How I got my visa (and sort of survived the process)

When last we left our intrepid poet, an appointment had been made with the Italian consulate in San Francisco, and plane tickets had been purchased, amid much trepidation. Not being entirely certain how long the process would take but needing a (one way) ticket anyway, I’d purchased my ticket to Venice for a few days after the 60-day window the consulate website proffered.  My appointment was scheduled for October 9th and my ticket to Venice for December 12th.

One of the things I was a little uneasy about for the appointment was my appearance. I’ve had green hair for the better part of twenty years. I have a nose ring and an eyebrow piercing. I’ve got multiple earrings. What passes for my wardrobe tends toward stuff you’d go camping in, geeky fangirl clothes, or casual steampunk. I didn’t think any of that was necessarily the best choice for meeting someone who had the power to determine which course my life was going to take during a very short appointment. Regardless of who I am as a human being, that first and probably only impression was going to be part of the decision of whether or not I’d be granted a visa. I had to de-freakify myself.

I decided I had to approach the appointment the way I’d approach a job interview, at least visually. I had to look like the sort of moderately well off middle aged woman they might want to actually let into their country. I didn’t have any clothes that I thought fit the bill, but I hate clothes shopping. I usually do it when what I’ve been wearing is threadbare and desperately needs replacing. The thought of having to go through several stores to deliberately look for clothes that I would look acceptable in was slightly horrifying. Fortunately, one of my girlfriend’s friends is a fashionista. He’s got a degree in looking fabulous and works at a menswear shop in downtown Seattle, and he said he was willing to help out, and so it was that Operation Impress an Italian Bureaucrat was born.

We picked a day when all of us had a few hours, and Kent hauled us off down the hill to shops that I had never once stuck my nose in during my entire life. He talked and waved things at me and stood me in front of mirrors and I occasionally nodded and allowed as how this particular thing or that might work. At least I wasn’t going to die of alterna-geek embarrassment whilst wearing the items: grey dress pants, a white shirt, and a dark blue blazer with black trim aren’t entirely out of the realm of wearable under other circumstances. I had acceptable shoes to go with them. It was possibly the least painful clothes shopping experience of my entire life. Once the clothes were chosen, he hauled me down to his tailor, who did things with measuring tapes and pins. The alterations would take about a week. She gave me her special friend of a friend rate on her work, for which I am very grateful.

Even with the still-green streak in my hair, I have to admit I looked good. If I actually had a resume that meant anything, somebody might even have hired me. I looked like some greying mid-level executive you might encounter in the streets downtown. My girlfriend thought I looked hot. So, apparently, did Kent, whose preferences generally run in other directions. I figured I’d hit the fashionista jackpot. Not my favored appearance, but exactly what I was going for in terms of making bureaucrats think I was just the thing to let into Italy on a long-term basis. A haircut happened next, and that got rid of the rest of the green. I’d recently purchased new glasses for other reasons, but they looked good, too. Shoes got polished. Seams got tucked.

I grew more anxious as the date approached. I’d given myself a couple of days in San Francisco so that I wouldn’t chance my plane doing something weird and being late for the appointment. I was able to spend time with some very dear friends, who hauled me back and forth and fed me and dealt with my fretful hand-waving and minor anxiety attacks. In the morning when I got dressed in my bureaucrat-impressing suit, I took out the nose ring and the eyebrow jewelry. I left in the earrings because they weren’t particularly over the top and one of them is a larger piercing that would have left a visible hole in my lobe without the plug in it anyway.

My final visa application packet included:

Cover letter
Completed application form
Passport photo
Declaration for Mailing Passports (absolves the consulate of responsibility if the passport is lost in the mail)
Passport, along with photocopies of passport and drivers license
FBI criminal check
Health insurance cover sheet and photocopy of insurance card with information showing amount of coverage
Statement of annual benefit from Veterans Administration, 3 years
Statement of annual benefit from Social Security, 3 years
Verification of Non-Filing from IRS, 3 years
Letter of reference from my credit union, notarized
Copy of email from the consulate noting that these financial documents were sufficient and appropriate
Document from the credit union showing information about monthly VA and SSDI deposits
Credit union account statements, 6 months
Flight itinerary, Seattle to Venice, for December 12th, arriving December 13th
Dichiarazione di Garanzia from my brother, filled out according to the advice from his local Questura
Copy of his Permesso
Copy of his Certificato di Stato De Famiglia Cumulativo from his town
Copy of his Carta d’Identita
Account summary statement from his credit union on the base
Copies of his W-2 forms, 3 years
Prepaid self-addressed USPS priority mail envelope for the passport and visa

Not all of this was strictly required, but when dealing with a complex and byzantine bureaucracy, it is always better to be armed with too much information than to walk in with too little. Needing to fly back to San Francisco to hand someone one missing piece of paper would have been a bit extreme, I think, but quite possibly required had the application been incomplete. I included the email from the consulate just in case wires had got crossed and I’d been told by one person that my documentation was sufficient but I was interviewed by someone else with a different view of this process. The return envelope for the visa was required to be US Post Office priority mail. They do not accept UPS or FedEx for shipment.

