If you are visiting the United States for less than 90 days Australians (and nationals from 37 other countries) can get a visa waiver known as the ESTA Visa Waiver Program (VWP). This is a form which you pay for so you don’t have to pay for an actual visa (ironic, I know) and will set you back roughly US$10 - $15. An ESTA Visa Waiver can be purchased very quickly online here, not the way I mistakenly forked out $70 back in 2012. We’ve come a long way! :D
The US is huge.
And when we were last there in 2012-13 we could not explore all we wanted to in such a relatively small amount of time. On top of that when you leave the US, they don’t consider Canada and Mexico as “departing from American soil”. Somebody failed Geography 101. So you can’t just spend time across the border and come back.
WE NEEDED LONGER!
And we got it. During our stay in Melbourne, Australia we applied for a 6-month business/tourism visa so our next trip to the US will be much more fulfilling (especially considering the cost of the flights to get over there).
- You can apply for a B1 (business) or B2 (tourism) or a combination of both.
- The application is done online and costs US$160 for each person (including children).
- You must have a passport-quality photo of each person which has been taken in the last 6 months.
- An interview is then arranged at the US embassy at a specific time.
- If you pass the interview and choose a visa length of longer than 1 year it will cost an additional US$25 per person to process.
- Maximum visa length period is 5 years, but you could be granted less.
- This type of visa provides you with a maximum of 6 months in the US at one time.
- As far as research suggests you can visit Canada and return to the US, unlike the ESTA.
- Your passport is held onto the US Consulate for about a week and then posted back to you via courier.
- Total cost for a 5-year visa is US$185.
- You should NOT book transport or accommodation in the US until your visa is approved. Just common sense.
Our Process Of Getting A Visa
We decided to do a combination of B1 and B2 since we wanted to attend a few conferences in the US. The application was relatively straightforward, but long. Very long. The application asked every question under the sun including “are you a terrorist?”. I’m not joking.
The visa application can be started on this official website by clicking “create account” on the right and following the prompts.
Expert tip: Thankfully if you are applying for multiple people like we were, the majority of the questions can be transferred to the additional applications by choosing to resume an existing application AFTER it’s been submitted. So it’s not as tedious as it could be.
We paid US$160 per person via credit card online (recommended) or you can also pay in person at a post office. Since we had multiple applications (for our family), payment was made after we completed all applications. A summary sheet needed to be printed which was basically a receipt proving that we made payment. Multiple applications will be displayed on a single sheet. Paying the fee does not guarantee your visa application will be successful, nor does it guarantee entry to the country and it’s not refundable. So think carefully before applying.
Once we printed the summary of our application confirmation (1 page per person), we arranged an appointment at the nearest US consulate/embassy. This was done on the same website as the payment. Check this page for current wait times. Remember, you need to bring a passport size photo for each person taken within the last 6 months old.
What To Bring Checklist
Bring the following to your visa interview:
- Your passport
- Passport style photo
- Application confirmation summary (1 page per person)
- Payment receipt (1 page)
Our appointment at the Melbourne US Consulate was scheduled for 10:30am. We found 1 hour parking out on the street in front of the building and arrived about 10am. There was already a queue outside the door to the embassy, which we joined.
They let people in 4 at a time so it was about a 15-minute wait.
Once inside we were asked to register on a computer. Then we handed over all our possessions to the security staff and walked through an airport-style security scanner. We were not allowed to bring mobile phones (or pretty much anything else, including car keys) so they were confiscated and we were given a numbered token to claim them back at the end.
This is probably the most irritating part of the procedure since there is little available to pass the time beyond this point and a smartphone would have helped the time pass by faster. The guards provided a sticker with our name and barcode which needed to be visible at all times.
We were then escorted 4 at a time up an elevator with a guard.
On the next floor we went through a similar procedure. Showing our ID sticker and passports, we handed over any possessions, went through another security scanner, issued a numbered ticket and then entered a beige waiting room.
We waited approximately 20 minutes before we were called up. At this stage, they just asked for fingerprints and took our paperwork and photos.
“Is your daughter here?”
“Can I see her?”
Mia came over and grinned at the lady behind the glass.
“The photo is over 6 months old, but she still looks the same so I will let it pass.”
PHEW! Forgot about that one.
By this time more than 1 hour had passed so Josh needed to go pay for parking again. And yes, he had to go through the whole same process to get out of the building… and then back in. He paid for the maximum possible parking time – 1 more hour.
We sat in the waiting room for another 40 minutes. In the far corner a wall-mounted TV played a video loop encouraging people to head to the US, filled with cheesy propaganda. Certainly nothing entertaining. Obviously everyone in that waiting room already wanted to go to the US, and I got the impression that the purpose of this video was to inspire attendees not to slip into a coma and that the exceptionally long and boring wait would be worth the while.
Near the back wall a small basket of kids’ books provided a much-needed distraction for our children and we read to them quietly, making the most of our time. A bathroom was located around the corner along with a sign explaining that only 1 person was allowed in at a time. Although I’m not quite sure why there were multiple toilet stalls in that bathroom.
Finally we were called to the interview booth. We were asked how we planned on funding the trip (Josh’s self employment), if Josh planned on working in the US (no) and then, “You’ve been approved, please see the cashier and we will send your passports to you within 5 business days.”
It was almost anticlimactic, but with a tangible sense of relief.
We visited the cashier where he asked for another US$25 per person for the visa issuance fee, which we paid via credit card. And our visa application process was done. With a sense of accomplishment we left the building.
It was exactly 6 days later (4 business days - 1 day early) that the passports arrived on our doorstep in the hands of a smiling courier. And this was just in time for us to apply for our next visa – Indonesia.
Look out USA – we are on our way!