The Visa Saga: One Letter Away

My adventure in Saudi Arabia has yet to get its boots on the ground, but it is no less challenging just because I’m still in the U.S. As previously written about in Clash of the Bureaucracies, the process of obtaining an employment visa to the Kingdom is long and tortuous. While that post dealt primarily with the paperwork I could obtain for myself here, this post is a summary of the one elusive document that *had* to come from Saudi itself: the Visa Block/Letter of Invitation.

This is representative of the long time during which issues continued to mount with increasing contradiction and consternation, and often long polite roundabout emails and exchanges are paraphrased for brevity and/or levity.

May 11, 2014

Welcome email, including instructions on how to log into the employee portal to fill out information and begin early training.

The link to the employee portal doesn’t work…

May 12

A Google doc with (later to be contradicted) instructions is shared with me, and a timeline which turns out to mean absolutely nothing, encouraging me to hurry hurry hurry and get my documents in line. I am warned that once Ramadan begins, everything is very slow, so we should try to get my application in before this. This doc also includes the name and address of the visa agent in DC, and an introduction letter to include when I send him my paperwork.

May 14-15

Contract received, signed and returned electronically.

May 15

A dizzying conversation about contradictions between emailed instructions, the Google doc instructions, and the Saudi Embassy website, the upshot of which I am told

“The website information takes precedent over all.  The rules and regulations tend to change drastically and unpredictably.  So always defer to the website. Our document is only a guidance – the web information is what has to be followed.”

June 7

Another reminder to log into the employee portal which is still not working…

June 10

While inquiring about the details on the very unclear Saudi Embassy website, I am told that “The original letter from the company in Saudi Arabia sponsoring the applicant, certified both by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” will be a document sent to me from Riyadh. It will be in Arabic and show your name and passport number in English.

June 18-19

I report that all my paperwork is in, and I was only awaiting the Visa Block letter from the school to be able to send off my application.

I am told this is amazing, and I am the first teacher to have all my documents in order “Gold Star!”, and I should be receiving the letter soon.

June 29

Ramadan begins.

Also, I get an email from the office in Riyadh asking to confirm my address because they have a package to send to me. Joy! I think, this must be the letter finally.

July 1

A check in email from the school, to which I respond again, I am only waiting on the letter from Riyadh.

July 7

I finally get my package away from FedEx to discover that it does not in fact contain the letter I was expecting, but rather the original contract and a photocopy document in Arabic. I email off for advice on what to do with these.

July 8

I am told to use the electronic version of the contract that I received in May.

July 9-10

Trying to sort out what this all-Arabic paper is:

Me: “This is definitely NOT an original, doesn’t seem to have my name on it, so I’m really doubtful this is the document I need.”

Them: “This could be the certificate that they are asking about. When you get ready to send your visa documents to DMS include this document.  If they need it they will have it, otherwise they won’t. I’ve also sent a note to our office in Riyadh to determine the contents of the document.  I’ll be in touch.”

Me: “I have all my other documents ready. I’m only waiting for the letter. So if that is it, I can send it now. But if it isn’t, I have to keep waiting.”

Them: “This is what the extra document is for.  You surmised correctly.”

What? Quickly review the conversation… what did I surmise? Is it the letter or not?

Riyadh Office: “This is the company’s commercial registration certificate. It was required for the visa application so we sent copies together with the original contracts to the teachers.”

Me: “Sorry, but it still doesn’t meet the requirements listed on the Saudi embassy website, I sent you a copy of the requirement. Will they send the original document with my name on it?”

Them: “They will be sending the visa slip as soon as they can get it prepared. The certificate is not always required, but occasionally.  Just send it with your visa application and all will be well.”

July 22

I had planned a cross country visit to see my family before departing. Given my earlier expectations of timeline that I would have been able to send my paperwork in June, or at least before Ramadan, or maybe the beginning of July? I had planned the trip for the end of July. So I send off an email to let the school know that if they plan on sending the letter while I’m out of town, please let me know so I can arrange for someone to receive the package.

The response: “Nice to hear from you! Hope you’re doing well and that this great adventure is appearing more and more exciting. Nothing is likely to happen between now and August 3, as the Riyadh office (and embassies) are closed for the Eid holiday.”

August 5

Another check in from the school to ask how I’m progressing on my visa application.

No really, still have all my materials, only waiting on your letter…

Great!

August 7

Another email from me to them, pleading that with only 2 weeks left until my supposed start date, there is still no sign of the letter. I cannot tell my boss when my last day is, I cannot tell my roommate when I am moving out, and my medical paperwork (that they urged me to get as soon as possible back in May) expires on August 26th!

