How To: Get Your J1 Visa
For those of you that know me, you will know that this summer will be the fifth time I will have been to my Maine summer home and you will also know that I am obsessed with it. It is my favourite place on earth. I am forever telling people that they need to invest one summer of their lives in doing something for other people and themselves and summer camp is a great way to do that. However, one of the questions I'm asked a lot by people who are considering a summer at camp is: How easy is it to get a visa?
My answer: It's not a long process, but it's an irritating one. But, since I have been through the process a few times now and have the hang of it, I figured it was time to impart some wisdom.
So, here goes:
STEP ONE: Visa Sponsor
This is the most important part of getting your visa, without a sponsor from a legitimate company your visa cannot be granted. There are so many companies out there offering sponsorship for summer camp programmes so it is really easy to find one that suits you best and go through their process. I personally use CCUSA (check them out here) and I think they are great but there are other companies such as Camp America, Wildpacks, Camp Leaders, IENA, BUNAC etc that can all help you and offer you support throughout your journey to camp. You can either find a camp that wants to hire you and then approach a company or you can ask the companies to help get you placed somewhere.
All you have to do is pick one, fill out their application fee and pay their deposit (varies from company to company). Then sit back and wait until they call you for an interview. Don't stress! These interviews are generally really laid back (mine took place in a Starbucks!) and is just a way for them to double check that you are suitable for the program (ie. that you aren't a psycho). Once this is complete and you are accepted, you can move onto the next stage!
STEP TWO: Criminal Background Check
Obviously, getting a visa is a big deal, especially if you are going to camp to work with kids so it is important that everyone who is granted a visa deserves one. For this reason, CRB checks are necessary. Even if you already have one from a job at home etc, you will have to get a new one done specifically for your visa application. These usually cost around £20-£45 and are valid for the whole year once you have had it approved. You will need a new one each year.
STEP THREE: DS160 Application
This form is probably the most irritating and time consuming part of the whole process. You need to take your time with it and read all the instructions carefully. The application and instructions on how to fill it out can be found here.
Speaking from experience, please please PLEASE make sure you write down that application number before you start because there is nothing more frustrating and soul destroying than getting to that final page and getting timed out and having to start the whole damn thing over again because you didn't make a note of the application number at the start! Seriously, you might want to bash your head against a brick wall.
Also, make sure you abide by the requirements for the photo you need for your visa, these are not standard passport size pictures, they are a little bigger (2x2 inches). These can be done from most photo booths but if you want to be safe, a lot of camera/photo stores will take them for you for a small fee.
STEP FOUR: Embassy Appointment
After submitting your completed DS160 form, you will need to book an appointment at the US Embassy. Get this done as soon as you can because if for whatever reason you don't get your visa granted first time you will need to go back again before you can head over to the USA.
You will need to take all your paperwork to the Embassy with you, including copies of your 2x2 inch photos (even if you uploaded them to the online application) in case there is something wrong with the original. The full list of things to take with you can be found here. If you do not have any of these documents with you at the appointment, your visa will not be granted.
Be warned, the rules on what you can and can't take inside the Embassy changes all the time. The first time I went I had to leave everything other than my passport outside. But the most recent time I was allowed to take my bag and electronics with me. Don't take anything you would miss if it went missing, just in case you have to leave your bags outside and don't take too many electronics as you have to go through an airport security system and this will take up time.
Remember to get to the Embassy at least 30 minutes before your scheduled appointment time, depending on the time of day you may only have to wait 5 minutes or you may have to wait 5 hours. My tip is to book an appointment early in the morning before they have had a chance to create much of a backlog.
You will be given a number (kind of like at Argos) and you wait to be called. You will be told to go to a specific window where somebody will sort through your paperwork and verify your fingerprints. You will then be told to joing another line until you are called to a second window. This is the window where your visa is either granted or denied. The person may ask you lots of questions or they may hardly look at you, it is just the luck of the draw who you get and how they are feeling that day. Do NOT under any circumstances make inappropriate jokes. These people are just like the border officials at American airports, they do not have a sense of humour when it comes to granting people access to their country and stupid comments may well get your visa denied. Try not to stress too much, it is not often that visas are denied and usually if they are it is because of superficial things such as water damaged passports etc that can be rectified.
If your visa is granted, they will not return your passport to you. Try to remember this otherwise you will stand there like an idiot like I did until the woman behind the counter looked at me and said "you can go now..."
Your passport, with the visa, will be courierd to you within 2 weeks of your appointment.
STEP FIVE: Go to camp!
Pretty self-explanatory really...