US Embassy in India moves from the bottom of the heap to the Numero Uno

Updated Apr 8, 2008:  The Dignity Foundation that specializes in catering to Senior Citizens has picked this post to be published in their magazine Dignity Dialogue. Thank you Dignity Foundation. We are honored.

The nightmare that it was

Obtaining a visa to the USA, be it any category, has to be amongst the most tortuous, most bureaucratic of processes we have come across. Obtaining what would be termed a routine tourist/business visa (B1/B2 as the US calls it) was utterly dreadful. I remember the first time, in 1991, i got the B1 visa, i had to stand in the queue outside the embassy building in Mumbai starting at the crack of dawn. There was not even a place to sit while we waited. Later in 1996, when i got a B1, this time in Chennai, again i had to stand outside the embassy in chennai’s blazing heat. Ditto for my H1 as well. Priya Raju also had the same experiences.

Once when the embassy officials were questioned on this treatment meted out, they claimed that the Indian citizens were standing outside the embassy of their own volition and was not required by the process. Of course, they conveniently did not discuss the point that they let in only a small number of people every day for the visa process (daily quota). That is what forced everyone to start assembling in the queue to try to get into the embassy. There was no concept of an apppointment system then!

Problems at the Port of Entry

In addition to this whole bureaucratic visa regime, we got the dirty looks, aggressive questioning at the hands of the immigration officials at the port of entry almost every time we entered the USA after a holiday. These happened even when we had a legit H1 visa (work permit). These events forced us to get the Green Card (Permanent Resident Permit). I don’t even want to begin getting into the kind of multi-year form-filling bureaucratic process that it was. But once we got it, atleast the harassment at the immigration counter stopped mostly.

Now that it is little more than 2 years since we came back, we decided that our transition to India was complete and we no longer needed our Green Cards. We decided to give it up and obtain a B1/B2 tourist visa to goto the USA to meet friends and family in Priya’s case and for work reasons (business discussions/meetings) in my case.

Since Priya has stopped working and is now into volunteering, i decided to try my luck first. I went through my office immigration dept, since i figured they must have a better system in place for businesses.

The New Process

I was pleasantly surprised, when i was told that, i just needed to fill a form online at the VFS USA website.
Before i filled the form online, i needed the receipt number of the visa fee paid in advance at the HDFC Bank. Since the office had given me that info, i filled the form easily, took a print out, picked the appointment time, which surprisingly was available the following week. I had a 2.15pm appointment, and i reached the embassy at 1.45pm just to give myself some cushion and i found people waiting, who had 3pm or later appointments. I couldn’t help recalling the embassy statement that people were assembling of their own volition!

I got in, stood in a few more queues all in airconditioned comfort, met one of the embassy officials around 330PM or so, got the visa and came out. What a breeze compared to 12 years ago.

Priya Raju tries her hand

In the next 2 weeks, Priya Raju decided to undergo the same process, submitted the form online, picked the date/time. She did this on her own because she does not work for my company any more. I didn’t want Priya to stand in the hot sun even for the 30 min that I did. I did some investigation and I was told that VFS USA, the site i pointed to, was selling a 200 Rs (4 USD) lounge coupon. This coupon allows the usage of a AC lounge, with a Cafe Coffee Day sandwich/coffee thrown in and best of all, they drive the visa applicant directly to the embassy right before the interview time slot. Once the applicant finishes the process, VFS USA drives the applicant back to the lounge. Priya was able to finish the process quickly like I did, with the additional comfort of not standing in the sun. Not to mention, that the USA embassy officials were very friendly. They were cracking jokes or making light hearted banter. Things could not be better for the USA embassies.

The 200 Rs for this convenience is a steal and we wholeheartedly recommend this, especially for senior citizens who travel a lot to the USA these days. VFS USA staff were also very friendly and helpful.

Since we have traveled to many countries, i wanted to give you all some comparison points. I am only talking about tourist visas, because i don’t have comparison points for work permits issued by countries other than USA and UAE.

Here is our rankings of the tourist visa regimes (of course, this only includes the countries we have visited so far):

1. USA’s current B1/B2 regime – the current online process is head and shoulders above all the countries listed below. None of the countries below use a online based process like the USA.

