Visas and Visa Cards

Getting a visa to travel abroad used to be an adventure in itself, at least in the 1980s when I went to the US for study. There was none of this visa waiver nonsense, if you wanted to go to the US, you went to your nearest US embassy.

In my case that was London or Paris. Back then, they were both housed in rather elegant quarters and had limited opening hours for visa applications which gave the whole experience an air of exclusiveness. In those pre 9-11 days, security was limited to a couple of Marines with sidearms stationed at the door, and there was no bulletproof glass between you and the official. You dropped off your paperwork, and then had to sit around in a large hall while someone in a back office determined whether you were the sort of person they wanted in the US. It didn´t matter that there were no smartphones or flatscreen TVs mounted on every wall to provide distraction, because the entertainment came from catching snippets of conversation between applicant and official. The best ones were when they began to pick holes in a story. These typically went along the lines of something like

“you are applying to visit the US in order to see your wife sir?”

“yes, that is correct”

“so why are you in the UK?”

“I have been working here for my business these last few months”

“in the UK”


“the whole time”


“so why does your passport have an Exit Stamp from Uganda from two days ago?”

I had my own special moment when I came back to the UK get my visa renewed. They took my completed forms, I sat around for about half an hour, and then they called my name to go to Desk 4.

“So, you are applying for a renewal of your work visa?”

“that is correct”

“which visa have you been using to work in the US?”

“er, this one”

“do you realize you´ve been working illegally in the US for the last 3 months?”


Surprisingly, they let me off, either because I was too valuable an asset, or more likely they decided I really was that incompetent.

These days, globalization has obviated the need for visas for many locations. But China remains one significant exception. When I first moved there they had a entry visa that was only valid for one month so, upon your arrival you had to start preparing all the paperwork for extending your stay. I finally moved from Beijing and over to a resident permit which was more straightforward because, back then, outside the major cities, no one really cared seemed to care too much about the details.

Once I moved on to Denmark, it only occurred to me three days before my flight that I would need to apply for short term visa to get back into China. Fortunately, the visa section in Copenhagen was, sizable, well staffed, open all morning to drop off paperwork, and had an express service to expedite last minute applications.

I was expecting something similar when I was planning a trip over there after I moved to Oslo. The city has a fairly impressive embassy district. Aside from the US, who decided to move to a concrete monstrosity that looks like a fortified car park constructed at the arse end of the 1960s, many other embassies still occupy victorian era mansions. The Chinese Embassy is no exception, except they are located in a different part of the city.

After my previous slipups, I did have the foresight to check details before I showed up on their doorstep. Which was just as well, since the visa section is housed in a different location. I was expecting office building, carrying some kind of status. I wasn´t expecting a tiny little office located on the second floor of a strip mall above a bookshop and a bathroom appliance store.

There were only two windows and the queue stretched out the door and down the stairs, which at least gave me time to window shop for the next book on my reading list. It turned out that things were held up by a Chinese couple applying for a Chinese passport for their Norwegian born sprog. Once they were sorted, things moved along a little faster. But not as fast as if they had been using both windows for submitting paperwork. As it was, the right window was for drop off, the left was for pickup. If there were no pickups, which was common since it was a much faster process, the woman at the window would stare off into space.

I finally got to the front of the queue, there was no expedite service, but it was cheaper for non-Norwegian citizens, unless you were a US citizen, in which case it was twice the price. They didn´t do rush applications and they only accepted payment by cash and some obscure card that was only available in Norway. The official scanned my paperwork. The official looking letter of invitation from reputable institution was fine, photos were good, form was filled out correctly, but the letter of employment from the hospital (required because I was working in Norway but not holding a Norwegian passport) was invalid because it was in Norwegian.

I rode back to the hospital, got a letter on hospital letterhead that contained a single sentence in English to state I was employed at the hospital (no one could have forged something like that) and returned the next day.

All was good, I dropped off the paperwork, confirmed the price and was told come back the following Thursday.

Except of course, it was a holiday and everything was closed.

They were open Friday. I showed up with my receipt. They handed me the passport and told me to check the visa. It was good. I handed over a 500kr note to pay.

“we don´t take cash”

“last week your colleague told me you did”

“we don´t”

“you can pay by card”

I handed them my card from Nordea (one of the largest banks in Scandinavia)

“we don´t take that card”

“which ones do you take?”

“this one” (She pointed to the obscure Norwegian logo – I tried looking it up on Google but I can´t find it) “or visa”

I handed her my Visa card

“no, we can´t take that card”

“but it´s a Visa card”

“we can´t take it”

“so how do I pay?”

“you have to use this type of Norwegian card”

I was starting to understand why she had been banished to an office located above a bathroom appliance shop on the outskirts of the city

Fortunately, a Norwegian gent who was holding up the applications line by dropping off 20 passports with 20 incorrectly completed forms offered to pay for me if I gave him the cash.  I didn´t have change, but I did know a conveniently located bookshop where I could buy something and break a 500kr note.


2 Responses to “Visas and Visa Cards”

  1. janh1 Says:

    They’re either being bloody-minded or they’re getting kick-backs from the book sales..

  2. cyanide bunny Says:

    It did occur to me that the bookshop might be fronting a money laundering operation on an extremely small scale

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