I previously wrote about how I did not look forward to having my passport renewed. I did so, anyway, and much earlier than I expected. Here's why.
I got scheduled for a trip to the US, but it fell within six months before my passport's expiration. I might not be allowed to travel when I go to what is perhaps one of the things I looked forward to the least -- falling in line to apply for a visa at the US Embassy in Manila.
I've already applied for other visas and would not hesitate to reapply given the need. But I've always thought it wouldn't be a loss nor would I ever feel unfulfilled if I end up never setting foot anywhere in the US. (Un)fortunately, an good opportunity to do so arose. It was hard to pass up. So, yes, I had my passport renewed early just for this.
August 22 -- The first stage of the process was strange. The online application consisted mainly of the DS-160 -- easily the most exhaustive visa application form I'd ever seen so far (it's worth seven pages when you print it). It took me a while to finish. The first dilemma came when I had to declare whether or not I had been to the US in the past. I'd make it easier for myself and say no, but that wouldn't be true. I was barely a year old and hardly remember anything from that time, but my family lived in Indiana for a while when my dad was taking his PhD. I didn't want to be accused of lying in case they actually still have my old visa on record. The problem was I had very little idea how long I stayed exactly. I had to ask my dad, who didn't remember either. It was a good thing he didn't throw my old passport away. I had to dig deep into the old documents in storage, but I found it. When I checked, the visa was so old it didn't have the 10 digit number that is standard today. The DS160 did not accept the number, anyway. It felt like a waste of time, but I figure I'd just bring the old passport with me at the embassy, just in case.
With the DS-160 finally accomplished and confirmed, the next thing to do was pay for the processing fee. A hundred and sixty US Dollars is steep, but what choice do I have, no? I opted to pay online. I love BPI's online banking, but payment does not register immediately in the embassy's system. I was worried, as I was paying in the midst of a typhoon and there was an upcoming holiday. One banking day may as well be one week in reality.
What made this bad news was the set of appointment dates that were available to me. According to the system, the earliest date for an appointment was October 18. I had to fly on the 19th. I promptly told my colleagues they may have to travel without me. Still, I was advised to keep checking. While I felt like it was fine if I wasn't going to be able to go, I did check regularly. It surprisingly paid off. By August 29, new appointment slots suddenly opened for September 5 and 6. I got myself signed up for the 6th at 6:30AM
September 6 -- The drive from Los Baños to Manila was quick, as expected, being so early. I made it outside the premises and found a parking slot nearby across Roxas Boulevard at 6:00AM. By the parking lot and around the overpass, there were lots of vendors, selling pens and offering storage of electronic devices. Even USB flash drives weren't allowed in the embassy. But I already knew that. I made sure my bag only contained my documents, a notebook and two pens. Everything else, I left in the car.
The lines were already long, by the time I joined it. It was thankfully still cool and it wasn't raining. I can only imagine how much worse it is for those who have to endure both conditions later in the day. Fortunately for everyone, the queue moved at a quick pace. Soon enough, I was ushered inside the building. The queue was unsurprisingly long, filling a large area to capacity. But I have to commend the personnel at the embassy for their efficiency and ability to keep things in order.
The application itself is a three-stage process that involves getting a biometric scan, verifying your documents and the actual interview. The online application stage explicitly states that I do not bring any other additional documents that is not mentioned in their checklist. It even said not to print the DS-160. I did so, anyway (in typical Filipino segurista fashion). Needless to say, that was a waste of paper and printer ink.
It was during the verification step that I asked if my going to the US as a baby count. I showed the old passport to the person going over my stuff. I don't remember getting a clear answer from her. She barely looked at it and told me it's ok or something.
The final stage involved the interview conducted by Americans. As I waited, I couldn't help but observe the row of windows manned by the interview officers. Each one handled interviews differently. Among those that I could see, there was a dour older guy, a no-nonsense guy that probably wasn't that much older than me, and there was the affable lady that was all-smiles. I ended up in front of a no-nonsense guy. The interview went something like this:
Officer: How are you today?
Me: A little anxious, to be honest...
Officer: What do you do?
Me: I teach at the University of the Philippines
Officer: What'll you be going for? (I couldn't hear him clearly.)
Me: ... I'm sorry?
Officer: Where'll you be going?
Me: Oh, I'll be attending a conference in Las Vegas.
Officer: What's it about?
Me: It's a conference on e-Learning.
Officer: How long will you be there?
Me: Two or three days, then I'll head to San Francisco for four days, if I can.
Officer: [Looks over my documents one last time, and then...] Ok, we'll just send your passport back to you after a week or so... Good day.
That was quick...
I wrote down the times. I was led inside the embassy at 6:18AM. I got out at 8:07AM. By 8:30AM, I was enjoying a mug of coffee at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shop across the street. The anxiety was gone.
I received my passport with a 10-year multiple entry B1/B2 US visa within five days. Everything eventually went as planned. It's going to be a while before I will have to go back in there to have my visa renewed. But when that time comes, I don't think I will be anywhere as apprehensive as I was during this first application. It wasn't the easiest process I've ever experienced, but it sure wasn't nearly as hard as I first imagined.