I have such a love/hate relationship with visas. They can be a real pain to get, but they let you live in magical places. They also make your passport look really cool. Working with study abroad students for almost 3 years, I have had to figure out my fair share of visa applications and processes. Not to mention, I have also had to process my own Italian visa for my study abroad in 2014. The only thing that can be said as the same for every single visa is that there are no similarities. Every single process is different, from the paperwork that is required down to the literal processing timeline. The Italian visa may not be exactly the same as your visa process, but I hope that my explanations can calm some fears, and aid in understanding of the basic elements. I have worked with students who simply need to go online, pay a fee and put in a little basic information. I have also experienced processes that require people to travel and appear in person with a 50 document application. Therein lies the love affair with visas.
The Italian study visa can be incredibly daunting at the beginning. When I first looked at the list of requirements in 2014, I was immediately overwhelmed. The key to any visa process is patience, focus on taking it bite by bite. A good first step is to go through and figure out the process overall, where is your consulate, what are their requirements for paperwork and what does the process timeline look like. Anything that is going to take time should be the first priority.
For the Italian visa, I fall under the Consulate of San Francisco’s jurisdiction and they require you to apply in person. The only loophole to keep from traveling to California for a 30 minute interview is the use of Honorary Consulates. An Honorary Consulate is an approved representative that can witness and execute an application. After this meeting, it is still the applicant’s responsibility to send the full application to the main consulate for final background checks and processing, but it can mean less travel time. For my study abroad visa, I took a day trip to Portland, this time I headed to Salt Lake City.
In my experience, consulates can be difficult to contact. Whether that if cultural or simply the norm, I am not sure. However, do not be afraid to badger the office to get your appointment. This is a time sensitive and vital piece to your experience abroad, they know that. After your appointment is booked with the correct parties, it is time to organize and collect paperwork. Again approach it with time as a primary concern. Most visas will require information from many different parties. For Italy, my primary concern is always my letters. The study visa requires a letter from the institution you are attending, in original form and in Italian. For study abroad, there are also letters required from your home institution and the program provider. Those must be mailed to you in original form, so requesting them early is important.
Next are your personal responsibilities. You must ensure your passport is valid for the correct amount of time (normally 3-6 months after your return to the US) and has a set number of blank visa pages available. Additionally the visa application, photos, proof of residency in the jurisdiction (Driver’s license or school ID), are all common elements. Many visas have a fee attached that changes each quarter to reflect exchange rate changes. These are some of the easiest elements to gather, but each will have special requirements so make sure all boxes are checked accordingly.
There will also be elements that define your abilities as a recipient of a study visa. For example in Italy, with the exception of programs over 365 days, you must provide round trip flight itineraries. These countries want to ensure that you are not coming on a student visa and planning on staying forever. Many times you can get away with showing the flights exist and do not need to provide proof of purchase. When working with students who are not sure if they will travel after their semester abroad we work with this loophole. Simply going online to an international airline, putting in the required dates and screen grabbing the flight information will suffice.
You can also be required to prove that you will have health insurance in the country to ensure that you aren’t moving to a nation with socialized medicine, simply to use the state for your own health. Most study programs supply this as a part of tuition and will provide a letter supporting that. You could have to sign an affidavit in front of a notary stating that you will purchase health insurance within a set time of entering the country. Proof of lodging follows these lines as well, usually in the form of a letter with an address. In my experience, most programs add a line about this into your admission letter and it suffices.
Proof of finances is always important when it comes to visas. The countries that require this information want to ensure again that you aren’t attempting to come into the country on a study visa and really are going to take a job. You must provide through one avenue or another that you have a set amount of money to live on while studying. For Italy that magic number is $1000 USD per month. This can be from your personal account, financial aid, or someone supporting you. The funny thing with Italy is that you don’t actually have to show that you have access to that money during your term abroad, simply that it is there. Odd, but quite helpful. Required documentation for proof can be a bank statement, letter, or affidavit of support. These documents need to be quite specific, so it is important to pay attention.
Finally, mailing this whole packet after your appointment to the consulate. Easily the most nerve-racking part of the whole process. You simply mail off all of this information that you have worked so hard to gather. Oh ya, and your passport. (I know my stomach just flipped too.) All I can say, is it is worth the $25 per Express USPS envelope that you pay for, trust me. I have sent mine off a few times now, and (knock on wood) its been ok. You will have to send it off in one, and purchase another to address for the passport with your new visa to be sent back to you.
It’s a really weird process and can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks so allow plenty of time. This is also a time to practice being a flexible traveler. Even though you are just trying to follow the rules to enter into their country, they have the right to deny it. The regulations are outlined specifically for a reason, so it is important to follow them to the letter. I know that I am currently waiting on pins and needles for my approval. There was one phrase regarding my residency address that I was told would most likely pass but could deny the application. It is hard to not get frustrated but important to simply know you have done all you can and will deal with whatever you need to as it comes.
I promise, it is a lot easier than it sounds. Super daunting, yes, but that pretty new sticker in your passport is your key to long term living abroad. Last time, it meant I got a five glorious months in Italy, this time I get over a year. There are so many elements of moving abroad that can easily become very frustrating and defeating. However, the end goal should always be in your mind. I know that a huge part of the relief I felt when I was accepted to the program was because I knew this meant I would get a visa to live in Italy for over a year. So when I get frustrated and overwhelmed I remind myself that I would kill to feel this way had I not been accepted. Instead of viewing every little hiccup as a mountain, challenge yourself to be flexible and appreciated the lessons.
Stay Hungry my Friends!
-The Very Hungry Traveler