"Sorry, I cannot accept your visa application because I do not have your past five years of income tax returns in Uganda, and I have no guarantee that you will leave Japan once you land there." The visa officer closed his window as he dismissed my plea for accepting my application.
This would have been the third time I had gone to Japan. I had no reason to seek refugee status there. It'd have been for a two-day trip to deliver a workshop for a top local airline. While I had a residency permit in Uganda in 2013, I had never worked there and did not have any local tax returns to attach to my application.
I immediately started thinking of alternatives. Alternatives that I always needed in the back of my pocket.
After all, jumping through hoops to obtain visas was something I was used to since I was born with an Indian passport. I travelled to 65 countries on it, almost all of which required me to apply for a visa.
Applying for a South African visa in Uganda, check. Applying for two Russian transit visas in Singapore, check. Filling up a 17-page application for a New Zealand visa in Washington DC, check. Finding a notary to certify I exist for a Saudi visa in Ottawa, check. Paying over $2000 for a "rush" visa to the UK, check.
The Global Passport Index, ranks the Indian passport's power at 72. It gives visa-free or on-arrival visa access to just 73 countries. Compare this with the Japanese or British passports, which give visa-free or eVisa access to 171 countries.
Unfortunately, the complexity of applying for visas is something that citizens in much of the developing world have had to deal with for decades.
The visa application process requires seeking appointments with either the embassy or a representative agent. The earliest appointment may be available within days in a well-connected country like Singapore. However, there are stories of Indian nationals looking for an appointment to apply for a US visa at the Delhi consulate that was a year out.
I once met a person in the queue ahead of me who had flown five hours to apply for his visa, only to realize that he would not get it back in time and was devastated since he would miss his work orientation in the UK.
Depending on the country I wanted to visit, I'd have to submit anywhere from 20 to 50 pages of documents at the appointment. These could include everything from my notarised birth certificate to three years of income tax returns and photocopies of visas from expired passports. The more desirable the country, the more documents are required. Even if a single document were missing, I'd usually need to reschedule the appointment and come back another day.
A Schengen visa or a US visa would also require biometrics and fingerprinting. If everything went well, I could submit the documents and wait for a call back to pick up my passport a couple of weeks later.
At collection, I'd anxiously flip through the pages till I got to the visa. Was it multiple-entry? Was it valid for more than 90 days? Either of these would save me the trouble of applying for another one for the same country.
Over time, I learnt hacks to save me some effort.
Always apply for a Schengen visa at a Dutch embassy for the highest chance of getting a two-year, multiple-entry visa. Always apply for a US visa in Singapore for a 10-year entry permit. Check which countries give visa-free access based on a US or Schengen visa - like Turkey and UAE - then plan to travel there.
There were a few visa applications that were a breeze. The Australian visa was handed to me a few minutes after I walked into the high commission in Singapore. The South African visa required an application but was free for Indians. St Kitts and Nevis allowed me to enter based on a valid UK visa in my passport.
Ultimately, did I make it to Japan? Yes indeed.
It required me to fly from Kampala to Dubai to Singapore, where I applied for a "rushed" Japanese visa. I received it the next day and headed straight to the airport to board my flight to Osaka.
Applying for visas is a reality for most of the world's citizens. A reality that the lure of cheap flights cannot drown. The eVisas launched by countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey ease the process. But it's far from fair.
There's a reason why you're unlikely ever to meet a South Asian backpacker. It's because of the visa.
This article is a guest post written for sherpa° by Shashank Nigam, Founder & CEO of SimpliFlying.