Tips: The Visa Fiasco

Ok, “fiasco” is a bit of a hyperbole. Everything was resolved within 24 hours.

As one would expect, in order to study in Poland, I needed to obtain a “National Long-Stay Visa” with multiple entries. Most of the requirements for the visa were easy to produce: passport, application form, evidence of immigration status, bank statements, documentation that I have at least 100 złoty per day to live on, reference letter from employer/university, 2 passport-type photos, and my flight booking. Less easy to obtain was the insurance documentation.

If you want a Polish visa, you have to provide a letter stating that you have at least 30,000€ of coverage, plus repatriation. What exactly does that mean? It means that, in the unlikely even that I am taken ill or die overseas, someone will pay for my sick self or my “mortal remains” to be sent back to the US. Morbid, no? But apparently necessary, as this process can reputedly cost in excess of $15,000. I figured that some certification of the existence of my health insurance, in the form of what they called a “visa letter”, would be more than adequate, but this was not the case.

waiting ticket
My "wait to be called" ticket. Entry time (7:36am) and wait time (33 minutes) were not accurate.

At 11am, after a paraoid last-minute check of my documents for about the 20th time that day, I schlepped uptown to the Polish consulate in New York, since another visa requirement is that you drop the application off in person. Luckily, I happen to be a brief walk away from the Polish Consulate in New York (the only place were you can get a visa if you are from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island or Vermont). (As an aside, the Polish Consulate is housed in the gorgeous Beaux-Arts De Lamar House, across the street from the Morgan Library on Madison Ave., and they have some great concerts and other cultural events.) After waiting for a few hours and chatting with the people next to me about Rzeszów (who knew ever thought that Rzeszów would come up as a topic of friendly banter? Certainly not I…), I brought my papers up to a window, where the woman rifled through them and…told me to go sit down again. Thirty minutes or so later, after the entrance to the Consulate had officially been closed for an hour and a half, I was called back up to the window and informed that everything was in order, except for needing this repatriation insurance, which I could “get an any travel agency”.

Ok. Simple enough. Except that I find the insurance industry to be incredibly confusing, and I had no idea what I was supposed to be asking or searching for. So, I turned to Google, read up on repatriation insurance, and promptly decided that the first place I should look was STA Travel, since they cater to students. Sadly, the only form of insurance they seemed to offer was the travel variety. Once again, I returned to Google.

Now, the first site that popped up was called iStudent Insurance which, as you can imagine, offers various levels of health insurance packages – including one that is purely repatriation insurance, and at the low rate of $278 for single person for a year! But my web designer/programmer instinct took over, and their poor site design made me suspicious of their validity as a company, so I continued to look down the list of hits. It turns out that most of the other insurance companies sold repatriation insurance as a part of a larger health insurance package – something I don’t need – and also charge multiple thousands of dollars per year for said packages. After about 15 minutes of reading through these sites, it occurred to me that I am 23 years old and in perfect health (or so my doctors say). Why was I wasting so much time on this? I went back to iStudent Insurance and purchased the package (bonus: I didn’t have to leave the restaurant where I was hiding from the rain to do it online). Then I called them up and spoke to an incredibly nice customer service person who not only agreed to fax a “Visa Letter” over to the Polish Consulate the next day, but also promised to call me when she did so. And she was true to her word. The next afternoon, I called the Polish Consulate to confirm that they’d received said letter and everything was clear for my visa to go through (and contrary to the large call volume stated on their website, I was able to speak with someone immediately).

The conclusion of all of this is that, in about two weeks, I will be returning to the Polish Consulate to pick up my visa-endowed passport.

Based this experience, here is the wisdom that I will impart:

  • when the Polish Consulate advises you to email instead of call due to “very high volume”, call them anyway. Emailing fails to elicit a timely response (I emailed 3 weeks or so ago with visa-related questions and never heard back)
  • make sure you have exactly the documents they ask for, because feigning stupidity about your insurance policies does not bamboozle those sharp ladies behind the windows!
  • buy the cheapest insurance plan for something that you will most likely not need. In the case of repatriation insurance, iStudent Insurance (not just for students!) seems like a good deal.

Q&A, Part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post, Q&A, Part 1, in which I answered questions that people usually ask when they hear that I will be spending the next year or so pursuing my MA in Central and Eastern European Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. The remaining questions are:

  • “Why Poland?”
  • “Why are you getting an MA?”
  • And, the clincher, “What do you plan to do with your life?”

