Have a Dominican passport. Or one from Senegal for that matter. Plan ahead, so that when you check the visa requirements five months in advance and plan your trip it is too early. Finalize your decision to choose Buenos Aires as your study abroad destination because you do not have to go through any extra immigration steps. Also buy your ticket early so you can score a cheap deal. Feel confident in the information posted on the consulate website, so don’t check it again until someone recommends you do so two months before your scheduled departure date, when it is almost certainly too late to process a visa.
Be in the process of getting your U.S. citizenship, but only in the middle phase when everything you do will be looked at under a microscope but you get none of the privileges of a citizen. You had been hoping your U.S. passport would come out before you had to leave, but it does not. Instead, you get a letter saying your Interview with USCIS is February 7th, four days after your flight. After panicking, you realize your only choice is to reschedule the most important interview of your life for a later date.
When you do check the requirements for entering Argentina again, see that the law changed in August, now making it mandatory for all Dominicans to get a visa in advance in order to enter the country. Freak out. Call the consulate, talk to someone who doesn’t know what she is talking about and tells you you’re still fine for traveling in the month of February. Proceed to think you are fine. Email your study abroad program and tell them it is fine. Freak out again when they assure you, it is not fine. Decide to go to the Argentine consulate in person. Acquire acceptance letter from study abroad program director to show consulate. Go to Argentine consulate. Talk to the visa woman, the woman who will become your enemy, and find out you do in fact need to acquire a visa in advance, and that you need a lot more than an acceptance letter. She tells you this like you are an idiot, and you feel like crying. You manage to refrain from said crying only until you’ve stepped onto the sidewalk outside the consulate.
Start an email correspondence with the sweet woman who works at your university’s campus in Buenos Aires. Feel guilty about having to update her with bad news every few days for months.
Get the wheels going on the next part of the process of securing your visa. Look at the list online of necessary documents and get:
- Passport or travel document: valid for a minimum of 6 months with at least one completely free page left for the visa
- A completed application form: all questions must be answered
- 1 recent passport style photograph
- Evidence of your immigration status in the U.S.: (if not a U.S. national) a.k.a. Alien Registration Card
- Evidence of funds: credit card and bank statements of the last six months
- An original invitation letter into the country a.k.a. the acceptance later you have acquired
- Itinerary: roundtrip flight ticket
- Fee: US$ in money order form (make it payable to the “Consulate General of Argentina in New York”)
Organize it all in a blue folder and put it on your desk, perpetually ready to go. Forget about it for a while when you find out you need your university to contact Immigration in Buenos Aires directly and have you approved. Send all of your information to your university, including a scan of each individual page of your 45-page passport, even though many of the pages are empty and look exactly the same. Be made to wait almost one month, because it is winter break and the university does not re-open until January 3rd.
Get approved for a student visa from Immigrations in Buenos Aires. Have your hopes renewed. Think that you will, after all, be able to make that flight you already bought. By this point you are in Connecticut for winter break, after spending Christmas on the island responsible for this whole mess. Take a train to NYC to go to the consulate. Talk again to the one woman who seems to handle all the visa shit, at least when you’re there. Let her make you want to cry again when she tells you you’ve brought everything needed to get a tourist visa, not a student one. Realize in a moment of shame and horror that you never bothered to process that the information you had ready in your blue folder was from before, from when you thought you could still get a tourist visa even if it needed to be in advance. Realize you have no idea where to find out what you need for the student visa on the website. Tell the woman this and have her stare at you, again, like you’re an idiot. Stare dumbly as she shows you, easily finding the link that says “Documents needed for a student visa.” Swear to yourself that link did not work before.
Panic when you see what is on this list of student visa requirements for non-tourist-visa-exempt countries. Apart from what you have already gathered you need:
- 3 recent passport style photographs
- A clear criminal record certificate from each country/city the applicant has resided in during the last 5 years (for applicants who are 16 years of age or older only; other exceptions may apply) (*)
- Birth certificate: must include the parents’ names (ask for “long form” when applying for the birth certificate). Only certificates issued by a governmental authority are acceptable (*)
Really freak out when you read the footnote to find out what the stars mean: criminal record certificates and birth certificates must be authenticated by the HAGUE APOSTILLE (its capitalization on the website later feels appropriate). Realize that this means you need to have you original birth certificate sent from Dominican Republic and then take it, along with the criminal record certificate you have yet to obtain, to get apostilled.
