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February 6, 2013

Will we finally be visa-free?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/will_we_finally_be_visa_free/

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"A bipartisan, bicameral group of congressmen has drafted legislation that would allow Israelis to visit the United States for 90 days without a visa."  These words opened an article in The Jerusalem Post a couple of weeks ago. You may read this and think to yourself "well, that's nice, but what is the big deal?"


Well, let me tell you something- this news  is AWESOME! It is the biggest deal since the moon landing! In case this legislation will be approved, it will change the most exhausting process Israelis go through (yes, more exhausting than the IDF recruitment day) - Issuing a visa to the U.S.


Anyone traveling on an Israeli passport needs a visa to enter the United States. This visa is required whether your visit lasts several months, or merely a weekend. There are several kinds of visas, from tourist to working to cultural exchange , every visit to the States. When landing, we must stand in a long, tiring  line and wait for a serious, sometimes frowning clerk who checks the dates on the visa, making sure it is not expired. An expired visa means one thing- a round trip back home. This visa can have a life that lasts from four months to ten years, depending on several criteria, some reasonable, and some rather random.


In my lifetime, I have issued four visas. The first two were tourist visas (b1), and they were issued for me, when I was a child. The second one expired when I was 19, and serving in the IDF. Then, I  was issued a third visa, a cultural exchange visa (J1) after my military service, when I was sent by the Jewish Agency as an Israeli delegate to a summer camp. This visa expired after four months (for the two months period of camp, and another two months of traveling). This visa was very easy to issue, because I was sent by an organization. The fourth visa was issued several months ago.


Up until then, I had no idea what a tiring process this is. How hard will I have to work in order to get a taste of Manhattan? Now that I know what it takes, I can tell you- it's not worth it! Well, not really, but it is, in fact , a very long procedure that treats us all as unentitled for the honor of visiting the U.S, until we prove ourselves to be worthy.


The first step is to schedule an appointment at the U.S Embassy in Tel-Aviv. It is done online, through the Embassy's website. A smart person will schedule an appointment as early in the morning as possible, in order to avoid experiencing the word "delay" like never before.  Prior to the day of the appointment, there is a form we need to fill  out online. It's called "DS-160 application" and it is one long son of a pigeon… It is filled with countless questions that dig into every single aspect of your life, demanding to know every step you've ever made and your intentions for the future.


In this form, you need to give exact information (as much as possible) about your next planned visit (with whom you intend to travel, for how long, what are your plans, what is the exact address you'll stay in, etc.…); give your travel history to the States (which is quite a long list in my case); give information about your relationship status; describe your professional history and give full information about your current occupation; disqualify any criminal history or criminal intentions, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. It takes several hours to fill out, and usually requires several recesses. The problem is, the webpage expires after 30 minutes or so, and it can be quite disappointing if you forgot to save your progress. Oops.


The next step is the interview itself. This is one of the most nerve- wracking day in a visa-aspiring Israeli's life, for this is the big judgment day. This day can either end with a big smile, or with a session of screaming into a pillow. It all depends on your personal evaluation, made by one American clerk, which will determine whether you are worthy of having a visa.


You might think I sound over-dramatic, but this is the exact feeling you get from the moment you enter the Embassy. The first step is a security check. Because you obviously did not schedule your appointment to earlier than 8am because you mistakenly thought a good night's sleep is priceless, it will take about an hour for you to actually enter the building, due to a very long line. It is forbidden to enter the building with purses, backpacks or cell phones. All you can and must carry with are the printed DS-160 form, ID, passport, scheduled interview authorization and two passport pictures (where you cannot wear glasses, hat or earrings, and it is forbidden to smile).


Once you're in, there are three stations you go through. The first one is Fingerprint verification. During this stage, your fingerprints are being verified. This one is a bit stressing, because you cannot help but feeling you are a soon-to-be-convicted criminal, but it doesn't take so long. The second station, which is the most serious, nerve-wrecking part, is the interview with an American consular officer.  Most consular officers speak Hebrew, as well as some other languages such as Russian, Arabic, Spanish, but if your English is fluent, the interview will be in English.


In the interview, the consular officer asks you questions to determine your reasons for traveling to the United States. He or she will ask many questions similar to the ones on the DS-160, when your main goal is to prove that you have no intentions that are more than the ones you state (if you are travelling as a tourist, you cannot plan to work there…)


The Officer may require that you provide more documents in order to make a decision about your qualifications for a visa. I, for once, was asked to provide a student ID (to prove that I am, in fact, a student), as well as a letter from my boss, proving that I am being occupied by a place of work that expects me back after my visit. Usually, when you are in your 20's (after you IDF service), have no job or you are not a University or a College student, and show no documents of a certain event in the States that you're invited to, your chances of getting a visa are pretty low. Why is that, you ask? Because at this stage of life, there are great chances that you will stay in the States and work illegally. Such chances, the Embassy is not willing to take…


After the interview, one of the three will happen:
1. The officer will announce that your visa was approved. You will skip back home and won't be able to take the smile off your face. I was lucky enough to experience this scenario.

2. The officer will tell you your visa application will be considered, or you will be requested to provide more information/documents.

3. Your visa will be denied, and you will not be able to try and apply for it again for at least six months and even that only in case there is a significant change in your    life (a job, higher education, marriage). This is one big bummer, especially if you already have your trip all planned out. This also means you won't be able to skip all your way back home, and you will probably crawl instead. This means you've wasted hundreds of Shekels and a lot of your precious time.

It took me a while to get there, but this is basically why legislation that would allow Israelis to visit the United States for 90 days without a visa is big, big news!

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