Saturday, February 23, 2008

My trip to the Chinese consulate (or what how could you improve the chinese consulate experience)

I'm off to Shanghai, China at the end of March for a school-sponsored trip. Imagine lots of lectures at the local Chinese business school mixed in with company tours and karaoke and big banquets. Sounds like a fun way to spend spring break, right? Look for entries from China soon.
In order to get to China though, I had to apply for a Visa through the local consulate office here in San Francisco. (Although I've been to China twice before I've never went through the visa application process myself). Because Monday was President's Day and the Chinese government doesn't fawn over American presidents-- the office was opened and I made the consul my first errand of a busy day.

When I arrived at 9:30 I figured that there would be a short line-- I was quite mistaken. I entered to find a room that was completely packed with people waiting their turn to drop off their visa applications or to pick up their visas. I picked up my number (distributed neatly by a computerized machine) and began to 'case' the joint.

Some observations:
- About 40 mounted chairs in the main area of the room. These seats faced the electronic notification boards that alternated between instructions on the visa application process and status updates on what number was being called to which window.
- There was a separate area for picking up applications and filling them out (complete with applications in various languages). A tip for those of you are planning on applying for a visa-- download a PDF and do it at home first.
- There was a crowded information area which served dual duty as a passport photo station - There were about 9 windows, 2 dedicated for pickup and the others assigned for application drop-off.
- Office hours are from 9am to 3pm but between 12-1pm, the staff take a lunch break

All in all it took me an hour to drop off the application. I came across some other Haas students and was able to help them reduce their wait by submitting all of our applications together. The wait would have been 1.5 or 2 hrs for them. Interestingly, it only took 4 minutes to turn in our paperwork once we got the service window.

Understandably with the Summer Olympics in Beijing, there is probably abnormal demand for visas this year. There are vendors / travel agents who offer to assist in the visa processing system (a quick Google search shows the prices range from $20 to $150 for the convenience). Sounds like a business plan that I might have to explore some more.

Some tips for improvement... (putting on my operations / innovation hat)
- Add a system for estimated wait time
- A television system (tourism clips, anyone?) to distract the room from the length of the wait
- Make a formal queue system for the 'free-for-all' information area
- Have a food/tea cart outside (they don't prohibit food inside the office but there were no nearby businesses)
- An online reservation system -- this has worked well for the DMV, I think it could also work well for the visa process. In many cases, acquiring a visa isn't a last minute thing.
- Creating a priority (premium priced) line -- wanna skip to the front of the line? Pay $50 and jump to the front of the line. Maybe they could use those funds to lower the average visa request ($130 now)
- Extending hours - I'm sure the consulate has statistics on the number of patrons served per hour-- but I think that expanding the business hours would probably shorten wait times.

As a final update, I picked up my visa 4 days after dropping off the application. I arrived twenty minutes before the 'lunch break' was over and got my number (not the one below but very similiar). The pickup line moved a lot faster so I was done after 40 minutes of patient waiting. Unfortunately for the people who were looking to drop off applications, there were only three windows open. I'd have to estimate that the majority of the room was looking at wait times of 2+ hours. Ouch!

I didn't have much interaction with the Falun Gong protestors as my goal was getting my visa approved with as little hassle as possible. :) That's the same reason I didn't take any pictures of the office. Photos and videos are strictly prohibited.

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