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“Don’t believe everything you read” – Getting a visa from the US Embassy in Belfast is no guarantee

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Having done a huge amount of research, Will was reasonably optimistic that travelling to the US Embassy in Belfast would improve his chances of getting a visa.


Last year I visited the US Embassy in Belfast to apply for a US holiday visa. Because of the work I do, I couldn’t afford to take the risk of lying on the online ESTA form but I’d read that my chances of getting a visa would be better in Ireland rather than in London.

The reason I’m not eligible to travel via an ESTA is that a few years ago, I was cautioned for possession of Class A drugs. It’s the only blot on my criminal record but I know the US are very strict about drug offences.

I’d read as much as possible beforehand and my impression was that I was likely to have the visa refused there and then but that I would be recommended for a ‘waiver of inadmissibility’ which would take several months to process but which would ultimately be approved. For this reason I made no travel arrangements in advance but was hoping to book a holiday once the visa was granted.

Visiting the embassy was a horrible experience. You’re not allowed to take your phone into the waiting room with you, and you have to sit in the room for (in my case) hours before being seen. There was no clock on the wall and no obvious order regulating who was seen first. I was seen last of everyone, even though I definitely didn’t arrive last – I was actually an hour early for my appointment.

When I was eventually seen, I had to go into a private room to speak to the immigration officer. Weirdly, he stands behind a glass screen (as though you’re cashing a cheque at the bank) and you stand in front of him as there are no seats. He has all your documents in front of him and asks you a few questions about your offence. It feels like he’s trying to catch you out and it was pretty nerve wracking.

As expected, he told me that he would not be granting me a visa. He gave me a short spiel about how old the US drug laws are etc and said there is a waiver available for my offence but – and this was the bombshell – he was not going to recommend me for it on this occasion, as the offence was too recent (it had happened just over 2 years before). He said that he couldn’t tell me exactly how long I should wait to reapply, but maybe 5 years from the date of the offence, and even then I may have to undertake some sort of medical examination.

As a result of my experiences, I thought it was important to write this article so that people are aware that you might be refused a visa if you apply to the embassy in Belfast. If I’d read this story before I applied, I wouldn’t have applied – I’d only seen positive accounts online which lulled me into a false sense of optimism. It wasn’t cheap to travel from England to Belfast for three days and there were also the costs of the police certificate together with the visa fees.

So heads up to others, if you’ve got drugs related offences, perhaps wait to apply until there’s been 5 years since the date of your offence. This probably doesn’t apply to you if your offence was not drug related or if your drug offence was for a less serious class of drug.

I’d still like to travel to the US for a holiday one day and I’d be interested to know if anyone that’s been rejected has then gone on to successfully reapply.

By Will  (name changed to protect identity)

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Getting a US visa capped a very successful two years of rehabilitation post-conviction

Once you’ve received a conviction, it can be easy to assume that the worst will happen and life as you know it will end. However, as Ben has found out, if you plan for everything and don’t give up hope then there is light at the end of the tunnel – just make sure you head towards it.


I have always been resourceful. Always had decent jobs, even holding down a fairly senior job. My world changed in 2016 when I was found guilty of a fraud offence.

I pleaded guilty and received a fine. Unfortunately my employer found out about it and decided that I posed too much of a risk to them from a publicity perspective and I agreed to resign.

Fortunately, I had already planned for this eventuality following my arrest some months earlier. I knew when my court date was and guessed that my employer would find out soon after and that they would want me to leave. That’s where my master rehabilitation plan swung into action!

To protect myself from the ‘google-effect’, I changed my name by deed poll and went through the arduous process of changing it across bank accounts, insurances, government agencies and family/friends.

I looked at the job market and started to consider a new career in my new name, therefore preventing the ‘DBS by Google’ impact. If they chose to Google me, they wouldn’t find anything negative that they could use against me.

As I agreed to resign, I also negotiated with my outgoing employer to have an agreed reference confirming that my reason for leaving was one of resignation and nothing that could be deemed more sinister. When the HR team requested the reference, I made them aware to do so in my old name, I explained it was my former professional name – it didn’t raise any questions and the reference came back as agreed.

