As a resident of the UK I cannot just wander into the US whenever I fancy. But getting a US visa is not a problem most UK visitors to the US have to worry about because our two fine countries have a ‘visa waiver’ system in place whereby tourists (sans criminal records and not carrying the plague obviously) can fill in a simple form while on board their flight to the US for entry up to a maximum of a 3 month stay. For regular clean-living British folks it’s the only way they ever need to travel.
But hiking the AT obviously takes longer than that to complete. What then? The answer is, you need to get a visa to hike the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail or Continental Divide Trail because all three of these National Scenic Trails take more than three months to hike.
[A quick note: this turned out to be a very long post. I thought about cutting it down but decided it was only ever going to be useful or interesting to someone going through the same process so it might as well be as detailed as possible.]
Specifically, you need to apply in advance for a non-immigrant B-2 visa. Now, getting any US visa is not as easy as ordering a pizza. The US is not overly keen on people entering their country willy-nilly so it might come as a surprise that the next step up from a 3-month visa waiver is a – wait for it – 10 year validity, multiple entry, 6 months-per-visit visa! What?! You must be mistaken I hear you cry. I assure you I am not. There is no ’6 or 12 month single visit’ visa, or something equally expected, instead you go from being a casual tourist to ‘I can now quite literally spend half my life for the next decade here’ visa.
Which might sound great to you, dear gentle – but naive – reader. Well it is if you GET it. But if you get turned down then odds are you’re up a certain creek with a certain paddle. Unless they gave you a clear reason for turning you down and you can remedy that problem (e.g. you made a mistake when filling out the forms or your submitted photo didn’t match the guidelines) then re-applying at $100 a time is an expensive occupation with no guaranteed chance of success. And whether you subsequently succeed or not, you then have to tick the ‘I have indeed been turned for a visa’ box on the normal visa waiver form. Which means you will be grilled every time you try to fly into the States for the rest of your life. Fun times.
It gets worse: because the visa is so powerful in terms of allowing entry, they are not overly keen on you having this one in particular. They turned down 27% of applications in 2012 for example. Awesome.
So when I came to grit my teeth and gird my loins (what is that?) and apply I was a little bit stressed about it. I’d been thinking about hiking the AT for years and planning it for several months. I’d gone through surgery and painful rehab to get back into shape with the AT as a prime motivator. But I was about to enter a process whereby I could be simply stopped point-blank from even attempting the first mile.
Ok, a lot stressed.
I filled out the application form online in September 2013 and it took me 3-4 hours. No kidding. It wanted to know ever little detail about me and my life, even down to where my ex-wife went to school. Crazy amounts of detail that had me digging out files that hadn’t seen the light of day in a decade. I also had to get a fresh photo taken under very precise guidelines as regards content, layout, size, etc. I used my digital camera plus Paint Shop Pro for editing and it took a good hour or more to get it perfect.
But you can chafe against it all you like, there’s nothing to be done but get on with it. In that regard it’s a bit like the trail: fight against it and take umbrage when it goes over a pointless hill and you will get dispirited and become inclined to take shortcuts. Accept that it is what it is and it’s all part of the journey and things will go smoother in the long run. In this case any errors or omissions (shortcuts) in the form could end in a simple ‘no’, destroying your dream before it had even begun.
So, fill in the many many pages of questions and then take a day off before going back and re-reading each one again to make sure you got it all right. I have no idea what methods the US Immigration authorities employ to check the applicants and these forms. As an IT guy and business consultant I could speculate but it wouldn’t be productive. Assume they can and may check any random fact and certain questions or answers are ‘red flaggers’ meaning your form will have problems from the get go. But if you have a criminal conviction you were presumably already prepared for that for the impact of ticking that particular box and calculated whether it was worthwhile blue-blazing that one.
There is no question during the application about why you want the visa. Since it is not a single-visit visa they would not ask for the purpose of your visit as they do on the visa waiver form but you might have expected a section where you could wax lyrically and persuasively why them giving you a B-2 visa was a great idea. There is no such question. You will be asked at your interview though. The what now?
Yes, while you spent all day giving them more information about your life than either your priest or doctor knew, that is only the amuse bouche, a foretaste to whet your appetite for what is to come. After all you are spending $100 so it good to see some value for your cash. Once you submit your form you will be able to choose a date in the next 4 weeks (and only 4 weeks, so don’t apply too early if you can’t make it in that window) for your interview. At a US Embassy of your choice in the UK. So London then. You will then be interviewed in person by a person that will determine, without argument, whether you get the visa or not. All or nothing.
There was a choice of dates and a few different appointment times when I came to book my interview online. All the times were early in the morning – from memory between 8am and 10am though I could be mistaken. I chose 8am, reasoning that I might be able to get to work afterwards without having missed to much of the day.
