India 0: A Taste of Bureaucracy

Unless you’re Bhutanese or Nepali, which I am not, the first step on a long journey to India is getting an Indian visa.

I chose to get mine in Singapore, which has a fairly sizable High Commission to cater for the 6-7% of Singaporeans who are of Indian descent, but need a visa to visit their homeland. The local High Commission thus doesn’t even allow visa applications from anybody else… unless they’re resident in Singapore, like me, in which case they’re grudgingly accepted with extra charges and processing time. Here’s how it went.

Weekend: The High Commission of India in Singapore has a surprisingly informative if somewhat confusing website, where I could also download the application forms I needed. One was PDF and printed out fine, but the second one was only available in MS Word format, with alignment shot to hell and question marks all over the place indicating missing Indian fonts. I filled out the two page PDF form, which, among other things, required two references in Singapore and two in India; a little perusing on Thorn Tree indicated that these aren’t necessary for tourist visas, but nothing on the application form or the HCI site said this. I left them blank and also prepared a copy of my Singaporean identity card.

Tuesday: Having been forewarned of the 3-hour queues that awaited, I avoided always busy Monday and showed up at 9 AM, just as they opened the gate. A stampede for the queue number machine followed and I grabbed slot 30. The embassy was supposed to open at 9:15 AM, and some people showed up at their desks, walked around randomly, answered random questions from random people and shuffled a lot of paper. Some people lined up at counter 5, and I asked what was going on, only to be informed that this is where you deposit your passport after your application has been accepted. Counters 6-9 were devoted to a milling mob of India-Indians (no queue numbers for these guys!) applying for new passports, reporting missed ones, claiming Person of Indian Origin visas, registering marriages and whatnot. And at counter one, a Tamil couple explained something, in extensive detail, to the person behind the counter for over half an hour nonstop. At least they seemed happy when they finally left.

Nothing continued to happen (giving me plenty of time to fill up that missing third form, which turned out to be entirely different from what they had on their website) until 9:45, when the first queue number popped up. 1! 2! 3! 4! 5! 6! 7! all flashed in quick succession, until around 12 somebody actually showed up to claim their spot. Of the eight desks in the visa room, two seemed to be employed in actually processing passports. Number 30 came up around 10:30 AM — I deposited my application forms and paid S$20 (a “fax charge” for resident foreigners). The lady behind the counter clipped the application forms together, punched away at her PC for a while, printed a receipt on an aging dot-matrix printer, scribbled random things on it and my application by hand, ripped off the extra paper with a practiced draw of the ruler and told me to return 5 days later “before 10 AM”. The queue numbers were pushing 100 by the time I left.

Next Monday: I showed up about 10 minutes “late”, only to find (as expected) a huge queue at counter 5 with people waiting to deposit their passport. I twiddled my thumbs for half an hour until I got to hand in my passport, leading to a search for my previous application in a stack yay big and a repeat of the pay-clip-punch-print-scribble-rip routine. This time I forked out S$80 for the visa itself, and was told to return at 4:15 PM sharp.

Monday, part 2: On a hunch, I showed up at 4 PM sharp, once again in time to see the gate swing open and savvy visa hackers jostle for queue numbers. I got “159” and settled down to wait, and around 4:30 they started blinking numbers again, starting around 140. This time the queue actually moved fast, and less than ten minutes later I was the proud possessor of a 6-month multiple-entry Indian visa. Whee!

Conclusion: If there’s a more convoluted way of applying for a visa, I’d like to hear about it (as long as it doesn’t happen to me). For me, the triple trek to the embassy wasn’t too bad as it’s just three subway stops away from my house, but I could imagine this being a serious nuisance for somebody who lives on the other side of the island and has to get this done during working hours to boot. Then again, that’s why there are travel agents who’ll do it all for you, charging just S$20 extra for the privilege — not much if your own time is worth anything at all.

On the upside, I did get the unlimited-entry 6 month visa on the first try, which I gather is pretty unusual for India. Better yet, I didn’t have to fork out a single penny in bribes facilitation service fees, unlike Indonesia where my multiple-entry business visa ended up costing around US$400.


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