“I dread going to the FRRO. I was told they’re very slow, it’s difficult to get things done and they take bribes,” so quipped an expat friend of mine who was scheduled to go to the FRRO to extend her employment visa.
I told her that if you have a legal reason to be in India, your documents are complete and in order, you are paying your taxes on time and you abide with all the guidelines of the Indian government, there is no reason for you to have difficulty getting your visa renewed. In my more than six years of dealing with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), I have never paid them a single bribe, the immigration officers have always been very helpful to me and I would always get my visa done promptly. The people who get hassled are those who have questionable documents, are late in filing their papers and have no basic understanding of how things are done in India.
I have decided to write down some tips on how to work effectively with the FRRO. After reading this article, I hope this clears the misconceptions and helps you get your visa work done efficiently and promptly.
Be aware of the details and dates
As soon as you receive your Indian visa, take careful note of all the details written on it. When does it expire? Do you need to register at the FRRO within 14 days of arrival in India? Is it a single entry, double entry or multiple entry? Do you have to exit the country every 30 days? I have seen several expats go through stressful situations simply because they did not check these details in the first place. Last year, a French friend of mine was not allowed to exit Bangalore to spend Christmas with his family in Paris. He has overlooked that he was supposed to exit every 30 days and he had overstayed for 30 days! He created a scene at the airport and he was so scared. He had to make a vigil at the FRRO for two days to apply for his exit papers, and he had to pressure the French Embassy to help him get his exit permit approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi.
Plan your dates
If you intend to apply for an extension of your business, employment, student or dependent visa, you have to start preparing your documents one month before your expiry date. You cannot rely 100% on all the information you read from the Immigration website of India. They are not always updated. The laws and the rules of the Indian government keep changing and they are not able to update the website on time. Don’t call their office, they will not give you all the information you require over the phone. One month before your visa expiry date, go to the FRRO and ask for a complete list of all the documentary requirements. Go through the list and make sure you understand every item that is written there. If anything is unclear to you, ask the officer for clarification right there and then. Get a copy of their templates for certain documents like bonafide certificate for students, proof of annual income (for employment visa extension), etc. If you do not use their format, you will have to redo that document all over again.
Book the appointment online
There is a new procedure in the FRRO now that you have to register your details online and pre-book your appointment. (Go to http://indianfrro.gov.in/frro/menufrrodoc.jsp?t4g=4E12FAQO). Take note that the FRRO can only accept and attend to a limited number of applications in a day. With so many applications on queue, oftentimes, the available appointment date is later than the expiry date of your visa. You will then have to pay for the late penalty fee. To avoid this, book your appointment ahead of time so you get your desired appointment date.
Do it right the first time
Prepare your documents ahead of time, do it meticulously and thoroughly so your application gets approved on the same day of submission. Go through your checklist, make sure you have everything. I prepare three photocopies of all my documents, even if they only require one or two copies. Believe me, these extra copies will come in handy at some point. If this is not the first time you are applying for an extension visa, bring even your old documents with you. They sometimes ask for your old residence permit, your passport history of previous trips to India, etc. It’s best to have everything with you rather than travelling again from Indiranagar to your residence in Hebbal and back.
This is one virtue you need to develop and apply in almost everything that you do in India. I always tell my expat friends, “You have to accept what you can and cannot change in India. India will not adjust to you, you have to adjust to India.” It’s like banging your head against the wall if you react negatively to everything around you. Save that energy for more productive things. When you have an appointment with the FRRO, do not set any other appointment anywhere else that day. Expect that you might have to wait the whole day, and maybe even come back the next day. So instead of getting irritated, bring a book or bring your laptop and work online while you are waiting. Make the most out of the situation. Make friends with the other expats sitting beside you.
Smile, look helpless
Always smile and be friendly with all the officers. In case you encounter some problem with your papers, do not be hysterical or yell at the officer. The more you put your weight around, the more they will be uncooperative with you. Rather, say something like, “Sir, what do you think I should do? Can you please help me? Can you please advise me?” And I guarantee you 100%, they will help you. Like everyone else, they like to feel important and needed.
