Economists and the Associated Press Style Guide suggest that we should use the term “developing nations” instead of “third world”, but when it comes to my visa application experiences, I have always felt more like a “third world” citizen.
During the early years of our relationship, my boyfriend developed a desire to visit new countries every year. He would often yell out spontaneously: “Let’s visit (insert name of country)!”
Every time, he did this, I would get crazy excited… for like 5 seconds; and then I would quickly come back down to earth to ask the proverbial question:
What are their visa stipulations for Filipinos?
Unfortunately, I do not belong to the 5 percent rich population in my country. I am an ordinary girl, with an ordinary job who happens to be in a relationship with a “first world” passport holder.
We both love traveling but…
World traveling for an ordinary Filipino is bittersweet.
Filipino passport holders are allowed to visit more than 60 countries without the need for a visa. A number of these countries are in South America, a continent far from the Philippines, with most flight itineraries consisting of layovers in the United States along the way.
The problem here is that the United States requires Filipinos to get a visa even if they are just transiting.
The reality is – if I want to see the Eiffel tower or the statue of Liberty; if I want to see the beauty of Mount Fuji or have tea in Paris, I will need a visa.
For my “First World” partner, traveling is as easy as deciding where to go and having the desire to actually go. I envy him of course.
It just isn’t the same for me.
But because I love him, and traveling so much; having to go through visa applications did not deter me from my passion.
Before I actively pursued traveling, I was working for an international cruise ship. This overseas work experience allowed me to understand the amount of paperwork that must be done to get that prized visa in my passport.
Soon enough, I became so good at visa applications, and at gathering the necessary paperwork to get my application approved. I’ve never needed the assistance of an agency or third-party representative to complete an application.
If there were a crown for Ms. Visa Application Queen, I would win it, no question!
For a working- class Filipino travel enthusiast, I achieved almost the impossible..I was given many “highly coveted” visas over an eight year period.
I wish I could brag that this achievement is solely due to my visa application prowess, or that I’m gifted with this uncanny ‘visa luck’; but this is simply not the case!
Remember the first-world passport holder boyfriend? Well, I eventually married him and that made all the difference when it came to being granted a visa.
You see, having a first-world passport holder for a husband is like a HUGE guarantee that I will not end up begging on the streets in every country that I wish to visit. This is how visa approving entities perceive it anyway.
I truly wish that the visa application process was only about learning the requirements and trying to fulfill them. But this has not always been the case for me.
How the Visa Application Process Works (Generally)
Most embassies require you to submit applications in person before an assigned consular officer will make a decision whether you get the visa or not. Sometimes the consular officer will interview you, and sometimes they won’t.
But before you get your application to the consular officer, you will be entertained by an attendant/embassy worker. This person is not the one who will decide on the visa grant, but she/he is there to receive your documents and to assess whether your application should proceed to the consular officer.
I call this person – the gatekeeper.
In the world of visa grants to third world citizens, gatekeepers hold a great deal of power.
Embarrassing and Traumatic Visa Application Experiences
I have had some good experiences with gatekeepers, and also some very, very bad ones – ones that make me cringe even now as I look back in time.
At one embassy, I was shouted at for going to window A because the officer insisted that I should go to another window instead. I researched before showing up and I was sure that I should go to window A because of my prior travel experiences.
The officer did not even listen to my explanation. His tone, voice, and manner were downright rude and condescending.
But I wasn’t the only one, he acted this way to all the applicants in the room that day. I noticed that only the travel agency representatives were treated respectfully. To ordinary applicants like me, he treated us like we were beggars not worthy of his time.
At this point in time, I was confused, hurt and most of all, angry. But I said nothing. In fact, nobody said anything. I felt powerless with my pride being punched into inexistence. I felt nothing short like what they call a “third-class citizen”.
At another embassy, the officer took one look at me and told me he could not process my visa. He said he couldn’t process visas at the moment because of the refugee problem that their country was experiencing.
“I am not a refugee,” I insisted.
I told him to check my documents and bank accounts. At this time, I already had visas from various first world countries.
He wouldn’t budge. I went on their website, and there was no official announcement that they couldn’t process visa applications. I politely asked him for his name and an official document that says they are not able to process visas at the moment.
