Being a South African is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to international travel. While my Singaporean friends can visit the USA and Canada without needing a visa, I cannot. These past few weeks have been spent trying to get one.
First of all I had to pay a SGD208 non-refundable application fee. But not just anywhere, at Standard Chartered Bank. Our closest SCB is a pokey office in Holland Village. It is convenient, but not recommended.
I went one rainy afternoon, but when I realized the queue would necessitate me getting wet, I left. I returned the next sunny morning, getting there a few minutes after the doors opened. I took a number – it was 245 or something. Don’t exactly recall, but what I do recall was that the current number being called was “3”.
I asked the receptionist, a smirky 18 year old who had not yet learned to smile, if it was a long wait. She said that the numbers did not go in order, but that, yes, of course it would be a long wait.
She was unfriendly but right – it was a loooong wait. There was nowhere to sit. In fact there was nowhere to stand, other than in the entrance area, blocking the comings and goings of other customers, and enduring the smirks of the child-receptionist.
A security guard with impressive looking guns patrolled up and down the cramped passage, glaring menacingly at suspicious looking customers, and touching his guns lovingly from time to time.
After about an hour, two elderly gentlemen – who had managed to secure themselves seats in an empty booth – started complaining that they had to “sit and wait” for such a long time. I told them that at least they could “sit” and wait. The receptionist looked at me, shook her head, “tsk tsked” and turned to other more important matters.
Eventually my number was called. Alas, the armed guard was blocking my path, with his back to me. I asked him to move, but he did not hear (how is that even possible?). When they started calling the number after mine, I panicked and pushed past the guard risking my very life. I slammed my money and papers on the counter, and in less than 5 seconds had completed my transaction.
Back home again, it was time to complete an online application form, B160. This was tedious and it seemed that most questions were entirely irrelevant. But that’s okay; I want to go to their country so they can ask me whatever they like.
Form verified and submitted, next step was to set up a date for my interview online. To do this, I needed to use the form I had just submitted, but it was no longer available to me. I ended up having to call the embassy and set it up telephonically. That took about 45 minutes. I was asked if I was any relation to “Trish Bekker”. I said, “yes, I am her”, but the guy just seemed confused. Maybe there’s a famous Trish Bekker out there, and I’m not her.
But I digress.
My interview was scheduled for 07h45, Monday morning. I got there at 07h45 on the dot because I had been instructed not to get there early. Strangely enough there was a queue of about 50 people in front of me, waiting outside the embassy. Thinking I needed to get to my 07h45 appointment on time, I approached the security guard who told me all these people had 07h45 appointments and some had already gone into the embassy.
I waited in the queue. We were called in groups of five to be checked by security.
I had read up on how to prepare for this interview – they said not to bring any electronic devices. I was happily without my iPhone and iPad. All the others had to part with their devices. You could see the anxiety in their eyes. Ha ha. Not me, I don’t need these devices. I’m living without Facebook. I can conquer the world.
I got through the first security point. And onto… the second security point. Because I guess – despite the fort-like attitude, style and appearance of the embassy, the armed guards and X-ray checks and scanners – someone, somehow could have smuggled in or been handed a phone, a Kindle, or maybe even a catapult after the first security check-point.
Then I had to take a number: 728. They were calling 004.
I waited and waited. Not missing my phone. Or my iPad. Not at all. Two counters of the 8 were open for business. Business was s-l-o-w. Eventually I was called, had my forms verified, and was told to wait until my number was called again so I could do finger-printing. At this point an announcement was made:
“Welcome to the University of …. Ooops, I mean the Embassy of the United States of America. Sorry guys, its Monday morning!”
The announcer went on to explain the process in great detail. I’d completed step 1 and was waiting for 2 (finger printing). After that, I’d have my interview.
While waiting for finger printing I listened in on the people having interviews. Just to prepare myself. Besides: no iPad/iPhone. When there is no technology, one has to entertain oneself by watching life.
What are your attachments to Singapore? Are you going to join your brother in the States? How many college friends do you have living in America? What else can you tell me to convince me you won’t stay longer? Your visa will be approved, but I am warning you, you cannot stay longer than we’ve given you. Sorry, you will not be getting a visa today.
After some time I was called for my finger-printing. I was given a list of instructions to follow in the event that my visa might be approved. We’d been told that we must read that before our interview so that we would not ask silly questions and waste time. I glanced up and saw that my number was being called. Whaaaat?! I was expecting at least a half hour wait, but no, that was my number and I hadn’t even read the instructions.
Interviewer: Why are you going to America?
Me: For a holiday
Interviewer: I see you are travelling with your husband. What nationality is he?
Me: South African
Interviewer: Does he have a visa already?
Interviewer: OK. Your visa has been approved. You can collect it in 3 days.
Six days later I was contacted and told to collect my passport, with the visa in it, at an address in Changi. Changi!? It’s an hour and a half away. The Embassy is a 5 minute walk from where we live! I asked if I could please collect it from somewhere closer, but no, hadn’t I read the instructions? Any changes to collection option must be made by 12 noon on the day of the interview.
So I took the day off to travel to Changi and back, and now I have a fancy-pancy 10-year USA visa.
It only took me about 7 hours of queuing, 3 hours of online form filling, 1 hour of uploading photos, 5 hours of travelling, 45 minutes of telephonic conversations, 6 days of waiting, and 3 seconds of interviewing, to get it.
The Canadian visa should be a piece of cake.