By J Grocott, Jun 3 2016 03:35AM
Let me be clear from the outset: I want us to remain inside the EU and I don’t want to be misunderstood on this point.
I like having the option to migrate freely to any of the 27 other countries (and counting), knowing that I’d be free to enjoy their benefits systems and healthcare (with a European Health Insurance Card which, bearing in mind that our own NHS is ranked number 15 in Europe by the WHO and being further reduced in stature the closer we move to Brexit, seems like a very good deal). I want to stay in the EU indefinitely.
I like the idea that I might be offered a job on the other side of the continent and will not have to go through all the bureaucratic rigmarole associated with accepting it, which I would find anywhere else in the world in the same situation. I also like being able to flounce across the borders of all EU countries at will, just by merit of possessing a British Passport, staying as long as I like wherever I like; without having to worry about overstaying my visa-sanctioned welcome.
To illustrate my point, I’d like to describe my current circumstances; having been offered a fantastic chance to study in South Korea, and having booked a five-day stopover in China along the way, there are a few pertinent points that I've recently encountered that you might want to consider before voting to leave the EU...
South Korea has extended an open invitation to people from the UK, in that there is no requirement to apply for a Visa if your stay is for less than 90 days and you aren’t going to work there. This is great. It’s fantastic. It’s awesome. It’s also not common knowledge. I’d never have known about it at all, if I hadn’t applied for the Summer School Programme at PNU in Busan. It's why I've had to apply for a postal vote to declare my intention to stay in the EU.
My point here is that it’s difficult to find out where you can go without a Visa, when you’re going outside of the EU. This type of freedom to travel is something I’ve always taken for granted, having taken most of my holidays within Europe, so Visas are something of an afterthought for me when booking travels. Since most of us put off the bigger trips (the ones that take us further afield) until later in life, probably because they are usually much more expensive, it is worth noting that our close-to-home holidays may become equally exorbitant once we’re outside the EU – because they can charge us whatever they want in Visa fees, even for the shortest stays.
This brings me on to China – a place that I visited last year, and a place I’m taking a five day layover in before I get to Korea. When you’re going as far away as Asia, it makes sense to take some time and explore the places you’re passing through. In my case, I decided to take five days in Shanghai.
It turns out that the last time I visited China in April/May 2015, I didn’t have to pay extra for my single-entry 30-day Visa – as I was part of a tour operated by Wendy Woo. When I booked my stopover this time with STA, I assumed I’d be similarly covered – having been advised that China operated a similar policy to Korea by Essex Abroad at my university.
It was only after I’d made all the arrangements that my travel agent told me that my stay extended beyond the normal 72 hour transit Visa I might be entitled to, somewhat less than the 90 days I’d anticipated, and that I would have to apply for a Visa or change my booking (with the proviso that I had less than half an hour before my entire booking would be lost until the next working day, right before the bank holiday).
When I used the portal carried on the STA website, which my STA agent advised me to consult, I was told that I would need to stump-up another £222 for a “single entry Visa”. This is not true, as you can get a multiple entry Visa for the same price as a single entry one – single/group entry seems to have been discontinued at the beginning of 2016 – and though you pay the price expecting an expedited service (using the documents you’ve already secured through STA, I had erroneously assumed), you are really paying a premium for a service that is provided directly by the Chinese Embassy for less and required to repeat steps that you wouldn’t have to when applying direct.
Having paid the extra already – only finding out that I’d paid it to provide more information to an intermediary than I would have needed to to the source, but confident that I was saving myself some labour after uploading all of the relevant documents (instead of printing and posting) to thevisamachine website – I posted my passport, a passport sized photo, and my completed/printed application form (which was completed using the online facility on the Chinese Embassy website itself, incidentally) by the securest form of post available. When the post office official asked me the value, I told them it would cost me around £3000 if it got lost – they replied that the top option was £500, so they were going to put £500 on their system. Thank you post office.
