Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The new way to do a visa run, for Americans traveling to Turkey

Sweet baby Jesus, I got the Turkish tourist visa! I feel like framing it, but that probably won’t go over so well at passport control. 

Or maybe it would, the Turkish police I have encountered at the border over the past 14 years generally having a good sense of humor as long as I don't make fun of their stamping skills. 

Remember the bygone days when expats in Turkey would make visa runs to Bulgaria or Greece every three months to renew their visas? All of us combining visa runs while also stocking up on hard to find pork items. Those days are long gone. Now, for most Americans, we can no longer purchase e visas online, nor purchase one at the border.

My most recent tourist visa was issued just hours before the latest update sent from the US Embassy in Turkey today, and thus feels sooo much more valuable. It’s been, what, about a month and a half since diplomatic tensions between the US and Turkey boiled over? Both countries suspended visa services, putting many of us in a bit of a bind. 

Although I lived in Turkey for the past 14 years, I recently returned to the US where I now attend grad school, and cannot re-enter Turkey on my expired work visa. When I left Turkey in July, it was with the assumption that I could re-enter on a touristic e-visa, purchasable online before my planned return trip to Istanbul in December.  Not anymore.

 Evil eye beads. Take a few, you'll need them!

A divorced mother to a dual Turkish-American child, part of the custody agreement is that he returns to Turkey twice a year to visit his father and grandparents. I too view Turkey as “home” and look forward to my trips back until we can relocate to Istanbul upon the conclusion of my program. When the news of the visa ban broke at the beginning of October, I was concerned, but decided to patiently wait a few weeks before making a set plan. In the meantime, the expat community ran rife with rumors. Some people apparently were able to talk border agents into giving them the visa on arrival (a risky move), others scheduled lengthy layovers in other countries to skirt an unofficial “3 day rule” before being permitted to purchase a visa on arrival to Turkey. None of these options appealed to me, and I was afraid to be put in the position of my son possibly being let into Turkey while I was denied. To be safe, I decided to make a visa run to Canada and appeal my case to the Turkish Consulate in Toronto. I am writing in detail below what I had to do, in the hopes that it can clear up some confusion and maybe help other Americans seeking a way to get the Turkish single-entry tourist visa, given the latest restrictions. This information is current as of November 21, 2017.

First of all, good luck trying to get hold of anyone at any of the Turkish Consulates or the Turkish Embassy in the US. I think they are swamped, so don’t hold out a lot of hope that you will reach someone. There is a 24 hour hotline that you can call and connects you with a call center in Turkey (1-888-566-76-56 veya + 90 312 292 29 29), and the woman I spoke with (in Turkish, I’m not sure they speak English) told me to contact the Toronto Turkish Consulate General. 

I spoke with several of the staff by phone at the Toronto Consulate, and they were really patient and understanding, but also trying to keep up with the fluid situation. I sent them a detailed e mail, and I am copying their response to me here:

DO NOT just show up at the Consulate. You MUST first go to www.visa.gov.tr and fill out the application online. You then will have to upload several documents. A biometric photo, proof of your income (bank statement), an invitation letter, a picture of a self-addressed envelope with Canada Post stamps, proof of intent to return, proof of health insurance that will cover you while in Turkey, a copy of your hotel reservation or proof of where you will stay, and your flight information. 

In other words, a lot of what Turkish citizens are required to present when applying for a visa to the US. Another reason to leave your arrogance at the door when applying. Be humble right now, if you aren’t already, or the rest of the process will force you there real fast. 

Those of us who have done the residence permit application process online are familiar with the tech glitches. Rest assured, they are on this site as well, and it actually made me a bit homesick! It took me a few hours, several tries, and frustrated tears before I was able to get the system to work, so in other words, it made me nostalgic for my old residence permit application days.  When your application is fully submitted, make sure to PRINT OUT the (now completed) form as you will need to bring that hard copy to your appointment with hard copies of all of the documents you uploaded. Next, you will make the appointment. In my case, I applied on Thursday and was able to get an appointment on Monday. At the moment, the appointments are given quickly.

