Wednesday, October 22, 2014

UNESCO World Heritage

Few weeks ago I came across an article about the inclusion of Mt. Hamiguitan in Davao Oriental in the UNESCO World Heritage list. I was so surprised but so proud at the same time. Being included in that list is such an honor.It is a big deal ! Places that get added to the list automatically become "must-sees" and can draw a lot of tourists.The Philippines has now six, Baroque Churches of the Philippines ( San Agustin church in Intramuros Manila, Sta. Maria Church in Ilocos Sur, Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte , and Miag-ao Church in Ilo-ilo), Tubbataha Reefs National Park, Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras , Historic Town Of Vigan, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, and this year Mt.Hamiguitan just got added.It's a shame though that of the UNESCO World Heritage sites that we have in this country I've only been to one,the San Agustin Church in Intramuros. I promise to visit more of our own as I have already been to some abroad. These are places that I make sure are part of my itinerary when I travel as they have so much cultural and historical significance.I hope we see more in the future.

 Versailles Parks and Palace, France
Banks of the Seine , Paris , France  

The Pantheon , Rome , Italy 

The Forum , Rome, Italy

Colosseum , Rome, Italy

The Vatican , Italy 

Historic Center of Florence

Venice and its Lagoon , Italy
  Mill network at Kinderdijk

Canal Ring Area Of Amsterdam
 Kiyomizu- dera Temple , Kyoto , Japan
Tenryu-ji Temple, Kyoto , Japan

Great Wall, Beijing, China

Forbidden City , Beijing , China

Temple of Heaven , Beijing , China

Angkor , Cambodia

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Schengen Visa Application At the French Embassy in Manila (Interview)

                       I was told to be at the Embassy of France 30 minutes before my scheduled interview at 8am. I got off at the MRT Buendia station then took a jeep to Makati Avenue where the embassy is located. I realized when I got off the jeep that the Pacific Star building that houses the French Embassy is actually walkable from the MRT station.It was 25 minutes past seven,I asked the guard at the entrance for the waiting area for schengen visa applicants.He told me to go down the basement. At the basement another security guard handed me a piece of paper to be filled out about my appoinment. He asked me to wait for the "signal" from the embassy to go up . Surprisingly there was only one applicant other than me waiting at the basement. After maybe two minutes I decided to start a conversation with her. She looked like she's in her twenties.She's also applying for a tourist visa. According to her a  French couple is inviting her to visit them in St. Tropez. WoW! A couple that according to her she only knew through facebook.Good LUCK! She confided in me that she's nervous and didn't know what to tell  the interviewer.I warned her that most likely the interviewer would zero in on why a couple she hadn't met would be so generous and invite her to come to France. She added that it was through her cousin who works in France that she became friends with the couple (again, just on Facebook). After a couple of minutes we were told to go up. I still could not believe that there were just the two of us.When we got to the 16th floor we had to wait again before we were allowed to enter.I think we waited for about 10 minutes. We had to surrender our phones when we entered.The room where the interviews are held is just a small area ,maybe same size as the waiting area at the boarding gates of NAIA terminal 3.There were plenty of seats,same type as the ones you see at the airports.The seats face the TV and behind us are the windows where the interviews are conducted.Shortly after we entered the room the rest of the applicants that day arrived in droves. I think they all had to wait for an available lift as it was a rush hour.I think it took thirty minutes before they started calling out our names. I don't know what list they followed when they were calling out our names because I was the second to arrive and at the guard's list my name was at the bottom but I think I was called fifth (or so). Before the interviews started we were called one by one to pay at the window and for an officer to check if we had complete requirements. It was the male officer who was tasked to collect the payments that day.I had heard so many stories about him from online forums. When it was my turn to pay he asked for my documents and I quickly handed them over.The moment he saw them he told me  to take them out from the envelope.He said it in a manner that really startled me. At that point it was confirmed that it's him that the other applicants are referring to.He went over my papers but this time he didn't say a thing and that is because I made sure they were arranged properly.I gave him the exact amount of P3610 as payment . Just like the ones before me I was told to wait again.A couple sitting behind me was turned away for some reason.
               The first to be interviewed was the lady I chatted at the basement.As I had expected she was asked a lot of questions.Despite what she had to go through she still managed to smile at me as she was leaving the room.It was nerve-racking and could also be embarrassing depending on how the interview goes because everyone else in the room could hear the officers asking questions since they're using  a microphone.
              When my name was called I could hardly understand it because of the accent of whoever it was that's tasked to call out the names. I was assigned to the "chinita" officer.When I handed her my requirements she didn't say anything.She wouldn't even look at me.She hastily went through my papers and gave me back everything that she didn't need.I was kind'a worried because it seemed like she was busy with something else.What if they're actually making the decision at that moment that you hand them your papers? If that's the case It didn't look so good .After checking all my documents she instructed me to put my fingers on that scanner that would get my biometrics. For some reason it wouldn't work.I think I was not doing it right.She even asked me to wipe it.After several attempts I was already worried that she'd lose patience and just deny my application.Finally ,she started to ask questions.I was only asked three questions.First, If I was traveling alone,second, If I had created my own itinerary and third, What places I'd be visiting in Paris.After the brief interview I was advised that they'd keep my passport for a week along with the old one and I was given the claim stub.I was aware about the myth that the time you are asked to claim your passport is an indication of the result so I checked it right away and it says 11 AM.From what I had read the ones approved are advised to claim their passports at 12NN but I knew somebody who was asked to claim hers at 11:30AM and got a visa.
              During the releasing of the passports I remember filling out a small piece of paper which they collected.Shortly after that they started calling out our names.I could hear the officer telling the applicants the results of their applications.I was starting to worry because everybody called before me was denied except for one guy who was approved but was told to return to the embassy when he gets back from Europe.When my name was called I was trying to prepare myself to listen to the same line that the officer had told the others before me.As I gave her the claim stub she smiled at me and I was too nervous to smile back.I was waiting for her to say something, instead she told me to check my passport .I saw it clipped with the old passport and as I was trying to pick it up I accidentally flipped it and saw a sticker.I was so ecstatic.It was only at that moment that I smiled back at the officer.It was worth all the trouble.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

