Located in central Tel-Aviv, Israel, the US embassy is hard to miss. Bus drivers can tell you where to get off and the signage is more than clear. Not only that, but as you approach the building, you will see an abundance of officers.
Israelis are used to officers. In a country where war is not a question of if, but rather a question of when, in a country that suffered countless terrorist attacks, in a country where military service is obligatory, no one is phased much by the casual sight of people in uniform guarding places. Every mall and every university campus you’d like to enter will require you to show your bag or purse to the guards in charge of the gate. Writing this, I imagine how it might sound to someone who hasn’t experienced this since childhood, but travel in Israel is actually pretty safe most of the time. Plus, if you ever get the chance to do some guarding duty (say, in the military), all you’ll see is someone doing a pretty boring job. And let’s hope it stays boring.
It’s standard procedure to get bags checked and I hardly even think twice about it, except for when it’s hot or the bag is heavy or I carry a million things in my hands and now go take the bag down, open it, close it and put it back up without dropping anything or stalling the line too much. I’ve been practicing carrying less stuff. It’s good for the back too, not only for the lines.
Yet at the US embassy, things are different. Just like when you see a military base, it’s time to oppress that urge to photograph everything – or you’ll get in trouble. You are hardly allowed to carry a thing with you inside the US embassy building. If you do have a bag, a purse or anything else with you, just leave it in your car. If you come by public transportation as I did, worry not. Ten shekels (approximately 2.5 US dollars) will rent you storage space for an unlimited amount of hours for that day, or so it was almost three years ago.
Three years ago was when I finally went to get my US tourist visa. Growing up in Israel when the local film and TV industries were still finding their paths, my mass culture socialization came in great part from American TV and film, and it was a dream to travel across the world and see this country for myself, even before I knew about some of its natural wonders that I now metaphorically drool on as I read travel blogs. Travel that far seemed for years as a dream out of reach. Yet years pass and things change, and it was time to realize dreams.
Yet before this dream could be turned into reality, I needed to get my tourist visa. The procedure is expensive and filled with bureaucracy. It is also filled with the need to think positively – very positively. Not everyone gets their desired tourist visa. Like other countries, the United States is fighting illegal immigration. There are many cases of people coming there, even for short term, to supposedly make a lot of money in sales or other odd jobs. Various agencies recruit people for this kind of work, promising them they would make sums that in their home country – in example, Israel – they can only dream of, especially as they enter the workforce as adults. For some, this advertising becomes their lives. Others end up in debt, crashing under the high costs of airplane tickets and lodging, as they discover sales, for example, is not what they do best. Either way, these people are sent many times on a tourist visa, not a work visa, so they are not legally allowed to work in the States. The result? At best, they get sent back home with a clear understanding that they are never to return. I am unsure whether anyone actually went to jail over this, I can only suspect some people did. I do know that, as a result, others are finding it harder to get the opportunity to travel to the US as tourists.
People after their military service – or worse, after their military service and a long trip to South America or Southeast Asia – are the ones most unlikely to get a tourist visa. They’re young, in their early twenties, many times broke, many times with little proven ties to the country. If you want a tourist visa, you must prove that you have the funds to travel and that you have reason to return home.
The first part of the process takes place online, where you fill a bunch of forms. Then you need to pay processing fees offline, at the post office. To the best of my recollection, there was also an online fee. You also need to get a passport photo of yourself, yet you must tell the person photographing you at a photo store that you need it for the US tourist visa procedure. That is because you need a special kind of photo. The size is not your ordinary passport photo size, but rather a little larger. Your ears need to show and you are not allowed to smile. Online, you schedule an appointment. It is recommended not to buy your plane ticket before the interview, in case you don’t get the tourist visa. It’s also recommended not to leave this scheduling to the last minute. Embassies, says the rumor, enjoy ample of days off: they have the local holidays off and their own holidays off.
The appointment date and time that you book is not yours alone. Many other people will be there, so arrive early even if you booked the first appointment of the day. Remember, leave your belongings in your car or in the nearby office. You are only allowed to bring the relevant papers and documents, plus money to the US embassy. More on the money part later on. You can also bring in a book to pass the time. The office that rents storage space is also one of the agencies that offers help in getting all the forms ready for the interview at the embassy. It is important to be accurate and fill the documents right, so you won’t be turned away because of a silly detail. Between you and I, if you know English, there’s really no need to pay someone to fill the forms for you. This tourist visa will cost you plenty of money without it, even if you won’t end up getting it. It cost me more than $US100, perhaps it even close to $US200 just for the processing fees.