While crying on the street, call your mother and tell her what has happened. Go to One Police Plaza, where you never wanted to go except at least that’s where they film Law & Order. Go through very strict security. Wait one hour in line. Pay $50 for a criminal record certificate which they tell you will not come out for at least 10 days, meaning you will miss your flight and therefore the first week of orientation. Ask if there are any exceptions. There aren’t. Decide to call every day for the next 10 days on the off chance it comes out sooner.
At this point your mom comes to visit you because you haven’t been sounding so well on the phone. She brings your birth certificate. Meanwhile you try to find translators for the criminal record report for when it comes out and can’t find anyone that will do it same day or overnight- which means even if it comes out earlier you won’t make orientation. You call and you call the criminal record department but it does not come out early. You have the idea to call the Dominican consulate to see if they do translations. They tell you they do.
Meanwhile you’ve been trying to reschedule your flight. The only thing you can do with your ticket is change it for another flight on the same airline, but you soon find that all LAN flights for the entire month of February already cost more than three times what you had originally paid and you simply cannot afford that. You had bought that first ticket through KAYAK, whose cancellation policy, if you can call it that, is heinous. You spend hours, hours on the phone over the course of two weeks with people who don’t understand or speak English well trying to get your money back because apparently KAYAK is actually Airfare.com whose customer service is apparently based in India and consists of only two people. Your only option is to pay an additional $400 so that in four to six weeks you can get what they are still trying to call a “refund.” You send over your signature, and after three email exchanges of a contract that won’t load on your computer you are finally able to do this.
Also, you’ve been getting more and more irritable. You have started to take it out on your mother, who is also prone to stress. You play off of each other until every second you’re not worrying about what is going to come up next you are fighting.
You decide to wait until the rap sheet comes out at your boyfriend’s place in New York. Every Metro North train ticket has been $30 roundtrip and you grow angrier. You feel bad complaining when you’re there even though you can’t shake the feelings of anger and self pity, because after all, this has given you more time with your boyfriend who you won’t see for four months. Your mom calls you on Monday, February 4th to say the criminal report is ready.
Once you’ve gone to Police Plaza to pick up your official rap sheet you once again wait in line, then go back uptown to the Dominican consulate to get it translated. On the subway, you look down at the envelope and see the date: January 31, 2013. The document had been ready for two business days and they had misinformed you over the phone when you called to ask.
At the Dominican consulate you run into the only bit of luck of the entire process, but this is not at first apparent. The woman who works in the translation department is alone for the day, her partner is out sick, and she is backed up. She tells you she can’t do your translation today. Before you realize what is happening you have thrown at her your entire story in a breathless minute. She feels bad for you, and decides she will do your translation. You have about one minute of celebration, of appreciation of this consulate so very different than the Argentine one, before she tells you the birth certificate you have cannot be apostilled in New York, it needed to be taken to the hague apostille in Dominican Republic.
You call your father, who lives in Santiago. He has to travel two hours to Santo Domingo to request another copy of your birth certificate and then take it to get apostilled. He promises to do it the next day, which he does, but he is made to wait so long for the birth certificate that the apostille office closes before he can get there. You remember it is the fourth of February, the day of your original flight.
Once your dad has managed to get the birth certificate he FedExes it overnight priority. You laugh, because overnight does not exist in Dominican Republic, but he says they’ve assured him it will be there the next morning. You figure he paid another $50.
Back in New York you exchange information with Elizabeth at the consulate and promise to keep her updated on the situation then hurry back downtown on the R train to take the translation to the county clerk to get it notarized. There, they tell you they need the supervisor at the criminal record department to sign it, so you go back to One Police Plaza and wait again to get this signature. You go back to the county clerk, pay $10 for the notarization. You then go to the apostille which is further downtown, east. You had forgotten you left the money order you already got, in advance, to pay for the apostille with your mom. You leave your place in line to go across the street and purchase one. You go back and wait for your apostille stamp. The process takes only 10 minutes and you don’t know if you want to laugh or cry.
The next morning you refresh the FedEx tracker again and again. The package does not arrive. You call FedEx customer service and are told there was “an aircraft malfunction” so your package will not arrive that day. You spend the entire day on the phone with FedEx, who keeps transferring you to people higher and higher up. They change their explanation and you are not believed when you say the first person spoke of an airplane malfunction. They now refuse to give you a refund, because they say they are not responsible for how long a package takes to get through customs, and now they say this is where your document got stuck. You say fine, you ask them to pick up the document at the facility at 9 AM when it opens because they assure you it will be there and you don’t want to chance a delivery. You are reassured it will be there.
