A lot of people ask us how we deal with visas as we travel all over the world. But the truth is, for the most part, we don’t. Canada (along with most Western countries) can travel to many other countries visa-free. We just get our passports stamped in at the airport and this is enough to let us stay anywhere from 30 days to 6 months as tourists, depending on the country. And for the most part, this is more than enough since as soon as you cross into another country, you then get stamped into THAT country and your counter resets. If you just pick 2 or 3 countries in a region like SE Asia, you can just keep doing “laps” hopping from country to country and living as a tourist forever.
The one place this breaks down is in the EU. This is because in Europe, there’s a 26-member agreement among most (but not all) EU countries called the Schengen Area. It looks like this.
Here’s how it works. Any countries coloured blue are treated for immigration purposes as one giant immigration zone. Orange countries are supposed to join but haven’t yet. And the blue dots are those weirdo city-states that are technically not Schengen member-countries but still have open borders like Monaco and Vatican City. You know, the freak cities.
ANYWAY, the important thing is the big blue area. When you enter the Schengen Area, you get stamped in as a tourist for 90 days. There are (generally) no border checks between Schengen countries, but the 90 day limit applies for the ENTIRE Schengen Area. You can’t reset your time limit by switching countries, and you can’t even reset it by leaving the Schengen Area and re-entering. You are allowed 90 days in any 180 day period, meaning if you stay 90 days in the Schengen Area, you have to spend 90 days out before you can come back in again.
Needless to say, this is a bit of a pain, since 90 days isn’t a lot of time to explore ALL of Europe, but in the past we’ve simply worked around this by leaving the Schengen Area for SE Asia. By the time we come back, more than 90 days have passed so we get another 90 days in the Schengen Area. Easy peasy.
This year, we decided to try something new. This year, we wanted to stay a full year in Europe, and in order to do that we have to apply for a long-stay visa called the “Working Holiday Visa.” And being naive us, we thought it would be a simple matter of simply filing out some forms and dropping it off at embassy.
HA. What idiots we were.
What is a Working Holiday Visa?
A Working Holiday Visa is one of the few ways in which you can obtain a long-term visa without a job offer, enrolling in a university, or marrying a citizen. These things are bilateral agreements between countries that allow young people to spend a year travelling around the country, while at the same time being allowed to work part-time to supplement their income. They’re meant for annoying Millennials taking gap years to “find themselves” or some such bullshit, and as a result don’t require an offer of full-time employment. And the great thing is that if you get one with a country in the Shengen Area, you can use it to stay in the Schengen Area for an entire year!
They’re also restricted by age. You have to generally be 30 (or in some cases, 35) or younger to apply. We’re 35 this year. So this means this is the last year we’ll ever qualify for one of these things. So that’s why we did it.
Note that we were allowed to apply even though we’ll be turning 36 next year when the visa actually comes into effect. As long as you’re 35 at the time of your application, you’re good.
Step 1: Check Which Countries You Can Apply To
These agreements are, again, bilateral agreements between countries, meaning the Working Holiday visas you’re eligible for depend on your country of citizenship. Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders generally have the most countries to choose from. Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Argentina, Chile, and most European countries also seem to have plenty of options too.
Americans, not so much, unfortunately. The only Schengen country that offers a Working Holiday Visa is Ireland, but there are restrictions such as being newly graduated from college and stuff like that.
That website’s great for comparing the different types of visas available to you. Remember that each country is different, and has different requirements and conditions. As a Canadian, for example, most of the Working Holiday Visas available were available for people up to the age of 30, but a few countries allowed people up to the age of 35. Because we had such a great time in Poland, and because they were one of the few countries that allowed 35-year-olds to apply, we chose to apply for a visa from Poland.
Also note that while generally you can only get a Working Holiday Visa once, you are allowed to apply to the same program from another country. Theoretically, you could keep applying for a new visa each year from a different Schengen country each year, and use that to extend your stay in Europe, but we didn’t do that so we can’t recommend it.
Step 2: Make an Appointment at the Embassy
Now that you’ve chosen a visa to apply for, find your local embassy of that country and make an appointment. Generally, all you need to do is search “Polish Embassy in Toronto” or whatever and you’ll find it. From there, go to their website, find out how to book an appointment and do it.
You generally need to do this months in advance, and you generally need to do this in your home country. Some countries like Germany allow you to get it from within Germany, but that’s an exception rather than the rule. Figure out when you are planning to enter the country and start the process 3-6 months before that date.
Step 3: Get All Your Paperwork In Order
Go to your embassy’s website information for your Working Holiday Visa, print out all the forms and instructions listing out all the documentation you need to bring, and read that shit. Seriously, sit down with a magnifying glass and pore over every bit of fine print about the documentation you need to bring for a successful application. Any slip up will result in a big fact REJECTION stamped on your application, so you need to bring your A-game, and you will likely need to kill a couple trees in the process. Here’s what I needed to bring for my application.
