Thursday, November 27, 2008

A VISA Survival Guide ... !!

Having just received a Visa, I felt that its very important for someone who is planning to apply for one to know about the procedure of getting a Visa. Even though I had Charan for advice (since he had already gone through the procedure), I thought that it would be nice if I can explain the procedure in detail. I had applied for a H1, hence I will be writing precisely about the procedure for a H1. The procedure for the other Visa differs only slightly in the form of the documents received from the American Consulate.

Assuming that you have already applied for a Visa (I applied to a H1 via a consultant), I will not write about the procedure for application. But it isn't all that difficult. You need to have all your experience letters, academic certificates and resume to apply for a Visa. You also need to pay $1600 (I am not sure of the exact amount) if you are applying for the Visa yourself. In my case, my consultant sponsored my Visa and also applied for my H1. Hence, I will not be writing about the application process.

There are essentially 4 steps (rather 4 days) to get a Visa.

The first step (pick a random day) is to pay the Visa fees. This involves visiting a HDFC Bank branch in your city. Make sure that this branch is a well established central branch in the city. For Pune, you can opt for Bhandarkar Road, Shankarseth Road, Law College Road, etc. I opted for Bhandarkar Road. Carry your passport (actually you just need the photocopy of the passport), a pen and HDFC Bank cheque book with you. When you reach the branch, go to the Teller queue. There will be a board for one of the Teller queues which says "American Visa" or something similar. You should let the Teller know that you wish to pay the Visa fees. He will give you a form which will mostly be White in Color. Beneath this White form, there will be 2 more photocopies. These 2 will be Blue and Pink in Color. You need to enter the cheque details in this form.

There is an information board for American Visa. You can follow the steps written over there. There are 2 payments you need to make. The first one is in favor of VFS Global Services. They currently charge $131. On a given day, HDFC will have an exchange rate ready which will be a whole number. In my case it was Rs. 50. For Charan, it was Rs. 48. So the amount I needed to pay was 131 * 50 = Rs. 6550. So you will need to write a cheque in favor of US Embassy - Visa Fees for Rs. 6550. The details of this cheque should be entered in the top half of the form. The second payment is a constant in Indian currency. To be precise, it is Rs. 381 as of now. You need to write another cheque for this amount in favor of HDFC Bank A/C VFS. The details of this cheque should be entered in the bottom half of the form. Once you are done with this, you need to stand in the queue for "American Visa". The Teller will accept all 3 copies of the form along with the 2 cheques. He will keep the White form with him and give the Blue and Pink form back to you. Each of the 3 forms will have a bar code sticker. This will act as your Visa identification number for the remainder of the procedure. It will typically be a 9 digit bar code number. Before actually filling the form, you can ask the Teller if you need to provide 2 cheques. I had not asked this and basically followed the steps written on the information board of American Visa. These steps ask you to prepare 2 cheques whereas its alright if you merge both payments and provide one cheque only. In this case you will need to write just one cheque of Rs. 6931 in favor of US Embassy Visa Fees. You can ask the Teller if you are confused but its not a problem following the information board blindly.

If you don't have a HDFC savings account, you will need to carry cash or a DD. In this case, the Teller will give you another form. This is the cash/cheque deposit slip that you generally find in banks. You will need to enter the cash/DD details in this slip.

The first step (or the first day) concludes here. The output of this day is that you will get 2 stamped slips (forms). One Blue and the other Pink. As a summary, input is Passport (you don'tneed to carry the passport itself but even a photocopy of the first and last pages will do but its advisable to carry the passport too) and HDFC Cheque book/cash/DD and output is the 2 slips.

The bar code that you get in the first step needs around 2 working days to be activated. In my case, it took only 1 day. Once it is activated, you need to wait for your petition to arrive from the US. For H1, it is a petition. I am not sure if there are petitions for other Visas but there maybe similar documents. My petition had arrived at my consultant's office and he sent me the soft copy of the petition. Once you receive the soft copy of the petition, take a printout of the same.

Now comes the 2nd step (2nd day).

