On the early morning of May 3, I found myself on the side walk outside the US Embassy in Manila, bewildered by the number of people waiting to enter the embassy. It’s not the number that shocked me actually (I know there’s always hundreds of people lined up outside the embassy), it’s the suits and business attire worn by the applicants, as if dressing to get that job they’ve always aspired for.
US Ambassador to the Philippines at the inauguration of NOX1. Photo by Jane Tenefrancia Uymatiao, used with permission.
The time in my confirmation says 7:15, but I was there an hour ahead, even if the instruction was to be there 30 minutes before my schedule. I walked away from the hoard and found a quiet spot facing the Manila Bay. Distracting myself from the unappealing aroma wafting from the water, my mind wandered back a month when I first learned that I need to apply for a US Visa.
I had just walked back to our table at the Camsur Watersports Complex after taking pictures of wakeboarders
showing off practicing. The first thing I did was to check my iPod if there are new e-mails. There were several, but one particularly stand out: an invitation to visit Guam. As excited as I was about this opportunity, I knew that a US visa is required for the tiny US territory, and that’s one thing I don’t have, and frankly, something I never thought I’d ever apply for. I quickly fired off a reply, explaining my predicament, and they assured me that they will assist me in getting a visa. A meeting was set with the Guam Visitors Bureau (GVB) a day after my return to Manila, and in the meantime, I filled out the online application form.
I had to snort at my (now) apparent stupidity, printing each page of the questionnaire, not knowing that I can view and print it in its entirety at the end. It took me more the alloted 20 minutes to complete and print each page, giving the Internet shop owner in Bulusan a headache with my crazy request to print and scan each page. After it was all over, I was toting a 26-page pile of documents that I now use as scratch paper. Filling out the form made it somewhat real: that I’m really applying for a US tourist visa.
They gave us pointers during the meeting. Be confident, don’t fidget. Don’t be afraid because there’s nothing you should be afraid of, specially if you’re not planning on doing anything illegal. I pestered them and friends who has been through this before and got the same advice. With the advice comes their assurance: you’ve been to plenty of places already. That shows you come back to the Philippines every time you travel.
Outdoor waiting area. Photo by Jane Tenefrancia Uymatiao, used with permission.
I look at my watch and saw that it was already 6:45am. I stood up and made my way back to the embassy’s entrance. I lined up with the rest of the applicants for a non-immigrant visa, wondering just how am I going to appear confident and nonchalant when I feel the opposite inside. I sneaked a peek at the documents that the applicants ahead of me are toting and I was startled to see a document that I do not have. I timidly ask what that paper was and was told it’s the confirmation page for the appointment. All I had with me is the other confirmation page and the bank slip as proof of the payment.
When the GVB said they’ll offer assistance to my visa application, I wasn’t exactly sure how they will assist me. Never did I imagine that they will pay for the visa application fee, set the interview appointment and provide the formal letter if invitation from Guam, as well as a guarantee letter.
The line slowly moved and I quickly realized the difference in the lines. One on the left is for non-immigrant visa application, the middle one for immigrant visas, while the right most and the longest are for seafarers. US citizens can just walk right up to the entrance and enter. Security, was as expected, tight. Electronic gadgets are not allowed inside. No mobile phones, no mp3 players, no iPods, no laptops, not even USB thumb drives and bottles of water. Once through the security, we wait at the outdoor holding area.
Inside NOX1. Photo by Jane Tenefrancia Uymatiao, used with permission.
I got the e-mail shortly after Easter. My interview was set for 7:15am on May 3. My heart suddenly started beating fast. Now it’s real. I knew I had to go for an interview, but now that the date has been set, it completely sunk in that I am doing it. I have to face what I’ve always been too happy to avoid. The first thing I did was to message the accountant… is she finished with my business registration? I need the documents for the embassy ASAP.
We were given a number as we entered the embassy. I watched the board with fascination, wondering why 2286 was being called the same time 2304 was flashing on the screen. Now I understand why a friend told me she was too preoccupied watching the numbers to read the book she read. Jasper Fforde likewise spent the entire day inside my bag.
The business registration papers were waiting for me when I got home from making the rounds at my banks, picking up the bank certifications I requested for. I heaved a huge sigh of relief and set about arranging my supporting documents in my clear plastic envelope. I checked and double checked each item in the checklist I was provided with, hoping that the consul won’t ask for documents that I do not carry.
