If you’re an Australian applying for an E3 visa, this post is for you. If you’re someone applying for an H1-B visa, this post is probably relevant – it’s a very similar process. If you’re going to a visa appointment at the US embassy in London, this post might be for you. Everyone else: be happy you don’t have this in your life.
This post is partially a whinge, but it is also designed to answer all the questions we had as we were trying to manage the process of Applying for a US Visa. There’s a happy ending, though, I promise.
(Update Feb 2017: here’s a link with a lot of information for Australians applying for this visa: http://ustraveldocs.com/au/au-niv-typee3.asp).
Before anything could happen, the first step was for my husband to get his LCA form from his new US employer (LCA = Labor Condition Application for Non-immigrant workers – the same form you need if you are getting an H-1B visa). This wasn’t too difficult – for us, at least. It was emailed to us and we printed it out.
Then we had to do a DS-160 each, which is an online form: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/forms/ds-160-online-nonimmigrant-visa-application.html. It’s the usual “put in all of your life history, and tell us if you’re a criminal” kind of form. As a spouse I didn’t get asked as many life-questions (as you’re filling it out you get the impression the spouse is mainly irrelevant, which is a Good Thing when it comes to excessive paperwork).
Once we’d done this form and paid a lot of money (about $280 each), we could choose which embassy we wanted for our visa interview. For our previous visas (J1 and J2) they pretty much insisted it had to be your ‘home’ country (i.e. Australia) but for the E3 we could go anywhere (except Mexico or Canada, of course).
So we chose London. The website [https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/wait-times.html] assured us that the wait time for a visa appointment in London was a maximum of 1 day. So imagine our surprise when we clicked “give me an appointment” and the first one was more than 10 days away. Luckily it wasn’t the end of the world but it was an unnecessary stress. I note, as I’m writing this, the embassy also seems to post wait times on twitter as well [https://twitter.com/USAinUKConsular] – so who knows what is actually true. We booked the appointment through the website – specifically for non-immigrant visas applying in London [https://ais.usvisa-info.com/en-gb/niv].
Once in London we stayed at the Park Lane Mews, near Hyde Park – and walking distance to the Embassy.
Our appointment was at 8.30am so we got up early and went for a walk in the park. We were just looping round to Grosvenor Square at about 8.15am to see what was what and noticed the queue outside the embassy was about 50 people long. We panicked immediately (and unnecessarily – a familiar theme) and got in the queue.
Then a man came along the queue and told us to go into a much shorter queue, which we did. This, however, was just the queue to be crossed off the list and to make sure you actually had your appointment letter, passport and DS160 with you. We were then told to go back (to the end) of the long queue.
The long queue was for security but it actually moved pretty fast and we walked in the door at 8.30am, right on time (I guess? The appointment time didn’t seem to be set in stone – I’m sure we could have walked up at 8am and would still have been allowed in). The lady on the desk gave us a number then we went into the waiting hall.
The hall was vast – I guess there were 200-300 seats, as well as a little stall selling tea and coffee and snacks, a photo booth (I didn’t check, but I wonder if it just did American style passport pictures?), a water fountain and bathrooms. There was one giant screen showing the various ticket numbers and what window to go to, and another giant screen showing powerpoint slides with FAQs and other information. There were, I think, 25 service windows in total.
(In contrast, the Melbourne embassy had seats for about 10, 4 windows, and a single TV showing US propaganda on a short loop.)
The hall was three-quarters full and I didn’t notice anyone holding a UK passport.
We were called to our first window (you have to go up twice) at 9.05am, and we talked to a British-accented lady for about 10 minutes. We had to show our LCA form, DS160, and passport. We were asked the name of my husband’s employer, whether we were still using our J visas, and whether we were resident of the UK or just visiting. We had to give 10 fingerprints each too. The lady kept all our documents and we were told to sit down again.
We then waited until 9.50am when we were called to the next window (around the corner, out of sight of the masses in the hall). By this time, due to extreme boredom mixed with nerves, we’d figured out how the window distribution worked, and my husband had calculated what time we’d be called to the second window (he picked it to within 5 minutes!).
The second window was where the interview proper happened. The lady we spoke to here had a US accent and she asked my husband where he was going to be working, his job title and his qualifications. She asked whether he’d worked in the US before. She asked me about my dual citizenship and how long we’d been married – I was so surprised to be asked a question I drew a blank, then she asked to see our marriage certificate (the original, of course). She also asked if we had children. Then she announced our visas had been approved. Done and out the door at 10am.
The embassy kept our passports so they could stick the visa in it and then post it to us later.
The embassy uses a courier company called DX Group, and you can choose your delivery location from a list of distribution points. Our closest one was near Southampton. For a $60 fee (each) we could have had it posted to an address we chose. We decided that a trip to Southampton would be preferable to paying $120 and fretting about being at home at the right time for the delivery.
We were sent an automated email when the parcels were dispatched from the embassy (on Wednesday – our appointment was on Monday), and we used the tracking number to find they were due on Thursday. So Thursday came and went and the website didn’t update. There was no phone number to call – it’s like they don’t want calls. At any rate, on Friday the website eventually updated to say they had arrived, and despite the embassy saying we would get an email telling us, we didn’t.
So we got a lift with my dad to the place on a horrible industrial estate, rang a bell outside a miscellaneous door, told them the name on the parcel then sat at the bottom of the dusty stairwell waiting for someone to appear. After some confusion about how many parcels we were expecting, both passports (each in a separate parcel) were handed over.
The end result
We were happy to get our passports back within a working week, and to see that a two-year visa was put in both passports, even though my husband’s passport expires in 18 months. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, when we got to the border our stamp and I-94 were for the expiry date of the passport. This has consequences for all other transactions with the US government – length of my work permit, probably the length of our California driving license, and all of my husband’s paperwork at work. We discovered, once it really was too late, that you can apparently show up with a different passport number than the one on your DS-160 [https://ais.usvisa-info.com/en-gb/niv/information/faqs#passport_replacement]
My husband and I have had to do this three times in three years. We’ve spent hours on websites, spent a fortune on plane tickets (though it’s not all bad – we do get holidays (blogged in part 1, part 2, part 3)), and stressed out a lot about timing – will we be able to book an appointment in time, will our passports arrive in time, and so on – all so we could come and live in this crazy country. All I can say with certainty is it’s just about worth it.