Step 1 of preparation? We needed a visa. No plans could be made, tickets bought, maps poured over, debates about timing, sleeping bag weights and footwear until we had a visa. Everyone said,”Oh that will be a formality”, but with 3 years experience in Germany of working at the US Visa Information Service, covering the Embassy in Ireland, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, I knew different. Of course things had changed since then and application forms were now online, along with the interview booking. We got the wheels in motion.
We needed a window where Cory’s passport could safely be at the Embassy and not required for foreign fancies. Thing is you can’t see when the appointment windows are until you go through the process of trying to book an appointment. So we sat one night and bungled our way through the online process. First dates, August, the window we were after was late October. We booked August and noted in the diary, when to check again. You can change the dates, if they have opened up more availability in the calendar.
Once a month we logged on and checked, until eventually we got our desired window and booked the last slot on Friday the 21st of October, 10:30.
Now applying for a Visa isn’t cheap especially if you don’t live in London. The visa appointments are only in person and in either London or Belfast. The application fee, at time of writing (2016) is $160 per person, factor in getting to London, for us 2 hours travel to Inverness, parking for the van, flight to London, train into London centre, accommodation, food, courier delivery service of return passport (no you can’t choose reasonably priced Royal Mail). Applying for a US visa is a financial commitment.
Then there is the anxiety, what if I get denied? The consequences of this are two fold. 1. the Big Adventure is impossible, no Visa, no prolonged stay in the USA 2. If you are denied a non-immigrant visa, you can’t simply return to Visa free travel to America under the VWP. Oh no! Denial of a US visa means you will always have to apply for a non-immigrant visa to get into the USA, Oh but you have just been denied a non-immigrant visa, can you see the cycle of hopelessness. Need a visa, but been denied a visa, means you always ‘will’ need a visa.
Armed with this knowledge I was thorough in the preparation of our documents. We needed Evidence to demonstrate we ‘had binding ties’ to Scotland which would mean ‘we had no intention of overstaying our welcome in the USA’. Evidence? Evidence we owned houses in Scotland (deeds, council tax), Car (ownership documents), Family (mum’s council tax, disability award letter, my birth certificate), Work (letter to say job being kept open for my return), Business (companies house letters of business registration, Funds bank statements, from all the banks and funds we had money squirreled away. We had large folders bursting with evidence. However I couldn’t find the 5×5 photos we had taken for the US visa, we had taken these at time of application, as you have to provide scanned copies when completing the online DS156 form. Mandy doesn’t lose things, I tipped the house upside down, searching for the photos, I found passport photos going back 20 years but not the ‘put in a safe place’ 5x5s!
V day. I dressed for a job interview, professional dress and shoes, C too had hidden his Star Wars T-shirt under a smart cardigan, blow dried and spritzed (she not he)we were ready for the interrogation.
Of course we arrived 2 hours early for the appointment, killing some time in a coffee shop, reassured that the underground was ‘business as usual’. Thankfully the morning was beautiful and we headed for the Embassy and we saw the queues! I kind of reminded me of queues in Soviet Russia. I don’t remember much about the building other than the huge wrought iron fence around it, the bolsters and the huge glittering in gold eagle, huge wings outstretched, which surveyed us from the roof of the embassy. Dutifully we stood in the first queue, a security person came down the queue handing out plastic bags for mobiles and asking to see the print out of our DS156. We showed the security person (British) our bar-coded form only to be told, “no that is the wrong form!” My stomach lurched and I could have been sick! She quickly assured us not to worry there was a local photographer, set up around the corner, who made a killing on charging a fortune to have it printed out. Also this entrepreneur would look after our laptop for a ridiculous fee and for those who didn’t know they needed 5x5cm photos and not the usual UK passport photos, I have no doubt another mortgage on your home would be required out to pay the fee.
My heels were not made for running, but run we did!
He deftly retried our DS156 online with the help of our bar-coded paperwork, print, print, kerching. Took Cory’s laptop and tucked it under his desk, kerching, kerching.
We Usain Bolted back to the queue, less fluffed and pristine, more pink and disheveled. Phew we made it into queue two! Thank goodness we had arrived 1 hour early.
Queue 2. Standing beside balustrades we pondered why we hadn’t been alerted to print out DS156, “something wrong in their online system”, “instructions not clear enough” we muttered. Until, paranoid, I wondered if the balustrades had listening devices and we shut up, waiting to be called forward by the next security check (American).
We had now survived security check one, the lady who monitored the first queue, security check two, the outdoor counter where DS156 forms were checked off. Security check 3, again papers and ID now checked, we got to wait in another queue. Then 4 at a time, we went through the airport type security.
Then finally we got to enter the embassy, by a side door. Greeted at a reception, with whom I assume were again British staff, we were directed up stairs, and met by more British staff and given a number. A large room, with moveable chairs, all facing a large wall, with a big counter, calling out numbers, kind of what you find in some butchers or doctors surgeries. The numbers seemed to be getting ticked off quite quickly, people sat, clutching their dossiers of evidence, playing with their phones. Yes, there was free wifi, but no photos allowed! I was getting mildly hysterical, again the filtering and queuing and checking, slowly with a drip drip effect, wearing down my resilience and positivity.
Ping. Up come our number and we were called to a post office, bank type window. We both huddled around the window as once again, we were pre-screened, again I believe by a Brit. On asking a few questions, as I wondered “is this the interview”, Why can’t we travel under the ESTA program, we answered, finding that our facial muscles were grimacing as we attempted to smile. Then he asked “Are you married”, no we replied, we live together. Oh, he responded some consular officers don’t like that, I was told to retreat behind the line, as Cory was quizzed first, then I was quizzed when we was finished.
Then we were directed to more banks of chairs and we filled up the row and received a row number.
It really reminded me of the filtering and divide and conquer methods of the Nazis in Germany, as they filtered the Jews for their evil massacre.
We had long since, been unable to make small talk, the continual scrutiny, filtering, screening, waiting, poking, prodding, had worn us down. Then our row was called, again we stood and were directed to another queue. We waited, then got closer and closer to more post office, bank type windows. When window became free, an applicant was directed, by another security person, to an available counter.
Cory and I waited in the queue getting closer and closer. I was so grateful that I had made duplicates of all the paperwork, as when it came to the actual Non-immigrant Visa Interview, we were divided and directed to separate windows, separate interviews.
My consular officer was only the second American accent I had encountered all day. She was professional and efficient. I immediately got flustered as when we had completed the paperwork I must have been still working as the Manager at the Leisure Centre, thus when she checked my job, I was baffled and said “no that is wrong, there must be a typo”, not the best thing to say! Very much “I carried a Water Melon, moment”. The following questions came in a blur, “Why can’t you use ESTA”, “What about your job while you are away”, “Who are you traveling with”. I can’t remember much more, I think I was at the window perhaps less than 5 minutes, then she pronounced, ” You have been approved for your visa, your passport will be posted back to you with the method you choose at application” and that was it, dismissed.
Cory left his window a few minutes after me and I tarried leaving, down the stairs, waiting his arrival. He had had a more thorough ‘questioning’ it sounded like but again we had both ‘passed’. The relief was immense!
We had had glorious plans for the rest of our day in London, instead, shattered and mentally depleted we returned to our friends house and found ourselves in bed, afternoon napping as we recovered from our ordeal.
p.s. 2 weeks after the interview on searching for some paperwork, I found another file we must have started for our Visa interview, this contained the printed bar-coded documents, and 2 printed DS156 forms and the 5×5 photographs, which I had put in a safe place!
You are also given the opportunity to provide feedback on your experience, a little note and how to provide it and a follow up email. I was not going to take the change, if you were negative, would it result in no Visa?
What was interesting was our dossier of paperwork and evidence were not looked at or requested. When working for the visa information service, the denied applicants on the phone often told me the consular officer hadn’t looked at their or requested their evidence. At the time, I am ashamed to say, I didn’t believe them. Now I know I was wrong!