The response: “After reading your email, I’m still trying to determine exactly what
you need. What letter of invitation?”

!!!!!

I once again refer them to the Saudi Embassy website.

Oh, that letter…. Hopefully you’ll get that this week.

August 11

Once again, they check on where I am in gathering my other materials. Once again I say, yes, have them all, have done so for over a month now, and my medical papers expire soon…

August 12

Them: Good news (addressing me by the wrong name), you should receive the letter tomorrow! We also found out that you must use this visa agent (name and address) — who is the same one from the Google doc back in May. And we’re emailing you the letter.

Me: Actually, my name is …,  and (for the Nth time) the Saudi Embassy website says “original letter”, an email doesn’t seem like that…

Them: “I think we are not sending applicants visa blocks after all because
the Saudi Consulates prefer to work only with Visa Agents.”

At this point, I believe the brain explosion could be heard several blocks away.

August 13

“Dear applicant,

Hope this email finds you will [sic].

Please confirm the name and contact information for the visa agent in your country that you would like to pass your visa application through. We have already applied for the work visas and we are expecting them sometime next week.

If you don’t have a visa agent yet, then we will be using  https://www.vfstasheel.com/ where you will need to book an online appointment with them to pass your application.

Please make sure that the visa agent that you will use is certified by the Saudi Embassy in your country. Otherwise, we can just go with  https://www.vfstasheel.com/.

We will also be sending you Wakala letters (invitation letters from sponsor), certified by the Saudi Chamber of commerce via email to support your application.

Thank you”

Ok. Nevermind the fact that I’ve twice been told what visa agent to use, if you visit this website, you’ll see that it does not have an option for Saudi Arabia listed in its services. And also, email, still not original.

August 14

It is explained to me, in further direct contradiction to several previous exchanges

-Yes, use the visa agent we told you in the beginning

-The original contract (that I was told not to send) is where the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs certifications are, so send that.

-The emailed version of the visa letter is certified, but since we’re sending original certifications on the contract, a color printout of the visa block letter is ok.

AND!

I finally got the email of the letter of invitation!

Image (4)

So, here I am, all the paperwork finally. Inshallah, unless they respond in the next few hours with some new contradiction, I will be sending the visa application to the visa agent tomorrow.

Who knows, I may actually make it the Kingdom this month. Whether I’m still sane when I get there is another matter entirely.

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Clash of the Bureaucracies

Its been a while since I’ve written. I started this blog in an attempt to get used to blogging before my Middle Eastern adventure began. I thought I’d be further into the process by now, but it seems that I underestimated the true nature of the Bureaucracy I’m facing. I wasn’t originally planning on posting about the boring steps of getting ready to go, but it’s now reached a level of absurdity, that I feel I should share. So for anyone who is planning on travelling to a country that requires paperwork to get in or get employed, enjoy the horror story and learn from my pain.

The last time I was employed overseas it was in pre-Olympics China, and all I had to do was apply for a tourist visa to get in, and then my employment visa was done in person once I arrived. The Saudi visa process for employment is especially painful, but it isn’t just Saudi Arabian Bureaucracy, its the US as well.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

I was interviewed and hired in early May. They sent over a contract which I signed and returned in mid-May. The school sent me a list of things to do to get ready, stressing how very important it was to be able to send off my visa application BEFORE June 3rd.

Things included:

1) Verifying my academic credentials – for which I had to gather official transcripts from three schools, notarized copies of my degrees, and letters from the registrar’s offices verifying my attendance to the school. The first two are a pain, but the schools and notaries are used to these requests, so still fairly standard. However, registrar’s offices are not accustomed to being asked for letters of verification that inlcued the student’s social security number. There is an online service called the Student Clearinghouse where employers or schools are supposed to go to verify attendance or degrees. So there were a couple weeks of emails and faxes trying to get these registrars to understand that I could not use this service and needed this very specific letter that someone was actually going to have to compose rather than automate.

But wait, there’s more. These then must be sent to a separate office in Virginia to be authenticated by the Saudi Cultural Mission before they can be used as part of the visa application! The Cultural Mission’s instructions say to include a pre-paid return envelope. They specifically say no FedEx account numbers, but an envelope with the official words “pre-paid” on it. By the way, FedEx doesn’t do this. UPS does pre-paid envelopes, but they don’t say “pre-paid” they just say “return label” and when dealing with language barriers and bureaucracy, I wasn’t sure that would cut it, so the poor lady at UPS and I had to come up with a way to incorporate the words “pre-paid” into the label with the very limited options the software provided, and ended up putting it on part of the address line.