So, from a work perspective I was sorted. New job to start following my court appearance, new name, new documents and looking forward to moving on with my life post-conviction. I just had to ride out the initial 12 months to cover the time it would take before it became ‘spent’, and a further 12 months to make it 2 years so that my employment was protected from unfair dismissal.

My next challenge was that I was planning a holiday to the USA – luckily it wasn’t for 2 years but I had read the horror stories and forums about anyone who had a fraud conviction (a crime involving moral turpitude) would not be eligible for a visa waiver and therefore have to go down the visa route which is not always successful – having spent over 10 holidays in the States over the last 15 years, I was thinking about the prospect of never being able to go back.

Using the US Consular website I completed my DS-160, applied for my police certificate from ACRO and printed off my VCU1 form – I made sure that all of the information matched across the various forms, I went back through my diary and passports to ensure I captured any visits to the US and the countries around the world – I wasn’t taking anything for granted and after all, I had nothing to hide.

I paid my $160 and managed to get an appointment for a Friday morning. Again, the forums paint a range of stories about long queues, consulate staff who can be obstructive, long waiting periods and bad news stories but my experience was quite the opposite.

I travelled to London the night before. I arrived at the Embassy wearing my best suit, shirt and tie, carrying a folder containing every document I could ever need to prove my ties to the UK and financial status. Going through a very smart and efficient security checkpoint and into the Embassy visa department, you get a ticket and wait for your number to flash up on the screen.

The screen flashed up my number and I headed round to one of the private booths away from the rest of the standard visa windows. The lady took my fingerprints, asked why I could not use the ESTA system, scanned my documents and then asked me to wait to be called and interviewed.

I waited for another 30-40 minutes when I was called to another room. I was greeted by an American lady who proceeded to question me about my employment status, how long my last visit to the US was for, when I was looking to go back again and then the details around my conviction – I explained everything honestly and with full detail. After what seemed to be ages, the lady looked up from her screen and said “I’ve approved you for a visa”. I’d got a full tourist visa for multiple entries and then the revelation came – it was for 10 years!

If it wasn’t for the glass security screen, I would have hugged her. She explained that I would be getting an email in the next couple of days with the details of where to pick up my passport.

The email came through a couple of days later and I drove to pick up my gleaming passport with the new 10 year visa stuck in it – I was elated.

My 2 year rehabilitation is now complete – new job, new name, new outlook, no negative online footprint and a new 10 year US tourist visa to boot. Regardless of what happens, try to be one step ahead and ensure you plan for every eventuality. In this process it usually will happen and with a clear plan in place, you should be able to deal with any pitfalls.

By Ben (name changed to protect identity)


Useful links

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Being a ‘juvenile delinquent’ enabled me to get a visa to the USA!

Steve’s 25 year old criminal record had never really caused him any problems. However, finding out that his new job required him to travel to the USA on business made him question whether he’d be able to continue working for the company or whether he would have to resign.


25 years ago my life was very different to how it is now. To say I was a bad lad is a bit of an understatement; I’d received around 10 convictions before the age of 17 and been to a YOI twice.

It sounds horrendous when you see it written down but in all honesty, the offences were for quite petty things. I’m sure if they’d happened today, I’d have been dealt with differently, but who knows!

Despite having a ‘significant’ criminal record, finding work had never really been a problem and, even if I say so myself, I’ve been pretty successful over the years. As my convictions are now all spent, I very rarely think about them on a day to day basis.

So, applying for and getting a new job was no big deal until my boss told me that he was so pleased with my work that he wanted me to attend a couple of events with him in the USA. What a fantastic opportunity?

Like a lot of people with convictions, I’ve always believed that I’d never be able to travel to the US. I think it was the first thing I was told when I arrived at the YOI. I’d never let it bother me – after all there’s plenty more places in the world to go to on holiday. However work was different, I either needed to travel or tell my boss why I couldn’t.

I started to do a bit of research online but rather than provide me with answers it just made me more confused. I’d pretty much established that I’d have to apply for a visa rather than travel under the Visa Waiver Scheme, which meant I’d have to disclose my convictions but what I really wanted to know was whether I’d actually get one if I applied. If I didn’t stand any chance then I would have resigned rather than explain why to my boss.

