On Visas and Free Travel

Visas… I have 17 visas in my Russian passport. I have five US, one Canadian, one Indian, one Japanese, eight Schengen and one UK visa there (in addition to two UK Biometric Resident Permits I have had).

A funny fact: I have had three passports in the course of my life so far, and in each passport my first name was spelt slightly differently (e.g. like Yurij, Yurii, Iurii) just because the guidelines of transcribing Cyrillic into Latin have kept changing.

Each visa I had has its one history and a lot of emotions and events associated with it. For example, here is a Japanese visa which I never had a chance to use because I got sick and could not go to Tokyo for the IROS, a conference in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Here is a Canadian visa to go to the NIPS conference on artificial intelligence and machine learning to snowy and beautiful Montreal in December. I had to receive that visa in a very short period of time because of our workshop paper being accepted quite close to the conference start day. What had made to receive that visa even less possible is the fact that the Canadian Embassy was moving offices during that month. As far as I remember, I literally had received that visa on the day of my flight to Montreal. I really appreciate the fact that Canadian (and any other Embassy) has been friendly and so helpful with the visas.

Here is an Indian visa to visit India to a summer school to tutor schoolchildren in computer science and visit Microsoft Research.

This is a UK visa which allowed me to start studying and doing research in Oxford. There is even a story itself of me finally receiving that visa on the last day of my one-year studies in the USA at MIT. On that last day, I had to travel to the UK Embassy in New York to retrieve my passport. I had to retrieve my passport with a visa or without it because I had to leave the US anyway (my US visa was ending) and go to India. One day before that, I still believed my UK visa was not issued and I would have to go to India without a UK visa and then re-apply for it later. Only on that last day, when I was already on the Amtrak train from Boston to New York early in the morning with an aim to just get my passport back and departure from the States that day, I got an email from the Embassy literally in the train stating that the decision on my visa has been made (as you know, the Embassies usually use such vague phrasing rather than directly saying whether is an approval or refusal) and… my passport is being sent by post… to Boston which I already just left :).

When I finally arrived in New York, I put my large suitcase to New York train left luggage facilities, and I came to the UK Embassy building. On my arrival, I was accidentally told by a security guard to use the backdoor because I probably looked like a delivery boy in my long and slightly shabby shorts and with a Whole Foods paper bag in hand that sunny September morning. I realised the mistake a few minutes later and went back to the main entrance, only to be told that there is no chance to get my passport in person and it would be sent by post, which for me would be quite dramatic as my US visa was close to its end.

After almost 3 hours of trying to get my passport in the UK Embassy building and getting some help from the Russian Embassy, to which I travelled in the meantime, after some calls were made by the guards to the UK Embassy to enquire about the possibilities and checks (e.g. the fact that I paid for “fast track” visa application looked like an advantage, at least I was asked about that), I was allowed to get upstairs to retrieve my passport (again, by that point I just needed a passport to leave the US, and a visa would be “just a nice” bonus). When I got to the Embassy on one of the top floors, a friendly consular officer interviewed me briefly to check that it is me. Then he went to find my passport… and he did not find it in a basket of ready passports. That was a big shock for me, but I smiled (as far as I remember), thanked them and left the Embassy.

I was desperate enough to go around the block and find 3 FedEx delivery trucks nearby. I asked all FedEx delivery people at trucks if they can try to find my delivery envelope (I had a printed receipt for the delivery in hand). To my huge surprise (not on that busy day but afterwards when I had a chance to digest what happened that day), at every truck they were very kind to help me try to find my envelope with my passport but… I did not have any luck. There was no envelope in any of the trucks around.

By that point, of course, I was completely lost. Magic did happen though. I was near the FedEx truck that was close to that Embassy backdoor door, which I had been by mistake suggested to use as an-accidentally-mistaken-delivery-boy. The door opened and somebody called me and asked to get to the Embassy back again.

I went through basic security second time on that day with my Whole Foods bag and a backpack, and finally, after so many hours, the same friendly consular officer gave me my passport with… the UK visa in it. The reason why my passport was not found the first time was pretty simple: I had happened to order a regular (not express) FedEx delivery for my return envelope, and there was presumably a different basket for non-express FedEx returns. I was so happy to finally get my passport. After that, I had a late lunch, checked-in for my flight to India through Abu Dhabi and went to the airport. But that is another story.

I got a lot of visas in my life, and most of them were for studies and conference. I have always had good treatment at the Embassies and Visa application centres. Consular officers, guards, staff have been always helpful. I also understand why visas are important for immigration purposes.

Nevertheless, every time I applied for a visa, I always had that feeling that “I am different”. That there are people who don’t need visas and people who need them; who need to apply for them, pay for them, wait for them, have a chance to be refused them. It probably was always slightly sad that just because you happened to have this passport but not that passport, you need to spend more energy, time, resources to get to where you need to be and also have a higher chance of failing to get there (if your visa is refused or delayed).

For example, every time I apply for the US visa, I am getting through what is called “administrative processing”. That means that for me, the visa could not be approved at the appointment in the US Embassy and my case is sent to somewhere in the US. My hunch is that is because I am Russian and I work on artificial intelligence and machine learning. I could only guess, but probably my case is sent each time to the Department of State, or even to some special federal agency and somebody looks into my file and decides that I am okay to have a visa. I know that I did not do anything wrong, but just because of some political circumstances and mistrust on the international level, I become unintentionally involved in that by having my visas delayed. For example, this last time my US visitor visa application is still taking more than 3 months, and that already led to one important business visit to the US missed.

I always try to be positive and mindful about it. At the end of the day, all these visa applications and considerations make me stronger. As a result of all of this, I know so much, as a layperson, about the immigration law, visa procedures. These visa endeavours also train my patience. And while I strongly believe human beings should have a right to travel freely and conduct different sorts of legal business all over the world, definitely that is not the most important right that is not fully satisfied in our world these days. As in, there are more important problems like injustice or inequalities for different social groups; hunger and violence and wars; lack of access to education and medicine.

At the end of the day, it is understandable that the easiest option to control immigration in a country is to be very strict on who you allow entering. It is much easier to have a false positive rate (in other words, to have delays and refusals on visas for people who should have been accepted) rather than having a false negative rate, i.e. to miss and let in somebody who can hurt the society of that country. On a global scale, it is understandable. However, when it affects you, you might feel sad.

People who have access to money and power (I mean legally earned or inherited money or legal lobbyism and legal actions) probably always can simplify such things for themselves, unless it becomes too political and they can’t be allowed to the country for that reason. Also, probably one of the appealing factors for people getting the citizenships of some countries is that their passports allow their citizens to travel visa-free or get visas much more easily or for longer periods (of course, other factors include the genuine will to become a full citizen of a country with all rights and responsibilities which such citizenship entails).

On an individual level, it is generally possible for some of us to get such important freedoms and rights as to live in safety, to have a good education, medical care and recreation, to travel to the most of destinations of our choice for business and leisure. That can be achieved through hard and smart work, financial planning and “life planning”, and luck. It is another question though how to make it possible on a global scale for everyone.

In the meantime, I just find it funny that my visa ventures are sometimes quite similar to what Mark Twain wrote in his story “The Belated Russian Passport”.