a US visa in 937 days

Here’s the complete timeline of events. From my first denial to travel to the US until I eventually received a tourist visa. And then I can’t go anyway.

December 5-11, 2016

I spent a week on Hawaii with Mozilla – my employer at the time. This was my 12th visit to the US over a period of 19 years. I went there on ESTA, the visa waiver program Swedish citizens can use. I’ve used it many times, there was nothing special this time. The typical procedure with ESTA is that we apply online: fill in a form, pay a 14 USD fee and get a confirmation within a few days that we’re good to go.

I took this photo at the hotel we stayed at during the Mozilla all-hands on Hawaii 2016.

June 26, 2017

In the early morning one day by the check-in counter at Arlanda airport in Sweden, I was refused to board my flight. Completely unexpected and out of the blue! I thought I was going to San Francisco via London with British Airways, but instead I had to turn around and go back home – slightly shocked. According to the lady behind the counter there was “something wrong with my ESTA”. I used the same ESTA and passport as I used just fine back in December 2016. They’re made to last two years and it had not expired.

Tweeted by me, minutes after being stopped at Arlanda.

People engaged by Mozilla to help us out could not figure out or get answers about what the problem was (questions and investigations were attempted both in the US and in Sweden), so we put our hopes on that it was a human mistake somewhere and decided to just try again next time.

April 3, 2018

I missed the following meeting (in December 2017) for other reasons but in the summer of 2018 another Mozilla all-hands meeting was coming up (in Texas, USA this time) so I went ahead and applied for a new ESTA in good time before the event – as I was a bit afraid there was going to be problems. I was right and I got denied ESTA very quickly. “Travel Not Authorized”.

Rejected from the ESTA program.

Day 0 – April 17, 2018

Gaaah. It meant it was no mistake last year, they actually mean this. I switched approach and instead applied for a tourist visa. I paid 160 USD, filled in a ridiculous amount of information about me and my past travels over the last 15 years and I visited the US embassy for an in-person interview and fingerprinting.

This is day 0 in the visa process, 296 days after I was first stopped at Arlanda.

Day 90 – July 2018

I missed the all-hands meeting in San Francisco when I didn’t get the visa in time.

Day 240 – December 2018

I quit Mozilla, so I then had no more reasons to go to their company all-hands…

Day 365 – April 2019

A year passed. “someone is working on it” the embassy email person claimed when I asked about progress.

Day 651- January 28, 2020

I emailed the embassy to query about the process

Screenshotted email

The reply came back quickly:

Dear Sir,

All applications are processed in the most expeditious manner possible. While we understand your frustration, we are required to follow immigration law regarding visa issuances. This process cannot be expedited or circumvented. Rest assured that we will contact you as soon as the administrative processing is concluded.

Day 730 – April 2020

Another year had passed and I had given up all hope. Now it turned into a betting game and science project. How long can they actually drag out this process without saying either yes or no?

Day 871 – September 3, 2020

A friend of mine, a US citizen, contacted his Congressman – Gerry Connolly – about my situation and asked for help. His office then subsequently sent a question to the US embassy in Stockholm asking about my case. While the response that arrived on September 17 was rather negative…

your case is currently undergoing necessary administrative processing and regrettably it is not possible to predict when this processing will be completed.

… I think the following turn of events indicates it had an effect. It unclogged something.

Day 889 – September 22, 2020

After 889 days since my interview on the embassy (only five days after the answer to the congressman), the embassy contacted me over email. For the first time since that April day in 2018.

Your visa application is still in administrative processing. However, we regret to inform you that because you have missed your travel plans, we will require updated travel plans from you.

My travel plans – that had been out of date for the last 800 days or so – suddenly needed to be updated! As I was already so long into this process and since I feared that giving up now would force me back to square one if I would stop now and re-attempt this again at a later time, I decided to arrange myself some updated travel plans. After all, I work for an American company and I have a friend or two there.

Day 900 – October 2, 2020

I replied to the call for travel plan details with an official invitation letter attached, inviting me to go visit my colleagues at wolfSSL signed by our CEO, Larry. I really want to do this at some point, as I’ve never met most of them so it wasn’t a made up reason. I could possibly even get some other friends to invite me to get the process going but I figured this invite should be enough to keep the ball rolling.

