Passports & Visas

Here’s another post filled with some of the practical bits of moving to another country. Today I thought it would be fun to chat passports and visas.

Our long-stay visas were approved last week!! They are an addition to our passport that allows us to stay in France as visitors for an entire year. Hooray!

A word about visas: these aren’t visas as in credit-cards. These visas are a document issued by governments, allowing a non-citizen to live or work in their country. In France, you can automatically receive a 3 month visitor visa without having to apply for anything. But if you’d like to stay longer than 3 months, you need to apply for a long-stay visa.

I found the visa process to be a bit grueling. If you’re interested, I’ll tell you more about it below.

PASSPORTS

For passports, it took a couple of evenings to gather the correct paperwork and fill out the applications. It also required a visit to Walgreen’s for the kids to get passport photos.

The trickiest part of the passport process, was finding a time the whole family could visit the passport office. Both parents and the children applying for a passport have to be there in person. And the office hours of the passport office don’t coordinate very well with school hours. Happily, we found a perfect day when school was out, but the office was open, a couple days before Thanksgiving. Alternatively, we would just have pulled the kids out of school for a morning.

Passports can take up to 6 or 8 weeks to arrive, but they often come faster. Ours took about 3 weeks.

A couple of passport tips:

-Go really early on a Tuesday morning, as soon as the passport office is open. It seems to be the least busy time, and you’ll hopefully get helped right away.

-Use black ink, or they won’t accept your application. Yikes! We used blue and almost had a fiasco on our hands. It had taken me 2 hours to fill out all the applications and I was about to cry when I found out about the blue ink/black ink situation. Luckily, I asked the passport office if they would please photocopy the applications in black and white, and they kindly said yes.

-When having your passport photos taken (or when you’re taking them yourselves), print out a second set of two (for four photos total), because you’ll need them for your visa applications as well.

VISAS

I found the visa application more challenging. One of the tricky things was the timing. In order to apply for long-stay visas, you need a signed lease showing where you’re planning to stay, and you need to know the day you’re entering the country — which means plane tickets need to be confirmed. It felt confusing to me to commit to a year long lease, without knowing whether or not we would be approved for year-long visas. But apparently, that’s the way it’s done. So we went with it.

Our signed lease arrived around New Year’s Day, and that’s when we started our visa application process.

Adults, plus children six and older, are required to show up in person at the assigned French Consulate office. The office assigned to Colorado is in Los Angeles, and although we would have preferred visiting the San Francisco office (because we have lots of family there), that was not allowed.

So. Ben Blair, Ralph, Maude, Olive and I hopped on a plane to LA early one morning during the first week of January. We had our visa appointments right after we arrived, and then caught a flight back to Denver the same day. There were a few hours before our return flight, so we took the the kids to some fun touristy spots — like Venice Beach and Grauman’s Chinese Theater. (The photo above is film-obsessed Ralph in front of the theater. This was his first trip to LA and you can imagine how excited he was to be there.)

We made sure to go before January 9th, because Oscar turned 6 that day, and we wanted to avoid getting the additional plane ticket. : )

The French Consulate firmly requested that we schedule 8 appointment time slots for 8 separate visa applications. But, on the one and only day we could make the trip, there were only 6 appointments available. We were afraid they would turn us away at the door because we hadn’t followed their strict directions, but happily, they didn’t even mention the discrepancy.

The Visa applications required far more work than the passport applications. It took me about 30-40 hours to put everything together and make requests for letters from employers and insurance agencies. Plus, the last-minute trip to LA took a hefty amount of coordination (both for the travelers and the kids staying at home).

For me, the most trying part of the visa process, was putting in the preparation hours, spending the money, making the trip to Los Angeles, and knowing all the while that our applications might be rejected for reasons I didn’t really even understand. I told Ben Blair that if our visas weren’t approved, I would have to have a day of mourning to get over the waste of all the time and work. : )

But our visa story has a happy ending. Our appointments at the consulate went smoothly. We had to fax 2 more things the next business day and we received our passports — with approved visas inside — two days after that. Hooray! We were told to plan on about 2 weeks to get approval, so we were surprised delighted with the quick response.

A couple of visa tips:

-We wanted to make a good impression, so we carefully put together our outfits and little details like a pretty file folder for all the documentation. I don’t know if it helped, but I felt far more confident going into our appointments.

