Thursday, December 4, 2008

What a Racket

Up until now, I’ve never traveled to a country for which a visa was necessary and I was unfamiliar with the process. Prior to leaving for Kenya, the Washington, DC office of PSI applied for a multi-entry visa to Kenya for $100, allowing unlimited entries and exits for 6 months. When my visa arrived, I was surprised to see that not only was just a stamp on a random passport page, but that it was a single entry and expired in 90 days. That meant that a new visa would have to be obtained so that I would not become an illegal alien for the latter half of my assignment. Cost? Another $100.

Visas can either be obtained at the point of entry such as an airport, or ahead of time from the country’s local embassy. It’s better to get them prior to travel as one can then bypass the long line at the airport, and avoid any unscrupulous immigration officer looking to make a little money on the side. I’m fortunate in that my Kenyan office takes care of visas in advance by sending passports, required documentation (usually photographs and forms) and money with Alex the Cab Driver directly to the embassy. I suspect it takes a great deal of his day and he’s at one embassy or another nearly every day.

The other interesting thing about visas is that they must be paid for in US dollars. I hadn’t appreciated how handy dollars would be (Zanzibar prefers dollars over its local currency) and I had only brought a few hundred dollars with me to Kenya. Although PSI pays for visas related to business travel, often the need for a speedy visa trumps the ability of the finance office to provide cash, and there is a mad collection of dollars from everyone in the office. My $300 has been passed back and forth many times since I’ve been here - I should charge interest!

Visa fees vary widely country to country as well as by the nationality of the passport holder. US and UK citizens usually pay the most of all citizens. Single entry visas cost less than multiple entry visas and long-term multi-entry visas, cost the most. “Long-term” in this case is generally just one year. The process is structured in a way that not only is there a constant revenue stream, but also an opportunity for corruption. If an immigration officer decides to retain your passport or deny you entry even though your paperwork is in order, you don’t have much recourse but to pay a “fee.”

My trip to Uganda in October was a relative bargain at $50 for a single entry. My single entry for Tanzania cost $100. Most surprising, the visa for my trip to Zambia, one of the poorest countries on the continent, has one of the most expensive visas at $135. UK citizens must pay $150. What I can’t understand is where all this money goes. Between visas, airport taxes, departure taxes and high airfares, travel in Africa is unexpectedly expensive. Next time, I’m going to spend six months in Europe where I can hop on a RyanAir flight for $50 and not experience any further extortion.

1 comment:

Tory said...

Hi Marge -

That sounds like our experience in Russia. US dollars (they know the "new" 20s from the "old" - and prefer the new) and "gifts" like Whitman's samplers and Drambuie go a long, long way.