At first it felt like a logistics nightmare attempting to work out when and where is best to get visas, before we left or on the go? After researching the requirements for every country we thought we might visit, we came up with a plan which worked successfully, along with a few unexpected surprises of course.
We’re lucky as UK citizens that Europe is open to us (currently…), but before we left for our trip we were able to apply for our visas to Russia and China as we knew the dates we would be there and they’re countries where it’s known to be harder to apply outside your own country. For South Korea and Japan we received 3 month stamps on arrival. Well, the South Korean border guard addicted to her phone never gave Mischa an exit date in the end… Hong Kong and Macau both gave us leave to remain for 6 months.
For North America, Canada now requires an eTA if you arrive by air but not if you arrive by land or ship and we were given 6 months again. We had contemplated nipping down to Mexico too, also visa free for 6 months, although we didn’t do so in the end. Unfortunately the USA is much stricter if you wish to arrive by cargo ship, but one good thing about applying for a US visa is that you can do so from any of the numerous embassies around the world, it does not have to be the one in your home country.
Applying in the UK
Russia I was determined to do the visas ourselves, to save costs but it turns out the Russian visa can be quite strict and requires a sort of invitation letter which we did not have. Chatting to staff at RealRussia, we decided to use them as they would check our application was all correct before sending and provide the invitation letter. It cost us £78.35 each which was only a little more than by ourselves at £70. Three weeks before we left, we headed to London, picked up the documents from RealRussia and went to the Visa Service Centre for the Russian embassy. After being patted down by a tall, unsmiling guard and given a ticket, the wait was barely 10 minutes. We handed over the documents, passports and fingerprints, then went to the pub. We then just had to wait for an email from RealRussia to confirm they had received the documents back, it took 8 days to process.
China Easy for me, a conference the year before meant I already had a Chinese visa lasting until February 2018. For UK citizens the main issue is the price, at £175 plus return postage for your passport it’s the most expensive visa of the trip. For UK citizens the default is currently 2 years, multi-entry and 90 days at a time, the only prerequisite is you must enter China within 90 days of the visa being issued. I had sent mine to Manchester whereas Mischa’s was sorted out in London for £190, as he also used RealRussia given our limited time before we left. We picked up our passports complete with both Russian and Chinese visas the day before we left London for Luxembourg.
Applying on the road
Vietnam There are two Vietnamese embassies within reach of Vietnam in China, in the cities of Kunming and Nanning. A new online e-visa for $25 has become available (since Feb 2017) giving 30 days single entry. Great, we thought, until we discovered it’s only valid at a set number of land ports. Given our planned route, entering at Lao Cai is legal but leaving at Dong Dang on the train from Hanoi to Nanning is illegal. So, we headed to the embassy in Kunming and found it given directions on TripAdvisor (address here). We filled out a simple form, attached a single passport photo and handed over our passports and ￥350 each (~£40) on Friday afternoon (after 2pm when their lunch was over) and was told to come back between 5pm and 5:30pm on Tuesday. We entered Vietnam on the Wednesday.
USA We needed a formal visa to enter the US by cargo ship. Our initial plan of getting this done in Shanghai quickly changed when we discovered too late that the waiting time for an appointment was 28 days and the cost of living in Shanghai expensive relative to the rest of China. Fortunately for us, Vietnam has an embassy in Hanoi with waiting times varying between 3 and 10 days when I checked in advance. While in Kunming, we filled out the online DS-160 form required for the B2 tourist visa and discovered the rest of the process needed to be done in person. On arrival to Sapa, we headed to the Vietnamese Post office in town to pay the sum of $160 each (~£122) in cash. This took us a little longer than expected because the woman hadn’t done this before and needed to call a colleague. After receiving the receipt with a confirmation code on, the next step was to book the appointment online. It was a 12 day wait, a disappointment, and it changed our whole plan for Vietnam. Eventually, after having our photos taken in Hue for the required non-passport size photos, we had the interviews which were straight forward. Then the most stressful days of the trip occurred, when the person delivering our passports turned up the day after but did not wait for the hostel staff to check our names and he simply left. This resulted in them being returned to an unknown post office depot which we weren’t allowed to go and collect from and they had no idea when it would be redelivered. After a teary visit to the post office and then a lot of expensive phone calls to an English speaking Vietnam Post number, they returned it to the US embassy, which we weren’t allowed to collect it from either. Cue more expensive phone calls. Three worrisome, passport-less days after the interview they decided to make an exception and we picked up our passports from the embassy at last, and even then the security guard almost didn’t let us in as we didn’t have an appointment. (We then walked straight to the train station and booked a train the next day back into China).