Having done a huge amount of research, Will was reasonably optimistic that travelling to the US Embassy in Belfast would improve his chances of getting a visa.
Last year I visited the US Embassy in Belfast to apply for a US holiday visa. Because of the work I do, I couldn’t afford to take the risk of lying on the online ESTA form but I’d read that my chances of getting a visa would be better in Ireland rather than in London.
The reason I’m not eligible to travel via an ESTA is that a few years ago, I was cautioned for possession of Class A drugs. It’s the only blot on my criminal record but I know the US are very strict about drug offences.
I’d read as much as possible beforehand and my impression was that I was likely to have the visa refused there and then but that I would be recommended for a ‘waiver of inadmissibility’ which would take several months to process but which would ultimately be approved. For this reason I made no travel arrangements in advance but was hoping to book a holiday once the visa was granted.
Visiting the embassy was a horrible experience. You’re not allowed to take your phone into the waiting room with you, and you have to sit in the room for (in my case) hours before being seen. There was no clock on the wall and no obvious order regulating who was seen first. I was seen last of everyone, even though I definitely didn’t arrive last – I was actually an hour early for my appointment.
When I was eventually seen, I had to go into a private room to speak to the immigration officer. Weirdly, he stands behind a glass screen (as though you’re cashing a cheque at the bank) and you stand in front of him as there are no seats. He has all your documents in front of him and asks you a few questions about your offence. It feels like he’s trying to catch you out and it was pretty nerve wracking.
As expected, he told me that he would not be granting me a visa. He gave me a short spiel about how old the US drug laws are etc and said there is a waiver available for my offence but – and this was the bombshell – he was not going to recommend me for it on this occasion, as the offence was too recent (it had happened just over 2 years before). He said that he couldn’t tell me exactly how long I should wait to reapply, but maybe 5 years from the date of the offence, and even then I may have to undertake some sort of medical examination.
As a result of my experiences, I thought it was important to write this article so that people are aware that you might be refused a visa if you apply to the embassy in Belfast. If I’d read this story before I applied, I wouldn’t have applied – I’d only seen positive accounts online which lulled me into a false sense of optimism. It wasn’t cheap to travel from England to Belfast for three days and there were also the costs of the police certificate together with the visa fees.
So heads up to others, if you’ve got drugs related offences, perhaps wait to apply until there’s been 5 years since the date of your offence. This probably doesn’t apply to you if your offence was not drug related or if your drug offence was for a less serious class of drug.
I’d still like to travel to the US for a holiday one day and I’d be interested to know if anyone that’s been rejected has then gone on to successfully reapply.
By Will (name changed to protect identity)