-I would have loved a bigger window of time to work with. If I could do it again, I would try to confirm our lease and plane tickets earlier, so that I didn’t feel rushed getting our visa applications in.

-Even if our visa applications hadn’t been approved, we still would have moved. Apparently, there are a couple of work-arounds. Visitors are welcome to stay up to 3 months, so some visa-less folks make a point of leaving the country every 3 months and then re-entering to start a fresh 3 month stint. A good excuse to make a trip to Egypt. : ) This is exactly how Ben Blair and I handled visas when we lived in Greece. At the 3 month mark, we visited Turkey and then returned to Greece with a fresh start on our visa. IMPORTANT UPDATE: According to helpful comments from readers, the work-around I mention is no longer valid. Thank goodness our visas were approved!

-Some expats told me they’ve lived in France for long periods without a visa at all. They said as long as they weren’t taking French jobs or asking for government help, no one seemed to mind.

What about you? Any visa or passport tips you would share?

67 thoughts on “Passports & Visas”

  1. My husband is from Ireland, so we got passports for our children shortly after they were born. I cannot imagine what a hassle that was for 6 kids! Literally every time we have gone, every single other person there has been turned away for not having the correct documentation. I guess it helps being detail oriented!! (though my husband would say anal :)

  2. Visas are serious business! I found this out the hard way on a trip to Costa Rica, where I was put right back in the plane for not having a visa. They had changed requirements just before we traveled there and we didn’t know. Needless to say, it’s the first thing I look at when going anywhere nowadays!

  3. Hmm, staying in the US on our long-term visa I can’t imagine doing that without visa. That would be too stressful, not to mention… illegal.
    Glad it all worked out for you!
    Believe me, getting a US visa is not less painful! :)

  4. We’re going through a similar thing but up in Canada. We’re getting my mother an extended stay visa in Canada in hopes of getting her permanent residency down the road. As a PR of Canada I can sponsor my mother. We thought it wouldn’t be a huge deal to get her PR because mine only took a year. Little did we know it takes almost 5 years to complete the process for a family class case. Gah. In 18 months I’m eligible to become a dual US/Canadian so its going to be paperwork nightmare in our household for some time.
    So good on you for getting it done. When the tables were turned and my husband was trying to get his green card in the U.S. we ended up getting a lawyer to handle it all. Pricey but worth it in the end.
    So excited for you guys! The Blairs are going to rock France!

  5. This isn’t a question about visas, but about moving your family to a foreign country. How do your school aged children feel about leaving behind friends at church/school/in the neighborhood? I assume that might be a bit of a touchy subject?

  6. Born in the US, I have lived abroad for the last 15 years and needed a visa for practically each of those years. And I must say the visa process in France was the most painful. You are so brave going through this 8 times! I am happy to have finally scored a foreign passport and now my applying, filing, line waiting, stamping, picture taking, fee paying days are behind me. And my kids have dual citizenship :)

  7. something that was a challenge was making sure the passport photo’s were the right size for my infants heads. we moved to germany when my son was 6 months old, and sometimes, because of the difficulty getting the head the right size, some places will not do passport photos of infants. my daughter was born in germany, and we had to get her photos done in the first month of her life.

    visa’s can be a nightmare (i remember having to fill out 8 sheets exactly the same with a pic for each before i left on my mission) but i know my youngest brother had to do something totally different to get his (he also went to france, the paris mission actually) when you do something like this is really pays off to be detail oriented. government stuff can be a nightmare.

  8. I had to get a visa for my daughter for her to travel to brazil with her father recently and it was a joke of a process. there were pieces of the visa-puzzle that weren’t even listed on the brazilian embassy website that we needed. talk about disorganized. all for a 3 day trip. ugh.

  9. marrying a russian and then moving to russia and having 3 kids has created for me 15 years full of passport and visa stories, experiences, trials, woes, and triumphs!!! so i can definitely sympathize.

    i love that you carefully planned your outfits and your document folders for the interview. if that would matter to anyone, it would be the french!
    congratulations on pulling it all off!!

  10. My husband attended a university in New Zealand for a year, and we had to get visas for that. It was a piece of cake, especially compared to what you went through. Obviously, we first had to have our passports. Then he just had to prove that he was going to be a student for that time period. We were a little more worried about my visa since it was entirely contingent on his, but we submitted a copy of our marriage certificate to prove that we were in a committed relationship. (Other options would have been to show our bank statements with both of our names or other documents like that had we not been married). We didn’t have to visit a consulate at all. The turnaround time was very fast. (This was in fall 2007, so things may have changed.) We loved our year abroad. It was worth all the money we spent to do it!

