Visa interviews are generally very daunting for those who are applying to visit any country for the first time. The fear that you may get rejected engulfs you so badly that a person tends to be well prepared for everything they might encounter.

I am usually very casual in almost everything and therefore was casual at the Visa interview as well. Therefore, I had to go through some pain in getting things right. Here, I am going to give you some insight on the mistakes that I made and the information that’s not there on the Visa website for the first-timers going for the Visa interview in Karachi.

Since I had applied for a non-immigrant Visa therefore the article will be limited to discussing that specific case. To be specific, my research paper got accepted in the “IEEE co-technically sponsored Future Technologies conference FTC 2016” in San Francisco, USA titled “Comparative Analysis of Vehicle Detection in Urban Traffic Environment using Haar Cascaded Classifiers & Blob Statistics” which is going to be held on 6-7th December, 2016. I got an invitation letter from the conference organizers and therefore had to go to the conference and present it.

Everything can be done Online

The first step in applying for the Visa interview is to make a user account on http://www.ustraveldocs.com/pk. The second step is to fill the DS-160 form that you can find online at https://ceac.state.gov/genniv/. The DS-160 form is a detailed form which should be filled individually by each candidate applying. Secondly, if you are applying for the second time, you need to fill a DS-160 form for each time. Once the DS-160 form is complete, you get a confirmation letter of DS-160 form which you need to print and present at the US Consulate. It is a mandatory requirement.

Once the DS-160 form is filled, you need to login from the same website i.e. http://www.ustraveldocs.com/pk and schedule an interview. The interview can only be scheduled once you submit the fees for the interview. While scheduling the interview, you will get a printable slip of Visa Fees invoice which you can print and submit the fees in any branch of Allied Bank. You will get a slip number from the bank which you can slot in the Visa schedule section, select a suitable date and time for interview, and there you go. You have successfully scheduled an interview.

Finding the Consulate

Okay this was one tough job. On the google map, it says to cross the PIDC signal, then a bridge and then just before the start of the second bridge, the US Consulate is on your left. Great work, you have found the Consulate. Now, from where to enter it? Where to park the car? Good questions. Don’t worry you will get no signboard or any kind of indications. The first time I went there, I was roaming around the Consulate, looking at every gate which was actually closed, asking the people on the road and trying to find my way in.

When you are coming straight from the PIDC signal, you cross the first bridge then just before the second bridge, you need to turn left. You can park your car at the opposite side of the Consulate. It is actually a school’s parking area where some volunteers will help you park the car and charge you 50 Rupees. Then you cross the road and at the corner is the entrance to the Consulate.

The document pre-requisites

You should have your passport which should be valid for at least 6 months, the DS-160 form printed with you along with the Visa interview confirmation page as well as 1 recent photo of yours. The good thing is that there is no requirement of any other documents like your educational certificates or job certificates and all.

Other things which are required for a visit at a technical conference in the U.S include the letter of invitation for the conference, the funding application for the conference, where will the person be staying and how long is their visit scheduled to be.

Entering the Consulate

When you reach the gate of the Consulate, there is a very congested area where you are required to show your passport, your confirmation letter and the DS-160 form. They will examine your body with the hand held machine and clear you for the next spot.

After this, a large black metallic door will be opened for you and you can formally enter the consulate. There is a line to check the same thing again but this time they have a computer generated list of candidates coming for interview. They confirm your presence by cross checking your confirmation page with their computer generated list of candidates and let you go into the security clearance area. But let me hold here a bit and discuss the disappointment you can feel at this stage. It’s an open area where half of the portion is mostly exposed to sunlight. I was standing in the line and besides me were some elderly as well as kids. It was really a slow process and one has to stay in the line for more than 40 minutes. The sitting area is available for those who have come with families or for the elderly where the seats are absolutely uncomfortable. I wonder if the consulate of the most powerful country of the world cannot make a better system where you can allow people to sit on comfortable chairs and call them one by one in an ascending order. Such a system can be seen in banks and complain centers where the customers are respected and given due time to sit. There were some elderly people in the line and it was really disgusting to see that they are treated like that. The security guards are all Pakistani who would be looking at you with hawkish eyes. 

Anyway, after the long and tiring que, we enter the surveillance area. In this section you are requested to empty all your pockets or bags. The worst part is when they tell you to take off your belt as well. They examine your body through the door and give you back all your documents and belongings except any USB, Mobile phone or electronic item. They give you a token and keep those things with them in the locker. You can take them on your way back.

Then comes the third section, where you walk to the interview section gate. This is again pathetic management where you have to stand in another que under direct sunlight. It becomes really frustrating to stand in the sunlight and when one candidate requested that we may make a line at an area where there is no sunlight, the staff responded rudely and told the person to stay there. Similarly, when an elderly requested to sit down on the iron and absolutely uncomfortable benches on the side, again the answer was not in the affirmative. This was literally very dishonorable.

Just a reminder, if you want to go to the washroom, this is the best time because you can get our desi washroom here with a Muslim shower and water. Because after you enter the interview area, the washroom inside that area does not have a Muslim shower or any provision of water, at least it didn’t the last time I went there. So I had to clean up with the toilet paper. Secondly, make sure you tell your que members before leaving, else you will then have to stand in the line at the end again because the staff is not going to listen to anyone.

