Saturday, June 11, 2011

Licensed to travel

The United States of America is a nation of immigrants. The concept goes that anyone from anywhere can make it in New World and for centuries, people have entered the country searching for their own 'American dream'. There are many good reasons for this but let me assure you none of them involve visa applications.

To be strictly fair, getting your US visa is not so much hard as long, tedious and expensive. Once you have received your work papers from your employer, you must make an appointment with the US embassy.

In your country of citizenship.

It is impossible to apply for a US visa from inside the US. Technically, you can go to a different, randomly chosen country that might have good margaritas, but the documentation warns that this increases your chances of refusal. The idea being that if you can't stand even a week with your parents, perhaps you'll conveniently forget to leave America once your visa expires.

To make an appointment at the embassy, you have to call their premium rate telephone number. This call must be made up to a month in advance of your desired appointment and ....

.... also from within your country of citizenship.

Because it is charged at the inflated rate of £1 per minute (or equivalent), you can't use skype and it must be from a national land line. The last two times I had to get a visa, I was living in the US so I had to ask my Mum to call on my behalf. It occurred to me recently I probably owe her dinner at the Ritz as a thank you.

After this you receive an appointment letter in the mail with dire warnings about being turned away if you are late. Despite this, pretty much everyone has the same appointment time. You all queue up outside high wire fences and watch the only guys armed with guns in the UK prowl the outside. The documents you must be equipped with include your current passport plus any past passports that contain stamps from the US, a receipt for several hundred dollars worth of fees, a pre-paid recorded-mail envelope for return of your passport and an application form that lists every instance you've passed through US border control.

... Did I mention I was living in the US during two of these applications? That list was somewhat long.

Amusingly, my American friends who have moved to the UK tell me that the fees for a British visa match the ones for the US equivalent to the last cent. The Brits, however, don't bother actually seeing you. You just mail in the money stuffed in your passport like some form of documented bribe. Fair's fair, after all.

Once done with the queue, it's through the metal detectors where laptops, phones and anything fun that might play 'angry birds' is removed from your possession. You end up in a room that resembles an airport lounge and has a ticketing system like a fresh food counter. In one corner there is a small kiosk selling muffins and coffee. It may seem unexciting, but after a five hour wait that snack counter is where it's at. 

Finally, there is a couple of two minute interviews, a finger print scan and you get to leave with a note saying that your passport will be mailed to you in roughly two weeks, barring any unforeseen circumstances such as concern over your second cousin Osma or the playstation IV being released.

It was therefore with a sense of resigned apprehension that I went into Toronto to get my visa for Japan. Japan, in contrast to America, is perceived as a mono-ethnic society so their immigration process had every reason to be difficult.

The embassy building was two blocks away from the bus station. I was there and back in time to get the same bus and driver back to Hamilton.

No appointment was necessary, the paper work was a single page that accompanied my work papers and my passport can be collected on Wednesday in exchange for $35. Where does one even go from here?

Oh right. Japan.

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