Know what you can and can’t do
You cannot extend a tourist visa. You cannot change your visa type without exiting India first. You need to go back to your home country and apply for a new visa if you want to change your purpose. Is there an exception to this rule? Only the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi can approve irregular requests like this. And that is not an easy thing to do.
Do not ask a local lawyer for advice
Do not waste your time and money by asking a local Indian lawyer about the nitty gritty of immigration guidelines. Chances are, they do not know. They will tell you something, but that’s not necessarily the best advice. A few expats I know have been given the wrong advice and they ended up doing the wrong thing. Unlike in the West where you have lawyers who specialise in immigration laws, it’s very rare that you find one in India. Just go to the FRRO. You will get all the information that you require there. If you or your company has the budget for it, there are a few relocation companies who specialise in this. But hiring them does not mean you will not sit down and wait at the FRRO. You will still have to wait. The only thing they can really help you with is prepare your documents accurately.
Start early, finish early
It is best to go to the FRRO as soon as they open. By noontime, you will probably be done by then. When you go there by midday, you will have to wait longer and by that time, the officers are not as cool-headed anymore.
Dealing with the Police
Ahh, this is my not-so-favourite part of the whole process. But you have to do this if you are extending your visa or you have overstayed in India. The police will personally come to your house to verify if you really live there and you are not doing any “illegal” activity in India. When they are feeling lazy and they see that you do not look like a terrorist or a drug dealer, they will just sign the papers and not bother to go to your residence anymore. There is a very interesting thing that some police officers would do before they release your police verification papers though. Here’s their typical script, “Oh, wow, your salary is very high. Can you please donate a ream of white papers to our police station? We need it for typing documents and it takes a long time for the government to release our request for office supplies.” Somebody even asked me to donate a computer. Nah, I have never donated anything. I just tell them I will come back the next day to drop the bond papers. I never did. That settles the issue. They will hint for bribe, but they will not coerce you.
Understand the principle of what they are looking for
They do not really read all your documents from cover to cover, but there are certain details that they are very particular with. They are particular about dates and numbers. Have you overstayed? Is your salary meeting the minimum requirement imposed by the government? Have you paid your taxes? Do you really live where you say you do? Are you really a student or are you illegally doing business in India and not paying taxes? Are you really in India for the purpose that you say you are here for? If you are clean and legit, applying for your visa will be a breeze.
Understanding their point of view
In all fairness, the FRRO is one government office where I see the officers work really hard from sunrise to sundown. It is a common scene there to have one or two expats yell at them for not getting their papers done fast or because the officers are asking them for so many documents. As I am a regular visitor in the FRRO, I have befriended some of the officers and this is what one of them has shared with me:
“Look at how many expats we have to deal with everyday compared with the number of immigration officers who are tasked to assist you. We are undermanned, and we hardly take a break so we can attend to all of you as much as possible. We cannot computerise everything because the directive from the higher office is for us to visually check if every document is proper. When something bad happens later on (like the notorious case of David Headley), every single officer who has ever signed or handled that expat’s document will be under fire. We are not as fast as the other countries but we are doing our best to improve our services and system every day. The process is slower especially for those who come unprepared and do not have the proper documents. When an Indian applies for a US visa, is it any easier? Your visa application can get disapproved and the US government is not required to give a reason for the disapproval. In India, even when your documents are incomplete, we talk to you and teach you how you can rectify it so you eventually get the visa. For so many years, several expats from the West have come with a ten-year multiple tourist visa and they were in India doing business or taking an employment without paying the Indian government any single rupee in taxes. It is only now that the Indian government is imposing stricter rules because we have realized this loophole in our immigration system.”
(Whatever the author has written here is based only on her own personal experience in dealing with the FRRO for more than six years of living in India. She has advised several expats on their visa concerns and has conducted some symposiums for expats on this subject matter. If you have any visa-related questions, you may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org)