Last year I was invited by the Heinrich Boell Foundation to participate in an international workshop conference entitled ‘Energize, Polarize, Mobilize! Human Rights, Participation, Activism, Internet’ which was to take place from March 21st to March 24th 2013 in Berlin. It would be my first time travelling to Europe, and I knew that I would have to get a Schengen visa. Because the entire trip was being funded by the Heinrich Boell Foundation, I think my process was very straightforward.
In order to prepare for my visa application process, I went onto the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Nairobi website. The website is very clear about the steps that a person has to follow when applying for a visa to travel to Germany. I found the information online quite helpful. But at the same time, I am comfortable with online processes and therefore I did not struggle with finding information on the website. They also had a contact number, which I called to get further information, because I had questions. As a person that had lived in another African country for a long while, I was aware of immigration laws and requirements, I had some experience getting visas. I think that for someone who has never travelled to a Schengen state, this process can be very overwhelming. Also for people who are not familiar with online application processes. For example, once an invitation to travel to Germany has been received, the person who is supposed to travel has to set up an appointment to present their papers online. Without the right kind of guidance, many people miss this step. On the day that I went to present my papers, I encountered many people who had come to the embassy to get more information from someone, but they were turned away because they could not be helped. Access to the premises is very strictly guarded, which is important for security reasons. I however feel that, for instances where people are unsure about how the online and offline processes correlate - some assistance should be made available at the gate, to assist people that are overwhelmed or unsure of the online process. Another alternative would be for the inviting organisation or individual to support preliminary online processes, in the event the person cannot navigate their way around the online process.
After making my appointment I went about gathering the necessary documents. For this kind of visa and travel, all the documents, apart from my passport were to be provided by the inviting organisation. The online list of requirements had stated that I needed bank statements from my parents - as at the time I had just returned from Namibia, and was not settled in Kenya, which is the country of my birth. I had not yet sought employment in Kenya, nor did I have a bank account, therefore my guardians had to prove that they were sufficiently financially stable. This has always been an interesting consideration for me - that the person travelling to a Schengen state has to prove financial solvency which is a kind of guarantee that they will return to their country of origin. By the date of my appointment I had all the necessary documentation, including the visa application fee of 60 Euro for a short term visa. 60 Euro is almost 7 000 Kenyan Shillings (Ksh.). This is a considerable amount of money for your average Kenyan. In my case, because of the nature of my visit and invitation, the application fee was waived. However, I feel that in a situation where travel to Germany is fully covered by an organisation or company, that the request of a visa fee of Ksh. 7 000 is reasonable.
I found the process at the Embassy very organised and straightforward. The local staff, such as the guards at the gates were very helpful and attentive. The atmosphere at the Embassy was also welcoming. I have been through many processes that were really cold and distant. I found the staff that processed my application quite friendly and engaging. Again, I feel that my process was quite different from the other processes because of why I was travelling to Germany, who had invited me, and also the duration of my stay. Because this was my first visit to Germany, and my first Schengen visa, my biometric data was to be collected - but this did not happen. I was not given an explanation as to why this did not happen. All in all the process was fast.
A surprise that I did not expect was that I was required to pay a courier fee to have my passport sent back to me. This was not made clear on the website - as the courier service was presented as optional, not mandatory. The lady from the courier company stated that I had to secure their services before I could move onto the next phase of the visa application process. I did not have the amount of money needed to pay for the service in cash on me. Fortunately they accepted mobile money payments, and I was able to contact someone who could remit the needed money. I think the Embassy needs to be clear about this on their website so that people are prepared to pay this additional cost and are not caught off guard.
I would say overall that the process of getting a visa to Germany is very straightforward. I think some of the requirements are a bit stringent, but not unusually so. Also more support can be given for people who are unfamiliar with online processes and the internet. Perhaps the option of a toll-free number that visa applicants can call and get all the necessary information. I would apply for a visa again, if the services and the process remains the same. I would say that it was a positive experience. Especially compared to other visa application processes that I have gone through.