Monday, 19 April 2010

That'll do nicely

Today was interesting.  Mr WithaY and I were up at the US Embassy for our visa interview, to see if we would be allowed to go on the holiday we booked before realising we now* need a visa to go anywhere even slightly exotic.

We've spent several hours over the last few weeks negotiating the obstacle course that you must complete to get as far as the Embassy.  I'm fairly sure it was designed by the same people who develop those logic/warfare computer games, where you have to solve complex riddles and hack scaly monsters with cleavers to progress and achieve points. 

There are confusing electronic forms that you have to fill in, after which you wait for a reply to let you continue to the next level of form-filling.  If you tick certain boxes they send you links to more forms to fill in. 

You send them scanned copies of relevant documentation so that they can decide if you are allowed to continue the process. 

You have long, long telephone conversations with them (at £1.20 a minute) during which they tell you to do more, different, form-filling.  During these conversations you have to go into painful detail about the reason why you now need a visa.  They are not unsympathetic, they probably hear stuff like that dozens of times a year, but it still smarts to have to justify yourself to a stranger as if you are a criminal. 

Degrading.  That's what it is.

One of the forms you fill in has to include a scanned passport photograph.  They decide online, as you are filling it in, if the photo is acceptable or not, and if it is you get to submit the whole thing.  If it isn't, I assume that they send a painful electric shock through your keyboard while a disembodied voice tells you to start again at Level 1, back with the smaller monsters and slightly easier riddles. 

Finally, FINALLY, they email you and tell you to phone them (still £1.20 a minute, remember) to arrange a date for your interview.  You do so, and the fact that it clashes with a long-planned training course that your husband has been booked to attend for the last three months is a mere bagatelle.  He arranges to arrive at the training event a day late, and you both book a day off work to trek up to London** for the interview. 

The US Embassy has VERY strict rules about what you are allowed to take into the building.  You can't take mobile phones, Blackberries, iPods, laptops, or keyfobs with electronic clickety things to open your car while you stand far away***.  We assumed that guns, knives and sharp sticks would also be frowned upon, so left all those at home. 

If you turn up with any of the banned items, you will NOT be allowed in and your interview will be CANCELLED.  You will LOSE your fee of $131 (about £80) and have to make a NEW appointment which you will have to pay for AGAIN. 

They use a lot of CAPITAL LETTERS to make this point in the emails they send you. 

What they don't do is send you a list of what you need to take.  That would be handy, if any of the Embassy staff are reading this.  A checklist of everything, all the various forms, passports, associated documentation and additional passport photos would be helpful.  Oh, and please ask the reception and security staff to use the same terminology when they talk about the forms, that would avoid a lot of confusion when they ask you if you have brought them with you.

Anyhoo.  We arrived at the Embassy building, a veritable fortress in the heart of London, and went through the first two perimeter checkpoints.  Unfortunately, when they put my handbag through the x-ray machine they saw my headphones, which I had forgotten were in there.  The list of BANNED items didn't mention headphones.  But they are banned, apparently.  What made it especially annoying was the fact that we had already travelled halfway across London to my office to drop off the car keys and my iPhone in my locker, to ensure we complied with the rules.  

I was within an ace of saying "Just throw the fucking things in the bin then," as I was exasperated and stressed to the eyeballs, but the security guard told me that there was a pharmacy down the road which offers storage for contraband (for a small fee).  I legged it down there, handed over my headphones, got a cloakroom ticket in return and made it back in time for the 11am appointment. 

That pharmacy must make a small fortune renting locker space. 

The lady on the main reception desk told us we only needed one appointment ticket as we had an appointment for both of us at the same time, so we took it, and skipped upstairs cheerfully. 

That didn't last long.

When you open the scarily heavy door to the Visa Room, there are about 400 chairs set out in rows on either side of the room, facing the screens in the middle.  It's like a very, very depressing cinema, or a squalid airport departure lounge from the 1960s.  It also made me think of something out of Brave New World, or possibly 1984.  There is a palpable atmosphere of despair and anxiety.  I felt myself ageing by the second.  

They were announcing ticket number 274 as we walked in.  We were number 440.    Fuck.

We sat and waited till they called our number, then went to the bullet-proof, axe-proof, dragon-breath-proof window.  The girl there checked our documents and said "Can I have your additional passport photos please?"

