This is a rough outline of how I became an Alien Spouse living in America. It's a time line of 2007 and is focused on the visa application process and what that involved for me.
Please do not take these notes as the letter of the law, and do not write angry e-mails to me if this isn't how things work out for you. I can only write about my own experience of immigration. I am not an immigration official. I am not an immigration lawyer. I am definitely not an expert. These are purely my notes on the experience I had of emigrating from the UK to the US, and some one else would most likely have a totally different experience.
It's also for those reasons that I'm not giving the exact amounts of the fees involved or the questions asked, because those type of things are so easily subject to change, and I don't intend to monitor them closely. For those details I would highly recommend going to the website for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, which can be found at www.uscis.gov. That will have the most up to date information.
So now we've established that, let us begin.
- September 2002
I was happily living in Brighton and commuting to work in London when I first met a cute American PhD student at the cinema, and we started to go out. I remember someone asking within the first month what would happen when he finished his course and he had to go home. I said we'd have to wait and see, because it was a good four years away at that point.
- October 2006
Fast forward four years, we had been living together for about a year at this stage, and it became a more pressing issue. We had to make decisions about if we wanted to stay together, and where we wanted to live. The first question was easy because we loved each other and we knew that we wanted to stay together, but where we would live bit was more difficult. The Doc would have to go where ever he could find a job, and he was already applying for jobs in both the US and the UK, so we started looking into the immigration laws of our respective countries.
One thing that immediately becomes clear is that no amount of hearts and flowers or pet-names and smooches is going to make an immigration officer's heart melt. I'm sure immigration officers are lovely people, but I'm equally sure they see that particularly scene acted out every day with monotonous regularity and varying degrees of authenticity. This is one of the reasons why being married makes things slightly easier, because there is legal documentation to prove your commitment to your relationship and that can help in some situations.
One Sunday I came out of the shower with a long speech in mind about how sensible it would be for us to get married, for all sorts of reasons not all connected with visas by any means, and the Doc nonchalantly said "Yeah. I've been thinking that too".
The very first thing we had to do was apply to the British immigration service for permission to marry. You have to get a certificate from the immigration service to say you can get married before you can do anything else, as it has to be given to the registrar before they can marry you. I forget how much it costs, but it took about a month to come through.
- January 2007
We got married!
Two days after the wedding, and before we could go on Honeymoon, we had to drive to Croyden to get the Doc's student visa changed to a permanent resident visa. We had to wait in one line outside the building to get our forms checked before being sent to the cashier to pay a couple of hundred pounds in fees . Once we'd paid that we had to hand in our papers and wait to be called to another window, where our paper work was checked through and we were asked various questions. Then we had to wait for the Doc's passport to be given the right stamps.
Bear in mind that the Doc's permanent resident visa was a fairly straight forward proposition. He had already had all of the necessary health and background checks done when he had applied for his student visa, he didn't have a criminal record in either the US or the UK, and he was now married to me and I was earning enough to support him, should that be necessary.
At around the same time as we had successfully arranged the Doc's visa to stay in the UK, he got a job interview in North Carolina. We decided to wait and see what happened.
- February 2007
We were just getting on with other stuff, and waiting to hear if Doc got the job before we made decisions on what we wanted to do if/when that happened.
- March 2007
Doc C was offered a job in North Carolina. This meant we had to apply for an Alien Spouse visa for me straight away. We had waited until he was actually offered a job in the States before we did this, because right up until he actually accepted the job offer, we could easily have been staying in the UK and the visa application is not cheap.
We decided not to hire an immigration lawyer, because we couldn't really afford it and because our application would be relatively straight forward. We knew there will be a lot of paperwork involved, however we soon realised that the paperwork isn't particularly hard to fill out, it's just tedious and occasionally repetitive.
The first step was for the Doc to submit an initial application to the US immigration service, and that cost X amount of money. We applied to the London office because we had heard this might make things slightly quicker. Our first application was refused because they didn't think the Doc was a resident of the UK. We then applied to the US office, but the Doc also sent a second application to the London office with more proof of his residential status in the UK.
- April 2007
We started house-hunting in North Carolina, and began to look into the logistics of moving everything we own to America.
I decided to start blogging, taking the name of my blog from a repeated phrase on the visa application forms.
We did not hear anything from the US Immigration Service for the whole of April.
- May 2007
On the 16th to be precise, the Doc received an e-mail telling him that our application would be processed by the London office.
- June 2007
On the 21st we got a letter from the Embassy, marking the beginning of phase two of the visa application process, this letter was asking for more information and essentially meant we had to provide proof we are a couple.