BRING EVERYTHING WITH YOU. I am fortunate to not be too far from Toronto, a lovely city just 6 hours away from me in Michigan. Visa appointments (for the moment) are only granted between 2-4pm. I tried to go a bit early, knowing that things with my case might be complicated, but the security guard would not let me in

So, I amused myself by checking out an awesome café called Simit & Chai on King St. W, indulging in menemen, simit, and çay for good luck. 


Anything, anything to bring good energy towards my Turkish visa endeavors. The simit is quite good, not as hard and chewy as my beloved street simit from one of those red carts in Istanbul, but it still hit the spot. 
Once I was let in for my appointment, I was made to wait about 20 minutes. Bring a book or magazine, no electronics allowed. I was asked for these required document copies:  

1)    2 biometric photos
2)   Copy of printed application form (print out while making the appointment)
3)   proof of health insurance coverage while in Turkey (I still have my Turkish private health insurance so used that. If you do not have Turkish health insurance, bring a copy of your policy showing global health coverage)
4)   Proof of income (bank statements) I would make sure to show a bank statement of an account with $2000 or more in it. I couldn’t find a concrete number, but the other applicants I was with who had less than this amount in their accounts were having trouble.
5)   Invitation letter (my son is a Turkish citizen, so I brought his Turkish ID card as proof, and that sufficed for me. For others, you may need an invitation from a Turkish citizen currently residing in Turkey)
6)   A self-addressed envelope with Canada Post stamps (in my case this was not needed but it was listed as a requirement. Your passport may need to be mailed back to you)
7)   Hotel reservation, booking info, or where you will stay.
8)   Flight reservation info
9)   Proof of intent to return (in my case, I used my grad school acceptance letter and my course schedule for next semester. A copy of a work contract or letter from your boss or manager might suffice)
10)                 $81CAD (Canadian dollars only!)

Those not familiar with Turkish bureaucracy should come to the appointment ready to be patient and cheerful. I felt comforted by the sound of teaspoons clinking against tulip-shaped tea glasses coming from behind the glass partitions, while being told that my photos were not the right size (they were done in Turkey for my residence permit so OF COURSE they don’t work for the tourist visa!). Just like in Turkey I had to make a mad dash to a nearby store to have new photos taken. The kind cashier blotted my nervous, sweaty face with powdered paper, and I found my cheeks being squeezed by this Canadian-teyze before she took my photo, reminding me not to smile. This was serious business, but she could laugh behind the lens.

I ran back to the Consulate, by this point I only had 15 minutes before they closed. I had already spent one night in Toronto, I really wanted to head back to Michigan that day, if possible. But this is Turkish bureaucracy, so patience  is key.

I turned in my photos, only to be told that my grad assistant pay stub I had submitted as proof of income was insufficient. They wanted to see a bank account with money in it. So, I was sent back outside to activate my Turkish cell phone, access my Turkish bank account, screen shot the statement, and e mail it to the visa officer while the clock ticked to 4:02. The security guard looked impatient, but what could I do? 

Surprisingly, like most of my experiences thus far in Turkey, my visa was approved and I got my visa in my passport by 4:15pm that day. This does not seem to be the norm, however. I think the fact my son is a Turkish citizen tipped the balance. I would be wary of this and still make sure to apply 6-8 weeks (or more) before you intend to travel to Turkey. Allow a day or possibly two to sort out documents.
IF YOUR PARENT, SPOUSE, OR CHILD IS A TURKISH CITIZEN, bring them with you, or at the very least bring photo copies of their Turkish passports and/0r ID(kimlik) cards. In the email sent to me last week it stated that US citizens that had a spouse, child, or parent that was a Turkish citizen could get visas at the airport on arrival in Turkey, but this DOES NOT seem to be the case anymore and I would not trust it. Applying in person seems the best, albeit more expensive route, but one which can guarantee an answer. 