Day 910 – October 13, 2020

I got another email. Now at 910 days since the interview. The embassy asked for my passport “for further processing”.

Day 913 – October 16, 2020

I posted my passport to the US embassy in Stockholm. I also ordered and paid for “return postage” as instructed so that they would ship it back to me in a safe way.

Day 934 – November 6, 2020

At 10:30 in the morning my phone lit up and showed me a text telling me that there’s an incoming parcel being delivered to me, shipped from “the Embassy of the United State” (bonus points for the typo).

Day 937 – November 9, 2020

I received my passport. Inside, there’s a US visa that is valid for ten years, until November 2030.

The upper left corner of the visa page in my passport…

As a bonus, the visa also comes with a NIE (National Interest
Exception) that allows me a single entry to the US during the PP (Presidential Proclamations) – which is restricting travels to the US from the European Schengen zone. In other words: I am actually allowed to travel right away!

The timing is fascinating. The last time I was in the US, Trump hadn’t taken office yet and I get the approved visa in my hands just days after Biden has been announced as the next president of the US.

Will I travel?

Covid-19 is still over us and there’s no end in sight of the pandemic. I will of course not travel to the US or any other country until it can be deemed safe and sensible.

When the pandemic is under control and traveling becomes viable, I am sure there will be opportunities. Hopefully the situation will improve before the visa expires.

Thanks to

All my family and friends, in the US and elsewhere who have supported me and cheered me up through this entire process. Thanks for keeping inviting me to fun things in the US even though I’ve not been able to participate. Thanks for pushing for events to get organized outside of the US! I’m sorry I’ve missed social gatherings, a friend’s marriage and several conference speaking opportunities. Thanks for all the moral support throughout this long journey of madness.

A special thanks go to David (you know who you are) for contacting Gerry Connolly’s office. I honestly think this was the key event that finally made things move in this process.

6 thoughts on “a US visa in 937 days”

  1. ……What a process! I am glad you got the VISA finally.
    It would be perfect if we can just open a bugzilla ticket to track and push them…

    comment 239:

    Ooops we lost your cookie so we forgot you 😮

    1. This still leaves unanswered why ESTA got suddenly denied.

      The whole idea of such programs was to simplify processing and offload the resources for more demanding cases.

      Could have it been related to policies and changes that started with the then-new president in office from 2016?

      Congrats that is got sorted out for you after all.

  2. Back in 1978 I and three friends planned an overland driving trip from the UK to Australia. We aimed to travel through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Singapore. Obviously in the pre-Internet days we had to make personal applications at all the embassies and consulates in London. It took only three days of visits and form filling. The only screw-up was Australia who issued visas that expired before we were due to get there and required an extra visit.

    I think most of those places are on Trump’s list of “sh*thole” nations (Iran was just about to have a civil war) but they still managed to get the job done quickly and efficiently.

  3. Was the reason for your problems that you applied for ESTA and tourist visum, but actually worked? Too many trips for å tourist?

  4. As a citizen of a country which is disliked by the US government, I definitely understand the frustration.

    I was just released from administrative processing. I had to applied a US visa in an unfamiliar third country because the US embassy in my country is closed due to the pandemic. I unfortunately got administrative processing and had to wait there for 6 weeks, until a congresswoman help me out.

    Getting a US visa is a notoriously mysterious and frustrating procedure for many people who are not so “trusted” by the American bureaucracy.

  5. There was a period between 2015 and 2018 where many European passports were being denied entry to the USA through ESTA and subsequently through regular Visa channels (as you have experienced). Although it is near impossible to figure it out since there are so many branches of government involved and different bureaucrats all over the world, its because many people were abusing the system to travel to the US and do some kind of career work. For instance, traveling to do a speaking gig under a tourists visa. I’m not saying it was the right thing for them to do but you were not the only one this was happening to, happened to a lot of people who usually used the ESTA to travel to the US and do 99% tourism, with 1% work. Getting denied the ESTA probably put you on a warning list with the embassy/consulate, so there’s no rush in their minds to handle that list, when they can quickly process people who have 0 problems/denials, instead of trying to figure out why you were denied initially.

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