I tried ringing the US Embassy but couldn’t get through but then I came across the phone number of an organisation called Unlock. I rang their helpline and explained the situation and couldn’t believe it when the guy told me that he didn’t think I’d have any problems being granted a visa as my convictions were deemed to be ‘juvenile delinquency’ (they’d happened when I was under 18). Funny to think that when my dad called me a juvenile delinquent as a kid it was a real insult yet they were the best words ever spoken by the guy at Unlock.

I completed the visa paperwork, got my police certificate and made an appointment at the Embassy. I was quite worried about the interview but it really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be although the waiting around was quite boring. The Immigration Officer asked me loads of questions about my convictions and my reason for wanting to visit the US and there were a couple of times when I’d convinced myself that she wouldn’t grant me the visa.

I’m glad to say that I did get my visa and have already visited the US once with my boss. I had a bit of a tricky moment when, having seen the visa stamped in my passport, I was asked to go into a small office with a US Immigration Officer. She asked me a couple of questions about my visit and then let me go. Obviously my boss wanted to know why I’d been called into the office and all I could think to say was:

I think they randomly select people to find out more about them and their visit. I must just have one of those guilty looking faces

If only he knew!!

By Steve (name changed to protect identity)


A comment from Unlock

As Steve states in his story, there’s a lot of conflicting information online about whether it’s possible to travel to the US with a criminal record with many people assuming that anybody with convictions can never visit.

The US doesn’t ‘bar’ people with convictions from visiting but generally, you will be required to apply for a visa through the US Embassy. Consular Officers at the Embassy deal with every application on a case-by-case basis and will consider the seriousness of the offence, the age you were at the time and how long ago you received your conviction.

We also get a lot of reports from people that are granted a visa that, when they pass through immigration at the other end, they get taken into a separate office and have to wait for some further questions. This is worth knowing about to think about how you’ll prepare for that.


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Is a caution really a ‘slap on the wrist’? – Not if you need a Police Certificate

I have, on rare occasions, recreationally used small quantities of ‘soft’ drugs, though less so as I’ve got older. I’m a professional, hard-working, and otherwise an entirely law-abiding citizen with no so much as a parking ticket.

However, in 2011 I became a criminal and will be deemed as such until my 100th birthday. I attended a music event and, wishing to relive my youth, I accepted a single tablet of ecstacy from a friend prior to entering the event. Having second thoughts about consuming it, I put the tablet in my pocket with the intention of returning it later. On entering the event, I was met by a line of policemen and sniffer dogs and was arrested. I was advised to accept a caution, as it was ‘only a slap on the wrist’ and ‘a first warning’. Taking this advice on board, I accepted the caution.

In the years that have followed, the implications of accepting that caution have been life changing. In short, my criminal record has done more harm than any drug use came close to.

It has emerged that a police caution is far from a mere ‘slap on the wrist’ or ‘first-time warning’. It isn’t even, in a literal sense, ‘a caution’. It’s a permanent record with lifelong, debilitating consequences.

It’s a relief to see that a review of the Disclosure and Barring Service disclosure system has moderated the effects of a caution with some minor offences now being eligible for ‘filtering’ from DBS certificates. This is of course dependent on the seriousness of the offence and the time elapsed.

However, what seems to have been overlooked is that criminal records, no matter how minor, are NEVER filtered from Police Certificates. These checks are almost always required for visa applications or foreign employment (in fact, foreign employers can’t request DBS certificates), with no legal limits on who may request these outside of the UK.

So how has my caution impacted on me?

Since receiving the caution, I got married. My wife is American and I sought to visit the USA with her. With a criminal record on a Police Certificate, tourist entry to the USA requires that I apply in advance for a visa. I’m well aware that the US itself has no access to PNC records and  that many ‘advise’ to simply not declare minor offences, as you will almost certainly be admitted through US customs. Not wishing to lie however, I applied for a visa in advance, disclosing my caution. My application was declined and I was effectively barred from entry to the USA.

I was recommended for a ‘waiver of ineligibility’ and assured that this would most likely be granted. I was told that it could take between 6 and 8 months and needs to be renewed every year. Whilst I’m grateful for this, during that process a far more serious issue emerged.

