If everything I’ve always heard about French bureaucracy is true, the visa application process functions as a great introduction to a special kind of hell. This process is filled with small, important details and long, complicated forms. It’s largely devoid of human contact (there’s definitely no phone number for questions or concerns) and it sort of makes automated customer service calls feel personal.
We applied for our visas at the San Francisco consulate, where we were required to appear in person as part of the application process. We couldn’t just appear at our convenience, either. Appointments are required, and they book up months in advance. The consulate is over 500 miles from our front door in Oregon, but others there had trekked even further. This one location is responsible for serving the residents of Northern California, Northern Nevada, Alaska, Hawaïi, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and the Pacific Islands, including Guam. That’s quite a geographical reach. I guess we should count our blessings…at least we didn’t have to fly there!
The beautiful drive to San Francisco
But before we ever got to the Bay Area, there was so much to be done. We applied for two different types of visas. I applied for the Long stay visa for “lecteurs” and “assistants,” a visa that requires a particular, special status that I had because of my work contract.
My husband, Dustin, applied for a long stay visa for visitors. There were a few main differences worth noting between our two visa application processes:
- The assistant visa was far simpler than the visitor’s visa. My husband had to produce information about his income and profession that was never demanded of me
- My husband also had to pay a fee for his visa of $113.00, a fee that is waived by the TAPIF program for assistants
- To obtain the visitor’s visa, my husband was required to purchase and show proof of health insurance coverage for the time we plan to be in France, whereas I was not required to purchase any coverage (my job includes health insurance)
- He also was required to promise not to work, and obtain a notarized letter stating that he wasn’t planning to work during our time in France
We were both required to produce various documents that demonstrated our identity and status in the United States, such as passports, our marriage certificate, birth certificates, etc. We spent weeks gathering all the required information and documents and on Thursday, August 3rd, we took off early from work to make a short lived road trip to California. We drove, almost without stopping, to Oakland, where my old debate coach Steve lives. Steve had kindly offered to let us crash at his place before our 9am visa appointment, but when we got to Oakland he wasn’t there, even though it was a little after 10pm. We were greeted instead by his partner, Becky, a kind and bubbly woman who was eager to welcome us to her home and introduce us to her various cats, some of which were honestly kind of scary. I mean, one of the cats only had one eye and really hated me — I’ve never seen such an intense one-eyed glare in my life.
Anyway, to escape the evil feline, Dust and I decided to go find some dinner. Cue the Yelp search for nearby food that was a) good and b) available after 11pm. We jumped back in the trusty Honda (that thing has taken us thousands of miles at this point. A true soldier) and headed for a reasonably reviewed Mexican restaurant that was, for some reason, operating on a bizzarely night-owl schedule. When we arrived there, I could quickly see why — we were across the street from a mammoth hospital. Nurses and doctors in full scrubs trickled in after their swing shift or in the middle of their graveyard for chips & salsa and big, refillable glasses of soda. My husband and I joked that this place was the Shari’s of Mexican restaurants, with its late hours, diner booths, and multiple page menu. I couldn’t tell you much about the food, except for that it tasted pretty dang good after a long day of traveling.
Exhausted and waiting for FOOD
After we finished eating, we headed back to Steve and Becky’s place to find Steve, finally, in the flesh, on his own couch. It was late and he had worked all day and we had driven all day, so we only had the chance to chat for a little while, but it’s always nice to catch up. Dustin and I got a fitful night’s rest (or lack thereof) and woke up early in the morning to head to the BART station. I pulled on a long dress and made him put pants on (the French consulate just seems like a no-shorts place to me. I recently read an article about how the Parisians call shorts “half-pants,” which pretty much confirms my theory) and we hopped back in the Honda and headed to the most convenient BART station.
Basically, driving to the BART on the outskirts of Oakland and taking a less than ten minute BART ride into the city would save us a bunch of time because we wouldn’t get stuck in traffic on the bridge. Steve had assured us that there was a huge parking lot that rarely filled, but I don’t think he uses the BART very often…the lot was jam-packed by 8am. We parked on the street a few blocks away, hoped for the best, and walked to the station.
By this point, the nerves were really getting to me. My visa through this program was pretty much a guarantee, but my husband’s was much more up in the air and I still wasn’t quite sure what we would do if they denied his application. I desperately wished that he spoke French fluently, that we had more robust bank accounts to show them, anything to increase our chances of getting that magic approval. So when my husband tried to tell me something about the automated ticket purchase machine, I was nervous and also my stubborn self and didn’t listen. The BART tickets are a little paper card that you load with the fare amount you want and scan when you enter and exit the station. Different stops cost different amounts. We needed a total of about eleven dollars, and so I put the entire fare on one ticket because I thought it would just be debited off of the card. Nope. Each rider needs her own ticket, as the security lady smugly informed me when we tried to enter. I stood on the other side and watched Dustin struggle with the ticket machines, which, for whatever reason, absolutely refused to read either of our debit credits and five credit cards.
