Your papers, please! Visa applications in China and India.
Olaf Griese has spent six years with Dezan Shira & Associates in Shanghai and has just recently relocated to Delhi. In this series of articles, he will detail the differences, as well as the pros and cons, of living in both China and India.
Oct. 25 – China is a very big country, and so is India. So although the central government in both countries holds the ultimate power, the implementation of each nation’s rules and regulations largely depends on the different regional states. Whatever is said or decided in Beijing or in New Delhi might be understood differently in Shanghai or in Mumbai, and sometimes it can’t even be heard in Guangzhou or in Ahmadabad.
During my six years in Shanghai working for Dezan Shira & Associates, applying for working visas and residence permits on behalf of our customers was included in our service package for the setup of their business entity. We would handle the visa application exclusively for our clients, and I would not accept any outside visa assignments such as student visas, tourist visas, or trouble-shooting for expired visas. Our staff members in Shanghai who handle such visa applications are quite experienced in this process, and it has been proven more than once that having such qualified people onboard can be incredibly valuable when dealing with the responsible government visa officers. This is because although Beijing sets out national rules and regulations regarding visa applications, in Shanghai we have to deal with the practical implementation. For example, the visa application process during the Shanghai 2010 World Expo was very smooth and easy, but during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games it was very difficult to get visa invitation letters accepted in Shanghai. Sometimes in China, we’ve found that visas can be obtained with varying degrees of success across the different cities where we maintain offices.
By relocating to India earlier this year, I of course was required to apply for a business visa and a resident permit. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that the visa application process in a new country is always special, and rarely goes as expected. On one end of the spectrum, the visa application case can become a funny anecdote or a story with some local spice that you can share with your friends around a glass of wine. On the other end, however, it also can turn into a dull administrative nightmare. At another time, I’d be happy to share with our readers why I had to use my Chinese criminal record (and how I obtained it) instead of the German one when applying for my Indian visa application.
Globalization means more and more individuals are becoming strangers in a strange land, and oftentimes local immigration policies are disconnected and rarely in tune with the real world. It is fair to say that despite the fast-paced, interactive, digitalized world we now live in, it still remains difficult for many national administrations to streamline the collection process of their respective visa application forms, requirements for notarized certificates and certified translations (I’m German and all my university degrees are from France and China).
For my Indian visa application, my starting base is sound and sane: a foreigner with a valid working contract. It has been a while since I last went through a visa, working and residence permit process, though, as I received my first Mainland China visa in Hong Kong a decade ago. People having lived in China for a while know that a visa for China can always be obtained in Hong Kong and the amount of money one is willing to spend will determine how quickly the papers can be obtained. However, once you start working and earning a salary in China, you need to apply for a work and residence permit. Besides the administration work associated with the required documents, a health examination is part of the registration process in China.
For newcomers to China, the “health check” is always a special experience. Many are bewildered when they go through the necessary procedures and although the doctor doesn’t actually “touch” the patient or examine them with a stethoscope, the final report might miraculously show that you “have a fatty liver.” Only once you become familiar with traditional Chinese medicine, you understand that Western instruments are not always required to determine the health status of a patient.
Also, in most cases in China, the visa and the work permit need to be renewed each year. In Shanghai, that merely involved filing paperwork on an annual basis and I have never again had to go through the exercise of the “health check” after my first visit. My colleagues in our other regional offices in China have not always been so lucky, and some have needed to be examined again for each yearly renewal. I was expecting a similar health test in India, but this was not a requirement and India does not discriminate based on an individual’s current health condition.
When I applied for my Indian visa, I was directed to a website, as the Indian Consulate in Shanghai has outsourced the visa application process. The application material can be downloaded and the initial submission is made online. The printout then must be validated physically at the outsourced visa center. Upon submission, a tracking number is provided and the different steps towards to the completion can be tracked online. The process is designed in such a way that it provides the applicant a sense of transparency. Contrary to the “traditional” method where the passport is ingested by an administration official and hopefully returned at some later date with the desired visa, the “outsourced experience” was pleasant and efficient.
Confident and carrying a two-year-employment-visa, I entered India again ready to tackle the next hurdle: registration at the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office (FRRO). The FRRO registration is required within 14 days for each foreigner entering India, and I was keen to get the final administrative requirement completed quickly since the FRRO registration certificate is required when applying for a mobile telephone number in India.
I went with my colleague to the FRRO early in the morning only a few days after returning to Delhi with the proper visa, and was stunned to see how many people were standing outside at the designated waiting area. In front of us were roughly 200 chairs placed in a pit-like space which was covered with a transparent green roof. The bright morning light turned the waiting crowd green as well. Most of the attendees were wearing non-Western clothes and we spotted only a handful of foreigners. Elegantly, my colleague and I circled around the crowd to present my European passport in front of an officer who was handing out waiting tickets. The officer eyed my red passport, gave me a number, and confirmed verbally if I was from Afghanistan. He continuously asked the same question to all new applications and, upon confirmation, he would seat Afghans in a designated area under the green roof.
Already the first few minutes were a stark contrast to the efficient online Indian visa application I filed in China, and I expected to spend at least a couple of hours waiting outside in the heat. In my mind, I immediately found myself comparing this process to Shanghai, where I would be sitting in an air-conditioned room, I would have taken a number or a token from an automatic machine, and I would also face a long wait – but in fairly comfortable surroundings. As it turns out, however, I did not have much time to think about Shanghai. Although all of the submitted applications were handled by one man and his assistant, it was my turn within 20 minutes. I was subsequently ordered to go to the adjacent building; this time in an air-conditioned room where I received a token and submitted my application. My file was then verified and a female officer questioned me about some of the data in my application before her male colleague gave me the final approval, and I left with my FRRO certificate 20 minutes after I entered the building. In the end, what had appeared at the outset like an administrative nightmare turned out to be a fairly efficient process.
This is Part V of our ongoing Expat Transitions Series. The rest of the series can be found below:
Olaf Griese is a partner with Dezan Shira & Associates in India. He is based in the firm’s Delhi office providing corporate establishment, tax planning, business advisory and on-going tax, accounting and related services to foreign investors throughout the country. The firm has five offices in the country. Olaf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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