Despite my spouse being American, should we ever wish to move to the USA, I know I will find it incredibly difficult to secure employment. Therefore, as long as she is married to me, there is little likelihood that we would be able to go and live in the States. Whilst my marriage is currently solid, I have every expectation that this could ultimately destroy our marriage as it places an intolerable burden on my wife and any children we may have.

I’ve been seeking to use my qualifications and experience in international development to undertake volunteer work in various countries across Africa. All potential employers or visa issuers will require a Police Certificate. As these countries have little understanding of the purpose of a ‘simple caution’, to all intents and purposes, the contents of my Police Certificate appear no different from a custodial sentence or a more serious crime. As a result, I’m unlikely to be able to provide my services in these countries.

So for the purposes of foreign travel, even a minor offence and caution is far from being ‘a slap on the wrist’.

This is all the more striking as recent changes in the UK’s DBS guidelines mean that, in my case, from June 2017, my offence will not be visible on even an enhanced DBS certificate. Whether seeking employment or adopting a child, my DBS certificate won’t show my caution. That is to say, for even the most sensitive roles, my current offence history will be legally hidden as it will be considered irrelevant and myself rehabilitated.

Yet, for any foreign employment or visa application, I’ll be asked to provide a Police Certificate. There is only one form of Police Certificate and there is no filtering system available – it will either directly or indirectly (through a ‘No Live Trace’ statement), always indicate and provide details of my criminal record.

This seems to me a perverse double standard. I concede entirely that some elements of a criminal record may need to be visible for visa or employment purposes. But its frustrating that recent well considered standards and limitations to the provision of that information, agreed via the Supreme Court, are applied to interested parties in the UK but overlooked if requested by parties overseas.

Essentially, foreign employers, be they large corporations or small voluntary organisations, be I seeking to work in large engineering projects or helping build a village school, are granted complete access to my information that would be legally denied to those in the UK.

The issue of Police Certificates should be considered in parallel with the consideration being given to DBS certificates. Ideally, this would allow for some similar form of filtering arrangements to be applied to Police Certificates as are applied to DBS certificates.


By Lee (name changed to protect identity)

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  • Information – We have practical self-help information on Police Certificates and travelling to the USA for people with convictions on our Information Hub.
  • Discuss this issue – There are some interesting discussions related to working overseas from people with convictions on our online forum



USA – here I come! (at the second time of asking)

Yesterday I collected my passport from a courier in Central London – the passport that contains a new B1/B2 visa to the United States of America. Nothing remarkable there except that in my (relatively recent) past I have a serious criminal conviction. Its one for violence, that belies my otherwise law-abiding life and indeed, the kind of person I am.

I could regale you with the details of the offence, the circumstances in which it occurred, an explanation to mitigate my actions but, for the purposes of this article, there is no point because, whatever my views were or are on the matter, I was convicted and I went to prison. Written down, in black and white it looks bad.  It was bad.

I left prison (to my surprise, a very positive experience) and got on with my life. I rebuilt my relationship with my children, got a job, got married, had more children and my conviction became a distant memory, largely forgotten. Right up until the time we were invited to visit America to get to know a business client better. I knew that I wouldn’t be eligible for the visa waiver programme (ESTA) but, with seven years having passed since I went to prison, I was hopeful that I could convince the US Immigration Department that I posed no risk in spite of my crime falling well inside the category of one of “moral turpitude”.

Moral turpitude is a term that doesn’t seem to have an exact meaning. It was first used in American immigration law in the 19th century and as such some of the language associated with its description is possibly not what we would use nowadays: words like “depravity” for example I would argue have a stronger meaning today.

First time around

But, back to me. I had my interview at the US Embassy in London. I talked about the offence, the circumstances surrounding it, my current life, why we wanted to visit America, everything I was asked, I answered. I was told by the nice lady that interviewed me that she was recommending me for a visa but that the ultimate decision would be made by Homeland Security and that it would be a number of months before I would hear anything because of a large backlog of applications. I was buoyed, I thought it was a done deal. My family and friends agreed – of course they would grant me a visa because I’d never been in trouble before or since the offence, I was a family person, a company director and many years had passed.