2. Switzerland – we didn’t need a visa to go here since we had a USA green card. How smart of the Swiss.

3. UK – typically a day’s job without any cumbersome documentation requirements

4. Canada – same as the UK

5. Norway – same day (Schengen Visa system) process. very friendly people at the embassy.

6. Peru – same day process, while the embassy had the third worldly looks, the process was quite smooth.

7. UAE – visa on arrival. quite smooth.

8. Italy – cumbersome documentation requirements, including 3 year tax returns, documents in triplicate etc. The officials gave us back our passports after 6 days. To top it, the officials were very openly proud that they had returned it in 6 days instead of the usual 7 days!

9. Greece – cumbersome documentation requirements, including 3 year tax returns, documents in triplicate etc. The officials were keeping piles of passports stacked in the office giving me and Priya the scares. And we had to go to the embassy multiple number of times. The instructions on the web did not match the real requirements and when we objected strenously they waived off a few of the requirements.

10. Egypt – cumbersome documentation requirements, including 3 year tax returns, documents in triplicate etc. In what is the funniest visa episode so far, the Egyptians wanted an authorized leave letter from my company before they would issue the visa!

11. Ecuador – we travelled to Ecuador in 2003 christmas. Based on the tour program we needed a 10 day visa. We were shocked when they told us the strangest thing we have encountered – if we needed a 10 day visa, they can only issue it 10 days before the travel date. I am not sure i have still understood what their law was. But it was the scariest thing then – since it was Christmas time, they also had an upcoming holiday 2 days before christmas all the way to 2 days after new year. Going by the calendar then, there was only one working day when we could obtain the visa and by their process they could only give us 8 days visa. We decided to take it eventhough it meant overstaying on the visa by their own regulations! I think this is by far the strangest visa regime we have encountered. Any way, when we exited Ecuador, no one cared that we had overstayed a couple of days.

Please don’t harass the tourists

If you look at some of the regimes we describe above, it is clear that these countries harass the tourist visa applicants. Little do they realize that the tourists spend a lot of money in their countries and keep their economy booming. I would urge these countries to design processes that don’t encumber the legitimate tourists under the guise of catching miscreants. If you don’t trust your own embassy officials to catch the miscreants without making the process arduous for everyone, it reflects poorly on your country and forces passionate travellers like us to avoid coming to your country. If a lot of us decide to avoid your country, it would be a huge loss for your economy.

Now a few words to my favorite country (other than India) in the world – the USA:

1. Thank you very much for cleaning up the B1/B2 process so much and making the process pleasurable for us instead of the nightmare that it was.

2. Please consider instructing your Immigration Officials at the port of entry to be kind to the people that come in. If your real objective is to find miscreants, harassing everyone that comes in, is not the solution. You should rather use software and other sophisticated systems to filter out the miscreants for you. No one minds being asked a few questions by the immigration officials, but no other country that we have visited harassed us at the port of entry. In fact officials in other countries were extra pleasant to us. [In Ecuador, where we found their visa process to be bad, they were the most pleasant that we have seen so far.] This is doubly strange because we did go through your Government’s process and obtained the visa legitimately. Don’t you think this reflects poorly on the whole process you have set up for visas?

Readers, please chime in with your opinions, good or bad about tourist visa regimes.


  1. Quote

    Very Informative post sukumar.. When i too got my visa in 2006, it was a smooth process.

    How about india’s immigration office abroad?

  2. Quote
    sujatha said April 6, 2008, 9:03 am:


    Nice to know about the lounge coupon at the US Embassy. Good information.

    Once when my husband was trying to get a visa to Chile, he had to appear in person at the Chile Embassy in Miami. He got an appointment after a few lenghthy phone calls. The office was located at an isolated space in a high rise building of the downtown. The office housed only one room. He reached the office around 9.30am. In the phone call they had mentioned they accept personal checks but they needed an MO. So he ran back to find a nearby facility to get an MO. He just came back 2 mins before 10am and got into the office and visa clerk got all the documents (Application + Fee), didn’t even check what was the name on it or the photo but he just put a rubber stamp on the passport page(that is the visa). The purpose of a personal appt is to check the identity of the person but interestingly that wasn’t done. The irony is he runs that one man office and he is the clerk,dispatcher, counseller and he is the one who took the appointment too.

  3. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 6, 2008, 9:56 pm:

    thanks. Being an Indian Citizen the only thing we have done at the Indian embassies in the USA, is getting our passports renewed. It was done in a single day – blazing fast compared to how much time it takes to do that within India.

    Thanks for the info on Chile. Payment method is another area where every embassy has their own procedures – Money Orders, banker’s checks, demand drafts, pre-paid like in the case of USA etc. One would think, an embassy should accept the 2 main payment methods everyone uses – cash and credit card. But these embassies won’t accept either? This is another way to harass the applicants i think. Thanks for bringing this out.

