Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Visa rant
One of my goals while sojourning in the UK has been to see more of Europe. Alas, like so many goals that I have set myself, this one has gradually unravelled. The reason? Getting a schengen visa on a South African passport, from the UK, resembles some sort of perverse obstacle course. Those of you who have tried will know what I'm talking about. I won't bore you with all of the details, but I would like to mention a few that really get under my skin.

- You're meant to have proof of your travel arrangements (flights, accommodation etc). But you're also advised that you might not be issued with a visa and that you therefore shouldn't book anything.
- You're meant to have proof of accommodation. This means persuading a hotel or hostel to fax or e-mail you a confirmation. This necessitates lengthy international phone-calls, usually to budget hotels that are unenthusiastic about doing this sort of thing. In fact, often you end up picking a hotel because they're willing to confirm your booking. The situation is worse if you're staying with a friend. Then this person is meant to secure a document from a local government official.
- If you have less than three months left on a student visa you can't travel in Europe at all. Given that most students travel in the summer, often before going home, many are unwittingly prevented from doing so because they don't know about this qualification.
- You have to book an appointment at a consulate in London. Often there is a waiting list of over a month. This removes all the spontaneity from travel.

All of this means that hopping over the channel to France, for even a few days, begins to resemble a military operation that must be planned months in advance if disappointment is to be avoided. Canadians, Brits and Americans, in contrast, simply flash their passports and stroll through.

This brings me to the real question -- is all of this necessary? Switzerland allows South Africans to travel visa-free, without any apparent problems. And the US is willing to issue South Africans with ten-year multiple entry visas. One might cite South Africa's unemployment rate, and fears of economic migrancy, but I notice that the good people of Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala, to give just a few examples, don't require visas. While not knowing much about these places, I don't imagine that they all have booming economies. Interestingly, I notice that no African countries qualify for visa-free travel. As always, it seems, we've all been tarred with the same brush.

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