. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Waiting Room Makes Getting Visa Bearable

The old lady's face was pressed up to the glass. Her voice came anxiously through the screen. On the other side of the security barrier, I was a fly on the wall, listening to a British immigration official interviewing her for a visa.

The official's tone was neutral. "Why did you extend your stay last time you visited Britain?" "Well, you understand," said the old lady, "I found I had a bit of extra time. I wanted to be with my grandchildren." "And will you stay longer than one month this time?" "Well, if possible, I would like to stay three." "Your husband will remain here in Russia?" "Yes." "And you do not intend to stay permanently in Britain?" "Oh no."

This satisfied the official, who told her to come the following day to pick up her visa, and the next person from the line went up to the screen.

The visa section of the British Embassy now looks like a suburban England railway station with crowds of commuters sitting in the waiting room, bored perhaps but secure in the knowledge that they will eventually catch their trains. Gone is the terrible heaving line on the street outside the embassy, which used to arouse panic in timid Russians because the strongest and most aggressive would always push to the front.

"There was a problem outside," acknowledged Rick Lindsley, an official from the Home Office, Britain's Interior Ministry, working on assignment in Moscow. "There was harassment in the queue, people charging money for places. It was beyond our control. But we have extended our facilities and got everyone inside, we can organize things in a fair way."

Last year the embassy dealt with an astonishing 97,800 applications, 10 times more than a decade ago. Only 3 percent of would-be travelers were turned down.

Most applicants, like the old lady, have a simple interview, but in cases where the British have doubts, people can be asked to return for a second and even third questioning.

I buzz over to a back room and settle on the wall to hear a businessman explaining for the third time that he wants a visa to go on an auditing course in Britain. The official, a young woman, is pleasant but persistent. "You don't seem to know much about this course. Why haven't you made more of an effort to find out concretely who you are going to see, what you are going to do in Britain?" "Well," said the businessman, starting to sweat a little, "I am trusting the organizers. I will go with pleasure wherever they take me."

Is he being deliberately evasive or is he just inexperienced? The official cannot decide with me hovering there, but I suspect he might be about to join the minority of the disappointed.

Back in the waiting room, a large crowd is still lounging on the chairs. Vika and Sveta, two language students who want to go to Britain to improve their spoken English, have not been to the visa section before, so they complain, "It is a terribly long wait."

But Raisa, planning another of her regular visits to her married daughter, remembers the old lines. "It used to be a nightmare. I saw people crying because they couldn't get in to get their visas and lost money on their air tickets. This waiting room is a very pleasant surprise."