My trip to America was all started because I was always an easy target to be bossed around by my younger sisters. I’m the first born who gives up window seats for them, drives them around, and basically says ‘yeah okay’ to their demanding, absurd requests. Never in my dream that saying ‘yes’ this time would give me the most stressful journey and take me to the land of freedom in just two days of preparation.
Q: Can you plan for a trip to the US in just less than a week?
Before you think that I might be overreacting, I need to stress where I live: A developing country with 261.1 million people which almost 89% of it are Muslims. Getting a US Visa is easy and at the same time, could be terrifyingly difficult. Basically like a wheel of fortune game. Now, for you who are blessed with developed country passports, count your blessing. It almost hurts seeing how easy some foreigners could just step into our airports and get their passports stamped with visa on arrivals. Sorry, that’s just me being petty. I’ve heard some horrible stories experienced by some foreigners here – but that’s for another day.
Start your application
I hope that this post could help other fellows Indonesians who are thinking of getting a US visa. However, don’t take my words as a fixed guideline and expect that the same thing will apply to you too because it’s a game of wheel of fortune, people.
- Apply online on ustraveldocs.com/id and if this your first time applying for a visa, you have to register with the site. After you register, you will be directed to another more secure site where you can start your application. This is great because the form you need to fill in is super long and you can always go back to the site if you want to update your form without losing your data.
- After filling in your application, you will be given a 16-digit number, this is your virtual bank account to make the payment at registered banks. The fee is $160 (but you pay in IDR) for tourists/visitors. You will not get your money back if your application is denied. I made the payment at Bank Niaga and the tellers are familiar with the process so you don’t have to worry. Just don’t forget to bring the document with the virtual account number as the bank will ask for a copy of this.
- After the payment, you have to wait for it to be confirmed and activated. You can log in to your dashboard and input the 16-digit number to check if you now can book an appointment. Ask the teller when it will be activated as it depends on the time you make the payment. tips: screenshot/take pictures/store this VA number on google drive because you cannot lose it and it’s quite handy to have them on your phone.
- Book your appointment! They have two slots in one day, 7 am and 9 am. I chose the 7 am because I heard that you have to queue outside the embassy and I just can’t stand Jakarta heat after 8 am.
For more thorough guidelines in Indonesian, go to this official site of US Visa Application.
So you have an appointment and before you set the date, make sure that you have all your documents ready. The most important thing to have with you are, obviously, your passport, your DS 160 form, and your appointment letter (you can print them from your dashboard). As I recall, they do not specifically say which documents they need you to have the application but here are what I brought with me:
- Printed DS 160 form
- Appointment letter
- A 5x5cm ID photo with white background.
- Employment letter (stating how long I have worked for my company and that I am still under contract with them – i.e. I will go back to my home country!). From stories I heard about those whose application got rejected, is that most of them were self-employed. Usually, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs have a hard time with the application. But again, no one knows for sure, I’ve known lots of self-employed people vacationing in the US and others who are permanent employees got theirs rejected. Be a nice person and pray that good karma will happen to you.
- Invitation letter from my sister. She also attached her bank statement and working permit to make it more legit. However, my interviewer barely looked at them. Anyway, her info has already been written down by me on my DS 160 form. I brought the documents so I could verify what I wrote on the form.
- My bank statements for the past 3 months. Again, he barely looked at them. But always have them with you. I overheard some other interviewers grilled applicants about their salary and income. Make sure you have your statement stamped and signed by an authorised person at your bank, not just the printed one from your e-banking site.
- My salary receipts from my office go back three months (again, he didn’t look at them).
- My birth certificate, my registered Family Card, and my uni certificate. All of these documents should be translated by a sworn translator. If you live in Bandung, I recommend Triad English Centre. They’re very reliable, helpful and they do delivery. (Yes, my interviewer didn’t look at them either).
At the end, he didn’t take any of the documents (but the first four) that I have supplied. I have to stress that those first four are a must but I can’t say the same for others. Other interviewers might ask for them, others might not. Just to be on the safe side, have them ready with you.
The US Embassy in Jakarta is located near Gambir Train Station and here was what happened after I arrived.
- The securities told us to queue on the right side of the building, not the front. Later, approaching 7 am, they told us to form a line in front of the gate. They would confirm your identification with their list (only people with appointment were allowed to queue). You were not allowed to bring drinks and food inside. You were also not allowed to bring electronics inside such as phones, laptops, tablets, power bank and even (this is what I forgot to hand into the security people so they searched my bag again after the scanning) bank password generators. You could leave your belongings at the check-in counter.
- I was seated on benches and waited for your number to be called. This wasn’t the interview but a document check stage. Embassy staffs (Indonesian), sitting behind a counter with glass partition and microphone would ask us questions and check our documents. They would take our passports, ID photos and verify the mailing address for the passport to be sent. Tips: If your home is empty during the days, ask for the passport to be sent to your office.
