How to Get a Visa and Live in Spain (Hint: it’s not easy)

Eighteen months. Eighteen. That’s how long I’ve been planning this trip to Mallorca, Spain—544 days (and many sleepless nights) plotting a way to score a visa, move to Europe, and make a paycheck. And until Friday, when the Spanish consulate in Chicago pressed my visa onto page 14 of my passport, this trip was merely a dream.

My interest in moving to Spain started in Athens, Greece, on March 23, 2010. I met Olga outside a metro stop. She noticed my Syracuse University sweatshirt, tossed her 75-liter backpack down, and stuck out her hand. She planned to attend SU for grad school in the fall, she said. Eying her backpack, I asked what she was doing presently. She said she lived and worked in Spain, and traveled on the weekends. She told me about Cultural Ambassadors, a program through Spain’s Ministry of Education, that brings 2,000 American and Canadian college graduates to Spain to teach English. I jotted the name of the program down in my journal, and we went our separate ways. The idea of moving to Europe post-graduation seemed half-baked, but over time, travel looked better and better against the drowning media job market. At least, in theory.

In Minnesota in December, I cut the sides off a Super One paper grocery bag. I spread it out on my kitchen counter top, and scribbled ideas for my future, organized by a color-coded Sharpie system. Yes, the red, green, blue, black, and yellow words scrawled across the brown paper looked childish. But it helped me see the bigger picture: magazines I could work for, grad schools I could apply to, cities I could move to, and in the center, in red capital letters, I wrote SPAIN.

I applied to Cultural Ambassadors in January—letters of recommendation, college transcripts, essays, a letter in Spanish (a language I barely speak), finger prints, an F.B.I. background check, medical authorization forms and so forth. As my ideal placement location, I opted for Mallorca, one of four islands in the Balearics, an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea. I chose Mallorca not because I did my research (I was too busy with school to take the time), but because a quick Google image search revealed a tropical island. Easy decision.

To my surprise and delight, the program accepted me in March. I received a letter from a school offering me a teaching position there.

Then came the hard part: navigating the bowels of American and Spanish bureaucracy to obtain a visa. I collected the required hodgepodge of documents, some notarized by state, some by the government, some by both. I spent many afternoons running errands, printing off and FedEx-ing paperwork, Google-ing appropriate notaries, booking plane tickets.

Because my permanent address is still in Minnesota, my closest consulate is located on Michigan Ave. in downtown Chicago. It’s required to apply for, and pick up, your visa in person. This demands two separate trips. Two separate plane tickets. On June 10, a week after I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico for my stint at Outside magazine, I flew to Chicago to submit my application.

To my dismay, I needed a second F.B.I. background check notarized by the F.B.I. and stamped with an Apostille of Hauge, an international convention of 72 countries that now requires this security stamp. On June 11, I submitted the background check request.  Then, the waiting game began. I ran to my Santa Fe mailbox each day. Thrust in my key and jerked it open. Empty. Empty. Empty.

Each night blurred into the next. I stared at my ceiling, wondering if this would all work out. Fiercely hoping it would. Yet, knowing though my future was at stake, the process was 100% out of my control. Talk about frustration.

So, I went deeper. I booked my one-way ticket to Palma, Mallorca. Still no visa. My F.B.I. background check was four weeks overdue. Still no visa. I called the FBI for answers. One F.B.I. customer service rep told me to wait another week—time I didn’t have.

So I hung up. Redialed. This time, Sonya answered.

“Listen Sonya,” I said. “I’m waiting on a background check that’s weeks overdue. I need this piece of paper to get my visa. I have to go to Spain.”

Perhaps the desperate pleading in my voice stirred something in her bureaucratic soul. “Well, we don’t normally do this, but…”

After another afternoon of sending notarized letters with my eyeballs glued to the fax machine progress bar (please go through, please go through), and she expedited yet another background check. The document made it through Washington D.C.’s mail aeration system (anthrax precautions) with FedEx’s “overnight” service, arriving four days later in Santa Fe.

Time was running out. I had three weeks until I was supposed to be on a plane to Spain, and still no visa. So, I booked a triangle-trip of one-way tickets from Albuquerque to D.C. to Chicago and back. If this was going to happen, I had to do it myself.

Confused yet? I was a bawking chicken flying around the country with my head cut off.

I slept on friends couches, worked for Outside from coffee shops, butted heads with stubborn state department representatives, and resisted the urge to reach across the counter to stamp the background check myself. Surely, that’d be cause for jail-time.

I experienced bureaucracy at its finest. It’s neither easy nor cheap to obtain a visa. The application process is far from transparent. Rules change and invisible barriers are thrown up on a whim. And even if you advocate for yourself, you still could end up visa-less, scouring the annals of our government for more information.

But, after nearly $1,000 in plane tickets, three background checks, six days living out of a gym bag, and hours of waiting in line, I got it. I GOT IT.

When the young Spanish man stuck my visa into my passport, I pressed my face against the glass barrier between us; my excited breaths fogged the window. Part of me wanted to trace the letter “V” for victory in the condensation on his window. But instead, I said (or maybe, yelled), “Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU.” I think I scared him a little bit. He seemed glad when I left. But I didn’t care. Eighteen months of tasting Spain in my dreams, an idea that would’ve folded into failure with one missing stamp, came to fruition on Friday. Finally.

I have nine days in Santa Fe to clean my apartment and move out. Somehow, I’ll fit my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and enough clothes for eight months into my backpack. I drive ten hours to Phoenix, literally leaving my beloved New Mexican desert in the dust. I fly to New York for a weekend of ‘see you soon, then’ and hugging friends goodbye. On September 26, I board for Madrid. On September 27, I land in Mallorca.

I don’t have a place to live yet. Everything I own will be crammed into my backpack. I don’t teach. I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t have a return plane ticket. At times, I wonder if leaving everything behind is foolish. I don’t have a single answer. But perhaps not knowing—walking face-first, full speed into the pitch black—is the greatest adventure.

People tell me I’m crazy for taking this risk. But I say, if not now, when?

And at least I have a map.