How To Apply For A Schengen Visa At the French Embassy : The Requirements

                            I dreamed of seeing Europe.I really wanted to see it more than any other places on earth.Few years ago I didn't know how I'd be able to do it since i'm not a"richie rich" kid.Saving up for it was just a secondary concern, the biggest obstacle for a Pinoy Passport holder like me is actually getting a Schengen visa.If you are a Filipino I'm sure you're familiar with the term TNT.It pertains to Filipinos who go abroad, overstay and then seek employment without proper documents.Because of this practice it has become so hard to get a visa especially to countries where the number of illegally staying Filipinos have increased, like in Europe.

One of the Windmills in Kinderdijk , The Netherlands
                          There are very important things that European countries would look into to allow one to get into their territory.Among those is the capacity of the applicant to fund his trip and another is a very good reason for the applicant to return back to the Philippines after his trip.One has to prove his "rootedness" in his home country.For a young, single applicant like me that would be an issue. I thought one really needed to have businesses or has to be filthy rich to convince the consuls that you have enough reasons to return .Later I figured that a lengthy tenure in a reputable company might actually suffice.Working for the same company for a long time may give them the impression that you have a stable job and that there's no need to seek one abroad.After realizing this I started preparing for my dream trip.I saved up for it . I also tried to build up a travel history and visited countries that require visa like China and Japan.If you've been to places where you could have overstayed in and sought employment but didn't then you'd gain the trust of the consuls.I did all of that in preparation for a Europe trip that I thought would happen in 2015 yet or maybe a year or two later.For some reason ,all of a sudden last year I thought Europe 2014 would actually be doable and with the Japanese visa I had been issued with I knew I stood a chance.

