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COLUMN: The process of getting a student visa



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The Eiffel Tower in March is pictured from the top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Hannah Reed Buy Photos

For study abroad students, the visa application can be pretty traumatizing. 

One, if you’re an American citizen, it may be the only time in life when you struggle getting government documentation. And two, if you’re bad at paperwork, it’s the only thing separating you from all your study abroad dreams.

But have no fear because I, a proud student visa owner, can share my story and guide you through it step by step.

1. Fight the urge to cancel your trip

Let’s rewind to my own visa appointment day, back in June. I arrived at the French Consulate, a small office building buried around the corner of Central Park. Inside, a security guard greeted me. 

If I looked at my phone, he said, I’d be asked to leave. If I needed the time, know that there were no clocks. If I hadn’t brought three copies of my middle school report card and promised them my first-born, I should just go home now. 

I took a seat and focused on a picture of the Champs-Élysées hanging above. It was one of those tacky French posters your high school teacher used to cover her walls.

Perhaps they hung it up here to remind me why I needed to pass this appointment. Perhaps they hung it up to remind me what my teacher Madame Yocum would say if I canceled my appointment and never came back.

2. Try to make friends

I grabbed an appointment number, 18, and looked to see who was in line ahead of me. 

Number 16 sat across the room with her color-coded application files fanned neatly in her lap. She flipped through a book you could tell wasn’t meant to be read, but to let people know she’s the kind of person who reads “Pride and Prejudice” in consulate waiting rooms.

I tried to catch her eye to see if she’d like to forget this whole visa thing and instead grab a bagel around the corner. Sadly, she ignored my telepathic cries for help. 

Next to her were numbers 14 and 15, an older couple who whispered in frantic tones. Maybe they were asking if the other remembered his passport from the nightstand. Maybe they were planning a consulate coup. 

I’d have joined.

3. Practice your communication skills

As each number was called, a visa-hopeful grabbed his papers and approached the appointment counter window. 

It was number 17’s turn next and I could hear him struggling to negotiate. He used the kind of phrases couples’ therapists love to hear: “I understand ... I’m listening to you ... I’m here with you.”

But the woman behind the counter wasn’t swooned. 

He stuffed his papers in his backpack and slammed the door. This meant I was next.

4. Realize it’s just like French class after all

I headed to the counter and was met by a tiny French woman with one hand on her keyboard and the other reached out for my papers. I slid them under the window and held my breath as she leafed through the files separating me from spending four months sampling macarons by the Seine.

“Leave your passport, and come back in three weeks,” she said. “You’ll get the visa sticker then.”

Bewildered, I gathered my bag and caught a subway back to work. Just a simple sticker – that’s really all this was for? 

Madame Yocum used to make us jump through hoops for a coveted “Bon Travail!” sticker on a worthy exam. In the end, getting a visa feels the same.

But if the U.S. government is really going to issue craft supplies, they need to call up Madame Yocum and ask her where she got her stash – they at least had some sparkle.

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