Survival Tips: A Visit to the US Embassy

Every day I speak with clients and would-be clients alike.

Though the details vary, fundamentally we’re always talking about one thing. Risk.

  • Risk of not meeting an eligibility requirement;
  • Risk of waiting too long and missing one's chance;
  • Risk of immigration rules changing (here's a recent example of that particular risk);
  • Risk of missing a trick on a crucial form, of failing to present and prove one’s case convincingly enough to be granted a visa, or of missing any one of hundreds of hidden issues, lying in wait for the unwary visa applicant.

Successfully managing risk is perhaps the single most important task of any client advocate.

A few weeks ago, the shoe was on the other foot: it was my turn to play client.

From that experience, here is another risk to add to the list:

  • Risk of causing one’s own mental breakdown, and/or heart attack.

In anticipation of a trip to the States, I needed my US Passport renewed, and to apply for first passports for each of my boys. That in turn required a visit, in person, to the US Embassy in London.

Easy peasy, right? No sweat. I’m a professional! I do this every day! I eat immigration officers for lunch!

I am unafraid to tell you: I was a nervous wreck.

At one point, standing at the window speaking to the US consular officer, I was distracted by a tapping noise. I looked down to see my hand, involuntarily tapping the edge of my driver’s license on the desk: I was shaking like a leaf.

This was after not having slept much the night before, checking and re-checking the documents, printing and – hmm, is that dark enough? -- re-printing the forms, and basically doing my best impression of an obsessive compulsive insomniac.

Lessons learned? Here’s the list:

1.    Do NOT underestimate the project.

To be fair, my project was just a passport renewal, and applying for my children’s passports was a technicality: a garden-variety hoop-jumping exercise. Certainly not a project most people would dream of hiring professional help to sort out.

So, my example starts with the easiest passport applications in the book. But even with these simplest of applications, there were lessons to be learned.

Having lived in the UK for 15 years, digging out evidence that I had lived in the US (ever!) was touch and go.  Then, digging through boxes in the loft, I got lucky: a few years back, my mum had sent me a wodge of papers she had found in clearing out her loft space, and out of guilt of disinterest, I had unceremoniously dumped them into ours, instead of binning it all immediately. It turns out those papers included my high school transcripts, and a few other bits of personal history in certificate form. (Thanks, Mum!).

Applying for permanent residency is an order of magnitude more complicated, and far more evidence intensive. If one of my clients had presented that sorry pile of torn and crumpled papers, I would have told them to go back to their loft – or their mum’s loft, if need be.

At the US Embassy I remained genuinely concerned I did not have enough evidence, that I had underestimated the project, and that as a result I had courted an unnecessary risk that my application might have been found wanting. Unlike other less well-legally-versed applicants, I knew it, and I didn’t have any excuses.

I was sweating bullets.

2.   “A man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

Guilty as charged. See item (1) above. 

Again, mine was not a complicated application. It hardly even rises to the challenge of providing a good example!

Nonetheless, the experience put me in my clients’ shoes, and reminded me of how difficult it is at the outset to fully appreciate the complexity of the project, the level of detail involved, the standards the evidence presented will be judged against, the effort it takes to succeed, and in general the many unexpected turns these cases can take.

But I would offer the following by way of perspective.

A permanent residency visa application requires you to approach a foreign government, which owes you nothing, to ask they grant you, and your family, civil and criminal legal protections, educational services for your children, health care benefits, and in sum the right to enjoy as your own virtually all of the rights and privileges that attend citizenship (which may also be part of the deal).

Those are some seriously valuable benefits, especially when offered by jurisdictions like Canada or Australia. Life-changingly valuable. Arguably, a permanent residency visa is the most valuable package of benefits you are ever apt to receive in your lifetime.  So it is a high stakes proposition for any applicant.

Would you really want to take that on as a DIY project?

3.   Handle with care: visa applications are like tax forms on steroids.

Not only is permanent residency valuable, it is taken deadly seriously by the immigration officers reviewing your application.

If you need a reminder of how seriously, have a wander through Grosvenor Square next time you’re in London, and take a look at the security guarding the US Embassy (at least the bits that are visible). 

These folks are border guards, pure and simple. 

If you can’t prove you fit the legal requirements – their legal requirements – to pass through those gates. . . walk on.

Here’s another analogy that might offer some perspective.  Anyone who has had any dealings with HMRC, or DWP, will know that the forms they send you are not to be taken lightly. What’s worse, even their mistakes end up as your problem (ever been overpaid? Nightmare).

Visa applications are just as information intensive, and accuracy and detail are critical.

And with taxes, most of us, most of the time, do NOT expect to be audited. By contrast, visa applications by their very nature are your invitation to a government agency to audit every corner of your life – and not just your tax situation.

Criminal records. Medical records. Career details. Tax forms. Pay sheets. Divorce papers. You name it, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked for it. And even if they don’t, they can.

4.    Take it from the Scouts: Be Prepared.

That may sound pretty obvious, but it is painfully easy to get the obvious wrong.

Perhaps this is a corollary to the rule about not representing yourself: you’re not your own best friend when it comes to double checking your own work. Or, for that matter, checking you have chosen the correct strategy at the outset, before you’ve already sunk time and cost into the project.

Equally, this fits under the heading “don’t underestimate the project” heading: the details may seem banal, but execution is everything.

But there’s another lesson here, which is this: while some mistakes can be rectified, the cost, and personal expense in terms of sheer disappointment, upset and stress, are not ones you would welcome into your life voluntarily.  

So get it right the first time.

As for me, my anxiety was undoubtedly heightened by my awareness of the risks. But apparently I didn’t flub any of my answers, either on paper or in person. All of our passports arrived via courier right on schedule. 

If you'd like to share your experiences, or are looking for assistance with an impending consular visit or visa applications, we'd be pleased to hear from you. 

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