Its advisable that you follow this step 2 days after you have paid the Visa fees. You need to log on to and apply for the interview. Keep your passport and Blue/Pink slip with you since you are asked to enter the passport number and bar code number at various places. If the bar code has not been activated, you wont be allowed to proceed. Keep this in mind. The interview date and time are towards the fag end of this step. Before that, you need to provide some information. You need to fill 2 forms namely DS-156 and DS-157. Most of the fields in these 2 forms are similar to what you fill in your exam forms. But there are certain other fields like the Place you will be staying in the US, the address of your employer, the person with whom you will be staying, etc. For me, all these were given by my Consultant. So I blindly entered all that. DS-156 is the first form followed by DS-157. Please use Internet Explorer. I tried bothFirefox and Chrome and couldn't get through even one form. Once you are done with these 2 forms, the earliest available dates for the interview will be displayed. You can choose any date you want. Remember that you can be interviewed only on weekdays, hence apply for a leave at office/college before applying for the Visa interview. You can only choose the interview date. The interview time is auto generated and the system will tell you the interview time on the chosen date. Once the interview date is finalised, there be 2 more documents that the system will generate. These 2 will basically tell you about the Guidelines for H L and O visas and the documents you need to carry to the VFS office. So overall, you will have 5 PDF documents.

Interview letter
Guidelines for H, L and O visas
Checklist of documents that need to be carried to VFS office.

For safety, mail these 5 documents to your mailing address. Take a printout of all these documents. Affix your Visa photograph on DS-156 and also sign this form. The other forms do not need any photos or signatures.

Its advisable that you don't follow Step 2 in isolation but in conjunction with Step 3. Here comes Step 3.

Step 3 involves visiting any VFS office that is closest to you. For Pune, the closest ones are atMumbai, Ahmedabad and Pune itself. So the obvious choice will be Pune. The VFS office at Puneis situated at Sohrab Hall at the first floor. Its in the same wing as US Pizza. In case you don'tknow where Sohrab Hall is, it is the one diagonally opposite Jehangir Hospital. It is also on the left of Le Meridien and in a way, it is behind platform no 6 of the Pune Railway station. Now, why I say follow steps 2 and 3 in conjunction with each other is due to the fact that the day you visitPune VFS office should be 5 working days (or more) before your interview date. So when you follow step 2, make sure you choose a interview date that gives you ample time to visit the PuneVFS office 5 days before the interview date.

For example, if you select the interview date as Nov 7, 2008 and your are actually applying for the interview on Nov 4, 2008, it makes no sense since even if you visit Pune VFS office on Nov 4, 2008, it is not 5 days prior to your interview date. I will give you my example. I followed step 1 on Oct 21, 2008. Within a day, my bar code got activated. I applied for my Visa interview (step 2)on Oct 23, 2008. Note that I just applied on this date. It doesn't mean I chose Oct 23 as my interview date. I chose my interview date to be Nov 7, 2008 which gave me ample time to visitPune VFS office in time. I visited Pune VFS office on Oct 27, 2008. So what happens in step 3?

You need to carry your passport, Blue and Pink slips, printouts (and not photocopies) for DS-156, DS-157, your interview letter and some cash (carry 200 * no of people coming with you toMumbai for the interview including yourself). Carry photocopies for all the stamped pages of your passport along with the 1st and last pages of the passport. The VFS office is open from 8 am to 1 pm and then from 2pm to 3 pm. The earlier you go, the better. Even if you go late, youshouldn't take more than an hour over here. Whenever you are planning to visit the VFS office, please keep in mind that they don't allow you to carry bags. These include all bags except plastic bag. They will not listen to you and ask you to keep your bags somewhere else at your own risk. They allow only plastic bags. The security guard may keep your bag with him by accepting a bribe but then its up to you. So, please don't carry your documents in a college/office bag. Carry it in a plastic bag.

There are 2 ways to go to the Pune VFS office. Go through the main entrance of Sohrab Hall and take a lift/stairs to the 1st floor. DON'T DO THIS. I am glad Charan rightly told me to not to this. Instead, walk down the left side of Sohrab Hall. Thats from outside the boundary of Sohrab Hall and not inside. Remember that you have still not entered Sohrab Hall. Once you start walking from the left, you will see a huge gate on your right. Tell the security guard that you have come for the Visa. He will let you in. 10 steps down, there will another security guard. This guard belongs to the VFS office while the first one was for Sohrab Hall in general. The VFS security guard will ask you for the interview letter and passport. He will then give you a token and ask you to go to the 1st floor to the VFS office.