What?  Seriously? 

We hadn't brought additional passport photos, as the online application process had said our pictures were fine.  But no.  They weren't fine at all, so we had to pay another £4 each to have new pictures from their machine.  She then told us we needed another ticket, which Mr WithaY ran down to reception to fetch, and we were asked to go and sit down again and wait to be called to the next stage of the interview process. 

She gave us another form to fill in, in case we were getting bored.

The form she gave us warned that we should expect a wait of "some hours" for this next part of the process to pass.  Fuuuuuck.  We sat on the horrible hard chairs, along with dozens of other stressed, nervous, miserable people, and we waited.  And waited. And waited.

One bright spot was a chap who had just bought some food from the snack vending stall at the back of the room.  He had been there a fair while, the same as us, and had obviously decided to have some lunch.  He had literally only just started to unwrap his Cornetto****, and they called his number.  He walked out laughing to himself, his Cornetto in his hand. 

I hope he sat and ate it while they interviewed him.

So.  The long day wore on; we eventually got summoned to the Room of Delinquents and Scamps to explain to a very nice young American chap exactly why we needed a visa.  That was lovely, as you can imagine. 

He was very professional and polite, and very very thorough.  After we had explained all the horrible, depressing, nasty circumstances he said "I am not going to punish you for this, it doesn't seem fair, so I am authorising your visas."

I could have hugged him.  If the bullet-proof, axe-proof etc glass hadn't been there.

We had to queue up in yet another long line, and do a bit more paperwork before we were allowed to leave, but the end result is that we should be getting our envisa-ed passports back in the next few days, and will be able to go on holiday as planned in June.


This week I am mostly going to be looking for a lawyer.  I think the police ought to be footing the bill for all this, at least the money we have had to spend, if not the additional time, anxiety and indignity of it all.  I'll let you know how I get on. 

*Thanks to the Shitstorm From Hades

**To be fair, they did also offer us Belfast.  Very helpful.

***I forget the technical term

****That's not a euphamism.  A Cornetto is a type of ice-cream in a wrapper, non British readers.


Anonymous said...

I've never been to USA, or at the minute, have any desire to. But that sounds waaaaay too complicated, this is just a holiday visa too? I thought you could still fill out a piece of paper on the plane...obviously not!

*my knowledge of visas is obviously very limited!

livesbythewoods said...

cynicalscribble, if we hadn't already booked the flights and hotel I don't think we'd have bothered with it. It really doesn't seem that the US wants tourists to go there on holiday any more.

And yes, you can fill out the bit of paper on the plane if you haven't been the victim of a monumental police cock-up.

Mrs Jones said...

Take the police to the effing cleaners, duck. Their cock-up, they should be made to pay. Ooh, I'm feeling all righteously indignant now....

Doll said...

They are a pain everywhere in the world as it looks !
I thought the proceedure you just described looked a replica of what I faced in India (being a developing nation and all that crap) but it looks the same at your side too.
Where in US are you off to ?

I inordinately PREFER UK to US any given day... Infact I loooove UK.

This is my first comment on your blog but I love it... have been reading all possible entries on your blog from now till back.....
So far reached June 2008 :)
Love your writing and your family....

Good Luck !!

Slyde said...

being a American, i can definitely attest to the fact that they have made it much harder for ANYONE to get into the country after 9-11.

Middle Sis said...

So pleased that you can go on your holiday. To make it all the more special, Mum and I have decided to come with you.

Knew that would make you happy.

Happy Hour...Somewhere said...

I think these people must have to get a Ph.D in rigmarole. Bureaucracy is a curse and seems to attract a certain temperament. But it does make for lovely blog fodder. Have fun in America. If you get near San Diego, let me know!

livesbythewoods said...

Mrs J, it's a story you just wouldn't believe if I told you. Righteous indignation is a good start though.

Doll, hello and welcome! Thank you for your lovely comments, I am glad you are enjoying the blog.

Slyde, I think we'd have had less hassle trying to swim in from Mexico, to be honest.

Middle Sis, I will buy an extra large case to fit you both in!

HHS, yes, being a bureaucrat myself I recognise real skill at it. We're heading for the East Coast, New England, but we will wave in your direction!