- My embassy appointment confirmation
- My passport
- A colour photocopy of the first page of my passport
- A signed letter of intent explaining what visa I was applying for and why
- Hotel reservations for the first week after landing
- Flight reservations to and from the country
- Contact information for 3 of my friends and family members in Canada
- A filled out and signed visa application form
- Proof of travel insurance covering your intended stay
- 3 months of bank statements
- 2 passport photos
- The application fee
- A self-addressed-prepaid envelope
And the eagle-eyed amongst you may notice that several of these documents required me to purchase something (hotel, flights, insurance) despite not knowing whether I would be approved for this visa! My solution to this was to shop around and buy refundable versions of these. Even if it meant paying more for the “FlexFare” or whatever, this way if the visa got denied, I could get my money back.
Step 4: Present Your Documents To Embassy Official
Today’s the big day. I got up at the crack of 7AM (unheard of for an early retiree), marched down to the embassy, got through security, waited for my name to be called, sat down with the embassy official, and I presented my meticulously completed application, complete with a table of contents to guide them through the paperwork and those colour-coded tabs that only crazy OCD bureaucrats use. After weeks of preparation, I was certain I had crossed every T and dotted every I. I was going to walk out of there with my application approved. Or at least, processed. I was sure of it.
Step 5: Realize You Screwed Something Up
Don’t feel bad. Anyone who’s every dealt with the immigration department of ANY country knows this feeling. No matter how hard you prepare, something always goes wrong.
The information on the website is not complete. The information on the website is NEVER complete.
For us, we had two problems. First, we only brought the travel insurance certificate which showed we were covered for the time period required. But we didn’t bring the actual policy documents. The ones that said exactly how much we were covered for in the case of medical emergency. The website never mentioned this.
And second, the embassy official asked for proof of a job offer, despite the fact that the Youth Mobility Visa doesn’t require a job offer. We tried to explain their own visa program to the embassy officer (using a printout from their own website), but the embassy official seemed perplexed, as if she had never heard of this whole Youth Mobility thing before.
But, she insisted, regardless of the job requirement disagreement, she couldn’t process my application without documentation of coverage limits from my insurance company, and we couldn’t simply load it up on my phone since security had taken our phone.
So nice try, but try again.
Step 6: Repeat Steps 2-5 Several Times
The next few weeks I would describe as a game of whack-a-mole. Go home, regroup, print out the new documentation that we didn’t know that we needed, make a new appointment, and do the whole thing over again. Only each time, something else was discovered to be wrong and we’d have to do it all over again.
This time, it was the insurance certificate. The next time, it was because the photographer had accidentally gotten an ink smudge on our photos that we didn’t notice. And each time, it was the same. Go home, regroup, start over.
Now you know why we said you should start this process 3-6 months in advance.
Step 7: Possibly Give Up And Start Over At Step 1
After failure #3 when the embassy official started insisting that this visa required a job offer despite the fact that their own website clearly said it didn’t, we gave up.
At this point, we went back to square one and picked a new country. As long as it was a Schengen country that allowed 35-year-olds to apply for a Youth Mobility Visa. As much as I loved Poland as a country, we just could NOT get their embassy officials to abide by their own rules and regulations.
For the next country, we didn’t want to make the same mistake again. We wanted to pick a country that was famous for being sticklers about rules and regulations.
So we made an appointment at the German embassy.
Step 8: At Some Point Hopefully Make it Through
I am happy to report that our meticulous attention to detail and the German people’s natural love of rules hit it off famously. After opening our application and seeing all those colour coded tabs, and then realizing that every piece of documentation was perfectly filled out and organized in the order that their own checklist had printed out, the embassy official actually whistled, impressed.
“Zis is a very goot application, ja!”
And under the table, I pumped my fist, victorious. Finally. SOMEONE appreciates my colour coded tabs!
Step 9: Get Your Visa!!!
When we left, the German embassy official estimated it would take 2 weeks to get our visas in the mail. It took 1.
God, I love German efficiency.
So there you have it. My twisty-turny journey to getting my first (and last) Working Holiday Visa.
Incidentally, I have so much more respect for anyone who’s ever had to go through this process to actually immigrate to another country. The Working Holiday Visa is one of the easiest and simplest ones to get, and it was STILL surprisingly complicated! Now imagine going through this on an actual visa. With your family’s lives hanging in the balance. Also, you don’t speak the language.
So yeah! Anyone else ever apply for one of these things? What was your experience like? Sound off in the comments below!