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The Great American Visa Debacle

Rebekah Joy
Rebekah Joy

Not so long ago I lived illegally in the States. When I say illegally I mean the company who I was doing an internship for had screwed up my visa and didn’t let me know until the day before I was due to fly out. Being stuck between a rock and a hard place (I had to buy nonrefundable flights in order to get the visa) I had no choice but to go on a tourist visa. 

An internship is a great thing. You work for free and get all the tips and help you need for a dazzling career (it didn’t work in my case, but it is supposed to). My F1 internship visa was to cost me $2000 and be up to 2 years in duration. But after 3 months of volunteering and making cups of coffee my tourist visa was up and the F1 visa was still nowhere close to being processed.

"Take the train to Canada!" my boss said calmly, knowing absolutely nothing about American immigration. "Why are you so uptight anyway?" (too much coffee).

My mother emailed. We are coming to visit you in America! Everything booked, be there soon. Their itinerary started three days after my tourist visa expired.

I had no choice. Amtrak did a daily service from New York to Toronto. Although it was long it was cheap. I went. Who knew, perhaps I would see Niagara Falls? (unfortunately it turned out you don’t see much at all).

The trip wasn’t so bad. If I remember correctly it was about 9 hours. About six of these must be spent in travel, the other three sitting at the border while customs and immigration get their knickers in a knot about who is coming and going). Now America is a civilized country, I wasn’t in the slightest worried until immigration got on with their big scary Alsatian dogs sniffing and slobbering like a scene from an old WW2 movie. They pulled some elderly Polish people off who were returning into Canada to see their daughter.

"You been here too many times", the Canadian officer said. 'Poor them' I thought sadly. Little did I know it would be me on the other side. 

Toronto was posh compared to New York. The streets were wide and clean, the people really friendly. I spent a few days exploring and genuinely liked the feel.

The trip back from Canada to New York was uneventful until we hit the boarder. US customs are mean, pulling off any immigrant looking types. I wasn’t worried. I passed over my passport.

"You been here before?" The guy said, his dog was staring me straight in the eye.

"Yes," I said looking back at my reflection in a dark canine eyeball.

"Why’d you come back?"

"My Mums coming to see me for two weeks before I head to the UK (true story)." 

"I don’t care if your ‘Mam’ is coming to see you or not, you been here for 2 months and twenty days. That’s enough."

"Well, its a big country and we had planned to travel down the East Coast (true story)."

"How much money you earn a year?"

I was dumbfounded. Why did he want to know? So I told him. I thought it was a decent amount.

"Nope, it’s not enough. I can’t give you a visa."

I had visions of being hauled off the train and left with those Alsatians for the night at the border. 

"I can give you ten days," he looked at me real hard. "If you overstay that’s your own choice."

I gulped, and nodded. Ten days would give me time to pack my bags and let my apartment go, but I wouldn’t be able to see my Mum. She would have to navigate the Big Apple el solo. 

On return to New York I went to immigration and waited for hours in a queue. They spoke to me for 30 seconds informing me of the punishment for over stayers. I went to the New Zealand embassy (which is nothing like Murray's office in The Flight of The Conchords. It’s more of a big flash glass and mirrored affair run by a bunch of Aussie staff).

They couldn’t do much.

After a considerable amount of research I discovered that land crossings into the States are usually painful affairs for non North American residents. The best way to extend your time if you dont have a proper visa is to fly to the Carribean or Mexico and fly back. 

I bought a ticket to the Dominic Republic (which I had never heard of) from a Polish travel agent who screwed up the dates. Another debacle insued (but thats another story) in which they would only refund my airfares but not the hotel. I found cheap flights with Jet Blue and flew to a remote airport 6 hours drive away from my accommodation. Depsite the stress of landing at 3am with all my bags and not being anywhere near my hotel, I managed to return safely to the U.S and was granted another 3 month visa.

Since then I have heard numerous stories of people who have been harressed at the border. 

One guy had to give his email account and password to an immigration offical before being granted entry. 

"He read through all my mails!" the guy complained (which turns out to be highly illegal).

To add to the pain of entering the States, the U.S have just announced their latest visa entry policy. Residents of Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom have to fill out a pre-entry clerance known as ESTA clearance. When you search for the site to register a thousand different ones come up offering to do it for you for $50 which is rubbish. Applying for the ESTA is free and can be done through The link is always changing, so just persevere.

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