Check your eligibility
As a British national, I am eligible to enter the USA under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) for business or pleasure. Sounds pretty simple, but there’s a catch; this only allows stays of up to 90 days and then I’d have to sling my hook.
The Appalachian Trail takes roughly 6 months to complete, therefore this visa just wouldn’t make the cut (unless I wanted to sprint the entire way, like an absolute lunatic).
What is a B-2 Visa?
The B-2 Visa is a nonimmigrant visitor visa and falls under the tourism category. With this visa, you can be granted a stay of up to 6 months at a time in the USA, with the potential to apply for an extension. Moreover, this visa may last up to 10 years!
With this in mind, many foreign hikers go for the B-2 visa. Granted, it is a bit more of a faff and a touch stressful (you’ll see why as you read on); but if you just so happen to be bitten by the backpacking bug whilst you’re out on the AT, chances are you’ll want to come back and give the PCT and CDT a whirl in the future; and with the B-2 under your belt, you won’t have to worry about any of this stuff next time.
The DS-160 is the first hurdle in the visa application process. I say hurdle, because it had me wanting to poke my own eyes out before I’d even started filling in the online form. Let me explain:
The site, as you’ll notice by following the above link, looks like it’s not been updated since the very dawn of the internet. Every time I logged in and began filling in my details, the page would suddenly and inexplicably expire and log me out. Every time I then proceeded to log back in, it would take me straight to the expired page, forcing me to create a new application each time, and go round and round in circles until I felt a migraine coming on.
A quick Google search reassured me that this was a common problem, and one clever fellow suggested switching internet browser. I toggled from Safari to Firefox; alas, nothing. Firefox to Chrome; bingo!
The DS-160 is an online form and its length of completion will depend on your own personal experiences. For example, if you have visited America in the past (I’d never previously been), then you will have more digging into your personal records to do; they’re keen to hear all about the type of burger you ate in Wendy’s, circa 2013. The information you enter into this form will be used in conjunction with a personal interview to process your visa application, so take your time, enter everything correctly and definitely don’t lie.
It’s relatively straightforward, and as long as you are not criminally inclined, completing your DS-160 should be a doddle. But bear in mind…
You’ll need a photo
You will have to upload a passport-like photo and use the websites cropping tool to adjust it to 2 x 2 inches (this was the faffy part). I’d suggest having a few photos ready on your computer before starting the application, to make the process smoother. I used my camera and took the photo myself, because I have no friends, but you could also ask someone for a helping hand.
Once your photo has been suitably cropped and approved, you will get to a confirmation page displaying your details, photo and a barcode. You need to print this out and take it to your interview, which is the next step of your application.
The next stage is to schedule an interview and pay for your visa. This requires some more online form filling, but again, it shouldn’t take too long. My interview would require a trip down to the Embassy in London and at the time I applied (June, 2018), the visa cost me £123.20.
Once done, you’ll need to print off the confirmation and instructions pages. They also contain a couple of barcodes and detail what you need to bring to your interview.
The first available interview was in exactly 3 weeks, at the delightful time of 8am. After almost choking on my own tongue at the sight of train fares down the London from Manchester (well over £100), I bit the bullet and booked myself onto a 5 hour bus ride the day before. At £15 return, I was willing to sacrifice my comfort, dignity and sanity.
The interview instructions page lists off a number of things to bring as default, as well as an accumulation of evidence to act in your favour in case your interviewer is having a particularly bad day and doesn’t want to make your life easy. So here’s everything I took:
- DS-160 confirmation page.
- Interview confirmation and instructions page.
- Passport (make sure it’s not due to expire for a very long time).
- Two 2 x 2 inch photos (I used the same photo from my DS-160 as it was already sized and simply printed it out in colour on photo paper).
Why am I visiting and what are my intentions:
- Information about the Appalachian Trail (I lazily printed out the entire Wikipedia page on the AT).
- Hypothetical flights and transport to and from America/the trail (I wasn’t willing to book my flights pre-interview, in case I was rejected).
- Receipts of gear I had already purchased for the trail.
Proof of financial support:
- Savings account bank statement.
Proof I intend to leave after my visa expires:
In other words, ties to my home country, such as family, spouse, property and work. I struggled with this one a bit, as I intended to quit my job, I’ve only ever rented, I’m unmarried and saying that I’ll come home because I miss my mom and dad just didn’t sound that convincing. So I had to get creative:
- I took my old passport with the stamp for my 2014 trip to Australia in it (I went for two years on a working holiday visa) and a copy of a new tenancy letter upon my return to Manchester in 2016, in the hope that I could use it as an example of my obedience to visa expiration rules.
