Well, woohoo! I'm told my visa is approved and it will be sent to me in a week, much to my relief.
Yes, it's faceless bureaucracy. The bigger and richer the country is, the more staff they have to employ to deal with the thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of people applying to get in. The purpose of this bureaucracy is not to make life easy for the applicants, it's purely to stop anyone getting in without jumping through the required hoops. If you fail to jump through the hoop, they don't consider it their problem. So they're not big on customer service or being helpful in advance - they expect you to find all the information you need if it's there to be found and to follow any instructions you find to the letter. The staff aren't unpleasant, but their job is to move you through as quickly as possible.
Additionally countries like the US combine this massive processing job with super-intense security. It really is intimidating, from when you start looking into the process until you leave the building, and it's meant to be.
Here's a little guide to what it's like - what to expect, what to worry about, what not to worry about (well, at least in Madrid and if you're applying for a J-visa - see my earlier post - and are privileged in various ways): - a queue, a long queue, particularly first thing in the morning. Don't worry, it moves more quickly than i thought it would. Don't worry if you're a bit late, they're not working on a strict schedule. But also, don't bother turning up particularly early. I had an early morning appointment and the queue was long, but by the time i got out an hour later it was really quite short. - There is actually a reasonably helpful person doing pre-processing of the queue and checking you've got all the required documents - so your appointment time applies more to the queue than to actually getting in the building. - Entering the building is like going through airport security, unsurprisingly. Although i saw people with bags, i didn't see anyone with any drinks - no idea whether that would have been a problem or not. - They'll take your mobile phone away while you're inside. - That said, i think they wouldn't have minded if I'd kept the mini-penknife i was worried about. But if they had, they probably would have just kept it with the phone. - After security, you first enter a waiting room where they check you've got everything you should have and give you a numbered ticket. I didn't realise that when they said 'photograph' in the documentation, they meant 'on photographic paper', not just a printout, which was what i'd brought. It wasn't a problem, there was a photo booth that happily took 5€ off me. Clearly a common error. - you then proceed into the main processing hall, where you will need to be processed at 3 separate windows - the checking-what-kind-of-visa window, the finger-print-taking window and the 'interview' window. - the ticket numbers get taken out of order, depending on which types of visa people are applying for and which window they're waiting to go to. - The thing i was most concerned about was the interview, explaining my trip, justifying how it would fit in the research scholar programme and proving i could fund it. But i think they didn't actually ask me any questions at all - just said 'so you're doing a programme at UMASS' and i said yes. She looked at her screen for a bit and typed some stuff. Then she said 'have you ever had a problem with overstaying?' and i said no. And that was it. Free to go. They didn't want to see any proof of earnings or funds, which was a relief, because I don't actually have them. I didn't show them the letters from Cornerstone saying I'm still paying rent, nor the letter from Footprint confirming I'm on sabbatical and they're paying me a stipend, nor the letter from my mum saying she'll cover me if necessary. It seems J-visa applicants are let off lightly.
So, top tips: - it should go without saying, but really - read everything they send you and look for other information too and do exactly what they tell you to do (and bring other things with you just in case). - if you really have to take a bag, take a carrier or something you can stuff in your pocket, it will be fine. But better just to have good pockets. - don't worry too much - your turn will come and someone will check you out before it does. - don't even bother taking something to read, it all moves quickly enough that you need to keep your eye on the machine for your ticket number - if you're on a J visa and have white/education/non-muslim privilege, don't worry too much about getting grilled at the interview, they basically haven't got time and assume that your sponsoring institution has done all the checks.