On applying for a US visa from Delhi

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-08-22

Speaking of renewing passports and the horrors of international travel, 1999 was also the last time I applied for a US visa (and, I hope, the last time I'll ever need to).

On that occasion, I queued up at dawn (behind a hundred-odd people!) and was denied a visa many hours later because I didn't have "strong enough ties" to my country. When I needed to travel to Europe some years later, most embassies took one look at the US "application received" stamp in my passport and matched it with one of their own ("application received" sounds innocuous, but it might as well say "VISA FAIL"). It took a long time to get that sorted out.

Things have changed a lot since then. Hassath, who wanted to attend the Grace Hopper Conference this year, investigated the process. A few years ago, the embassy outsourced the initial paperwork, which is now done online. The dawn queue is also gone: the web site displays an appointment schedule, and you can book a convenient free slot and turn up at the embassy at that time. But one of the biggest changes is in the handling of the application fee.

When I applied, the non-refundable visa application fee was some INR1200 (about USD25). Now the fee is USD131 at the "consular exchange rate" of INR50/USD (which conveniently favours the USD by about INR3/USD), which makes it INR6550. That is a substantial portion (>70%) of a month's rent for us. If money is important to you, as travel.state.gov casually puts it, you will be happy to learn that

Nonimmigrant visa fees are based on "reciprocity," (what another country charges a United States citizen for a similar-type of visa). The United States strives to eliminate visa issuance fees whenever possible; […but…] you need to understand the distinction between a visa "issuance" fee and a visa "application" fee. Most non-diplomatic and non-official visas issued by United States consular officers abroad require a visa "application" (machine-readable visa - MRV) fee that recovers for the United States the costs associated with manufacturing, processing, and printing the visa. The current visa "application" fee is $131.00.

I had to pay the fee by demand draft at the embassy, but now one has to pay it (plus the INR374 service charge for VFS, the company that handles the online application process) at any of about a dozen select branches of the HDFC bank and obtain a receipt before you can book an appointment online. If you find that no appointments are available before you travel, you lose the money. If you misplace the receipt, you lose the money. If you manage to apply and are denied a visa, you lose the money (but perhaps the distinction between "issuance" and "application" fees will be a source of comfort, if money is important to you).

You still need to produce scads of personal and financial information (for example, tax returns and bank statements for the past few years), of course, but much more thought has been put into the rules for the visa photo. "Passport-sized" used to be a sufficient description, but now there is a special size (larger than anyone else asks for), and a number of rules to spell out what is expected of the background, foreground, clothing, and direction of the applicant's gaze. Everyone is fingerprinted these days, so you are also instructed to arrive for your appointment with clean hands.

For people who are refused a visa, the embassy now has this helpful page that begins with the heart-wrenching tale of Sanjay and Anil—friends who will not see each other because one could not obtain a visa to visit the US. It has soothing answers to a number of questions the distressed applicant may have.

Q. Why is there a visa requirement?
A. The U.S. is an open society. […]
Our immigration law requires consular officers to view every visa applicant as an intending immigrant until the applicant proves otherwise.

Ten years ago, the Consular Officer helpfully told me at the end of my visa interview that I would have to wait three days before I could apply again, but I have somehow contained my enthusiasm to reapply ever since. Based on the current application process, I think I can hold out a while longer.