Last Thursday 3 January I arrived at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and handed over my boarding pass and passport at the bag drop. To my surprise the British Airways employee asked me if I had a visa for India, which I didn’t have. After making some calls, they told me I couldn’t board my flight to Mumbai from London Heathrow without a visa.
Forgot the visa
During my planning it never even occurred to me that I might need a visa. I might have gotten too accustomed to all the visa-free traveling in the Schengen Area. Certainly the fact that Nepal grants tourists a visa on arrival made me assume that India would be no different. Because Deep Griha Society never even mentioned visas in its volunteer handbook I assumed I didn’t need one (the organisation I worked with in Nepal, VSN, did mention it on its website).
Nevertheless, I have myself to blame for this the most. I feel like an idiot for not considering the visa requirement during all the weeks I’ve been preparing for the trip. Nevertheless, it was possible to rearrange the departure and return dates for my flight for an approximate fee of € 380 (bye bye cheap flight). Getting a tourist visa for India would likely take no more than five working days, so I decided to get to it ASAP so I could still go in the second half of January.
Because you need a passport which is valid for at least 180 days to apply for a visa I had to get a new passport first. On Friday I paid double the normal fee of € 50 to have it ready this Monday. Today I picked up my passport, went back home to fill in all the visa application forms. After answering some strange questions about my religion (which should be none of their concern) and if I had Pakistani grandparents I drove to the Hague to submit my visa application.
No volunteer work on a tourist visa
After waiting one and half hour for my turn I handed over the forms and was asked some questions by the VFS Global employee. When she asked for my purpose of stay and I answered I would do volunteer work with Deep Griha Society, I was told this was not possible with a tourist visa. I would need an employment visa, which would ten workings days to process. And I need an invitation letter from Deep Griha Society.
I blame VFS Global for being unclear, on their website they write a tourist visa is suitable for “those visiting India for tourism or other non-business related purposes”. An employee visa is described as being necessary for those employed by a multinational or Indian company in a for-profit context. I would consider volunteer work a non-business related purpose. I don’t have an employment contract with Deep Griha Society, so how should I have known I would need an employment visa?
If an employment visa would be necessary, I assume Deep Griha Society would have known and sent me the required invitation letter in advance. The fact that they didn’t can mean only two things: either they are negligent, or the Indian Embassy in the Netherlands has a visa policy which is different from the one implemented by Indian embassies elsewhere in the world.
That was the limit
Right now I’ve had enough of this turn of events and I’ve canceled the plan. I can’t take it anymore to wait passively at home for another ten working days plus the time it takes to wait for a flight before I get to India. It’s a shame I had to postpone my search for a full time job since my graduation in August until my return from India. All that time has been wasted. I had been looking forward to this so much, but it’s better for me to move on now. Both me and India loose in the end if I’m not able to spend my money there. The only winner here seems to be British Airways.
How India should improve its visa policy
Take a look at the Wikipedia article on India’s visa policy. What bothers me is that if I had a French or German passport they would have given me a visa on arrival. Only tourist visas valid for thirty days, which wouldn’t have helped me, but that’s not the point. The choice of countries for the visa on arrival policy seems rather arbitrary, they include Russia which has an Islamist insurgency going on within its borders but they exclude many member states of the European Union?
France, Germany and Russia were included in the policy only quite recently to increase tourist inflow. If that was the reason there should be no difficulty in including many other developed nations. Even the security conscious USA has a more lenient Visa Waiver Program. India should take an example to Nepal’s visa policy, which grants visas on arrival to tourists of almost every nationality for up to 90 days. And in Nepal doing volunteer work on a tourist visa wasn’t a problem.
When I look at the visa requirements for Dutch citizens I think I’d rather visit South America as an alternative to India. I won’t be going there any time soon after this ordeal.
Update 11 January
It turns out that all volunteers of Deep Griha Society work there on a tourist visa. An employment visa takes a lot more time, so effectively I should have lied at the visa center about my purpose of stay. They did not tell me this before I went to the visa center because they assumed I would know.