When it comes to obtaining visas, I’ve generally had a good run (knock on wood) as a Ghanaian passport holder. I’ve never been denied a visa and perhaps due to my track record of leaving x country before visa expiration, I’ve generally had a pleasant visa application and/or interview experience for the United States and South Africa which tend to be notorious for their somewhat demanding visa procedures. Now I have to admit that my planning for my New Zealand trip was below average. For good reason: I needed my passport to travel to Burkina Faso in June and then to the United States, so sending my passport all the way to the Consulate in South Africa for visa processing wasn’t exactly a viable option. That said, I’d confirmed that I could apply for my New Zealand visa while in the United States with ample time to spare. Or so I thought.
The Hassle of Getting my New Zealand Visa
The actual NewZealand visa application procedure was a breeze, especially since I could do everything online. Since I was applying for a visitor visa from the United States, I simply had to submit my online visa application and then submit my passport for processing at the local visa processing center. I also paid the visa processing fee there. Three days later, I received my passport, confirmationof my visa fee payment and a notice indicating that my visa application would be forwarded on to New Zealand Immigration for review and processing of the visa. With that, all I had to do was wait. And wait I did; for 43 days to be exact. This despite the fact that the visa processing time indicated on their website was 19 days (working or calendar, I had ample time) and regardless of my providing all the additional information they requested – business registration documents, existing and previous US visas, confirmation that my passport had been scanned into their system (?!), financials.
Although I was able to contact the New Zealand visa service through their toll-free number and even spoke to the Beijing-based case officer assigned to my application, they wouldn’t give me any indication whatsoever about whether I would get the visa or not. And so began the mental gymnastics – watching flight itineraries and prices like a hawk to get the best deal possible (I wasn’t looking to travel for over 40 hours with multiple layovers); trying to figure out when would be the ideal time to purchase my airline ticket; actually reading the fine print to figure out which airline offered the best option fee-wise in case I had to change or cancel my ticket; keeping workshop organisers and my dad in the loop.
From the little information I gathered from the New Zealand personnel, I eventually surmised that they were doing a full background check on little ol’ me. Imagine o! After a while, I was convinced they wanted to deny me that visa and silently dared them to do so – go ahead New Zealand, be my first visa denial! What was the worst that could happen? Stay in Washington, DC for an additional week? I resigned myself to the fact that I had zero control of the outcome and hoped for the best. Needless to say, all this didn’t encourage me in any way to actually research Auckland, not to mention New Zealand and its tourism offerings. And so, that’s how I totally missed the fact that it was actually winter in New Zealand – I was in the US over the summer and had little that was winter dress appropriate.
I’m writing all this so calmly now, but consider the fact that getting to New Zealand requires about 30 hours of travel to/from the US East Coast, that the plane tickets aren’t exactly cheap, and that part of the reason I extended my stay in the US was because of my New Zealand workshop and you can see why I was frustrated. In the end, I received my e-visa eight hour prior to takeoff for the first flight I booked with Emirates. Thankfully, I had already canceled that ticket and found another with Alaska Air and Air New Zealand. Factoring in the fees I paid to cancel the Emirates ticket, it ended up being the best deal possible, was reasonably priced and required only 23 hours of travel in lieu of 30 hours with a stopover in Los Angeles each way. Nevertheless, I was prepared for the worst travel experience ever; I was pleasantly surprised by the service on both airlines. Besides them, I’d recommend flying with Emirates – their economy travel experiences is hands-on the best I’ve experienced so far.
Tips for Planning Your New Zealand Visit
Why am I sharing all this? So that you guys can do a better job of planning your travel to New Zealand than I did. Here are some things to keep in mind especially if you’re a citizen of an African country planning a visit to the bottom of the world:
- Begin your New Zealand visa application process at least two to three months ahead of your intended travel date, especially if it’s high travel season (usually during US summer months).
- Read the fine print before buying your air ticket especially if you’re flying from the US. Non-refundable tickets tend to be cheaper, but make sure you get it at least seven days or more ahead of your intended travel date and cancel at least 24 hours before your flight to prevent any change or cancelation fees. Of course, if you end up canceling, you still don’t get a refund on what you paid for the ticket so it might be best to get travel insurance as well if this is likely.
- Make sure you plan for the time difference between your country and New Zealand and account for jetlag in your itinerary – it’s been a week and a half since I returned to Ghana, and I’m just now getting over my jetlag due to the 12-hour time difference between Ghana and New Zealand.
General Travel & Air Ticket Booking Tips
Beyond New Zealand, these general travel and air ticket tips might come in handy:
- Use travel apps like Kayak and Hopper to monitor airfares and purchase when prices are reduced. As I found out, Tuesday is a good day to purchase tickets online in the United States. Also, make sure you use the filters on Kayak to capture any potentially hidden fees for baggage and seats (especially for domestic US flights). Finally, check airfares directly with airlines – their refund / change / cancelation policies tend to be clearer.
- Use TripAdvisor or any other travel community platforms and read up on other traveler experiences – it will give you a sense of what to expect and help you figure out when something is out of the norm.
- Once you have your travel itinerary, download the CheckMyTrip app to be notified of flight changes (especially useful when traveling in West Africa).
- If you happen to find yourself in a similar situation as I did, follow up on your visa application as often as you can. If you have an email from your case officer, check their signature for a direct number and call.
- Provide more relevant or related documents than requested in the application. Include flight and accommodation reservations as part of your application if possible; it shows a level of seriousness and will prevent the back and forth if they need more details.
I hope these tips come in handy. Got practical insights of your own? Please do leave a comment. Happy travels!
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.