Permission to Come Abroard

Imagine my daughter and I near Farrer Road MRT station, blinking in the sunlight and saying, “Well. That’s that then.” Not exciting? It was to us. We have just, you see, submitted our Indian Visa applications. If for nothing except my own, future reference, let me describe how we got started, how we finished, and how we consoled ourselves along the way.

How To Start Applying for an Indian Visa (especially if you live in Singapore, but even if you don’t)

Indian bureaucracy is like bureaucracy everywhere, but scaled to size. A geographically impressive, heavily populated, culturally diverse size. We like to think of the Indian visa process as a little test of our ability to enjoy India itself.

It crossed my mind.

It crossed my mind.

The High Commission of India in Singapore farms the application process out to several agencies, and we chose VFS, because, well, better the devil you know. The first step is to submit an online application. Actually, no, the first step is to tell your web browser to make a security exception so that you can access the online application site, which is an external site to which the VFS site will redirect you. Then you have to click through a couple more links until you get to the online application. Then you can submit an online application.

No, scratch that. The FIRST step is to go and get your photo taken. Make sure it conforms to their guidelines, and scan it into your computer, adjusting it carefully to a size of between 350 x 350 pixels and 1000 x 1000 pixels, and ensuring that the resulting image is perfectly square, greater than 10KB and less than 100KB. Then decide which hotel address you’re going to put down.

Then compile all your national and residential identity documents; any documents supporting name changes, changes of nationality, or dual nationality; your employment details (including company name, job title, addresses and phone numbers) and any paperwork pertaining to your entitlement to live and/or work in your country of residence; the name and contact details of a personal reference in your country of application; details of any previous Indian visas you may have held (including your previous address in India as stated on your application for those visas… although if you really can’t remember I have got away with just writing the city of entry); a list of all the places you’ve previously visited in India; a list of all the countries you’ve visited anywhere in the world over the last ten years; specific details pertaining to trips taken within any SAARC countries or connections to Pakistan; any information pertaining to present or past military involvement, in any capacity; and the nationalities, past nationalities, and birth places of both of your parents and your spouse.

Then you can submit an online application. After that, it’s easy.

How To Finish Applying For An Indian Visa

Most of the form is straightforward – but if you have any trouble, I found an excellent guide (this guide does not exactly match the form I was presented with, but differences were both minor and irrelevant). I’d also advise printing a copy of any e-tickets for any flights, hotels or tours you may have booked, and perhaps any other durable paperwork you may have pertaining to your birth, your marriage, your education, your career, or your status as a consumer of basic utilities.

Now take a moment to consider your look:

A white top, denim skirt, comfy shoes and umbrella stroller combine to complete my "I'm just an innocent mother with no time to properly groom my eyebrows" impression.

A white top, denim skirt, comfy shoes and umbrella stroller combine to complete my “I’m just an innocent mother with no time to properly groom my eyebrows much less get up to threatening mischief” vibe.

Then all you need to do is take everything, including the printed application form and your passport photos, down to the agency with a wad of cash and sit back to hear what you could possibly have missed. It’ll probably be either the signature on the front of your form under where you stick your photo, or the extra fees which are added to the basic visa fee (shown at the very bottom of the web page on fees).

If you don’t have equipment like printers, passport photo booths or internet, a shop across the road from the Rangoon Road branch of VFS acts as a full-service visa assistance post, allowing you to do things like photocopy everything that was ever important to you in life, or access and print whatever you’ve put in the cloud.

Points to note if you’re living overseas from your country of citizenship

Don’t forget your fax form [pdf]. The “permanent” address on your fax form needs to be “your” address in your country of citizenship.

If you have been living in a foreign country as an expat for less than two years, you should make enquiries waaaaaay ahead of time. This is because your visa will need to be issued by the Indian consulate in your country of citizenship, not residence. I was successfully granted a visa as an Australian passport holder recently arrived in the UK some eleven years ago, but it took five or six weeks with an in-person application and interview in London. I would like to hope that the process has been smoothed a little, but I wouldn’t bet your air tickets on it. If you’re not currently resident anywhere, it may get especially tricky.

