Thursday, August 23, 2012

Travel, Technology, and the Golden Ticket (Thoughts and Tips on Applying for a U.S. Tourist Visa)

From my Tech Thoughts column in Speed Magazine, 2007
* since this was published years back, certain details (like fees) may no longer be applicable

The 10 year multiple visa that I never get to use anymore since I moved to the States.

I just got a transit visa for my trip to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) in Micronesia. After queuing for four hours in the embassy, I can’t help but thank the powers that be for technology. If not for the wonders of the electronic appointment system, I would have been watching the sunrise by the Manila Bay while I waited in line with hundreds of other hopefuls. Before the appointment system, my mother lined up for half a day to apply for a visa; she started at the crack of dawn, was done before the sun set, and was  rewarded with a 10 year multiple tourist visa for her valiant efforts. I don’t think I have her willpower.

It’s ironic that to go on a vacation, to leave the concerns of a complex world, I have to go through layers of bureaucracy and stacks of documentation. To feel the powdery sands between my toes and allow the whispers of the tide to ease away the stresses of the modern world, I have to have immunization shots, line up at the embassy, accomplish application forms, book flights, clear up my schedule, endure an overnight flight, pass through several x-ray systems, CT scanners and metal detectors, and take off my shoes even before I get to the beach.

All the hoops I had to go through just to go sailing and sun burnt!

Continental Airlines, the only airline that flies to the RMI, changes planes in Guam, a U.S. territory. To be granted entry to their airport, to use their restroom, to grab a burger and to park my derriere on one of their chairs while I wait for Continental to change planes, I have to obtain a U.S. transit visa on top of my RMI visa. It wouldn’t have been too much trouble except that to get a transit visa, I had to go through the same process of applying for a tourist visa. That meant facing that one stranger that could change the direction of my flight. Fortunately, my recent interview was uneventful.

The interrogating consul inside the glass aquarium was an indifferent but efficient lady. She politely asked several curt questions answerable by monosyllables. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if she was asking or merely thinking aloud:
“You’ve been to the States before./?”
“You’re requesting for a transit visa./?”
“Your brother is a U.S. Citizen./?”

A rustle of papers. The click-clack of the keyboard. Then, “take this to the courier.” She shoved the highly coveted piece of paper through a small opening on the glass partition and without another word, my interview was done. She didn’t even bother to look at my papers. It took me over a month to get all my documents in order: bank statements, certification from editors, school papers, car registration, etc. All that hard work for nothing. I had a ready spiel on how I need to come back because I’m completing my novel for my thesis or how passionate I am about my work here, but it wasn’t the time nor the place for idle chatter.

THE golden ticket that will allow you access to almost anywhere in the world..almost.

Who cares? I got the golden ticket. It was a 1/4th sheet of yellow paper that heralded my trustworthiness. It took every ounce of control not to wave the paper in the air for the world to see. As I watched the others walk out with their heads down, hands empty, I pondered on this phenomenon. Year after year, thousands get turned down. Some of them walk out defeated, because they are made to feel unworthy to walk on sacred soil so fertile that it flows of milk and honey. Yet, year after year they trod on, reduced to numbers (“3208 to window ten, please”), forking out a hundred dollars for an application that they themselves printed, suffering the humiliation of being finger-scanned like criminals, herded by Filipino attendants who carry on like they’re better than because they work for the American embassy, ordered to wait in long lines, leave their mobile phones, stand up, sit down, hush.

Some of my travel buddies are afraid to apply for a visa for fear of being denied,
and to think one of them already had a multiple visa before!

Who am I to complain when I was just granted a visa? Who am I to criticize when just like many, I too enjoy and benefit from the inventions of American  geniuses like Alexander Graham Bell, Bill Gates, and Ralph Lauren? What right do I have to gripe when I sometimes still long for the electric air of the Big Apple? Who am I to protest my four hours of waiting when over a decade ago, people lined up 48 hours in advance?

Fortunately, with technology taking over the appointment systems, the long lines had been cut to more than half. Interview appointments are set either through phone or online ( The former costs fifty pesos a minute (don’t get me started on the rate) but you get personalized service through a Filipino operator who will tell you what to do and what not to do like not mixing up your appointed time (which I of course did) lest you wait another two weeks for the reschedule. Beforehand, you must pay the application fee of a hundred dollars at an accredited bank.

In MY airline, I won't require a golden ticket!

A more convenient option is the online reservation which will cost ten dollars extra for a VisaPoint PIN. The VisaPoint is a web-based information and appointment system that allows you to view information on nonimmigrant visas, pay for your application through a credit card, and schedule an appointment by choosing from available dates and times.

Application forms are now printed from the site. Answers must be keyed in before the form can be printed, eliminating errors and illegible handwriting. Adobe Acrobat Reader version 5.0 or higher is required to download the form.  The site also prompts for invalid entries, so you are sure that you are typing in the correct entries. A barcode, containing all the information you entered, is printed on the application form. Conveniently, the system allows you to generate copies for Family Duplicates.

My Choice. My Airline.

Online technology has made traveling more convenient in other ways. To purchase tickets, there is no need to step out of the house. The International Air Transport Association has committed to 100% e-ticketing this year. It’s easier to check for availability, pass miles and flight status. If they can work on a video conference interview with the embassy then we don’t even have to leave the house until our departure date. But with the way things are going, travel may soon become virtual. To explore the Old Quarter of Hanoi or the overgrown Japanese hospital of Roi Namur in RMI, I may no longer need to step out of the confines of my room. How’s that for travel convenience?

Why bother? The goal is to collect as many stamps as possible.

I don’t know about you, but I still relish the feel of the sun on my bare back and never tire of the joys of hoarding complementary airline toothbrushes in spite of the long lines and overweight fees. This reminds me, I gotta go pack my sunblock.


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