  11. Well here is a fun story on the Passport front. I have traveled to Israel both as a tourist and as a Baha’i pilgrim. No problem but always make sure your passport is valid for the required amount of time by the country. For example Israel requires that it be valid for at least 1 year past your departure.
    Now, I have stamps in my passport from Israel but guess what some of their neighbors don’t like them too much and when I had to travel to Dubai and Qatar for work I knew my passport wouldn’t be accepted as it had Israeli stamps. So, rather than get rid of a perfectly good passport, I applied for and was granted a second passport by the State Department for travel to and from countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel. This one is only good for two years but yes, I currently hold two valid passports. This is a pretty common practice for people who do business in the Middle East.

  12. We’ve found in our overseas moves that it’s a good idea to have numerous passport photos. They are used for everything from student id cards to health insurance cards (most countries have some sort of state insurance). It can be a hassle and confusing to try and get the photos done in the new country, so having them on hand makes it a ton easier.

  13. Congratulations! Wow; thanks for sharing. Glad it all went smoothly, even with all the effort involved. I really had no idea it was that intense…especially the flying to apply in person part of the process. We are going to Heidelberg for the summer (really just 2 months), so won’t need visas, but if we try to do a sabbatical year in Europe in the future, this will be so helpful!

  14. Yea! Although I can’t believe they made you fly all the way to LA! Good grief for that alone I’d have thought about just doing the 3 month version. Especially when you’re already planning to visit other places!

    And that is so you to coordinate outfits and pretty the whole process up. Love it.

  15. I too sympathize with the process. My husband works for the Department of Defense and we live overseas with our 18 month old daughter, so we each actually have two passports, one for travel and one that is “official”, allowing us to live overseas while working for the government. It was a nightmare to get all the paperwork in order for the “official” passports (bless the government…) Plus we recently visited China, for which we had to get visas. Those were just outrageously expensive, but very easy to apply for.

    On a note about living abroad, I highly highly recommend getting a magicjack or something like it. It has made our life so much easier. It’s a “landline” phone that plugs into your computer as a USB drive and uses the internet to make calls. The wonderful thing is that you can pick your phone number. So we have a Texas number that our friends and family can call as at so they never have to pay international rates. Plus it’s only $20 for the device and $20 a year for the service. Nearly everyone we know living over here has one. It’s a lifesaver!

  16. Thanks so much for going through all the effort to share your experience. Experience is the most valuable thing in this situation, and it helps me know what to plan for when we take on a challenge like living overseas.

  17. I wonder if the process is similar when a Canadian wants to move to the USA indefinitely. I love my country, but it’s way too cold! I’ve been seriously thinking about moving to California.

  18. I find all of this fascinating, and you have my complete admiration for having the patience to do it all (and apparently with style!) with 6 children in tow! I hope the year is everything you dreamed of, and I look so forward to reading of your adventures there.

  19. Congratulations! I hope you took a photo of the carefully coordinated outfits for the memory book. Now on to Alt Summit. Enjoy!

  20. Wow, what a lot of work – BIG congratulations are in order for wading through that mess and making it to the other side! Thank you for sharing all of the details on the visa application process, this has always been something of a mystery to me. It is a big dream of mine to one day live abroad with my husband and son for a year (or at least 6 months!), and France is my top pick for a home base.

    I just kept shaking my head as I read you actually had to FLY EVERYONE to L.A. to get this done – that would have driven me crazy! Thank goodness it worked out!!! What an amazing adventure you are about to embark on! Bravo to all of you for going for it! I cannot wait to follow along on your journey. xoxo Laura

  21. Sorry to be a Negative Nelly but having worked in the international community and having dealt with visas for Europe, please don’t encourage people to renew a 3-month tourist visa by going to another country. It is extremely illegal and no longer allowed and grounds for immediate deportation and you can be banned from entering the country for life.

    The Schengen tourist visa basically allows you to stay in the Schengen area (22 or so different countries) for 90 days within a six-month period. Once your 90 days are up, you are required to leave the Schengen area for 90 days before you are allowed to reenter. You can no longer reset your tourist visa by going to a non-Schegen country.

