Switzerland demanded a “nonrefundable” hotel reservation — then it denied his visa

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By | February 16th, 2016

Can a country require you to book a prepaid, nonrefundable hotel as part of your visa application? And what happens if that visa application is denied?

Those are the questions confronting Yao Zhao, a Chinese citizen who lives in Washington and wanted to take a ski vacation in Switzerland.

Switzerland has some of the best skiing on Earth. But, in addition to being ridiculously expensive, the Swiss also have a thing for rules. Believe me, I know. I grew up just across the border in Austria. The Swiss love their rules.

I mention the rules because Zhao was told the rules require that in order to process a visa application, he needed a prepaid, nonrefundable hotel reservation in Switzerland. He says he initially booked a refundable reservation in what he believed to be Switzerland (it was actually in France). When an embassy officer told him it needed to be in Switzerland, and it needed to be non-refundable, he says he complied.

And then, for reasons that are “a mystery” to him, Zhao was denied a visa and lost the entire hotel stay. He turned to us for help.

In order to travel to Switzerland, Zhao needed a short-term visa, which he applied for through the Swiss embassy in Washington.

“I had two interviews with the Swiss Embassy. During both interviews, an officer pressured me to make a prepaid nonrefundable hotel reservation,” he says. “even though I had made hotel bookings as instructed on the embassy website.”

He did, and furnished the embassy with the necessary documents.

“The whole application process was unfriendly and adversarial,” he says. “In each of the two interviews, I was interrogated for 40 minutes. As an international professional who travels extensively, and who has reliable employment status and educational background, I was left with the impression of unreasonable and unjust treatment.”

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Does Switzerland want Chinese tourists? Zhao could be forgiven for thinking not.

In a follow-up email, the Swiss embassy confirmed that he needed a nonrefundable reservation — in Switzerland.

Thank you for sending us the requested documents. We verified them; however, we cannot accept your hotel reservation, since the hotel is located in France. This is what we need and what was told to you during your interview:

– Three prepaid nights in a hotel in Switzerland, including the night at the airport hotel. The hotels need to be located in Switzerland and the reservations need to be paid in advance.

Furthermore, by going through your file, we request the additional two things:

– A confirmed return flight from Amsterdam to Washington on February 14, 2016 (which was missing from your file)
– A confirmation from Seven Corners Health Insurance that your current insurance covers you in France as well. If you cannot obtain this confirmation, then please submit an updated Seven Corners Insurance policy valid for France and Switzerland until the date that you return to Washington.


Thank you and best regards,
Embassy of Switzerland in the United States of America
Visa Section
2900 Cathedral Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008, USA
Fax: +1 (202) 387 2564
was.visa@eda.admin.ch
www.swissemb.org

Ultimately, Zhao’s visa application was turned down even after he furnished the Swiss with, he says, everything requested on the Swiss embassy website. He says he lost several hundred dollars as a result.

Now, I’m no visa expert, so my next call was to the Swiss embassy to see if it could clarify its policy.

I asked if it was true — do people who apply for Swiss visas really need prepaid and nonrefundable hotel reservations?

In order to apply for a Schengen visa, hotel reservations for every night applicants of all nationalities intend to spend in a Schengen country are required:
https://www.eda.admin.ch/content/dam/countries/countries-content/united-states-of-america/en/131.30_Merkblatt_Visa_for_tourism.pdf

In individual cases, applicants can be requested to provide additional documents:
21/8: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:02009R0810-20111004&from=DE

If a visa application has been refused, applicants have the right to appeal within 30 days of receipt of the refusal: https://www.sem.admin.ch/sem/en/home/themen/einreise/faq.html#6. Questions on granted or refused visas

Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Don’t you love having the book thrown in your face? But I have to be honest, I don’t understand any of this legalese and I still don’t know why he had to prepay for his hotel. Perhaps it’s a secret law?

I asked Zhao about an appeal, which would cost an additional 200 euro. Here’s what he had to say:

I don’t think they have the right to ask me specifically to book nonrefundable accommodation. Isn’t that always the practice when they say “do not prepay any flight tickets or hotels”?

For that, I think they abused their power. I did provide everything they asked for in their follow-up emails.

Anyway, I understand it’s the embassy, right? They can always find some official articles or treaties to shut you down. I don’t intend to “win” over them in this case. I just feel this is a case that could be shared to make more people aware of it.

I’m trying to think of the takeaway. When it comes to visas, don’t mess with the Swiss? Next time, go skiing in France (the food is better)? Or maybe it’s just that there are rules and there are rules. If a country doesn’t want you to visit, they’ll find a way to stop you.

May I recommend a nice ski vacation right here in the good ol’ U. S. of A.? I hear the snow in Breckenridge, Colo., is really nice this year.



  • Nigel Appleby

    Snows pretyy darn good in British Columbia as well, particularly Whistler.

