Thursday, August 6, 2009

Visa requirements -- all done? Maybe

August 3, 2009

Woohoo...I received the last vital piece of information I needed -- the "visa block number" --from the Ministry of Labor to the IPA that allows me to complete the visa application package.

What's aggravating about this piece of information is that it is not referenced, as such, in any of the documents outlining visa requirements. Apparently it's item #4 on the list: "A reference note showing the number and date of the residence visa issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

Now, how you get from that description to "visa block number" is a mystery so naturally I wouldn't have known to even ask for such a thing. In fact, it would have seemed to be a typical chicken-and-egg situation: How could one know the residence visa number until one had received the visa? And you can't get the visa until you have the number.

One thing that is no problem acquiring is various enumerations of requirements. Nearly every time I call and manage to get through to someone at the consulate or cultural mission in DC, they want to send me a list of requirements. And each time I patiently explain that it's not the list of requirements I's an explanation of the requirements.

So, having received the crucial visa block number, and having my visa application package all put together ahead of time, I hustled over to the local US Post Office and got everything certified-mailed to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM) in Washington. This included an express-mail return envelope for my passport. I'm a bit nervous about not having my passport available, not because I might have to travel somewhere, but because I have no idea how long it will be in the hands of the SACM or whether they might lose it. As it happens, my university transcripts were sent twice, and, as you'll see, had to be sent a third time.

The good news about the U.S. Postal Service is that -- believe it or not -- the whole process only took me 11 minutes, and that includes having the agent look up the SACM zip code. Total cost: $22.45.

I called the SACM person the next day who advised she had received the package...however it appears the medical report was missing the doctor's official stamp with their medical license and the consulate had not verified my university degrees yet.

It so happens that the doctor's office doesn't just have a stamp with their license on it, but the SACM protocol officer advised that any "stamp" with their name and address would do. Of course the doctor's office was closed for lunch at that time, but I have to give them kudos for stepping up when I got ahold of them at 1pm . By now most of the office staff were probably aware of my Saudi plans and they knew how expensive this was gettting for me. The office manager got their address stamp, stamped some stationery, scanned it and e-mailed it off to the SACM within an hour, with a "cc" to me. No charge.

Next stop, the consulate office that verifies and validates the university degree(s). Sure enough, they did not have the 2nd set of documents that Gannon University (my master's degree institution) had sent on July 10. The problem seems to have been that the consulate likes to get all their information at one time from one source. That is, they want me to get the transcripts and then re-mail to their office. At the time, I thought it would be simplest to just have the two universities (B.A, U. of Dayton, M.A., Gannon U.) send official documents directly. The consulate had agreed to that.

Big mistake.

Apparently they don't have a system for keeping track of documents. The Univ. of Dayton documents never did get found. The first Gannon Univ. documents were sent back to Gannon with a sticky note saying "This student is not a Saudi-sponsored student" even though there was a cover letter. The university was sharp enough to call me and let me know that, and that's when I had them send another official document, this time to the specific attention of the person who needed to verify the degree.

In the meantime, I had to persuade him that the university doesn't have a copy of the "diploma" per se, in their archives. They have official transcripts, etc. but I couldn't even tell you where my actual "diploma" is. I still have my high school diploma, but that's just because I happened to find it in an old trunk a few years ago. Anyway, the consulate agreed to waive the diploma and was willing to accept the official sealed transcript. At the same time, I needed to have the National Student Clearinghouse Association verify my degree ($6.50) and send that info to the consulate, along with a cover letter authorizing them to verify the information...and a copy of my passport. Of course my passport was already in the hands of their counterparts at the SACM, so they were willing to waive that requirement.

We agreed that I would ask Gannon Univ. to overnight another official transcript, to the specific attention of the person verifying. At first he wanted to have Gannon send me the transcript, which I would then turn around and mail to him, with the other information that I had on hand. But I pointed out that that could add another 5 days to the process, what with the weekend coming up. And (I reckoned) what's to stop them from losing something from me any more than something from the university. I also figured that with overnight delivery, everything would be fresh in his mind and he could be looking for it.

I made another long distance call to Gannon asking them to overnight the transcripts to the consulate. They were very cooperative and I almost had Theresa convinced to accept some tasty Lake Erie perch as payment (from my brother, who lives there) but we eventually settled on a $25 shipping and handling fee...considering they had sent out two for free.

August 4, 2009

I got an e-mail from the SACM advising me to fill out an airline ticket application form. Fortunately, I had made the plane reservation a couple months ago so I had that information handy. However, as typical with Saudi forms, there was an item that wasn't completely clear: they wanted a "confirmation number," whereas since I hadn't confirmed the flight yet, all I had was a "reservation number." I called the airline the next day (since they were closed at 2pm, Phoenix time), confirmed that the numbers are the same thing, and e-mailed the form.

The only thing now is that the SACM, which is the agency that actually obtains the ticket, pays for it and sends it to me, must complete the transaction by Monday, Aug. 10 at 5pm. And, of course, they can't do that until they have verified university credientials so that they can complete the visa approval.

August 6, 2009

I received a timely email today saying that the consulate received the transcripts. As arranged, I e-mailed the other documentation he needed (the Degree-Verify doc and a copy of my job offer). Shortly thereafter, he confirmed that he received those and had completed his verification process.

At this point, the SACM should have everything they need to issue the visa and get the airplane ticket.

This morning, I felt confident enough that the visa would come through in time that I informed the woman who rents a room that she may need to move in a month. Alternatively, if I find a 2nd renter willing to take the major part of the house, where I currently reside, she can stay. She can even help approve the newcomer.

With the housing market being in some disarray in Phoenix -- as everywhere -- it's hard to know how this will all work out. My townhouse is a wonderful place to live, with a two-car garage, pool and jacuzzi, patio, access to public transportation and two freeways...yet set back in a quiet cul de sac. Still, people are not flocking to the Valley of the Sun in droves and there are lots of housing options. So this all remains a concern.

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