When I arrived in Mumbai, the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) was my first major trip outside Powai. As we rounded the traffic circle outside CST, I thought, “Cool!” But, then we headed down that narrow, cramped, are-you-really-sure-this-is-the-right-way alley that leads to the FRRO. Sure enough, we arrived at the FRRO a few minutes later. Of all the places to visit in Mumbai, this place is one of the least glamorous. You enter an old (even by Mumbai standards) building with slippery stairs that have seen better days and an elevator that has probably never worked. During my first visit, I was still in the jet-lag induced fog that only lifts about a month after arrival. Last week, we headed that way again to renew our visas. I was curious to see if my second impression would be different from my first one.
Editor’s note: Brian has since informed me that the elevator does work. However, taking the stairs is faster and probably safer.
I love many things about India: the food, the culture, the languages, the people, the weather; but the bureaucracy is not one of them. Fortunately, as a foreigner, I have few encounters with Indian bureaucracy. Bureaucracy in any country is baffling, but even more so in a country not your own. Because the FRRO process is so baffling to foreigners, I had every intention of documenting the process so that other expats could have a roadmap of what to expect at the FRRO, but the highway to hell (as one expat called the FRRO) is paved with good intentions. Unfortunately, a process must be repeatable before it can be documented with any degree of accuracy, so all I have to offer is the benefit of my experience—and a song.
Sung (imperfectly) to the tune “Little GTO”:
Little FRRO, I really hate your lines.
Three hours and a half now, when will the turn be mine?
Watching the little board now, and I am starting to whi-i-i-i-ine.
Come on and wind it up, stamp us through, and let us go, FRRO.
We reach the FRRO at about 11:20; 10 minutes ahead of our scheduled meeting time with the company’s expat coordinator. Brian is smug because he said we could leave Powai at 10 am and make it to South Bombay by 11:30. My experience going to coffee mornings down in the city had told me otherwise. I will admit he was right. Did I mention it was Friday?
As we enter the building, we sign in at the front desk. We know to do this because we see two enormous sign-in books on a desk to our left and assume that is what we must do. It is also one of the few things I remember doing last time we visited. The expat coordinator leads us upstairs to the third floor, which is recognizable as the next stop because a giant sign reads, “MUMBAI POLICE.” We turn to the right and sit in a queue of chairs. “Don’t leave a gap,” Brian says. The coordinator reviews our paperwork and sorts everything for us. While we wait, we meet Brian’s boss, who files into line beside us. It must be “Renew your visas at Reliance” day. As we inch up the seated queue, we chat casually. Finally, when our turn comes at the Mumbai Police desk, we are ushered to the policeman on the right, who interrogates Brian about his tax return.
Question: Why did you not pay a whole year’s worth of taxes?
Answer: Because I was not here for the entire tax year. I arrived in January. So, only January to March are on the current return.
(Note: The tax year runs from April to March).
Brian has to explain this fact a couple of times, but, eventually, the policeman seems satisfied and then hands the paperwork to the policewoman next to him. She enters our names and arrival times in another huge log book, writes something on the back of our paperwork, and indicates that we should go through the double doors to the first door on the left. At this point, the expat coordinator can no longer accompany us. Until now, our experiences and Brian’s boss’s experiences have been the same. So far, the bureaucracy has not been too bad. So far, the process is repeatable. So far.
After we enter the door, even though we arrive at the same time, work for the same company, have identical visas, and are American citizens, our experiences begin to differ significantly. When we enter the room marked “Online Registrations,” we sit in the little bank of chairs and look at the back of our paperwork. Mine says “Co-11. T-6.” I have no idea what these hieroglyphics mean. Brian surmises correctly that it means “Counter 11. Ticket 6.” We look up at the digital reader board, which lists counters 1 through 8 and does not appear to be working. We see later that it is working, but only counter 2 is using it to indicate the next applicant. Counter 11 does not appear on the board. Where is counter 11? Hmmm. We go to the back of the room where we had our digital photos taken last time. Sure enough, there is counter 11. We ask the lady in the blue sari what we should do next. Go sit. She will call us. We are completely baffled about how she knows we are on the list, and I am not convinced she will call us. During one visit to the FRRO, Brian watched one lady work at the computer, get up, go out one door, return through another, type on the computer some more, and then call the next person. In and out the doors she went, frequently but without obvious purpose. In retrospect, I think she must use that giant log book at the Mumbai Police desk to determine the next applicant and get the file. At least that is what I am going to imagine she is doing.
About 30 to 45 minutes after we arrive, Brian’s boss is taken to a little room to the right, which contains counters 1 to 8. His wife is taken back separately, after his visa is approved. After a few brief conversations and Rs. 4 in photocopies, their paperwork is completed, they pay, and everything is done by 2 pm. Two and a half hours total. Not bad to renew your visa.
At about the same time, Brian and I are taken back together to a little desk next to the computer where the digital photos are taken. Our application is reviewed, some changes are made, our photos are taken, and we are told to return at 4. We ask the lady in the sari if our passports will be ready when we return at 4. She says, “Yes, after some time.” Brian was supposed to have a meeting at 4:30. So much for that.
We accept our fate and decide to head to lunch. With about an hour for lunch, we decide on a quick bite at a place we have not tried before. Bombay Blue (the Marathi sign says Mumbai Blue) is a little multicuisine restaurant near Khyber Restaurant and only about 15 minutes from the FRRO. Its menu includes Indian snacks like dahi puri and pav bhaji, Punjabi thali plates, pizza, and sandwiches. We opt for the “build your own” pizza for Rs. 199 (USD 4.00) and dahi puri as an appetizer. Both are excellent.
We return to the FRRO at 3:45. I ask Brian if we should let the lady know we have returned. “No,” he says. At about 4:30, I am convinced she has forgotten about us, so Brian goes back to ask. She tells him, “Five minutes.” And, what do you know, five minutes later, we are in the process of finishing everything. We are done at the FRRO by 5 pm and head back home.
What does this experience teach me? During our wait in the bank of metal seats, we discuss the phrase “after some time” with Brian’s boss and his wife. This phrase indicates an uncertain amount of time. It can mean anywhere from five minutes to infinity. In these official situations, some time is usually counted in hours or possibly days. I am just grateful that we managed to get everything done in one day. Others are not always so lucky.
My only advice is this: plan to spend the entire day at the FRRO, expect the unexpected, and bring some coins for photocopies—and maybe a tiffin.