So You Want A Student Visa…

I mentioned before I was going to take some time to write about the visa application process I’ve been going through the last few months, so that is what this post is all about. I initially wrote a lot of side information about my INS-esque experience with the Spanish consulate, but I have opted to omit this information for the time being. I will merely mention it has been extremely difficult (borderline impossible) to contact the consulate in any way other than in person if you have questions, and if by chance you do manage to get someone on the phone, you have about two seconds to spill your guts before you are transferred to a machine and subsequently hung up on.

What is the result of this sort of customer service? Try this one on for size: The four individuals applying for visas with appointments before mine were turned away by the officer for not having the appropriate documentation and copies of said documents. When the would-be applicants stated there was no evidence the consulate would need this information they were told “It is written on the wall in the lobby! You need to learn these things ahead of time because we are very busy and you are making our jobs difficult!” Right…should have known that one, what with this consulate having jurisdiction through Alaska, a student in Juneau applying for a visa should have no problem moseying on down to San Francisco to read what is written on the wall before gathering their documents…but I digress…

The following is a pretty descriptive to-do list including various tidbits I have learned as I’ve rounded up my documents. I will offer this disclaimer: This list I am about to provide is what was requested of me by the Spanish consulate in San Francisco, specifically for a student visa. What this means is that these particular documents may or may not be required by other consulates (Spanish or otherwise) for a student visa, as it seems each consulate sets its own rules. If you are also going through the student visa application process, your best bet is to do as much research ahead of time and bring multiple copies of anything you think they may want. Lastly, please, if you will need a visa in the near future, begin to research what you will need as early as possible to allow for extra time in case things go array! Either way, hopefully this will prove helpful for future visa applicants.

1) Schengen Visa Application
First things first, if you’re heading to any of the Schengen states (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, or Sweden) for longer than your passport allows (up to 90 days with US passport) you need to fill out a Schengen visa application.

Application instructions were found online, but a lot of the instructions didn’t make complete sense to me. Additionally, I write incredibly small, and even for me squeezing some of the information they wanted into the boxes provided became quite a chore, so be forewarned and get used to making a few rough drafts of the application before you go in for a final with a pen. You’ll need an original and two additional copies of your finished product, but make an additional copy for your own records.

2) A passport valid for a minimum of six months from your expected return date
Ask yourself when you are planning on returning from your voyage. Know the answer? Great, now add six months to that date. Got the new date? Ok, now go grab your passport, open it up and look at the expiration date. If your passport expires before that date you’ll need to get it renewed before you apply for your visa. When I first saw this requirement, it was poorly translated and I misinterpreted it to mean you need to have had your passport for at least six months in order to be issued a visa, which would have been bad news for my wife. Luckily this proved to be untrue after further research. Once your passport is good to go, make three copies of it (to be safe) and while you’re at it, make three copies of your driver’s license or other identification card and put these in your pile of docs to bring.

3) Three passport photos 
I needed only three – one per application copy. These should be taken in front of a white backdrop and you will later staple them to the front of each of your applications in the notated position. Some places ask you to write your name on the backs as well, but I didn’t need to. I’ve heard some consulates ask for four photos, which is just as easy to get as three because most places that take these pictures sell them in sets of two, so you’ll likely end up with four anyway. Costco has the cheapest (and best quality) I’ve found at $4.99 per pair.

4) Original acceptance letters from the programs involved 
If you are an American student going on exchange, you’ll need an original letter from both your current school, and the exchange school. For me, I just needed the letters ESADE mailed me. I ended up with four documents with official language and stamping that I brought to the appointment. One of the papers says I’m in the program, another says I will have housing arranged upon my arrival (another required document, evidence of housing). The other papers explain the length of the program and show proof it is a recognized university by the Spanish government. I made about four copies of these just to be safe and only needed the originals.

