Getting a visa for America
A trip to the US Embassy
Security Rating ****
Reception of officials *****
According to the World Tourism Organisation, the British Passport is ranked 1st in the world, and as I have written in the past it means that you can get visa free travel to more destinations than with any other passport in the world. Under the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) you can get visa free travel to the United States for a maximum of 90 days. However, I'll be spending 6 months in America, therefore I had to take a trip to the Embassy to get my visa and it was an interesting experience.
Most advanced country, least advanced website
Before you go to the Embassy, you first have to fill in a couple of forms online and considering America is the home of most internet giants, its a little surprising to see a website that looks like it got stuck in the 1990's.
Functionality is poor, the interface is dated and some of the questions they ask literally made me laugh out loud. One of the questions was "are you a terrorist?" I'd love to know if anyone has ever said yes to that. The whole form takes about 10/15 minutes to complete and once you have done that you have to complete a second form where you make your payment. The one positive thing that did surprise me was how quickly appointments were available, I managed to get an appointment within 24 hours of completing the form.
As I walked through the streets of Mayfair, I couldnt help but admire the beauty of some of the embassies. I walked past the Argentinian Embassy, a small townhouse with the flag of Argentina hanging from it. The whole place looked subtle and classy, and were it not for the flag, you could easily mistake it for a house or small offices. I turned the corner and saw the Italian Embassy, again, a small townhouse with the Italian and European flags, again relatively subtle and classy. I continued walking across the square in Mayfair, keeping my eyes peeled hoping not to miss the American Embassy in this diplomatic centre of London. I needn't have worried, because as I made my way through the streets right infront of me was the giant American Embassy, standing there like an architectural punch in the face. It looked at least 15/20 times the size of the other embassies and is constructed in an ugly Brutalist style. I wasnt surprised to later learn that its the largest American Embassy in Western Europe.
I walked over to the queue of people waiting outside and was taken aback by the security. Unlike the other embassies that were conspicuous in their annonymity, the American Embassy had a high metal fence and was patrolled by gun wielding policemen. If you are the only embassy in Mayfair that has this much visible security, it might be worth reflecting on how you are globally percieved.
I decided to join the queue and looked up and staring back at me was an absolutely huge aluminium gilded eagle on the roof of the embassy overlooking the street. I actually burst out laughing. Brash, obnoxious, in your face, I mean whoever designed this building must either have had some sort of insecurity or must have had a design brief that requested tacky. I couldnt believe it. All I could think of was the below meme.
The security guards outside were English, G4S workers. I cant take that company seriously since the Olympics, or every single prison they control. However on this occasion they seemed friendly and organised. I went into a little hut that had airport style security but unlike airports it had a fun atmosphere, guards were laughing and joking, however I had a bottle of aftershave that I wasnt allowed to take in because it was made of glass. I asked what I could do with it and they told me there was a shop down the road where I could store it for a £3. I shook the bottle and felt there was less than £3's worth of aftershave left. I decided to put it in a bin outside and thought I'd try and collect it afterward.
I walked into the embassy and was quickly guided through some blastproof doors into a large room. There must have been about 200/300 people all sat in little blue chairs. I was given a ticket and told to sat down. The inside wasnt much nicer than the outside. Random empty fridges were at one end of the room, I could easily have been in any building in South America. I was surprised by how quickly my number was read out and before I knew it I was standing infront of a counter talking my application through with an official.
The guy was friendly and courteous. In fact, his whole demeanour was the polar opposite of the building he was working in. He seemed a little withdrawn and introverted, spoke softly and was well mannered. Within a minute he passed me my documents and told me to turn right where someone would direct me. I walked away thinking that was fast, the whole thing done in less than 15 minutes. I walked to where I was directed and was met by another G4S employee who told me to take a seat until my number was called and I would have my second visa interview. I guess the first one was just a prep to make sure I had everything I needed.
I sat down and looked at my ticket number, then looked at the screen. It then dawned on me. I'd be there for a very long time. I sent an email to my work letting them know I wouldnt be back by lunchtime as I had promised. Luckily the embassy had wifi and I tried to pass the time as best as I could. Being in a rush I hadnt had breakfast that morning so I asked the security guard if they had any food. They had nothing but a small water fountain. I'd made a pretty big error. After about an hour, the guy next to me started sighing pretty heavily, turns out his battery had ran out on his phone. We struck up a conversation and he was just as poorly prepared as I was.
For the next 3 hours we talked about where we were going in the States and previous travels. This guy had just spent 4 years teaching English in the Far East and was now heading to New Orleans, also for 6 months. We spoke about the outdated building, and also the poor organisation. We were given a little raffle ticket, and told to wait, however, the raffle ticket number applied to your whole row and they would get an interview when you did. Sounds weird? It gets worse. As soon as people started realising, they just kept heading as far back as possible. Others got tired of waiting and just ignored the process skipping the line. Being a brown guy in an American Embassy, I decided to play it safe.
Good people, bad building
After waiting a little under 4 hours I was finally called up to the next counter. Again, the guy that greeted me was incredibly friendly, making a couple of jokes to put me at ease. He then asked three questions; where I worked, where I was going to work and where I studied. That was it. A four hour wait for a 30 second interview. Perhaps not all visa interviews are so quick and easy. My workplace had prepared a lot of documents and I did have a job waiting for me. Confused but happy I walked out after being promised my visa would arrive in 3-5 days.
I walked back out and thought I'd pick up my bottle of aftershave only to discover that the bins had been taken out. I didnt care too much, I'd got my visa.
The United States are building a new embassy in London and it looks considerably better and thats a good thing because the American officials that I met were all very friendly. Perhaps a different building that looks less like something out of Soviet Russia will make the whole experience even better, and in all honesty its not that bad to begin with.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.