Once you are at the VFS office, you will be asked to stand in a queue outside the entrance of theVFS office (actually it depends on how many candidates are before you. I had gone at 8 am and I was the first candidate, so I was directly asked to go in because there was no1 before me). When its your turn, your token number will be called and you will enter the VFS office. There are 3 counters over there. You will be seated at first. Then either one of the 3 counter bearers will announce your token number. You then need to go to the appropriate counter and submit the photocopies for DS-156, DS-157, interview letter and passport pages. You also need to submit the Blue slip. Keep the Pink slip with you. After checking all the documents, the person will tell you about the address of your interview location in Mumbai and the time you are expected to be present over there. The person will also ask you if you would like to book the VFS Leather and Stripes Lounge in Mumbai for your interview. I will come to that in step 4. But you need to book that. Its worth it. Make sure you book the lounge for yourself as well as for the people who are coming with you for the interview. The charge is Rs. 200 per person. But, its OK if you don'tbook it in Pune itself. You can book it on the interview day at Mumbai itself but the charge there is Rs. 250.

Step 3 comes to an end.

Now step 4.

This is the D-Day and you are bound to be nervous on this day. Just look up your interview time. If its early in the morning (between 8-10), it implies one of the following

You leave Pune at around 2 am in the night to reach Mumbai in time for the interview.
You leave Pune the previous night and stay at some friend's/relative's place during the night

I opted for the 2nd since I wanted to be as close as possible to Mumbai in case of some travelling problem.

Carry the following:
photocopy of Interview letter
photocopy of dS-156
photocopy of DS-157
All your marksheets and convocation certificates from 10th to latest degree
All your appointment letters and experience letters
Petition original copy (you get this when your H1 is approved. My consultant sent this to me 4 days prior to leaving for Mumbai)
Payslips for last 3 months

Its important to carry these documents though they may not be checked at all on the interview day which happened with me. But they do take the passport and petition copy for sure.

Reaching the destination can also be a pain. You need to go to Worli. The VFS office in Mumbai is bang in front of Mahalaxmi temple. Actually its not but its a good landmark. The VFS office is bang in front of Swaminarayan temple but its better you tell the taxi/rik/bus that you want to go to Mahalaxmi temple coz its just next to Swaminarayan temple. But getting to the temple is much easier than getting to the closest railway station.

There are 3 railway lines in Mumbai namely Central, Western and Harbour. Depending on where you start from, you need to decide on the rail path that you need to take to reach the VFSoffice on time.

If you are on the Central line (all Pune-Mumbai trains run on this line), then you should board a local train to Byculla. Byculla is a fast train stop (a fast train stop is one where all local trains stop, no matter if the local is slow or fast). So you can get down at Byculla. Go the the West side of the station and hire a taxi to Mahalaxmi temple. It will take 10 minutes and roughly Rs. 30. I was staying at Thane the previous night and I boarded a slow local from Thane to VT. The duration of travel was 40 minutes. The stops for Central line (starting from Kalyan) are as follows:

KALYAN - Thakurli - DOMBIVLI - Diwa - Mumbra- Kalwa - THANE - Mulund - Nahur -Bhandup - KanjurMarg - Vikhroli - GHATKOPAR - Vidyavihar - KURLA - Sion - Matunga -DADAR - Parel - Curry Road - Chinchpokhli - BYCULLA. (After Byculla, the route is SandhurstRoad - Masjid - VT but you need to go till Byculla itself and not VT)

All stations marked in CAPS are the fast local stops. It means that I could have also boarded a fast local from Thane since it will take less time coz it doesn't stop at all other stops which are not in CAPS.

If you are on the Western line, you need to get down at Mahalaxmi station and hire a taxi toMahalaxmi station. Lets assume that you start from Borivali on the Western line, the stops will be as follows:

BORIVALI - Kandivali - Malad - Goregaon - Jogeshwari - ANDHERI - Vile Parle - Santacruz -Khar Road - BANDRA - Mahim - Matunga Road - DADAR - Elphinstone Road - Lower Parel -Mahalaxmi. (After Mahalaxmi, the route is MUMBAI CENTRAL - Grant Road - Charni Road - Marine Lines - CHURCHGATE but you need to travel only upto Mahalaxmi).

