I spent the month of August in the States, waiting to get a long-term visa. The best part was definitely the time I spent with friends and family. A dear high school friend picked me up at the Philadelphia airport and fed me sushi and a homemade American breakfast that included Peet’s coffee before driving me to Washington D.C., where I stayed with a Peace Corps friend and her partner. Those five days were fantastic: great conversations, latino food, delicious cocktails, and efficiency. In order to work for the UN as a consultant, I needed to get medical clearance from a physician and have a bank account that could accept salary deposits (my current bank didn’t qualify because they use an intermediary bank, which the UN won’t accept). In a half-day alone, I had a full physical, opened a new bank account, got my hair cut and colored, got photos taken for my visa application, and sent the majority of the required docs back to the UN. In Italy, this would have taken weeks to accomplish. Then I drove home to my parents’ place in Western Pennsylvania, where I had lots of quality time with my mom and dad, older sister, brother in-law, niece and nephews, and my sweet orange cat, who is living the high life. My younger sister was also able to come home for a weekend, and I was spoiled with kayaking, Yuengling lager, home-cooked meals, and a peach pie for my birthday. Everyone along this journey got to enjoy the prosciutto, cheeses, and balsamic vinegar that I brought back from Rome.
But the waiting and the uncertainty drove me crazy. I had no clear sense of just how long I was going to be there. As a consultant, the responsibility is on me to get my visa, but I couldn’t do that when my paperwork was sitting with the UN, who provided little to no support. It made me so frustrated that I chose not to blog at all while I was home, for fear that posts would become rants instead of stories. Now that it’s behind me and I am back in Rome (I promise more posts about that will come shortly!), I do think it’s worth a story. After all, every story has lessons that might help others who are looking to do something similar.
To work for the UN as a consultant, here’s the process from contract delivery to acquiring the visa. Note that these steps happen sequentially and cannot happen simultaneously. I have put in parentheses the amount of time that it took to complete each step (includes weekend days), but note that this is only my experience.
Step #1: Employee returns signed contract and all corresponding documents (bank info, letter of medical clearance, etc.) to UN. (9 days)
Step #2: UN confirms work assignment. (4 days)
Step #3: UN informs their protocol unit of employee’s contract. (1 day)
Step #4: Protocol unit coordinates with Italian government to create a letter, called a Nulla Osta, informing the Italian consulate of the employee’s work with the UN and the need for a visa. (1 day)
Step #5: Italian consulate receives letter (by snail mail-emailed version not acceptable!) and informs employee that they can make an appointment to come to the consulate in-person to apply for the visa. (9 days)
Step #6: Employee has consulate appointment and applies for visa. (1 day)
Step #7: Employee receives passport/visa by mail from the consulate. (3 days)
Step #8: Employee departs US for Italy. (4 days)
The two most infuriating parts for me, and my advice for anyone expecting a consultancy contract with the UN, are as follows:
Advice #1: If I had known that my current bank wouldn’t work for salary deposits and that I needed a medical clearance, I would have done both of these way in advance.
You’ll need a bank account that doesn’t use an intermediary bank to facilitate international wire transfers. International banks such as Barclays and HSBC may be set up for this, but I didn’t research them in much detail. My current bank uses Citibank as the intermediary, so I thought, “why not just set up a bank account with them?!” Plus, if you go in person to a Citibank location, they can open a savings or checking account on the spot; otherwise it will take you a few weeks if you apply online or over the phone. I went to a Citibank in DC and they opened my account in 15 minutes, not to mention that both the over-the-phone and in-person customer service was excellent.
For the medical clearance, get a physical exam as soon as you can, and have your doctor write up a letter stating that you are fit to work and travel for the UN. The letter needs to be dated 30 days from the start date of your contract, so once you have a written offer, contact your physician, have them date the letter within 30 days from the contract start date, and ask them to email it to you.
I should note that although I didn’t get medical clearance in advance, I still managed to move this through rather quickly. Once in DC, I managed to get a next-day appointment with the same medical group that provided me care in San Francisco. So they had all of my medical records on file through their online system, which made for a very quick doctor’s appointment. It only took 4 days for test results to come back and for the doctor to send me the letter. They were truly awesome.
Advice #2: Make a visa appointment at your nearest Italian consulate that’s assigned to your area of residence as soon as a contract is in negotiation, and contact them directly for the EXACT paperwork that you need to bring for the appointment.