2) Police report of my (lack of) arrest record – which should be simple enough: fill out and print this form and mail it in with a check. But Seattle PD sent my form and check back to me because I missed an instruction, and I had to start all over again, adding more weeks to the process. And you thought I was being paranoid about the details.

3) Medical Exam – this was the most extensive exam I’ve ever had. Not all of the materials needed could be gathered on my single visit to the office, and I had to take home a sample kit and go to another facility for a chest x-ray. I could also only get to the Dr’s office one day a week, so a week after my appointment, I drop off the sample kit. And a few days later get a call saying it was the wrong one. So the next week I go back for the right one, and a week later return that. The final results were then sent to the wrong doctor… it took a month to get the form after my initial appointment.

DoH sealBut wait, there’s more. It isn’t enough that a doctor has filled out this form in triplicate and I have two copies of the 15 pg lab report. I must get these forms stamped by the Department of Health, and this means a drive to the state capitol. This involved three hours of driving and 5 minutes of standing in an office to get three pieces of paper stamped.

I should mention here, this part of the paperwork is only valid for 90 days, in this case from the date of my initial visit on May 28th to August 26th. I have to enter the Kingdom before August 26th or this paperwork expires, and I have to do it all over again.

4) Finally, the original letter of invitation from the company itself. There are other fairly simple things involved, like the actual visa application form, and a copy of my employment contract, but those are soooo simple, I’m not going into them here. The letter of invitation is issued from Riyadh, and is a document primarily in Arabic that includes (among many other things) my name and the visa block number that the company has obtained for my use. I cannot tell you why I do not have this yet, only that it is possibly the most vexing part of the whole process.

At the end of June, I got an email from the Riyadh office confirming my address because they had a package to send me. Hooray! I thought, finally the letter. But, our FedEx delivery guy doesn’t think his job includes using the apartment buzzer on the front of the building, and instead just leaves the little note saying I wasn’t home (even though I was). This is July 3rd, so there is no way for me to get this again until after the holiday. I try to go online and request the package be taken to a drop off location instead of my apartment, but the website tells me that my address doesn’t match the address they have on file. What? So I end up sitting in the FedEx hub at 630 Monday evening waiting for the driver who won’t even try to deliver my package to bring it back so I can get it.

20140708_135334I go through all of this, open the package and find a badly photocopied document in Arabic and the original employment contract. Now, I don’t need the original contract for anything, but I thought maybe they were just sending it along with a necessary document. But as I reviewed the visa application process on the Saudi Embassy website, I noticed a couple of problems. This document was a photocopy, not an original, and it had no sign of my name anywhere on it. Just to be meticulous, I searched all the Arabic numbers (Eastern Arabic is quite different looking than “Western Arabic” numbers we use here) to see if I could find my passport number anywhere, no luck.

A couple more days of emailing with the school and I find out this is the company’s commercial registration certificate: a document I do not even need!

Now, I know I won’t loose this job over a late start that is brought on by the lack of proper paperwork, because every other teacher is in the exact same boat. In fact, the school tells me I’m well ahead of most other teachers in processing my paperwork. What? But here I am, 42 days from the expiration of my medical paperwork, 38 days from the supposed start of my job, and I haven’t even been able to apply for the visa yet, let alone make any plans for departure including flights, when my last day of work in the states should be, when I can tell my roommate I’m moving out, when I can cancel my car insurance and cell phone service, and when I can throw the all important going away party.

What’s the take-away here?

Well, first off, do your own research when planning to travel. I saw so many websites that assured me that my employer would take the lead in helping me process my visa paperwork, and while they have hired an agent to manage getting my application and fee to the embassy, they have pretty much been useless for everything else, and downright misleading in timing, since they told me to do my medical exam on or shortly after May 27th. From now on, reaearch employment visa procedures before or during job hunts rather than waiting until you’re hired and relying on the company to help.

Secondly, appreciate the lesson in patience. There is nothing like conflicting bureaucratic and corporate systems to create a seemingly endless and unnavigable obstacle course, but you are not the first person, nor even the only person right now, trying to navigate it. Your plans and dreams will only fail if you give up.

Finally, hold on to the story so that when you’ve finally made it to the destination you can look back and laugh, because it will be as nothing compared to all the new challenges you face while living and working in a new country. A little adversity makes the adventure more vibrant.