The Italian consulate in San Francisco is in a nice older building with a lovely interior courtyard. The day was mostly sunny. Lorrie and I located the building without too much trouble, though parking was problematic. I went into the lobby to check in and wait my turn. There were only a couple of people ahead of me at the front counter, though they were not there for visa appointments. I was ushered in to my appointment before Lorrie got back from parking her car. The woman who took my application was very nice and quite pleasant; actually, everyone I spoke to at the consulate was, which helped considerably in putting me at ease.

My appointment took a little over fifteen minutes. The woman interviewing me said she had been the individual who’d answered most of my inquiries through email in the couple of months previous, and was familiar with my case. She asked how my brother was doing. While she entered information from my application into her computer, she asked me for various papers and pieces of information. I was prepared and knew where everything was in my packet. The website had said I should bring an extra photocopy of everything, so I had one of those in hand as well, but it wasn’t needed. She told me that they ask for this because sometimes the paperwork isn’t clear and they want a second set to work with, and I got to carry the photocopy back with me. One of the websites I’d seen noted that it is possible that the border/immigration authority at the airport may want to see my documents associated with the visa application upon entry to the country but, from what I’ve been told, that’s not terribly common. I’ll have them in my carry on bag anyway.

The only bobble was the application fee. I’d brought along a cashier’s check from my credit union for the amount noted on the website. Apparently, that amount had changed by $2.05 a few days before, due to an adjustment for the exchange rate from US Dollars to Euros. She said that the Euro amount remained the same, but the dollar amount shifted every couple of months. I’d have to get a cashier’s check or money order for the $2.05. My advice if you’re applying for a visa is to contact the consulate directly or consult the website the day before and make sure that the amount is current so as to avoid this. I’d got my check a couple of weeks prior to my appointment and the amount had changed in the meantime.

I texted Lorrie, who went on a quest for the required gap amount. She went to a bank down the street, who would only do a cashier’s check if you had an account there (she didn’t), and then had to go down to the Post Office for a money order. When Lorrie told them why she needed it, they said, “Oh, yeah. The Russians and the Italians are always sending people down here for that.” So, while inconvenient, I was at least not the first person to whom this had happened and I will undoubtedly be far from the last.

While Lorrie was questing for the money order, I wrapped up the actual appointment. I was told that they should hear back from their home office within a few days of receiving my application, if all the paperwork was in order. The woman taking my application handed me a little piece of paper with information about getting my paperwork in Italy. “When you get to Italy, you have to get your Permesso di Soggiorno within the first eight days of arriving,” she said. “Enjoy Italy!”

And then I waited in the waiting room for another 15 minutes until Lorrie arrived with the money order. I handed it through the window and off we went to have lunch with my friend Michael Rafferty, a fellow poet, over at Samovar. The weather was glorious, and the food and the tea were excellent, as was the company, but my friends are fantastic people so the good company was only to be expected.

I felt pretty good after the appointment. I didn’t think I was going to be told to enjoy Italy if there was no chance at all that the visa would be granted but, given how my life has often worked, I didn’t want to assume that it would go well. It couldn’t be real for me until I had my passport back in my hands with the visa affixed. For all I knew, something would hiccup and the whole thing would fall through.

I flew home the next morning, glad to have that part of the process over with. I had to stop by Laughing Buddha to have the nose ring and eyebrow piercing put back in, because I couldn’t get them back in myself for the life of me. At least I won’t have to take them out again. That’s a relief, because getting them back in is painful.

Then came the waiting. And the biting of nails. And the pacing. And the frantic worry that they’d say no, or that it would take weeks, and that I’d have only a few days to finish dealing with my life here before I had to get on a plane. Have I mentioned that I am a professional worry wart? Do not try this at home.

I checked almost every day on the USPS website to track the return envelope. Less than a week later, I checked and found notice that the envelope had arrived. I ran out to my mailbox.

Nothing in the mailbox.

I was pretty sure the envelope had been put into the box of one of my neighbors. This has happened occasionally. I didn’t doubt that they’d get it to me when they got home from work, but I had to be certain that the envelope hadn’t simply been misplaced, so I called the local post office and explained the situation to them. Half an hour or so later, the postal carrier was back. He got the envelope from my next door neighbor’s box and handed it to me.

I suspect my shrieks of excitement could be heard in the next county when I saw the visa affixed to my passport.

For lunch that day, I had Chinese food. In the cookie I got the message Traveling to a new place will lead to a great transformation.

