A few weeks ago, I wrote about my challenges with visiting the USA. In summary, I found that I was ineligible to travel using an ESTA and I needed to get a visa. This was annoying, as it resulted in the need to cancel a planned trip, but it did serve to make me think about the implications of international travel. So, I started the process of obtaining a visa. It is very topical right now to think about people gaining entry to countries [like the US] illegally. What is not discussed is how hard it can be to do legally …
I could not complete the process of applying for a visa as soon as I heard that I needed one, as I was required to nominate a date and destination for a future visit. To do this, I needed to await a specific requirement to travel. This arrived when I received a couple of acceptances for papers at a conference in Boston in May. So, I started the ball rolling. I needed to do three things: complete a bunch of paperwork; obtain some supporting documents; attend an interview at the US embassy in London.
The most significant item of paperwork was the application form, which ran to 13 pages. Apart from the obvious basic information about me, my family, my employment etc., there were many more difficult questions:
- address for my planned visit to the US [I could not know this, as I was not going to commit to making a booking until I knew that I would be granted a visa – I guessed]
- entry/exit dates for my last 5 visits to the US
- details of all countries visited in the last 5 years
- “Are you coming to the United States to engage in prostitution or unlawful commercialized vice or have you been engaged in prostitution or procuring prostitutes within the past 10 years?”
- “Have you ever been involved in, or do you seek to engage in, money laundering?”
- “Do you seek to engage in espionage, sabotage, export control violations, or any other illegal activity while in the United States?” [naturally I responded with “Sole purpose of visit” :-)]
- “Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?”
- “Have you ever ordered, incited, committed, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide?”
- There were a lot of these questions – I have just given you a flavor. I figured that the logic of these was that, if you were untruthful in any way, they could deny a visa or deport you.
The supporting documents, that I was advised to procure and take with me to the interview, were:
- a letter from a UK Mentor Graphics executive saying why I might travel to the US
- a letter from a US Mentor Graphics executive saying why I might travel to the US
- a copy of the conference paper acceptances
- details of our vacation in Syria that caused all this aggravation
I was assigned an interview appointment at 10:30 on 28 February and advised to arrive 30 minutes earlier. As London is a 2.5 hour train ride from my home, I set off early that morning. I had been advised that I would not be permitted to bring any electronic items [laptop, iPad etc.] into the embassy [phones were permitted]. After some thought, I realized that I could bring my “toys” and render my travel somewhat productive by checking in my bag to Left Luggage at Paddington Station. This worked well.
I arrived at the embassy just after 09:30 and joined a line to “sign in” [i.e. be checked off on a list], grateful that, although a little cold, it was not pouring with rain. I reached the front 45 minutes later. I was then transferred to another line, in which I stood for about 20 minutes, prior to being admitted to the building, via airport-style security. I was assigned a number and went to the waiting room, where there were plenty of seats, to await my number being flashed on a screen. That took about 30 minutes. I went to a counter to have my documentation checked and I was sent off for my interview. Actually, I was sent to join the line for interviews. Another 20-minute wait and I went to a counter to have the interview itself.
The lady was very friendly and went through a series of questions, verifying details about me and the offending trip to Syria. Early on, she asked me when we had taken that vacation and I answered “early March 2011”. Various other things were discussed and then, quite randomly, she said “Was it 2013 that you went to Syria?” and I responded with the correct information. I suddenly realized that she was trying to catch me out. Additionally, her [excessive] friendliness was solely to put me off my guard. As I had nothing to hide, it was not a problem. None of my supporting documents were requested. At the end, she told me that my application was successful and I would not need to be troubled by them or getting an ESTA for 10 years. The whole interview was less than 10 minutes.
I was invited to give feedback on the visa application process. At this point, I have not taken up the opportunity, but I feel that I should ask why I need to give up a whole day of my time and spend quite a lot of money on transportation, for a 10-minute interview. There must be a better way.
I have since received my passport back, with a new shiny visa inserted. I am all set to visit the US for what will be about the 60th time …