365 days of visa purgatory
It all began a year ago exactly, on a cold and wintry (July 1st) night in Newcastle, NSW, Australia.
Sitting at the dining table at my parents house, Felix and I collated scans of passports, residence documents, letters, certificates and all manner of other pieces of evidence to try to prove to the Swedish government that we love one another.
We filled in a questionnaire about ourselves.
How many guests were at our wedding? What was the weather like? What food was served? Was it casual or formal?
How often do we text one another? Are our parents still together? How did we meet?
Some of our answers were guesses, because – like many people – we don’t remember every detail of every day since we met one another. More’s the pity.
We submitted the documents and the application along with our $180, and we waited.
We waited for three months before an email arrived into my junk mail folder, requesting I attend an interview at the Swedish consulate in Sydney.
On October 1st I showed up to the consulate and brought with me the same documents (in original format) that I had attached to my application, as instructed.
I was nervous. In fact, I was so nervous, I’d been googling the effects of stress on the digestive tract earlier that morning, hoping it was just that which was causing my numerous visits to the bathroom and the feeling of a thousand grasshoppers fighting to the death in my stomach.
It turns out that’s totally a thing.
When I arrived, the Assistant to the Consulate General was seated at her desk, typing away.
I was early, and we waited in silence for ten minutes before I was gestured over to move from the waiting seat to the interview seat, placed right next to one another for convenience.
She didn’t speak Swedish, hadn’t heard of Newcastle, couldn’t spell Gothenburg and didn’t understand any of my documents of evidence.
The questions were the exact same that I had answered in my online application (I guess the idea was to see if I could get my story straight) and I was constantly told, with great irritability, to slow down so she could type it all out.
Then she asked me where my photos, chatlogs and plane tickets were.
“What?” I asked in disbelief.
“Everyone brings them,” she said, with yet more irritability.
“I didn’t know I needed to bring them.”
With a sigh like an air-raid siren, she told me I could send them to her later in the week.
“Like, email?” I asked, hopefully.
“No,” she said, like I was the most enormously idiotic person she’d ever met. “Hard copies. Printed. By mail.”
I was gobsmacked. I was required to pay her $5o in cash for her time, and left feeling possibly more nervous than I had before.
I collated every photo ever taken of us together, me with his family, him with my family, him with koalas and emus, me with pickled herring…
I found all the articles I’d ever written where I’d mentioned I was married. Travel stories I’d had published about trips we’d taken together.
I found all our old tickets and boarding passes.
Anything and everything that could be helpful, I scanned, printed and mailed (at great expense) to the Sydney consulate.
I read later on the Migration Agency’s website that all hardcopy evidence rather than digital copies would make the process take up to months longer.
In February, we travelled to Cambodia because Felix’s second Australian working holiday visa was about to run out.
We had another three months in Australia, but it was time to go back to Sweden for a whole host of reasons.
Midsommar was one of the main ones.
I emailed the Canberra Embassy and was told I was maybe allowed to visit Sweden on a Schengen visa but that she didn’t really know if the process would be halted, and that it might be rejected on the grounds of me being in the country.
She also told me with great confidence that the decision would not be made until at least one year had elapsed.
“You applied on July 1st, 2016, so you won’t get it until earliest July 1st, 2017.”
I joined a Facebook group of people also waiting for their visa or that of their partner.
The wealth of knowledge and, more importantly, experience in that group of thousands of sad and lonely people was absolutely invaluable in learning about the Migration Agency and the unreliability of their information.
Without it, I might have believed the lady from the embassy.
I might have believed the three different people on the phone who told me to stay out of Sweden.
One girl’s experience of being told the decision was about to be made and that she should leave the country for a few days was heartening.
She flew to Finland and sent a photograph of her face next to the daily newspaper, showing the language and the date.
A decision arrived promptly.
Another girl drove over the border to Norway and sent the same kind of photo. She had the decision that day.
We booked our tickets, came to Sweden, and kept waiting.
Eventually, Felix was contacted for proof we planned on living in Sweden full time.
To start with, he missed it because it landed in his junk mail folder (surprise!) but a strange series of events led him to the discovery and we sorted it out.
He sent his full-time work contract, a signed letter from his dad stating we live together in his apartment and a written list of our life plans (study, work, etc).
That afternoon we were asked for proof we’d lived together in Australia and Sweden.
Having lived with his dad in Sweden, with my parents and in a self-built and unregistered (not illegal) tiny house in the bush in Australia, we had no contracts or bills in our name.
They wanted letters in both our names that arrived at both addresses, so we complied as well as we were able.