If you are an expat who meets the two-year residency requirement that makes things easier, but you should still allow a week or so of extra processing time compared to someone who is living in their country of citizenship.

Of course, if you’re from one of the lucky eleven countries whose citizens are eligible for visa on arrival, you’re all set. India has now started issuing visas on arrival at Bangalore International Airport (and several others), provided you hold a passport from the right place (sadly for us – no, despite the assurances of a random patron from Kerala at our local kopitiam a couple of weeks ago). If it was me, I’d check ahead of time to see what details they’ll be asking for at the immigration desk, though.

Yay! You're finished!

Yay! You’re finished!

Remember: It Could Be Worse

If it sounds complicated, well, it is, a bit – but not as complicated as my previous experiences. The first time I applied for an Indian visa I was living in London, and I had to trot myself down to the High Commission of India in London and fight my way to the front of the chaotic outside “queue” so the young woman on the counter could provide me with several forms, which I duly filled out and (after further maneuvreing around my fellow applicants) allowed her to review. She then gave me a number for the inside queue and the security guard let me past.

The indoor queue turned out to be something of an illusion, however. After about forty-five minutes my number had come and gone and I’d presented myself at several counters without success. Finally, I managed to get my audience with the people behind the screens, who promptly told me I’d been given all the wrong forms and sent me back outside. By the time I’d got back to the indoor queue, a young English guy was sitting in the spot next to the only remaining seat looking flustered and a little annoyed.

“This is madness,” he said. “It’s just so loud and chaotic and I’ve been sitting in the middle of it for over half an hour. At least my queue number’s up next.”

“Well, I do sympathise with you,” I said gently, “but actually the next counter’s mine.” And I told him my story, much as I’ve relayed it to you, finishing with the bit where I’d been instructed to make for the next available counter without taking a new ticket for the indoor queue.

My companion lapsed into a thoughtful silence until his number was called, whereupon he overcame the weight of roughly twenty-five years of solid, British cultural conditioning to leap out of his chair like a starter at Flemington and pounce upon the next available counter like a famished tiger whose… Well you get the idea. India was gnawing away at him already.

Like a balmless tiger, perhaps. Famished, and balmless.

Like a balmless tiger, perhaps. Famished, and balmless.

The last time I got an Indian visa the process was even more drawn out. In an elegant display of buck-passing, the agency sent me to the High Commission whose various officers sent me away no less than three times with demands for more and different paperwork (yes, I know it’s logically implied, but we need it explicitly stated… alright, that’s a nice statement, but when we said “state government” we really meant a specific – and, as it turns out, different – department of said government, and by the way that thing we asked you to go to a great deal of trouble to provide us with last time is completely irrelevant…) before finally issuing me with an entirely different type of visa from the one I’d requested, which I picked up less than twelve hours before my flight.

(Perhaps it was on the basis that one of my long-lost great uncles spent his working life in the churches of India nearly seventy years ago that they issued me with a document which, according to some sources (like the high commission of India’s visa information website), is usually reserved for non-resident Indians. They did, after all, have about five hundred years’ worth of my family history by then.)

I got my visa both times, unlike the person who was refused one for not having any visible identification marks (easily, if painfully, fixed, I suppose?) and on neither occasion did I feel literally homicidal, as has happened even to yoga practitioners.


Yay. I’m finished.

We hope to collect our visas next week. Wish us luck! And as always, please add anything I’ve missed (or at least share your own tribulations).

Update: three of us got our visas without further ado. One of us got someone else’s visa without further ado (the visa of a man named Stefan, who was of a different agegroup, hair colour/style, face shape and nationality, and had applied for a different kind of visa, but was otherwise the same in every respect in that he was also a white male who wanted to go to India).  When I pointed this out they fixed him up with the right visa within twenty-four hours so all good.

Bonus tip, though: avoid the visa agency on a Friday night. Go at any other time. Any other time.