It’s been a bit hectic this last month or so. Immediately upon my return from Kraków and World Youth Day, I started the preparations for the next big move: Scotland.
That’s right, I’ve returned to the land of haggis, neeps, and tatties! This time, though, I’m going to stay for more than two days, as I’m going to be starting my graduate work at the University of Edinburgh (or, Oilthigh Dhùn Èideann, if you will) this fall.
Step one – and perhaps the most crucial step – was to obtain a visa. Now, I’ve gone through this process before, and it’s pretty straightforward. You go out the website of the government of the country you’re going to, get the visa checklist from there, and just follow instructions. Often, these include providing documents like signed work contracts or scheduling a face-to-face meeting with an immigration officer at that country’s consulate.
In this regard, the UK is not very different from other countries. In addition to an application with all the usual questions (name, age, gender, number of dependents, whether or not you’re a terrorist*), I needed to show my acceptance letter from the university, along with a code that they sent me. This code, called a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS), serves as additional proof that you got into the university and have accepted a place in the program. It also gives the government access to information such as how long the course of study is, how much you have left to pay, and whether or not you’ve opted for on-campus housing. The UK, though, issues two documents that constitute a visa: a sticker in your passport which is valid for 30 days, and a biometric residency permit (BRP) which is an ID card and is valid for the duration of your clearance into the country. In order to get a BRP, you need to provide fingerprints, a headshot, and a signature. Unfortunately, you can’t just pop over to your local police department and get your fingerprints taken; in order for them to be accepted by the UK immigrations office, they need to be taken at either an official application center or at an honorary application support center. In my case, the closest application support center was the Homeland Security office in Detroit.
Once you’ve gotten all that together, you can shove it in an envelope and send it off to the nearest UK consulate.
Well, that is if you have the prerequisite 3-5 weeks for processing before you travel.
Which I did not.
In my head, summer is a really long time and during summer, you have enough time to do lots of things. Unfortunately, visa timelines don’t appreciate the need to traipse off to another country for a Catholic youth festival halfway through the summer.
Because I needed my passport to go back to Poland, I couldn’t start my visa application until after I got back to the States (after all, Americans need passports in order to enter the EU). That left me exactly three weeks to get my stuff together, send it off to the consulate, and get it back before we shipped off for Scotland.
Before you ask, yes, I did know this would happen before I left for Poland. I had made some arrangements, and had collected almost all of the requirements that I needed for the visa before I left. I had also contacted a visa expediter.
If you have some extra cash and don’t want to handle the visa yourself, or if you find yourself to be an event volunteer at World Youth Day in a foreign country in the middle of your application window, you can contract the help of a visa expediter. They work for third-party companies, which technically do not have direct connections with the consulate. However, they do know exactly what you need and when you need it and how you need to send it in order to have a successful visa application (assuming you aren’t on any no-fly lists – in which case, you’re beyond the help of an expediter). Of course, they do all this for a fee in addition to the visa fees. Generally, the fee depends on how fast you need your passport back. If you want it back in one business day, you can cough up the measly sum $1000 plus handling fees.
Even with the expediter working on my behalf – and trust me, he worked – it came right down to the wire. I was scheduled to receive my passport back, along with the visa sticker inside it, the day before we left the United States. Yikes. Just ask my mom how I dealt with that kind of stress (hint: not very well). The only reason I got it back before then was because I was able to walk into the Homeland Security office and get my fingerprinting done early; they’d scheduled me for Thursday afternoon, and on Tuesday morning I was there as soon as they opened asking very nicely if there were any empty slots that day. That meant that I was able to get my passport, along with the visa sticker, back a whole three days before we left for Scotland!
Seo sinn a-nis!
As I was going through this process, I was made aware of the fact by a rather sassy telephone operator that Americans are allowed to possess not one, but two passports, just in case you ever find yourself in this particular position.
*This is an actual yes/no question on the visa application form.