    France is one of my very favorite places and I spent an amazing summer studying there. I look forward to reading your stories of what it’s like to live there with children. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  22. I’ve used this website http://www.epassportphoto.com/ several times with great success for free/convenient/easy passport photos you can take at home. You get a bundle of them at once for just the cost of printing a picture
    (someone online places that’s 9 cents!). I guess I sound like an ad, but it’s because they’re so much easier than going somewhere to have them taken and paying $9 for 4!

  23. It’s kind of shocking to me how much easier it is to get a visa to China. I’m leaving in… (checks the countdown timer…) 31 days, and we just submitted our visa applications. My consulate is in Chicago, and we don’t have to be there, we just have to send a messenger with our passports, payment, and applications. They just needed to know who was inviting us into the country.

  24. One tip I have from our years living overseas is to scan all your family’s passports and visas and keep a digital copy on your computer–you never know when you’ll need an extra photocopy of them for something (kids’ school applications/opening an account somewhere/whatever–depending on the country, you may need copies for lots of things), and that way you can print a copy any time you need it. Also, should a passport get lost or stolen, you have the info right there to help speed up getting a replacement. I’d have a photocopy of everyone’s documents when traveling, too, just in case of an emergency.

    Bon voyage to you all–I wish I were taking my family abroad this year, too! :)

  25. When we got our 1st long stay visa back in 2008, we didn’t have a copy of the lease, so had to get that and go back the 2nd day. This year it was easy, we knew what to do, what to give them, etc…when we first went to the consulate in Los Angeles in 2008 i was a bit shocked, I thought it would be nice and fancy and we woudn’t have to sit outside! There were a couple of people who were from Arizona and they didn’t have all the info and they had to leave and come back, argh! BUT, you’re process isn’t over yet. You still need to file with OFII (when you arrive) and then they will contact you for either an interview or a medical exam and then you’ll get your carte sejour, which makes your VISA valid. We have been here since October and sent in all the paperwork but haven’t heard anything. When we lived here in 2008, you had to go to the Prefecture within 3 months to turn our VISA into a Carte Sejour, but we didn’t know that, so we didn’t go and it didn’t make any difference. It’s true that you can stay here without a long stay visa, but we figured we’d do it right.

    Glad the process went well for you and you got the VISA’s. February is just around the corner!!!

  26. glad you got your visa’s. Just so readers know that there is something called the schengen (spelling) treaty which does not allow you to live indefinitely on a 3 month tourist visa any longer. In fact if you are caught there is a very strict return policy.

  27. Just adding my 2 cents to the pot – a few have warned about overstaying your Schengen visa and I wholeheartedly agree. Don’t do it! In France, they will check for passports/IDs in random places (mostly near the borders), but you can get a check at any time or any place.

  28. I am so excited for your whole family and can’t wait to read more of your French adventures. I recommend the book “Almost French” by Sarah Turnbull. Just a fun look into French culture by an Australian. Whishing your family even more wonderful memories over the next year.

  29. I don’t know how you are getting this all done! I get so stressed out with just TWO kids, going for a WEEKEND at grandma’s – diaper bags, toiletries, enough electronics to keep older kid happy, snacks, etc….I can’t imagine all the preparation it is taking for a trip of this magnitude. I think when you get your crew to France and settled in, you should take a day trip to somewhere quiet and pretty where you can just sit and relax, all by yourself. Voyages de bonne chance (I looked that up online for you).

  30. Just to clarify, after your three months is up on a tourist visa, you have to return to the United States. It’s the same for tourists visiting the United States. They can’t pop over to Mexico or up to Canada–that doesn’t count. Wouldn’t want anyone reading here to get in trouble over a misunderstanding!

  31. We lived in England for four years, and I still remember the complicated visa process. I was able to do mine through the mail, although I do remember considering a trip to L.A. I was pregnant at the time, planning to deliver in England where my husband was working, getting closer and closer to my due date waiting for that visa to arrive!
    A year in France sounds wonderful, but right now I’d settle for a three month stay without visa!