To do this we had to supply evidence that we were married, and we had to find photos of us together over the course of our relationship (the only part of the process that bore any relation the film "Green Card"). Finally we had to supply sworn affidavits from three people who would swear to the bona fide of our marriage and sign a statement in front of a solicitor to that affect.
- July 2007
At this stage things got a bit sticky because the Doc had to go to North Carolina to prepare to start teaching, I went with him for a month but then had to come back to the UK to complete the application process.
- August 2007
The main difficulty now was where should I live in the UK whilst waiting to join him in the States? I couldn't afford to stay in the house we were living in by myself, and it didn't make sense to look for another flat in London for an indefinite but, most likely, short time period. The best option seemed to be for me to move into my parents spare room and look for temp work there. This plan had it's difficulties, crucially that my parents live in rural Norfolk and without a car I wasn't able to travel independently. There were no jobs locally, and no regular bus service to get me to the nearest town. So I was in the position of not being able to afford to live in London where I had a job, but, once I'd moved back to Norfolk, not being able to find a job.
Now I had to get a police records check done, which takes forty days to be processed and costs a small fee. I knew my police record was entirely clean, but for obvious reasons my word on the matter would not be good enough. As part of the Police Records check (Which is usually referred to as a PNC Check) I needed to supply all my past addresses from the age of sixteen, and all of my work places for the past ten years. Being me, I couldn't remember the exact addresses of anywhere I'd lived whilst at University, but we managed to get enough information eventually.
The Doc also had to draw up an affidavit of support, which had to be verified by his tax records and a letter from his employers confirming he had a job and a salary that would support a dependent wife.
Once I had received both the police records check and the affidavit of support, I could then apply for my interview at the American Embassy in London, but I had to have them both before I could do that.
- September 2007
Mid-September I received my police records check which states there is no record of me on the national police records computer.
I immediately applied for my interview at the embassy, the embassy website says that we will receive a letter advising us of the interview a month in advance of the interview date.
I obtained my immunisation records from my doctors, and also had a medical examination with the only doctors certified by the US immigration service. The medical involved a chest x-ray, blood sample, breast exam and booster jabs for a couple of immunisations that were out of date.
I also had to get passport photos taken, but these had to be of a very specific dimension and cost £15 for two copies. That price has probably gone up, but I mention it specifically because I was so stunned by it.
- October 2007
Knowing that I only applied for the interview in mid-September and expecting we will get a month's notice before the date of the interview, we were anticipating the interview will take place in November at the very earliest. We had learnt by this point that official cogs and wheels move pretty slowly, and that you have to be patient, so November was very much a best case scenario.
Bearing in mind we hadn't seen each other in two months, we decided that I should fly over for another month in North Carolina.
Within 48 hours of landing we had a call from my Mum telling me that I had to fly home now because my visa interview was the next week.
I flew back, and went to London for the US Embassy interview which was at eight thirty in the morning.
The interview naturally involved a lot of waiting and the thought did run through my head that I was sitting in what was probably one of the most security conscious places in London because it was also one of the prime targets for a terrorist attack. Not a nice thought.
There were four stages to the interview.
- First I handed over my paperwork to a clerk who simply checked I had everything, put it in a file and then handed the file over to the immigration officers to review.
- Whilst my paperwork was being reviewed, I was sent to pay the cashier a large sum of money, and then wait in the main waiting area.
- This is the most important stage. I was called to see an immigration officer, who had already got my paperwork. She asked me a few simple questions, took my fingerprints and asked me to raise my right hand and swear I was telling the truth in all respects of my visa application. The fingerprints would be run through a database to check they weren't recorded in connection with any unsolved crimes, but assuming they weren't (which, of course, they weren't!) I would be granted my visa.
- Finally I had to pay the embassy's courier firm to send the paper work and my properly stamped passport to my parent's house in Norfolk.
All in all the interview at the Embassy probably took less than two hours, and felt more like two years.
The courier service delivered my passport and a large sealed envelope that must not be opened by anyone other than an immigration control officer in the United States. This mysterious envelope had to be carried as hand luggage and handed over as I went through passport control. I was told this part could take hours, and advised to bring a good book.
Finally on the 25th of October I landed in Detroit (Where I was catching a connecting flight to Charlotte N.C.) and I handed over the unopened envelope and my passport to the passport control official. He called another colleague to process my visa at a booth reserved solely for that purpose.