Note that Mahalaxmi is not a fast local stop, so don't board a fast local fromBorivali/Andheri/Bandra. The travelling time is roughly 50 minutes from Borivali to Mahalaxmi.

If you are on the Harbour line and assuming you start from Panvel (this is what Charan did), then there is a non-straightforward path that you need to take.

There are no fast locals on the Harbour line. You need to travel up to Kurla. Get down at Kurla. You will get down at Kurla (Harbour) platform. You need to walk up to Kurla (Central) platforms. Ask people for directions. Tell them you want to go to VT. Once you are at Kurla(central) platform, you can board either a slow or a fast local to VT (called CST). The remainder of the journey is same as the Central path mentioned above. So you need 2 local trains to reach the destination. One from Panvel to Kurla and the other from Kurla to Byculla.

For this, you can opt for another path for which you will need 3 trains. One from Panvel to Kurla, the next from Kurla to Dadar. You will get down at Dadar (Central) platform. Ask people for directions to Dadar (Western) platforms. Dadar station is very confusing so take care. Once you are at Dadar (Western), board a slow local to Churchgate. The remainder of the journey is same as that of the Western path. You need to get down at Mahalaxmi station.

The path on Harbour line (Panvel to Kurla) is as follows:

Panvel - Khandeshwar - Mansarovar - Kharghar - CBD Belapur - Seawoods - Nerul - Juinagar -Sanpada - Vashi - Mankhurd - Govandi - Chembur - Tilak Nagar - Kurla.

The time taken to travel from Panvel to Kurla is approximately 70 minutes.

No matter how many trains you need, make sure you buy just one ticket to avoid buying tickets at various stations. If you follows the option with 3 trains, you still need to get just 1 ticket.That's from Panvel to Mahalaxmi. You dont need 3 tickets for 3 trains. This is very important while travelling in Mumbai.

Mahalaxmi station is closer to the VFS office than Byculla station, The time difference is roughly 3 minutes and the cost difference is around Rs. 10. It will be nice if you check out Google maps once before travelling to Mumbai.

The Mumbai Suburban railway map is attached below.

Once you are the VFS office, you need to tell the security guard about your interview time. Just ask him the batch that has gone in most recently. You will get an idea about yourself. You don'tneed to stand in any queue. When the guard announces that your interview batch can go in, keep your interview letter ready. This letter will be checked and your lounge ticket will also be checked. Once this is done, you need to move towards the Lockers chamber. You need to carry only your documents and a plastic bag (if any). Everything else needs to be deposited in the Locker. This includes your other bags, cellphone, and other electronic device, etc. You will be provided with a Locker token. Keep it safely with you. The Lockers chamber also has 3 Dressing rooms. Its not necessary that you come to the VFS office in a professional attire. Instead, you can get your professional attire with you and change in the Dressing rooms.

Once this is done, you will enter the Leather and Stripes Lounge. Its a around-100 seater A/C room with a cafeteria and a giant screen. Carry your lounge ticket. You get one portion of sandwich and a glass of coffee with this token. You can always buy anything else that you need. You can relax in this lounge till the time your batch is announced again.

I entered the lounge at 8:10 am and I was there till 9:40. Once my batch was announced, I was asked to keep my interview letter and passport ready and board the bus to the American consulate. I was also asked to submit my lounge token. The bus takes you to the American consulate which is hardly a kilometre down the same road. Once you get down, you will be asked to stand in a queue outside the consulate. I was asked to keep my interview letter, passport and petition original copy ready. Once they checked all 3 of these, we were asked to enter the consulate and stand in another queue. This queue is for the security check. You are required to hand over everything other than the clothes that you are wearing at the counter. You then go through a security doorway which detects if you have anything fishy. I could not pass this check since I had not removed my Kada. But then I removed it and passed the check. All your stuff is handed back to you and you are given a pink token after submitting your passport, interview letter and petition. You are then asked to stand in yet another queue for fingerprinting.

