In April I am going to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles for a few weeks. I am much looking forward to it – as a sort of reward to myself for two years hard labour being Chair of my Faculty. I think I’ve mentioned before that my stint finished in January. Now I’m just plain busy, not on the sort of work schedule that makes you look with envy at the hours of junior hospital doctors.
Anyway, because I shall be getting living expenses from the Getty, I need a “J1” US visa (and the husband needs a “J2”). Let the bureaucracy commence.
In fact, that bureaucracy has sprung a variety of surprises -- from unexpected pockets of painless efficiency to a style of “processing” designed to make the average middle-aged academic feel more like a known heroin-dealer seeking political asylum.
First off, I needed a new passport. Unwilling to wait weeks for it (as I had to have it to get the visa), I went for the pricey option. For £108 the alarmingly named “Identity and Passport Service” will renew a passport within a day. I turned up in their office behind Victoria Station at 10.00 a.m, waited for about 5 minutes before I could deposit my documents and pay up. I went back to collect the new passport at 4.00. Not a queue in sight. Hassle-free, if you can afford it (a big “if”).
The next thing was a marriage certificate. My husband and I have different surnames and there were hints in the American information that we might need documentary proof of marriage. Of course, we couldn’t find it. But the General Register Office now lets you order a copy online. If you don’t know the certificate’s “index number” (who on earth would?), but do know the date of the wedding, then £10 will get it posted to you within 15 days. For £26 you can have it posted the next day. Mine arrived just as promised within three days (though, predictably enough, I’d found the original almost as soon as I had pressed the "pay" button).
The American part of the process was rather different. Let me say here and now that everyone I dealt with was personally charming, helpful and, on occasion, witty. But the system they were operating seemed designed to get as much money out of you as they dared and to make you feel as disempowered as possible.
The Getty had provided all the documentation they could from their end and paid part of the fee. All I had to do was gather together my bits and pieces and make an appointment. In addition to the passport and marriage certificate, you need proof that you are likely to come back to the UK (mortgage statement, utility bill, letter for your employer etc), a load of completed forms downloaded from the web (including a list of all your previous visits to the US) and a couple of photographs strictly 2inches by 2 inches. (This isn’t a size that British photo booths will produce, and I gave up -- but, despite the fierce warnings about other sizes being rejected, they didn’t actually appear to mind.)
But that’s only the beginning. You used to be able to do everything by post. After 9/11 anyone wanting a J1 (the visa for academic exchange visitors and the like) must have an interview in either London or Belfast. Not too bad from Cambridge, but more than a day’s trip if you live in (say) Lampeter.
To get an appointment you have to phone up on a premium phone line (to a call centre in Scotland, to judge from the accents of the people you talk to), give some more personal details and pay $100 by credit card. The phone bill ticking up certainly encourages you to be brisk. Though I had to ring up three times, as the appointments for February had not been “released” when I first called.
We got an appointment for 12.00 on a Monday. You are not allowed to turn up at the embassy early. If you do, you will wait outside even if it is pissing with rain. The first document check takes place outside, in Grosvenor Square. Then you go in through an airport style security check in a side entrance to the embassy. You are made to deposit your mobile phones and, in my case, keys (they don’t like car-door remote controls). At this point there are notices telling you not to let your friends and relatives loiter in Grosvenor Square while you are inside. The attractions of Grosvenor Square are limited, but this made me want to reclaim my right to loiter wherever and whenever I liked.
You then walk along a narrow walkway across the front of the building (nice view of Grosvenor Square!) to the other side entrance, are given a number and sent upstairs to a large waiting area. Our first appointment came within 20 minutes or so, with a friendly woman who checked all the documents. You then sit down and wait for your number to be called again for the “interview” proper.
We waited for 2 hours or so. It’s hard even to read during this time. The numbers don’t get called out in order, so you have to keep paying attention to the tannoy and screens. You quickly lapse into servile mode – just sitting, watching and waiting for the numbers. There’s nothing else to do. No newspapers or anything like that – just some rip-off sandwiches, an American travel brochure and posters on the walls of beaming Iraqis who have just exercised their right to vote.
The interview seems to last about 5 minutes maximum (unless you’re a problem case). The man was, again, extremely nice. He asked us about our research and agreed that the Getty was a very lovely place to be going to. Documents approved, we then went and paid up once again to have the passports sent back by courier (the only approved method). They arrived within three days.
Ok, it’s churlish to complain (I don't after all live in Lampeter). But I couldn’t help wondering if all this wasn’t a bit out of proportion for a research trip to the US by two academics who had both had US visas before. And I couldn’t help wondering too what it would all be like (getting into the US or the UK – let’s not imagine that we are any friendlier when it comes to immigrant foreigners) if weren’t white, didn’t have middle-class jobs and very respectable passports. More unpleasant and even more humiliating, I’m afraid.