Colosseum in Rome, Italy

Selfie with Monalisa inside the Louvre Museum in Paris, France

                    In October of 2013 I started planning. First I decided when I'd be going.Summer was out of the question because I didn't fancy the idea of walking on the cobblestone roads in Europe under the scorching sun.Late Autumn or Winter was too soon.Spring would be the perfect time then.I'd heard though that more people are now going to Europe during spring because they realize that Summer would be too crowded since it's the peak and rates are also higher.With this in mind I scheduled my trip in early spring which is mid March.I filed for vacation leaves and luckily they got approved way ahead of my trip.I then made an appointment with the Embassy where I'd be lodging my application.Now please take note of this as a lot of applicants are turned away at this early part of the application process because they are not aware of the rule.If you are visiting more than one schengen state you have to apply at the embassy of that state where you're gonna be staying longer.If you're spending the same number of days in at least two states then you need to lodge your application at the embassy of your first entry.I had heard stories about high rates of visa denial at certain embassies so I avoided them.On the other hand a lot of people have good things to say about the French embassy so I made it my main
I set an appointment with them for interview and submission of requirements by calling :

For Bayantel Subscribers 1 (903) 101- 3333

For PLDT/Smart/Touchcard Subscribers 1 (909) 101- 3333

For Globe/Innove/Touchmobile Subscribers 1 (900) 101- 3333

            Setting appointments is only done by calling the numbers above.That is effective April 2012 according to this site,1261#visa-information. Calling those numbers is really expensive.With my experience it consumed a little more than P600 worth of prepaid load.It could have been less than P500 because I was lucky that on the second try I got thru right away.But since I can be OC sometimes I had to repeat all the information to the rep because I wanted no mistakes.I even called back to ensure the previous rep got everything right. You cannot have an appointment more than 90 days in advance.

           After I had made an appointment I started to gather all the requirements based on the list from the link above:

1. Signed Schengen visa application form with photo (35mm x 45mm, white background) .

          I hate filling out forms. I feel very stupid when I do it. Maybe I'm just afraid to commit mistakes. As I was researching about the whole visa application process I came across a post from this link from .about how the blogger filled out the visa application form.Imagine how thrilled I was when I saw it. All the questions I had about the form were answered.It was such a big help.The blogger explains how she filled out each field so you can use it as a guide.You can also check out the other posts from her visa series because they're very detailed and she's also very prompt in answering questions.

For the photo, these are the requirements :

Colored photo taken against a white background
Size: 35mm x 45mm, maximum head length: 25mm
Head must not be tilted
Absolutely no eyewear and headgear in any form
Image must not have been altered
Image must be clear

2. Valid passport (3 months' validity from the end of intended stay) and photocopy of valid arnd fomer visa.

3. Cover letter explaining the purpose of your trip and proposed day-to-day itinerary

             Just like how I did it during my visa application for Japan I really took this one seriously. I researched about the places I'd be visiting because I'd heard of one applicant who was asked about the places she included in her itinerary. Indeed during my interview one of the questions had to do with my itinerary( It will be on the second part of this post).If you know a lot about the places you included in your itinerary then most likely you will be able to convince the consul that you're just really going on holiday.
             For the cover letter I just referred to some samples I found online  since I'm not a writer.I used them as a guide.It was funny though because I found out later that another blogger I had been following must have used the same sample as guide because the cover letter she posted was very similar to mine.I wonder what the lady at the embassy was thinking when she read my cover letter.

4. Proof of accommodations

For tourists: hotel vouchers (for your entire stay in the Schengen area)
If staying with a French resident: “Attestation d’accueil” (delivered by the City hall where
the host is residing – the original must be presented) + copy of that host’s national ID or
residence permit (if citizen of a country outside the EU)

          There is actually a site where you can reserve your accommodations without getting charged but I had been using so I decided to stick with them.What I like about is that the ratings you see for the accommodations are reliable.The guests are the ones who rate them after their stay.There is a small percentage though of the actual charge that you have to pay upon making the reservation which I don't mind because aside from the first reason I stated above I feel safe using my card on their site.For the visa application I submitted the print outs of the confirmation that were sent to my email.You may double check the confirmation sent to your email because one time what I booked did not match with the one I got in the email.I had to ask the hostel staff to email me again what they had in their system.