  4. Quote
    Ramesh Ramaswamy said April 7, 2008, 4:05 am:


    Nice information. Good to know about the lounge coupon at the US Embassy.


    I have applied PIO card for my daugther in Houston embassy. It was hassle-free. I think it took couple of weeks. All was done by postal mail. I was bit nervous sending her passport via post. But all came back intact 🙂


  5. Quote

    Wow Sukumar. You have really seen the world.

    Your post bought back memories of my first trip to US, when I was taken to a seperate area and interrogated on the purpose of my visit. It was quite harrowing.
    My bad experience at the embassy was when I got my L1 visa post 9/11. Although, I waited in AC comfort I was appalled at the rude manner in which some of the senior citizens were questioned and shouted at. I am glad to hear things have improved now.

  6. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 7, 2008, 9:22 am:

    Thanks Ramesh. Thanks also for the info on the PIO card. My experience with passport renewal was similar. All done by Fedex in my case with a 24 hour turnaround. Pretty good actually.

  7. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 7, 2008, 9:23 am:

    Thanks Archana. Lot more places to visit actually – i guess you could say there is no end to this greed for travelling!

    Yeah, i have seen senior citizens being put through the griller and sometimes rejected also. I think it is better these days even for them.

  8. Quote

    Thanks sukumar.

    Ramesh.. thanks for the PIO information..

  9. Quote
    Ganesh said April 7, 2008, 5:42 pm:

    The Indian embassy in SFO also works reasonably efficiently. The location of the embassy is in an obscure place and the “embassy” is actually a home.


  10. Quote

    Nice post. Since I went for my first stamping in 2003, I had pretty much good experience. One thing I observed is the VFS and other support staff who review the documents outside were very rude. (they are all Indians). One female almost blasted me saying how many times she should tell to get all the documents in the order they specified (in one Green folder). Well AFAIK there is no recommended order by US Consulate. It is made up by the support staff in the US Embassy and (supposedly) communicated to Immigration Teams of all companies. That was very embarrassing moment. But the Immigration Officers are very good, spoke well, asked some meaningful questions and cleared through.

  11. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 7, 2008, 9:04 pm:

    You are welcome Senthil.

    Ganesh, thanks. looks like Indian embassies seem to be doing a good job given so many good experiences.

    Thanks. I guess the VFS folks have learnt to be more friendly these days. While Priya was away for her visa, i was just sitting in the lounge and observing. I found them to be generally very professional and friendly.

  12. Quote

    Yes.. this is one of the important thing that we should learn from them.. to be polite, gentle & expressive.. when i was waiting for the visa, even if the visa is rejected, they just politely tell it with some explanation.. (if it had been typical indian office, it would be a plain NO..) .. our government should impart this training to its officers..

    Also, they are good at expressing.. when i had the interview, the mic did not work.. but, from the lady’s facial expression (a warm smile), i understood my visa was stamped..

  13. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 8, 2008, 6:02 am:

    Good point Senthil. Yes, these are things we can all learn.

  14. Quote


    To clarify, this happened in 2003 when pre-VFS era. There were no appointments then. And the staff that prescreened our Visa applications were from TTK ( I guess)

    These days, I had just pleasant experience with no issues.

  15. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 8, 2008, 10:26 pm:

    Thanks for the clarification Vamsi. I had assumed you were referring to the VFS of those days. I stand corrected.

  16. Quote
    Jaskirat Singh said April 9, 2008, 1:46 am:

    Quite an informative post there sukumar. Although I havent had any experience of visa interview, I guess i did get an overview of how it actually was and is 😉

    Nice to see that you have been to lotta places 🙂

  17. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 9, 2008, 6:56 am:

    Thanks Jaskirat. You do need to prepare for the interview as and when you go. Our immigration team is pretty good at briefing you. Please make sure to do that.

  18. Quote

    Congrats Sukumar. Great to know your article was published by Dignity Dialogue.

  19. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 10, 2008, 3:01 am:

    Thanks a lot Archana.

  20. Quote
    Jaskirat Singh said April 10, 2008, 7:46 am:

    yes ofcourse. But that i guess was out of context here 🙂

  21. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 10, 2008, 11:18 pm:

    Thanks Jaskirat.

