The Indian visa process is…interesting for Americans. Reading the boilerplate how-tos on sites like India Mike, you get the impression that it’s relatively painless, and I suppose for many people it is. I did not have a good go at it, partly because of shortcomings from the application process and partly because of my allergy to bureaucratic red tape.

If you don’t know, the Indian visa application process was privatized a number of years ago and is currently handled by a company called BLS International. Essentially this company handles all correspondence and processing of visas on behalf of the Indian consulate. Basically this means that you are dealing with BLS when you apply for a visa. There are mixed reviews of BLS in the traveler community, and they have received some pretty bad press in the US papers for bungling paperwork and delaying things for long periods of time. Thankfully my experience does not reflect these stories. My only real gripe about them in particular is that they are difficult to get ahold of: do not expect to be able to reach them by phone to talk about your visa application, neither from the consulate (they straight up tell you we don’t answer questions about this, that’s why we hired BLS) nor from BLS, who seemingly don’t answer their phones.

I only mention this to emphasize that you want to get the visa application right the first time if at all possible and skip the troubleshooting, since troubleshooting without phone contact basically amounts to a lot of waiting between snail mails and internet status updates.

Obtaining a visa in person is known to be a bit faster…kinda. You still need to wait for them to process the documents, you still need to wait if you boof anything and need to send them anything else, and if you’re doing it in person then you also need to put aside some time to go to your nearest location and do the deed. Depending on where you are, this could occupy an entire day. I was close to New York on and off while applying for mine and was tempted to go do it in person but meh.

That said, it took me somewhere around two and a half months to receive my Indian visa by mail. In retrospect this would have been reduced by at least a few weeks, probably more, if I had applied in person, but it would also have taken much more active time to get it done, driving in to the city and waiting in line and so on.

So here is what to do to receive your Indian visa by mail much more quickly than me:

Step 1: Get all your paperwork together. This list is silly long. It includes the following:

  • The online visa application. Complete this using Internet Explorer or it won’t work. Seriously.
  • A 2in. x 2in. passport photo. If you dressed in light clothing for your passport photo and you don’t have a contrast between your shirt and your background, they’ll reject your photos and everything else you sent them as well. Seriously. Go through the rigamarole of a second passport style photo with some contrast in your clothes against the background and use that. Annoying but hey, that’s how it goes. (Parenthetically, I shot both my passport photo and my Indian visa photo myself. Find a big wall, pin up a white sheet, and get someone to take your picture. Make sure you get the light as even as possible so your face is not overly exposed on one side or your forehead is a homing beacon etc.)
  • A copy of your proof of residence. I’m pretty sure that somewhere buried in and among the myriad documents on the BSL Indian site, some of which conflict in their directions, there is a note that this document must be three months old or newer. Unfortunately I did not see this.
  • A check made out to BLS International.
  • A copy of the check made out to BLS International.
  • A trackable document envelope
  • A postage paid, trackable return doccument envelope. They recommend not to, but I used USPS Priority Mail document mailers with a bunch of stamps on them because they’re cheap, trackable and fast, usually as fast or faster than UPS or FedEx. Also where I lived out in the middle of nowhere UPS and FedEx get easily confused.
  • A copy of the front of the postage paid, trackable return envelope – you have to set up the return envelope with your courier first so your photocopy has something meaningful in it, like addresses and tracking numbers and such.
  • The printout order confirmation thingy that you get when you finish the online visa application
  • The printout mailing address thingy that you get when you finish the online visa application
  • Your passport
  • The documents checklist, signed
  • The postal application form, signed

Step 2: Get your prepaid trackable return envelope set up with whichever courier you choose. Once it’s all nice and decorated with addresses and tracking numbers and such, make a photocopy of it.

Step 3: Put the visa application, the passport photo, the proof of residence, the check, the copy of the check, the trackable prepaid return envelope folded in half but not creased, the copy of the trackable prepaid return envelope, the printout order confirmation thingy, your passport, the document checklist, and the postal application form in the trackable outbound envelope.

Step 4: Write or type your address and the address of BLS India on a separate printed piece of paper or directly on the mailer. I typed out the addresses in 16pt bold font and taped them into the to and from areas of the mailers. Make sure you leave room for the printout mailing address thingy that you got from BLS.

Step 5: Cut out the address on the printout mailing address thingy which includes your order number and the address of BLS. Tape it below or next to the addresses already on the mailer. I did steps 4 and 5 the way I did for two reasons: one, the format of the address BLS gives is weird, and two, because I wanted the address to be bold and clear, but BLS wants their little mailing address thingy on the outside, so I included both.

Step 6: Mail the shit out of those documents.

Step 7: Track your visa application on the BLS website.

Step 8: Wait.

Step 9: Receive visa.

Step 10: ???

Step 11: Profit.

Now that you have that down pat and your course is set, you can also follow these directions if, like me, you want to inadvertently delay receipt of your Indian visa by six to eight weeks and delay your departure by one to two weeks:

Step 1: Do numbers one through five above, but make sure to send proof of residence that is more than three months old.

Step 2: Send proof of residence that is newer than three months old after receiving notice from BLS that they rejected the documents sent in step one because the proof of residence was too old. Also be sure to fail to note in their online status update that BLS will not accept updated documents of any kind until the rejected documents are returned to sender, whereafter all of the documents returned to you, plus the updated proof of residence, must be resent together.

Step 3: Assume that all is well for two weeks, visit family for holidays, come back expecting a visa in the mail, and instead find the documents you sent in step one are sitting in your mailbox waiting for the updated proof of residence.

Step 4: Resend updated proof of residence, along with all of the documents sent in step one, as well as a cover letter explaining that you had sent the updated proof of residence a few weeks ago without the rest of the documents, and are resending it along with the rest of the documents, now sent well over a month ago at this point, so that all documents are received at the same time.

Step 5: Wait.

Step 6: Gnash teeth.

Step 7:  Wait some more while BLS updates your status as ‘visa processed and dispatched’ on a given date, and the USPS updates your status as ‘accepted for processing’ and actually starts shipping it back to you five days later.

Step 8: Receive visa.

Step 9: ????

Step 10: Profit.

 

Links:

BLS International USA

The Long and Somewhat Confusing Help Page

Visa Tracking

India Visa Postal Application Start Page

The Application

Sample Application

Sample Application in B&W

The Postal Application Form

The Visa Application Form – generates the order form and the mailing address thingy

Visa Checklist Form

 

A few notes:

  • The Indian visa application process is very picky. Don’t screw anything up. If you do, redo it. Get everything right. It’s worth the patience up front so you don’t have to repeat yourself and face delays later.
  • Take note of your envelope tracking numbers, particularly the return, because you won’t be mailing that one yourself, you’ll be waiting for BLS to mail it. I forgot to take note of my return number the second time I sent documents and all I had was the traccking number for the outbound envelope. Knowing that the USPS skips a handful of numbers in their tracking numbers and issues them sequentially, I used the outbound tracking number and added 1 to it until I found the return envelope.
  • Don’t expect to receive your visa in seven to ten days as is indicated on the BLS site, even if you do everything right the first time. It took eleven business days from delivery of my documents to processing by BLS, and another four to six business days before receiving things back from them. This was both times, when I first sent everything and when I resent everything. Plan for about three weeks to a month and you’ll be closer to accurate. This probably does depend on the time of year that you apply.

Namaste and enjoy India!

Cheers,

Nathan