We’ve had quite a frustrating few days lately trying to get our ducks in a row for our upcoming Via Francigena walk from Canterbury, England to Rome via France and Switzerland. The Schengen area, a group of 26 European countries who have abolished passports between borders, only allows American citizens to stay 90 days out of each 180 days within their borders. We determined early on that we would most probably not be able to walk the 1200+ miles of the Via Francigena in 90 days. That would average about 13 miles/day with no lay days to rest and/or see the sights. Not our kind of travel. Thus, we set about ascertaining how to obtain a Schengen extension. Sounds like it should be easy and straightforward enough, but as we learned the hard way, it is definitely not.
We did a bit of research on line and determined that the country where we would go beyond our 90-day limit would be Italy and therefore, we should start there. Conveniently, there’s an Italian consul in Las Vegas and I called. The consul was unavailable, but someone would call me back. Amazingly, someone did. A pleasant woman called and asked me to explain what I needed. After a lengthy explanation, she told me the trip sounded exciting, but her office couldn’t help. We’d need to contact the Italian Consulate in Los Angeles.
I emailed the Consulate immediately, once again outlining our dilemma and requesting information on how we could apply for the visa extension. A few days later we received an answer via email, but unfortunately it had nothing to do with my question. I responded as such and got another reply the next day asking for our phone number, so we could discuss the situation in person. We were elated… personal contact would be great. We received a call the next day. After outlining again what we intended to do, he told us that Italy could not extend the visa. It was France, our first entry point into the Schengen area that must issue the extension.
Okay … we got on the French Embassy website. There’s lots of information available, but nothing that specifically gave us a hint as to how we could handle our situation. I called the French Embassy and, after outlining our plan, a nice woman indicated it sounded like a wonderful trip, but we didn’t need a visa at all since we were US citizens and could stay in the Schengen area for 90 days. I patiently (I know that word doesn’t usually come up when describing me) explained once again that the ‘pilgrimage’ would take us longer than 90 days and we needed an extension within the Schengen area. ‘Hmmm...hmm...aha!’, she finally exclaimed. ‘Will you be in France for the majority of your walk?’ We said yes without hesitation. ‘Well, then, you can apply for an extension via the website. All the information you need is at www.france-visas.gouv/fr. Easy, peasy...now we were getting somewhere.
David had read on-line from a couple of sources that Schengen visa extensions were sometimes difficult to obtain, but a couple of countries including France, often allowed extensions for self-employed individuals. Well, we’re writers and photographers and are hoping to write a book on our experiences...that would qualify. None of the visa forms seemed to allow us the opportunity to explain our purpose for visiting or needing the extension. Additionally, things like the hotel we planned to stay in didn’t apply, since we’d be in daily transit. We figured we’d get it all sorted when we got to the interview. After sifting through the rather complex visa application, I was finally able to complete one for each us, tie them together as one submission and request the required interview.
The French Embassy no longer interviews/assesses applicants itself, but rather works through an agency in Los Angeles, namely VFS Global, in Beverly Hills. We made the appointment on line and duly paid our non-refundable $28.97/pp for the privilege. We had two days in which to gather all the information that was needed to accompany the applications when we had our interviews. Current passports, of course, plus bank statements indicating we could support ourselves financially while in France, medical insurance for emergencies as well as proof of repatriation insurance and two current color passport photos each in the Schengen-required size (35mmx45mm). Additionally, we brought our insurance documents specifically outlining our coverages and threw in a couple of Good Old Boat magazines showing David’s name on the masthead as well as a published article and photos. We felt we were ready.
We left at oh-dark-thirty with the thought of having plenty of time when (not if) we encountered the dreaded LA traffic en route. The 300-mile drive took us about six hours with a coffee/pee break or two. We arrived in plenty of time to scope out our meeting location, find a free parking place for Blue a few blocks away, have an overpriced Beverly Hills lunch and then arrive for our 1:30 pm appointment at precisely 1:24 pm. (Do NOT arrive more than 15 minutes early for your appointment).
After a security scan in the outer office, we entered a small waiting room with four windows in front, one of which was occupied by a VFS employee. At the appointed time, we were called up together but to two different windows to begin the visa application review. David’s fellow asked for his completed OFII form along with proof of medical insurance beyond emergency and repatriation expenses. ‘What if you need a physical or have an earache? This would not be covered by your insurance’, he said.
‘Right’, responded David perplexed, ‘but why would I need a physical in France? And if I had an earache, I’d go to a local clinic and pay for it out-of-pocket.’
‘I don’t make the rules’, he responded. ‘You need this insurance coverage. And, of course, you must have your OFII form.’
While this was going on about two feet away, the woman I was assigned to had different questions. She asked me to explain why we needed the extension and after a couple of ‘sounds awesome’ remarks, she sighed and told me we had completed the wrong visa applications. We shouldn’t have completed the self-employment visa forms, but rather the ‘familial/private establishment (adult)) visitor’ visa. Who knew? Obviously, not us.
‘Can we just fill out a new one here?’ I inquired hopefully.
‘Sorry, no, you must do it on line. Do you have a computer and printer with you?’
‘Er, no, we didn’t anticipate having to fill out another application.’
She began searching on her cell phone and said the Margaret Herrick Library was only .3 miles (8 mins) up the street.
‘Can we just come back in with the new application?’
‘Yes, but you must be back by 3:00pm. By the way, we don’t work weekends and Monday is a holiday, so if you don’t make it back today, there will be another charge and you won’t be able to come back until Tuesday at the earliest.’
The clock read 1:45 pm. We had 1 hour and 15 minutes to complete and print new visa applications as well as compose a letter explaining why we needed the extra time and stating that, under no circumstances, did we intend to work for pay in France. We could do this. Right?
We set out at a brisk pace walking to the library and made it in 7, not 8, minutes, only to find out it was the ‘Oscars Library’, a reference/research library for the motion picture industry. No internet, no computers, no printers. The desk clerk suggested a FedX only a mile away. We hoofed it back to Blue while searching on-line for the closest FedEx address.
We sped there only to find that neither this particular FedEx nor the Package Store next door had computers or printers available, but the clerk there suggested a FedEx office back on Wilshire that he was sure had them. Time on the clock? 2:12 pm. Our hearts were racing.
As David maneuvered the route, I called FedEx to verify they had computers/internet/printers on site. We were there in minutes and flying through their front door. David took one computer, writing the explanation letter. I took another. Fingers fumbling, I got onto to France’s website and began the laboriously slow process of creating new visa applications for each of us based on VFS’s directions. I finished one, checked it and printed it. One down, one to go … 2:40pm.
I finished the second visa application, reviewed it and printed it while David printed two copies of the letter. We checked out of the FedEx store at 2:46 pm, made a scramble for Blue, fought traffic down Wilshire to the VFS office, hitting every red light, but no pedestrians. David came to a rolling stop in the no-parking zone in front of the VFS building. I hopped out and ran into the building, jabbed at the elevator buttons for a ride to the 4th floor while David found a parking place for Blue. I arrived at Security, got a superficial security wanding and burst into the waiting room. Time: 2:58pm.
‘Hi there, Ms. Lynn. You made it back. We’ll be right with you”, said the same woman who’d helped me initially. Whew! I really wasn’t sure this was going to work, but I was feeling a bit more confident now. David came in a few minutes later... winded, but pleased I’d made it on time and that they would be processing our visas.
They took our paperwork and reviewed it carefully. The letter was fine. Yup, the financial information was fine. Yup, they’d accept the medical coverage we had. Nope, no need for the OFII form with this type of visa (still don’t know what it is, but hooray!). Everything looks in order, sign here and we’ll need €99/pp to process your visa.
I pondered for just a moment. Shelling out money always make me ponder. ‘Just one more question. Now, if this visa is approved, we will be able to stay in the Schengen area for up to six months, correct?’
‘Well, yes...er, I think so. You know what, let me get the manager to speak with you and answer this question directly.’
We waited a moment and the manager appeared. Young, confident and apparently quite knowledgeable. The young woman explained what was going on and reiterated my question to him.
‘Actually, you don’t need an extended visa to stay in France and a French extension does not apply to other Schengen countries.’ He then proceeded to tell us why. The USA and France had a bilateral visa agreement in place prior to the Schengen Agreement allowing US citizens an additional 90 days in France and the agreement was still honored. However (always a however) other Schengen countries might not have the same agreement with the USA and he could only speak for France. Therefore, we could not submit a visa application for a French extension.
Tune in next time to find out Who’s on First, What’s on Second and whether we have a visa.