In the end, I can now say that the earlier your appointment the earlier you will be able to leave. By that I mean the earlier people won’t be log jammed behind people who may have awkward and long interviews. If you are in the first 50 say then statistically you will be less likely to be held up for 4+ hours than if you are position 200+.
I was the 45th person of my category which was ‘N’. It seems that most people are ‘N’ (could it mean normal?!) and maybe 15-20 people in my time there were called by a different letter. I assumed therefore that those are for different visa categories, maybe immigrant type or such like.
The Big Day
Anyway, back to the chronology. My appointment time was 8am, the earliest available. I set two alarms and was up at 6am and out the door by 6.50am aiming to arrive at the embassy, which is 5-10 minute walk by 7.30am. I actually thought was probably too early to arrive and have anything happen, I just wanted to get to the vicinity of the embassy. If there had been a problem with the London Underground I would still have time to find another way there. But when I approached the square that the embassy entrance is in (if you are coming south from Bond Street tube then it’s on the right (west) side of the square) I could see a decent line of people already waiting! Maybe 50-some people had gotten there earlier than me. I verified at this was indeed the visa line and set about to waiting. Outside, in a light rain. I would recommend bringing a coat.
Since nobody is allowed in the vicinity who does not have an appointment (I assume elderly or people that need physical or language assistance can bring help) pretty much everybody you see is there for the same reason. I honestly hadn’t realized how many people this poor department had to process every day.
A woman then went up and down the line telling us not to bring in anything electronic whatsoever, and giving out ziplock bags in which we were to place things for when we went through airline-style security – so belts, key fobs, metal objects, etc.
At about 7.45 people started to be let into the embassy. I would enter at almost exactly 8am. First of all woman checked your appointment paperwork to make sure you were supposed to be there and confirmed you had ID and your DS-160 form. Then you went through security in a small outbuilding which was exactly the same as in an airport though the staff here are more cheery. Here’s a tip: there’s a switch by the exit door. That’s not a door release switch – that’s the light switch. Best not turn it off!
Then you walk about a hundred yards around the corner of the building to where the actual entrance doors are. Two receptionists will give you a sticker with your number or code on. Mine was N45 (see picture below as I just stuck it on my paperwork folder) and the chap ahead of me was N44 so that is how I, genius that I am, figured out the numbering part of their system.
A short walk along a corridor and through some doors and you enter a large waiting room. Vast even, depending on when you personally would start to use the word ‘vast’.
The Waiting (Part 1)
There are about 35 rows of about 12 chairs and people take any chair they like in order to do their fair share of waiting. This room got busier as the morning progressed but I doubt there were ever more than 150 people in there at once (but others were away being interviewed at the same time).
As well as a sea do marginally comfortable chairs there is also a big TV and a smaller monitor. On the TV is a loop of those tourist marketing videos put out by every State in the nation. On silent, with subtitles. I think I saw most of them, it all got a bit blurry after a couple of hours to be honest. I did perk up when Maine came on though for its 5 minutes of fame.
On the monitor (there are a couple of others around depending on where are hanging out) a message comes up saying a ticket number (e.g. N45) and then where to go (a counter number) and it makes a horrendous ‘bing’ when the message changes, to draw your attention to it. The sound is actually the Microsoft Windows ‘error’ chime which you are treated to when you do something crazy. It’s a – deliberately – horrible sound. You will hear this screechy-bing every 20 seconds for several hours. Each and every time you will be forced to look up in case they are calling you. I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing that grating sound again.
So also in the room, at the front, is a decent selection of drinks and snacks, though cash only so I was stymied. I had brought a Snickers bar which would have to see me through the 4 hours I was there. So bring drinks and snacks along with that coat.
There is at least one drinking water fountain around so actually dying isn’t a problem. But I was too scared to go the bathroom in case my number was called while I was in there! So don’t drink too much.
All down the left hand side of the room are windows which let you view the garden square and the people still lining up outside in the rain to come in and wait with you.
So the final thing to cover in this room is the set of counters all down the right hand side of the room. I think there were maybe 12-15 but not all were staffed. When your number (after about 45 minutes for me) is called it will say a counter number. You go to that counter and a person behind the glass takes your passport away and scans your fingerprints and generally checks your basic details. It takes 5 minutes max. This is not the time to be evaluated (I believe, you never know though) so no need to worry about this bit.
Now this first bit goes swimmingly. The numbers being called went pretty much right up from about 5 when I got there through the numbers you already know consistently towards your number. Occasionally it will jump a number or two, or call a code that is not ‘N’ just to keep you on your toes and add variety but generally speaking when it is at N22 and you are, say, N60 you can relax and read the newspaper you sensibly brought along and just glance up occasionally to check progress.