Oh dear!! When the letter finally came I had to collect it from the local delivery office. I didn’t know what I was getting or where it had come from, only that there was insufficient postage to cover the delivery and I had to pay to collect it. I opened it in the car and promptly burst into tears. Homeland Security had rejected my application but didn’t tell me why. The added pain of having to pay extra after all the costs involved in the process just to pick up the letter they hadn’t stamped or franked was too much to bear, silly though it now seems. We went to Devon that summer instead and I forgot about it for a while. “I didn’t really want to go anyway” became my mantra.

If at first you don’t succeed….

After a couple of years I decided to reapply. I didn’t know the reason for having been turned down, other than the obvious, and felt that enough time had passed for it not to be a complete waste of time or money. If they turned me down this time I would know that there wasn’t much point in trying again, my offence was just too serious and while it’s now officially spent in this country thanks to changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 2014, it must always be disclosed to US Immigration.

A few things had changed since I last applied but, you still need to “furnish” the embassy with the same documents and pay much the same amount of money. Most of it can however be done online now, making it all a lot easier (and also meaning you are informed of decisions via email, not post).

It’s important to remember that the process can be a long one. You can wait several weeks for an embassy interview and the decision can take six months or more. I’d strongly advise against making any travel plans until such time as the decision has been made.  The documents you need to take along are:-

  • Your current passport, which must be valid for at least 6 months beyond when you want to stay in the US
  • An ACRO Police Certificate
  • A VCU-1 form which must be filled in online and printed out
  • The interview confirmation page
  • The DS-160 confirmation page
  • A passport photograph

I made sure I’d received my Police Certificate back and had passport photographs done before I started filling in any of the other forms but once I had them I filled in the DS-160, the VCU-1 and made my appointment all at the same time. My appointment was in the summer, about 4 weeks from the date I applied. I could have had an earlier appointment but I was away on holiday. I don’t know when the busiest times are but I suspect that from around May it might be busier as people realise they need to get organised for the summer.

Going to the interview at the Embassy

My experience of the interview was much the same as before. However, in the three years since I’d last applied the embassy has relaxed the rules about what you can take in with you. Last time you weren’t allowed any electronic devices at all but now you can take your mobile phone, e-reader or tablet, but not laptops or tablet keyboards and no large bags, suitcases or weapons. I arrived more than half an hour before my 8.00am appointment and was quite alarmed that there was already a large queue outside. Fortunately, the staff sorted people based on their appointment time and the line moved quickly. I whiled away the time by trying not to stare at the actor I recognised ahead of me because he was shorter (and okay, a little fuller figured) than I’d thought. Within 15 minutes I was inside, had been given my number and now just had to wait until I was called.

This is where you need to keep your wits about. There are several different kinds of numbers and although each category number is called sequentially, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of order as to which window calls which kind of category. Or when. I’d taken my Kindle with me but I really struggled to concentrate on what I was reading because I was worried about missing my number (they do give you more than one chance if you miss it). I updated Facebook, no one had heard of the actor I’d seen, or rather they just didn’t know what his name was. I sent pointless text messages to my husband, fidgeted and people watched. I saw another actor, one that people had heard of this time. I needed the loo as well but I didn’t dare to go until the interview was over, I didn’t want to miss it.

After 45 minutes or so I was called to a window to hand over my documents and have my fingerprints taken. I then returned to the waiting area to wait for my interview, still needing the loo, still unable to concentrate on my book.

I didn’t have to wait too much longer before I was called for the interview, to the same window as the one I’d been to three years previously. I saw that as a bad sign, though logic tells me now that they probably send all the people in my situation there. I was asked similar questions to before, the lady was very sympathetic and said she was going to recommend me as they’d said before. She was able to tell me that I had been refused before because it was deemed “too soon“. This had been seven years after my conviction and as we were only three years further on, the lady told me that I should be prepared for a further refusal. I left the embassy after an hour and a half, glad it was over but not at all hopeful of obtaining a visa.

I was told the decision process would take around six months. A couple of weeks before the six months were up, I received the email I wasn’t expecting – one asking me to submit my passport for visa issuance. Naturally I sent it off by special delivery within an hour of receiving the email because I didn’t want to give them the chance of changing their minds.

