Talking point number one among African travellers...
01.10.2016 - 26.10.2016 30 °C
Visas. Those stickers that allow travellers to cross borders. The regions describe as the “hardest to travel” usually have the strictest visa regimes. I would argue that that’s often why they are so hard to travel. Central Asia and West Africa stands out (as Central Africa still isn’t considered travelable). Countries in these regions insist visitors carry a prearranged visa, don’t issue them on their borders, and requires that visitors apply for visas in their country of origin. For overland travellers, this leads to problems. Visas tend only to be valid for three months, and many have specific dates printed on them. It might seem like a particular “travellers problem,” but it’s an existential one; without access, we can’t travel at all.
To combat all this, I’ve developed a broad range of skills, tricks and mischiefs to get my visas while on the road. To this date, the only country that has ever denied me is Saudi Arabia – a country notoriously difficult for travellers to get into as there are no tourist visas and strict, strict rules for transit visas. Sure, one embassy might have turned me down, but another have then always been willing in its stead. Sometimes, it requires a bit of persistence and once in a while I’ve been in for a proper fight.
For this purpose I now share my guide:
Step 1: Do the research.
Embassy staffers are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats hate sloppy and unprepared clients. Anyone stand a much better chance of getting a visa if they come prepared. Guidebooks, web forums and fellow travellers are usually able to point out which embassies are willing to give you are visa and which are not. If you can’t find the information, begin to visit embassies en-route and do the inquiries yourself. Take Ghana. Ministerial rules strictly insist that all visitors must apply in the nearest embassy to their home country. I already knew that embassies in Senegal, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire strictly follow this and will usually deny travellers a visa. The embassy in Burkina Fase is apparently a 50/50 chance, but too close to Ghana for my comfort. So I visited three of the more out-of-the-way embassies and found staffers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone all willing to make an exception from the rule. The reason? Everybody travels through the former countries, while very few travellers make it to the latter. Therefore staffers haven’t grown tired of people dropping in to ask to be exempt from the rules. As a rule of thumb, the best places to try your luck are little visited, out-of-the-way embassies. Or even better, a small consulate instead of the capital embassy.
Step 2: Please the diplomats.
The reality is that ministries are far from embassies. And the consulates can pretty much do as they please; many do. Acknowledging the diplomats’ power over you (i.e., they determine whether you get the visa you want) helps tremendously. But don’t appear desperate. And never be in a rush! Rushed travellers give the diplomats an excuse to exercise their power. So does desperate travellers. Even if you are in a hurry, don’t show it. Rushed and stressed travellers are the diplomat’s equivalent to a bull’s red cloth. Even if you know all the requirements, take the time to show up a day before you apply to “ask about the visa requirements.” Even if it’s simply a matter of asking about photocopies or the number of passport photos required. Everybody likes humility and preparedness, diplomats more so. This will, by the way, be a theme through the rest of the steps. Also, on this initial visit, make sure to talk about how friends have told you all about the beautiful nature and the friendly people of country X. Be sure to name some of the highlights and how you always have wished to visit. That will melt the iciest of diplomat hearts. Even better, come up with a personal connection to the country – for Ghana, I used the Danish slave forts on the coast, something we aren’t thought in school. So my only chance to learn about the gruesome past of Danish history was to go and see for myself.
Step 3: Exceptions from the rules
If there is a requirement you don’t live up to, say, being a residence in the country you’re in, explain your situation and ask if it’s possible to make an exception. Other embassies need proof of flight tickets or expensive hotel bookings. Preferably, you would like to talk about this directly with the consul, not the paper-pusher out front – though you possibly still have to flatter them before being allowed to see the consul. When explaining yourself, never come off as a rich, spoiled, Westerner who feels entitled to be let into their country. This might be common sense here on paper, but it’s surprising how many who let their frustrations of these visa schemes get to them. Visible anger, frustration or arrogance equals no visa. Alway. (Admittedly I haven’t tried crying.) Again, please the diplomats.
Step 3 ½: Make a solid cover story
In other words: Be prepared to lie! On many embassies being a mere tourist, who well fully knew it’s required to apply from home, but ignored this because it didn’t fit with the spend-a-year-in-West-Africa plan aren’t necessarily given an exemption. Being an unprepared tourist who “didn’t know” doesn’t seem to do the trick either. My favourite cover story on this trip has been to claim that I’m in West Africa to do PhD research. This required me to stay longer than the three months most visas are valid for. Usually, I “study” the social and economic innovation of small scale business in Africa. This is a particularly useful topic as small businesses here are ahead of Europe. Thus I can claim to research how Europe can learn from Africa – something most diplomats like to hear. Again, please the diplomats. They never look closely at my passport anyway, so usually, I just pick a few countries and claim to have spent the majority of the time there. This worked at a number of embassies in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Step 4: Fake the right documents
In HR it might be called resourcefulness. In Law, it’s probably forgery. Demands like hotel booking, flight tickets, letter of invitations, and likewise are pretty standard. Usually, it’s possible to be exempt just one demand. Say, of residence status. It’s less likely to get out of all these minor requirements. Of course, it’s possible to make bookings on sites like hotels.com, bookings.com, etc. and get a full refund when you cancel the booking a few days later. Fully refundable plane tickets are also an option, but those are expensive. Embassies don’t call to confirm hotel and airline reservations, but departing with significant amounts of money isn’t my favourite thing to do. So I just make my own confirmations. I’ve made a couple of templates from older bookings, so when required I can simply update the details based on real flights and put in some of the nicer hotels in the country capitals.
Step 5: Pick up your visa. Smile (and try not to look too smug until you’ve left the embassy grounds).
While this all sounds well complicated, most visas are easy – as long as you know which embassies are willing to provide you with what you need. My visa for Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau both took just 20 minutes from I handed in the form to the sticker was in my passport. Mali took a couple of days in waiting time but at the cost of less than 8€ (most expensive was Mauritania, Liberia and my second visa for Guinea at circa 120€). Most challenging West African visas tend to be Côte d’Ivore, Ghana and Nigeria – I still haven’t secured the latter. While the embassy in Bamako, was happy to ignore my lack of residence status, their visa was only valid for three months – it’s still four months until I get there… But there're six countries with Nigerian embassies to go, so I haven’t given up yet.
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