Today I tried to become an alien.
Specifically I visited the US Embassy to complete my application for an H1B non-immigrant visa. The key word “Non-immigrant” essentially means, don’t get too comfortable sunshine. The goal of this exercise is to get a magical glowing rune in your passport that says you can work there for three years without terrible consequences involving orange jumpsuits.
Before you get there you have to compose your case. There are forms to fill in, and they are tricksy. The questions are ambiguous, intended to catch people who game their visas or intend to stay long-term. I quickly found that unofficial websites exist solely to offer advice on filling out, say, the piquant DS-156 or the blunt DS-157 (“compulsory for males aged 15-55″). Whole forum threads debate the perils of leaving an answer blank rather than using “none” (“none” is recommended, form fans).
Getting at the embassy is not easy. Roadworks encircle the building in fencing, dust and noise. It’s easy to imagine the hard-hat workers as undercover Mission:Impossible agents, shovelling rubble back and forth, glancing shiftily and waiting for orders to emanate from their self-destructing copy of The Sun.
Outside at the security point, police armed with SMGs stand at intervals. The hopefuls are queued, cradling their papers in a variety of practical wallets and folders. All loose items are stored in a clear plastic bag for scanning. No phones or bags allowed. Thirty minutes go by, a fair chunk of New Scientist. Then through the detector without fuss and into the embassy itself.
A main hall, seated, with refreshments at the back wall. A random mix of people – though predominantly white – are waiting in the rows in states of agitation or boredom. Families, couples, individuals. A recorded voice calls numbers, and people nervously shuffle their folders to the counters immediately alongside. Not so much an interrogation under harsh lights; more a trip to the Post Office.
Another thirty minutes, number 1121 comes up. Forms are handed in, fingerprints collected in one go by a futuristic green-lit reader. All done.
Is that it? No, that’s only the initial check. The interview proper is after another waiting session. Back for a sit down with coffee and a sandwich. Reading is difficult when you have to listen to the announcement every fifteen seconds.
Another hour passes; then “Number 1121 to counter 24, please”. Wander through to the second-stage counters, trying to keep the basic facts of my employment in my head. Smile and don’t look crazy.
A bald, bearded guy about my age; glasses. After all the waiting, four questions in two minutes.
“So you’ve been hired in the US by [big investment bank]?”
“…and you attended college or university in the UK?”
“Yes, in Aberdeen.”
“What was your course of study?”
“Have you ever been arrested?”
Yikes. Frown, shake head, “No.” Appropriate emphasis.
“OK. There are other Aaron Bells that have.”
“OK Mr Bell your visa is approved, please take your blue form to the courier desk. Have a good day.”
And that’s it. Passport gets delivered back to you in 5 days.
Relief and excitement.