Overall, there are around 20 counters inside the consulate. Counters 1 to 4 are purely for fingerprinting whereas the remaining are for interviews. The interview counters are like telephone booths with a glass pane dividing the booth. The Visa officer sits across the glass pane while you are supposed to stand on the other side. There are close to 200 seats inside where you can wait for your turn. Fingerprinting is done in 3 steps:

Four fingers of your left hand - thats all fingers except the thumb
Four fingers of your right hand - thats all fingers except the thumb
Both the thumbs

You have to place your fingers on a green electronic rectangular sensing device.

Once this is done, you need to occupy one of the 200 seats available and wait for your turn. The announcements are based on the token number that you have been given after entering the consulate.

Its worth to note the expressions of all the candidates. Obviously, everyone is nervous but its important to stay calm. You can either strike a conversation to someone or talk to yourself or humm a song or anything that keeps you calm. I was humming the National Anthem all along.

Its entirely possible that even though your interview is scheduled early, it may take upto 1 pm or 2 pm for your interview. For example, your interview might be at 8 am but it may actually end up being at 1 pm. This is because the token numbers (and hence the passport and petition) are processed randomly. As soon as they are processed, they are forwarded to some counter. Depending on the load of that counter, your token is called out. So its possible that someone who came after you finished his/her interview before. The speaker quality is also a bit dodgy. You may not hear properly. So its important you locate a speaker which is sounds good and sit close to it. In any case, even if you miss your token being called, they repeat it until you go to the counter.  All speakers are situated at the ceiling of the room. So as soon as fingerprinting is done, start looking upwards to locate a suitable speaker.

They will also scrutinize your photograph on DS-156. If they feel that there is even a bit of a problem on the photo, they will ask you to click new photos altogether from their In-house photographer. They charge Rs. 200 for this. So carry some cash. The photo should be 5cm * 5cm and with a white background. Its advisable that people with spects should remove their spects before clicking the Visa photo. The photo can be either a glossy or matte finish print. Your face (and not your upper body) should cover atleast 70% of the size of the photo.

My token number was announced at 11 am and I was asked to come at counter 10. I was the last of 5 candidates standing in the queue at counter 10. The first 2 candidates were out within 5 minutes collectively. The 3rd one was grilled for around 10-12 minutes and it was not at all comforting when he came out grim faced. All along, I was chatting to the person in front of me just to take my focus away from the task ahead. He was applying for a Visa renewal so I expected him to be out in a jiffy. And I was right. It was time for me to go in. This is what exactly happened.

Interviewer : Can I see you pink token please?
Me : Sure. Here you go (giving the token to him).
Interviewer : Ok. Mr. Pratik Beri. Is that right?
Me: Absolutely.
Interviewer : So which company do you work for in India?
Me : AirTight Networks Private Limited.
Interviewer : Which company are you going to work for in the US?
Me : Collabera Inc.
Interviewer : How many employees work for Collabera?
Me : Between 3500 - 4000
Interviewer : What is MCS? Is it your specialization course? What is your specialization?
Me : Yes, Its a specialization in Computer Science.
Interviewer : So its degree in computer science?
Me : NO. (he gives a confused look). its a post graduate degree in computer science.
Interviewer : (smiles). Yes, exactly. (gives me the petition). Thats all. Carry this when you are travelling.
Me : Thank You. Have a nice day ahead.

When I came out, I was a bit confused. I didnt know if my Visa was granted. The fact that he said "Carry this while you are travelling" meant that I can travel but I was still not sure. I came out of the consulate. The bus that takes us back to the VFS office was due in 20 minutes but I did not want to wait that long. You can opt to walk down the road (it will take around 20 minutes). I did that and went back walking to the VFS office and collected all my stuff from the Locker and finally everything was done.

You can collect your passport from the Consulate betwen 5:30 pm and 6:30 pm the same day although they dont guarantee that you will get it on the same day. In any case, the passport (along with the Visa) is couriered to your mailing address within 3 working days. In my case, it was couriered the next day itself at 1 pm.

This is a brief rundown on Charan's interview which was much more gruelling than mine. This chat is from Charan's point of view.

