Thursday, June 20, 2013

The $4,500 Visa Saga (Not the Credit Card, the United States B-2 visitors visa)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Apparently not if you are from Slovakia and want to arrive in the United States by private sailboat.

It seemed so simple. I wanted help bringing Reboot back to the United States for a yard period. I needed to visit my doctors and wanted to share my family and beautiful country. Andrea (a citizen of Slovakia and the European Union) had been sailing with me for six months. We had been in and out of 10+ countries in the Caribbean with no problem. The United States code does not permit travel under the "visa waver" program to the United States on a private sailboat. You must arrive on an "approved carrier" which means a commercial flight. Andy could have applied for an ESTA, flown to Miami for about $150 and stayed in a hotel while I brought Reboot back to the United States.

I did my Internet research. It said that Andy needed a B-2 visitors visa for entry on Reboot. There are only two places in the Caribbean with an American Embassy. The obvious choice was Nassau in the Bahamas. I checked online for the visa wait times - 1 day.

The process is typically bureaucratic. First you apply. Then you pay. Then you go for an interview. Then you wait. We applied. I helped Andy translate the questions. It took 5 hours to fill out the application. Since the only place you can pay the fee is in Nassau I sent the Embassy an email and asked for special consideration to book the interview and then pay. I was turned down.

We arrived in Nassau. I went to the web site for directions to the "Cash-and-Go" to pay and found out that they take credit cards over the Internet. I paid and found out the next interview opening was 8 days later. We stayed in the marina at $100 per day and waited for the interview.

Andy went to the interview. Because she has very limited English language skills the "consular officer" invited me to come in and help translate. What I was asked to translate was that they were turning Andy down for a visa because she did not have a reason to go back to Slovakia. I explained that we were sailing the world and that Andy had no interest in going to Slovakia as we were heading for Mexico, Belize Guatemala, etc. on our way to the Pacific once Reboot was fixed. I offered to purchase an airplane ticket to Slovakia. I pointed out that we had be in 10+ countries in the past 6 months and never had a problem. Nothing I said made any difference.

Now it turns out that "consular officers" have the final say. No appeal rights. No other recourse.

I contacted my Congressman. I spoke to a very nice staff person. She said she would do what she could but that this is a story they have heard over and over and not to get my hopes up.

I figured, OK, I understand how this goes. So I purchased a plane ticket to Miami and a plane ticket in August to Slovakia. Andy applied for an ESTA under the visa waver program. Turn around time - 3 days. Outcome - turned down - we presume because she had been turned down for the visa. Scratch one non-refundable ticket to Miami.

We saw the hand writing on the wall. I purchased Andy a ticket on British Airways direct Nassau - London Heathrow. Then a car service to Stansted. A RyanAir ticket from London to Bratislava, Slovakia. We try to check in online. Check in online is blocked. We go to the airport - check in is no problem. (Of course I lost 10 pounds of sweat during the 24 hours before the flight worrying that they would not let her on the airplane.)

Andy gets on the plane and I sigh in relief. After all, what can go wrong now? She is an EU citizen traveling in the EU. Was I naive.

Andy arrives in London, gets her bags and goes to Customs. They take her apart. She spends about 2 1/2 hours in Customs while they empty her bag, sniff every bottle, and in general give her a hard time. Of course she doesn't speak enough English to understand what is going on. She is in tears.

They finally let her go. Of course the car service has long ago left. Apparently some kind soul with a telephone calls the car service and they say they will come back for an additional charge of 40 pounds. So back they come and on to Stansted. Where she of course misses the flight. RyanAir is not amused. The ticket was non-refundable. She did not fly. Tough luck. Purchase another ticket. So after sleeping in the airport all night she gets on the morning flight to Bratislava.

Andy does not live in Bratislava. She lives in Trencin, about 100 km away. After driving to Bratislava and finding no Andy her family returned home and drove back the next day. European fuel prices being what they are, and the terrible economy in Slovakia make this more than a minor annoyance.. But she at last arrives home.

So after paying for the marina, airline tickets, visa fees, ESTA fees, car service fees, and cab fares to the airport I am out about $4,500. All because I wanted help bringing Reboot from Nassau to Miami.

Thank you United States Government. You make me proud to be a citizen that gave 30 years of his life serving in the United States Navy.

Fair winds and following seas.

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