I needed this sort of confirmation to justify my application at another embassy. He simply told me that he is not obligated to give me anything. I walked away defeated and embarrassed.
But these two are not my worst visa application experiences to date. The most horrible story started when an embassy officer shouted at me behind the counter. By now, I should be used to this. But it didn’t stop there.
The officer then came out, took me into a small room and closed the door. Inside, he made me sit on a chair as he stood up and continually shouted angrily at me.
He asked why I didn’t have my marriage certificate in his native language. I explained that according to their official website, they accepted documents written in English.
He refused to accept my explanation, and went all “Incredible Hulk” on me.
“Why don’t you just admit that you don’t have the money to translate your document?!” he screamed.
I was so shocked and scared that I couldn’t help but cry.
“I just wanted to be a tourist for a few weeks in your country and nothing more.” I cried desperately in between sobs.
He eventually calmed down and miraculously granted me the visa. But as if my encounter with him wasn’t traumatic enough, he put a stipulation on my passport that upon my return from my holiday, I must go back to the embassy and see him again.
This experience traumatized me enough, that even after a few weeks of returning from my holiday, I couldn’t shake it out of my mind.
It was time to fight back.
I said to myself that if I don’t say anything, someday another poor soul is going to walk into that office and be treated in the same manner.I couldn’t bear this thought.
So I wrote a long email describing the maltreatment I received from the officer. I went on the internet and gathered all the email addresses of the embassy officials I could find.
I sent my letter to all these email addresses, including to the office of the ambassador.
To me, it felt like a long shot that somebody would actually reply. But somehow, I found peace in writing that email. At least, I told myself, I did something.
After about a week, to my surprise, the personnel director of the embassy replied. She told me that the ambassador himself asked her to look into my complaint. I was asked to return to the embassy to give a verbal account of the incident. The director apologized to me and told me that they will review my case and call out the officer.
Did he lose his job?
I really didn’t know. All I know is that I made my feelings and intentions clear to the director. I told her I wasn’t seeking revenge. I just wanted the officer to realize that he has no right to treat anyone that way, regardless of what country they’re from.
“I want to make sure that he does not do it again,” were some of my final words before I left the embassy.
The stories that I’ve shared are just some of my many visa application experiences. Were all my experiences bad?
Of course not.
Visa applications for a third-world passport holders are meticulous and time-consuming, but I also learned a great deal from doing them.
Did I ever curl up in bed, crying my heart out, and asking myself: “WHY ME?!?!”
Okay, I’ve done this a couple of times.
But one of the things I’ve learned from traveling is that I shouldn’t go down the ugly hole of self-pity. I could rant the whole time about having a Philippine passport. In the meantime, I met the loveliest Iranian family who couldn’t even have a holiday in Thailand because of strict visa policies on Iran nationals.
Despite being a ‘third world’ traveler, I still feel immensely fortunate and proud of where I’m from and how far I’ve traveled.
Should you be afraid of visa applications after listening to my stories?
This is a big ‘NO!’ But you must always be prepared.
Like everything in life, there will be good and bad experiences. You will encounter decent and even kind-hearted people as well as ones who will abuse their power and position.
But fear (and laziness!) will not bring you anywhere in life.
My negative visa experiences made me stronger as a person and made me appreciate all the traveling opportunities I have been given.
Am I blaming the institutions and their strict visa policies?
No. embassies and immigration offices set visa rules and regulations for valid and logical reasons.
Philippine nationals have to acquire visas to visit a number of nations for several reasons including diplomatic ties and perhaps, the high tendency of Filipinos to seek illegal employment or to overstay their visa terms.
It is also not my place to pass judgement onto those who take this difficult road to seek a better future for themselves and their families.
I see both sides of the coin, and I accept the world for what it has become. The current system (collateral damage, consequences and all) has made it difficult for someone like me to travel. But it shouldn’t stop me from doing something that makes me feel happy and alive.
So if you have a better passport, thank your lucky stars for it! If you’re just like me, don’t let anything or anyone stop you.
Keep the passion of traveling alive. Keep chasing places.
It’s worth it.