Russia has five consulates in the United States — in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Seattle and Houston — and they don’t accept mail or electronic visa applications from residents of the continental United States. They require each would-be visitor to fill out an application online, print out a copy and have someone (not necessarily the applicant himself) hand-deliver it.
Checking the Russian Embassy Web site, I learned that as of April 10, the visa processing duties would be transferred from the consulate to a contractor called Invisa Logistics Service (ILS), which would charge $30 per application on top of the consulate’s $140 fee for processing, which was supposed to take about two weeks, or one week with rush service (for an extra payment, of course).
Unfortunately, boys being boys no matter how grown up, my son and his friends didn’t get their paperwork to me until after the changeover. In mid-April, I drove to the ILS office, the Russian Visa Center, on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. It was just after noon when I arrived, and the door was locked. I’d overlooked the note on the Web site saying that the office takes a “technical break” between noon and 3 p.m. (recently changed to 12:30 to 2). When I returned after 3, I was told that the office accepts applications only in the morning.
By the time I got there at 10 a.m. the next day, there were already a couple of dozen people sitting and standing around the office, in no particular queue. “How can I tell who comes before me?” I asked timidly. The same thing happened every time someone came through the door. Those who’d been there a number of times — that was most people — just asked, “Who’s the last person?” as they walked in. A couple of times, I saw arguments erupt over who was next in line. A numbered-ticket dispenser at the door would solve the problem, but perhaps that would be too simple.
After almost two hours, it was my turn. And the news was bad: Two of the six young men for whom I was applying hadn’t signed their application forms; one had filled out the form for the consulate in New York instead of Washington; and my son hadn’t signed his brand-new passport. So the office accepted only two applications; the rest had to be corrected. Okay, this was our fault, so I couldn’t complain.
Ten days passed before I’d pulled everything together again; it was now early May. I waited at the ILS office for another couple of hours, only to receive another dollop of bad news. The woman at the window declared that she could no longer accept applications printed on a Russian consulate form. Applicants had to use a new form for ILS, even though the difference was exactly three letters in the upper right-hand corner: “WAS” on one form and “ILS” on the other. She said that she’d earlier accepted the old form because it was still the transition period from the consulate to ILS. My plea for flexibility fell on deaf ears. She wouldn’t budge. I texted my son that he and his buddies would have to fill out the applications all over again and mail them back to me.