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To Conference Organisers Everywhere

(well, not exactly everywhere …)

This is not an easy post for me to write, being a bit of a criticism / “you can do better” note for organisers of conferences that cater to a global community.

It’s not easy because most of the conferences I attend are community driven, and I have helped organise community conferences in the past. It is a thankless job, a labour of love, and you mostly do not get to enjoy the fruits of that labour as others do.

The problem is that these conferences end up inadvertently excluding members who live in, for lack of a better phrase, the Global South.

It always surprises me when I meet someone who doesn’t realise that I can’t just book tickets to go anywhere in the world. Not because this is information that everyone should be aware of, but because this is such a basic aspect of travel for someone like me. As a holder of an Indian passport, I need to apply for a visa to travel to … well most countries.

The list of countries that require a visa are clearly defined by post-colonial geopolitics, this is just a fact of life and not something I can do very much about.

Getting a Visa

Applying for a visa is a cumbersome and intrusive process that I am now used to. The process varies from country to country, but it’s usually something like:

  • Get an invitation letter from conference organisers
  • Book all the tickets and accommodation for the trip
  • Provide bank statements for 3-6 months, income tax returns for ~3 years (in India, those statements need attestation by the bank)
  • Maybe provide travel and employment history for the past few years (how many years depends on the country)
  • Get an appointment from the embassy of the country you’re traveling to (or their service provider)
  • Submit your passport and application
  • Maybe provide documentation that was not listed on the provider’s website
  • Wait for your passport with visa (if granted) to be mailed back to you

The duration of visa (that is how long you can stay in the country) depends on the country.

In the EU, I am usually granted a visa for the exact dates of travel (so there is no flexibility to change plans). The UK allows you to pay more for a longer visa.

The US and Canada grant multi-year visas that allow one to visit for up to 6 months by default (in the US, whether you are permitted to enter and how long you may stay are determined by the person at the border).

Now we get to the crux of the problem: this process can take anywhere from a few days (if you are very lucky) to a few months (if you are not).

Appointments are granted by the embassy or the third party that countries delegate application collection to, and these may or may not be easily available. Post-pandemic, I’ve seen that several embassies just aren’t accepting visitor visa appointments or have a multi-month wait.

If you do get an appointment, the processing time can vary again. Sometimes, it’s a matter of a few days, sometimes a few weeks. A lot of countries I have applied to recommend submitting your application at least 6 weeks in advance (this is from the date of your visa appointment which might be several weeks in the future).

If you’re organising a conference, there are a few important dates:

  • When the conference dates are announced
  • When the call for participation goes out
  • When it ends
  • When speakers are notified
  • The conference itself

These dates are based on a set of complex factors — venue availability and confirmation, literally writing and publishing all the content of the website, paper committee availability, etc.

But if you’re in my position, you need at least 2-3 months between the first and the last step. If your attendance is conditional on speaking at the conference (for example, if your company will only sponsor you if you’re speaking), then you need a minimum of 2-3 months between when speakers are notified and the conference starts.

From what I see, this is not something that is top-of-mind for conference organisers. That may happen for a host of perfectly understandable reasons, but it also has a cost to the community and individuals who might want to participate.

Applying for a visa costs money. This can be anything from a few hundred to over a 1000 US dollars.

It also costs you time — filling in the application, getting all the documentation in place, getting a physical visa photo (must be no older than 6 months), traveling to an appointment, waiting in line, etc. This can easily be a matter of a day if not more.

Finally, there is an emotional cost to all this — there is constant uncertainty during the process, and a visa rejection means every visa you apply for thereafter needs you to document that rejection and reason. And you may find out just days before your planned travel whether you get to travel or not.

All of this clearly sucks, but the problem of visas is too big and messy for any of us to have any real impact on, at least in the short term. But if you’re organising a conference, and you want a diverse audience, here are a few things you can do:

  • Announce the dates of the conference as early as possible (allows participants to book travel, visa appointments, maybe club multiple conferences)
  • Provide invitation letters in a timely manner
  • Call for participation as early as possible
  • Notify speakers as soon as you can

I know of conferences that do some if not all of these things — you know who you are and you have my gratitude for it.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading.

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