I have experience applying for visas as I’ve traveled to several countries that required them for entry. Every country is different in terms of what’s required, but the process commonly entails an application, a fee, and some other supporting document such as flight itineraries. However, the Mongol Rally is different. The primary mode of transportation is driving and pin pointing any dates of entry across a border makes booking accommodations in advance risky. This hold especially true for Central Asia where roads are unpaved and cars take more abuse than their designed to handle, thus breakdowns are quite common. So when a visa application contains a field for destinations or temporary address, which makes it kind of difficult to fill out. In addition, a letter of invitation is also required. Because of these requirements, I think most folks went to a visa processing service such as The Visa Machine to let them deal with it.
THE VISA MACHINE
The organizers of the Mongol Rally have an agreement with The Visa Machine for Mongol Rally participants. Because of the agreement, there’s a discount if you go through the official Mongol Rally link to The Visa Machine. After doing some research and comparing The Visa Machine to other visa processing companies, I didn’t find a substantial discount. In fact, I think the Visa Machine is more expensive even with their so-called discount. In the closed Facebook Group for the Mongol Rally, one participate summed the Visa Machine with this comment:
To give credit, The Visa Machine does have experience with dealing with the uncertainties of driving a car through borders since they’ve had repetition with the process. This is added value The Visa Machine has than say other visa processing company, but is it still worth their fee? It all depends on how much time you’re willing to invest and your proximity to consulates for the countries you want to visit.
HOW I WENT ABOUT MY VISA APPLICATIONS
I normally apply for visas directly with the consulate because it’s cheaper and my proximity to NYC allows me to do so. For instance, Nepal and Myanmar are two countries were I’ve applied in person with a fairly uneventful process. Because of the complexity the Mongol Rally, I considered using a visa processing company. One company I looked at was visahq.com who I’ve used in the past to get my second U.S. Passport. Their fees were competitive and I was pleased with their turn around time for the second U.S. Passport. I reached out to Stefan over at Rapid Travel Chai who’s been to a fair amount of Central Asia himself. I also met him a few times to realize that he’s a do it yourself traveler instead of plunking down cash to make it someone else’s problem. With that said, I had a fairly good feeling he applied for visas on his own when he could. After a few e-mail exchanges, I decided to apply for the Russia Visa through a visa processing company because a traveler applying directly with the consulate wasn’t the usual practice according to Stefan. At Stefan recommendations I went with gotorussia.com as the visa processor for the Russian visa. Their prices were competitive, but what I liked about them was a real person picked up every time I called and were able to answer concerns I had about my specific trip.
UZBEKISTAN AND KAZAKHSTAN
The Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan visas I handled myself by filling out the application and applying directly with the respective consulate in NYC. Surprisingly, the Kazakhstan visa took three days to turn around – I dropped it off on Tuesday and was told to pick it up on Thursday.
The Uzbekistan consulate took much longer, the full 10 days. I have to say I can see why. The consulate is always jammed packed with people whether it’s Uzbeki nationals trying to extend their stay or tourists applying for visas. The foyer as you step off the elevator is a crammed unintended waiting area for the Uzbeki consulate. Contrast this with the Kazakhstan consulate where my business was done in less than 5 minutes on drop-off and pick-up.
Neither the Kazakhstan nor the Uzbekistan asked for a Letter of Invitation. Kazakhstan required a hotel booking, but with the unknown entry into Kazakhstan and the place, one of my teammates made a cheap one-night hostel booking to show something was committed. Had either application required a letter of invitation, I think I would have gone to a tour company to find the cheapest tour package in order to get a letter of invitation.
THE COST SAVINGS OF APPLYING ON MY OWN
For the Uzbekistan visa, a visa processing company wanted $60 USD as a service fee on top of the consulate fees plus return shipping. The fee for the Kazakhstan visa was nearly identical.
If I applied on my own, the consulate fees would still remain the same, but doing myself I saved the $60 USD service fee for each visa so that’s a total of $120 USD. Then I would obviate any shipping costs so there’s another savings of $70 USD total assuming overnight service.
So by applying directly with each respective consulate, I saved about $200 USD on both visas. Then I have to factor in my time and my transport costs and time so in reality it’s a little less than $200.
In the process I’ve learned something that I couldn’t have otherwise.
SOMETHING I LEARNED TO REMEMBER DO FOR EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES
I much rather do things on my own as the leg work is a way of learning about the process and what’s possible. I’m glad I did because besides the monetary savings on the Kazakh and Uzbek visa, I learned that in most cases, consulates in different cities follow different procedures for visa applications(they all seem to have the same common application). In some extenuating circumstance, consulates can accommodate these situations. One of my teammates, Erin is in a time crunch to get all her visa because she’s visiting India prior to the start of the Mongol Rally and requires an additional visa. She has all her documents and passport in with a visa processing company. The visa processor wouldn’t let her apply for her Uzbekistan visa because of her time constraint with her impending travel to India. I don’t know why the visa processor left Uzbekistan out, but that’s the situation we were dealing with. I asked the Uzbekistan consulate her situation. One of the consulate employees had an incredible solution. He suggested having her drop off the Uzbeki application, photo, and everything required for the visa with the exception of the passport. This way, the consulate can start the application process so that when Erin received her passport back from the visa processing company, she can go into the Uzbeki Consulate and have the consulate insert the visa the same day while she waits. The best part of all, she doesn’t have to pay a 50% premium for the expedited visa service the consulate requires. It’s always helpful to ask to see what a consulate can do in an extenuating circumstance. Had I not gone about the process my own visa, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to ask a consulate employee to see how they can accommodate a particular situation.
Apparently, according to this, the Kazakhstan Government is dropping their visa requirement for entry starting 15 July 2014. This is significant new for Mongol Rally goers. Though, the visa free requirement is only restricted to 10 countries and is on a temporary trial period. So if you procrastinated in getting your Kazakhstan visa, you no longer have to spend the $160 USD like I did.