- I also included a copy of an email conversation between me and my boss, who rehired me after my 2 year trip. This could potentially back up the previous point, showing that I actually came home when I claimed to, as well as highlighting that I was re-hireable and maybe had a job to come home to after the AT.
- Baxter State Park hike completion recommendations, just to show that I had a ‘looming’ deadline and ‘wasn’t there to mess round’.
Finally, I stuffed in a copy of my work contract and university qualifications for good measure. This was highly unnecessary and I was clutching at straws by this point.
On the day of the interview I was absolutely bricking it. I had read numerous accounts online detailing how stressful the process was and I naturally feared the worst.
The US Embassy moved at the beginning of 2018 and is now located closest to Vauxhall tube station on the Victoria Line. My interview was scheduled for 8am, so armed with my mountain of paperwork and evidence, I made my way to the South Pavilion Consular Services for about 7:30am to find people of all nationalities already queuing.
After a quick check of my printed DS-160 and passport by an impatient young man who sounded like he had come straight off the set of Eastenders, I was moved to a second queue to get through security.
Security was quick and the guys were fairly relaxed. It was very much like going through an airport with the bag and body scanners. To my surprise, they didn’t take my phone off me. They did however, make me and another girl take a swig from our bottles of water, to ensure they weren’t filled with some kind of lethal liquid; we all had a nervous chuckle about this.
Still feeling tense, I then walked across an open area and into the Embassy itself. I gave my DS-160 and passport to a couple of glamorous receptionists who handed it back with my ticket number and directed me to some lifts.
On the first floor I came out into a massive waiting room overlooking the Thames. It was lined with comfy chairs and TV screens on one side and numbered booths with glass windows on the other. The atmosphere was so much more relaxed than I had anticipated and people were laughing and chatting and playing on their phones. I was completely thrown by this; I expected complete silence, no electronics allowed and a security guard patrolling the room ready to shoot anyone who even sniffed.
By 8am, numbers began to pop up on the screen accompanied by a bell sound every few seconds and before I knew it, I was heading to my window. A really friendly Texan guy briefly took my DS-160 and passport and got a scan of my fingerprints. He then told me to take a pew across the other side of the room because my interview would be coming up within 10 minutes.
I was thrown for the second time of the day; ten minutes? I was expecting to be waiting here for hours like all the other accounts had detailed online. Still nervous, I shuffled across the huge waiting room to join a couple of other people.
As promised, my number punctually popped up on the screen. Clutching my folder of paperwork tightly to my chest, as if trying to contain my frantically beating heart; and ready to plead my case, I made my way to a new window. A slightly more serious American man took my fingerprints, DS-160 and passport once more, and the questions began.
Within no more than 12 minutes, I was granted my visa. I was out of the building and back on the streets of London by 8:40am.
So, what questions was I asked?
The questions were straightforward and I didn’t need to show him an ounce of evidence. He didn’t even ask for the photos, which they specifically request you to bring. Some of my answers were worryingly vague, for example my plans for when I finish the trail, yet that didn’t seem to bother him.
He was very keen to hear about who I’d be travelling with, what my plan was, how long the trail would take me, how I could afford it, what my job was, if I’d purchased gear already or would be doing so in the States and what I’d do when I came home.
All the while, he typed away into his computer and kept an unshakable poker face as I chatted away as casually as I could muster. After he asked me his final question, he typed for an uncomfortably long time in silence. Then, he slid my paperwork towards him and slapped a big ol’ stamp on it and said something like; ‘Congratulations ma’am, you’re visa has been approved’.
I shat my pants with relief.
- First and foremost, don’t get as wound up about it as I did. I literally couldn’t eat or sleep for days beforehand. Don’t fear the worst, it’s not worth the stress.
- Get your paperwork, evidence and photos together and organised in a folder. It will make you feel more prepared and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Try getting an early interview, perhaps that’s why mine took less than an hour?
- But take snacks, water and some things to amuse you, like headphones or a book, in case you aren’t as lucky as me.
- I opted to have my passport and new visa returned to a secure location in Manchester for free, as opposed to paying a fee to have it delivered to my door by some kind of passport delivering ninja.
That about sums up my experience getting the B-2 Visa to hike the Appalachian Trail. Perhaps I was lucky; perhaps I made a mountain out of a molehill. The majority of detailed stories I read online lead me to believe that the experience would be chilling and soul destroying. To the contrary; the only soul destroying thing about it was the amount of good food and sleep I deprived myself of beforehand!
I’d love to hear your experiences in the comment section below. And if you’re currently going through this process, good luck, you’ll do great!