To go to America as a visitor, you need a visa. UK citizens are eligible to apply under the ‘Visa Waiver Program’, but this only gives you up to 90 days. We obviously wanted to get our moneys worth from our big yellow bus, so needed longer. The only option for us was the much lengthier (and more expensive) process to obtain a B2 visa.
There are loads of visas available but if you are travelling for tourism purposes, you want a B2 visitor visa. These are specifically for non-immigrant people who are ‘travelling to the United States for tourism, pleasure or visiting’.
When you are researching and filling in the paperwork, don’t be confused if you see different B options. A B2 visa is also used by people going over for medical treatment, so you’ll see lots of people talking about medicals being required. To make it even more confusing, a B2 visa is also often grouped with a B1 visa, which is for business use. A B1 visa has it’s own list of factors that don’t necessarily seem relevant to a tourist but rest assured – this is the one you need.
You may also read about single and multiple entry visas. Don’t worry about this – it’s the same visa and the single or multiple decision is made during the interview. Chances are if you have been before, you’ll be given a multiple entry.
First Step: Complete the DS-160
The DS-160 is long and tiresome. You can save your progress along the way, which you should regularly do as it seems to like crashing. It also won’t progress unless you complete each page, so if you don’t know your address on arrival etc, be mindful of any temporary information you put in as if you forget to change it later, that is what will be submitted and they may question you at interview.
The photo section
You can load up a picture to check it is sized correctly at the start, then again at the end of the form. There seems to be a fairly common error on the confirmation page though – it tells you that they can’t ‘confirm your image’. Of course, without confirmation you cannot progress to payment, which means you cannot get the details you need to book your visa interview. Oh the frustration!
I contacted the U.S embassy but they couldn’t advise on the photo upload failure because the DS-160 form is run by the U.S, not them. The advice is to check the trouble-shooting form which helpfully advises you to bring a photo on the day if you are having trouble uploading one. Of course it doesn’t recognise the fact you can’t book that interview because the form won’t let you complete. Do I sound like I am going crazy??!!
Eventually I gave up. I went back the next morning and literally clicked through every page from the start. This time it worked. I had no problem with my kids, so perhaps it just gets busy at certain times.
The form itself is split into 15 sections. It covers everything from your personal information to your travel companions, work history, U.S. contact, previous travel and lots of security and background checks. These are asked regardless of who you are applying for, so expect to fill in a lengthy form for each member of the family.
Before you fall into a panic like I did once you’ve submitted your form past the point of return, you didn’t miss a whole section about where you have travelled in the last five years, your work and education background and whether you have worked for a charity. Men get asked loads more questions to women (how very sexist!). Even though I knew the form wouldn’t let you progress without filling in all boxes, I only felt calm again when I found the question comparison on some obscure forum. And breathe!
It’s kind of funny that they should filter out questions about work and travel for women but they still keep in all their security questions for kids. Evidently it’s more ridiculous for me to have a work history than my 6-year old to have conspired to commit human trafficking whilst taking drugs and escaping prison?!
All the visa and passport stuff is asked in this section and so be ready to fill it in with your B1/B2 request.
After you have filled in your own form and confirmed it is all correct, there is an option to apply for a family. You still have to complete all the forms, but I believe it just allows you to fill in a new blank form, rather than over-writing your last one. Ironically, this is the one time when over-writing is helpful as you don’t have to keep typing in your address etc. I can’t confirm this as because of all the crashing and failure to upload, I ended up having to do ours separately. It didn’t seem to matter – I still got all 4 confirmations through with separate reference numbers.
Once you have completed the form, you have to pay the disgustingly large sum of $160 per person. This is non-refundable, so you really want to make sure you got those questions right. Once you submit your form, there are options to print it out and to email it. Choose the latter so you have a copy. Make sure you also print it out / note down the number as you need this to apply for your visa interview and it can sometimes take a bit of time to get your email confirmation through.
Top tip: note down your DS-160 confirmation number as you need all of them to apply for a family interview
The visa interview
The form alone does not get you anywhere. When your DS-160 confirmation comes through, it will tell you what needs to happen next. Namely, you have to go to the embassy in which you plan to apply for a visa for an interview.
There was lots of availability for visa interviews and we scheduled one the following week. Give yourself time to prepare though as it takes a while to get everything together. Once you have confirmed, you will get another email with various bar codes and information that you need to print.
Keep in mind that unless you can return to London the following week to collect your visas from one of the designated collection points, you will have to pay a small fortune to have it couriered to your home. We went with the collection option. It’s worth noting this down as you get so many different emails it took me ages to go back and find it!
Taking the kids
Although we had read on the U.S . Department of State pages that children under the age of 14 do not need to apply in person, when we applied with our DS-160 reference numbers we were told that all 4 of us had to turn up in person. I checked this with the U.S. London Embassy because it meant taking the kids out of school, but they just sent back an automated style message that confirmed that if the form requests attendance then attendance is required.