- Next was the interview! You needed to walk further inside of the building and entered the interview room. There were counters (for nonimmigrant application there were four to five counters) with American embassy staffs sitting behind it. They were the interviewers and they spoke Indonesian, so don’t worry if you think your English isn’t good enough. The interview wasn’t conducted in a room, when it was your turn you talked to your interviewer and the whole Q & A session could be heard by everybody (gulp). After I finished answering my interviewer’s questions, he told me that my application was approved. If an application is denied, they will immediately give back our passports. Some questions my interviewer asked me were about my length of stay, some details about what I do for a living, what my sister and her husband do for a living, where they stay, and what would I do once I was there. He also asked what my parents did for a living and knowing that I teach EFL, what’s the difference between British and American English (um some words and the accent?). After two minutes of this, he said ‘visa approved’ and I blurted, ‘that’s all?’. He smiled, ‘that’s all.’
- Last, you just need to wait! I got mine delivered to my office in two days. 🙂
Now, this is the part when I was being bossed around the second time (the first was get your application done asap!). Knowing that my application was approved, my dear sister insisted on buying me the tickets. I told her to wait until the passport was in my hand, but of course, she wouldn’t listen. She bought me a return ticket dated only four days after my appointment. As I am a functioning working adult, I do have responsibilities and I was panicking thinking what my bosses would say. I spent the night writing my apology letters for leaving so abruptly. And again, as a functioning working adult I cannot just leave my work to pack and buy winter necessities.
The only clothing pieces I had with me were two Uniqlo heattech leggings, gloves, boots, running legging and sport bras, and socks. I literally wore the same sweatshirt for three days until I bought some at Times Square. The whole journey from my town to New York had been fine. One thing you SHOULD always do: get to Soekarno Hatta Airport super early. Shuttle places would recommend leaving from Bandung at least 7 hours before your flight but always leave earlier. I’ve seen people missed their flights because the traffic to Jakarta could take longer than 7 hours. Just stay in a hotel near the airport or like me, left the town 9 hours before the flight. It’s better to be bored at the airport rather than be stressed out for missing your flights.
My journey was smooth. No delays, no accidents, the only thing I didn’t expect was this: Newark Airport in New Jersey DID NOT HAVE a working Wi-Fi connection OR kiosks that sell prepaid sim cards. One would think in Ahmericah this wouldn’t be an issue. There was a sim card vending machine but I wasn’t sure that I could set up the plan by myself. I ask to borrow a phone to the ladies at the welcome centre (who wasn’t very welcoming nor helpful at all) but it could only make local phone calls, so I couldn’t contact my sister on her mobile. The only thing I could do was turn on the roaming mode on my phone and pray for miracle while I sat sipping my hot latte from a Starbuck kiosk (the only food stall there and no, there was no Wi-Fi there either). Miracle happened. My sister’s call somehow got through and we finally met! So here’s what you can do if no one is picking you up at the airport:
- You can hop on Newark Express shuttle bus just outside the exit door that will take you to Manhattan. It’s $16 with tax and you can swipe your debit/credit card on the bus. They run every 15 or 30 minutes and you can check the schedule or their Manhattan points here. You do not need to make a booking. From their stops at Manhattan, you can take uber or subway to your final destination. If you’re tired and you have luggage with you, uber is better than the train. Of course I took the latter because of my dear sister.
- You take an uber or taxi from the airport but during busy hours it could cost you up to $80.
Staying in an Air BnB
My sister lived in Boston so in New York, she booked us an Air Bnb room (the picture above). Many people often prefer legit hotels to Air BnB but I like the latter better. You could stay in a very nice and quiet neighbourhood and at the same time experience living in a local historical area. Amsterdam Avenue (or 10th Avenue) where we stayed was first laid out in 1811! Here are some tips to pick an Air BnB room.
- Turn on the ‘superhost’ feature on your filter. This will show you only places hosted by superhost. Superhosts are experienced hosts and you can spot them by badge next to their profile pictures.
- Always check reviews and testimonials. The more reviews a host received, the more experienced they are. Also, check what guests say about them. Guests usually are pretty honest.
- Air BnB would not reveal the exact location of the place before you make a booking but they show the area. Go to Google Maps and check the distance and what transportations to take to and from airport/attractions/city centre.
- Do not request a booking before you contact the host. You can ask anything to them (location, distance, is it easy to get uber, food, etc.) before you make a booking. I love doing this just to see how helpful and friendly they are in responding to my queries.
- Verified your own account. Some hosts required their guests to have a verified account. You can do this on your profile page by taking pictures of yourself and your passport.
- Air BnB allows hosts to choose their own cancellation policy from strict to flexible. Make sure you read it carefully before making the booking.
- After you get the address, go back to Google Map and check for satellite view. This will help you to see the neighbourhood and most importantly the facade of the house. I find this particularly helpful when I stay in a neighbourhood I’m not familiar with so I won’t get lost.
- On your arrival day, always inform your host your check-in time. Sometimes your hosts don’t live in the house/apartment so they need to know exactly when you’ll be in to greet you.
I have been using Air BnB for five years every time I travel abroad and never found any issue with my stays. Of course, there are some creeps out there (I once read a comment left by a guest that her host installed a hidden camera in the room!) but this goes both ways. I talked to Elvy, my host in Brooklyn, and she told me horrible things that her guests did. So, always be nice and respectful. As long as you keep in mind that this isn’t a hotel and your hosts are not your room attendants, you’ll end up making new friends.
So, after a week full of stress, over 23 hours of journey, biting November wind, late dinner at an Italian restaurant with my sister, I finally could rest my head in a nice warm room in Manhattan.