For over 4.5 years I avoided dealing with visa hassles and stayed in the United States while working on my Ph.D.. This year I was on academic job market, which required me to travel to different countries for interviews. My visa stories are neither dramatic, nor uncommon, yet a good example of puzzles we have to solve given our Iranian passports. Test yourself and see if you can follow the puzzles till the end!
Early in the winter I received an invitation for a job talk in Australia. Followed by an invitation from university of Toronto in Canada, I decided to plan both these trips after my interviews inside the U.S. so that I can go out of the U.S. only once and without risking to miss an interview inside the country. I started to plan the trips about 7 weeks in advance. It sounded simple: I needed to get the Australian visa, the Canadian visa, and the U.S. visa once I go to Canada. The plan was to travel to Canada and have my interview, apply for my U.S. visa there, go to Australia and have my talk, come back to the Canada and receive my U.S. visa which hopefully is ready by then, and come back into the U.S.
The first challenge surfaced when I noticed that the Australian visa takes 4 weeks for citizens of certain countries (and that term always applies to Iran, no matter the regulations of which country you are looking at) and the Canadian visa takes over 3 weeks, and if I post my passport to these consulates, it would be infeasible to do the whole process in 7 weeks or so that I had until the time for the trips. To solve this problem, I decided to fly to Washington D.C., apply in person in one consulate, take my passport to the second consulate and have them post it back to the first one after they had issued my visa. Then the first consulate will post it to me after they issued their visa. This plan sounded perfect in that it overlapped some of the waiting times and allowed me to get both visas in 6 weeks or so given the planning and posting delays. I therefore bought my tickets to fly to D.C. and decided to also reserve my flights to Canada and Australia before prices go up.
Then another challenge surfaced: there was no direct flights from Canada to Australia. Most flights would pass through the United States, but that requires a U.S. visa, which I wouldn't have at the time of travel to Australia. Other routes through Europe or Asia also needed some further transit visa which would have required another couple of weeks of posting and waiting… the problem started to look without any feasible solution space… and after a week of thinking about different options, I finally decided to forego the Australian job opportunity. I therefore cancelled my DC trip and instead took a bus to New York and applied for my Canadian visa there.
A week or so later, I noticed that I should get an appointment from the U.S. consulate in Canada, preferably in Toronto, so that I apply for my visa as soon as I get there. To do so you need to wake up at 7am and go to a website to reserve an appointment when open spots are released into the system and before they are all booked. However, the new challenge was that for the most relevant consulate for me (Toronto) they already had released all the spots in the days I was planning to go there. I went back there for several days early in the morning hoping that somebody will cancel their appointment that I can get… but that was an unrealistic expectation. A week later I ended up being left with the only option of getting an appointment in Calgary, four hours of flight and hundreds of dollars further from Toronto, which I did. Now finally I had everything planned: I would go to Toronto and have my interviews, fly to Calgary and apply for my visa, come back to Toronto and hopefully the visa will be ready in about 10 days and they will post it to me so that I don't need another trip to Calgary and I can get to another job talk at Amherst which was later planned for after my arrival.
The trip to Calgary was smooth, and even though the consulate didn't accept to keep my passport and asked me to send it to them once they were done with my background checking, a good friend there graciously accepted to take it to them so that I avoid any further posting delays. I left the passport with him with a pre-paid Canada post courier envelope, guaranteed for next day delivery.
Ten days later in Toronto I was starting to get anxious: the officer in consulate had mentioned that the background check is usually ready in two weeks, but I hadn't yet received mine and I was running out of time to catch the Amherst interview. So I had to push back the interview to early next week (I couldn't have that interview too late because I needed to make my final decision on which place to go in two weeks following an offer from Virginia Tech).
By the end of the second week I contacted U.S. consulate through fax (they don't have phone inquiries) and they called me and said the background check is not yet ready, but I can call state department and find out. So I called the state department and they said it is already sent to Calgary. I faxed consulate again but they had no news and said they will call me when the background check is back. It was already end of the week and given the posting delay, I had to change the interview time once more. This is not trivial since a job talk includes several interviews with different faculty members and a formal talk. Fortunately the Amherst folks graciously accommodated the re-schedule for the next Thursday.
Finally, on Monday the 10th of April at 1:20 pm (11:20am Calgary time) a consulate official called me with the good news that my background check has been successfully conducted and the visa can be picked up. In response to the question if my friend can come over right away, they said they close in 10 minutes for today, so there is no hope until tomorrow morning. I was finally happy and confirmed the plans for getting the visa posted on Tuesday, receiving it on Wednesday and driving to Amherst right away, with my girldfriend who has been delaying her return waiting for my visa. The next day my friend confirmed that he has delivered my passport to the embassy and the official has ensured him that the visa and passport will be mailed to me with the provided courier mail envelope the same day. He also supplied me with the tracking number.
Next morning we packed and waited for the package to arrive, though anxious that the tracking number hadn't showed up online… mistakenly attributing that to delays in updating of Canadian postal system. At noon I decided to follow up with the consulate, after all the postal service had guaranteed a delivery by noon. I sent the fax to the consulate and started to think about the contingency plans. I felt embarrassed to contact the Amherst school once more; besides, I was getting close to deadline for replying to my Virginia Tech's job offer. I finally contacted the Amherst folks and let them know about the challenge. We decided to wait for another hour or two and, in the absence of positive news, reschedule for next week; meanwhile I asked for an extension of response-time from the Virginia tech.
We heard nothing and so rescheduled the talk for next Wednesday, given the other constraints on the school side. At 3pm I finally received a call from the consulate: the officer said the visa has not yet been processed, and it wouldn't be sent until tomorrow. It was like a surprise bucket of cold water on my head… I should delay my trip for another two days… or so I thought.
My girlfriend informed me of Friday and next Monday being Canadian holidays, leaving me with the possibility that the passport is not delivered until next Tuesday! Contacts with Canada post confirmed this suspicion: if the package is sent on Thursday, it wouldn't arrive until next Tuesday. The other sad part of story was that my girlfriend could no more afford to be away from her job and had to return by the end of the week, therefore she now had to drive back alone and I had to buy return flight ticket.
Finally, on Tuesday morning, the passport arrived. I bought my ticket right away, and went to the airport 2 hours before the flight, after all, Iranians have to go through special registration before entering the U.S.. The line for special registration had a 40 minute waiting time, and the officer took 1 complete hour to do my special registration, i.e. enter 10-15 items of information into the system… I was jumping up and down anxiously as every additional second increased the chances of missing my flight. At the end, the probability converged to one and I missed my flight. Fortunately a late night flight took me back to U.S. and after an hour of drive I made it to the hotel for my next morning job talk and interviews.
This is more or less the end of my visa story. As I said, it was not so dramatic: I was back into the U.S. in a month, compared to my friend Ali who got stuck for 13 month, once he left the country to get married. Neither I lost a big job opportunity: I happily accepted the Virginia Tech offer and I am looking forward to the new position. Yet the stress, and at times the humiliation, were unpleasant.