While I was negotiating my salary in July, I made visa appointments at the Philadelphia consulate (the consulate for Pennsylvania residents) and at their satellite consulate office in Baltimore. Some consulates are really backed up and it can take weeks to get an appointment, so this is key. You can always reschedule your appointment if your Nulla Osta hasn’t arrived. Explain to the consulate that you’re applying for a “D Mission Visa” (NOT a work visa), ask for EXACTLY what paperwork you need to bring, and ask them to contact you when the Nulla Osta has arrived at their office. Email/call them to ask for updates. Don’t assume that they will be proactive. Every Italian consulate operates a little differently (appointment hours, appointment process, etc.) so you need to be on top of your game.
Step #2 worked out well for me because I just kept rescheduling my visa appointment, and was able to time it so that I had a scheduled visa appointment the day after my Nulla Osta arrived.
Although my visa appointment on August 22nd meant that I had to drive 5 hours to Philadelphia, my parents came with me and we made a fun day out of it. We arrived in plenty of time to check out the Liberty Bell, which is conveniently located across the street from the consulate. When we arrived at the office, I realized that I basically walked into Italy. How did I know? Because there are no instructions on what you’re supposed to do, and upon asking another person, I learned that they were about an hour behind schedule. Benvenuti in Italia! But what a joy to hear the Italian language again after a three-week hiatus. I had really missed it.
I watched as others were called up for their appointments, most of which were for short-term visas. Half of the visa applicants were unaware that as of August 1st, visa fees could only be paid by money order as opposed to cash. Sure, there were signs posted all over the office, but the consulate failed to update the website! One applicant went up to the window with the documents he was instructed to bring, only to find out that the person to whom he spoke on the phone failed to mention several additional documents. So off he went in search of the missing items. This is why I stress to call the consulate ahead of time and to be clear on EXACTLY what you need to bring.
As I was waiting for my name to be called, I checked my email and found out that my housing arrangements for the month of September had fallen through. Proof of lodging is one of the documents that you need to apply for a D-mission visa. But in true Italian spirit, I decided to give them the booking form anyway. Additionally, my flight itinerary was not confirmed as the consulate requires, but merely a reservation. I knew I was taking a bit of a risk, but the hour-long delay had given me plenty of time to formulate some creative, convincing responses.
Finally, my was incorrectly pronounced aloud and I stepped up to the window as the consular officer retrieved my newly arrived Nulla Osta.
The flight reservation and other documents (application, money order, copies of passport/drivers license, passport photo) passed inspection, but the consulate officer looked quizzically at the booking form.
“One month of lodging? What will you do for the other three months of your contract?” she asked.
“Well, I’ll either renew my current contract or move to another apartment,” I replied. She seemed satisfied with the answer.
Hey, this is Italy. You do what you need to do to get by the government without getting caught. Several successful attempts at skipping out of high school prepared me very well for this moment.
She took my passport, stamped my documents and asked if I would be picking up my passport/visa in person. I handed her the self-address stamped envelope to have it mailed to my parents’ address. Since my flight was just one week away, I asked if she thought that my passport would be mailed back to me in time for the flight.
“One week? Oh, sure” she answered confidently.
We left and continued to enjoy our day, stopping at the Reading Terminal Market for a classic DiNic’s pork sandwich with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe (Fantastic combination, although the pork was rather dry). We then received a great tour of independence hall and then I managed to navigate us out of downtown Philadelphia and back home without getting lost. A long Friday, but a successful one.
The following Monday afternoon, I was working on a crossword puzzle when I heard my mother say, “I think your visa arrived.” I looked up to find my self-addressed priority envelope in her hand. Convinced that there would still be a snafu, I opened the envelope, turned to the visa page, and read through the details.
I was shocked. Everything was correct. They processed my visa and mailed it that same day! After sitting around and waiting for weeks for steps to be completed, the actual visa processing took the least amount of time. Did I have it all wrong about Italian inefficiency, or was the take-away lesson more about the need to anticipate unpredictability?
One thing is certain: the bulk of my waiting around was due to the UN’s procedures. Did I mention the three weeks I spent in July on salary negotiations? This marked my first and definitely not my last lesson in UN bureaucracy.
After what seemed like a lifetime, I once again packed up my suitcase and carry-on, drove to the Pittsburgh airport, said goodbye to my parents, and took a connecting flight to another US airport that would carry me directly to Rome. This time, it was Philadelphia. In just 29 days, I had been to Philadelphia three times: my arrival on August 1st, my visa appointment on August 22nd, and now my departure. I have nothing but brotherly love for this city, who welcomed me home, got me a visa, and put me back on course to fulfill my dream of living in Italy. That, combined with the love and support of friends and family, is what made all of this possible. And that’s why, when I saw my gate assignment as in the photo below, I actually cried out in joy.
I boarded the plane surrounded by tourists who would be returning in a few weeks.
But not me. I’m going to live.