Thursday, December 14, 2006 Turkey Turkey

The first interesting visa

During our couple of days in Sofia, Matt recommended visiting Syria and Jordan after Turkey so we did a bit of research into these very interesting countries. Syria, despite the US withdrawing its ambassador, is reckoned by the guidebooks and travel websites to be a safe country (as long as you take reasonable precautions, for example not walking down Damascus High Street late at night wearing a pro-Iraq war T-shirt and calling for the end of Islam).

We decided to go. Or at least, we decided to try to go. Getting a Syrian visa is apparently a non-trivial task. The official advice is to apply in your own country, but dig a little further and it turns out that you can get one at the Syrian Consulate in İstanbul. The only real killer is if you have ever been to Israel (or 'Occupied Palestine', as the Syrians call it), or ever intend to go there, you can forget it. Well, truthfully, we haven't, and we don't.

We took a taxi to Maçka Caddesi No 59 (all the way across town from the hostel), where we found a small office on the third floor purporting to be the Syrian Consulate. The queue was out of the door. Luckily we spied a small tray at the front of the queue which looked like it contained blank application forms, so Glenn pushed his way through to the front and picked a couple up. (One thing about the Turks: they don't really do ordered queuing, either on foot or in their vehicles. They push and they shove, which means that they're perfectly happy when somebody else does the same to them—it's all part of life.) When we looked at the forms it seemed we each needed: 1 completed application form, 2 passport photos, 1 letter of recommendation from our own embassy, 1 passport, and 45 Euros (GBP 30 / USD 59). We could drop all of this off between 09:30 and 11:00 in the morning and the visa would be ready that afternoon, all being well. So we made our way to the British Consulate to ask for a letter of recommendation.

The British Consulate is an altogether different place to the Syrian one. It occupies a huge colonial-style mansion set in grounds which fill an entire block of prime İstanbul real estate. This didn't surprise us, as one thing the British do seem to be good at is having impressive embassies. The consulate was attacked in 2003 and we found it now lying behind enormous fortifications with a security building where the gate presumably used to be. We had to have our passports checked, pass through a full-height solid metal turnstyle, surrender our bag and mobile phone, and pass through an airport-style security inspection. And that was just to get into the grounds! Once inside the complex we were pleased to see a huge, perfectly manicured, lush green English lawn in front of the building. It was reassuring to know that standards are being maintained. We had no further security to contend with to get into the building, and we received our letter of recommendation after a wait of about half an hour in return for a fee of YTL 125 (GBP 45 / USD 88 ). Because we are married we could get by with a joint letter, to our wallet's great relief. What does a letter of recommendation actually say? Basically, it says a few diplomatic niceties about how our embassy takes this opportunity to extend its highest esteem to your embassy, etc. etc., and then adds that our embassy has no objection to the Livett-Malte household visiting your country. Add an official stamp and that's it.

By now the Syrian consulate would be closed for the day, so we decided to return to the hostel to complete our forms. Next day, we took another taxi back to the consulate as early as possible. We beat the majority of the queue but there was a group of seven or eight Turks ahead of us. They were in a gaggle around the still-closed window but being British, we felt it proper to establish an orderly queue which anyone entering after us could join. The window opened a few minutes after 09:30 and the crowd in front of us immediately shoved all their passports and application forms through the window at the same time. The lady behind the window insisted that they try again, this time one at a time, which they did. One of them had neglected to answer the "Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine?" question, and his form was passed back through the window. He didn't seem to understand, so his friend explained. Either he had been to Israel and forgot to lie, or his friend had a sick sense of humour. We watched with great interest as the friend got out a pen and ticked the 'Yes' box, before handing the form back through the window. A commotion ensued between the staff inside the office, and the Turks outside it. After a moment the man's form was returned to him, he took a new blank form and went over to the desk to fill it in. Presumably he had been persuaded that his memories of a previous visit to Israel must have been delusions, and that he had never in fact set foot there. We don't know if he got his visa in the end.

After a while our turn came and we handed over our paperwork. The lady did a cursory check of the forms, and had a look through the passport, presumably for Israeli visas or stamps from border crossings between Israel and its neighbours. When she was happy she gave us a form and told us we needed to go out of the office, turn right and go into a conveniently located branch of the Turkish national bank and pay 90 Euros for the two visas. We did this (we managed to pay in Lira), and returned to the consulate with the receipt. Again, nobody minded when we pushed right in at the front brandishing our receipt. The lady swapped it for a slip of paper with our application number on it and told us to come back at 15:30.

We spent the intervening time wandering around a part of the city that we hadn't seen before, and decided to try our luck back to the embassy half an hour early, at 15:00. We expected to be turned away, and sure enough we found the door locked. But a man who had entered the building with us decided to ring the doorbell anyway, and it worked! A member of staff opened the door, and without saying a word, motioned for our slip of paper. A few moments later, again in complete silence he returned with our passports, handed them to us and closed the door. Did this mean we had been successful? We stood in the corridor and looked through our passports and found a full-page sticker in each one containing a flashy 15 day, single-entry visa to the Syrian Arab Republic. The whole process had been relatively straightforward.


Jimmy K. said...

Just an amazing story. I look forward to reading it everyday. Of course, you don't post everyday and I can understand why, just a great story.


Thanks for thıs ınfo.... consulate letter has gone up to be about 59 quıd now.... unbelıevable!
Enjoy your trıp.

Glenn Livett said...

Hi thehalfhog,
Thanks for your comment! You're in a Turkish web cafe, aren't you? We can tell as none of your 'i's have dots! :-) Happy memories...
The price rise doesn't surprise us. But Syria is well worth it. Have a great trip.

Anonymous said...


Just to let you know that as of Dec 2008, the Syrian embassy in Istanbul only issues visa to Turkish residents. I went there with my letter of introduction and passport photos but they wouldnt issue me with a visa. However, I chanced this and went to the border (near Antakya) and got the visa with no problems. It cost US$60 at the time. I am a NZer livng in the UK. In theory, you are only supposed to be issued a visa at the border if there isnt a Syrian Embassy/consulate in your country of resident but a Japanese couple wwas issued a visa with no problems and there is a Syrian Embassy in Japan.

My advice is to get your visa from your home country to save the hassle and worry of being turned back, but if you really have to, I dont know of anyone who has been turned away at the border.

Glenn Livett said...

Great advice, thanks for taking the trouble to post it! Hopefully it will be useful to someone.