The first step of really making our next travel dreams a reality is now done! We have been granted our US tourism visas (B2)! We are no strangers to obtaining visas having travelled to many visa-requiring nations before, and having assisted hundreds of our overlanding clients with their visa application process, but still applying for visas causing us some stress.
South Africans require a visa to travel to the US for any period of time as they are not one of the countries that is eligible for an ESTA. Although Pete, myself and the kids all have other nationalities as well that are eligible for ESTAs, due to the length of time that we wanted to travel and passport validity / number of free pages in passports, we ended up deciding to apply for US visas for Pete and the kids on their South African passports, and for me, on my Australian passport.
When I looked for information online about the process I couldn’t find a definitive guide to all the steps we needed to take, so here is how we went about obtaining our US tourist (B2) visas in Cape Town, South Africa. Information correct as at January 2020.
Step 1: Fill in your DS-160 form online
The first step is time consuming, but straight forward enough as long as you have all the information to hand! And there can be quite a bit of information required!
The form is found here: https://ceac.state.gov/genniv/
The first question is where will you be applying – in South Africa you can apply in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg – we applied in Cape Town.
We started with Pete’s form which ended up being the most lengthy anyway – their guidance is that the form will take around 90 minutes to complete, this is maybe a bit generous, but it definitely does take quite some time! When you first start the application you are given an application number – write this down as you need it to be able to go back into the application at a later stage. The information required varies, but you can expect to be asked the usual questions about your name, nationality, other nationalities, addresses, intended length of stay, contacts in the US (need to supply a contact person and also give details of any family who are living in the US) etc, and then also questions about your parents, work, qualifications, military service, previous travel (last 5 years) and then lots of yes/no questions about money laundering, criminal activity etc.
(for more information, here is the US government’s instructions on how to complete the application form – https://ceac.state.gov/genniv/Common/Instructions.aspx)
The DS-160 form also requires you to upload a photo – we took photos ourselves standing against the wall of our living room, then edited them down to be square and the size that they require in terms of pixels and file size. They give pretty clear guidance about their photo requirements and although there seemed to be a hitch when I was first uploading Pete’s photo (still not sure what the problem was, but it was a system problem not to do with the photo itself), but once that was resolved then it was straightforward. For our interview we need to take a photo of each of us, and so we just got these photos printed out at our local photo shop and they were accepted just fine.
If you are travelling to the US with a family, then at the end of the first application, once you have printed out your confirmation of application (this is not a visa, just confirmation that you have filled in the form), then you can choose to do a family application and then it fills in some of the basic information. When I finished Pete’s application I didn’t see this option, so I ended up doing separate applications for each of us which didn’t cause any hassles, but would definitely be a bit quicker to do the family application.
Step 2: Make your appointment (& pay!)
We completed our application forms in mid December and the first appointment that we could get in Cape Town was 4 weeks later in early January, and even then there were only a couple of appointments to choose from and the next available dates were in mid February. The B2 visa is valid for 10 years, so it really is worth applying for the visa as early as possible so you don’t run into the situation where you can’t get an appointment in time!
As part of the scheduling of the appointment you have to pay. A lot. Visas for the 4 of us were R9,600 and then we also paid the premium return fee of R550 as we live about 2 hours drive from Cape Town so it’s not somewhere we pop to every day… So in total, just over R10,000 to apply for the visas. Might have been part of the reason that we were so keen that they be approved!
Step 3: Wait
While we waited for our appointment, we put together some supporting documentation to take with us. We printed out the “Instructions” that they email you, and we also printed out the confirmation of application. They are very vague about other information that you need to bring with you, but we had heard horror stories of people being denied visas before, so we decided to take quite a few documents along that proved that we would be returning to South Africa after our visit to the US – copy of our title deed, copy of the kid’s school fees invoice for the current year, a bank statement proving we have sufficient funds and a copy of my recent South African visa renewal application.
Step 4: The Interview
We are no strangers to embassies and consulates, having visited many around the world on previous overland tours. And the US consulate in Cape Town is no different – big impressive building, lots of security and queues.
Our appointment was at 09:00 and we arrived there about 08:40 – we drove into the consulate grounds, and they happily allowed us to park there as we had small kids with us, but it is best to go and park at the Pick’n’Pay / Woolies carpark and walk up as there is not really any parking at the consulate itself. When we arrived there was a queue of people standing outside, but it ended up moving quickly as it seems that they only start admitting people just before 09:00. There is a small desk outside where consular staff scan your passport and stick a sticker on the back of it. While we were there, one of the people in the queue in front of us realised that she had left her passport at home. Don’t do that.
Cellphones turned off, through an x-ray scanner, and then they take your bags etc and put them in a locker, leaving you with just your paperwork and passports. Then it’s a short walk through to another building where you actually do your application.
First step – queue. There was quite a queue when we first arrived, and it is quiet as a library in there, so we whispered to the kids and they seemed to recognise that this wasn’t a place where they should run around and go wild. I was pleased and surprised to see that there was a little table with a puzzle on it, and some foam letters that the kids could play with which was a nice touch. Even better (for us, maybe not for those behind us in the queue), once the staff member in charge of the queuing process realised we had kids, she jumped us to the front of the queue, happy days!
The first queue ends up at a counter where the person checks your paperwork, scans in your passport photos and takes your fingerprints. Then you go and sit down for a while before being called to another counter where you have your actual interview. There is a phone connecting you to the person behind the counter, and in our case he asked us questions about where we were travelling (starting in Florida and then travelling up to Alaska and back again, all truthfully vague), whether we owned a house in South Africa (yes) and why we weren’t using our other passports to get an ESTA (wanted longer than 3 months in the US and Canada).
“Your visas have been granted”
Decision given to us there and then! So excited!! The actual visas take 5 to 7 days to be returned to us in our passports, but once he said the magic word “granted” we knew that our adventures were about to begin!!
10 weeks and 3 days to go!
Overall we found the process to be straightforward and the staff at the consulate were pleasant and helpful, while still being scary in that consulate-embassy-staff kind of way. Judging from what we overheard from other applicants, our interview was very easy compared to others, but our advice would be to take along supporting documentation proving that you have the funds to be able to travel for the length of time you are planning, to have some idea of where you are going, and also to take proof that you have reasons to return to South Africa afterwards.