You have gone back to CT, to get your luggage, because it seems things are almost all figured out. You ask your boyfriend to pick up your birth certificate at the FedEx facility. It is not there and he misses his class. They mailed it to his place after all. You get to the city and find him, get the package, and run to the consulate. The birth certificate is stuck to the FedEx tape, and you leave it there for the people at the consulate to figure out because there is no way you are taking the blame for anything else.
This time you do have everything they’ve asked for. You have requested to speak to someone other than the woman. This man is her opposite; he is friendly and sympathetic to your awful plight. However, you can see her staring at you from the corner of your eye. She calls him over, he comes back to his desk, takes your stuff, and brings it to her. She goes through all the documents for a very long two minutes and finally looks up at you. She has decided the acceptance letter from your university needs to say “Buenos Aires” on the letterhead. She could have told you this the last two times you were there. The nice visa man says he’ll start the process anyway, he says he’ll have his part done that day but that he can’t guarantee when the signatories will get the chance to see it.
You once again leave the consulate dejected and email the university. The staff member you’ve been in touch with is usually so prompt on replies, but she does not answer for one, two, three hours. You call the school international long distance but no one picks up.
You pass the day trying to stay out of the cold, walking into Starbucks and stores that you cannot afford. At about two thirty in the afternoon, the consulate closes at four (you had been there at ten), you get the email of the letter with a new letterhead. You forward it to the consulate. At around 3:30, when you are on the phone with KAYAK customer service about your so-called refund, you hang up on them because you receive a phone call from the consulate. You run the five blocks there.
You have your visa. It is a slightly glossy page on your passport, not more than ten lines with not much more than your basic information. You search frantically at a Starbucks on 58th and 7th avenue, out of the cold for a minute, for a ticket that isn’t an exorbitant amount more than what you paid for your first flight. You had been hoping some last minute deals would open up, or you would at least have been able to get a refund for the original price and use the money towards the new ticket you knew you were going to have to buy. You lose all hope, buy a ticket that is more than twice what you paid for the first, but at least it leaves early the next morning. Meanwhile, the news has been playing coverage of an expected snowstorm. It is not supposed to hit Manhattan until one o’clock, so you think your departure at 10:00 AM will be alright.
You’ve been shuffling back and forth between CT and your boyfriend’s place, but now your mom has joined you in the city and you both stay in the Bronx with your brother. You had brought your luggage full of four months of possessions and had left it there, and they graciously offer to take you and your huge bag to the airport the next morning- but your brother warns you he won’t drive in the snow.
So you wake up at 5 AM on Friday February 8th, and it isn’t snowing. You set off for the airport. Half an hour into the ride, it starts snowing. By the time you get to the airport, new cancellations are lighting up on the screens every few minutes. Your plane, though, is still scheduled for an on-time departure. Your family leaves and the goodbyes are quick; you’ve gone through the motions several times already.
It turns out your bag weighs considerably more than the fifty allotted pounds and the airline wants to charge you $200. You opt for buying an extra $40 carry-on and spend half an hour re-organizing your possessions so you will not be charged. You accidentally put all the liquids in your carry on, after you’ve checked your big bag, and are made to check that too. It costs $70.
You proceed to your gate. Your flight is delayed, half an hour, forty-five minutes, one hour. They finally have you board the plane. You are delayed another hour on board before take-off. Then, the captain comes on over the speaker and says you are still waiting indefinitely for take off, therefore everyone should de-board. They give you a complementary $10 voucher for lunch at the airport. When you go to stand in line, an announcement is made: your flight has been cancelled. It is the last one of the day. Outside, it is hardly flurrying. JFK is preparing to close and the shuttles have already stopped running.
You have to pay another $60 for a cab ride, because, no, the airline has not given you a hotel voucher to accompany the measly meal coupon that only allowed you to get McDonald’s, and you realize with pain you’ll have to do the same for the way back to the airport when and if you actually leave this godforsaken country since you are not going back to your brother’s because at this moment you can only stand to see one person. You would have cried the whole way to Manhattan if your cab driver hadn’t been so nice. He tells you about his condominiums in Trinidad, he tells you about his retirement plans. He tells you you’re a nice girl.
On Sunday, when the storm has cleared, you finally fly to Argentina (via Toronto, then Santiago) with the dread in your stomach of being someone the people, not just the government, won’t accept. Put off writing this for fear of reliving the misery until you’ve almost succeeded in forgetting the ordeal.