Yesterday I collected my passport from a courier in Central London – the passport that contains a new B1/B2 visa to the United States of America. Nothing remarkable there except that in my (relatively recent) past I have a serious criminal conviction. Its one for violence, that belies my otherwise law-abiding life and indeed, the kind of person I am.

I could regale you with the details of the offence, the circumstances in which it occurred, an explanation to mitigate my actions but, for the purposes of this article, there is no point because, whatever my views were or are on the matter, I was convicted and I went to prison. Written down, in black and white it looks bad.  It was bad.

I left prison (to my surprise, a very positive experience) and got on with my life. I rebuilt my relationship with my children, got a job, got married, had more children and my conviction became a distant memory, largely forgotten. Right up until the time we were invited to visit America to get to know a business client better. I knew that I wouldn’t be eligible for the visa waiver programme (ESTA) but, with seven years having passed since I went to prison, I was hopeful that I could convince the US Immigration Department that I posed no risk in spite of my crime falling well inside the category of one of “moral turpitude”.

Moral turpitude is a term that doesn’t seem to have an exact meaning. It was first used in American immigration law in the 19th century and as such some of the language associated with its description is possibly not what we would use nowadays: words like “depravity” for example I would argue have a stronger meaning today.

First time around

But, back to me. I had my interview at the US Embassy in London. I talked about the offence, the circumstances surrounding it, my current life, why we wanted to visit America, everything I was asked, I answered. I was told by the nice lady that interviewed me that she was recommending me for a visa but that the ultimate decision would be made by Homeland Security and that it would be a number of months before I would hear anything because of a large backlog of applications. I was buoyed, I thought it was a done deal. My family and friends agreed – of course they would grant me a visa because I’d never been in trouble before or since the offence, I was a family person, a company director and many years had passed.

Oh dear!! When the letter finally came I had to collect it from the local delivery office. I didn’t know what I was getting or where it had come from, only that there was insufficient postage to cover the delivery and I had to pay to collect it. I opened it in the car and promptly burst into tears. Homeland Security had rejected my application but didn’t tell me why. The added pain of having to pay extra after all the costs involved in the process just to pick up the letter they hadn’t stamped or franked was too much to bear, silly though it now seems. We went to Devon that summer instead and I forgot about it for a while. “I didn’t really want to go anyway” became my mantra.

If at first you don’t succeed….

After a couple of years I decided to reapply. I didn’t know the reason for having been turned down, other than the obvious, and felt that enough time had passed for it not to be a complete waste of time or money. If they turned me down this time I would know that there wasn’t much point in trying again, my offence was just too serious and while it’s now officially spent in this country thanks to changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 2014, it must always be disclosed to US Immigration.

A few things had changed since I last applied but, you still need to “furnish” the embassy with the same documents and pay much the same amount of money. Most of it can however be done online now, making it all a lot easier (and also meaning you are informed of decisions via email, not post).

It’s important to remember that the process can be a long one. You can wait several weeks for an embassy interview and the decision can take six months or more. I’d strongly advise against making any travel plans until such time as the decision has been made.  The documents you need to take along are:-

  • Your current passport, which must be valid for at least 6 months beyond when you want to stay in the US
  • An ACRO Police Certificate
  • A VCU-1 form which must be filled in online and printed out
  • The interview confirmation page
  • The DS-160 confirmation page
  • A passport photograph

I made sure I’d received my Police Certificate back and had passport photographs done before I started filling in any of the other forms but once I had them I filled in the DS-160, the VCU-1 and made my appointment all at the same time. My appointment was in the summer, about 4 weeks from the date I applied. I could have had an earlier appointment but I was away on holiday. I don’t know when the busiest times are but I suspect that from around May it might be busier as people realise they need to get organised for the summer.

Going to the interview at the Embassy

My experience of the interview was much the same as before. However, in the three years since I’d last applied the embassy has relaxed the rules about what you can take in with you. Last time you weren’t allowed any electronic devices at all but now you can take your mobile phone, e-reader or tablet, but not laptops or tablet keyboards and no large bags, suitcases or weapons. I arrived more than half an hour before my 8.00am appointment and was quite alarmed that there was already a large queue outside. Fortunately, the staff sorted people based on their appointment time and the line moved quickly. I whiled away the time by trying not to stare at the actor I recognised ahead of me because he was shorter (and okay, a little fuller figured) than I’d thought. Within 15 minutes I was inside, had been given my number and now just had to wait until I was called.

This is where you need to keep your wits about. There are several different kinds of numbers and although each category number is called sequentially, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of order as to which window calls which kind of category. Or when. I’d taken my Kindle with me but I really struggled to concentrate on what I was reading because I was worried about missing my number (they do give you more than one chance if you miss it). I updated Facebook, no one had heard of the actor I’d seen, or rather they just didn’t know what his name was. I sent pointless text messages to my husband, fidgeted and people watched. I saw another actor, one that people had heard of this time. I needed the loo as well but I didn’t dare to go until the interview was over, I didn’t want to miss it.

After 45 minutes or so I was called to a window to hand over my documents and have my fingerprints taken. I then returned to the waiting area to wait for my interview, still needing the loo, still unable to concentrate on my book.

I didn’t have to wait too much longer before I was called for the interview, to the same window as the one I’d been to three years previously. I saw that as a bad sign, though logic tells me now that they probably send all the people in my situation there. I was asked similar questions to before, the lady was very sympathetic and said she was going to recommend me as they’d said before. She was able to tell me that I had been refused before because it was deemed “too soon“. This had been seven years after my conviction and as we were only three years further on, the lady told me that I should be prepared for a further refusal. I left the embassy after an hour and a half, glad it was over but not at all hopeful of obtaining a visa.

I was told the decision process would take around six months. A couple of weeks before the six months were up, I received the email I wasn’t expecting – one asking me to submit my passport for visa issuance. Naturally I sent it off by special delivery within an hour of receiving the email because I didn’t want to give them the chance of changing their minds.

I had long since accepted that my chances were slim, regardless of the kind of person I feel I really am. My offence was very serious and ten years isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things.  However, don’t be put off, even if less time has passed since your conviction, whatever it was for. The embassy assess each application individually based on a number of criteria so you really can’t predict the outcome. If you are refused, you can apply again. There are no time restrictions so you could technically start the process again right away – bear in mind that the same costs apply each time and they are far from insignificant.

Now that I have my one year’s visa in my passport I’m already wondering what the renewal process is going to be like. I believe I just have to apply again, the same as before so I won’t worry about it for another six months. My main concern at present is whether I can justify the ludicrous amount of money its going to cost to fly a family of seven all the way to Los Angeles this summer!!!

By Stacey (name changed to protect identity)

 

Useful links

  • Comment – Let us know your thoughts on this post by commenting below
  • Information – We have practical self-help information on travelling to the USA for people with convictions on our Information Hub.
  • Discuss this issue – There are some interesting discussions related to this from people with convictions on our online forum