  • TMMao

    Unfortunately for Mr Zhao, he seems to have fallen into the twilight zone of visa reciprocity. A Swiss citizen would likely have to deal with just as onerous regulations to obtain a visa for travel to China. This is an issue between rival government entities and will certainly rear its head for the upcoming summer Olympics in Brazil.

  • Steve Rabin

    I’m guessing the reservations need to be pre-paid to avoid having someone make a refundable reservation for the sole purpose of getting a visa, and then cancelling the reservation. Perhaps the Swiss want to see that the applicant has the means to pay for things in the country.

  • Fishplate

    I wonder what happens if you go visit friends in Switzerland? If I plan to stay with them, do I still need a hotel?

  • taxed2themax

    While I am not a lawyer, I have always been under the impression that the issuance, or not, of a visa is fundamentally a sovereign matter and as such, a representative of that sovereign, like an accredited Embassy, can issue, or deny a visa; and if denied is under no obligation to give a reason, nor refund any fees that may have been paid. Yes, there are reciprocity agreements in place, but as I know it, they too don’t preclude an Embassy from denying a visa to someone who may be covered by the agreement, but does not provide the required paperwork.

    From an arms length, I totally understand why someone would want to see a non-refundable hotel (or other type) booking because anything else – like a fully refundable, partially refundable or refundable with fee – really could be just for “show” and cancelled later on – thus not meeting one of the issuance tests.

    I guess how this looks to me is that the OP just didn’t have or provide what the Embassy asked for and as such he was refused.

  • sirwired

    I don’t see any indication that the reservations must be non-refundable. I see the word “prepaid” repeatedly, but never “non-refundable”…

  • mbods2002

    Wow, not very tourist friendly. Surely there are other good ski options then Switzerland. At the very least, they should have made it easy to get a refund on his hotel! What a racket, ilk…

  • KanExplore

    Fortunately Brazil is waiving visa requirement for people from many countries during a window including the Olympics.

  • KanExplore

    What is your nationality? If you are from the U.S. or Canada you don’t need any sort of visa at all. Just present your passport.

  • FQTVLR

    Good point.

  • Alan Gore

    It happens to be a place that we visit often, because of it being my wife’s country. Americans don’t need a visa to go there, but when a tourist visa is required, onward reservations are a common stipulation (“in order that you not become a public charge”, or wording to that effect).

    Some countries have minimum daily spend and hotel stay requirements in addition, but I have never heard of a non-refundability requirement. When Mr. Zhao made his booking, what language was the website using, and in what language were the Embassy commnications? If it was Chinese, that word could have slipped in as a mistranslation. This is more apt to occur on a Swiss site than anywhere else, because the country has four official languages.

  • ChBot

    No, but you need an invitation from them, validated through the town hall that will certify that they really live where they say they do

  • Asiansm Dan

    It’s an unfortunate situation for Mr Zhao. As Switzerland belong to Schengen treaty, he could have apply for a Visa from the France, Benelux and any country of the Schengen treaty and travel to Switzerland. And there isn’t longer border control between France & Switzerland. I travel many times recently across France & Switzerland and not been stopping at the border.

  • KennyG

    I am wondering where the requirement is for non-refundable. I don’t see anyplace in the correspondence for the Visa issuance where the non-refundable is demanded, simply that it be prepaid. P{repaid, does not in and of itself mean non-refundable. It would seem a real possibility that just as the traveler does not know the difference between France and Switzerland, he doesn’t know the difference between repaid and non-refundable. Doesn’t sound like the experienced traveler he seems to have claimed to be.

  • KennyG

    Re-Read the letters from the Visa authority. There is NO requirement for non-refundable room reservations, simply pre-paid reservations. “Three prepaid nights in a hotel in Switzerland, including the night at the airport hotel. The hotels need to be located in Switzerland and the reservations need to be paid in advance.” Also note that they do need to be in Switzerland, not France where the traveler first made his hotel reservations.

  • KennyG

    Prepaid does not automatically mean non-refundable. All non-refundable reservations must be prepaid, all prepaid reservations are not necessarily non-refundable.

  • KennyG

    Prepaid does not automatically mean non-refundable. All non-refundable reservations must be prepaid, all prepaid reservations are not necessarily non-refundable. Not sure that means they dont want tourists, but they do want to make sure the visas they issue are for a valid reason.

  • Bill___A

    I wonder why many readers, including me, caught that the hotel needed to be pre-paid but not refundable and yet the article is saying it must be non refundable? Is there a missing piece of information or did the Elliott team miss this point?

  • cscasi

    Yep, just have to deal with the possibility of contracting the Zika virus while one visits Brazil and other South American countries. I dare say there will be people not attending, whether or not there is a visa requirement.
    I am not sure why the Swiss Embassy acted as it did. I do know that some countries’ citizens are treated differently than others as far as visa requirements; fair or not.