Entering the interview area

The gates of the interview area are really heavy. You have to push hard to enter it. Once you enter the area, barcode tags will be placed on your passport and a token number and you will be asked about your preference of language for the interview (Either Urdu or English). So if you want to get your turn fast, select the English preference because most people want to talk in Urdu. Then you will have your thumb impression once and your height. After that you will be requested to sit outside the interview section.

This section is extremely congested. I was thinking continuously why this section is made so congested when a huge park is made outside. You have to stand on lines which are marked on tiles and the environment feels so suffocating.

When your interview turn comes, the staff member would call your token number and you will then again go for thumb impression in a small room. After this you will be requested to stand in a line again. There are two lines; one for English interviewees and one for Urdu. There are seats just adjacent to the lines and you cannot sit on them. An uncle with his wife just behind me told his wife to sit on the seat because she was really tired but the staff said it is not allowed to sit. He was also furious at this attitude. When we complained to him, he said “Sir you can tell this to the Visa officer as we are just following their instructions”.

Since the interview windows were just a meter away from the lines, we would see who was taking interview and what discussion was going on. The staff was continuously telling us not to look at the window and look straight ahead in a very rude tone. I was amazed at the instructions given by the management to the Visa staff. The instructions seemed “to be as rude and as unfriendly and as unwelcoming as possible”.

The final interview

I had one earlier research paper invitation on 14-18 February, 2016 at San Francisco, USA and had applied for a Visa in November, 2015. The following was my Interview discussion:

1.     Why are you applying for the Visa – I got an invitation for a conference

2.     What is your educational background – BE, MS, PhD in progress etc

3.     What is your job – Assistant Professor Bahria University EE department.

4.     Are you married, kids? – Yes, one daughter

5.     Who is funding your trip? – NUST University

6.     Evidence of funding? – I have not received a confirmation letter yet

7.     Mr. Umair, I am keeping your passport and I will issue you the visa as soon as you send me the confirmation letter by email. – Great! Will do that

8.     Have a wonderful trip. - Thanks

Unfortunately, I received the funding letter from NUST very late i.e. around 10th February, 2016. Just 3 days before the conference. I emailed them and requested them several times but unfortunately I was refused the visa on 14th February, 2016.

I was of the impression that the 3 month delay must have made them rethink about my application and therefore must have rejected it on grounds that why it took me 3 months.

Anyway, this year again, I went for Visa interview, but now I had the funding letter with me. I was almost certain that I will be going to USA this time. Another reason for my certainty was that my colleague, who is a co-author of the research paper had also applied for the Visa for the same conference just a month earlier, had got a 5-year multiple visit VISA.

The following was my Interview discussion:

1.     Why are you applying for visa – I got an invitation for a conference

2.     What is your educational background – BE, MS, PhD in progress etc

3.     What is your job – Assistant Professor Bahria University EE Department

4.     Who is funding your trip? – HEC

5.     Evidence of funding? – Here it is

6.     Long pause….

7.     Can you tell me about your previous interview – Yes, I couldn’t get it because the letter got late

8.     What took you 3 months to get the letter – My University process is like that. It takes time to process it. I couldn’t help it.

9.     Long pause again…

10.                         Mr. Umair, sorry we cannot give you VISA because your condition is the same – But the last time my funding letter was not there, this time it is here

11.                         Mr. Umair, we got your funding letter last time as well 2 to 3 days earlier and we chose not to give you the Visa.  – But I thought it was because I delayed the letter

12.                         No Sir, It was not because of that – Then what was it?

13.                         I am sorry, your condition is the same and I cannot give you Visa – But would you please tell me what’s wrong with my condition?

He kept repeating the same thing when I asked him 2 to 3 times.

Well, this was really disappointing. On my way home, I was thinking what could possibly be the reason behind the rejection for the first time as well as this time. I had this perception before going to the Consulate the first time that since I am extremely vocal on social media about my views against the American foreign policy in the Middle East as well as for Pakistan and I am an advocate of political Islam by non-violent means, I might be blacklisted for visiting the US even for a technical conference of which I got an invitation from the conference organizers themselves.

I had this fear while visiting the consulate in 2015 that my academic pursuit might be affected because of my political and religious views which by all means are based on purely intellectual discourse. Many friends and colleagues had suggested removing the content but I was not ready to give up on my views about the world. The first interview had really changed my perception and I was hopeful that Americans might just differentiate between different political/religious opinions and academics. But the second interview proved the opposite.

Other than this, I presume, there is no reason for not getting a US VISA in the last two attempts that I tried. So if you are an academic with some serious anti-American and pro religious views, and you’re very open about them, then it’s better to apply someplace else. Or if you can give up your views or hide them in a way that the VISA team cannot access it, you may well have a good chance.

Going back home

Apart from the experience that I had, I guess, the US Consulate is very open in giving Visa for academic conferences as many friends have gone through this process with great success. So if one prepares well, they can easily go through. 

Going back home is the easiest part. No ques and no waiting. The message is loud and clear.