A surprising public diplomacy win

Getting a visa to travel to another country can be challenging and expensive. The process, bureaucratic by nature, has more potential to frustrate the applicant and reinforce negative stereotypes than to create positive impressions.

Yesterday I flew to San Francisco to apply in-person for a visa to Russia. I had my official invitation for a humanitarian visa, the invitation letter from the Lomonosov State University where I’ll be presenting at the conference “Scientific Issues in Security and Combating Terrorism”, my application (including the appropriately size photo of me not smiling – a requirement), a check, my passport, and two photocopies of my “vital information” in my passport.

I told a friend at the State Department that I went to the Russian Consulate. Even lthough we were on the phone, I could hear his eyes do the proverbial “roll.” How was THAT? he asked.

Before I answer, bureaucracy had set the ball in motion for a negative encounter. First, there was the fact that I was in San Francisco (no, there is not a Russian Consulate in Los Angeles) the day after I flew home from Monterey. Second, there was the fee I was to pay: $250 for expedited processing. The high fee was, as the Russian Government’s website (as well as flyers in the waiting room) point out, a response to the US Government’s hike in fees for Russians coming to the United States. I needed the 3-4 day turnaround because my necessary invitation came only at the end of last week and it would have cost me $1,006 (not joking) to change my Monterey itinerary to include a short hop to San Francisco. 

I won’t go into the long details that preceded my encounter with the Russian consular official who eventually appeared at the window, except to say the Russians could do a much better job of being consistent and clear on what documents are required. Suffice it to say that on my first two visits to the Consulate yesterday, the first of which was at 9a when they opened, only on my third visit did I ever see an official at the window. This multiple trips to the office, which surely gave the guard that buzzed me through the gate and door multiple something to laugh at, was the third reason the encounter would not be positive.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was prepared to not smile and to even hold back a “good morning.” I had my preconceptions, received warnings to set my expectations, and had already walked six miles that morning (don’t ask, suffice it to say I’d rather run 12 than walk 6). So it was with frame that I handed the official my papers.

He looked through the pile. Read, wrote, and finally looks up as he starts to say “I’m sorry…”. Immediately I start thinking about what could possibly be wrong. Was he going to say I had to go get something else? Was the invitation invalid?

“I’m sorry, but you are leaving the 10th, right? You do not need to pay $250 for expedited processing. The regular processing, which is $140, will get you the visa on the 8th.”

This is not what I expected. I discussed this with him. I said saving $110 is good because I do like money, which he agree with and laughed at. (Would this connection over money have happened pre-91?) However, I was leaving on the 9th and I wanted my passport and visa back sooner than the day before, so we kept the $250. There was a little more to the discussion, but his concern over saving me money, our shared laugh, and his politeness and professionalism (and not the expected disdain) made an impact on me.

The encounter with the twenty-something Russian official changed my opinion for the better. Of course, there was no where to go but up: any negative attitude would have been taken in stride, something that was expected. Overall, despite wasting nearly an entire day (much of which was my fault, not Russia’s), Russia scored a public diplomacy win.

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Separately, the time yesterday caused me to reconsider my previous stance on the fees the US imposes on foreigners. The fee is imposed, as a representative of the State Department explained it, because by law the US visa system must pay for itself. In the post-9/11 world, entries declined so the cost per entry went up. The decision by Congress to not have the US taxpayer subsidize travel to the US – which is how lower-than-cost visa fees are interpreted by some on the Hill – as well as require an additional fee on entry to the US to pay (ironically) for advertising that may have encouraged the same traveller to cross our border and spend money (in other words, it’s a tax for the right to spend money in the US, an activity that will itself create tax revenue), needs to be rethought. It also needs to be better explained by the State Department, the agency that has taken the brunt of the criticism over policies beyond its control.