Tag Archives: problems

Visa in 30 Minutes or it’s Free

Well it’s not free but getting a Chinese visa has been one of the easiest things I’ve done recently. Actually getting to the office is another story.

The first thing to know is that the visa office is not in the Chinese Embassy proper. It’s in a small office complex near Georgetown in Washington DC. There are two problems with this. The first is that the building is completely unmarked in any way. 2201 Wisconsin Avenue is a gray building, no flags or signs or anything. If you didn’t write the address down you’re going to have trouble. The second issue is that the office is located in one of the few areas of the city not served by a metro stop. The two closes stops are each about two miles away, not too far but not close either.

One of the sights close to the visa office is the US Naval Observatory, the home of the national president. Using my amazing powers of planning and Google Maps I decided on taking the slightly more complicated walk from the Woodley Park/Zoo metro stop to the office since that would lead me right past the Observatory complex. Why not? Get my paperwork done and do a little sightseeing. My other option was to get off at the Tenleytown stop and follow Wisconsin straight to the office. The safe but boring option.

Making my way to the office from the Woodley Park stop was an exercise in futility to say the least. Google Maps makes it look like there’s a nice circular road that surrounds the Observatory. Right before that road is a small park with some foot trails to hike though. It didn’t help a whole lot that it rained the previous day, lots of mud and wet leaves to manage.

But I was getting close to the road. I had a map on my phone and was tracking my progress through the park. I finally got to where I would be able to reach the road….. and there was a big ole fence. Sometimes I don’t let things like fences stop me often going over or try to slip through. However the vice president’s abode is not one of those times. I can be daring, but I’m not dumb. I don’t want any Secret Service attention.

So I followed the fence and using my map I slowly worked my way out of the park and got on to a proper road. The Observatory complex actually forced me to go about a mile out of my way so I spent an extra thirty minutes trying to make it to my destination.

I finally got to the office at 9:35. The office opens at 9:30. I felt pretty good that I made it so early even after getting lost and battling some messy trails in my nice shoes. I walked into the office, got a ticket with my number, and noticed there were fifteen people ahead of me.

I settled in for a long wait. It is the government after all. They never can work quickly. I pulled out my Kindle and listened to numbers be called. They were actually going through all the numbers quite quickly. People who didn’t respond within thirty seconds of their number being called were just skipped, on to the next person. The visa officers were not there to waste time. Far sooner than I expected my number was called.

I made it a point to have all my paperwork organized before I left the house, the information about what is needed is easy to find on the embassy’s website. I passed over all my papers, the lady helped me fill in some parts of the application I wasn’t sure on and then I was done. Unfortunately they weren’t able to rush job the visa so I could get it the same day. I was required to return in two days to receive my passport and visa, so I made plans to come back into the city. I gathered my belongings and walked out the door. As I left I checked my watch. 10:05

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Three Days Late. Two Hundred Dollars Short.

It hasn’t been the smoothest of weeks over here. I’ve been impatiently waiting for my invitation letter from China. That’s right I’m moving to China. Wuxi to be exact. In fact I should be there right now. But before I can leave I need to get my affairs in order.

I bought my ticket from Air China a little over a month ago once I was offered the position. The plan was to leave on January 26. That should be plenty of time do everything. My employer needed an FBI background I that he could bring to the Chinese authorities to prove I’m not criminal. I expressed mailed that during the holiday season. It wasn’t my fault, it just so happens that’s when I was offered the job and I sent it out as soon as possible.

It finally got there and my boss went through all the hoops, he’s an American who’s been there for over a decade and knows the game, and got my invitation letter. I’m officially welcome by the Chinese government! It may be a formality but it’s still kind of cool.

He express mails the paperwork back to me so I can go to the embassy, I still need a visa. He used EMS, which is the USPS overseas branch. The letter was dropped in the mail January 11, just over two weeks to get here. No one can screw that up right?

Wrong. Six days later it is returned to the office as undeliverable. What? After reconfirming my information and knowing it was EMS not him who screwed up, my boss sent it off again on January 18.

The days are passing. Him and I are in constant communication about the status of the parcel. I’m concerned. I need these papers to arrive so I can go to the embassy to get my visa. With this invitation letter it’s just a rubber stamp but the last day it can arrive and I make my flight is January 24. I can’t wait for the mail and get to the embassy in DC in the same day. It’s delivered pretty late where I am out in the boondocks.

