Thursday was the first time I entered a US Consulate to get my visa done. The previous one was made before 9/11 through a travel agency, which means, hassle-free.
As one would find out on the website, the visa application process sounds rather cumbersome. But I have to give credit to the Americans for bringing all the steps down to details so that when I actually got down to it, there were few gray areas.
So after paying for the visa fees at a CITIC bank and filling in the online form, I called to arrange for an appointment. True to what was promised on the website, the first available time slot was within 7 days. In my case, it was on Thursday, July 12 at 1:45 PM. The consulate emailed a reminder with a queue number on Wednesday, which I was supposed to bring along with my passport and confirmation slip to the interview.
(Note: only a digital photo needs to be submitted, no hard copy required – the website mentioned a photo as one of the items you need to bring along for the interview but it really is not needed.)
I arrived at The Westgate Mall (where the Consulate is located) at about 1:20 PM. I had initially thought with a fixed appointment time/queue number, and an expansion of the Shanghai division, it would be a breeze. I had applied for time off work until 3:30 PM, so perhaps I could browse a bit at Uniqlo if I finished early. Ha, fat chance!
Upon arrival, I was told to join a long queue and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. Through the grapevine (people in the queue), I found out bits and pieces of information about the different clearance stages.
1. Get an EMS (courier) envelope. Fill in your name and address of where you would like to have your passport mailed back to you.
2. Get registered. This means, going up to the staff on duty to get your name checked off a list of applicants with the day’s appointment (you have to ask and find out if it’s time for applicants with your appointment time to be registered – it’s not announced over loudspeaker whatsoever – if it’s not your time yet, the staff will completely refuse to check you in). He/she will write your assigned queue number on the confirmation slip. I didn’t get to do this until about 1:50 PM.
3. After more waiting, by now it’s already 2:20 PM, the staff started distributing pink laminated cards with queue numbers (which really were completely meaningless – the entire process is all about queuing and nothing else) for applicants in my batch. Only those with queue numbers written on the confirmation slip can receive this card, and only with this card will we be allowed into the Consulate.
4. Exiting the elevator on level 8, we were met by a snaking queue well into the mall area. Security personnel were there to keep redundant people from loitering, and to check that everyone in queue had the pink card.
5. I finally passed security check at about 10 to 3 PM, and joined a shorter queue to claim my application folder (where the staff would put my passport, confirmation slip, EMS courier slip and receipt from CITIC).
6. After claiming the folder, I was directed to Counter 3 for finger-printing. If I had had this done for my previous visa, I would have qualified for the Drop-box, which means I wouldn’t have to attend the interview. Well, at least next time, I would have it easy! Anyways, finger-printing was completed in under 3 minutes.
7. I joined another queue for the interview. By the time I was directed to Counter 8 (ha, many people would see this as a sign of luck. Well, I would take it, although my lucky number, I feel, is really number 9!) it was 5 past 3 PM. The interview consisted of 3 questions – tell me about your job, why do you want to go to the US, how long do you plan to be there. Okay, your visa has been approved. They didn’t need all the documents I had painstakingly prepared!
Ha, perhaps because I had a visa before, that’s why it was easier this time. But I find it really amusing that all in all, the entire process consisted of 98% waiting and 2% the real deal. I hope the appointment and queue number system could be better managed so that the waiting time can be largely reduced. But judging from the explosive demand from China, this will be a huge challenge.
As much as I hate queues, I didn’t find my experience this time particularly frustrating (in fact, there’s a very sweet spot at the end of it all!), for these reasons:
1) I was excited, happy even, because this means freedom to travel to one of my favorite countries. For 10 years! Well, if I only had to do this once in a decade, I can bear with it.
2) I am just amazed at myself, for all the countries I love to travel to the most – Japan, US, China – require visas for Malaysian passports. Why do I have to pick these?! But might as well, for if they were not my favorite places, I probably would never have bothered to go through all that trouble and never set foot there.
3) Stepping away from Counter 8, ready to head out, who do I find smiling from a black and white poster but Uncle Walt (Disney) with his famous quote: “I hope we never lose sight of one thing – it was all started by a mouse.”
Ah, what a Disney-esque happy ending ^_^