Friday, 2 July 2010

American bureaucracy

To travel for one day up to Canada through the US after arrival by freighter we had no choice but to embark on the process of getting a B2 tourist visa. This is no easy feat. It’s a test to see if you are worthy of entering that fine nation.

The first task is phoning the embassy to book an appointment for an interview in London. Phonecalls are charged at £1.20 a minute. They are not embarrassed about this, they tell you on the website, during the call and just to rub it in you can read it while queuing outside the embassy. After an automated message lasting over a minute you think you are getting somewhere. You are then told the lines are busy and to call back later. The line goes dead. We tried this quite a few times and I got rather angry.

Twelve phone calls and £35.48 later (visa fees not included) we’d managed to book our appointment. We’d had a lucky escape, people in the queue behind us at the embassy had spent £70 and £107. Having read that it can take up to five hours of waiting around we picked an early appointment time (9:30am).

Filling in the application form online wasn’t too bad, if anything slightly entertaining. Questions included:
  • Are you a member or a representative of a terrorist organisation?
  • Do you seek to engage in espionage, sabotage, export control violations or any other illegal activity while in the United States?
  • Have you ever committed, ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in genocide?
The trickiest part was the photo, with pages of instructions on how to take the perfect picture with the right proportions. Dad kindly stepped in as photographer and we uploaded them to the application. The photos were passed by the online checking system.

Since we’d already spent enough on this visa malarkey we decided to save the pennies and go camping in London. We found a nice campsite and after phoning we were told we could turn up before 8pm, pay and leave at 7am the next morning. Camping in London is as hard as it sounds. It turned out that we couldn’t pay when we arrived and if we wanted to leave at 7am we’d have to return to pay after our visit to the embassy. Complicated though this was we set about putting the tent up only to discover we had no tent pegs. Thankfully my driving licence wasn’t locked in the safe till 8am the next day, as was feared, so we went and stayed in a youth hostel (which most people just do in the first place).

As we sat on a bench in Grosvenor Square we admired the city slickers walking their pooches. Outside the embassy we queued, then queued again, had to drink our water to prove we weren't going to blow anyone up, had our bags scanned, got a number and waited in a large room before being called to a window.

We were served by a man who couldn’t hear us (he insisted we were going on a cargo plane) just as we couldn’t hear him. He decided to reject our photos. Perhaps he couldn’t see well either. The photo machine only took £1 coins, we had one but needed eight of the things. A mad dash around the embassy ensued, a cashier and courier service were of no help. This time it felt like we wouldn’t pass the test. After a suggestion from a fellow applicant we persuaded the man selling snacks to swap some change, although we did have to buy crisps and a chocolate bar for the pleasure.

The photo sorted we sat down again and began to wait again. I'd come prepared with a book to read, but it was impossible to concentrate with numbers being continuously called out over the speaker system. There were looks of alarm from those who did get too absorbed in their books when a siren went off and we were told to duck or run for cover. Still quite scary for those of us that had heard the announcement beforehand. As we waited we looked at the unappealing and offputting pictures of America on the screens. I guess all the people in the hall were keen to get to the US anyway and didn't need any persuasion. At some point we saw a vicar and a celebrity, not that I knew who he was. They seemed to get special treatment. Eventually we got called to a counter and had to explain why we weren't going the 'normal' way to Canada. That was pretty much it. Then we had to pay the £16 return delivery charge for our passports, luckily we could get them sent in the same envelope. So, after 2.5hrs we were out of the embassy and much earlier than we had expected.

We ambled through the parks of London and had quite an unexpected treat at Waterloo Station when we came across a train load of people making their way home from Ascot. Camera at the ready I waited expectantly for the next lot. Most fun I've ever had at a station.

No comments:

Post a Comment