If only I’d known what I was getting myself into.
It was early April when my 29-year-old son, who lives in Boston, told me that he and five friends were planning a trip to Russia this summer and asked if I’d go to the consulate in Washington to apply for their visas.
Russia has five consulates in the United States — in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Seattle and Houston — and they don’t accept mail or electronic visa applications from residents of the continental United States. They require each would-be visitor to fill out an application online, print out a copy and have someone (not necessarily the applicant himself) hand-deliver it.
Checking the Russian Embassy Web site, I learned that as of April 10, the visa processing duties would be transferred from the consulate to a contractor called Invisa Logistics Service (ILS), which would charge $30 per application on top of the consulate’s $140 fee for processing, which was supposed to take about two weeks, or one week with rush service (for an extra payment, of course).
Unfortunately, boys being boys no matter how grown up, my son and his friends didn’t get their paperwork to me until after the changeover. In mid-April, I drove to the ILS office, the Russian Visa Center, on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. It was just after noon when I arrived, and the door was locked. I’d overlooked the note on the Web site saying that the office takes a “technical break” between noon and 3 p.m. (recently changed to 12:30 to 2). When I returned after 3, I was told that the office accepts applications only in the morning.
By the time I got there at 10 a.m. the next day, there were already a couple of dozen people sitting and standing around the office, in no particular queue. “How can I tell who comes before me?” I asked timidly. The same thing happened every time someone came through the door. Those who’d been there a number of times — that was most people — just asked, “Who’s the last person?” as they walked in. A couple of times, I saw arguments erupt over who was next in line. A numbered-ticket dispenser at the door would solve the problem, but perhaps that would be too simple.
After almost two hours, it was my turn. And the news was bad: Two of the six young men for whom I was applying hadn’t signed their application forms; one had filled out the form for the consulate in New York instead of Washington; and my son hadn’t signed his brand-new passport. So the office accepted only two applications; the rest had to be corrected. Okay, this was our fault, so I couldn’t complain.
Ten days passed before I’d pulled everything together again; it was now early May. I waited at the ILS office for another couple of hours, only to receive another dollop of bad news. The woman at the window declared that she could no longer accept applications printed on a Russian consulate form. Applicants had to use a new form for ILS, even though the difference was exactly three letters in the upper right-hand corner: “WAS” on one form and “ILS” on the other. She said that she’d earlier accepted the old form because it was still the transition period from the consulate to ILS. My plea for flexibility fell on deaf ears. She wouldn’t budge. I texted my son that he and his buddies would have to fill out the applications all over again and mail them back to me.
The papers arrived again on May 10. I wasn’t able to take time off from work and had to hire a woman in my neighborhood to take them to the visa office. While I was in the middle of a conference, she sent me a text message saying that she’d waited more than two hours in line to learn that ILS wouldn’t accept the cashier’s checks the applicants had sent back in early April because they were made out to the Russian consulate. Now that the transition period had expired, they had to be made out to ILS. Fortunately, my helper was resourceful enough to go to her ATM and get cash for the fees; I reimbursed her later.
One of my son’s friends was planning to travel abroad on Memorial Day weekend and needed his passport back by then. When we’d started the process in early April, I’d never thought that this would be a problem. Now I had to pay an extra $110 for rush service.
But when I went to ILS on May 17, the designated pickup date, the passport wasn’t there — and no one could tell me what had happened to it. Fortunately, it turned up the next day, and I immediately sent it off by certified mail.
Over several visits to ILS and the hours I spent waiting in that small office in Georgetown, I witnessed an assortment of dramas. One couple who came to pick up their visas a day before their departure for Moscow were told that their passports couldn’t be located. Practically in tears, they declared that they wouldn’t leave until they had their documents in hand. (Alas, I don’t know the ending to that story.) Another time, a young man who’d come to the office a couple of times to pick up his visa only to be told that it wasn’t ready arrived to retrieve them on the day of his flight to Moscow. When the passports were produced, the waiting room erupted in a warm cheer as he rolled his suitcase away.
You could tell the first-time visitors in the waiting room, because they all bore a worried expression that said, “Please, someone tell me what’s going on here!” Those with experience looked either indignant, exasperated, resigned or amused. One dignified-looking gentleman in a business suit exploded in anger when the clerk told him that his application couldn’t be accepted. “Everything is like this in Russia,” said one man who told me that he spends a lot of time in Moscow. “Nothing is easy.”
There were always at least a few men and women who came in with bundles of applications and passports. These were professional carriers who work for commercial visa-handling agencies. Several of them told me that things used to be easier when the consulate was handling applications. I found that ironic, considering that on its Web site, ILS declares that its visa center was created “to improve the services quality [sic]” for visa seekers, an explanation that’s echoed on the Russian Embassy Web site.
Reached by phone last week, Aleksander Kovganov, the head of the ILS office, said the same. “The decision to open this office was made to improve service,” he told The Post, calling the move consistent with “international practice for many countries,” including the United States, which outsources its visa processing in Moscow. He also pointed out that ILS is only the “front office” for the embassy, which still makes all the decisions regarding the visa applications.
He conceded that the office had “some problems” in May, which he called high season for applications and which was only the second month the ILS office was in business. “This procedure isn’t simple, like buying bread,” he said. “It’s very complicated and there are a lot of things to do.”
Perhaps things will become easier as the company learns how to do its business, but my experience was a bureaucratic nightmare.
On May 24, I went back to pick up the last three visas, feeling relieved that it would be my last visit. But I was being too optimistic. The woman at the window announced that all three applications had been rejected because one of the applicants had incorrectly indicated the date of entry into Russia. She said she’d refund all the fees so that I could start all over again.
“Can’t you just correct that one number now?” I protested. But no. I begged and pleaded and finally persuaded her to take the two good applications and let me come back with the third. With a rush service payment, of course.
My final pickup date, June 7, coincided with my departure for Boston to attend my son’s commencement at MIT. My helper went to ILS to find that nothing was ready. She returned the next day, and during the commencement ceremony, I received a text message from her saying that ILS insisted that I’d already picked up the passports. I most emphatically had not. She persisted until they produced the documents.
My son, who’d been thinking that he’d have to delay his June 11 departure for Europe, was ecstatic when he saw a FedEx overnight envelope under his door on the morning of Saturday, June 9.
But not as ecstatic as I was that my ordeal was finally over.
Doi is a freelance writer in Washington. Travel editor Zofia Smardz contributed to this article.