CSD = Charan
VO = Visa officer

CSD : Good afternoon ma’am!
VO: Hello!
VO: What is your qualification?
CSD : MCS i.e. Master of Computer Science
VO: From?
CSD : Pune University
VO: What is the duration of this course?
CSD : 2 years
VO: So this is a post graduation course, right?
CSD : Yes
VO: And what did you do for your graduation?
CSD : BCS i.e. Bachelor of Computer Science from Pune University
VO: What is the duration of the course?
CSD : 3 years
VO: Can I see your academic certificates?
CSD : Yes ma’am. (I gave my documents. She was looking at my Convocation certificates and other document just like we check a Rs. 500 note from various angles to confirm its authenticity. It was making me nervous.)
VO: Do you have any experience?
CSD : Yes ma’am. More than 5 years. I worked in banking sector for 15 months then for Symantec for 3 years and now I am in Calsoft for about 10 months.
VO: Which company will you be working for in US?
CSD : Collabera
VO: Ohh! Whats does this company do?
CSD : They are into banking, finance, insurance, medical and telecom. Would you like to see their profile?
VO: Yes please.
CSD : (I gave her the documents. She went through the documents carefully)
VO: Did they mail you these documents?
CSD : No Ma’am they sent it by courier.
VO: (With a Big question mark on her face) Ohh so this is a genuine document, right?
CSD : Yes ma’am. (I had the courier envelope with him.) Would you like to see the envelope they sent? (I showed it to her.)
VO: Where is the sender’s address on it?
CSD : (It had a ink stamp of Collabera with Mumbai office’s address. Ipointed it to her)
VO: It has come from Mumbai, not US, right? (Again with a big question mark)
CSD : (Iwas feeling like being interrogated in a Police Custody) Yes ma’am. (Trying to maintain my composure) As you can see in their profile, they have 4 development centers in US as well as 2 development centers in India. One is in Bangalore and the other is in Mumbai.
VO: Ok. (Starts searching something on the computer)
VO: Is this primarily a staffing company?
CSD : (by now my heart was pounding 720 times a minute instead of 72 times a minute) No ma’am. This is a services based company. They have prominent clients like Verizon, AT&T, AIG etc. They have 4 development centers in US. Would you like to see the photographs of these offices?
VO: Yes
CSD : (I showed her the photographs)
VO: OK. Which client would you be working for?
CSD : Ma’am, I’ll come to know about the client and project only when I am physically available in the US.
VO: (With one eyebrow raised, mischievously, cunningly etc whatever) See, I can’t grant you a VISA as there is no work ready for you in US. By rules, I can grant you VISA only if you have a client waiting for you over there.
CSD : (I thought I am lost now. But I took a 2-3 second pause and took a deep breath. Keeping myself calm I answered) Yes ma’am, I can understand your situation. But if Collabera confirms the client of my availability on a certain date and due to some reason I am not able to reach there on time, it becomes a bad scene for Collabera. So it’s only after I land in the US and looking at my special skill sets, I’ll be allotted a project and client. They just can’t assign me to a project before I am physically present in the US. (I don’t know if she was convinced)
VO: What have you worked on so far?
CSD : Ma’am I am a C/C++ Unix developer. Currently I am into device driver development. Before that in Symantec I was working on a big Data protection product. And before that in a bank. I built various applications for that bank.
VO: Are you currently working for Collabera?
CSD : No ma’am. I am working for Calsoft in Pune. I’ll be leaving Calsoft to join Collabera.
VO: (Again she searched something on net and then those golden words came out…) Ok I am approving your VISA. You will get your passport within two days.
CSD : (With a big smile on face) Thanks a lot ma’am. Am I done or any formality is still remaining?
VO: No. You can leave the consulate.
CSD : Ok. Thanks a lot ma’am.

One final word. Keep your answers to the point. Do not say something you are not sure of. As much as possible, answers should be one-word or one-phrase. Do not submit anything unless asked to.

I hope this helps anyone who is planning for a US Visa.

Cheers ... !!


Charuta said...

Very detailed post, thanks a lot. I know my first stop if I go the H1 route

jitu said...

This is a Richard Stevens Style Doc, Thanks Man

Punkil Patel said...

Nice Post!

Detailed and lot of info. Thanks for posting it.


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Puru Patil said...

It was very helpful post. In order to follow the First step - all I have to do is convert it to Marathi so my Father can follow it - thank you so much for the detail information!!

Have a good one!!

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