5) Evidence of funds
This needs to be provided by way of any of the following:

  • A statement from the school explaining they assume full financial responsibility. I will not find out about scholarships until June, so in the interim I will be using my letters from Sallie Mae showing I just took out a whopping $65k in loans…ouch.
  • A notarized letter from your parents explaining they will assume full financial responsibility of you, which means they need evidence that they have $1,000 available for every one month you will be in the country. (ie, if you’re going for 18 months like me, you’ll need a bank statement from them showing they have at least $18k in there, plus a notarized letter explaining they will provide you with at least $1,000 per month throughout the duration of your stay).
  • I had also read I needed to provide bank and credit card statements, but what bothered me was that it notated they will only accept the kind that come in the mail, not printed from the computer…well, I only get online statements for all my accounts, so I don’t even get these things in the mail. Either way, I printed up my most recent online statements and current balances for everything, and it was all accepted.
  • Additionally, I included my 06 tax returns and two most recent pay stubs and they took these as well. I don’t know if it really matters, because my loans more than cover me, but I still included these things just in case and had multiple copies of each on hand.

6) Evidence of health insurance with a minimum of 30,000 euros coverage
I thought surely this document would be my downfall. On the document list it indicates they need an “original letter” from my insurance provider. Silly me, thinking this would be no big deal, I started the process two months before my appointment date. ESADE has a relationship with insurance brokers in Spain and I’ve been going back and forth with a representative now for the last two months trying to simply get coverage.

The problems I have had were that the company absolutely refused to allow my coverage to start in August. I was told that if I want evidence of coverage now, the policy has to start now and I have to pay now. Well, I certainly didn’t mind paying now, but why does my policy need to start now? Why can’t I prepay three months in advance? The answer, “That is not our normative.” Ok, so I sucked it up, as the cost was considerably less than other prices I’ve seen, and wired $120 to them for coverage in May and June…despite the fact that I’m arriving the end of July. Well, what they did after they got the money was email an electronic copy of my temporary card and a letter stating I’m covered. The problem, it’s not original, nor does it state the coverage amount.

From there I tried repeatedly to contact the company and request they mail the original ASAP, but I got no response. Finally I contacted the school, who contacted them, and finally someone brought the original to the school (I have no idea why they didn’t just send it themselves) where it was sent FedEx to me three business days before I had to leave to San Francisco. The tracking showed the package arriving the day of my appointment, which was one day too late, but by divine intervention the package arrive literally one hour before I left for San Francisco, a full day ahead of an already tight schedule…it was incredible, to say the least!

I presented this document with a copy of the form I filled out to get coverage (which showed I selected 30,000 euros of coverage) and they accepted it without question.

7) Visa Fee: Money order or Cash only
I ended up just giving them five, crisp $20 bills and that worked out fine. I guess if I wasn’t using a US passport the fee is $79.20. Definitely check with the individual consulate you’re going to to verify the correct fee.

8 ) Self-addressed USPS Express Mail envelope 
It says you need the envelope with postage for $14.40 or $18.80 so they can mail you back your passport. I guess the price range is dependant on the type of envelope you get, I just got the $14.40 one.

9)Evidence of Immigration Status in the US (Non-US passport holders) 
This means, in my wife’s case if she was using her Mexican passport, she’d need her Alien Registration Card or a US visa with I-20 / IAP-66…this doesn’t apply to me.

10) Certification of “absence of police record” (for stays over 180 days) 
This one didn’t seem like much, but it turned out to be a doozy! Thankfully I’ve lived in the same city for the last five years, otherwise I would have had to do a lot more running around. Basically, in California and I would assume other states as well, the following is the order of operations I would recommend to get this document:

