AUSTRALIAN nationals do not require a visa to visit the United States as tourists. They merely have to fill in a form on a website, wait for approval and then carry a printout of the resultant permission when they travel.
But any Australian passport holder who visits the US to report on an event has to get a journalist’s visa, what is known as an I category visa.
Going through the process is illuminating because one discovers the level of incompetence in the American system, if nothing else.
In July, I received an invitation from SUSE Linux, a company based in Germany, to attend their 20th anniversary celebrations to be held in Orlando, Florida. As it would have been churlish to refuse, I indicated I would accept.
SUSE was once an independent company and was bought by Novell in 2003. Novell, at that time, was a public company and SUSE was run from the US, not exactly very successfully. In 2011, Novell was bought by Attachmate Corporation which decided to relocate SUSE in Germany and run it from there. Attachmate also took Novell private.
The US visa can be applied for online – but the form leaves much to be desired. Firstly, it is built using Microsoft technology and thus works best with Internet Explorer. Nobody tells you this – I found out by trial and error due to my technology background.
A form which is properly designed should take one from page to page, allowing for both negative and positive answers. If a particular question cannot be left vacant, then there should be an option to get past that spot.
But with the visa application form, this does not happen. For example, I was clearly not going to work for an American company during my stay in the US. But the logic (?) built into the form clearly decided that this was the case even though I had clearly indicated that I was applying for a visa for a foreign media representative. I could not progress from this page.
I had to contact the US State Department to find out what to do – and the way to contact them is not provided. No, I found out the email address by going to the website of the US consulate in Melbourne and emailing them. I got an automated reply, giving me the correct email address. What a bloody circuitous way to deliver information!
One has to upload a picture along with the application. And there are all kinds of inane questions to answer – have you ever been involved in terrorist acts? have you been involved in genocide? Sure, people who are inclined this way would genuflect and tell Uncle Sam that they are indeed so oriented. Who designs these forms?
After this, one needs to make an appointment at the nearest consulate or embassy. But the amazing thing was that when I did so, I could not select the category of visa which I had specified in my application. I was offered other choices. To get past the form, I chose the B1/B2 which is a business visa.
Came the day of the interview and I was witness to what technology guru Bruce Schneier calls “security theatre”. At the consulate, there are two solemn men in uniform who act as though everyone who comes through the door is a member of al-Qaeda. They would be comical if they did not take themselves so seriously. The process is drawn out as much as possible to make it seem as though the security is the best in the world.
Upstairs, again papers were checked. No bags allowed, no mobile phones either. One had to sit in an area where a TV was blaring American propaganda – the US is the land of innovation, the land of racial harmony (lots of footage of Muslims saying the US was a beautiful place to live), the land of education, the land of opportunity. No mention was made of the national debt which now stands at $US15 trillion.
After 20 minutes (my appointment was at 10am), I was called to the counter. I explained the problem about the visa category and was given a long list of things which I would have to do. I then asked, sarcastically why I had to be delayed because of an error in the US web form. Back came the reply, “I will speak to my officer”.
Back to the same counter after 15 minutes. Now the girl told me that I had filled in the form correctly, something I already knew. I was fingerprinted and then went back to wait.
After 40 minutes more of listening to the propaganda, I was called for an interview. No seat, it’s done standing up. There is no toilet available for use by visitors on that floor – though the staff obviously do have a place to do their jobs. Way to go, USA.
Routine questions were asked, some of them redundant. Are you travelling alone? (already indicated on the form). Have you been to the US before? (also indicated on same form). How long are you going to be there? (again, asked and answered on the form). Have you ever been arrested? I was about to say that I had been arrested 13 times but then held my tongue. Humour is not appreciated in the US these days.
I had already paid $A160 for the visa; now I was told that I would have to pay a further $A105. Maybe that’s how the US is managing its budget deficit these days, by charging such outrageous sums for visas.
Another wait to pay the fee. A total of 90 minutes in the consulate. I’ve seen things done far more expeditiously in the German and British consulates. And things done far faster in the Indian, Thai and Sri Lankan consulates too.
After three days my passport arrived in the mail with the visa duly stamped. Sad to see that the country which identifies itself with technological progress cannot even build a proper web form.