I initially became interested in doing something with Eastern European Studies during high school, when I took a Russian history course. After years of only being able to take United States history, studying the Golden Horde was a welcome relief from learning about the American Revolution for the umpteenth time. I’d always been a reader and had learned about world history through that coupled with extensive travel, but the vast majority of books for a 14-year-old to read about Russia were spy novels, so this presented an entirely new perspective on Eastern Europe. By the time I arrived at university, I intended to major in Russian and Physics (at NYU, Russian was the closest thing to Eastern European Studies, and the flexibility of the major meant that I did not have to exclusively take classes about Russia). While Physics ended up being something of a disaster of epic proportions and I switched to Computer Science, and at the end of my time at NYU, I possessed a degree in Russian and Computer Science.

Meanwhile, I was spending my summers travelling. In 2006, I went to Kraków with my family and fell in love with the city. Then in 2007, I spent a month in Moscow with friends. It was during this trip that I began to research graduate programmes in Eastern Europe on location. Jagiellonian University became my instant top choice for a number of reasons.

  • It is in Kraków, a great city all-around, with a plethora of concerts and other cultural activities.
  • I wanted to go abroad for my MA, since I didn’t have to opportunity to do so as an undergraduate. Plus, I’d like to work abroad, and companies generally look favourably upon some overseas residency in those cases.
  • The cost of living in Poland is lower than in Russia, which would have been my next choice. (In fact, Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world in terms of cost of living.) After 5 years of Manhattan, that was a welcome break. In addition, the cost of the programme is less if you are an EU citizen or have Polish heritage.
  • I like the idea of going to a university with such a long history.
  • The programme is taught in English. The only other languages I know are Latin (more or less useless for practical purposes in this day and age) and Russian, which I don’t know quite well enough to be in most lecture situations.
  • The curriculum is exactly what I was looking for – a blend of politics, economics and history.

Which brings me to the next question: “Why are you getting an MA?” (and at the same time, “What do you plan to do with your life?”). Well, as I said, my initial interest in Eastern Europe began as a result of taking a Russian history class. However, the Russian program at NYU is very much culture-focused: a lot of literature and language with some film and history. The politics and economics classes, and to some extent, the history ones as well, were only for those majors, which meant that they either had extensive prerequisites or were impossible to get into. Ultimately, I would like to do something involving both of my areas of study: technology and Eastern European studies, perhaps a job where programming is a part of it, but not the main focus. I am interested in analysing the technology sectors of developing economies (with a focus on Eastern Europe). So, having a literature degree isn’t exactly useful for that, and a more practical degree, such as one in area studies, where I gain exposure to politics and economics, would be much preferred. Additionally, with the large numbers of undergraduate degrees out there today, higher degrees make for much more competitive job applicants (and higher salaries) in a tight market.

So, what exactly do I plan to do with my life? While I admittedly harbour something of a Bohemian, go-where-life-takes-me dream, I do realise that there are other, more practical considerations (I do have a dog to spoil and a shopping habit to support). After I finish my MA, I am going to see where things stand, and most likely, I will find a job, hopefully one that allows me to live abroad/travel often (as I mentioned earlier, I’ll probably be looking for some type of analyst job). Initially, the alternate plan was to pursue a PhD in Computer Science (concentrating in natural language processing/computational linguistics, since I am interested in machine translation), but my life has been heavily CS-centric for the past few years, and based on those experiences, I’m not sure that I want to make that kind of long-term commitment. (Don’t get me wrong, CS is loads of fun, and I LOVE web app development, but it’s not what I see myself doing, 12 hours a day for the rest of my life.)

Well, that wraps up the Frequently Asked Questions for now. Any more questions can be put to me via comments.

Q&A, Part 1

When people first hear of my plans to do my MA in Poland, I usually get a barrage of questions:

  • “Are you Polish?”
  • “Do you speak Polish?
  • “Why Poland?”
  • “Why are you getting an MA?”
  • And, the clincher, “What do you plan to do with your life?”

The first few questions can be answered by a tale of my family history and my education. In 1923, my great-grandmother arrived at Ellis Island with my grandfather and great-aunt, from a small town in Galicja called Brzóza Królewska. My grandfather was actually born in St. Clair, Pennsylvania in 1909, but in 1914, my great-grandmother decided that she would take the family, which now consisted of my grandfather and his infant sister, back to their hometown, Brzóza Królewska, while my great-grandfather would stay in the United States and send money to them. My great-grandparents had grown up in an agricultural region, and they did not take well to the coal mines of Central Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, their return home coincided with the outbreak of a decade of war, as empires across Europe collapsed- and Galicja, on the border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire, happened to be right in the middle of the fighting.

In the post-World War I turmoil, Poland managed to recover its statehood (initially lost to Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire through several partitions in the late 18th century). The newly restored Republic of Poland included the territory of Galicja, however, the territory of Galicja included a significant Ukrainian population – and they did not want to be a part of the Republic of Poland. Once again, there was war in Galicja as the Ukrainians fought for independence. Meanwhile, at the same time, the Polish-Soviet War, a result of crumbling empires, poorly defined borders, civil war in Russia, and the fight of newly created states for influence and land, began. The Polish-Ukrainian War ended in 1919 and came to a resolution in 1923 with the incorporation of Galicja into the Republic of Poland, while fighting with the Soviets continued into 1921, before they abandoned their cause of international revolution.

