At the time of writing these words I am going rather mad. I have come to Lublin in Poland to apply for a volunteers’ visa so that I may stay in Ukraine legally beyond a preliminary 90-day period. Ukrainian law requires this and we are trying to promote rule of law. So I have gone through the hoops. The nine-hour bus ride yesterday was bad enough; but when I arrived at the Consulate this morning my experiences were a little bit Soviet.
My paperwork, which had all been prepared and checked by a very competent lawyer, was duly scrutinised by the Consul himself who verbally approved the issuance of the visa and then, with an apologetic frown on his face, he showed me a schedule of fees that explained that I would have to pay an exorbitant US$666 to get my visa on an express basis. Or I could pay half that and leave my passport with him for a week and stay in Lublin doing who knows what. He gave me a slip of paper to take to the bank and off I tramped through the snow. The surly bank staff made me wait around for half an hour. No they wouldn’t take Euros and no they wouldn’t take credit cards and generally no. However we got there in the end and then I tramped back through the snow and the Consul wasn’t there. Nobody else could help me and I don’t know when I can now submit my documents and get the visa. The whole process takes about two minutes - but only the Consul personally can do it.
I have to say that this is all pretty unsatisfactory from the point of view of a volunteer who wants to come to Ukraine to provide his or her services gratis and is seeking to comply with the law. Why is any visa fee applicable, still less such an egregiously high one? The system seems designed to invite corruption: it is easier to bribe your way out of an illegal overstay than to go through this Byzantine and pricey exercise in using the official channels. The Consulate itself is a large, grand building in the centre of Lublin and I imagine that it was once the Soviet Consulate for this region of Poland. Now it has rather a shabby interior and it is in need of redecoration. Limp signs hang in an entrance hall and minimum information is available. There is an immigration counter but the handful of staff seem pretty glum and they don’t have the authority to do anything. Only the Consul does.
Thankfully my hotel is only a five minute walk away from the Consulate so I can tramp back and forth through the icy weather through the course of the day. This afternoon I was hoping to take a train down to Przemyśl, on the border with Ukraine where I can walk back into Ukraine rather than endure ghastly delays at the road frontiers due to this ongoing dispute between Ukraine and Poland about import of Ukrainian agricultural products into the EU at prices that undercut Polish farmers. At the time of writing, this seems unlikely. I was told to go back at 12, but that deadline came and went and now I don’t quite know what I am waiting for. As far as I can tell I am the only visa applicant present at the Consulate today, so I don’t quite understand the delay.
I suppose I will go back at 2pm. The hotel I am sure still has some spare rooms for tonight if I get stranded here, and I’ve found a decent bar - but Lublin in winter doesn’t have a huge amount to do for the casual tourist. My lawyer gloomily explains that this is something everyone has to go through … well, they shouldn’t, if Ukraine wants to join the European community of nations. When Europeans complain that Ukraine’s public institutions aren’t up to scratch, this is the sort of thing that they mean.
I eat my own words. Just as I was hammering out my frustrations on my keyboard, a lady from the Consulate called me. The Consul is out of his meeting, and would I like to come to the Consulate immediately. Now that is western standards of service. The Consul then profusely apologised again for the exorbitant fee, saying there was nothing he could do about it and it was a matter for the “powers that be”. Well, I hope the powers that be read this and change the policy, because charging someone US$666 to volunteer to support Ukraine and her valiant cause is really a lot of money, particularly when that person is a citizen of one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters in the international community.
The Consul did everything he could to ameliorate the situation. He issued my visa while I stood at the desk. The procedure took five minutes. As I write this I am now sitting at Lublin railway station, using the precarious free WiFi offered by Polish Railways, taking a train to Przemyśl and tomorrow I will walk back over the border in Ukraine. Because one thing’s for sure: I’m not taking a cramped, grimy overnight bus back to Lviv with a five-hour wait at the border and arriving just after curfew with barely a wink of sleep. I’m an old and knackered man, who’s done in his back and has had enough silly excitements in the last 24 hours. I fancy relaxing tonight in my favourite bar in Przemyśl, going to search out the pretty girl I met who was so nice to me on the last night in Poland before I entered Ukrainian theatre some three months ago. I can’t remember your name and I lost your ‘phone number, but I hope you’re reading this anyway. If you are, maybe we can have another drink tonight.
Guidelines for applying for a Ukrainian visa in Poland
1. You should not overstay the 90-day visa-free entry granted to a number of foreign nationals or a criminal case may be opened against you when you leave the country. This may cause you serious delay and your bus or train may leave without you. You may have to pay a fine, depending on the length of your overstay.
2. If you have overstayed your visa and a criminal case has been opened and you have been fined, then you may not be able to re-enter Ukraine and/or you may not be able to obtain a Ukrainian visa.
3. Although you may be able to talk your way out of Ukraine without a criminal case being opened against you, particularly if you can show evidence that you have been undertaking valuable voluntary work, you may not be successful.
4. The European standard “90 / 180” rule is now being enforced patchily. So if you leave on day 90 then try to re-enter on day 91, you are likely to be refused entry. The only way around this reliably is to obtain a Ukrainian visa and most people do this in Poland, either at the Embassy in Warsaw or the Consulate in Lublin. However in principle it can be done at any Ukrainian diplomatic mission worldwide, irrespective of the place of your nationality or residence.
