Adventures in Visa Land

A thrilling romp through the labyrinth of rules on the way to an overseas job

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

September 23, 2013

If you have received a job offer to work at a university in England, there is a chance that you might not get a contract until you have obtained your visa. Having never before applied for a visa, you will think to yourself, "How hard could it be?" Future You will chide Past You for that flippant query.

While you are drinking your strong black tea one morning in February, you will read a new e-mail from your British employer's human-resources office. The missive walks you through the intricacies of the immigration process. It explains that the university will set about obtaining a certificate of sponsorship that verifies your job offer in England. You will receive your certificate in June, after which you can apply for your visa. Once you have received and sent in a scan of your visa, the university will issue a contract.

The impatient aspect of your personality(which, it must be admitted, accounts for a large portion of said personality) feels that this schedule makes for a very long wait between job offer and job contract. But, being in the unenviable position of a freshly minted Ph.D., you acquiesce in their terms, as you have no choice in the matter.

This first section of the timeline unfolds as anticipated, although you still check your e-mail more frequently than necessary, on the chance that your certificate of sponsorshipwill magically materialize sooner than expected. During the appointed week of June, appear the certificate does, but you note its arrival with another twinge of trepidation: The university has erred in the spelling of your last name (which, it's true, contains at least two unnecessary letters). Campus officials tell you that they have appended a note about the misspelling in the online system, which should forestall further problems down the line. Given that you are traveling for research that week, and that your boyfriend is also involved in the visa-acquisition process, you elect to wait until the following week, when you can apply for visas together.

The next week finds you in New York City, cat-sitting for a kind friend who has decided to leave town. Her free wireless is on the roof, where it is too sweltering to contend with the hot tempers inspired by online visa applications. So you and your boyfriend venture across town to your mother's apartment, ready to brave the next step of the process.

As you fill out the online application, you voice annoyance at having to list every place you have traveled in the last five years. Given that you must send your passport along with your application, you assume that any border gatekeeper should be able to glean your travel history from that document. Nevertheless, you detail all of your trips, including the ones to England for dissertation research. Your irritation gives way to expletives when, on the next page of the online application, you find a separate section that asks you to itemize all recent excursions to England.

After providing innumerable details, you discover that the visa application fee is $815. After you retrieve your jaw from the floor, you refuse to pay it while decrying the injustice of a system that asks you to hand over a small fortune without guaranteeing that your application will be successful. You harangue your computer for another 30 seconds. And then you glower at the screen while you enter your credit-card information.

Upon receipt of those precious details, the online system allows you to make a biometricsappointment, so that you can get fingerprinted. After discovering that no appointment dates are available in Manhattan for the foreseeable future, you book an appointment in Queens for later in the week. The day arrives, and as all New York subway platforms are ovens in the summer, you sweat through most of your clothing before the Queens-bound train even arrives at the station. The lady who fingerprints you further contributes to your sense of uncleanliness by swiping your fingers with Windex, sprayed onto a cloth of questionable sanitation.

Then you set about collecting the necessary additional documents. You go to a drugstore to get your passport photo taken. After returning home and rereading the application requirements, you realize that it is unacceptable for you to be wearing glasses in the photograph because the top of the frame covers your eyes. In addition, you find that your passport photo must be precisely 45-by-35 millimeters. You pay for new pictures at a proper photo shop.

You also puzzle over the opaque "maintenance requirement" discussed on the British border agency's Web site. It states that you must possess a certain amount of money in your bank account every day for the 90 days preceding your application, unless your university promises to cover your fee in case you lack sufficient pounds. Your university has verified (via e-mail) that it will do so, but it is unclear whether that information is contained in your certificate-of-sponsorship letter that the visa-granting-gods will examine. The amount you are required to maintain in your account is lower than anticipated, but you also find that your graduate-student budget has produced one unfortunate day in the past 90 days during which you did not fulfill the maintenance requirement. You print out 90 days of bank statements and place them under the e-mail from your university that references the letter which, you hope, contains the pledge to maintain you.

Your passport, bank statements, visa-application form, stamped biometrics form confirming fingerprinting, and passport photos get stacked together. On top of everything, you include a note explaining the initial mix-up over the spelling of your last name, just in case the online message has disappeared.

Then you commit to a morning of standing in line at the post office. You try not to panic about the idea of sending your passport into the ether as you certify and get tracking on your package. And then you wait. And wait.

Several days later, an e-mail arrives informing you that your visa has been issued! It is wending its way back to you via the return envelope you have provided, and all should be well.

Reader, is it not.

On an inauspicious Monday you return to your mother's apartment and retrieve a pink slip indicating that your envelope, but not your boyfriend's, is awaiting pickup at the post office. You arrive at the post office to an indecently-sized line and make passive-aggressive eye contact with the people jumping the line "just to ask a question" at the sparsely staffed counters. After half an hour you move to the next available agent, only to discover that, although your pink slip gave no indication of the fact, your package will not be ready for you until the next day.

When you return the next day and eagerly open your envelope, you discover that the entry date on your visa is wrong. You are supposed to be at your new job before September 1, but your visa states that you may not enter the country until September 19 (it should say August 19).

In the meantime, you learn that your boyfriend's passport has been mailed to Las Vegas. That happenstance puzzles the two of you, given that the British Consulate (the entity that issued the visa) is located in New York, as is your mother's apartment, where the return envelope was supposed to be mailed. Further investigation reveals that his envelope has been returned from Las Vegas to New York, but that no one knows exactly where it is.

You begin to e-mail everyone. The British Consulate's Web site clearly states that it does not field visa queries, referring you to its commercial partner. You e-mail the commercial partner and receive an automated response that refers you to the British Consulate. You e-mail the British Consulate and receive an automated e-mail saying that your e-mail may or may not be read. In a panic, you call the commercial partner and discover that it will offer advice that might resolve your issue just as soon as you agree to pay $3 a minute. You employ a number of swear words and hang up.

Your boyfriend takes a different tack and politely calls the U.S. Postal Service several times a day. Each time, telephone agents express their confusion over the Las Vegas detour before providing him with contact numbers for people who might locate his passport.You begin to stalk the mailman, camping out at your mother's apartment while awaiting the arrival of each day's letters. One day you miss the mailman and run down the street in pursuit, only to discover that this particular mailman does not deliver to your mom's building.

When you return to the building, you check the mailbox; your boyfriend's passport is inside, containing his visa with a correct entry date. You go back across town and celebrate.

You e-mail the university's human-resoures office and politely suggest that you would like a contract before you fly to England.

You hope that in the middle of August, the British government will allow you to enter the country. One morning at the end of August, you arrive bleary-eyed in Dublin before ending your journey in England. Once there, no one even asks to see your passport.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. lecturer in American history in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton.