Obtaining our Visa’s – And what sort of Alien are you Sir?

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Rob wasn’t sure if I was joking about the phone being tapped before we arrived at the American Embassy for the visa interview and although I was joking I also had no idea what to expect. We had googled what to wear and were duly in our smart attire, not entirely necessary on reflection but certainly didn’t harm. Armed police surround the place as one would expect at the American Embassy but to my surprise a lot of the staff were English, or at least had English accents. It made me wonder if the British Embassy in Washington has bobbies with truncheons and staff with American accents? I doubt it.

I’ve never applied for a visa before or been though any similarly official processes and I’ve certainly never been to an Embassy before. Looking online there wasn’t a whole lot about how it works and what to expect so for those of you interested I thought I’d share the experience.

It started online… Lengthy application forms involving photos and a contact in the states, employment history and five pages of tick boxes declaring that you are not a terrorist, people trafficker, pimp, drug baron, drug user, money launderer, arms dealer, involved in genocide, communist, prostitute or any other untoward profession or hobbyist. Even our 18 month old had to declare she was none of the above.

The first application took a while but by the fifth I’d got it nailed to about 15 minutes. You need a printer to print out the confirmations but for the photos you need only a smart phone or camera and can do them yourself at home thus saving a trip to town for passport photos.

Then you make the appointment – I messed this bit up with confusion over a badly worded question and it wanted me to bring all the kids to London for the next step… the interview. Luckily a phone call to the helpline which was answered by a real person relatively quickly solved this thanks to the chap really persevering with trying to understand what I had done wrong and helpfully correcting it all for me there and then on the phone… I was impressed and we were spared the nightmare of traipsing the children to London.

Less impressive is having to pay a vast amount (£800 for the five of us!) and then the cost of Rob and myself attending an interview in London. From Cornwall the travel alone costs about £100 then we stayed in a hotel because it was -2 degrees that night so the bongo wasn’t very appealing. Plus food and taxis, and all the money we gave out to homeless people having lost our desensitisation from years in Cornwall. Oh and as we didn’t have the kids we had a few cocktails and £10 pints when we arrived in London at 11pm… The paracetamol the next morning was cheap though.

So what happens at a visa interview? Well, first you queue outside in the pouring rain to get through security. You are not allowed any thing electrical including phones, chargers, iPods or anything else which makes modern life so convenient. Bear in mind that without a phone you’ll need a map to find the place! You’ll also need somewhere to leave said items. We were lucky as we have a friend with an office just around the corner so we left our bag (not allowed to take anything bigger than a handbag in) there with our phones and so on. Otherwise train stations have lockers and cloakrooms where you can leave things. Once you’re through security you can replace your watch and belt (seriously!) and then you get a ticket with your number on. You hear people ask questions like “And what sort of alien are you sir?”. Then you go and sit in a massive waiting room with a screen pinging numbers to call people to windows numbered 1-1,000,000. Okay maybe not that many but there were a lot! We we number N195 and it was only 10am so you get the gist.

Once up they take your passports and scan your fingerprints and ask why you want to go to America for more than three months… be ready with a good answer! Then you sit down and wait again for your number to come up again with a new window number. We had been told it could take up to three hours but I guess because we were pretty straight forward we were done in just over an hour. So our number pinged and we walked about half a mile to the window we were summoned to and had our fingerprints scanned again. The woman here was lovely, as in fact were all of the staff from the queue outside through security and at the desks, the only grumpy sod was the café guy in the waiting room but the fact there was a café made up for that.

So here is the real point of the interview… You need to prove two things: 1. that your can fund your trip without working in the States and 2. that you will leave the States when you say you will because your links to home are strong. We took along a letter detailing our ongoing income steam from investments and my work which I can do remotely anywhere in the world and we had a letter from Rob’s work saying his job is being held open for him on his return. Our children are in school here and Patrick will be enrolled to start on return and all our family are in the UK so it was pretty straight forward for us. She did say that the income evidence made it easy for us and I suspect that if you couldn’t prove that you have sufficient funds you may have a bit more work to convince them.

Our excitement on our return trip to Cornwall, just 12 hours after arriving in London and still with lingering hangovers, was bursting at the seams – No longer do we have to choose between the Appalachian Mountains and the deep south, between Monument Valley and the Great Sequoias or between Yellowstone or the West Coast… We can do it all!

The final stages of the process hasn’t happened yet. They still have our passports and we will need to collect them from a depot in Plymouth next week. After that it will be up to the officer at New York airport who will have the final say as to how long we can stay, up to 6 months. So we’ve been advised to have a firmer plan for our route and schedule, which we can now work on having confirmed the visa’s and to take the letter proving our income with us.

I must admit, apart from the cost and the need to travel to London the whole process has been very straight forward. I had been apprehensive about what it would entail and the amount of work it would involved but apart from the cocktail hangover it was surprisingly painless!

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