Arriving for your interview
The time slot you choose isn’t necessarily when you will be seen, so don’t structure your day around it. We were given 11am and arrived at 10.40 to find lots of people waiting outside. Although we didn’t have to join that queue, we got stuck in one going through security inside and had to wait to collect our interview number. We eventually arrived in the interview bit at about 11.15 and our number was called around 11.30.
The interview is split into two sections – the first checks your documents and then second asks you questions. You have to wait in between the two but get your decision at the second. After that you are free to leave as your passports, if successful, will be sent to the collection point you specified in your application. All in all, we were there for 2 hours.
Top tip: take snacks and stuff for the kids to do. It’s dull waiting!
No laptops allowed in the U.S. Embassy
We noticed there was a sign that said that laptops were not allowed and could not be stored at the embassy, which was a pain as we had brought one.
The woman checking paperwork at the door helpfully directed us to a coffee shop around the corner called District. For £10 you get a coffee and a secure place to keep your things – while we were there 3 people came in to request the same thing, they must be making a killing!
Top tip: leave your laptop at home. If you can’t, head to District on the way over
What you need to take to your interview
- Current Passport that is valid for at least 6 months.
- DS-160 confirmation page.
- Confirmation and Instructions page from the embassy
- One 5 x 5 cm (2 x 2 inches) colour photo taken within the last 6 months.
- Accompanying family members marriage certificate (spouse) and/or birth certificate (for unmarried children under 21)
All of this was easy to get apart from the photo. We had submitted some online but when it came to printing them I had trouble. The criteria say the picture should be 5cm x 5cm and so I had taken photos and sorted them out on Photoshop. Our photo-printer is useless though, so I sent them to Boots and Max Spielmann at Tesco to get printed and both automatically resized them – cropping my head off. Max Spielmann said that there was nothing that they could do about this and if we wanted proper photos, we had to pay £15 per person for their visa photos. What a rip off! Worryingly, the attendant said the photos I had would not be accepted as there was a slight shadow on our youngest sons, the other son had a bit of hair over his ear and my head was too small. Panic stations! In the end we found that PhotoMe booths have a US visa option for £8 per person – still a rip off but not quite so bad. We had to suck it up and drive across town to make sure we all had a set of photos.
At the interview mine and the boys online photos were fine. Ha Max Spielmann – I’m glad we didn’t let you rip us off. Ironically the only problem was my husbands as he had used the same photo in his 2 year old passport. This was outside the 6 month photo criteria they set and so we had to provide a new one for him. We of course had it with us but I don’t even think it would be an enormous problem if you didn’t – the US embassy had two Photo-Me booths in the room.
Top tip – Photo-me booths do US visa photos if you need them and they have 2 machines actually within the US embassy interview area.
What you should take to your interview
As well as the above, the consulate recommend that you should take supporting materials with you and this is crucial for the second part of your interview.
Prepare to be asked about every aspect of your trip – who you know over there, what do they do, why you are going now, why so long, what are your plans, do you have family over there, how will you cover costs and how can you prove you want to return to the UK.
It really does seem to depend on who you get as to how severe the questioning is. We read lots of forum threads with recommendations on remembering addresses of friends, providing photos to show your life and relatives in the UK, taking as many documents as possible to show ties and coming up with budget and savings detail to prove how you will fund your trip. We did EVERYTHING.
In the end our questions focused on what we wanted to do while we were there and why did we want to go for longer than the ESTA visa allows. This was easy as it was all true – we told her that we wanted to go now and for a longer period because of our kids – once they get too old it will become harder to take them out of more serious secondary schooling. Also they won’t want to come with us then! We talked about going to see bears and going on camping adventures, visiting family and taking an RV down the coast.
She checked both boys birth certificates (the longer ones which show both parents names) and asked about the kids schooling. We talked about our plans to work with the school to follow their curriculum and to re-apply when we return as both boys loved their school. Although it was a faff taking the kids, I’m sure their smiley faces helped – they behaved beautifully and she had a laugh with them when they asked what an RV is. We told them it was an American camper-van and she commented that they would learn a whole load of new American words. First clue as to our fate.
Fun and games bit over, we got to the more serious questions. This is where they need to know you can afford to be there and also committed to returning home. We had stayed up late formulating a loose budget for a year long trip and getting our savings and funding streams in order. When she asked us about how we would fund our travels we were able to show her exactly on a spreadsheet. No supporting material was requested to prove the figures were correct, although we did have them in the file just in case.
She approved all of our visas. Hurrah!
A day later we received a message to say they were being couriered to our collection point. We had planned to go to London a week later and so picked them up then. We had been issued multiple entry, which is fab. It means we can use the same visas going in and out of America for the next 10 years.
Top tip: Be prepared. Take as many documents as possible to back up your story.