Getting the Visa

My student visa from 1990 when I attended culinary school in Paris.

Of the long list of things to accomplish before we can move to France, getting approved for  a Long-Stay Visa is one of the most important.  We took the first step in that process earlier this month when we made an appointment with the French Visa office in San Francisco. We had already filled out the preliminary forms on-line but the next step is an in-person meeting at the nearest office.  Here we go!

The process of getting my Student Visa in 1990 taught me a couple things about dealing with French bureaucracy.  First, be patient, don’t get upset and keep an upbeat attitude. Second, remember 1) when your application goes way off track and you feel like going over the counter at some annoying clerk.

I remember arriving in Paris in August 1990 with my temporary visa in hand and excited to start cooking classes at Ferrandi.  As instructed by the French Consulate in Seattle, during my first week in Paris, I headed to an address out past the last metro stop at La Chapelle where I was to request and receive my Carte de Sejour, the official document that gives students the right to live in France.   The interior of the building was what I imagine a first view of Ellis Island must have been like in the 1880’s, a vast hall with row after row of benches filled with visa seekers from every part the the world. There must have been 500 people in front of me in line!  Fortunately, after waiting for 20 minutes in line, I discovered that there was a special window for student visas, where only about 20 people were waiting.  Long story short, when I got to the front, the list of documents demanded by the woman working was completely different than the list I have been given to bring.  I trooped off to seek the new list of documents, only to return a week later and be told by a different clerk that I needed still different documents.  I finally asked the name of this person so when I came back with the list they had requested, I could speak to them directly and not risk someone else’s list.  Whew!  Then I still had to travel across town for a medical exam, but that is a whole other story!

With high hopes of a Much Simpler process this time, full of optimism but also prudence, we headed to San Francisco.

We arrived 15 minutes early for our Visa Application Appointment, which was in a lovely neo-Gothic building located at 110 Sutter Street.  The staff was friendly, but no nonsense;  it was clear that, if you didn’t have all the documents requested, things would turn much less friendly quickly.  I have to say, as a technology skeptic, I love the old school way that French bureaucracy works…there is an obsession with having hard copies of everything and one could believe that the process hasn’t changed that much in the last 200 years.   The clerk filled out longhand a number of forms that described why we were requesting a visa then gathered all our accompanying documents.  She then pulled out a brand new dossier folder (you know the kind with the fold-over flap that is secured with an elastic band) to it all.  The final file, which would be sent to the French Consulate in Washington DC, must have weighed four pounds. She finished by putting a sticky label on the front and filling it out by hand with a felt tip marker.  I can only imagine that there must be a French government warehouse somewhere filled with row after row of shelves holding the millions of such dossiers representing every person who has ever applied for a French visa.

The final step is fingerprinting and having photos taken.  Our dossiers were complete.  Now we wait and see if we get our Visas.  The official line is that we should have our visas in 15 business days, but the person who filed our application warned us that not much gets done during the holidays, so we should be prepared to wait longer. Very French.



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