March 1

US Visa Saga – The Ultimate Stress in Travel

A visa plan is carefully made, but in a blink a visa plan can go dramatically awry. In the most unexpected and stress filled ways.

My visa drama happened when we were travelling on another leg of our around the world trip … a long segment from Kuala Lumpur to San Francisco.

I had booked the flights months in advance without too much consideration of the “fine print” or the “details” of the flights. The main consideration was that the price was right!

This could have been a classic case of penny wise and pound foolish but as it turned out it was a blessing in disguise.

I had applied for my online ESTA visa which I confirmed had been granted.

We left oblivious that this time it was not going to be just another flight!

Transit Visa in China

Our trip included a changeover in Shanghai which involved a change of terminals. So what? We were simply going from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2.

As we began the change it became clear that the cheapest flights are not always the most passenger friendly.

We had to collect our baggage and check it in again. But in Shanghai this required a transit visa.

After some searching in Terminal 1, we found the line for 24/144 Hour Transit Visas. There were two service counters but the people at both seemed to be having some struggles.

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 started moving again.

While this was going on bureaucracy prevailed!

Several very official, very officious, very serious faced officers walked back and forth. Another paced unenergetically behind the counter clutching a plastic file with some papers.

No one appeared to be vaguely interested that the line was growing increasingly 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 with some success the line was moving although he had an “assistant” who did nothing!!

After standing around for about an hour the 24-hour transit visas were issued.

The next step was to find our luggage. After making a few enquiries we found it at the now stationary carousel and headed off to the transfer bus.

Terminal 2 Check-in

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 flight check-in and joined the growing line.

Proceeding through one of the many “security” checks that are an obnoxious feature of Chinese bureaucracy. 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. Roger and I were on ESTA visas and Carol had a 10-year US visa.

As the clerk was shuffling the passports, I started having an ominous feeling there was a problem. He looked up at me and as he handed my passport back to me came the jaw dropping words, “There is a problem with the visa!”

Gut wrenching. The clerk pointed out that my ESTA visa was for passport number PT1292636 and my passport number was PW1292636.

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

What were my options? What would be the costs of this mess up? What had happened? Why was the number wrong? My mind was racing.

What could I do right now?

Going into Disaster Recovery Mode

Initially attempting to log in on my laptop was fruitless as the Wi-Fi was bad. The clerk directed me to the Business Centre. 

Here to be met by another example of Chinese, “I just work here and can't be bothered to help you” attitude.

After enquiring she informed me that the price for 1 hour of internet access was ten yuan. I handed her my credit card, “No!” she retorted, getting desperate, I then handed her ten dollars, but she sneered as she spat out, “Yuan cash only”.

My stress level was rising as I first tried the cash exchange. Here the fee would be fifty yuan to exchange ten yuan! Seeing a cash conversion I rushed over to it, to be met with “Out of Order!”

I started getting desperate.

I looked around trying to find an ATM to draw some money. At this moment remembering how we'd been ripped off in Beijing airport a few months earlier.

However, it worked and clutching the one hundred yuan note I hurried back to the business centre.

Logged on by the not too friendly assistant I was met with a Windows based screen in Chinese with incomprehensible adverts flashing across the screen. Wow!

Pecking away at the keyboard and with some help from her I managed to connect to the official ESTA site through Baidu, the local Chinese, search engine.

My Airport Online ESTA Visa Application

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

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

After completing the application, a message came up. There was no immediate approval granted and it could take 72 hours.

Not good.

My mind raced through the potential additional costs: a flight change $400, two nights in a hotel $200, taxi, plus whatever else.

Resigned, I carefully recorded the reference number on my phone and then entered the ESTA website address. I clicked the link for the status of the visa application. I copied the reference number and completed my birth date to be met with a fantastic message.

“Application approved”.


Check-in Success

I grabbed my suitcase, asked the assistant to log me out and rushed to the check-in counter.

My wife and Roger were there … the last to check-in on the flight!

With big smiles, high fives, and sighs of relief I joined them. Only to begin 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 security highlight … being slowly and methodically “wanded” by another stern faced (and usually quite unattractive) security woman who always managed to brush her hand against your parts!

Eventually 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 as I had recently updated my new passport information incorrectly. I had changed the number but not the prefix! As a result, in the last step of the visa application process, it confirmed the wrong passport number!
  • When a form asks for confirmation do it manually.
  • Check critical travel details manually. 
  • When travelling don't become complacent.
  • Never give up even when all seems lost!
  • Do NOT try this last-minute ESTA visa application today, it will not work! 


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