At last we were called. I realized that the numbers on the board were for those already being processed inside the new NOX1 building. For those waiting outside, you need to listen to the staff calling out numbers by batches. After another round of security checks, we were finally inside the US Embassy’s newest consular services facility.
Right after I got news about my visa appointment, Yogajane published the photos she took during the NOX1 inauguration. My eyes glazed as I took in each detail, wondering how I’d feel once inside that shiny new building.
We were told to line up and I blindly followed the people ahead of me. Seeing that our line was too long, a staffer pulled the guy ahead of me and told me to follow them to another window. Before I knew it, we were standing in line window 15 and we heard the consul asking the guy ahead of us for the purpose of his travel. Is this it? It’s interview time already? I’m not ready for this! It seems it was a preliminary check, verifying the information in our application form and confirming that it was us who actually filled out the form.
“What did they ask you?” I asked my friend Kaoko.
“Just the things that are in the application form. Then they asked about my job and what I do.”
“That’s it? Did you put your documents in a clear book?”
She replied, “my documents are just in an envelope, but I realized then that using a clearbook would have been more efficient since you can easily find specific papers. Not that it mattered to me anyway, since the consul didn’t ask for any document.”
Consul windows. Photo by Jane Tenefrancia Uymatiao, used with permission.
After leaving the window unscathed, I realized that there really *is* nothing to be scared of. I faced what I’ve been worrying about head on and I felt that I can take whatever else that is coming my way. My butt hardly touched the seat before my number flashed again and I rushed off to Window 12. There was a burly guy with a warm and friendly voice who was taking finger prints. Despite my newfound confidence, I floundered and stared stupidly when he asked me to state my name and birth date. He was patient as I fumbled with the contraption that scans my fingerprint, assuring me that behind those (I assume) bullet-proof glass are humans that are only doing what they’re trained to do. And that they don’t bite.
“The consul I got assigned to was friendly,” Kaoko relates. “He even chatted with the kids of the couple ahead of me in line.”
“Really? Hmmm,” I muttered. “I hope I get him as well. Is he cute?”
I ended up sitting with two other girls who were ahead of me in line at the entrance to the embassy. We chatted about the purpose of our trips and shared horror stories about friends who got denied, even with extensive travel histories. One by one we were called and soon I was on my feet, standing in front of Window 5.
“What’s the purpose of your visit,” the consul asked.
“I was invited by the Guam Visitors Bureau to attend a festival towards the end of the month.”
“Why did they invite you?”
“I’m a travel blogger,” I replied. Upon her blank stare, I continued despite warnings not to talk too much. “They are inviting media outfits from all over the world for the festival. I’m one of the delegates from the Philippines.”
The consul flips through my passport and sees my Myanmar visa. I stifled my groan; I knew I will be asked about Myanmar. “What did you do in Myanmar,” she finally asked.
“I went around the country to Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan.”
“Myanmar is part of my bucket list of places to go before I turned 30.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I have my own business. I write content for websites, design and create blogs.”
“Okay. Your visa is approved,” the consul finally say.
“…” I stare at her, not knowing what to say.
When she saw my eyes flick to my passport, she continued, “we’ll send the passport via courier.”
“Oh wow, thank you!” Screw being formal, I need to express my joy!
Seriously, I think bad passport and visa photos are the norm around here.
It wasn’t until last week that I heard news about my visa. Actually, the day after the interview, I got a call from the embassy that I need to submit a new picture, as the picture I submitted doesn’t meet the guidelines. I had to send it via courier at no additional cost. I felt naked without my passport and kept wondering when it will be returned. An excited call from Niel woke me from my reverie one afternoon. My passport was delivered to their office bearing a new stamp: a 10 year multiple entry visa! Seriously Just Wandering, what would my life be without you?
[UPDATE] The U.S. Embassy Manila often hold a Visa Hour, where their consuls answer visa-related question. Here are two that might answer your questions:
The Visa Hour: Summer Travel Edition (Part 1 of 2)
The Visa Hour: Summer Travel Edition (Part 2 of 2)
There’s also the VISAtisfied Voyager, their official visa blog.