Was this process a huge pain? Yes, but it’s not impossible. I am humbled by the fact that this is still nothing in comparison to what the US requires Turkish citizens go through in order to apply for US visits. Overall, the entire staff at the Turkish Consulate in Toronto were kind, patient, helpful, and understanding. However, they are being sticklers in regards to documentation, so make sure you have everything required, and check to make sure the list of necessary paperwork hasn’t increased.

One of the best ways I celebrated was by being invited by former expat in Turkey, Toronto native, and Expat Sofra long-lister Sabiha Dhala-Amarsi, for a quick bite to eat in her lovely home before I drove back to Michigan. 

So lovely to see an old friend, catch up a bit, and even have some Ulker cookies with my coffee! Thank you Sabiha!!! The perfect way to celebrate. Expat life is like that, where good-byes are never totally final. You never know when your paths will cross again, and it always amazes me how many times I re-connect with friends from Turkey in various places throughout the world. 

Have an update on how to get a visa? Feel free to leave it in the comments and I can add it to this post. Best of luck to the other Americans applying for visas. Turkey, I hope to see you in a few short weeks, insallah!








Monday, November 20, 2017

Congrats to Expat Sofra contributor Lisa Morrow on her new book!

Lisa Morrow has a new book! 

We asked her for a quick write up on her latest work, and she was happy to oblige. Here is an excerpt that should cause some discussion, let us know what you think! What cultural differences have you experienced that proved difficult or enriching?

 Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom
by Lisa Morrow

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved to escape into books. Reading about other people’s lives, daydreaming about living somewhere unknown, thrilling to amazing adventures. Books made me realise I wanted to escape the suburban world I’d been born into and live a life without limits.  
When I was older and started to travel, my dream became a reality.

When I moved to Istanbul I was living in a suburb again, and thought I’d settle right in. On the surface everyday life seemed the same, but the myriad small differences in this Turkish suburb were bewildering. Not having grown up in the culture or with the language, at first I often had to second guess meanings. I was keen to fit in but had to balance this desire with trusting my instincts, otherwise I’d lose myself.
I started writing to make sense of my new world. Short stories and snippets of my life in Istanbul formed the basis for my blog www.insideoutinistanbul.com. It was so well received I went on to publish two collections of essays, Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City and Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries.   

As anyone who’s ever lived in a foreign country knows, the changes and differences can sometimes be challenging and hard as well as wonderful and enriching. Reflecting on this is how my memoir, Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul, came about. Here’s an extract from the book to show what I mean.
“Over the next few days we visit more (estate) agents, but most of the time they speak no English at all, and are very traditional. This means women are frequently ignored, either out of respect for their position as another man’s wife, or because they are not considered bright enough or possibly worldly enough to understand what is going on. Luckily, during the tea drinking ceremony Kim can hold his own in Turkish. He easily understands the oft repeated comments about the weather and the traffic and is able to respond as expected. However, as soon as we put our spoons in the small tulip shaped glasses to signal we don’t want any more, the agents look at him to lead the conversation. What follows feels really strange. I’m the one who starts talking, yet they ignore me and look and talk directly to Kim. Much as I want to, I don’t make an issue of it because the chance of these men changing their attitude towards women is zero to nothing. More importantly for our purposes, if I get angry this will reflect badly on Kim, because he will be seen as a man who can’t control his wife. He already has a hard enough time in Turkey on account of his name, and I don’t want to make his life any worse. In Turkish ‘kim’ means ‘who’ so introductions are very tricky, and as a result, a lot of people view him with some suspicion, as if he is trying to deceive them in some way. In addition, being from a Mediterranean background he looks very similar to them but can’t speak the language fluently, further confusing things.”
I really appreciate Katie and Francesca inviting me to write about my book Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul (link - http://amzn.to/2zEFy0W) for the Expat Sofra website. I’m excited to be a part of their project and look forward to sharing my new story when Expat Sofra is released.

Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City
Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries
Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul