VISA processes are very different for each person, but there is a correlation between the difficulty level and your origin, strongly penalizing people from the global south.
It took me eight months, $950, and 200 hours of work to obtain a VISA from Argentina to the United States. I missed three events in 2022, losing the opportunities they offer.
So, I will miss a nice opportunity to meet other #NumFocus Proyects and other great people doing open source and open science because of VISA.— Yani. https://fosstodon.org/@yabellini (@yabellini) August 21, 2022
Let's cross fingers to see if I can be part next year. pic.twitter.com/T1imPxo0dl
We must take into account these differences to design and change how we organize events, conferences, and team activities. It is essential to ensure participation.
I have learned that one way to raise awareness about these differences is by sharing our experiences. That is why I wrote this article about my experience obtaining a VISA from Argentina to the United States.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.
It all started with a conversation about attending a series of open science and open software project meetings. The meetings occur in the United States, and their date was three months from the day of the conversation.
I immediately think, “There’s no way I’m going to get a VISA in three months” with a strange mixed feeling of discomfort, worry, and resignation of having to explain this situation.
I am fortunate to be working with a great group of people in a beautiful community, so the answer was to try anyway, but don’t worry if you can’t come.
So I start the process with at least 3 of 4 steps:
- Fill out an application form.
- Book two interviews and pay the fees.
- Go to the interviews.
- Get our passport with the visa (if approved).
You can complete the form online. The instructions say it can take up to 90 minutes. However, obtaining all the required data can be difficult. You must gather the necessary information beforehand (not only because is a lot and with great detail, but because the session may expire, and not all the information is stored, so you may need to re-enter the data several times).
The data includes information about travels and works for the past ten years (with details like salary and boss name), social media and email information from the past five years, education history (including school GPA and number of courses), family members, partner information, participation in illegal activities (like drugs, terrorism or human trafficking), and contact details in the US. It may take several days to collect all the required information.
The estimated 90 minutes for completion is overly optimistic.
I had to complete the form more than once to update the information about the conference I was invited to, because the process took such a long time that I missed three events.
This part of the process was more painful. But it can be done online, too (you will understand why this is important in my case).
No dates were available when I tried to book, so I had to log in every day to see if they had opened the calendar. I did this every morning for at least six weeks until I got an appointment for 20 months (!!) from that date.
The booking allows me to pay the visa fees, but that payment was due three months before my interviews. The payment also allowed me to make an emergency VISA request, which I completed but was denied.
Then I start trying to get a closer appointment. During six more weeks, I went back to the routine of login in every day, two times (morning and afternoon), to check closer free slots. I was lucky and could move my appointment to only wait for six months instead of 20 (and avoid to pay the fees a second time).
Now it is time for in-person interviews at the embassy in Buenos Aires. It is 600 km away from where I live. I get the interview on two different days in different weeks. Which means I had to make two trips. Ten hours by bus (the only daily flight to Buenos Aires was full, and flights are very expensive).
On the first trip, I spent two nights in a row traveling (something I have done many times, but it’s not the same in your twenties as in your forties). And on the way back the bus was three hours late. So the second trip, I decided to go the day before to ensure I wouldn’t miss the interview. I had to pay for a place to stay for both trips and transportation in the city.
But before we get into the interviews, let’s talk about the preparation beforehand: the final instructions for the application list the documentation you have to bring: your form’s barcode, the proof of payment and appointment, your passport, and any documentation that you consider that helps to verify your form. For this last point, there are no details.
I asked other people that have the VISA what documents they brought. The answer is to bring everything you think will help you to support your data because the person interviewing you may ask for it.
Among other things, the interview aims to verify that you will return to your country once you have completed the activity that originated the trip. Anything that helps to prove that you have roots here is useful. As I will travel alone, my family is strong proof that I had sufficient reason to return, so I made copies of:
- My children’s birth certificates.
- Marriage (I’m not married, so my partner and I must declare at the police in La Pampa with witnesses to get an official certificate).
- Deed of my house.
- Pay stubs.
- Invoice receipts of my work as a freelancer.
- Professional license to work in La Pampa.
- Invitation letter to the conference.
- Letters from various associations and organizations where I volunteer (no paid) work.
- Copy of my degrees from elementary school to graduate school.
In addition, a couple of hours the day before the interview, you are informed you can only enter the embassy with your passport, papers, and bar code. So you need someone that waits for you with your cell phone, wallet, etc., outside during the interview. I don’t live in Buenos Aires, and I travel alone. Fortunately, several friends that live at BA offered to wait for me with my belongings outside the embassy.
It was fast. I waited for my friend, Romina, who took my bag with my belonging, and I did the queue to enter the building. I waited 10 minutes, and they checked me before entering the building. Inside the embassy, you go through a metal detector, the first checkpoint ask your passport, and your form’s barcode.
Next, you go to a line, and they ask some general questions while you are waiting for your turn. Then you sit in front of a cabin, and they recheck your passport and form and take a headshot and digital fingerprints. Then give you some general directions for the second interview. And that is all. Twenty hours of traveling and an entire day away from home for 25 minutes of the interview. The positive aspect: I have lunch and a very nice chat with my friend.
It takes longer, 45-50 minutes the full process. As in the first interview, my friend went with me and waited for me outside with my belonging.
You share the date and time with several other people. They group you every 30 minutes; lines outside the embassy have labels with your group’s time. In the first lane, you only wait. In the second one, some embassy employee registers you on a tablet, then someone calls you to a cabin where you hand in your passport, proof of form and first interview. There they tell you that they will no longer ask for the proof of form and that you must enter to the place. You go through a metal detector while the papers you carry are x-rayed.
Then you go to a third queue where they scan the first interview’s bar code and check that your fingerprints are well registered. After that, you go to a fourth line, where you wait for the longest until they give you instructions, and you enter another building to move to the fifth and last line until the person interviewing you calls you. They ask for your passport, the barcodes from the first interview, and the process begins. One good thing is that you can interview in your native language.
The interview was also short, around 15 minutes. The person checked my answers about my family in Argentina and my family in the USA (which I don’t have). If I owned a house here and the jobs I had. We also reviewed my trips abroad, including those I made more than ten years ago (I have several travels). The reasons for my trip (participation in the conferences), we chatted about free software and communities of practice (the theme of the meetings), and the interviewer expressed that it was an exciting topic and that she could tell I liked it. She asked again for details about my family and properties in both countries. And then, she kept my passport and informed me that my VISA was approved.
The last step is picking up the passport with the VISA. You can pickup in Buenos Aires or they sent to a few other big cities in Argentina (my city is not on the list). In a week, everything was ready. I had the passport sent to Córdoba because I have family there (if I had to travel to get it, at least I would visit my loved ones).
Finally, after several calls to learn in which office of the transportation company the passport was, a friend of my sister was able to get the package, and on another travel (by car this time), I got the document. :-)
So yes, for me, obtaining a visa to the USA involves a lot of time (8 months), effort (200 hours), and money ($950, when the minimum wage in Argentina during the period I did the process was around 183 US$). In addition, you need contacts and help from other people, becoming a very stressful process, and mine is not a complex case, with what we can call a positive outcome.
It can be very tiring and frustrating. I have to go through this process for Canada and I’m avoiding starting it because I don’t want to repeat the experience.
For other people, from other countries and other skin colors, it is even more difficult and hard than it is for me. This year I helped with the VISAS for CSV,Conf and seeing the differences in treatment that my own country have was infuriating and outrageous. It is one of the best example of how privilege is institutionalize.
Understanding these differences is crucial for creating spaces that ensure participation. If we make decisions, we can help in several ways. For example,
Offer an online component in your event.
Let people know about the decisions, such as a talk being accepted, a scholarship being awarded, the format of the event, and where it will take place so that those who need to travel can have enough time to finish the required paperwork. You can build you calendar taking this information into account.
Learn the rules for entering the country where the event will occur and have mechanisms to help with the process’s cost and the necessary paperwork.
Select more friendly destinations.
Provide your members or volunteers a letter of their involvement with your organization or community that they can use in the interview.
Talk and listen about this.
If you get until here, thanks for reading.