Once I stored my belongings, I went to join the line. The guards asked to see the printed confirmation that I had indeed booked an interview, plus they wanted to see the photograph I brought to make sure it fits the standards. People who brought the wrong kind of format or pose were sent to the above-mentioned storage-store-slash-agency to give it another try. Before entering the actual building, I was asked to take off my watch for a few minutes and allow the guards to pass something on the palms of my hands. I was not told what that was.
Inside, the line is still long, yet it progresses fast. I would put aside a few hours for this, even if you come early in the morning. I was required to fill a form and write the address to which my passport would be sent later on if I got the tourist visa (yes, you need to give them your passport if you get the visa). Perhaps more than one form. There are no pens at the US embassy for the benefit of the crowds, so bring your own or hope the people in front or behind you bring one. If you have a pen, share it with others. You will need good karma in this place, plus… being kind is usually a good thing.
Meanwhile, listen to the explanations the guards detail out loud. The explanations are given in Hebrew and repeat themselves over and over again, so it’s hard to miss. The guards encourage questions and requests for clarification.
Finally, it was my turn. Three years ago, I had to pass through three window stands. In the first one, I was asked about the purpose of my desired trip and my fingerprints were electronically taken. I was asked to show some of the papers I brought, including the confirmation of my booked interview and my passport. It is important to make sure in advance that your passport is valid and not about to expire within a few months. At the second desk, my fingerprints were taken again. Again, it was done electronically, so the fingers stayed clean. At the third desk, the interview took place.
Here, you wait in another line, yet there’s a “fast pass” – just like in Disneyland! OK, it’s a bit different. You’ve gotta get permission to be interviewed in English or Russian – and that’s how you bypass the longer line. There are a lot of people who came to live in Israel from Russian speaking countries, so the US embassy had a representative available to speak in that language. English is taught in Israel since elementary school all the way through high school, so a lot of people feel comfortable talking English. However, if you haven’t practiced your English, you might have forgetten it, as I regretfully forgot the Arabic I learned in school (throughout a shorter period). In that case, you’ve got to wait for a Hebrew-speaking representative to be available. When I was there, most people chose to wait.
I don’t know Russian, yet as you might have noticed, I’m pretty comfortable with English. Therefore, I chose to be interviewed in English and move through the line faster. I was asked about my travel plans, for which I prepared in advance and brought my desired travel itinerary, divided by days, places and attractions. That was my proof that I had researched the place and honestly wanted to travel and experience some places, not to work or cause the US any kind of damage. My interviewer clarified to me that I am not allowed to work on a tourist visa, which, of course, I already knew and had no problem with – I had plenty of work back home.
I was asked to show my latest salary forms, which I also prepared in advance, yet my interviewer only glanced at them briefly. It’s usually recommended to bring a letter from your boss clarifying that you have worked at this workplace for this and that amount of time, and that your job is secured for when you return. This assures the US embassy that you have employment, a commitment, a reason to return to your country once you’re done indulging in your trip. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my boss about a possible short vacation 7-8 months in advance, so I skipped this recommendation, not without concern. It ended up being the right decision, as that trip was postponed (and expanded), yet it was a risk that could have possibly cost me my US tourist visa.
So I made extra efforts to prepare. For example, I paid my university for confirmation of my status as a student in both Hebrew and English, and I also paid for an official document of my grades in both languages, hoping high grades would prove my commitment to my studies. It is also recommended to bring a copy of your rent or mortgage documents, a copy of ownership of a car. If you’re married or have children and you happen to be leaving some of them behind, bring proof of that, too. In addition, you might want to bring a document from your bank proving you have enough money in your account to travel. Any proof you can think of that shows links to your home country would improve your chances of getting the US tourist visa.
I made a lot of preparations, so it was almost disappointing – although not without relief – that my interviewer barely looked at my long list of papers. I read stories of interviewers who didn’t really care, and of others who were extremely thorough, therefore I still think it’s better to come prepared. My interviewer didn’t really seemed to care to go through my pile of documents. She simply wanted a short answer to where and what I was studying.
The interview lasted maybe two minutes – before the interviewer announced that I received my US tourist visa! WhooooHoooo! My passport was taken away, and I paid approximately 35 shekels ($US9-10) to have it sent back to me alongside the official tourist visa. If I remember correctly, I got a phone call within a week to coordinate a delivery person’s arrival. The delivery guy came with my passport, and inside my passport awaited my US tourist visa, given for the longest current possible time: 10 years.
This post is based on a Hebrew post I wrote last summer regarding the interview at the US embassy, yet don’t worry if you can’t read Hebrew – this new post is way more thorough.
What’s the greatest length you ever went to in order to visit a dream country?