Since it was express mail my boss was told it would take three to five days to arrive. Perfect. At the higher end it’ll still be here on the 23rd and I’ll have plenty of time for the visa.

Come January 21 I wrote telling my boss it hadn’t arrived. Since Wuxi is thirteen hours ahead he went down to the EMS office on the 22nd and raised hell. They guaranteed it would arrive on time for me. This let me relax.

On the 23rd, still no parcel. In fact when I used the USPS tracking system all it would say is that the parcel was processed in China, nothing else. Terribly frustrated I called the USPS customer service trying to find it. I’ve dealt with people who have attitudes before, but this woman took the cake. Holy hell she was rude. I could hear her rolling her eyes and basically not giving one concern about my plight. Forget the fact that the EMS branch of USPS is about to cost me hundreds of dollars, she made me feel like I was ruining her day. I guess working in a call center does that to you.

The 24th came, do or die. I crossed my fingers, maybe USPS botched the tracking info. They already screwed up with the mailing twice. I made the long walk to the mailbox. It was snowing and winding and miserably cold. The mailbox is about a quarter mile away from the house, and I felt every single step. I opened the mailbox, there were a bunch of different envelopes. Excited I grabbed the pile and started to flip through them.

And nothing for me. Just a bunch of junk mail My heart just bottomed out. I wasn’t going to China anytime soon.

The first thing I did when I got back was call the Chinese embassy in Washington. Maybe there was some way they could give me a temporary work visa (I didn’t want a tourist visa) and I could finish it up in China. That wasn’t happening. Even thought she wasn’t able to help me, the wonderful woman who works the visa office phones was so considerate listening to my problems. She seemed to take it as a personal failure that USPS is slower than molasses and the Chinese government has immigration rules that she can’t tweak to help someone.

Then I called Air China. If I can’t get a visa I’ll bite the bullet and pay the money for a changed ticket. Better than wasting all the money on a flight I won’t be on. I was on the phone with another lovely lady for an hour. Dead serious. She tried so hard to find me another flight to put me on. The problem was, and I don’t know if it’s Air China or all carriers, is that a change of ticket means I must fly on the same routes that I originally bought. Since I was flying DC to LA to Beijing to Wuxi, that was the only path I could take. Air China runs a bunch of DC to NYC to Beijing to Wuxi flights, but I couldn’t get on one of those. We finally found a flight that would work, but there was a seventeen hour layover in Beijing. Air China offered to put me up in a Beijing hotel for free so I wouldn’t be camping in the airport for more than a half day. Who am I, a rock star? This wasn’t their fault. They were nothing but professional and kind to me the entire time.

Unfortunately the hotel they could put me up in was not right next to the airport and I’d have to get there myself. And I would be landing the first day of Chinese New Year. And I would be carrying two bags plus a carry-on. And I have no friends who can help in Beijing. And I don’t speak Chinese at all. And I’d be super jet-lagged from. I can think of rougher entries into a country, but not too many. I felt bad because she worked so hard, but I had to turn down the offer. She didn’t seem to mind, in fact she told me that’s what she would do in my situation.

Somehow in dealing with Air China with their aim to please the customer and me being frustrated and confused, both of us missed the most obvious solution. Why don’t I just cancel the ticket and buy a new one? So if I end up flying DC to NYC, no worries. It was such a ‘duh’ head slapping moment when I finally thought of it. I mentioned it to her and I could hear on her the same ‘why didn’t I think of that yet’ tone that I found pretty funny. So I canceled the flight, and now I’m waiting for my refund.

After canceling the flight I looked for another one. I wanted to use Air China because of how great they were to me. But unfortunately for them I was able to find a different carrier that would get me there cheaper than the Air China flights I saw. So I booked with them. In the end the new flight was only $50 more than my original ticket and the cancellation fee was $150. Instead of leaving January 26, I leave February 10 which isn’t a ton of time to wait. I’ll be able to see a few friends who I haven’t seen yet due to lack of time. It’s not a total loss. And my boss said I’ll be reimbursed for the extra costs.

The moral of the story as I learned talking to USPS on multiple occasions is that when overseas, express mail only guarantees three to five day delivery AFTER clearing customs. They might not tell you that at the EMS office, but it’s the truth. So make sure you give them at least an extra week for any time sensitive materials. Or just use FedEx or UPS.