  • Contact a mobile notary! If you know a notary, buy them lunch and have them help you out for the day. I wish I had known this step when I first embarked on my journey, but hey, you live and learn. I found a nice lady who charged a flat $25 fee and she did great. First place to head to is your local sheriffs department (don’t do what I did and go to the local jailhouse…I almost got detained for being on a cell phone in the building and they looked at me crazy when I asked for an “absence of police record” document…maybe because they were about to give me a record). What you are looking for is actually called a “letter of clearance.” It cost me $20 and I got two official copies. Have your notary ready to do his/her thing and notarize the deputy’s signature.***Updated Info*** In light of a situation we encountered while getting Blanca’s letter of clarance, I would highly recommend you see if your notary can do an acknowledgement of the letter, if possible in addition to just a stamped version. If you tell the notary this is what you want, they will know what you’re talking about and it shouldn’t be a problem, nor would I imagine it will cost more money, but honestly I don’t know what other notaries charge. If you want to try to spare yourself the headache, call the county clerk’s office first, ask if an acknowledgement is necessary for them to certify this document, and depending on their response you can fill the notary in when they go to work their magic. Hope this new information makes sense! When this is all done, pay the notary and you’re ready to take the next step.
  • Take your freshly notarized letter of clearance and head to your local county clerks office. Once there, they need to “certify’ the notarized document. This cost a whopping $2.25, but it is a necessary step in order to get the icing on the cake…
  • Certified and notarized letter in hand, head now to the nearest Secretary of State office (call ahead of time to find out if they do Apostille certifications, I was set to go to Sacramento and learned just in time that we have an office in Fresno). What you need to do here is ask for them to give an Apostille certification of the now certified and notarized letter. They will only give this certification if you’ve taken the first two steps, so do it properly and this should go smoothly. The Apostille certification validates the document for use by another country’s government, and without it the consulate will not accept it. You can get the Apostille certification by mail for $20 and it will take about three weeks, or you can get it done in about five minutes in person for $26, so pick your poison! Once you’ve got this done, make three photocopies of all the pages and you should be good to go!

At the consulate, they stamped the original in about four places and gave it back to me. This is one of the documents I will need to present in Spain when I apply for my student card, which gives me the right to stay in Spain for the first year of the program. I’ll have to renew it at the start of the second year.

11) Medical Certificate (for stays over 180 days) 
This is a document that is written and signed by an MD, within two months of your appointment, that says basically you are in good physical and mental health to travel and study abroad and are free of contagious diseases. Make three copies of this, just to be safe.

For this, I made an appointment with my doctor for a standard check-up. I told him I needed the letter, he called someone who knows international travel laws and instructed that I needed to be free from Hep A & B and TB. He checked my records and I really wish I had saved my vaccine records from college, but I didn’t. I had to get a blood test to check for the Hep antibodies and such, and get a TB skin test. 48 hours later I walked in and picked up my letter. The consulate also gave this original document back so I can present it when I apply for my student card.

12) If you’re under 18 years of age, you’ll need a notarized letter of authorization from your parents allowing you to go on your trip.

13) Round trip airline reservations 
This one bothered me for the longest time. It says in many places on the website that they do not recommend you purchase your airline tickets before you apply for the visa. However, you are expected to provide proof of “reservations.” I didn’t know how to make reservations on a flight without paying, but I still called (at random) Delta to ask how this could be done. At first I was told this is silly and airlines don’t work this way…then after some further discussion, here is what happened:

I mentioned I was going to be an international student and merely needed proof that I had a reservation for a flight. The woman asked for my email address, asked the day I was going to go, and badda-bing, she said to check my email. I opened it up and there it was, a seat reservation good through my appointment date on a flight to Spain. I was in shock, but I got it and the consulate accepted it without question – so it can be done! Given the duration of my trip, they did not need evidence of return tickets.

As an aside, I was going to just buy my tickets and get the insurance just in case, but moments before I finalized a transaction on Orbitz I called to ask if I would be covered under their insurance if I didn’t get my visa in time. I was told no, late travel documents is not grounds for coverage of a cancelled flight…which really isn’t cool, but now that I know I’m going to wait just a bit longer before I buy my tickets…even if it costs more.

Translation: we may decide to send you packing and have you come back some other time if we don’t like the cut of your jib. Thankfully, I was extremely organized and was actually thanked for having all the necessary documents, in order, ready to go. The woman was very kind to me and even commented that ESADE is a very good school and that I should be proud having gotten in, which made me all tingly.

So, my two months of working on this finally paid off and I wasn’t turned away and all my documents were accepted on my first try. One last thing to note ahead of time is that the consulate says you may only apply “not more than 90 days, nor less than 60 days from your expected date of departure.” That left me a 30-day window to successfully apply around my expected date of departure, which is July 23rd.

In the end, it was an incredibly stressful and frustrating experience, and at times I almost wanted to give up. But after really thinking about it, and telling myself I am not the first American student to get a student visa to study in Spain, I knew there was hope for me yet. Granted, I don’t have my visa yet, but the hard part is over and now all I can do is wait and hope for the best…until it comes time to apply for my wife’s visa…but we have bigger fish to fry before I’m ready to worry about that.

“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” – Fred Brooks