5. Round trip flight booking

              Do not purchase your tickets until you get approved.Although if you come across a really cheap ticket before you get a visa and you just wanna grab the opportunity then you may take the risk.I found an airline (I'm just not sure which one it was)that would allow you to cancel the ticket if the visa got denied but of course with a fee. Only a flight reservation is required during the application and you don't need the help of a travel agency for this.I had read of the term "dummy booking" before I applied for visa.I thought only the travel agencies could do it .I asked around and found out that travel agencies in Manila charge P500 for it.WOW! You can actually do it easily. Just go to the website of some airline companies and book a flight.At the end of the process you would be given different mode of payments.I noticed that not all airline companies have these options.In January this year I found these options on the website of KLM. They gave me 48 hours to pay it at their ticket office in Makati (39th Level, RCBC Plaza - Tower 1)or by wiring the payment.I also tried calling Cathay Pacific Philippines customer service 63 (2) 757-0888 and I was also able to reserve tickets on the phone.Cathay Pacific gave me a longer time to pay which was a week.I submitted the reservation I got from Cathay Pacific so that by the time I was being interviewed it was still valid just in case the embassy would check.The airline company send you the reservation to your email.You can print it out and submit it to the embassy.

6. Proof of employment (if any):
− Certificate of employment with monthly salary and leave of absence approved by employer
            You have to check with your HR the format that they follow when issuing a Certificate of Employment and make sure that the information required for the visa application is stated on the Certificate of Employment.In my case I didn't need another letter stating that I was approved for vacation leaves because it was indicated on the COE.

− If self employed: official business registration for current and previous year
− For priests, nuns and missionaries: certificate from the Apostolic Nunciature and guarantee letter
from French and Filipino congregation

7. Proof of income

− Income tax return from previous year, if applicable

             I had a problem with this in the past because my company no longer issues the old ITR, the ones with carbon paper in between the pages. We only get the digitally signed copy now. This time my question was answered.Yes,the digitally signed copy is accepted for transactions such as visa application.

− Recent bank certification

             I don't know why Metrobank needs to wait for a day before they issue this when I could get it at BPI in less than 30 minutes.The problem with the certificate I got from BPI though is that they didn't indicate the account opening date. I was concerned that it would look like I just put my money in there in time for the visa application.I asked the branch representative to modify it but she wouldn't.That's their format!
            You don't need to worry in case you get the same thing because you still have to submit the photocopy of the last three months statement of the account so the embassy can still see the account activity.
            Once again , regarding the amount that one should have in his account, nothing is specified.Maybe if your itinerary is longer then you have to show that you can afford it.
− Photocopy of the last three months statement of account of the same bank account

8. Identity / marital status

− If married: photocopy of your marriage contract and birth certificate
− If single: photocopy of your birth certificate

       I got an authenticated copy of my birth certificate delivered to me by NSO. I just called their number 737 1111.The rep asked for some information and then gave me the reference number to be written  in the field for account number when I pay it at a Metrobank branch. I paid P350.
      For some reason the lady at the embassy returned my birth certificate to me.She told me they didn't need it.I don't know why it's still on the list.
− For minors not travelling with either parent, a copy of the DSWD permit

9. An international travel insurance (medical expenses and repatriation) covering the entire period of theperson’s intented stay and valid for all Schengen states. Minimum coverage should be EUR 30,000.

             I got mine from Blue Cross.I didn't bother to check the other companies even though I'd heard that some are cheaper, Why? because I'm a creature of habit. Hostelworld.....Hostelworld,Blue Cross....Blue Cross.What I like about Blue cross is that I can pay it in cash at their office on Makati Avenue where I could ask them tons of questions, something that a rep on the phone might not have the patience for.I could also pick up the policy right then and there.After discussing it with the staff , I had mine modified because I wanted the stop over shown on the flight reservation to be covered which was HongKong. I was not able to research about this part if it was really necessary.I just didn't want to be turned away by the embassy.The Blue Cross staff also advised me to add 15 days on top of the actual number of days I'd be travelling to be also covered with insurance.I wasn't sure about this either but I just wanted to be on the safe side. They even showed me something that listed the different Schengen states with the corresponding number of days to be added on the actual travel dates .I tried to look it up online but could not see it on an official site.One blogger though advised the same thing for those applying at the French embassy.

10. Visa fee (prevailing peso equivalent of EUR 60), payable in cash
             This one varies depending on the exchange rate.At the time of my application I paid P3610.

             After completing all the requirements I was already stressed out and exhausted that I was no longer thinking about the result. I just wanted to get it over and done with.On the next post I'll be writing about the actual submission of the requirements and the interview at the Embassy of France in the Philippines.