5. The paperwork involved in applying for a Ukrainian visa tends to be intricate and complex and Ukrainian embassies and consulates can be very picky about details. Some documents must be “originals”; others can be facsimile copies. Specific types of health insurance are typically required. The visa application form must be completed with care and submitted to the Consulate online (there is a relevant website in Ukrainian) before you arrive at the Consulate. It is strongly recommended to hire a Ukrainian lawyer to prepare the paperwork for you. Lawyers with the relevant expertise inside Ukraine are very reasonably priced. Lawyers outside Ukraine are likely to charge several times what a domestic Ukrainian lawyer would charge for the same work.
6. You must attend the Embassy or Consulate in person to present your application. In theory the diplomatic missions in both Warsaw and Lublin require appointments. In practice, in this author’s experience, the Consulate in Lublin does not require an appointment and the theoretical appointment schedule is disregarded. The Consulate in Lublin is open for visa applications from 9am to 12pm and 2pm to 5pm Monday to Friday, and you should arrive at 9am to maximise your chances of speedy service.
7. There is a visa fee to pay. Do not believe the various pieces of information provided by other foreigners who have been through this process or even from Ukrainian lawyers about the size of the fee. Nor should you believe the information on the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. The real tariffs are contained on a series of ageing A4 sheets of printed paper in the Consulate offices and the Consul himself has to study these sheets of paper in each instance to work out what the proper fee ought to be.
8. The fee depends on both the nationality of the applicant and the type of visa applied for. So the most expensive fees are for British citizens, who are charged anything from US$333 for the cheapest visa (a D-10 volunteers’ visa, for example) to over US$2,000 for a residence visa based upon marriage to a Ukrainian citizen. By contrast for US citizens, the standard visa fee for a D-10 visa is US$91. There is no rhyme or reason to any of this; it depends upon a complex network of international treaties governing consular charges and internal Ukrainian regulations, as the Ukrainian Consul in Lublin himself personally explained to me - rather patiently and apologetically, I must add.
9. For the D-10 volunteers’ visa, the most common form of visa issued, six things are required: (a) a valid passport with six months’ validity or more; (b) visa application form: (c) passport photo 3.5” x 4.5” (they are very particular about this and there is a photo booth in the Consulate - for a fee - if your passport photo is not correct); (d) a valid insurance certificate (n.b. this author does not know which sorts of insurance certificate are valid and which are not - hence the value of hiring a lawyer): (e) two months’ recent bank statements showing adequate funds; (f) a valid invitation letter and “letter of guarantee” from an NGO registered with the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Affairs. Very few NGO’s are actually registered with this Ministry, and those that are do not typically know exactly what documentation they need to issue to support a D-10 visa application, which is again why it is wise to hire a specialist lawyer, who may be able to arrange an invitation and guarantee letter for you. For other sorts of visa, the documentation required is even more complicated and this author has seen people with large complex files of paperwork being turned away from the Consulate on technicalities. Stick with the D-10 volunteer’s visa, as it seems the least complex.
10. For the standard visa fee, the visa will be processed within seven days. For the express visa fee (which is always double the standard visa fee), the visa is issued on the same day if you press politely but firmly. So for a British citizen seeking same-day service, the fee is US$666. Although Lublin is pleasant enough, there is little to detain you there for a week without your passport so paying the express fee is virtually mandatory.
11. You do not pay at the Consulate in Lublin. After the Consul checks that your papers are in order, you are directed to Santander Bank in central Lublin, which is a ten-minute walk away, with a slip of paper confirming how much you should pay. Check in advance precisely where this bank is, as although it is in a prominent location in the city centre nobody seems to be able to guide you there.
12. The bank accepts US$ cash or Polish Złoties cash only. They do not accept credit cards, contrary to the advice this author received from the Ukrainian Consul himself in Lublin. Nor do they accept Euros or any other foreign currency and the bank does not have a currency exchange service although they can direct you to such a service on the other side of the square. The visa fee may be higher than your daily cash withdrawal limit on your bank card, so take this into consideration. The procedure in the bank, once you find it, takes about half an hour. You may be charged a 15 Złoty convenience fee if you pay in US$. Then you go back to the Consulate with evidence you have paid the fee. Your papers must be checked by the Consul himself personally, who is the only person with authority to issue the visa. It is not really worth talking to the other staff in the Consulate, although they are friendly enough; if he is unavailable then you have to wait for him personally.
13. Once you have your visa, you have 90 days to enter Ukraine using it or it becomes void. Once you enter Ukraine with the visa, you have 90 days from your date of first entry to apply for so-called “temporary residence” which in practice amounts to a plastic laminated card giving you the right to enter and leave Ukraine without restrictions for a period of one year. This can then be renewed on a year-to-year basis.
14. Again the paperwork involved in obtaining residency is complex and intricate and practice varies depending on the Oblast you apply in. In theory your landlord must come with you to the local Town Hall and an immigration officer may come to your home to check that you live there. In practice all these various requirements can be waived or dealt with without your personal participation if you hire a competent Ukrainian lawyer to take care of the matter for you. The procedure of attending the Town Hall is typically frustrating, as can be attendance at the Consulate, and therefore it makes sense to pay a lawyer to take care of this for you.