Over brunch yesterday, discussion ranged from recent travels and travel plans, movies, weird emails and youtube videos, and food wastage (we could still see the immense mounds of shellfish that wasn't consumed after the buffet was closed). Having members of an embassy among the group also meant some talk ended up revolving around matters of security, visa applications, visa fees, and secondary screening.
First I was relieved to hear from a friend that the renewal of passports over at the Department of Foreign Affairs is not as onerous as I had heard. I've had my last three passports renewed by simply sending it off through the travel agency. Now, I will have to go to the DFA and have my fingerprints taken. But she assured me that she wasn't there for more than an hour, plus everything else went by quickly.
Secondly, the new US visa fee rates in January of this year (an increase from $100 to $135 for non-immigrant applications) caused a few folks to grumble, but as explained by those in the know, most of the embassies are suffering a deficit due to the US dollar weakening against several currencies - including the peso. Most of the embassies don't get consul salaries from congressional funds, so that extra $35 goes towards paying off salaries and services. If the US was not such a high traffic destination, the fees would probably be higher. Luckily, more people are getting multiple year visas again (I'm only referring to tourists here, not any other category), so that extra $35 is spread out again over 5 to 10 years. I still shudder thinking about reapplying for the visa in 2 years however. The stress and the worry are enough to go through once in a lifetime, not every year or few years.
Then a friend told us of his recent experience with secondary security clearance crossing back into the US from Canada. He drove from Toronto into Detroit and was asked to step aside at the border crossing. After being interrogated about his trip, he was given the clearance to re-enter, but was curious about why he had been stopped. He travels to the US so often and this was the first time he'd ever been reviewed so strictly. And the answer he got? His hair had changed from the picture on his passport, it was no longer slicked back, but a bit shorter and spikier. Hmm. I've heard of silly, but that seems a bit myopic. Of course, one person in the table then rejoined about the overly meticulous requirements at a Northern European country's embassy that specifies how much space one needs to allocate between the frame of the photo and the top of the head and sides of the face. To the millimeter! Ok, they make great cars, but who is going to have an aneurism if the margin is off by .05mm?
Finally, the last bit on this thread of talk yesterday ended when I learned of the popularity of blogging about US visa applications in China; the typical discussion is which consul to look for when in line, hoping to get the kind hearted, generous one who never rejects applicants. Here in the Pinas, a long-standing urban visa application myth has been the cruel and heartless Korean lady consul who rejects everyone. In China, they have their own share of cruel, heartless consuls of specific traits (the red headed one, the Asian lady, etc). Unfortunately for anyone trying to line up for the sweet lolo who gives everyone a visa, those stories are never true, there isn't a quota, and it's more like a bank line, when they press the button and your number comes up, you don't get to choose which consul to adjudicate.
(we also discussed the many g/i ailments one gets living the diplomatic life; it is definitely the opposite of glamor!)