I had long since accepted that my chances were slim, regardless of the kind of person I feel I really am. My offence was very serious and ten years isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things.  However, don’t be put off, even if less time has passed since your conviction, whatever it was for. The embassy assess each application individually based on a number of criteria so you really can’t predict the outcome. If you are refused, you can apply again. There are no time restrictions so you could technically start the process again right away – bear in mind that the same costs apply each time and they are far from insignificant.

Now that I have my one year’s visa in my passport I’m already wondering what the renewal process is going to be like. I believe I just have to apply again, the same as before so I won’t worry about it for another six months. My main concern at present is whether I can justify the ludicrous amount of money its going to cost to fly a family of seven all the way to Los Angeles this summer!!!

By Stacey (name changed to protect identity)


Useful links

  • Comment – Let us know your thoughts on this post by commenting below
  • Information – We have practical self-help information on travelling to the USA for people with convictions on our Information Hub.
  • Discuss this issue – There are some interesting discussions related to this from people with convictions on our online forum

Embassy interview to travel to the US

I had visa interview this morning (Paris Embassy) and was granted. Passport coming back end of week. My record – 2 arrests – 1 caution for D&D in 2005, 1 for ABH in 2010 which resulted in 10-week tag, 260 hours community service, £400 fine from Magistrates.

I applied for B1/B2 visa from US Embassy in Paris, as currently at university in France. Filled in standard visa application, whereby I declared both caution and conviction. I also got ACPO certificate but this is not mandatory for visas from France. Booked appointment online, and turned up with confirmation of payment, Stamped Addressed Envelope, photos, etc.

Arrived at 0730 (smartly dressed in suit and tie!), given a number, and gave all docs for registration. about 20 mins later, was called to a screen with US immigration officer. There was no private room, just a rank of booths not unlike a bank branch. She asked me what I was doing in France, what I wanted to go to the US for, and how was I going to finance it. I gave her a copy of my uni course confirmation, and my bank statements.

She then asked me to give more detail about the 2 arrests / convictions which I did, and also handed over the ACPO certificate. After she tapped away on a computer for a bit, she then said “I just have to go and check something”, and 5 minutes later she came back and said, “Everything is fine, and you’ll get your passport back with the visa in 2-3 days”.

Total time at Embassy – 1 hour. Obviously there will be some minor procedural differences between Paris and London, but the key takeaway is that the system can work, and the bureaucracy not be so bad. Clearly it’s not all quite there, as I won’t believe the final hurdle is overcome until I set foot on American soil. It’s a major weight off my mind, however.

I tried again for my B2 Visa and was granted

After my last attempt in London two years ago I bit the bullet and tried again.

I must admit the new online application process and booking system for the US Embassy/Consulate is speedier and cheaper than going through the old (09) £1.20pm number.

I applied for my visa at the US Consulate in Belfast, very nice building, bit tricky to find but head towards the Ulster Bank offices and there is the security office.

My appointment was at 11.45am but arrived at 11.30am. Security were friendly and you can leave your mobile phone with them which is a bonus as there are no public pay phones near the Consulate. After being searched, I walked up the grounds past the Consular Generals office (he was in and waved when he saw someone walking up the path who was a visitor). You go right to the back of the building into a small office with three counters and an Interview Booth. There is a vending machine for drinks.

I passed all of my documents over:

  1. DS-160 Confirmation Page
  2. Interview Confirmation Page (Printed off the new website)
  3. Old Passport
  4. ACPO Certificate
  5. VCU01 Form
  6. 2”x2” Photo

I was asked to sit down and wait, there were another ten people in the room. I was called up to the desk again around 40minutes later and they took my fingerprints and handed me back my photo. About 20minutes later I was called into the Interview Booth and was greeted by a nice friendly American Lady.

She asked me:-

  • Why I wanted the visa?
  • What I was going to do in the States?
  • How long I was with my partner?
  • Explain to me what happened regarding your conviction etc. – I was very truthful and told her about my volunteering etc to keep paying back to the community.

She typed away at her screen. Thanked me for being so upfront and honest and she said that “it’s my decision [dramatic pause and stern look on her face] to grant you your visa for 10 years.”  (Big moment! I cried and was full of thanks. Now I am just waiting for my passport to come back.)

Total time at the consulate: 1hour 20minutes

Just be truthful, honest and dress smart.  Just remember to take all of your information with you and be honest.

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