Yesterday was a big day. I was approved for the F-1 student visa, which will give me 3 years in the USA. Please note a visa in your passport doesn’t guarantee entry to the USA, that decision is made by immigration when you enter the country. But without the visa there’s no way you can get in for business or tourism beyond the 90 days which the current Waiver Programme appreciates. (In January 09 this changes again.)
The process for getting a visa has been covered by @bck in the past on his Pantsland blog, and I read that a couple of times as part of my own preparation. As we both note, none of what we say is necessarily going to be relevant to everyone – you need to do your own research to ensure you have the right documentation etc for your own visa and situation. That all said, here’s what I went through.
Step 1: Get your documentation right
There are numerous forms and fees to go through to get a student visa. Everyone needs a DS-156 which is the general entry form, and you have to attach to that form a passport pic taken within the last 6 months, as well as pay (in cash or money order only) the $AUD150-odd fee for the non-immigrant visa at Australia Post. When you go to Aust. Post, ensure you know exactly how much you have to pay for the non-immigrant visa because they will not have any idea, but will happily take your money as long as it’s cash. Then you need to staple the receipt for that to the front of the D-156. Men will also need to fill out a DS-157 (I don’t know what is in that form because last time I checked, I am not a man). I also had to complete a DS-158 (which is like a resume).
Because I was after the F-1 visa, I needed to pay the SEVIS fee ($100) which is standard for all students entering the USA. As for all these fees, it’s non-refundable, so if you don’t get approved for a visa you can wave bye-bye to the cash. The SEVIS fee is payable online with a credit card.
Finally, I also had to be able to prove I had access to plentiful funds to support myself in the US (in my case, $US40, 200) as well as hold an Form I-20 which had been sent to me by the University, saying I’d been offered a place. Luckily for me (and key for me obtaining this visa), the University of Colorado saw fit to give me a full teacher assistantship appointment, which basically waived my need to demonstrate the $40,200.
I also took along to the appointment the actual letter of offer from the University and my academic credentials just in case.
You must also take your current passport, any prior passports of yours if you have them, a self-addressed platinum Australia Post courier satchel for the return of your documents, and other supporting documents in case they ask you for them. Ensure you’ve booked your appointment through the online VisaPoint system. To book an appointment you need a PIN Number, which costs another $14 (ka-ching) payable with a credit card. Even though the appointments are booked in half-hour increments, you’re advised to block out 4 hours (I took 2.45hrs from beginning to end).
Step 2: Turn up on time
The Sydney consulate is in the MLC Building. While the consulate is on the 59th floor, you first report to the 10th floor and go through a security checkpoint. Prepare to take off your shoes! You have to leave all electronics at this point. The security guard will then allow you to go in the lift up to the actual consulate, where you go through another checkpoint (shoes off again), and take a ticket like you’re in the motor registry. That’s when the real waiting begins.
Step 3: Talk to people
When you’re called for the first window, you hand over all the basic forms and receipts from what you prepared prior to the interview. You’re then told to take a seat and wait to be called again. When you’re called the 2nd time, you need to do the fingerprint thing on the scanner – both hands. Then you take another seat and wait to be called the 3rd time.
Step 4: The interview
This stage is the final part of what was a lengthy process. Rather than take you to a cubicle or something, you simply get called to a teller window and all the people behind you can hear what you discuss with the interviewer (the guy who had a record for posession of marijuana who went before me was most interesting :)). The interview itself only went for a couple of minutes and seemed more of a checking process of what was in the documentation I’d already supplied. I had more supporting evidence, but the man didn’t ask for it, and he was a very polite nice person to talk with.
Step five: Paying the final fee
When I was approved for a visa I was informed I needed to pay the final fee of about $120 at the cashier. Once again this had to be in cash (no EFTPOS and even though the consulate website actually says they take credit cards). They hold on to your documentation and send it back to you in the platinum bag you supply.
And that’s it! I was surprised they didn’t ask me why my husband and children weren’t on the same visa, or indeed what their plans were. (They plan to travel under the E-3 visa. I needed my own student visa because of the TA appointment and needing to work as soon as I arrive. As a spouse under the E-3 it takes about 2-3mths for an Employment Authorisation Document to be processed, which would have prevented me taking up my TA in the Fall semester.) While the interview itself only took a couple of minutes, I’m sure that if anything ‘hinkey’ in my application cropped up in the earlier stages then it would have been flagged before I approached for my actual interview. So I don’t believe I was completely judged from beginning to end in that two minutes – I spoke with about 8 consular staff in the day, and any one of them would have been able to ‘flag’ my documents if necessary.
Go to the loo before going in. There is no bathroom beyond the 10th floor reception.
Take a magazine or book. It’s B.o.r.i.n.g.
Wear shoes that are easy to get on and off.
Wear your best smile, and dress as if going for a job interview. Many people don’t dress in business attire, but I’m old school and believe you might as well do all the easy things to make a good impression.
Finally, don’t take your kids. You don’t need to have them with you. Beg borrow or steal a babysitter for the day. It was not fun watching a couple of parents with little tykes struggling to keep them under control, and even less fun for the parents themselves.