  32. Our family has done the visa process for both South Africa and England. I have found it interesting what the “sticking points” seem to be for the different countries. For instance, South Africa was hung up on repatriation (lots of insurance documents) and the UK wanted to be sure we had the funds to cover our year here (lots of bank statements). Another thing, you CANNOT do the three month in-out thing anymore. Your passports could be revoked if you even try it. Also, with the way immigration laws have been so drastically affected by terrorism issues, I would never recommend someone overstay their visa or risk living somewhere without one. Immigration officials around the world have become extremely vigilant and they are not tolerating rule breakers. Lastly, be sure you register with the US Embassy in Paris when you get to France. God forbid anything should happen, you will get help faster if they know you are there. Good luck and thanks for sharing this important topic. When I first read you were doing this I was hoping you would not gloss over the difficulties. The ex-pat journey is exciting, but it can also be very hard at times. Can’t wait to hear more about the adventure.

  33. Hi Gabrielle,
    we are planning to travel to Paris and Normandy from December/January 2012 , also with lots of kids (5 including a 6 month old) and am reading you planning adventure with eyes wide open, how are you organising your luggage – one bag each or sharing bags?

    We are planning to rent an apartment in Paris and my uncle lives in Bayeux so hopefully squeeze in there or maybe we will have to rent a place there also,.
    cheers,

  34. The French love to say no and ask for another document. It’s their thing, we always made a habit of holding back the easiest thing for us to get our hands on. Make sure you take a copy of your marriage certificate when you go. They’ll ask for everything translated into French if you could do it before you leave you’ll save a huge hassle. I’m assuming you’ve got to go a local office in the first 3 months.

  35. I am so thrilled for you and your family!! My husband and I spent three weeks in France in 2005. I miss it so much! He was on business and I was on summer break from teaching! I dropped him off at work everyday and went out exploring! At night I would take him out to all of the great spots I found. It was nothing for me to drive an hour away just to see a great site. We stayed for a week in a small town called Montabaun, then we stayed two weeks in Rennes. Montabaun was so charming!! Very tiny, but a great first experience into the countryside of France. Rennes was a big bustling city. We stayed in a hotel across from the train station and saw all types of people. But the older city part of Rennes is beautiful and has a ton of shops :) I drove to Dinan…a must see!! And Dinard…another must see!! And Mont St. Michael…beautiful and amazing!! On the weekends we took a train up to Paris. I could not get enough of the Louvre and we always ended up back at the Eiffel tower, the parks around it are beautiful. You will have a wonderful time and will meet some amazing people!

  36. on the 1st week of this month, my Visa application from my current company seemed to be a blur, till I got the good news yest. but the PRO’s still not sure whether I’ll be exiting the country 1st or it could be payed (this is not red tape, btw, just an option) I think the latter is more convenient and less costly, but I wouldn’t mind a trip to a nearby country as well ;)
    I’m in Dubai btw :)

  37. Oh Visas. OHHHHH VISAS. Good times.

    I had to have mine rushed because I was leaving on January 14th and because I was still unsure about whether or not to leave the country for six months (I was going to Spain) I kept procrastinating and then I had to go to NYC to get my Visa even though I lived in DC and then I had to wait on line and all that good government stuff. A week later, I had a visa! And I left the country! And I was so freaking happy!

    My biggest thing about passports and visas is to not procrastinate because it takes time and then it gets expensive and then everyone gets grouchy but you do get a fun day in a big city. So, there’s that.

    Have I mentioned how excited I am for you all? Have I mentioned that I am totally coming to visit? ;-)

  38. This was helpful :-)
    My husband is Active Duty Air Force, and we just found out we are moving to England for his next assignment!
    Thankfully, as far as passportS/visa goes for me, there is somebody who can help me with the details and its “easier” than if I was in the civilian world to get everything done.

    The difficult part is getting a Birth Certificate, Social Security Number, Social Security Card, TWO different types of passports, and a visa for our little daughter, who will be born 4 weeks before we have to report to England.

    Ha. I guess this will be an adventure :-)

  39. as a us citizen living in hong kong with 3 kids we deal with visas often. I have to say finding a reputable company and paying them to do the visa process is what we’ve started doing. It saves us so much time, headache, you name it! We still have to do all the US consulate stuff on our own but to have someone else organize all the visa paperwork, tell us where we need to sign, and submit for us is definitely, definitely worth the money!

  40. I don’t have any visa tips, but I’m impressed—after your description of all the setbacks that you could have had, the fact that you didn’t hit those setbacks makes me think that maybe this move really is what your family is meant to do.

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