The Chai Table - 2016


India Invites. Good Luck Cracking the Visa Code

By Yesha Satish Jani

India seems to be almost synonymous with a colorful, vibrant, inviting place. It's a place full of memories, if you ever lived there, filled with cherished moments with family, friends and the bustling world you left behind. Now with this backdrop, imagine you got an invitation or you are finally able to pull together the long-awaited visit to India. It is hard to contain the excitement and joy with sheer thoughts of everything that awaits.

This is a big trip and with everything your mind is racing to do, you start thinking about carving out couple weeks of time at the very least. If this is a family trip you start juggling school and college calendars along with figuring out time off from work. You finally have everything squared away and now are ready to take the big plunge. Ticket prices range from $1200 – $2000 depending on the time of year, but this is a long-awaited trip and you fully expected that, no surprises here. Before you purchase the ticket, someone tells you, you probably should get your visa first. Good advice.

The Indian Embassy now directs you to the CKGS site which facilitates the visa processing for India. There are multiple types of visas but you are only looking for a visitor visa to allow you to go for a short 2-3 week visit. Your first stop on the CKGS website is to find complete instructions to submit a visa application and all the paperwork that may be required. This is clearly not at all easy to find on this counterintuitive website. This is the beginning of your frustration. You eventually figure out where to start and begin filling out the form for visa application. If you are now a US citizen but have had an Indian passport, you are required to renunciate your Indian passport. This adds 4-6 weeks additional processing time and fees. You fill everything out meticulously. If you submit anything out of order, you will be required to resubmit everything along with additional fees. You are told that any excess fees you submitted will be refunded. Sure, my brother has been waiting for 12 months on a refund he requested.

Someone will advise, you can now get visa on arrival. Sounds like a great option, until you call and try to confirm. The information agent in India was not sure if you would need a renunciation certificate or not when you land in India. When we called and asked what if we don't have this document, the agent did not have a clear answer if this will be a financial penalty or if they won't let you enter the country. That sounds like a pretty big risk. Hard to imagine that this process is not well documented or the agent answering the calls is not properly trained or able to communicate accurately. I am sure people use this facility with great success but, when we tried to get clarification and confirmation, his response did not give us the confidence to go down this route. By this time, you want to abandon the plan; all the excitement to visit India for 2 weeks has been drained out of you.

My mother visits India frequently and several years ago there was a provision to get a PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card. This was supposed to be a permanent card and avoids the hassle of getting visitor visa each time you visit. There are some additional privileges you get as a PIO card holder. That's a slam dunk, sure we got a PIO card for mom. As of early 2016, the PIO “scheme" was being closed out. Indian embassy generously offered ability to convert from PIO card to OCI (overseas citizen of India) card. If you converted prior to Mar 2016, the conversion fee would be waived. Well in advance of this cutoff date, I started the process to get PIO card converted to OCI. Filled out all the paperwork complete with affidavit and required notarized signatures on documents as suggested and sent to the address. I received a mail back from CKGS stating that additional paperwork was needed, which there was no mention of on the check list. The form with picture was already submitted but they required to upload the picture of the applicant online. This picture had to be specific resolution and size, a tough combination to achieve in the first place. This took significant effort and time to meet the specifications. After many attempts and juggling between IE, Chrome and FireFox, I was finally able to get the paperwork submitted online. This seems absolutely insane but anyone who has gone through this process, like me, can attest to this experience. What seemed like something I should have been able to do in 30 - 45 min took me 4 hours to accomplish. I finally received confirmation of submission. I was very frustrated with this whole process but this was behind me now and at least I would get the PIO converted to OCI and I won't have to go through this again for mom. Wrong!! I kept calling and they never acknowledged receipt of the 2nd submission, even after I gave them the confirmation number I received when I submitted it. In few weeks they sent everything back without taking any action on it. Well, everything except the refund, of course. Many months later we are still holding the PIO card which is no longer valid and there is no OCI card or valid “visa" for her to visit India at this time.

The Visa application process is so unnecessarily complicated; it blows your mind. I was concerned that if my children ever had to visit India they will give up on this process and forgo ever going to India with all these hassles. If I get an OCI card for them, hopefully that remains and they will never have to apply for visa again. So I went through the process to get OCI cards for both of them. They were both minors at that time and they had to get their US passport renewed. This requires you to get OCI card renewed unless you received your last OCI card when you were 21 or older. I am looking at this form that says OCI re-issue for new passport. The Indian Embassy has granted OCI card once already, how hard can the renewal be? I am sure by now you are fully expecting what I am about to share. This form has 25 pieces of documents they are looking for. Of course I have to send the US passport with the original OCI card which you would think should suffice for any proof that may be required. When the OCI was requested the first time, parents' proof of marriage, birth certificate, parents' naturalization certificate, renunciation proof for parents' Indian passport and all other documents requested was already provided. If there is a valid OCI card, it boggles my mind to read through these forms and see that they need all this all over again. For the minor's OCI renewal, his or her biological parents that the original OCI paperwork got filed with have not changed! It is impossible for me to understand and cannot find any logical reason why all the documentation would be required again.

While Indian culture, customs, people and food may be inviting, your first experience dealing with Indian embassy is quite the contrary. When this service was outsourced to a private company, there was great opportunity to make this process intuitive and user friendly. While CKGS may deliver sometimes, the process is definitely not consistent, repeatable or dependable. Overall user experience is extremely dissatisfactory and needs to be immensely simplified while maintaining the required due diligence for this process. I am counting on the power of unified voice to trigger action to change this for our parents, children, and ourselves.

I invite you to check out and sign the petition on Change.Org and search for “Simplify India Visa Processing". Also check out another similar petition on change.org for “Simplify OCI Update Process for NRIs."

www.change.org/p/cox-and-kings-global-services-sim...