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I’m an avid traveler, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But as any good traveler knows all too well, you unfortunately just can’t hop on a plane and go anywhere you wish without the proper planning and paperwork (well, you can, if you’re willing to be sent back or fined in some cases). As much as I detest it, many countries and regions require a special visa, and all of that depends on your nationality. Some are as easy as filling out a quick online form, and others require tons of paperwork and appointments that last for months (dare I say it, even years?!). Before traveling anywhere, it is crucial to do your research and make sure you have all of the required documents, copies, translations, etc.
In addition, it is important to look at the amount of time you plan to be abroad. For example, as an American, I can go to Europe without a visa (as long as I have a return ticket back to the States within a certain period of time). However, if I stay longer than 90 days without a special visa, I can get in big trouble. That’s the same for most people in Europe coming to America (well, technically Europeans need to fill out a quick online form). Don’t ask me why, but the laws exist.
So, as an American, how have I stayed in Europe so long? I’m now on my 4th year living in beautiful Barcelona, and loving every moment! But how did I do it?
Well… it’s complicated. And each year brought a new challenge and hoop to jump through. However, I thought it’d be helpful to lay out how I was able to live in Spain for that first year, for anyone who may be interested in a similar opportunity.
After I graduated from university, I was dead set on moving abroad for a year. I originally had planned for China, but chickened out at the last minute (I still regret it). After doing a ton of research, I eventually found a program as a “conversational assistant” in Spain. I thought “hey, this’ll help me brush up on my Spanish!” which I had been trying to learn (and failing miserably) for many years. Unfortunately, in my experience the pay and benefits aren’t as good for many programs in Europe vs in Asia (for example, they don’t pay for flights), but I thought it’d be a good stepping stone so that the culture shock wouldn’t be so intense.
I applied and interviewed for the program in Spain and was accepted. While I was absolutely thrilled, I had no idea about all of the bureaucracy I was about to get myself into.
Making an Appointment at the Consulate
No matter what program you apply for, they should send you some aide in the form of a guidebook or something similar with regards to the visa process. It is incredibly important to get started as soon as possible – procrastinate, and you’ll lose your opportunity and quite likely a ton of money. My program advised getting an appointment with the local consulate ASAP, which they warned could take time. That way, when I finally had my documents, I could just waltz on in and hand them over (in the beginning, the process sounded super easy… boy, was I wrong!).
I googled “Spanish Consulate” and found that the nearest one for me was in Los Angeles. I was very lucky that I only needed to commute about 1.5 hours to arrive (and I was already annoyed at that). I later heard of other people in my same program who had to travel across a few states just to get to their nearest consulate – insane!
I tried to navigate the Consulate website to find where I could make appointments, but found two different links… the first one wanted me to pay 6 euros to make an appointment, which didn’t sit right with me. The second one just allowed me to log-in and search for an appointment. That’s where I ran into my first problem: the soonest I could make the appointment was over 2 months later, in August. Just a month before the program start date.
I immediately became discouraged. I was told that the visa could take 4-6 weeks to be mailed back, which wouldn’t work for me. How would I know that the visa would even be approved? When should I buy the plane ticket, before or after I got the visa back? Plane tickets seemed to increase each week, mirroring the anxiety I was feeling. I started emailing my program and the consulate trying to see if there was anything I could do to speed up the process. Unfortunately, there was nothing… I just had to wait and cross my fingers. I’ll say it again – make your appointment ASAP! It was honestly one of the most stressful periods of my life. Since I had no choice, I made the appointment and got to work getting all of my documents together.
I started gathering the things I needed for my visa appointment (based upon a very vague checklist on the Consulate website). The requirements were a lot more extensive than I had anticipated (these were the requirements in 2014 for a Spanish visa. It may differ from current requirements – do your research!), but I began ticking them off one by one:
- Application Form + Copy… Easy peasy.
- 2 Passport Type Photos… Thanks, Costco.
- Passport + Copy… No problemo. Just make sure your passport doesn’t expire during your expected time abroad!
- ID + Copy… So far, my confidence as to how easy this process would be was through the roof.
- Official Acceptance Letter + Copy w/ Program Details… I thought this would be no problem until I realized the letter my program had sent me had my middle name misspelled. When I contacted them about this, they said they wouldn’t be able to get me a new one until after my visa appointment… Awesome. Check your documents carefully! Thankfully, it didn’t turn out to be a problem for me, but it could’ve easily gone the other way.
- Evidence of Funds… This was a bit tricky for me, but it was vaguely addressed in my Acceptance Letter from the program. Depending on your program, it might show that you will receive a certain amount of money each month to cover your expenses. Or sometimes you can just show you have enough in your bank account.
- Proof of Health Insurance… My program offered insurance, but the consulate website listed a whole bunch of requirements regarding deductibles, minimum coverage, etc… Unfortunately, the letter of insurance from my program didn’t really mention anything about the deductibles and this fact was brought up to me during the visa appointment. I was extremely lucky that they accepted it anyways, but I would definitely try to go in more prepared.
- Medical Certificate + Translation into Spanish… Now, this is where the real trouble began for me. It seemed simple enough- get a doctor to sign a paper saying that I was okay to travel and that I wasn’t a threat to public health. However, I could not get an appointment with my primary doctor until after my visa appointment (again, I reiterate – do everything ASAP, even if you think it won’t be an issue!). Read the next section for more information on this fiasco.
