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Thursday, 21 May 2015 11:47

Dear USA, cheerio and you owe me $228 Featured

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No doubt you have all heard of the infamous US “no fly list”. Well, judging by my most recent experience with US officialdom, I must be on a “no visa list”. This upsets me not because I wanted yet another visit to the US to attend a vendor’s conference but because I spent $208 for the privilege of applying for the unobtainable passport stamp.

For those of you who may not understand, ordinary Australian mortals like bus-drivers, heart surgeons, stockbrokers and multilevel marketers don’t need a visa to visit the US. However, journalists who intend to write about their visits need an entry permit called an I-Visa.

Why in the so-called ‘land of the free” a humble tech journo should require a special permit to visit is a topic all of its own. This story is about something else – the technological incompetence of American bureaucracy.

The I-Visa is valid for five years and I have had one or two previously. I remember the process was a bit of an annoyance but fortunately those were the days before the whole thing was totally automated and put online.

It seems that the US Government is notoriously bad at a few things. One is providing decent and affordable healthcare for its citizens. Another is developing robust websites with user-friendly forms.

However, perhaps we should not be too harsh on the US Government in this regard. After all, it outsources most of its website development to private interests.

In the case of healthcare, it outsourced the notoriously bad “Obamacare” website HealthCare.gov to a company called CGI Group, founded by Canadian Serge Godin, who became a billionaire after he merged his company with UK management consultancy Logica in 2013 .

In the case of visas, the US Government outsourced the delivery of online services to a website called USTravelDocs.com, which is owned by guess who - CGI Group.

Can we surmise from this, that in the US, in the case of  the delivery of government web services, inefficiency and bad practice pays off?

In my own case, I found that filling out the US visa application form to be somewhat of a nightmare – to say the least.

Not too far into the process, I intuitively gathered that Firefox was not a supported browser. This turned out to be true as after some investigation I learned that it was mandatory to use Internet Explorer or Chrome.

Like many others, I use a Mac so Internet Explorer is not an option – in any case IE is rapidly becoming an irrelevant browser – so I was left with Chrome. I strongly suspect that Chrome is not an option either for reasons I will explain later.

In order to apply for a US I-Visa, one has to pay up front a non-refundable fee of US$160 (currently A$208). To be clear, you have to pay A$208 just for the privilege of being allowed to apply for a visa that may or may not be granted.

If you’re like me, you may think that this is outrageous but – hey – it’s their country.

First you have to create an account with your basic details, including email address and password. Then you’re eligible to pay the fee.

Once you’ve created your account and paid this fee, you can start filling in the application form and send it off to the US Embassy to make an appointment for an interview at your local US Consulate. Simple enough? Think again.

I was able to fill in all the necessary details of the application form except for one field – something called the DS-160 Confirmation Number. The form would not enable me to complete the process until I entered this number.

I was unable glean from any source how to find this number but somewhere, somehow, after much searching with the help of Google I was able discern that the number began with the letters ‘AA’ followed by eight digits.

I noticed that when I registered for an account, when logged on, in parentheses after my email address was an eight-digit number. So I concatenated AA with this eight-digit number and entered it in the DS-160 Confirmation Number field.

Imagine my elation when I found that my efforts were met with success! I was able to save and print out my appointment confirmation. I also received an email confirming my appointment and  another with a receipt for my $208 payment.

Here is a scanned copy of my appointment confirmation with personal information that I clumsily blotted out:



I was a little perturbed when I was not asked to upload my US sized pic (5cmx5cm). However, using my own judgment I went to one of the many US Embassy approved photographers and had correct photos taken – cost A$20 – so that I could take them to my appointment.

The appointment was set for 8am on 20 May 2015 at the US Consulate in Melbourne. OK, I normally get up at 4am to prepare and send out two newsletters each morning five days a week. On this particular morning, I got up at 3am to ensure I would not be late for the appointment.

I arrived for my appointment with time to spare, all my documents in hand – Appointment Confirmation, Passport, US visa photos, letter from my US Vendor sponsor (a major tech multinational), and my own media company’s letter (the company of which I am a part owner).

I entered the consulate when the doors opened and as requested entered my basic details into the terminal. I then handed my documents and belongings to the security guards.

I was then told by the chief security guard, a nice middle-aged Australian gentleman, that my form had been filled in incorrectly and my DS-160 number was wrong.

What I was told was that I would have to make my way to the nearest Internet café or back home, fill in the form correctly and come back before 10:30am. What had I done wrong, I asked, and how could I make it right? They couldn’t tell me – all they did was hand me an information leaflet that I already had.

I walked out of the consulate perplexed, grabbed a cup of coffee at a nearby café, opened my laptop and looked over my application. Nothing jumped out at me as a glaring error. After all, I had in my hand an appointment confirmation printout with a time, a barcode and a receipt for the $208 I had spent. I also had emails confirming my appointment and payment.

The only thing I could surmise is that the only acceptable web browser for this particular form is IE. A colleague had similar but slightly different problems to me when he applied for an I-Visa three years ago – it’s all on his personal blog.

I went back to the consulate, waited for the security guard to open the door and asked him if he understood that I was applying for an I-Visa and whether he was sure that I couldn’t attend my appointment. This time he acted impatiently and annoyed and virtually shut the door in my face.

So in a nutshell, I applied for a US visa online, paid a substantial sum of money up front, filled in the form as presented to me, which was accepted, obtained all the necessary documentation, presented myself for a scheduled confirmed appointment at the US Consulate and was refused entry due some unexplained alleged irregularity.

I was not offered any meaningful assistance to correct the alleged irregularity. Instead I was ushered out of the consulate and in not so many words, told to come back when I had got it right.

Last year, I obtained a visa to visit China with the same high tech company and had no trouble at all. Furthermore, I distinctly remember the Melbourne consular staff being very helpful and eager to assist me with any questions I had concerning my application.

Being the owner of a publishing company and an editor, I am an extremely busy person. I had already wasted much of my time on this ridiculous visa application process so I felt my only option was to cancel the trip to the US and spend my time more productively elsewhere.

Other than the total waste of my time, my only bugbear is that I feel the US owes me A$208 for the visa application and appointment that was not honoured plus the A$20 I spent for the photos that are useless for anything other than US visa purposes.

As a matter of principle, I intend to pursue a claim for a return of these sums of money in the appropriate small claims tribunal in the state of Victoria.

I will also forward this article to the public affairs representative of the US Embassy in Canberra for comment. If I receive any comments, I will add them to this article.

So dear USA, in the parting words of Truman, a creation of the spectacularly talented Australasians Andrew Niccol and Peter Weir: “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and goodnight!”


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Stan Beer

 

Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.

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