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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Visiting US Embassy in London

I was recently invited to attend a conference in the US. But being on a Tier 1 visa in the UK means that I needed to apply for a visa first. This also meant appearing for an in-person interview at the US Embassy in London, which is currently mandatory for people from certain nationalities, including Pakistan.

The following hints might help you if you are a non-British UK resident and need to apply for the US visa in non-immigrant category. Please note that these are based on my personal experience of applying for the visa, and are in no way intended to be an authoritative guide/ recommendation of any sort.

Step 0: Choosing the right visa category

Well, the first step in the process is to know which visa category you need to apply for. Most people who would be reading it would be interested only in a non-immigrant visa, and for this category, here is a direct link to all available sub-categories on the US Embassy's website. For attending a business conference, for example, you need a B-1 visa.

Step 1a: Fill-in DS-160

In fact, at this stage you can do two things in parallel: one is to get the appointment for your interview and the other one is to fill in the online application form. I needed to fill-in DS-160, which might be applicable in most of the non-immigrant visa cases. If you have to fill in this form, there are a number of things that you'll need. The following are some of the things you need:

  • A scanned photograph for the visa
  • The date and place of birth of your parents
  • Your employment history for past 5 years
  • Your education history
  • Your spouse's particulars
  • etc.

Here is a link to common questions related to DS-160 that might be worth reading before you begin. It will take a long time to fill-in the and submit the form. Once done, the website will present you with a confirmation page; you must take a print out of that confirmation page and keep that with you for your interview. You don't need a print out of your entire application, though.

Step 1b: Schedule an Appointment (and pay the fee)

If you need to appear for an in-person interview, you'll have to schedule an appointment first. The earlier you do that, the better. However, make sure that you'll have all the required documents (and a confirmation of submission of DS-160) before the date your interview is scheduled.

There used to be an Operator Assisted Information Service for scheduling an appointment, which is being discontinued after 26th July 2013. It's said that a web-based free of charge service will soon be available. When I scheduled the appointment, I also needed to pay the non-immigrant MRV application fee, which turned out to be $160. I assume it's the same for most non-immigrant visa categories.

Once the fee was paid and appointment booked, I received two emails. One about the confirmation of fee payment (which I did via credit card), and another as a confirmation of the appointment. It's important to keep printouts of both the appointment information and the fee acknowledgement documents with you.

Step 2: Gather all the documents

You'll need to gather all documents which support your visa application. I am not aware of an official list of documents which would be required. But at the minimum one needs to carry his/ her passport (and a proof of their clearance to live in the UK, such as the Residence Permit issued by UKBA) and some documents to support one's claim for the need to travel to the US.

In my case, I prepared a lot of things but only the following were actually asked for during the interview:
  • My passport 
  • UK residence permit (returned after visual inspection)
  • An invitation letter from the US
  • A sponsorship letter from the employer (to cover my travel expenses)
  • A photograph (which was returned to me)
  • My CV
Of course, I kept my educational documents and my bank statements with me as well, but the interview officer didn't ask for them.

Step 3: Visiting US Embassy in London

Now comes the fun part! Even more fun if you will need to travel to London just for attending an interview. One of the most important things to remember is that the US Embassy doesn't allow you to carry any electronic items. Please read the next step for more information on this aspect, but first I must tell you where you need to go :)

The physical address is as follows:

24 Grosvenor Square
London, W1A 2LQ
United Kingdom

Basically, you'd like to get off at the Bond Street Underground Station and walk towards Grosvenor Square as highlighted in the following map:


View Larger Map Step 4: Storing Your Electronic Items

Step 4: Gould Pharmacy (how can you not know about it)

As you might have come to know by now, the US Embassy prohibits any electronic item to be take inside the Embassy. All electronic items are prohibited, even headphones, watches, battery operated car keys, etc. What's even more interesting is that you cannot leave these items outside either---the Embassy doesn't make any arrangements to store your goods.

Now, if you are visiting the Embassy for first time, you would like to keep your mobile phone for Google maps. Or at least, you'll need your watch to make sure that you reach in time. And if you are going to visit from another city, it might be difficult for you to leave all these items at home.

And since, where there is a need, there is an entrepreneur; you need to know about Gould Pharmacy. The pharmacy is very close the Embassy, and could store one set of electronic items for a charge of £3. A backpack will need another £6 for storage---though I believe small bags are not prohibited.

The postcode for the pharmacy is W1K 6ZL. Interestingly, the pharmacy makes around £1000 a day from this business.

Step 5: Inside the Embassy

The embassy has airport style security. Once inside, they looked at my documents; gave me a token number and asked me to sit in a bit hall. I am not sure exactly how much time I had to wait; it could be more than an hour easily. When the number appeared on the screen, they took my fingerprints and looked at the passport and the residence permit. Once done, I had to wait for the second phase of the process. After another half an hour or so, the number re-appeared and then started the interview process.

As I said earlier, they only documents looked at were
  • Invitation letter from the US
  • Sponsorship letter from the employer (to cover my travel expenses)
  • My CV
The interviewer asked a couple of question about the nature of business my company did, and another couple of questions about my education.

And then came the dreaded moment---as any Pakistani would tell you, instead of granting a visa immediately, the application typically goes into "administrative processing." So, I was given a reference number and the passport was returned to me. Fingers crossed!