While this progression for me as an 8am-er was straightforward and easy to keep up with, it might be harder for later arrivals because it will soon become much more hectic and chaotic with the onset of Part 2, as you shall see.
The Waiting (Part 2)
Once you have sat back down after the ID/basic check mini-interview part you then have no idea when you will be called for the Big Interview. Looking at the called numbers it soon became obvious that I could not discern a pattern now. Sure, the N numbers mostly went up but of course now we had people that came before me getting their second call and people who came after me getting their first. And now it was in the middle of the morning they must have been encountering more of the complex/problematic cases which take much more time than average. LIke how it takes you 25 seconds to use an ATM but the person in front of you about 2 minutes.
So one minute it would call ‘N82′ and then shortly after ‘N83′ so you knew that was the round 1 people but then it would drop back to N21 and you would presume that was an early round 2-er. Fine. But then it would say ‘N56′ and get you get all worked up and then ‘N92′ and then ‘N11′. It was all over the place. Anyway, whatever mechanics were driving the calls the upshot was that you had to look up every time the ‘death bing’ chimed. Since I was there waiting for my Big Interview for a further 2 hours I must have looked at the monitor 200 times.
Not wanting to miss my place by going to the bathroom and unable to read more than 1 or 2 lines of my book before the chime went off again. Fair to say, by the time by number finally came up I was pretty wound up and ready to get this over with.
The second round interview takes place at one of a set of counters outside of the big waiting room, down a short corridor (past the toilets and a drinking fountain actually). I think again there were maybe 15 or so but they weren’t laid out in a straight line (and I was just looking nervously for mine) so I’m not sure. People were milling around kind of queuing to get to their final interview when somebody was still being processed at their counter. I assume each interviewer must press a button when they are a few minutes away from the end of their current interview to make sure there are no gaps.
As it happened I saw a man leave my counter as I approached and so I was able to go straight up. It was a female interviewer and it sounded like she had a European accent, maybe Italian, I’m not sure. She had me scan one of my fingerprints again to make sure I was the person who had checked in earlier and then verified my basic person information.
Then came the biggie: why do you want this visa?
Now I had read as much as I could about what the issues are with a B-2 visa. I knew therefore that my reason for travel was perfectly valid. Maybe there are some answers you could give which would cause the interviewer to say ‘no’ but since it is a tourist visa it’s not like they need you to come up with very ‘worthy’ reasons. Anyway, I knew that ‘I want to hike the AT’ is a valid reason so I didn’t need to worry about this part. I had also rehearsed a good short summary of what the AT actually is (hiking trail, 2200 miles, takes 5-6 months) and why it is special (oldest National Scenic Trail in the US) in case the interviewer did not already know about it. She did not so I gave her that short summary and tried to convey my enthusiasm and commitment to doing it. She accepted this without any, from memory, great discussion needed.
Also, bear in mind that it’s their choice to only offer a 10-year visa in this category so you can hardly be blamed for not needing it for more than one long visit. You don’t seem to need to have a recurring reason to visit.
Now, once the reason for wanting the visa had been accepted she turned to the questions I had the most concerns over and these questions all come down to one over-arching concern they have:
- How do I know you will return to the UK and not stay in the States?
So they are looking for ties to your homeland. These may be one or more of the following:
- Spouse or at least a long-term partner. But spouse works the best. I have a live-in girlfriend so I was prepared to talk in glowing terms about her.
- Children. Awesome. If you have these small people in your life then you’re golden though I expect you would then be asked why you are happy to leave them for more than 3 months. I don’t know as I don’t have any.
- Job / career / business ownership. As a self-employed person I have a career but I don’t have a job. I will be ‘between contracts’ when on the trail and will job-seek when I get back. I knew a fellow Brit, Will, who had taken along a letter from his current employer stating that he had a job waiting for him upon his return and this turned out to be the only piece of documentation they actually asked to see.
- Property (i.e. mortgaged or owned). I rent. Oh dear.
- Other ties – maybe elderly parents or community project you run.
So I knew I was really weak here. I scored like 3/4 of a point out of 6 or something. I wasn’t prepared to lie so I just prepared in advance to communicate my actual situation with clarity: I loved living here and was committed to my career but finding new jobs every few months was simply ‘what I did’; the break to hike the AT was not creating any special situation for me in that regard. I was so keen to present myself as not a ‘flight risk’ that I went to the embassy dressed in my suit as if I was going to work afterwards (which was actually the plan until it took so long it wasn’t worth it!).
As it turned out my basic answers seemed to satisfy her as none of them were probed further. I crossed my fingers that she was satisfied in a ‘give him the visa’ kind of way, not ‘deny him the visa’ kind of way!
The interview had lasted maybe 10 minutes maximum by this point and she quietly dropped in that my visa application had been approved. No drum roll, no eye contact, no hushing of the band, just a quietly positive outcome. She said the v isa would be added to my passport and it should be with me in 5 working days. I thanked her and suddenly I was free to leave.
