt. On the other hand, our government is not eager to do the same. I think it’s because our government is not pro-freedom of movement for its citizens,” he says.
No official information was available stating the number of countries or territories that Egyptian passport holders can have access either visa free or visa-upon-arrival. However, travel websites and other unofficial sources place the number of such countries between 51 to 58. This is about one third the number of countries an American or a British citizen can access visa free worldwide.
Khalil wonders: “Why do Egyptians have to get visas for every single country in Latin America except for Ecuador? Why Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco?”
“We really need to remove visas for their nationals so that they remove it for us,” he adds.
These hardships in getting visas have pushed Khalil to think about acquiring a foreign passport for the sole reason of avoiding the painful process of applying for visas.
“Foreigners always complain about being ripped off in Egypt, but in fact it is their embassies that make it difficult for visitors like Egyptians to come to their countries. At least when it happens in Egypt, it’s done by the people and not by a policy enacted by the government,” he says.
Names have been changed to protect their identities