  • cscasi

    I have visited Switzerland numerous times over the past 40 years and have never had an issue. There has never been a requirement for a visa to visit with my American passport. Of course, on the immigration paperwork that has to be completed when one arrives in Switzerland, it normally asks how long you plan to stay, purpose of visit and an address where you will be staying. It used to be that if I was traveling in the old Eastern European countries I had to have a visa and I had to say who I wan going to visit and sometimes required an invitation from them to get a visa; but not always.
    I think Switzerland is very conscious of its immigration policies and wants to ensure it knows who it is letting in and in some cases, where the folks will be visiting and when they will be leaving; a country’s prerogative, I believe.

  • KanExplore

    Absolutely! Swiss people can visit the U.S. very easily and vice versa. Chinese people wanting to visit here and Americans wanting to go there have extensive bureaucratic procedures to survive.

    In China I was waiting for a train and got into conversation with a businessman who had just been denied a U.S. visa, despite the fact he thought his application was impeccable – family and successful business in China, sufficient assets, friends in the U.S. who had written letters on his behalf. He showed it all to me as a sympathetic listener. Yet the answer was no, with no explanation given. I assume the reason was a fear that he would overstay a visa and not return to China.

    That would apparently not be the Swiss reason in the Elliott case as apparently his correspondent has established some sort of status in the U.S. already. But one doesn’t really know.

  • John McDonald

    yeh but who wants to stand around in massive queues(lines). Whistler is now suffering from being too successful & poor planning. Whistler is also known as Whistralia as soon many Australians try & get work there. Go to Copper Mt Colorado & get a secret pass lift ticket & no lift lines at all ever, on almost all lifts. The secret pass, let’s you jump any lines, like ski school on all 4 & 6 person chairlifts. A few old double chairlifts on mogul runs are the exception, but they never have lines anyway.

  • RightNow9435

    Good question. I have gone to Switzerland 4 times, and ALL my nights were spent visiting friends. As a US citizen, no problem

  • Michael__K

    I don’t see any indication in the referenced Visa for Tourism document that the reservations must even be prepaid.

    It just says:

    Hotel reservations for every night you intend to spend in a Schengen country. If you are staying with a friend or family member, please apply for a visitor visa.

    Given that 3 months of bank account statements are required, I don’t understand what a prepaid refundable reservation (which not many hotels even offer) proves beyond the bank statements.

    However, if the OP says an officer demanded a nonrefundable reservation in 2 separate interviews, I have no reason to doubt him.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Exactly. The schengen visa applies (my understanding) to the port of entry.

    I was getting one for my Ukrainian relatives and what a pain. Amazingly, it makes the American tourist visa seem simple by comparison. They pay a 160 dollar fee, fill out a form, submit affidavit of support/financials that they won’t become a public charge, and done.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Specially Geneva Airport GVA is both the Port of Entry of Switzerland and France. Arriving into the Airport, if your turn right to go Swiss Sector & territory and, if you turn left you go to the France sector & territory. Anyway it doesn’t matter after the Schengen treaty to turn left or right. I think Mr Zhao found the Hotel in France is cheaper (I am sure at least 50% cheaper than Swiss Hotel) and the personnel at Swiss embassy could be offended by that. May be the Swiss personnel (could be americans) at the DC Embassy didn’t live in Geneva, so they don’t know the particularity of the Geneva area where you cannot make really difference where is the Swiss or the French territory. I lived there. You drive 10 mn you are in France and another 10 mn your in Switzerland and another 10 mn your are in France again. The Swiss Embassy should accept the reservation in France territory for GVA. And the thing for the Basel/Mulhouse Airport and area. But I guess Mr Zhao travel to GVA from USA.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Geneva Airport GVA is both the Port of Entry of Switzerland and France. Arriving from the plane by the gate into the Airport, if your turn right you go Swiss Sector & territory and, if you turn left you go to the France sector & territory. Anyway it doesn’t matter after the Schengen treaty to turn left or right. I think Mr Zhao found the Hotel in France is cheaper (I am sure at least 50% cheaper than Swiss Hotel) and the personnel at Swiss embassy could be offended by that. May be the Swiss personnel (could be americans) at the DC Embassy didn’t live in Geneva, so they don’t know the particularity of the Geneva area where you cannot make really difference where is the Swiss or the French territory. I lived there. You drive 10 mn you are in France and another 10 mn your in Switzerland and another 10 mn your are in France again. The Swiss Embassy should accept the reservation in France territory for GVA. And the same thing for the Basel/Mulhouse Airport and area. But I guess Mr Zhao travel to GVA from USA.

  • judyserienagy

    If the Swiss don’t want Chinese people visiting their country, they should just say so. To hide behind a bunch of bureaucratic BS is ridiculous. Prepaid, non-ref hotel reservations before your visa application will even be looked at? Sad. The Swiss should step up and advise potential visitors if they don’t want them to enter Switzerland … advise them BEFORE they shell out all that money for a hotel they’ll not be using.