I met with an old schoolfriend for a farewell lunch the other day – and she was under strict instructions from her husband to grill me about what’s involved in getting a US visa (they’re also looking to move across the Pond). I thought it might be useful if I shared my experiences not just with her, but here too. There are lot of useful pointers over on the British Expats forum, but here’s a summary of how I managed it.
In many ways I was lucky, as I qualified for the L-1 Visa, which is basically for people at manager level who work for multinational companies. Of course, there are lots of other visas available – the more flexible H-1B is considered well worth having but seems to be one of the toughest to get (there is a limited amount available each year and they run out fast). My company is already pre-qualified as part of the process, meaning that I just had to make the case for why I should get a visa, rather than big up my employer as well.
The visa application starts with filling in the online DS-160 form. You need to set aside quite a bit of time to complete it properly as it’s a bit tedious. It includes lots of entertaining questions about whether you have ever employed child soldiers or seek to engage in prostitution in the United States (who in their right mind would say yes to this?). As part of the form, you have to upload a decent quality photo. Expect to also have to catalogue your last five trips into and out of the US, as well as a list of which countries you have visited in the last five years. They also ask you about your academic and employment history. You then have to arrange an appointment over the phone (for which you must pay $190).
Arriving at the US Embassy in London on the day itself, you have to play EXACTLY by the rules. Any discrepancies – say, not having your appointment letter or receipt with you, or having your mobile in your bag – and you won’t be allowed in as they are very security conscious. In terms of what to wear, some people, particular men, were dressed really smartly (perhaps before going to work). Women tended to dress slightly more casually. I went for smart casual and everything worked out OK. Remember to bring a pen – I forgot and you will need one.
The Visa interview process happens in two steps. First someone checks your paperwork is all in order and then you are referred to an immigration official, who reviews your application. I was only with the immigration official for about 3 minutes, and that seems quite normal. I just stood at the counter while she grilled me with a few questions about my role in the US and what it would involve. Then she gave my application the thumbs up and that was it.
You also have to pay for delivery of your Visa (up to £14.80 depending on the timing of the service you choose) and in my case, an L-1 visa carried an extra fraud prevention fee of $500. My visa was then delivered to my place of work within 5 days (someone has to sign for it).
So that’s it. Now my visa is in the bag, I have one week left before leaving London for the Big Apple. Will be back with another update before I go, once I’ve done some more packing…