The Visa

And the privatised saga that preceded it....

Here it is, in full colour, inside of my passport. When our passports arrived back in the big brown UPS truck we were on tenterhooks until Susan read the letter below.

The day stopped dead and we just sat there for a half an hour going “Oh wow. It’s happened.” We were just stunned by the reality that we were actually moving to France.

The path to the visa was not an easy one. Although the actual review and passport stamping are done at the French embassy in Montreal, everything else in the process is handled by an outsourced company called VFS Global. Essentially they handle all visa requests from Canada to the EU, plus of course the non-EU UK.

Throughout the process we kept getting the feeling that the French government was actually not too bad to deal with, even welcoming, but VFS - oh boy. They are legend in immigrant circles.

Everything is handled on-line via their web site. A web site that regularly just stops doing one thing or the other for no apparent reason. Usually at a critical moment.

At that point you are forced to call their phone support (and honestly I never did figure out if they work 8am to 8pm Montreal time, or Paris time) who invariably immediately direct you back to the web site.

Now, because this was one of those things that we really had to get right we had hired a French consultant to prepare and submit the visa. The plan was to leave Canada at the beginning of September. Imagine our surprise when she emailed to say that our visa interview wouldn't happen until four days before our fight date! We still don’t know whether the late appointment was the consultant’s fault, or VFS, but suddenly we had to change everything - plane tickets, vet appointments, movers - to a month later to allow for the three week processing time.

Our consultant then spent two weeks trying to change the interview date. In practice that meant that our original appointment may have been cancelled, but the consultant couldn’t book a new date. After two weeks we tried booking it from our end - to no avail. The website was simply unresponsive no matter what day or time we tried to do it.

Finally we called their phone support, who again told us to try the web site. When we explained that the web site wasn’t working, and asked if they could do the date change on the phone we were told - I’m not making this up - “We can’t do that because the web site isn’t working.”

Ultimately we gave up, and did the interview at the end of August.

The VFS Global office in Vancouver is on the second floor of a Broadway office block. You get off the elevator and enter the door to find a bored Paladin security guard at a small desk. If you’ve ever worked with security firms you’ll know that this friendly but unenthusiastic woman was likely being paid near minimum wage for job that offered no autonomy and great hassles.

The first hurdle was insisting that our visa interviews had to be together because I was applying subordinate to Susan’s better qualified application. We had been warned that they might try to separate our two applications, and that this could cause great problems down the road, so we were insistent that they stay together. Eventually, after checking, she said they would try, and we were told to wait in the 6 foot by 6 foot lobby. Even though I have to assume that dozens of people wait for long times in this space every day, there were no chairs.

Susan was called in, then ten minutes later I followed.

During our hour with the VFS employee inside we figured out that they don’t actually “interview” anyone, they just followed a programmed checklist on a computer screen to make sure we had the right documents. We also found out that any visa beyond the normal 90 day tourist or corporate employment types was out of their comfort zone. Certainly they didn’t know what to do with a Psseporte Talente application.

Again, at the urging of our consultant, we had to insist that they accept, and pass on to Montreal, all of the documents in the package, even when they insisted that it wasn’t possible. It was a strange sort of passive-aggressive refusal that eventually gave in but made us both extremely nervous. What strikes me is that if you’re applying for any sort of visa beyond the everyday visitor type you have to come in really knowing what you’re doing, and prepared to argue your case.

And again, this has absolutely nothing to do with the actual visa evaluation and processing - this is just a guy who collects and checks your package of paperwork.
And, to be fair, it looked like a pretty dull and uninspiring job, likely with minimal training and even less autonomy. “Just follow the computer screen” they would have told him.

Once, eventually, our documents had been packed up in a big plastic envelope for the trip to Montreal we had to do bio-metric identification - photos and fingerprints. The latter proved more than little difficult because the digital keypad seemed to be remarkably insensitive to things like fingerprints. Still after multiple attempts, and directions to “press harder” we managed it and we can now be identified by French authorities. We thanked him, and the Paladin security guard, and went on our way.
Having survived the interview we moved into the purgatorial wait for an answer.
The VFS Global web site claims that you can track your visa progress, but they also promise emails and text messages too, neither of which ever arrived.

The other confusing thing is that there isn’t just one place that says “Track your visa application,” there are many of them, but only one that works for Canadian applications. They don’t tell you this, but Susan managed to Google it. The secret is to start not with your online account at VFS Global, but at the France Visa web site, who will link directly to the correct VFS page for tracking Canadian applications.

Of course all that delivers is three weeks of “Your visa is being processed” notices.
In any event after three and half weeks, with plane tickets booked, and our house about to go on the market, we finally got the UPS tracking information and after two tense days as the envelope made its way from Montreal, to Richmond, to North Vancouver, our passports were finally returned to us.

At which point we suddenly went “Oh my god. We have SO much to do!”

(ps - to date we have yet to meet or talk to any actual French government employee!)