Thursday, January 27, 2011

Passports and visa applications: how bad can it be?

Here is an unusual look at Chinese power, considered through the power of a Chinese passport. The gist of it is that while China is supposedly wealthy, its passport almost never allows for visa-free or visa-on-arrival entry. There are only a handful of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia that allow easy access to Chinese nationals, most notably Iran, Indonesia, Thailand and Kenya. Contrast that with the ability of those from wealthy countries to travel around the world without much trouble.

I agree that China is not a very popular country, but there are surveys to prove why is that not a good metric. Consider this poll from last year, where 38% of people from around the world judged China to have a negative influence on the world. Compare that with 13% who felt that way about Canada, 17% about the European Union and 32% about the United States, which was waging two wars outside its borders compared to none for China. The only countries to rank higher than China were Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.

Much of what makes a country easy to enter is wealth. The system works best for people from rich countries going to other rich countries, or possibly a poor country where a lot of rich people go on vacation. A Canadian would have an easy time going to Belgium, Japan or even a comparatively poor place like Thailand, but not China or Russia. As powerful as China might be, it is certainly not as wealthy as Western Europe, North America or other parts of Asia.

The other part of it is reciprocity. China is pretty good at giving tourist visas despite being authoritarian to say the least. On the other hand, when China puts foreign visitors through the wringer, what interest does the rest of the world have in treating China well in this regard? Granted, it's far easier for us to get a Chinese tourist visa than it is for a Chinese person to get a Canadian tourist visa, but that's another story I'll get to in a bit. Here, again, China's unpopularity combines with its wealth to make it hard. A non-wealthy but likable country like Thailand fares much better.

My first encounter with the absurdity of visa requirements was my first visit to China. A Chinese tourist visa costs about $50 depending on where you are, unless you're American, in which case it's about $150 (I've heard as much as $180). This, apparently, is because of American requirements to visit China, though fees for Canadian visas for Chinese people and Chinese visas for Canadians are not the same, and the process is certainly easier for Canadians, who don't have to prove that they'll leave after their trip.

But then, China isn't even that bad. There was Kyrgyzstan, which asked me to pay 80 dollars, preferably in American currency, even though I was in Korea. Then there is Pakistan, which processes tourist visas in three days but requires all tourists to answer questions such as:

- blood group
- religion
- identifying marks
- name, address and phone number of your boss
- the names and nationalities of your parents
- the name, address and phone number of your spouse's workplace, if married
- bank account information in Pakistan, if any account exists
- a list of all countries visited in the last two years, mentioning date, purpose and duration
- for those who have ever served in the armed forces of any country, a separate form is required, answering questions such as rank, duties, the type of unit, commanding officer's name and rank, and the number of soldiers supervised

Worse still is India, at least for people like me, who are Westerners of Pakistani descent. Since Pakistani citizenship can't be lost, we have to either apply on a Pakistani passport, a process that literally takes up to a year for a simple tourist visa, and that's once you procure the passport of a country you might not have visited in 40 years. However, there is a way out.

Here is a step-by-step guide to applying for an Indian visa on a foreign passport for those of Pakistani descent:

1) Visit a Pakistani consulate or embassy to renounce your Pakistani citizenship. You need:

a) a notarized copy of your American passport
b) four notarized copies of the application form
c) Pakistani ID card and (an undetermined number of) photocopies, a certified police report if this has been lost
d) $30 for the renunciation, $100 to cancel your ID
e) FIVE, not four or six, but FIVE photographs on a light blue background (not blue, not dark blue)

Estimated cost: roughly $200-400 (five or six notarizations, $130 in fees, passport photos)

2) Hopefully, you will receive a piece of paper proving that you are no longer a Pakistani citizen. You should take this piece of paper and certify it, whatever that means, presumably notarize it.

Estimated cost: $10-50 depending on the notary used

3) Then, take an affidavit available from the Indian government and notarize it.

Estimated cost: $10-50 depending on the notary used


4) Take #2 and #3 along with you Canadian passport to the Indian embassy, and fill out an application form twice and give two photocopies of your Indian passport. Even so, there's no guarantee you'll be treated like a human being.

Estimated cost: $62 for a tourist visa, plus a processing fee of $19.25 from a third-party company

Estimated total cost: $300-$600, not including actual travel to India

BONUS

Here are some of the nicer questions asked on an Indian visa application:

1) Have you, either of your parents or either of your grandparents ever been a Pakistani citizen?
2) Parents' and spouse's names, nationalities and previous nationalities
3) What countries have you visited in the last ten years?
4) Two references in your country
5) A vow to leave India if found "positive of AIDS", for those applying for long-term visas (presumably targeted at those that are HIV positive)
6) A summary of the visa form needs to be filled out if you're applying in Canada but are not a Canadian citizen

By comparison, here is the comparatively lightweight North Korean visa application, North Korea being the international gold standard for disagreeableness. Korean speakers will notice the strange spelling and question number 6, which asks for 'orginal nationality' (sic) in English but appears to ask for ethnicity in Korean.

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