The BART lady seemed less and less smug the longer I stood outside her little security booth. Eventually, after five minutes or so, she came out and said, a bit annoyed, “Ma’am, can I help you?” I pointed to Dustin, who was still struggling to jam as many credit cards as he could find into this stupid ticket machine so we wouldn’t be late. “I’m just waiting for my husband, since we can’t use the same ticket. We’re from out of town and didn’t know.” I’m not really sure why I said this, because it was glaringly obvious that:
a) we didn’t know how to use the BART tickets and
b) we were from out of town – my cream colored Lucky Brand floral maxi dress and leather ballet flats were not really vibing with the scrubs and work uniforms of this commuter train station. At all.
The BART security lady then proceeded to give me the low-key kind of eye roll that adequately expresses your dissatisfaction with a customer without getting you fired. Then, she walked through her special security gate over to Dustin and helped him run the card but even she had to try more than one. So it seriously wasn’t just him…
We (somehow) made it onto the train that we’d originally planned. The BART trains are weirdly loud and claustrophobic feeling, inside and out. There are a lot of whoosh sounds, and there are people all around you inside, and walls outside every window while you’re in motion. And then somehow, in eight short minutes, we went from a parking lot in Oakland to the middle of Montgomery Street in San Francisco. We’d actually made it!
…Well, almost. Now we had to find Kearney Street and the Consulate itself. You would think that this building would have some kind of grand facade, since you have to make appointments to enter three months in advance, bring your appointment booking receipt, and go through two security guards in order to get inside. But no, the San Francisco French consulate is nestled into just another boring office building and there is no obvious sign indicating its presence from the outside. We found it without much trouble and were informed by the friendly lobby security guard that there was no way in heck we would be admitted a minute before our 9am appointment, so we ventured across the street for a coffee. The coffee shop we found was very bizarre, it had been purchased by Capital One and you received an automatic discount on your coffee for using one of their cards. While you waited for that java, you could apply for a new credit card or bank account. Handy, I guess.
We went back to the building where the consulate was to find a line of other people waiting. We let them crowd the first elevator and claimed the second for just the two of us. Dustin shook his head at me as I pressed every available elevator button on the way to our actual floor, but hey, I wanted to know what else was in this mysterious, unmarked building (answer: a lot of Bank of the West offices). When we finally arrived at our floor, we were greeted by another security guard who asked us to put our stuff on the counter and walk through the metal detector, which I set off. The security guard didn’t really care though — he just waved me through and we entered the waiting room.
I thought we’d be taken back into an office and interviewed, but instead we were told to sit and wait in what was a truly bizarre waiting room. The chairs were arranged in forward facing rows, and signs on the wall requested that we please keep our cell phones put away. It reminded me of the social security office but more of a spectacle situation — everyone in the waiting area could directly see the person having their application processed while that person stood at the glass window with one of the two Consulate employees. The processing areas looked strikingly similar to a social security office, honestly, but there were no numbers to indicate an order for those still waiting. Instead, we were forced to remember and implement some kind of order among ourselves. A test of politeness or a social experiment in civility, perhaps.
When it was finally our turn, I was truly a bundle of nerves as my husband and I approached the glass window. I, being the well trained overachiever that I am (thanks Mom…), had taken all of our documents, ordered them as indicated by the list on the consulate’s website, and organized them in glossy sheet protectors before binding each of our applications in a 3 prong folder. This way, I figured, the processing employee could simply flip through the folder and slide out any documents she needed to keep. I was trying to be helpful, but the young French woman processing our application was truly irritated by my efforts. She tossed the folders back at me and told me she would see us after I’d taken all the documents out. Of course. Sorry for trying to simplify your job, lady.
It took everything in me not to start bawling hysterically right then and there. I was fighting back real, big tears as I pulled out the documents I’d spent hours organizing. The combination of humiliation and exhaustion is consistently brutal. When we finally returned to the desk, it took all my self control not to glare at this French lady. I was exhausted, nervous, and irritated by this point. And of course, my husband tried to diffuse the tension by telling this processing woman that he “liked her meme,” aka the one that was posted on the social security office style glass between us, which was basically this with correct grammar:
This was the first time the woman actually looked at us directly, and there was a moment of awkward silence during which I kind of wanted to melt into the ground and kind of wanted to smack my husband for not being on his best, one-hundred-percent prim and proper behavior. But that was before the visa lady cracked a smile and burst into the biggest belly laugh I’ve ever heard, and literally snorted. So, I guess maybe she was just sick of everyone acting so serious all the time. She quickly looked through our papers and asked us a few very basic clarifying questions before shuffling them all back to me. Dustin asked her if everything looked good, and she said it all was in order. She took our fingerprints digitally, and then we were out of there. I have never felt such a feeling of relief — there had been months of build up to this appointment and it was finally over. I grabbed my husband’s hand and we took the BART back to Oakland, walked to our car, and drove straight back to Oregon, stopping only for a brief Chipotle break.
We resumed our normal lives only slightly preoccupied with worry that the French government would find some reason to reject us. This worry was fruitless, since our passports and visas came back to us in the mail a week and a half later. Thank goodness. I was surprised to learn that a visa is basically a fancy, computer printed sticker that they place inside one of your passport pages. I’m not sure what I imagined, but that’s not quite it. The relief of having our visas in our hands was even greater than that of leaving the Consulate in San Francisco. In short, I’m glad that’s all sorted.