The hardest part about getting myself to Spain was far and away the yearlong student visa. Anybody who’s had to deal with governmental bureaucracy knows what I’m talking about. The twisting, contradictory, impossibly complex process almost cost me my first semester abroad. Luckily, things worked out, and I got a long weekend in San Francisco out of the deal.
I spent a good three hours exploring the Ferry Building. It was a nice place to wander when a chilly breeze set in – so many cute stalls! And once the sun peeked out I sat down at one of the restaurants to people watch. Market Bar – not to be confused with Michelin-starred Market One across the street (where I also stopped for a beer and fries, not realizing how ridiculous I looked ordering such casual fare at such a well-known restaurant) – has a great outdoor dining area for when the famous fog rolls in. The roasted beet and mesclun salad was delicious, and I washed it down with a great local amber ale. But even better than the food and the atmosphere was the BEAUTIFUL waiter serving me. I left him my number to see if he wanted to go out for drinks, but he called after I got back home. C’est la vie.
Easily my least favorite part of San Francisco was Fisherman’s Wharf. I can’t stand crowds of tourists, but I felt stupid visiting the city without at least checking it out. But as awful as the crowds at the bottom of the hill were, a meandering walk up the steep streets revealed a bit of local color. This woman in particular was a blast – she’s a portrait artist who was more than happy to give me recommendations for soul food restaurants to check out (though, unfortunately, I ran out of time before I could sniff out her suggestions). I’d wanted to get her drawings in the picture – they were a ton of fun – but she asked me not to include them.
I’m glad I had a little time to wander, but a good half of my trip was taken up by first worrying about my visa and then actually applying for it. I wish I’d had a better idea of what was in store. If you’re looking for some advice, or just want to know what to expect, I’ll walk you through it.
Ahead of time
1. The appointment
I made my appointment a good eight weeks in advance, and even then there was only one option available. Make your appointment online as soon as you know you’ll need one, and give yourself as much time as you can before your departure date.
2. The documents
Most of the required documents for a yearlong visa were easy to get together, with one glaring exception – the FBI background check and accompanying Apostille of the Hague. All things told, the two processes took me almost 6 months. START EARLY. I can’t emphasize this enough. I nearly derailed my plans completely because of one simple mistake on my part. That being said, if the US government is taking their time, you can request for them to rush things. It’s hard to get through to a real person, both with the FBI and the State Department, but if you call enough times and leave enough messages (crying helps) you will get a sympathy vote. Just make sure you’re nice about it. NOTE: Part of what makes the Apostille take so long is the US mail system. If you can get to the State Department in person, or know someone who can, DO THAT. You can also hire an advocate in DC to ensure your application gets from FBI to State Department and back to you as quickly as possible, but that can be pricey. However, sometimes it’s the best option.
At the appointment
1. Getting there
The building is located in Pacific Heights, on Sutter and Franklin. I took a bus up Van Ness (there are a ton, trust me) and got off at Sutter. The consulate is one block over to the left (if you’re facing uphill) and is pretty easy to spot – lots of Spanish flags. The whole process took about 20 minutes, including waiting for the bus; my hotel was on Market and Hyde. Dress is varied – many applicants were in jeans and t-shirts – but I’m convinced my attempt to look sharp in a business casual dress and cardi made a big difference in how I was treated.
2. Getting in
I felt like kind of an idiot trying to open the door – it was locked, and I got very confused. To the right of the door is a little intercom; it’s kind of hidden, but just press the button and the concierge will buzz you in. Once I sat down to wait at least three people got tripped up trying to get inside, so at least I know it wasn’t just me.
Check in with the concierge. He’ll double check you have what you need and then give you a sheet of paper with the required order for your documents. Once everything’s all set, go back up to the window and let him know you’re ready. He’ll call you up when they’re ready for you in back.
4. The appointment
Once you go through the door to the back of the consulate, the appointment’s started. There’s no question and answer portion, just a couple people who take your documents, passport, and money, enter it into a computer, and send you on your way. QUICK TIP: If you don’t have everything (especially your background check and Apostille), let them know RIGHT AWAY. I didn’t have mine yet, but it was due to arrive any day. I had schemed up a plan to apply for a single semester at first, then return to the US over Christmas break to apply for a second. As it turns out, this was totally unnecessary – I asked the woman processing my application what could be done and she was more than happy to take what I have and start my yearlong visa application if I promised to send my background check ASAP. Thus, simply by informing them of my situation, I saved myself a roundtrip plan ticket and a second application fee. That being said, the girl who went in ahead of me was in a similar boat, but she was rather rude to the employee and also was dressed really shabbily. A little respect goes a long way with the people at the consulate.
1. Receiving your visa
On the consulate website, estimated processing times are 4-6 weeks, and many study abroad programs say that 40 days is the absolute minimum. However, I got my passport with the visa inside less than two weeks after I returned home, and I applied at peak times. I wouldn’t recommend counting on this kind of turn around, but if you have very little time between your appointment and departure, don’t despair. One of the girls in the lobby with me was leaving in three weeks and had only just applied for her background check, but the consulate still took her application.
2. Extending your visa
The stamp the consulate puts in your passport is only valid by itself for 90 days. However, it allows you to apply for an extension once you get to Spain. Without the 90 day visa the US consulate gives you, you may not apply for the yearlong extension. I’ll be sure to walk you through that process once I get it done.