I was 30 the first time I had to apply for a visa. The concept seemed vaguely offensive; why on Earth did I need to ask anyone’s permission to travel? I’d been to 25 countries on three continents, spending money, following laws. Everywhere, visas meant showing up like an unexpected guest, enduring border control’s bored scrutiny, and hearing the stamp thwack in my passport.
I was privileged.
Extremely so; nor was I to realise how much until I helped my friend Tram* apply for a tourist visa to the United States so she could meet her fiancé’s family. Not to move there; just to visit for a month.
Tram has been a friend for four years. With her fiancé temporarily in the US, she asked me to help prepare her tourist (B-1) visa application. The challenges Vietnamese people face when they wish to visit the so-called First World stunned me.
You hear horror stories. Rumours leak from the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, circulating on various Vietnamese websites. This interviewer is nice; this one hates giving out visas. Maybe there’s one who hates Vietnamese people. Bring lots of documents. Documentation doesn’t matter.
Recently, rumours have been more hopeful; President Obama has loosened the approval process up, the consulate is freer with the ACCEPTED stamp, people are getting in.
Not all. Tram didn’t get her visa. Tram’s story is not unique. Not by a long shot.
A friend of a friend, Trang*, tells of a three-minute interview, facing an interviewer as welcoming as a slammed door. She said the interviewer never once looked her in the eye.
“She was angry,” Trang says. “Maybe she’s racist.”
Another friend, Eddie*, waited two years to hear from the consulate about his partner’s fiancée (K-1) visa, the most nightmarish option on that menu.
By then, the couple were already married — so they canceled the K-1, negated anyway by the passage of time. There’s also the fact that while on the K-1 track, you can’t apply for any other visa. He’s considering a spousal (K-3) visa now, but will wait until they’ve been married three years, because he’s heard that will help his chances.
Helping Tram took several evenings, poring over the electronic application pages, triple checking, because, as those horror stories suggest, one error can and probably will disqualify you. Then it’s back to the end of the line, shelling out another US$160 (VND3.5 million) for the privilege of asking to visit the Land of the Free.
Some Make It In
Yet some do get approved. An acquaintance, Thuyet*, got in straight away. So did another, Quyen*, who shoved financial documents across the table listing her non-liquid assets before the interviewer could speak.
“My husband is American. Maybe that’s why,” she says. She too requested a B-1, good for a year after issuance, as the couple lives in Vietnam. They planned their trip after getting the visa. Another acquaintance, with whom I chatted online as she visited London, offered another perspective.
“My family’s rich,” she said.
It also seems that once one Western nation admits you — and you depart on schedule — others unfreeze. I’ve heard Vietnamese say that the first visa, like the first child or murder, is the hardest.
A Detailed Look
Back to Tram. She’d gathered reams of documents, from family information to financials. The electronic application, though not difficult, required a tedious amount of data entry. Birthday. Father’s birthday. Mother’s maiden name.
She had to visit her hometown, far from Ho Chi Minh City, to get some documents. She spent, she estimates, at least another US$300 (VND6.5 million) gathering facts the US State Department required.
For Tram, the hardest part was walking alone into the interview. Applicants must go alone into that important little room where — supposedly — the application is decided.
“I felt like they made the decision before I came,” she told me. The interviewer didn’t even glance at Tram’s documents — not the income statement, not the company she co-owned worth almost US$100,000 (VND2.2 billion), not the references from American friends.
Yet she doesn’t know why she was rejected. She never will. She can only apply again.
An Opaque Process
That must be the hardest part — so little real information escapes. The State Department keeps the process opaque for a reason, as they wish to discourage people from gaming the system — as though a rising Vietnamese star would scheme and cheat to go wash dishes in Skokie or Schenectady.
Yet many want to visit. Tram’s hopes for her trip were nearly dashed anyway when she couldn’t get an interview until six months after she requested one, two weeks before the start of her hoped-for trip.
“I’ll try again,” Tram said. Would she do anything different next time?
She pauses for a long time. “Have more money. Hire a lawyer. And not think I’ll succeed.”
*All the names in this article have been changed