OK, so I admit. I write books about Digital Enterprises, I prefer digital banking, mobile travel sites, GPS navigation over paper maps, self service airline check-in and grocery store check-out.
I will take a digital route way before a paper/people/process heavy route. That conviction just got shattered in a big way. No one to blame but myself.
I do not have to deal with the Indian consulate too often because they issue 10 year visas. But past experiences with the Houston branch have been miserable. It used to be a black hole – send your passport in and weeks of checking, groveling later the visa arrives. Once I was on call to the State Department to try and get a replacement passport because the Indian consulate was so unresponsive.
So, I told my wife in early January I would fly to Houston and get the visas done in person this time. I had a trip coming up in March and that seemed sufficient time to get our visas. I could have used an outside agency to process the visa but past experience has not been consistent so I prefer to deal with consulates myself, unpleasant as that experience often is.
Glad I did not fly to Houston. Turns out our jurisdiction has been moved to a new Atlanta Indian consulate. I actually cheered – maybe the newer consulate is more efficient and besides, it is a shorter flight. Then someone told me the visa process had also been outsourced. I presumed that would be even better, and checked their site and found on-line applications and a passport/visa tracking workflow. My digital brain was sold!
Wish I had done some research on the outsourcer, BLS – I would have found horror stories as in this Change.Org petition.
Instead I merrily started filling out the on line application for both my wife and me. The on-line application was a UX misery. 3 pages of data which the consulate should already have had. Truncated fields for questions like all countries travelled to in last 10 years. Multiple captchas. Took me 2 hours to do mine. Having made mistakes on mine, my wife’s took a bit more reasonable 30 minutes.
I should have also gathered by now the process is barely digital because I needed to go to my bank to get money orders (BLS has not heard of PayPal), AAA for photos (in fairness the BLS site does allow digital photo uploads, but knowing how fussy consulates can be I was afraid to send in selfies) and 3 trips to my local UPS store. 3 trips to UPS? Yes, once to get them to interpret the 3 pages of shipping instructions (not kidding), second when the online application required the shipping bill info (so glad my friend Scott Galloway runs the local franchise and did me that favor and pre generated that for me) and third to actually ship the documents. Separate package for each of us with tracking info taped on front of package (hello privacy concerns : the label the BLS site generates has your passport number for every UPS employee to see).
Anyways, the applications were done. UPS tracking showed the packages delivered. BLS’s tracking site below showed applications received January 16. My digital brain relaxed.
On Sunday, January 19 I received an email from BLS saying they needed proof of residence. I was impressed more than annoyed. An email communication on a Sunday? Yes, things were surely moving. So I went to post office and mailed them a copy of my driver’s license.
This is where a parallel analog process started. While our license copies were in transit to them, they physically returned our passports with the same request they had emailed. Why, oh why? So we basically started again and out of abundant caution I included a second set of money orders. I included a note asking for the second one to be refunded. The costs were piling up - $ 600 in fees, $150 in shipping charges, time at bank and UPS. Still, we had only lost a week so far and the process appeared to be somewhat digital.
No updates for next couple of weeks. The Atlanta BLS office has a phone number of its site. 4 phone calls to it have always resulted ending in an unnamed, and always full, voice mail box. However, my wife’s visa arrived digitally unannounced on February 6. Mine did not. That started a flurry of phone calls and attempts by friends in New York and elsewhere to track status of my passport.
On February 10, I finally talked to a BLS employee. He asked me for a copy of a revoked passport and fortunately agreed to accept a scanned copy. He emailed me back that the visa would be done by end of week. If I had not managed to talk to him I had a reservation to fly that week to Atlanta to get some personal attention at the BLS office. That would have added another $ 500 in costs.
End of week came and went. No passport. My client who wanted the trip to India told me they could only wait couple of days more. So now with even more urgency I tried to call BLS. I emailed multiple times the employee I had talked to week before. No response. Call center calls kept disconnecting due to volume of calls. My troops in New York and elsewhere also jumped into action by going to local BLS offices to see if they had better luck reaching the Atlanta center.
On Thursday I finally managed to get someone live in the BLS call center. Passport should be with you Friday they say. An escalation ticket I had opened on BLS site results in email with same info. Neither told me if visa had been issued. More suspense till the UPS package arrived.
I now have the visa but the client has cancelled the trip to India. At least I have the passport for a trip to Germany in early March.
BTW, the UPS tracking site shows my passport delivered. The BLS tracking site still shows no updates since January 16! And just to highlight the random nature of the process - my second fee came back uncashed. My wife's did not.
My faith in digital processes has become a bit more cautious. I will keep the bar code sticker from the consulate on my passport as reminder just because a process uses scanners and other technology does not mean it cannot be polluted by useless analog steps.
Update: The Indian government has terminated the BLS contract and called for new bids