Fortune cookies. Completely random until they’re not. Let’s hope the transformation is a positive one.

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Doing the research and filling out the application

My decision was made. I was going to try to move to Italy. Try was my operative word. I never actually believed it would happen, but it was a great fantasy, and one worth pursuing. Grand follies are the best kind, and I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t at least try when I had the opportunity.

Italy isn’t a grand passion for me the way it is for some, nor am I being sent to work over there. I’m not going to get a degree or study at a university. Aside from my brother living near Aviano for most of the last twenty-ish years and knowing that this fact might help, I hadn’t the first idea how to go about applying for an elective residence visa. I didn’t even know it was an elective residence visa that I needed.

I know that some people dream and plan for years before doing something like this. They’re probably far better prepared than I am. Most of the websites I looked at did mention elective residence visas in passing, but said that people should take a couple of years to plan and prepare for the application and the move. And there I was, throwing myself into the abyss with only a few months to work in, hoping there would be a soft landing, or that maybe I’d sprout some wings.

After asking my brother and getting his go-ahead on the project, we talked for a bit. He didn’t know much about the process, as he entered Italy with the Air Force, married an Italian, and got his residence an entirely different way than I need to. Most of the resources I found online about moving to Italy assumed that the person applying for a visa was either going for work or to attend university, and offered information accordingly. Some of it was useful but the majority wasn’t. Being told to talk to my HR department about the transfer wasn’t on my radar for obvious reasons. My HR department has a cold nose and four furry paws. He’d be useless for advising me on an international move. I bought two books on living and working in Italy last month and both of them mention elective residence visas only in passing.

Fortunately, I’m really good at internet research, and I’m also pretty good at figuring out the right questions to ask. This process, however, took a few months. I asked questions on the Fodors travel forum and got some good advice there. I read blogs by people who had successfully moved to Italy and found inspiration and real discussions of the ups and downs of the process, even when first attempts failed. I talked to people who had managed it, and friends who have moved to other countries from their own native lands — France, England, Spain, Thailand, the US. I got information from the Italian consulate in San Francisco. I’ve been told that each consulate handles the process somewhat differently, so my experience may not be what you encounter if you try to move to Italy. My experiences were also different than those of the people I talked to about the process.

On the surface, it looked impossible. I am, quite possibly, a fool or perhaps just blindly optimistic. But I had to move anyway due to my physical circumstances, so there was no reason not to take a whack at the impossible just to stay in practice. We poets are a sorry lot of wild-eyed dreamers, after all.

In searching for what was necessary to apply for an elective residence visa, different websites had slightly differing lists, so I emailed the San Francisco consulate for their specific requirements. I got this list of what was required for the elective residence application from the consulate:

Long term visa application form (you can find it on our website)
Recent photo
Passport valid and photocopy
Documented and detailed guarantee of substantial and steady private income (pensions or annuities) from property, stable economic and commercial activities or from other sources.
Proof of financial means, such as letters from the applicant’s bank indicating the financial status of their accounts, including amount of money in each account, copy of the last pension check, rental agreement or deed for property in Italy
Reservation flight
Valid foreign medical insurance (you will need a declaration from your insurer stating that you are covered abroad)
Financial assets
Fbi criminal report
Bank statements for the last 6 months showing a consolidate balance of at least $50,000 (each individual)
Tax returns for the last three years

Out of everything on that list, the most intimidating was the fact that they wanted proof that I had $50,000. I’ve never had that much money in my life. I probably never will have, unless I win the lottery, and I don’t buy tickets so you can see where that’s going.

In acquiring information from the consulate in San Francisco, I found that the best way to get actual useful answers was to ask one short question in each email, and make it a clear enough question that it could be answered in one or perhaps two sentences. Our correspondence was cordial and quite clear once I figured that out. Initially it had been slightly frustrating for me, because I tend to want to get all my answers in one place and will ask questions accordingly. Lots of them. In great detail. I’m sure I’m terribly annoying. I had sent an email with four or five questions on it and got a one sentence response that didn’t actually make sense to me and only peripherally addressed one of my questions. Breaking it down helped immensely, probably for both of us.

For the FBI report, I went to their website, printed out the form for a criminal records search, and went down to the county sheriff’s office to get fingerprinted. This was one of my earliest acts toward applying for the visa, as I had no idea how long the paperwork was going to take.

The letter from my credit union was actually easier than I anticipated. They apparently see things like this from time to time, and have a standard form for immigration purposes. It didn’t cost me a dime and they were very friendly and efficient about it. I had it about three days after my request. In later correspondence with the consulate, they said they wanted two letters of this sort from different financial institutions, but I explained that the credit union was the only place where I had accounts, and I had no other assets, so they said that the one letter would be acceptable.

Their requirement for a residence actually waiting for me in Italy was solved by my brother stepping in and sending a formal invitation, allowing me to live at his residence when I move there. I’ll stay with him until I can find my own place. It took him several talks with his friends at the town hall and friends of friends at the Questura in order to get the proper form and have it filled out properly. This invitation, however, makes him legally responsible for supporting me for a year when I arrive, so he had to be absolutely willing to take that chance on me. With the invitation form, he also had to include a copy of his Permesso di Soggiorno and he tossed in his most recent bank statement and his Italian identity documents for good measure, just in case. When it comes to Byzantine bureaucracies coughveteransadministrationcough, one can never be too prepared.

My brother has been a legal permanent resident of Italy for some time now. Because of that status, he is entitled to invite any member of his immediate family — parents, children if he had any, or siblings — to join him in Italy. I’m convinced that this is why my visa was granted. Between the two of us we could not come up with $50,000 even after I’d sold my car, half my library, and almost everything else I own, though we came fairly close. Even then, that was mostly his doing. The Questura told him that I should be sure to tell the consulate very clearly that I was applying for the elective residence visa and that I have no current military affiliation. Apparently, being so close to the base at Aviano, they often see people issued the wrong kind of visa because of the American military presence, and these individuals then have to return to the US to apply for the proper category of visa; visas cannot be applied for while you are actually in Italy. They did, however, assure him that with this invitation the consulate should grant my visa with no trouble.

Medical was partly taken care of by virtue of my being a disabled veteran. The VA system has a Foreign Medical Program in place for many countries. When you sign up for the program, the VA will pay any medical expenses related to your service-connected disabilities just like a civilian insurance company would. I still had to get civilian medical insurance for the purposes of the visa application and may well need it over there at some point, if only for emergencies. Medicare and Medicaid don’t apply over there, and they will not pay for medical care when you are overseas. When I visited the VA yesterday for a regular appointment, I collected a cd with my medical records on it and talked to several other departments. I was told that the VA can mail my medications to me at an APO box, which my brother has, for as long as my doctors will renew prescriptions. I was also told that when I return to the US for visits, I can get my annual exams and appointments with my meds doc and other clinics just as though I still lived in the US. It will keep me in the system, and it will let me get my regular long-term medical care dealt with by people who already know me. I’ve been going to the Seattle VA since 1988 and it’s reassuring to deal with the same people on a long-term basis. Even when the doctors change fairly frequently, the support staff knows and likes me, and they’re very willing to help out if I have questions or particular sticky issues to deal with.

Tax forms and proof of income were a bit of consternation for me. Because I live on VA disability compensation and Social Security disability, I don’t get check stubs. Everything gets directly deposited to my credit union account electronically and there’s no monthly income documentation beyond my monthly credit union account statement. Neither of these sources of income are taxable, so I haven’t filed a tax return in years. I went to the VA office and got official documents stating my annual income for the past three years, got similar forms from the Social Security office, then went to the IRS office and brought the question to them. They gave me Verification of Non-Filing documents that the consulate said would be acceptable alternate documentation to tax returns. I can continue to receive both of these types of disability income while I am living overseas, so I have a stable income that is sufficient to live on in Italy.

Buying a plane ticket was a huge source of anxiety for me. I wasn’t sure how long the visa process would take. The website said up to sixty days. So before I could get a ticket, I had to book an appointment online at the consulate, and get my tickets for San Francisco. I had to decide if I was going to take a chance on a cheap non-refundable ticket to Venice, or pay about $1,400 more for a ticket that I could refund if the visa were denied. After much thought and soul-searching, I decided on the cheap ticket and dated it for three days after the sixty day deadline noted by the consulate. It was the scariest button I’ve ever clicked on a website. Booking that appointment and buying that ticket suddenly made the whole thing more than just a shot at a fantasy. It was no longer theory; it had suddenly become real. There was a clock ticking now.

I figured that, if they denied the visa, I’d just buy a return ticket and go visit my brother for the holidays. At least that way, I wouldn’t be losing money, and either way I’d wind up with a trip to Italy. With that in mind, I figured I couldn’t lose. If I got the visa, I’d saved $1,400 extra for moving expenses and starting my life over there. Either option resulted in me at least visiting Italy, and if the visa were denied, I would still get to move to Seattle. Not a bad outcome, at least to me.

Filling out the visa application required several emails to the consulate for clarification. I had specific questions about individual blanks on the form, because it wasn’t clear to me which answers were the appropriate ones for a residence visa. My ticket to Venice included a transfer through Madrid — was my port of entry into the EU the Madrid airport where I was just going from one gate to another, or the Venice airport, where I was actually leaving the grounds? Madrid, they said. I filled in the blank.

And then, I prepared for the appointment.