choose your own adventure: Spanish bureaucracy

You may remember my significant hoop-jumping and racing all over the East Coast last year, in an effort to secure a student visa before flying to Spain. This year? A bit different. Still a grand tour of the Eastern seaboard but … so much more fun.

What’s new this year? As of October 1, 2010 all individuals traveling to Spain on a student visa are required to get an FBI background check. Up until that date, state police record checks were acceptable, and far easier to obtain.

June 15 My Spanish residency expires with the setting of the sun, the same day that I set foot on American soil. When super suave Jose Manuel asked me when I was going home, that’s what I told him. Little did I know if I had shrugged my shoulders and said I wasn’t sure, I could have avoided the visa reapplication process altogether.

June 24 After calling several agencies, I finally get the ok to be fingerprinted at the State Troopers office in Allentown.

June 27 I send my prints, a letter and a $18 money order to DC via first class mail. The letter informs the Bureau that I will be using this for a student visa application, and I sure would like an official seal on the final document.

Circa July 4th, I go online to schedule the first available appointment at the Spanish consulate in NY. It is September 1, two entire months away.

July 11 My doctor’s office furnishes a letter that states I am healthy, sane and not addicted to any drugs. I appreciate their speedy turnover and proceed through my summer, nose to the grindstone.

The week of August 1 I call the FBI to ask about the status of my prints. She says there is an 8 week processing time and I should see my document by August 22. In the same week I receive my copy of the monthly newsletter from the Ministry that states “due to high volume of requests consulates will now accept state police record checks with the seal from your secretary of state.” At this point I have nothing to say save a few choice words that are best not published.

courtesy of

On August 20, after 8 weeks of waiting, the letter arrives. Now I need an apostille. Because this is a federal document I need a federal agency to seal it. The US State Dept is my next step, but their processing time by mail has increased from “15 days” to eight weeks. What was last year’s two hour round trip to Harrisburg is this year’s 8 hour round trip to Washington, DC.

August 26 I take the day off from work, wake up at 3:30 a.m., and hop into the car with my friend Andrew, leaving PA at 4 a.m. We arrive at the Forest Glen, Maryland metro at 8 a.m., and after a transfer at Metro Center we arrive at the Foggy Bottom / GWU metro at 9 a.m. I enter the Columbia Plaza State Department Office of Authentications at 9:15am and pull a tiny paper ticket that reads #36. Just underneath the number the words “40 minute wait” cry out in size 9 type. The electronic sign says 22 and the waiting room is overflowing, so I stand outside to wait.

A curious ragtag group of men hang around the doorway spitting game at well dressed females while they wait their turn. Good morning sunshine, indeed. The guys vacillate between flattery and bribery – they have apparently spent the morning collecting numbers like the one I clutch in my hand and have now begun to trade. Like a morning kaffeeklatsch with questionable documents in place of napkins. They’ve set up shop at a cafe table and exchange a steady stream of greetings and offers, pacing in and out of the office like brokers on the trading floor. Others turn their chairs to face the screen from a hundred yards away like spectators at a sporting event. They even give a female police officer a holler and I raise my eyebrows at the cute guy by the ticket machine. Flattery knows no bounds.

How many times can this girl’s dad say “are you shittin’ me?” (First-timer!) I’m sure if my dad were here he’d say the same, although we are seasoned veterans at this game, having blazed a trail to Harrisburg just last summer. Hurricane Irene satellite images swirl apocalyptic red across the tiny wall mounted TV but all eyes in the room are focused on the unchanging red number. Why does it say 520* if I’m 36? I’m afraid to take my eyes off of it. *If you’re authenticating 1-4 documents, it’s the lower numbers. If you’re authenticating 4-15 documents it’s higher numbers.

A Vietnamese man strides out of the office waving like a politician and smiling. It’s 9:50 a.m. and the sign has said 531 for more than ten minutes. Folks come and go, getting coffee at the next door café which must owe 25% of it’s business to this foot traffic alone. Questionable couriers zip in and out of the Columbia Plaza courtyard on the razor thin wheels of road bikes.

10:07 a.m. There’s my number! I fill out a cover sheet and hand over my document. She tells me to go wait until my number is called. I turn to my right and the hear him call 21.. sigh.

The natives are restless as the clock ticks toward 11 a.m., closing time. You can’t find a seat because the number runners leave behind a helmet or a walkie talkie on the cushion for prime time viewing. Yes, they are really using walkie talkies. One girl asks me if I’ve done this before, to which I say yes, but not here. She wants to know if they’ll kick people out at 11 a.m., or if they’ll keep going in numerical order. I apologize for not knowing the answer and ask what number she has… #63, and she walked in 20 minutes after I did. One of the outdoor crew sidles up to us and says “what number are you looking for?” and she bluffs, “what number you got?” I take the opportunity to walk back up front and away from the transaction.

If I stand outside I won’t hear my number, but man it stinks like sweaty people in here. The big man behind me has a sheaf of papers in his hand and he chants for big numbers “Come on, Miz Dee” as though he’s taking a spin on the Wheel of Fortune. Are these people for real? The sketchy courier has moved across the room to make space for the two young men that are unloading a backpack and counting cash at the counter next to me. Are these the fly by night folks that promise your apostille in record time, for a high price? Could be. The man behind the window quietly calls my number and I dart forward, thinking he has never looked so fine. We exchange small talk and I write him a check for $8. It’s 10:29 a.m.

Ninety minutes  and / or a lifetime after I pulled my number, I make my way out into the fresh air. Another apostille down, and a pleasant afternoon ahead in the District. You know, before the hurricane.


2 thoughts on “choose your own adventure: Spanish bureaucracy

  1. Omggggg your title ios so fitting! And, honestly, I can say I’ev been there. Last available appt for the day before your NIE expires? Yeah, that was me last June. Ánimo, Spain misses you.


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