Thursday, September 10, 2015

India Visa Misery

According to World Bank India gets 7 million visitors a year, which is shameful for a country of this size, economic importance and cultural heritage. This compares with Vietnam's 8 million, Malaysia's 26 million, Thailand's 27 million, Russia's 31 million, China's 56 million, U.S.A.'s 70 million and France's 85 million. Moreover, as anyone looking around at fellow passengers on flights to India will attest, most of the visitors to India are people of Indian origin visiting their (erstwhile) homeland.

A big reason for this disparity is the torturous process required to secure an Indian visa. This was brought home to me last week when "J", the mother of an Indian friend sought my help to apply for her Indian visa after she was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. Even with liberal use of Google and my familiarity with Indian bureaucracy I found the process to be very time consuming and confusing. It would be much worse for my U.S. friends contemplating vacation alternatives. And they have a wide choice of destinations so why would they not simply go elsewhere?

Back to "J", I found she had to both renounce her Indian citizenship and apply online for a visa application in addition to submitting paper forms. The renunciation process starting with an online link and a separate one for visa application seem simple in theory but are frustrating when you actually go through them. Problems include:

  • No integration between the two processes (e.g., common checklist of documents needed) or clarity as to whether you can mail all papers together, combine payments into one sum, etc.
  • Unclear about kind of visa needed (e.g., under visa categories, should former Indian citizens wanting to visit apply for tourist visa or entry visa? What is the difference in functionality and fees?) 
  • Outdated and contradictory information about visas (e.g., under Visa Provision tab they show a tourist visa is for only 180 days. They have changed the "entry visa" type to "Foreigners of Indian Origin" and say validity is 5 years. Actually both tourist and entry visas can be valid for 10 years.)
  • Long and tedious visa application form with too many questions, including your parents' dates and cities of birth, countries you've visited in the past, references in USA and India, etc. Can't they see how much easier and shorter is it with most other countries?
  • No up front look possible at the blank application form - you have to fill initial information before being able to move to the next section. (Perhaps preventing a look in advance is to avoid scaring away applicants.)
  • No fee information or comparison table up front. For instance, you can't know till you fill both forms that the 10 year multiple entry "tourist visa" costs only $100 versus $240 for the equivalent "entry visa". Or how the entry visa is better (answer: you can stay beyond 180 days per visit.) How much for a business visa? Sorry, you have to fill a fresh form to find out. Also, because they haven't updated the website, they show the maximum period of validity of an entry visa to be 5 years instead of the (correct) 10 years. 
  • No proper online "check out" calculator showing total dues including processing and mailing fees for the selected option. So you're not sure if you have correctly added up the application fee, the mailing fee, etc. when you're sending in all the papers. As an added annoyance they don't accept personal checks (the U.S. simply waits for them to clear) and make you go to the bank to get a money order or cashier check. True, they accept credit cards (with an extra 3% convenience fee) but this option doesn't work when you need to renounce Indian citizenship AND get a visa. Reason: a glitch in their system blocks you from making payment online for the second application (e.g., visa) after you've made it for the first (e.g., renunciation.) 
Even a bright high school student with coding skills could make this whole online process easier and glitch free. The problems are probably due to sheer incompetence, though you cannot rule out their partly resulting from cynicism of higher foreign service personnel. A foreign service equivalent of India's "Inspector Raj." You see, the importance of local consular staff and their bosses is inflated and they can oblige more people by helping them overcome hurdles that come up when you apply through regular channels. 

A silver lining is that the private agency that now accepts applications in U.S.A on behalf of the Indian consulate - CKGS -  has good people and strives to be helpful. After we discovered mistakes in her mailed application and submitted documents, I advised "J" to visit the CKGS office in New York. They quickly retrieved her mailed papers, took the revised application form and additional documents required, and she was done in 10 minutes. In three days she got her completed papers mailed back to her. So my advice to anyone living close to CKGS centers is to walk in (preferably after making an online appointment) instead of applying by mail.

With Narendra Modi with his vaunted reputation for efficiency becoming prime minister last year can we hope for fixes to the system? I've already seen some evidence of this. For example, since January 2015 the so called OCIs (Overseas Citizens of India) who hold lifelong visas for India now just need to carry their OCI card to enter India. They no longer need to go through the ordeal of getting a "U visa" sticker affixed to their passport every time they get a new one, or carry their old passport with the sticker with them. (Even in this there are residual inefficiencies in online instructions. The new instructions are mentioned in red in the relevant website, but in the ensuing 9 months the older rules on this haven't been updated in other parts of this and other official websites.) 

Visa difficulties not only severely inconvenience those needing to visit India but also deprive India of a much larger influx of (presently turned off) tourists that can enormously benefit its economy. As with the OCI sticker issue, the top political leadership should pressure the bureaucrats to improve their act in other consular functions as well.