UPDATE (December 2014): The process is much easier now. Many countries can get a visa on arrival by applying online 4 days before arrival.
It was just like a bad nightmare, you know the kind where you forget to wear pants to work, but it was actually happening. Forty-eight hours before our year-long trip was going to start I was on an overnight train back to D.C. hoping to get my passport back. I hadn’t lost it, it wasn’t stolen, it was the same one that I’ve had for years, but I had given it to a company called BLS in order to get a visa to visit India.
How to Apply
More than 30 days before I had submitted our visa applications and passports. The whole application process was confusing to say the least, but here are a few things I wish I had known beforehand.
Applying in person or by mail
Since we were in the D.C. area, I felt it would be safer to apply in person. If you don’t live near a BLS office, you will need to mail your passports and application. BLS is the company that processes the visa applications for India in the U.S.
Deciding on the visa duration
As a U.S. citizen you can get a 6 month, 5 year, or 10 year visa. The 10 year and 5 year visas cost the same, so if you have the money to spare, you should go ahead and get the 10 year visa. You can see the most recent visa fees on the BLS website. Note that the visa duration starts as soon as it’s issued. So if you are applying more than 6 months ahead, your visa may run out before you even leave. I would recommend that you get the longer visa and start the application process 2 or 3 months ahead of your departure.
Filling out the forms
Since we applied, BLS has outlined the application process in a more user-friendly format on their website. It’s pretty straight forward. For your in-India reference, you can use the name, address, and phone number of your first hotel in India. You can also try calling the help line if you have any questions.
Booking your appointment
If you decide to apply in person, you will need to book an appointment. The appointments are only in the morning and only during the week, so you will need to take time off of work if you plan to do this. Also, don’t expect your appointment to actually happen on time. You will likely need to wait a while before someone is available to help you. The BLS office in D.C. is a 10 minute walk from the Union Station metro on I Street in a small office building.
Checking your status
After applying you can check the status of your application online. I’d recommend keeping a copy or picture of your passport, as it can be easier to look up your status by passport number rather than the order form number they give you. If they have to resubmit your application you will get a new order form number, but will still be able to lookup the status of your most recent submittal by your passport number.
A Very Close Call
With only a few days before our first flight, I still didn’t have my passport. Before leaving D.C. we had gone back to the BLS office, twice, and submitted an entirely new application. Nobody could give a straight answer as to what was wrong, just a vague mention of a bad scan, or something wrong with their software. We had arranged for BLS to overnight my passport to New York where we were staying with Beth’s parents. Online I could check the status and see that the Indian embassy had issued my visa, but as I checked the status again and again, no indication or tracking number appeared.
I was freaking out. Wait one more day and hope that it was shipped, or go back one last time and get things settled?
Worried, I got on an overnight train back to D.C. Leaving at 10 PM from New York I got in at 4 AM. After just a few fitful hours of sleep at a hotel near Union Station, I hurried over to the BLS office. Getting there just as they opened, I got my passport back and jumped on the first train back to New York. The nightmare was over and we were ready to start our trip!