The next day I got an email from “Dave” (no other details, except from the generic company email) stating that my passport and forms had been received. I then received another email from “Dave” stating that I needed to send my hotel/flight booking confirmations, documents that I had already uploaded on thevisamachine website during application and which were not included in the itinerary of documents I needed to post, without a direct dial/email address from the service agent. Good old “Dave”.
So I email the requested items across – this is a rush job, after all, since my application for the exchange program was a late one (it was only opened up to the likes of me as a deadline extension) – but hear nothing back from thevisamachine after I do. I check my online tracking system the next day and see that my order is still, apparently, “awaiting paperwork” 24 hours after I already sent it across for what is (in my understanding, at least) now the second time.
That’s when I got really annoyed. I started looking up advice about Visa applications for China from the UK on the internet – something I did very rapidly the first time round, as STA had given me only 30 minutes to decide if I wanted to secure my booking (or set the last two hours of negotiation aflame and start again from scratch), which had only seemed to confirm that I would need a Visa if staying longer than 72 hours in China – this time I found the advice on the Gov.uk website, sixth in the search engine ranking under the paid ads, which stated the following:
“If you hold a British Citizen passport and are transiting by air through Beijing Capital International airport, Shanghai (Pudong and Hongqiao), Chengdu, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Dalian,Shenyang or Kunming, and travelling on to a third country, you can enter China visa-free under a 72-hour visa waiver. You must remain in the city municipality (or within Guangdong province in the case of Guangzhou) and have evidence of your onward journey.”
This seemed to confirm what I’d been told at first, but a little more reading led me to the following:
“If you’re transiting through ports in Shanghai, Zhejiang Province or Jiangsu Province, and travelling on to a third country within 144 hours, you can now also enter China visa-free. You must be staying in Shanghai municipality, Zhejiang Province or Jiangsu Province, and have evidence of your onward journey to a third country within 144 hours of arrival.
These visa-exemptions are for transit only – you can’t use them to enter China with return flights from the UK.” – https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/china/entry-requirements.
Incidentally; you don’t currently need a Visa to enter Hong Kong or Macao from the UK (according to the Uk.gov website), and Hong Kong was the other port I would be passing through on my journey. Since I would not be leaving Shanghai municipality, and I was traveling on to another country (South Korea), I seemed to qualify for this 144 hour visa-free period. I was not given this information by either the STA of thevisamachine at any point during either application, however, despite answering questions in each instance that indicated this might be the case. I then went on to explore the FAQs on the About Shanghai General Station of Immigration Inspection of PRC website: http://sh-immigration.gov.cn/listPageEn.aspx?lx=40&id=4414.
I concede it might be possible neither STA nor thevisamachine were aware of this development (which came into place on the 30th of January 2016), as who knows how well publicised the change was. If this is the case, then my research will potentially have contributed significantly to their business models – assuming they use the learnings wisely. If we vote to leave the EU, everyone in the UK might suddenly find ourselves vulnerable to equally complicated and malleable barriers when trying to go to France for a day or long weekend.
Any existing agreements we have may be instantly nullified upon withdrawal, and there will be nothing lined up to replace them. It might be just as hard for us to spend a couple of weeks a couple of hundred miles away, as it is to spend a couple of years a couple of thousand miles away. I think we should be making it easier for us to go where we want, and not harder. I believe we should be expanding our freedoms and not restricting them. I want to be a citizen of the world, and not of our tiny part of it alone.
On the issue of The University of Essex remaining in the NUS, I can’t really comment – I only heard about the referendum after it was too late to vote, as not a single email was sent to my university account about either side of the debate or my need to vote on it. Nice work SU; on this basic communication failure alone, my instinct would be to say that leaving things in your hands alone would be akin to leaving the UK in the hands of our terrible Tory government.
I like being able to get discounts in shops across the UK, and I like having a larger union to go to if the local delegates don’t cut the mustard – much the same as I like having the European Court of Human Rights, when the UK legal system screws things up royally. Yes the NUS is not perfect, but you have to be in it to make a positive change – just like Europe, really.