  22. Quote
    pk.karthik said April 11, 2008, 12:29 am:

    Informative Article Sukumar…great to know u have travelled som much…

    But I am intrigues by Greece and Italy..I thgt Schengen Agreements had simplified things ..never knew it was complex…..

  23. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 11, 2008, 3:37 am:

    Thanks Karthik. You are right, Greece and Italy are Schengen countries. Maybe the member countries can apply their own procedures but the visa is valid across all Schengen countries. I could be wrong?

  24. Quote
    Saraswathi said April 11, 2008, 4:04 pm:


    Very useful and informative post. My interview(May 2007) for my F-1 Visa(student status) was very easy too. We needed some financial documents, our Engineering mark sheets, degree certificates etc., The interviewer was very friendly and she asked me just a couple of questions. On the whole my experience of Visa interview was good.

    However as you mentioned, my interview slot was for 12:30pm, I reached there around 12:00pm and found lot of people with later appointment times in the queue too and my turn for the interview came around 3:00pm.

    My brother had to renew his H1-B in Mexico and he was telling me it is a very easy affair too. Book the dates, be there at the appointed time and the stamping is done.

  25. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 11, 2008, 6:48 pm:

    Thanks Saraswathi. I am glad to see that the USA has cleaned up its act in other countries also judging from your brother’s experience in Mexico.

    As for people lining up way ahead of time – is it that we Indians get very anxious about a US Visa? It is obvious that when we have been given an interview slot, they will call us in around the time. Although one could argue that it is like a Dr. appointment – you got in at 3pm with a 12.30pm slot. I find this behavior of us Indians perplexing not to speak of the inconvenience they cause to themselves?

  26. Quote
    Saraswathi said April 11, 2008, 8:55 pm:


    Yes anxiety would definitely be one of the reasons. Before my Visa interview, I literally got ton loads of advice from everyone(read those who had never been to a visa interview before) to be cautious and to reach the embassy before time. Probably we need some awareness about it, that it is ALRIGHT to go to the embassy 15-20 minutes before the scheduled time and not stand there right from the morning though the appointment may be for noon.

    Actually when my brother got his F-1 Visa in 2001 in April(we were living in Hyd), he did not even have to attend a Visa interview. He was asked to send copies of his documents through post and he got the Visa through post. Of course after 9/11, interviews became mandatory for F-1 visa students.

  27. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 11, 2008, 9:42 pm:

    Thanks. It does seem to be anxiety. As India becomes more successful, hopefully we will lose that anxiety and realize that not getting a US Visa is not the end of the world. Today that is what most youngsters think. Most youngsters’ only dream seems to be to goto the USA. As long as the USA has that kind of pull on youngsters, i don’t see how the anxiety will go away?

    Yeah, even my parents got their visa to the USA quite easily by post when they came to the USA in 2000. But when they came again in 2003, they had to go for an interview. 9/11 has really changed a lot of things. It is sad that so many of us have to be inconvenienced for a horrendous crime comitted by relgious zealots.

  28. Quote
    Saraswathi said April 12, 2008, 10:24 pm:


    Rigthly said, as long as youngsters and others feel that US is “the place” to be, there would be anxiety over US Visa’s. But am definitely seeing a change in the trend. In the sense that the engineering batch who passed out with me, not many opted for Master’s in US. They either worked or tried for MBA/M.E. And now after coming here I realize, most of the Indian students are like me(those who want to study here and get back to India in the future).

    However with the standard of Indian Universities increasing by the day, probably in the future, students would prefer to be in India.

    But I liked one thing about the US universities here. The informality between the professors and the students. Its a very good environment to make mistakes. The profs here never get angry. When we make mistakes they infact feel very happy and encourage our learning. I missed this environment during my Engineering in India.

  29. Quote
    Saraswathi said April 12, 2008, 10:38 pm:

    Yes Sukumar, 9/11 changed a lot of things. Right from stricter custom checking to mandatory interviews. It’s indeed an unfortunate event.

  30. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 12, 2008, 11:09 pm:

    Thanks Saraswathi. I have limited first hand experience of the US academic system but i have interacted with several students and i agree with you. In general even from the primary education onwards, the US education system encourages exploration and learning through experiments and exploration. By contrast the Indian system is entirely focused on rote education even extending to the university level. Some universities do make an attempt to change this like the IITs and IIMs and BITS Pilani, but those are elitist and very few in number.

    I am glad to see that you are observing a trend of students staying back. As you say, for this to become a bigger trend the Indian universities have to improve, become more research oriented, become more informal as you say.

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