January 22

US Visa Saga – The Ultimate Stress in Travel

Plans are made and plans go awry. Sometimes in the most unexpected way.

It was one more leg of our round the world trip … a long leg from Kuala Lumpur to San Francisco. The flights booked months in advance without too much consideration of the “fine print” or the “details” of the flights. The price was right.

It would be just another flight.


Transit Visa in China

The first issue is that the cheapest flights are not always the most passenger friendly. Our flight was via Shanghai and involved a change of terminals. This would require a transit visa. So what? We simply had to collect our baggage, go from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 and check in again.

After some searching in Terminal 1 we found the line for the 24 and 144 hour Transit Visas. There were two service counters but the people at both seemed to be having some hassles. Animated discussions at the one counter resulted in a flurry of activity. The two service counters became one as three officials disappeared with the two luckless people into the distance.

Now there was one and the complications persisted. After about 15 minutes and no progress in the line there was some resolution. The line could start moving again. While this was going on a number of very official, very officious, very serious faced officers walked back and forth. Another paced, very slowly, behind the counter clutching a plastic file with some papers. No one seemed to be vaguely interested that the line was growing more and more restless and longer and longer.

Then a change … break time. The unconcerned lady was then replaced by a mask wearing man who proceeded to bark instructions through the gauze. But some success the line was moving and he had an “assistant” who seemed to do nothing!!

After standing around for about an hour our 24 hour transit visas were granted.

After enquiring about our luggage we found it at the now stationary carousel and headed off to the transfer bus.

Terminal 2 Checkin

When we reached Terminal 2 we couldn’t check in as we were too early. So we went for a leisurely coffee. All good. What could go wrong now?

We got to the check in and joined the growing line. Proceeding through one of the many “security” checks that are an obnoxious feature of Chinese bureaucracy. It seems that they are programmed to ask completely redundant questions. You are in the line to check in to a flight to San Francisco and asked “are you going to San Francisco?”

Progress was still on schedule until we got to the counter. Two of us are were on ETSA visas and one had a 10 year US visa.

There seemed to be a problem. Followed by the unexpected words as I'm passed my passport “there is a problem with the visa”.

Gut wrenched. The clerk pointed out that my ETSA visa was for passport number PT129---- and my passport number was PW129----.

I didn't have an approved entry and couldn't board the plane.

Disaster Recovery Action

What were my options? How much would this mess up cost? What had happened? Why was the number wrong? My mind was racing. What could I do right now?

My laptop was useless as the Wi-Fi signal was weak. The clerk directed me to the Business Centre.

Here to be met by another example of Chinese “I couldn't be bothered to help you” attitude. The price for 1 hour of Internet access was 10 yuan “cash only” no US dollars or credit card.

As I frantically tried at the bank “50 yuan fee to get 10 yuan” and the cash conversion machine didn't work. I started getting desperate. I rushed around trying to find an ATM to draw some money. At this moment remembering how we'd been ripped off in Beijing a few months earlier.

Clutching the 100 yuan note I rushed back to the business centre. Logged on by the not too friendly assistant I was met with a Windows based screen in Chinese. After pecking away at the keys and with some help from her I was connected to the official ETSA site through Baidu.

My only solution was a new application. The “23 minutes” to complete input seemed like an eternity as the minutes ticked away.

I sent my wife and friend off to complete their check in and resigned myself to digging myself out of this mess.

The application completed the message came up that immediate approval could not be granted and could take 72 hours.

Not good.

My mind raced through the additional costs: flight change $400, hotel $100, taxi, plus whatever else.

As I had no clue how to do this through the Chinese Windows system that kept on popping up Chinese adverts! I carefully recorded the reference number on my phone I then entered the ETSA website address. It appeared as a link so I clicked it. Navigating down to the status of the application. Copying the reference number and completing my birth date the return appeared with the fantastic news. “Application approved”.


Checkin Success

I grabbed my bag, asked the assistant to log me out and rushed to the check in counter. My wife and friend were about to check in … the last on the flight!

I joined them and then we began the next slow crawl through the “sludge”. First emigration (together with the inevitable form) and then through another security check.

Laptops and iPads out, belts off, pen out of the pocket. Then the highlight … being slowly and methodically “wanded” by the stern faced (and usually very unattractive) security lady who always manages to brush her hand against your parts!

We were through. Off to gate 73 and boarding the plane as if the previous 5 hours had all gone smoothly to plan!!

Lessons Learned

  • If you use a password manager with autofill (I use Dashlane) make sure that the information in here is correct. My Dashlane was wrong so in the final step it confirmed the wrong passport number!
  • When a form asks for a confirmation do it manually.
  • Never give up even when all seems lost!
  • Check critical details manually. 
  • Don't become complacent.


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