The Story of an I Visa

Preparing all the online forms for my I-visa

Preparing all the online forms for my I-visa

by Dale Templar, Series Producer, Human Planet

One of the things that I love about being in the USA is the first morning when I always head out for a full on American breakfast. I adore buttermilk pancakes. There is a game I play which is can you order breakfast without the waitress giving you options. Nothing is simple.  Eggs are cooked and served about 10 ways, pancakes have 5 different fillings, there are at least 3 different sizes of juice, various cuts of bacon… you get the picture. It seems no matter how prepared you are there is always some thing you forget.

This week I went for breakfast at the American embassy in London.  Well actually I went there to get an I-visa, the special 5 year visa you need to work as a media type in America, but I did indeed have breakfast and was nearly there for lunch and dinner too.

It used to be that you could get these visas quite easily but since 9/11 all that’s changed…..

My alarm goes off at 6.30am and by 7.30am I am dropping off all my restricted bags and mobiles at BBC Broadcasting House (BH) in London.  I’d had to stay overnight so it was impossible to get my gear into the one small bag you are allowed to take into the embassy.  All electronic items are banned, so I leave all communication with the office and the outside world behind.  The visa rules state that everyone MUST be at the embassy at 8am to start being processed. 

So there I am now standing in a very long queue outside the building, beside tents filled with hunger strikers.  It starts to rain and of course I’ve left my umbrella at BH.  So I stand in the queue slowly turning into a drowned rat!  Finally, after 2 rain checks (get it!), I’m undercover.  I’ve got as far as the scanning machine.  My bag goes through once and then gets put through again. They discover I have my electronic car keys in the bag which apparently have the potential to be weapons of mass destruction. They also discover my tiny I-phone headphones - good for strangling ants maybe?  So I am sent back into the rain to store them at it a local chemist.

Sometime later I am finally in the building.  More queues, more waiting and I finally get to a counter.  I hand over my standard BBC passport photos, nice, clear, professionally taken pictures, no strange sunglasses or weird head adornments. “Sorry, the background of your photo is grey, we need it to be white!”   So I am sent away and return to the lady with my rather dreadful photo booth picture.  She accepts them and now informs me that I have to wait again to be called up for the final interview.

Time for my American breakfast.  A sad cup of tea and a pre-wrapped muffin.  More waiting and I’m finally called up for the interview.  I’m having a really nice conversation about “Human Planet” and my forthcoming polar bear shoot with the nice man, recently arrived from Arizona.  He scans something and then I get “We are sorry, but some of the applications today are getting stuck somewhere between London and DC, yours seems to be one of them - it’s nothing personal but please can you go back and wait again maam!” At this point I do wonder how we ever got men on the moon.

I sit and wait and a poor Sri Lankan house keeper asks me for help.  Her form will not scan for some reason.  She’s been instructed to start again on the computers they have in the waiting area.  The only trouble is Pauline has never used a computer in her life.  She’s such a precious person.  Both her parents died when she was three and she grew up in a convent.  Her employer had filled out the form and sent her to London for the first time by herself.

This took a while - the computer kept skipping back to the front page, but the conversation somehow transported me into another world.  The form successfully prints and I snap back into the challenge of getting my own I-visa.  I finally take things into my own hands and dare to go to one of the interview booths, without my number being called and plead for mercy.  The man kindly finishes off the process and informs me that unless DC have any problems, which he doubts, my passport will be returned to me with an I-visa in about three days. THE END (I HOPE).  GOD BLESS AMERICA!

The next day I am informed that we may move the story to Canada rather than Alaska!

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