My beautiful friend, Julia, happened to be visiting her grandparents in Germany during the time they wanted to make the decision, and I had plans to visit her anyway, so Felix sent my plane tickets.
A short explanation of all this talk of “leaving the country to receive a decision”. The main rule about decision making is that the person in question may not be in Sweden when the decision is made. This is because they don’t want people who receive a negative decision to overstay illegally and require deportation.
That would be almost reasonable enough if it weren’t for the fact that anyone already in Sweden legally is almost certain to have time left on their visa after getting the decision, and therefore able to reenter Sweden regardless of the decision.
I, for example, had over two months left on my 90 day Schengen visa.
Another flaw in the “you can’t be in the country” logic is that travel between EU countries doesn’t require passport control.
As I will relay later, this causes all sorts of problems.
The following is a bullet-point-for-the-sake-of-brevity description of the absolutely insane last few days which (spoiler alert!) resulted, finally in my permanent residency being granted.
Tuesday, June 27:
- Felix gets an email from the migration agency asking for evidence that I’m going to leave the country. They want plane tickets which he’s already sent, but he sends them again anyway.
- They say, “Great, thank you, that’s all the evidence we need. No need to send any more info after this. We’re done now and the decision will be made.”
Wednesday, June 28:
- I arrive in Germany and get on millions of buses and trains and end up at Julia’s grandparents’ place in the little town of Kallmünz.
- I refresh the migration page a lot, waiting for the decision.
- It doesn’t come.
Thursday, June 29:
- I keep refreshing the page.
- I get more and more anxious
- I get a call from Felix at 3.30pm saying, “They’ve asked for proof that you’re in Germany. You have to go to an embassy and show them your passport, or get a stamp on the passport and send the photo.”
- The closest embassy is 12 hours away in Berlin.
Oh, and I only have 45 minutes to submit the info before my case worker goes on holiday for maybe two months.
Nobody is allowed to stamp my passport travel between EU countries is passport-control-free.
- The only way I could get a stamp on my actual passport would be to find border police, but they’re very far away and nobody is sure that would work anyway.
- So I send a photo of me with a German newspaper dated from the same day. Evidence other people have used often.
- And a photo of me in front of a German street sign.
- And Julia’s grandparents’ phone number and address.
- And screenshot of the blue dot on my GoogleMaps showing that I’m in Germany.
- And they’re like, “Nope, not enough.”
- And so I go the the tiny city administration building and they photocopy my passport and stamp it with the day’s date and a signature, proving they’ve seen me in that building on the day.
- I take a pic of the paper with my passport sitting next to it and send it in as well as my electronic boarding passes from the day before.
- I beg them to stamp my actual passport and they’re super nice but they’re legally not allowed.
- So I have a little panic attack and eventually leave. All the Germans wish me good luck and seem extremely sad for my predicament. It’s twenty minutes past their closing time but they’ve been so incredibly kind.
- Then the case worker tells Felix, “Don’t worry, if I have to go on holiday, I’ll hand it to a colleague. They might have time to deal with it.”
- And that she doesn’t know if the evidence is enough and she’ll have to ask someone else.
- Eventually, right on 4.30pm when she’s leaving the building, she rings Felix and says, “Ok, decision made, it’s permanent and positive, but your wife still has to go to the embassy to prove she was there in Germany, and she can’t enter Sweden again until the letter has arrived at her house.”
- Which, what the duck, right?
- One: if the decision is already made, and I’m legally allowed to spend the rest of my fucking life in Sweden, why do I have to prove right now that I’m in Germany?
- Two: the letter is addressed to me IN SWEDEN and it’s illegal for anyone else to open my mail. Why would I have to wait for it outside the country?
Friday, June 30:
- Felix rings them again and asks, “Does she really have to wait for the letter? And does she really have to go to the embassy? Also why isn’t the decision showing up online?”
- The lady says, “No, she doesn’t have to wait for the letter. Yes, she has to go to the embassy, but not because she has to prove she’s there, but to give us her fingerprints. And it’s not in the database because we didn’t have time to do that at close of business yesterday but it’ll get done today.”
- So, I ring the Swedish embassy in Berlin them to ask, “Do I really have to go to the embassy? I’m pretty sure I can hand in my biometrics in Sweden like I did last time, since I have a valid Schengen visa for two more months.”
- She says, “Yes, go to Sweden and do it there. That’s fine. Have fun, bye!”
- The visa showed up on the database, I danced for joy, and booked my ticket home.
Saturday, July 1:
- I’m almost home.
So now you all know.
A better post about my time with Julia is forthcoming. It deserves its own post.