Honestly, I could have cried. It had been more tense than any driving test or job interview beause there were really no second chances, it was all or nothing. This person, who had never heard of the AT or why you would need a visa to hike the Appalachian Trail, could have made a different decision and ruined all my plans. I have no idea if my submitted form, background profile check they must have done, or in-person interview had left me near the ‘no’ line or I had sailed through the whole thing with an ‘easy yes’ score. But I won’t have to worry about it for another 10 years at least!
After leaving the embassy I was relieved, excited, exhausted and hungry. I also realised they hadn’t asked for the lovely passport-style photo I had been asked to bring along which got me worried for a bit. There was no going back in to ask and I eventually figured that it might be useful in some circumstances, just not mine. The digital version I submitted as part of the application process must have been enough. Shame I wasted an hour getting the printout on my home printer just right!
Of course, I still hadn’t got the visa, that would be a in a week’s time. Or would it?
Getting Your Passport Back
So when you apply for the visa, submit your DS-160 and book an interview appointment you are given two options for getting your passport back: get it delivered to an address of your choosing (e.g. your home or work) or have it delivered to a secure location of which there are two in London, one in the north, one down Old Kent Road in south London.
If you choose to get it delivered to your work or home then you are going to need to be there to received it, with valid identification. If you want someone else to sign for it then they will need some signed authorisation from you and, still, your ID. It will also cost you £30. Since I live just 10-15 minutes walk from the south London location, and it is free for delivery there, I chose that instead.
The embassy uses a specific “secure” courier company called DX. This is not your average courier company like DHL, these guys keep their details pretty guarded, change their routes daily, don’t publicise the tracking of your package as it happens, they don’t even necessarily pick up and deliver on the same or consecutive days to keep their vehicles from being intercepted (sending documentation TO the embassy can take 4 working days therefore!). Real secret agent stuff.
As it turned out, not really high-tech enough since they couldn’t update their tracking page for my package to say it had arrived. I waited a week, then a few more days for luck and then a few more for laziness. When I finally called they expressed surprise at how their tracking page was incorrect and confirmed it was at the location and had been for a week or more. OK then.
I then realised the south London depot was only open from 10am until 4pm from Monday to Friday whereas the north London location was open much longer hours and Saturday as well for good measure. Now it was oddly tricky for me to get my passport without missing time at work. Anyway eventually I found a gap in my work schedule and walked to the depot, about 4 weeks after my interview!
It turned out to be about as unglamorous and unsecure a location as it could be. You just press an intercom button and say you are to pick up a parcel, then walk upstairs to what looks like a sketchy 2-room office of a small paper supply company – what the Michael Scott Paper Company would have expanded into one day perhaps.
A man asked for my ID for which I used my driving license. They didn’t need to verify my address, just my photo I guess. Then he went off into the second room and came back a few minutes later with an envelope with my name on it. I signed for it and left the room before opening the envelope in the stairwell to make sure it was my passport and it had the elusive B2 visa which it did – result!
So my story eventually had a happy ending. Here’s a few tips on how to get through the process successfully:
- Make sure your passport is going to last at least 10 years before you add a 10-year visa to it – imagine how much of an idiot you’d feel if you only had 18 months left on your passport and had to go through all this again soon!
- Only apply for the visa when you have several months free from international travel to be able to get through every step – it took me about 7 weeks from start to finish.
- Fill in the DS-160 fully and honestly. It’s easy to get annoyed and feel your privacy is being intruded upon. Nobody cares, this is just for your benefit so just grit your teeth and knuckle down to it. It will soon be a distant memory.
- Prepare for your interview. Practice answering “why do you want this visa” and “What is the AT?”. I took print outs of my gear list, information about the AT and copied of three my more recent work contracts. She didn’t ask to see anything but another person on another day may have.
- Read the “don’t bring” list carefully – people still turned up with phones and MP3 players but I didn’t see if they were able to leave them outside or had to go home.
- Take a coat or umbrella if it might rain while you line up outside for half an hour or more.
- Take a newspaper or a magazine to wait with, as a book needs more concentration than you may be able to give it.
- Take snacks and some cash if you want drinks other than water.
- Book an 8am interview. Get there for, I guess, 7.15am. You might be out by 11am then rather than past noon as I was and I have to presume the staff are less tired of irritating applicants earlier in the day.
- Be nice. I have no statistical data to back this up but I doubt letting your emotions make you appear irritated, sarcastic or patronising is going to help your case much.
- It’s cheaper to get the passport couriered to a DX location rather than have it sent to your own address (and actually gives you more flexibility in when you collect it), but check the opening hours of your desired location and choose the north London one in preference to the south London one because the opening hours are way friendlier.