- Certification of “Absence of Police Records” + Copy… At first, I did not realize how incredibly intense this process would be. Not only did I have to go and get fingerprinted ($100), I had to get it sent to the FBI ($70), sent back to me, and then send it right back out again to the Secretary of State in D.C. to get it Apostilled (I had never even heard that word before; another $55). This entire process could take over 2 months, but in order to have it all done by my appointment I had to expedite everything. The night before my appointment, I noticed it also said (jumbled in the middle of a huge yet vague paragraph) they needed a translation of the FBI Background Check & the Apostille. I panicked, of course, and pulled up google translate and dusted off my rusty Spanish skills and did my best to translate the documents myself and hope for the best. Luckily for me, they didn’t require the legit translation until I actually arrived in Spain! Hoorah! But do NOT make this same mistake – they practically laughed at me when they saw my awful translation job. There are many relatively cheap and official translation sites where they can do it for you.
- Visa Fee… Another $160
- Prepaid Express Envelope… $20
After realizing that I couldn’t rely on my primary care doctor, I decided to try going to an Urgent Care Center to see if any of them could do the medical certificate for me. I called many of the centers beforehand and a lot of them told me they could do it, but then when I arrived they found a reason why they couldn’t: you’re an HMO, you don’t have an official form (the consulate didn’t provide one), “we don’t feel comfortable doing that since you’re not our patient,” etc. I went to about 8 different Urgent Care Centers (and called at least 20) and I started to think that all hope was lost.
Not only that, but when I emailed the consulate with a question about the translation of the medical certificate, they informed me that the certificate had to be translated by a certified translator and notarized. Where in the world would I find someone to do that on short notice? I couldn’t find anyone online with an official certification number (I later learned that there are various certified online translation centers that can do this relatively quickly).
Finally, I found one Urgent Care Center that told me they’d be happy to do the form for me, and it was only $35! I was ecstatic until I went in and showed them the checklist I was doing… the receptionist said “Oh… we don’t actually have a M.D. in office. We only have a P.A. It specifically says here it has to be an M.D. who signs this.”
Time was running out, and I finally decided that that was my only option. I paid, went into the P.A.’s office, and waited. I heard the receptionist and P.A. discussing everything outside, and yet again the problem of there being no official form (and no M.D.) came up. It sounded as if they were about to change their mind, and my anxiety went through the roof… Not good for someone trying to convince a stranger that they are safe to travel!
Finally, the P.A. came into the room, asked a few questions, and revealed that she actually taught for a couple years abroad and understood how frustrating the process could be. She looked up the website and did her best to make a form, and even went above and beyond by having her receptionist (who spoke Spanish) translate it. Since it was written on-site by a native Spanish speaker, there was no longer a need for an official translation. Even better… she took the form next door to an M.D.’s office and got her to sign it. Voila! She was an absolute godsend, and I felt truly lucky.
The Moment of Truth: Appointment Day
By the grace of God, I actually got everything together by the day of my appointment. In the confirmation email, it told me that the appointment would last 10 minutes (crazy to think that 10 minutes would determine whether or not my dream would come true) and to be on time otherwise the appointment would be cancelled. I was, per my usual self, an hour early and found out that the appointments were all running over 2 hours behind. All of the people scheduled before me were anxiously pacing back and forth in the small hallway (I soon joined them).
There wasn’t a private room for the appointments, just a single window with a lady behind glass asking for documents. Everyone could hear what was being said. The majority of the people were turned away because they forgot a copy of this or that and dread started filling my gut. Hours later, with only a couple people left waiting, my name was called. I was so nervous I was shaking as I passed the papers to her. After she asked some questions and collected it all, she gave me the same spiel I had heard her give to only 3 or 4 other people out of all of the appointments: “You can expect your passport back in 2-3 weeks. When you get to Spain, you have 1 month to bring the Apostille, FBI Background Check, and translations to a local police department. Any questions?”
Me, feeling an intense happiness emerge: “So… does that mean my visa is approved?”
Her: “I don’t know. You have all of the documents, so I don’t see why you wouldn’t be but you won’t really know until we send it to Spain for review and then we send it back to you.”
Me: “Oh… well, I just don’t know if I should book my flight yet? Do you think I should, even though the approval isn’t a guarantee?”
And with that, I was off. I was elated, and felt like I could scream.
The Adrenaline Crash & Reality Check
Within an hour of leaving the appointment, my excitement began to wear off and the anxiety came back. I had heard stories of people being denied a visa for a small technicality. Most flights were nonrefundable, and I had already spent so much money on the visa process. What if I went ahead and bought the ticket, only to find out I was denied? I decided to wait, but as the days passed and the program date came closer, the anxiety thickened in my stomach. Who waits until the last minute to buy a plane ticket to Europe? Every few days I checked the tracking number for the return envelope I provided that they’d be sending my passport (and, hopefully, visa) back in, but it kept saying it hadn’t been sent out yet.
Finally, after having a rough day, I decided to give it another go but didn’t really feel confident. To my surprise, it informed me that the package had been sent out of LA just 2 hours before. The express shipping guarantees 1 day.
I could barely sleep that night, and when I could, I dreamt of all of the possible scenarios… approval, rejection, and only God knows what else. I woke up early and checked the mailbox every 15 minutes (of course the mailman was late that day).
Finally, around noon, I went out to the mailbox and saw a bunch of mail… but not my package. In its place was one of those orange “Sorry we missed you” notices. I panicked and looked for the mailman all up and down my street. I literally ran around my neighborhood until I found him, explained how important the package was as I gasped for breath. Thankfully he was very kind and handed me my package. I couldn’t handle the wait, I ripped it open right in the middle of the street, and there it was… my passport… with an approved Spanish visa!
I was literally jumping up and down for joy. I ran back home, booked my flight for the following month (which I had been eyeing for the last month), and it was official… I would be living in Spain!
Fast forward 4 years, and I’m still here! Who would’ve thought? However, I still think back to those torturous days of trying to get all of the documents together. It is definitely a hassle, but it was so worth it in the end!