After the annexation of Galicja by Poland, their dreams of a peaceful country existence in Poland definitively squashed, my family packed their bags and set off from Gdańsk (then the “Free City of Danzig”) for New York, where they arrived on 1 September, 1923. The original ship manifest is on the Ellis Island website, and the official record (of which you can purchase commemorative copies) identifies my grandfather as “Ethnicity: Polish”. So, that means I have Polish heritage (although, as the coordinator of my programme said, “‘Polishness’ is of course a slightly complicated concept.”). I also have the last name to prove it. Unfortunately, as my grandmother was English, my father’s household spoke English, and the language was not passed on. I do know Russian pretty well, though, and I’m hoping that this will make learning Polish somewhat easier.

So, that answers two of the FAQs. The remainder will be answered in Q&A, Part 2.


If I could subtitle this, it would be “Why I hate AT&T”. I happen to be the owner of an iPhone 3GS purchased at a Best Buy in the United States. Like all iPhones sold in the United States, it came locked to AT&T. I love my iPhone enough that I am willing to tolerate AT&T’s slipshod call quality in exchange for the convenience of the App Store and other iPhone benefits (and to be fair, I don’t generally have issues with the data quality).

Unfortunately for my iPhone-phile self, AT&T refuses to unlock iPhones. This means that I can ONLY use my phone with AT&T, unless I choose to jailbreak it and risk “bricking” the phone. Aside from the obvious monopoly comparisons, being locked to one cell carrier isn’t such a bad thing, unless of course you’re travelling frequently or moving abroad. In that case, you’d be stuck paying international charges, which are considerable, the entire time, plus you wouldn’t be able to use a local SIM card, making it expensive for new friends to call. (Note: AT&T is the only carrier of iPhones in the world that will not unlock them in any circumstances. In many countries with more reasonable regulation of the cell phone industry, it is illegal to refuse to unlock a phone, which it should be, since it is your personal property.)

I attempted the most frugal solution first: talk AT&T into unlocking the phone. This was a massive failure, and ended with me yelling at the customer service rep: “You at AT&T won’t unlock my phone because you’re afraid that if you do, it will result in an exodus due to your crummy service.”

As a last resort, I approached an Apple employee about what to do. He initially told me that, as I expected, he wouldn’t be able to advise me on anything involving unlocking. Then, after I mentioned purchasing an unlocked iPhone in Poland, he slyly slipped me this piece of advice: “Wait until the iPhone 4 comes out, then buy it in Canada. It’s the cheapest place you’ll find it abroad.” He was right. Although the iPhone 4 hasn’t been released in Canada yet, it seems that iPhones in Canada are only slightly more expensive than their US prices (in all cases, I performed my comparisons based on the prices without contract). The 8GB 3GS, which is still being sold, along with the iPhone 4, is $499 without a contract in the US and $549 CAD (approximately $517 USD).

Once I resolve the phone issue, my plan for remaining in contact with the US is this:

  1. Purchase Polish SIM card for use with new iPhone 4 while overseas. Sell old 3GS.
  2. Switch AT&T plan to prepaid, that way I can keep my phone number, and keep that SIM card in my unlocked Nokia.
  3. Set all calls to my AT&T number to forward to my Skype-out number.

This should effectively allow me to use my iPhone in Poland just like I do here, and my friends and family won’t have to update their address books or pay international rates.

If you’re looking for more information about phoning home while abroad, Clifford Levy of the New York Times wrote an excellent article on the subject in 2007.

Let the adventures begin!

At some point in August, probably about a month from now, I will be moving to Krakow, Poland for grad school at Jagiellonian University (or, in Polish, Uniwersytet Jagiellonski), where I will hopefully receive my M.A. in Central and Eastern European Studies next fall. Being a Gen Y-er, I had to start a blog, which you’re now reading, about this experience.  This seemed to me to be the easiest way to communicate general goings-on with my friends and family all over the place. My other [slightly more altruistic] reason for wanting to blog is this: when I was initially accepted into this programme, I naturally turned to the internet for advice on relocating to Poland. Well, perhaps you’re a better Googler than I, but there was not a whole lot of information out there, and much of what purports to be is only about relocating in general or deals with culture shock (something I’m not particularly worried about). So, I hope that my documenting my experiences, I can give advice based on them. And once I get to Poland, I will ideally be able to give you all a mental vacation (and much amusement) with my stories and photos.

P.S. I am not entirely satisfied with this blog layout. It is one that is WordPress-provided and therefore, convenient. I hope to change it in the future.