Today I had the task of renewing my i-visa, the category of visa allocated to Foreign Media visiting the US for whatever purpose. In my case it is to write about, film and generally promote tourism to the US but, no matter, the powers that be say a visa is required.
Having navigated the detailed online application process (see here to find out if you need a visa), I turned up as instructed for my 9am appointment at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. The first thing to know is that an ‘appointment’ does not mean a time just for you, no, no, this is merely the time you join the queue to enter the building.
Luckily it was a sunny, if chilly, morning so we didn’t have to wait in the rain but by 9am four, long queues had already formed. With no guidance other than by asking those already in the queue, I located the 9am one (as opposed to the 8.30, 9.30 and 10.00 queues) and stood in line for half an hour. Didn’t seem too bad til it turned out that this queue was only the prelim to the real queue – for security. Another 30 mins passed and then, four by four, we were ushered into the security box. Two out of my four fell at the first hurdle by failing to read the small print which says no laptops or tablets with keyboards are allowed in the building. The penalty is to lose your place in the queue while you trundle off to a local pharmacy who will store it for you for £3. Mobiles, iPads and fortunately a good book are allowed (you are going to need something to pass the time)
Once inside the inner sanctum of the Embassy, you are allocated a number and ushered in to the waiting hall with maybe 300 or so other visa applicants. There are toilets and refreshments available but don’t wander off – you have to keep an eye on the screen til your magic number appears – in my case it was another hour’s wait. Don’t get too excited – this is not the end, this is just to check you have all your documents, take fingerprints and sit you back down to wait again.
This second phase is slightly tricker as you have to again watch for your number but they come in random order, depending on the type of visa you are applying for. Another hour ticked by…
After a total of 3 hours I finally I got to see the main man – he who can approve (or reject) my application. Much typing, more finger printing, oh and he asked who I write for – took all of two minutes. Visa approved – hurrah. But then he announced that i visas (for freelance journalists at least) are now only issued for one year and not five as before. I can’t find any reference to this on the website – £110 for 5 years doesn’t seem so bad but for one year???
So basically now, if I want to continue to enjoy the privilege of writing about/promoting tourism to the US, I have to be prepared to waste half a day of my life every 12 months and cough up the fee each time. (Not to mention the cost of getting to the Embassy and then collecting my passport a week later from a designated local depot or pay another £18 to have it delivered to my home address).
Hmmm, maybe I won’t bother – there are so many other places in the world…