Once at the specific booth, my sealed envelope was opened and there was really nothing particularly interesting in there, it was essentially all the paperwork that I'd submitted at the embassy. Presumably it's sealed in an envelope to prevent any tampering or alterations being made to the paperwork between the embassy interview and the processing at the point of entry to the US. I would imagine that a lot of this is done to ensure that the person who made the application, and was interviewed at the Embassy, is in fact the person who enters the country, hence all the photographs and finger-printing.
I had my finger print taken with a proper ink pad (that's the print that appears on my resident alien card) as opposed to the electronic prints that had been taken at the embassy, and was asked some general questions. Now at this stage the US still has the right to refuse entry, and turn down your visa application and all the previous effort can come to nothing so I was very aware of being polite and helpful. It was all fine, and I was processed in about fifteen minutes, maybe less, my passport was stamped with the necessary stamp. I was welcomed to America and allowed to continue my journey to North Carolina.
At this stage I got a little unexpectedly dewy eyed, and called the Doc to tell him I'd arrived and could stay.
- November 2007
- December 2007
I was still waiting for my resident alien card, but more crucially my social security number without which I could not apply for a job.
When I phoned the immigration service to ask about this, as the website advises you do if you are an alien spouse who officially arrived more than thirty days ago. I was told there was a delay of approximately fifteen weeks for social security numbers. Immigration and citizenship has really become a buzz word issue in the last few months, and many presidential candidates are making it a key point in their election campaigns. This means that there is definitely a change in policy on it's way and so a large number of immigrants are applying now. This spike in applications is what is causing the delay.
On the 20th of December I received my Permanent Resident card.
- January 2008
Still waiting for my Social Security Number, until our patience finally snapped on the 26th and I phoned the Social Security Helpline. The number I called is the one that the SSN website recommends you call if you have not yet received your SSN and need to find out why. The automated telephone system will not connect you with a real live person who can answer this question until you have entered your Social Security Number. Can you spot the deliberate mistake?
Finally the Doc had to call and give his number (Thank God one of us already had the damned thing), so he could ask what we should do. The advice was to wait. So Doc C asked if we could go to out local office to ask if my name was already in the system and being processed, and if not, could we fill out a new application? Well, yes we could do that. However we would have to wait in a queue (The Horror!) and it would take a few days to be sent to us.
On Monday 28th January, we went to the local Social Security Office, making sure we were there the moment the doors opened for business. My name wasn't on the system, so I filled out a new application form.
- February 2008
Seven days after submitting the new application at the local Social Security office, on Monday 4th February I received a Social Security Number of my very own.
It turns out that I got my Visa application in just a couple of months before a massive spike in applications, and that has doubled waiting times. This has clearly also had a knock on effect on the waiting times for a resident alien to receive their SSN. So by all means do tick the box on the Visa application form that asks if you would like them to process your Social Security Number application, but don't hold your breath waiting for the thing to actually arrive. If you don't get it within a reasonable time frame, say 6 weeks, then make some noise, by all means be polite, but definitely make some noise!
- 2008 - ?
So that, in a nutshell, was that. If you want to read a more in-depth blow by blow of how it all happened and how I felt about it at the time, well obviously I blogged about it all as it was happening. I've put the relevant stories in the "Green Card and Visa" category.
In retrospect my experience of the immigration process from the UK to the US was that it's pretty complicated, even if you are married to an American citizen. Immigration officials do not show up at the wedding to throw rice and green cards at you. The visa process requires a sustained effort so you have to be absolutely certain that this is what you want, because it is a major hassle. You will have to be willing to drop everything at a moments notice from the immigration service and usually what you need to do at any given point is massively inconvenient. It's also not cheap, this process ate up all of our available cash and a tasty chunk of credit. sigh.
The worse part for me was all the waiting, because you think for the whole waiting period "What if I didn't fill that in properly? What if I screwed this whole thing up because I made a stupid mistake on the form?". Particularly if, as in our case, you have to wait in a different country to your husband or wife. That is really hard, and I highly recommend joining Skype and Facebook to keep in touch and therefore sane. We found that playing scrabble on-line was really helpful, because you honestly can't keep saying "I miss you" for an hour every night for two solid months. It gets boring and depressing, much better to have some sort of joint distraction and entertainment.
The thing I wasn't really properly prepared for was not being able to make any plans at all for the best part of a year. I feel like most of that time was spent waiting for something, and once that something had happened a new something would take it's place and have to be waited for in it's turn. You have to get quite zen about it all, or you just end up really stressed out.
And that's it.
That's how I became an Alien Spouse. So far I quite like it.