Originally written for Visa Journey forums. No dumb metaphors or bizarrely artistic run-on sentences. I'll leave you to decide if that's a good thing or not.
I'd been to the embassy before for a J-1 student visa in 2006, so I was preparing myself for the long, tedious wait involved in non-immigrant applications. As it happened, my experience was far more efficient than before, and I was in and out far sooner than I'd expected. I brought a 2-inch thick wad of papers- copies of every single form we'd had to fill out at every stage of the process, originals and copies of my birth certificate, Gina's birth certificate, my police certificate, NOA-1 and NOA-2, relationship evidence etc etc. I even brought my old social security card, proof of the reason why I had been granted one, and evidence for the extension of my previous student visa. I was determined not to get caught short on paperwork!
My appointment was 9:00 on Monday, so I came down to London the day before and stayed with my brother in Islington. I left my phone with him, and arranged to meet him at noon if I didn't call him sooner. Instead of taking the tube, I decided to hire one of the "Boris Bikes" dotted around the city. So I got a nice scenic tour of London just before the rush hour hit.
Arrived at the Embassy and docked my bike at the opposite end of Grosvenor Square about 7:30 (paranoia more than punctuality). Outside at the front of the embassy there was one queue, manned by a couple of people checking everyone's passports and invitation letters, then people were called forward to another queue, where they checked payment receipts. Then we were ushered in groups of four or five into the security booth- a 20' square glass-walled box containing airport-style x-ray machines and walk-through metal detectors. No full body scanners (yet)! Through there, around to the entrance at the side. One last check of invitation letters, passports and receipts, then I got allocated a number and told to wait towards the far end of the room, near window 1.
There's a big waiting room, TV screens showing the numbers currently being processed, and a row of glass-screened service windows along the side. Mostly they were serving non-immigrant applications so only one window was allocated for immigrant visas. I was I-903, when I got in and sat down they were serving I-901. So my turn came around fairly quickly; I was waiting no more than 20 minutes.
When I was at the window, there was a large group at the windows next to me so it was quite noisy and I had difficulty hearing the woman behind the screen- there were no microphones or speakers so I was having to lean in close and ask her to repeat herself. I gave her my passport, 2 photos, and originals and copies of my birth certificate and ACPO report (police certificate). She then went to find my case file.
She came back, and asked me about the DS-156. She asked me when and why I had been denied a visa in the past, which made my heart stop for a moment - I've never been denied a visa! "So why did you check the box that says you have?" she asked. I didn't have an answer for that, and was terrified that I'd filled the form in wrong, so I asked to see it. It was the case file for someone with the same name as me- not mine! I explained this, and showed her my date of birth and address on my passport, and the same for the file she'd brought. Fortunately I had a copy of MY DS-156 to show her too. She went off to find my case file, I stood there taking deep breaths and trying to relax. She came back with my file, and laughed it off - "oh, Monday morning." I wasn't so amused…
Next was the fingerprinting, pretty straightforward and easy. She asked me the date of my medical, didn’t ask any more details about it. Then I was done, and sat back down. I was given a data CD with my chest x-ray on it, and a pink form to fill out my address for the courier service to return my passport. I'd only just finished filling it in when my number was called up, and I went to a window around the side, away from the main waiting area. This was moving much quicker than I'd anticipated.
The guy behind the screen was fantastic. He asked me to confirm all my details, then took my fingerprints again (just in case I'd switched with my evil twin in the waiting room, presumably). I had to hold up my hand, courtroom-style, and swear that all the information I'd given was true. He asked me what Gina does, and what I do here. He took financial support documents- we'd prepared a co-sponsor just in case but this was not needed. I had Gina's tax transcripts and W-2s going back to 2007, but he only took the ones from 2010 and returned the rest.
He asked how we met (internet forum for fans of Arcade Fire; in person at Coachella 07), and whether we'd started planning the wedding, where I'd be living etc. I told him, and then he asked me what kind of music Arcade Fire play. We had a short chat about that, I told him they'd announced shows in Chicago the week after the wedding which seemed quite appropriate. Obviously this had the ring of truth that he was looking for, as he then said "well, you are approved, you just need to take that form to the front and pay for the courier" and that was that! I told him that if he weren't behind a screen I would shake his hand, and he replied "consider it shaken". He was really friendly and obviously enjoyed being able to approve people!
It felt like the longest part of the process was waiting in line to pay for the courier.
The only thing I'm unsure about is that I was not given a sealed envelope to surrender at the point of entry, as I understood that everyone gets one, and is told not to open it in any circumstances... If it's not included in the courier package when my passport is returned I'll call the embassy and make sure it's all in order. But since I will be taking all the paperwork with me when I fly over, just to be on the safe side, I hope there won't be a problem.
While I was waiting, I was chatting to a guy around my age, who was also getting married to a Chicagoan. He took my email address so we're going to get in touch when we've both got set up. I went back over to see him after my interview, he said when he was at the first window they'd asked for his financial support documents, and he had no idea that he needed anything like that! I hope it worked out ok for him, I guess he'd just need to prepare the paperwork and send it in to the embassy.
Then I was out; found a payphone and called Gina, my mother and my brother, did a victory lap of Hyde Park on a bike, then went back to my brother's for a well-earned breakfast.
Everyone I spoke to was very friendly and helpful, from the security guards to the Americans actually processing the visa. It definitely pays to get there well before your actual appointment time, and over-prepare on the paperwork front. I think I got lucky with all the people I interacted with, as none of them seemed at all bureaucratic or "just-doing-my-job". Apart from the blip with the wrong case file, it went very smoothly and was a much better experience than my J-1 interview in 2006.
Appointment time: 9:00.
Arrived at embassy: 7:40
Through security, into embassy: 8:10
Bottle of water, Kit Kat bar: 8:15
Called up to window 1: 8:25, 20 minutes max
Called up to window 16: 8:55, 10 minutes max
Queued up to pay: 9:05
Left embassy: 9:15