So when they say 'get your visa well in advance'...
December 25, 2017
Back in January 2017, I hit on the brilliant plan of getting a 'J' visa - for people on exchange programmes, eg Summer Camp workers, students, research scholars, etc. I thought the 'specialist' category would fit me - up to a year, able to work for cash, go in and out of the US, no restrictions on arriving by boat. There's a list of 'designated sponsor' institutions for each category of J-visa, for the most part the big universities. So I spent the next few months trying to find myself a sponsor, with various friends doing their best to help. Finally, in early September, Jonathan Jenner at the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Enterprise Collaborative came to my rescue. Despite dire warnings that no university would be bothered with it, this was going to work out for me!
He asked around in the departments found out who had to sign what and by early October he got me through to the right people. I was starting to get a little nervous by this time - I hoped to have the necessary paperwork sorted before leaving the country on 23rd October. Mid-October he said he'd know soon what I needed to send and what UMass needed to provide and by 18th Oct form-filling was happening.
OK, so I'd have to get the visa while in Barcelona, which was due to be 5-6 weeks, no problem. I wanted to leave Barcelona for the coast to look for crew opportunities around early December - when the vast majority of boats are heading to the Canaries and thence across the Atlantic. And I'd suggested a 'course start' date of 10 Jan, which gave a couple of weeks arrival leeway either side.
1st November I got set up on the Dept for Homeland Security's SEVIS (Student & Exchange Visitor Information System), with a link for me to fill in the information. But wait! They'd set me up as a 'research scholar', not a 'specialist' - cue email: oops, please change it!
12 November reply, no that's fine, go right ahead.
22 November – after receiving various replies, form submitted, whoop!
Right, shouldn’t take long for visa docs to arrive, i’ll start approaching boats that look good on crewbay and findacrew, ‘cos I reckon i’ll be able to leave round mid-December. Well, maybe i’ll just look for now, don’t wanna muck anyone around.
28 November – email, hi guys, I haven’t heard anything, all OK? My hero, Nancy Condon, starts sending emails around
4 December – department replies that they haven’t received my Certificate of English Proficiency. Qué?! I’ve never had it. I prod relevant person. Nancy says she’ll process it as soon as she gets it and I should have docs within a week thereafter.
6 December – it shouldn’t be long now, I contact a couple of skippers. 12 December, get a reply saying they’re delivering a brand new 60’ Catamaran from La Rochelle to Miami early Jan – OMG PERFECT!! Then a day later that they’re sailing at Christmas. Aaagh. Seems pretty tight that i’ll get it in time for that, but I stay in touch with them.
Fri 15 December – finally, confirmation that Certificate of English Proficiency has been sent and the J application is complete and that I’ll get my UPS tracking number emailed. I tell Nancy we should change the start date on my course to 20 Feb. Chatting with Nancy, she says all I have to do is take the docs to a consulate to get them processed.
Mon 18 December – Spend the day sailing, yay! Stephane the sailor doesn’t like the face of the La Rochelle skipper. Oh dear, should I be worried? His resume is amazing – dozens of transatlantic deliveries and this boat is big and new and comfortable. Is it just too good to be true?
Get home - UPS email confirming tracking number on my visa docs, due to arrive Wed 20 in Leeds – LEEDS?!! OMG. Email Nancy and ask for replacement to be sent to Barcelona ASAP. Blimey, well then I might have to go to La Rochelle on Thu or Fri to catch them – i’d better book an appointment at the consulate for Thursday, as docs won’t arrive before then.
So, it’s the evening of Monday 18th when I discover that you can’t just go to any consulate, only the embassies deal with visas – that means Madrid or Paris. But Nancy seemed so sure – maybe it’s just not true for J visas. I hold on to this slim chance. It might be possible to get my Leeds housemates to send the first lot of documents to Toulouse, where there’s a consulate, so I can be half-way to La Rochelle. I ask friends for contacts in Toulouse that I might be able to stay with.
Wednesday 20th, I start trying to make an appointment at the consulate in the morning. It’s Kafkaesque. The website says you can talk to someone on the helpline. The helpline only lets you through once you have a DS-160 number. What even is that? I don’t need it do I? There isn’t any way to ask questions that will definitely get answered (like – is it ok to arrive by boat with a J-visa?) - they say they’ll only answer questions that aren’t covered online. So if you can’t find the info you’re looking for, you can email a question, but you might never get a reply if they decide you could have found the information another way.
As I wade through the endless dead ends of information, it slowly dawns on me that what the University of Massachusetts is actually sending me is a Certificate of Eligibility for a J-Visa and that I haven’t actually even started the visa process yet. And I can’t make an appointment until I have submitted my visa application. And that appointment is definitely not going to be in Barcelona or Toulouse. I knuckle down to form-filling
It takes me nearly two hours to get a photo with a plain white background, no shadows on my face, correct skin colour and correct size of head in the correct place on the correct size of photograph at the correct resolution. Good thing i’ve got photo-editing skills, 20 years at Footprint not wasted.
My housemates in Leeds are watching the front door and pick up the docs as they’re delivered. They photograph them for me and then rush to town to spend £45 on couriering them to me next day delivery.
I skype the La Rochelle skipper – he’s leaving La Rochelle Friday 22nd, stopping off in North Spain, then at the Canaries, before the crossing. Maybe I can catch up with the boat later on?
Visa application (DS-160) wants to know where to send my passport once it’s been visa stamped after my interview. It might take anywhere between a week and 2 months to get to me. Well then, that’s that.
Erm… shall I wait for my passport in the Canaries (still officially Spain) or Cadiz? Or Malaga where I have a potential host? They will do fast-track emergency visas, but ‘not planning ahead’ is explicitly ruled out as an emergency. Doh. Which means I’m definitely going to have to wait somewhere. They also want a $180 SEVIS fee and a $160 visa application fee.
I see that the first possible interview date is 2nd Jan. I briefly look up BlaBlaCar options to Madrid on 1st Jan and decide to go to bed, form unsubmitted, leaving the decision of where to move to til tomorrow, when I can think more clearly. The main thing I know as I’m going to bed is that i’m not going to catch that Miami boat. So I might as well relax and make Christmas and New Year plans.
After a lovely day at the Vidalia housing project site, which will appear in another post, I submitted my DS-160 and got an appointment date for 4th January in Madrid, choosing Cadiz as my next destination.
I imagine I’ll be spending a couple of weeks or more walking the docks and hanging out in bars to get a lift to the Gran Canaria and then the same again for the transatlantic hop, and it’s entirely possible I won’t arrive in the US until March.
But wait! A glimmer of hope yesterday, with an email from the La Rochelle skipper saying his mate is leaving for Miami in early January – the race is on again!