Update: Much of the information below is now wrong! Visas take much longer to get – the queues are longer, and if you don’t arrive really early, you’ll be given a ticket to come back at a later date. The best way to learn more is to look through the comments that other people have helpfully supplied – check the most recent ones.
If you ever decide to visit India, you’ll discover at the travel agent that you have to get a visa. At this point you’ll go through several well-defined stages; shock, anger, fear, irritation and acceptance. Then you’ll find out that you have to make the trip to an Indian Consulate (in my case, India House on Aldwych in London), and you’ll go through them all over again. This is a brief guide on how to get a visa for India and what’s involved. This was all applicable in November 2004 – things may have changed by the time you read this and I advise you not to just rely on this guide, just in case.
1) Don’t worry, it’s not actually that difficult
2) You can be in and out within two hours
3) If you make sure you clearly and fully complete your application form, then things will go much quicker
4) Bring a magazine or a book
Before you go
I’m going to assume that you have already visited the High Commission of India’s website, downloaded the visa form and decided on when to go to the commission. The website also has a list of official holidays at the commission when they’ll be closed – check this because they have a number of holidays and you’ll feel really stupid if you turn up and no-one’s home.
Fill in your form, check it and double-check it. Get two passport-sized photos and make sure you have the correct amount of money for the application fee in cash – they don’t take cheques or credit cards.
When you decide on when you’re going to go get your visa, you might want to consider if there are any holidays around when you go. For example, I visited the commission after two days of holiday (Diwali). As a result, I suspect the queues were longer.
How can I find the commission at Aldwych?
It’s the thing with a huge queue of people snaking out from it (unless you get there absurdly early). It’s hard to miss. The really long queue is the one for visas, the short one is for people with Indian passport enquiries (i.e. not you).
The start of the first queue, disappearing into the distance.
The end of the first queue (you can see the window at the end of the curve)
What time should I turn up?
The commission in London opens at 8:30am. I arrived at 8:35am and there were already over 150 people in the queue in front of me. I think people start queueing up as early as 7:30am, and I talked to a girl who’d been queueing since 7:45am and she got out at 9:45am (i.e. two hours all told). The problem with turning up that early is that while there are fewer people in front of you, you still have to wait for the place to open.
As a result, I think that if you turn up at any time before, say, 9am, it’ll probably take you around two hours altogether. If you leave it any later, you’ll have to wait longer. I really don’t recommend turning up any later than 9:30am since there’s a good chance you won’t be able to pick up your visa that day, or at least you’ll have to wait for much longer than two hours.
What’s the process when I get there?
I heard many people in the queue criticising the commission for an illogical system. That’s not true – it’s perfectly logical and it even is vaguely organised. The only problem is that they seem to have no desire to inform anyone of how it works. Luckily, I do.
The process has three steps; queueing to get a queue number, queueing to hand in your visa application, and waiting to get your completed visa. You’ll notice there’s a lot of queueing involved.
The First Queue: Getting a Queue Number
This is the one outside of India House. I arrived at 8:35am and spent a little under an hour in this queue. It moves along quite regularly. The point of this queue is to show a guy in a window that you have a passport and then to collect a piece of paper with a queue number (or numbers, depending on how many passports and visa applications you’re making). The queue number you collect here (e.g. B69) is for the second queue, inside.
The Second Queue: Handing in your visa appplication
After you collect your queue number, you’ll be allowed inside and walk upstairs to a room with a bunch of commission staff behind windows. There are a lot of seats here and in a side room that also has vending machines.
Once you get upstairs, do not loiter around in front of window 1, which will be directly in front of you when you go through the door at the top of the stairs. Window 1 is for people collecting their completed visas and right now, that’s not you. Instead, go and wait in the main room and get a seat if you can. There’s a display in the corner of the room with the current queue number. Notice that a letter from A to E is also highlighted below the number. The queue number cycles through the letters and goes from A1 to E99, so do not make the all-too-typical mistake of going to a window when it’s your number but not your letter; the staff won’t be impressed.
Since many people there are submitting multiple visa applications (e.g. for friends or family) the queue number tends to go in bursts. I got inside at around 9:30am and the queue number was A77. My number, B69, took about 40 minutes to come up. When it’s your number, go straight to the next free window; don’t worry if they seem to have skipped past your number.
Once you’re at the window, hand over your application, passport, passport photos and money. Do not waste everyone’s time by searching through bags and wallets for the necessary stuff; you just spent at least an hour queueing before this so you don’t have an excuse. This bit only took me a couple of minutes because I’d filled in my form properly and hadn’t been denied a visa in the past. After she’s taken all your stuff, she’ll give you a receipt with your queue number (the same one as before) written on it. She will keep your passport – they need it to process your visa.
Waiting to get your completed visa
They hand out visas at window 1. For some inexplicable reason, there are always loads of people rammed up against this window despite the fact that there can be an hour long wait and also they always call out your number multiple times when they have your visa ready. Who knows why people do this – it certainly doesn’t speed things up.
The staff member who gave you your receipt will tell you how long you can expect to wait if you ask her. I was told it’d be 45 minutes; instead it was only 20 minutes. I put this down to my charming personality, or more likely, the fact that there weren’t any issues with my passport or application. You might as well sit down again at this point and wait for your number to be called out. Don’t fall asleep or listen to music, even if it seems it’ll take ages based on what numbers they’re calling out at the moment; they tend to skip around numbers a lot so they might be calling out B1 in one minute and B60 in the next.
When they call out your number, fight your way through the silly huddle of people around the window and get your passport with your visa inside. They’ll tell you to check it – do it! You are checking to make sure that they’ve gotten your passport number correct, and that the valid dates are correct for when you want to visit (they’ll actually be valid for ages longer than you’ll typically need it).
And then you can leave, all done! Like I said, it took me two hours altogether and I suspect it would be even quicker if I hadn’t gone through after two days of holiday.
Is there a toilet?
While I have not seen it myself I’m told there is one downstairs.
You’re wrong about x
Perhaps I am, I only went there once and things may have changed. Please do not rely on this guide for anything really urgent.
I can’t be bothered queueing up, is there some way I can mail my application in?
You can mail it directly to the commission, or you can use a visa service. The visa services are often much quicker and more expensive. Whether or not you want to use them depends on how much you value your time. I don’t know anything more about them so don’t ask me to recommend one.
Why did you bother writing this?
I estimate that at least 400 people go to the commission every day. That’s up to 100,000 per year. I was not been able to find anything decent online about the actual process of getting a visa before I visited, and for many of the people there, it’s quite a stressful and anxious procedure. I decided that a guide explaining all of the steps involved would make it a little clearer and more understandable for all concerned. Perhaps it might even speed things up!
Will you update this guide?
I sorely doubt it, unless there happens to be a good reason.
I would like to reprint this guide
Email me. There’s a link at the top of this page.