Visa requirements for travelling to the US as a journalist are a constant source of discussion among Australian IT journos. I went straight to the source, The US Consulate Sydney, to get the myths debunked once and for all.
Aussie IT journos frequently toss up questions like:
- [Big PR company] assures me I don’t need a Visa to go to [big vendor lovefest] because Australia/US have a visa waiver scheme for visits of up to 90 days now… is it true?
- I’m a journo but am visiting the US for a leisure visit, honest to god. Do I really need a journalist visa?
- [Large video card manufacturer] has invited me to their conference in San Francisco, departing in less than a week. But the consulate has no visa appointments. Is there any way I can get my foot in the door?
Here are the facts…
You DO need a journalist (“I”) Visa if you are doing journalism on your trip or about the trip before or afterwards. Even if you write a story about the trip after your return you need an I-Visa and you would not be eligible for the tourist waiver scheme at the time of your trip.
If you turn up at an US immigration point on a trip where you are doing journalism, but haven’t got an I-Visa, in the words of the very-helpful-but-prefers-not-to-be-named US Consulate Sydney spokesperson: “[You] could be turned around at the border. The I-Visa is a strict requirement. Anyone who is turned around at the border is required to apply for a visa for any future travel to the US for any purpose, including tourism.”
In other words, you are much better off having a journalist visa than not because you could find yourself SOL and then USCWAP.
Apart from anything else, if you do have an I-Visa, you get minimal grilling at US immigration points since the fingerprint scan and grilling has been done at the consulate in Australia (though it’s still advisable to carry a ‘letter of invitation’ for the US Port of Entry Inspector).
Since reading about visas could be a dry topic, I will now proceed in Q&A format with the unnamed consular representative for easy reference.
Q: Do I need to wait to be invited on a press trip before I can apply for an I-Visa?
A: No, journalists can apply for an I-Visa at any time — they don’t have to wait until they have a press event or planned trip to the US. So, if you anticipate you might need to travel to the US in the next five years, you can apply now. You just need to provide evidence that you are a legitimate journalist — a letter from your employer, or if you are a freelancer, a copy of your contract with a publisher.
Q: What if I am a freelancer but don’t have a contract with a publisher?
A: This is assessed on a case-by-case basis, but a past contract with a publisher or examples of past reporting can help establish the credibility of the journalist. Any press credentials would be helpful.
Q: What if I am travelling with my spouse/partner/family?
A: If you are travelling for journalistic purposes, and your are being accompanied by any immediate family (including partner), they must all get an I-Visa too.
Q: What if I have an I-Visa and am travelling purely for a holiday?
A: You can’t use your I-Visa if you are travelling to the US purely for holiday purposes. You would need to use the visa waiver program (which still requires you to register online for “ESTA approval” before arriving at the US).
Visa waiver program: http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/without/without_1990.html
Visa waiver registration website: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/
Q: OK, I didn’t know the above and have just been invited on a trip with scant notice. How can I get in to the consulate quickly?
A: If you need approval to travel to the US at short notice to cover a story, you may be surprised at how quickly you can now get a visa interview. People can now get appointments much sooner than they think — routinely we see people within less than five days for visa interviews.
There is an online calendar system that lets you see the first available appointment here:
Q: OK, I looked, but there are no appointment times available before I have to leave…
A: The consulate does reserve appointment times for emergency visa applications, so we can work to expedite appointments for emergencies or last minute travel (however these cannot be guaranteed to be available so it is always best to plan for your visa interview at least one to two weeks before your departure date.)
The key to getting an interview quickly if you need to travel in less than five days is:
1. Book the first available visa interview time via the online booking system — even if it is beyond the date you plan to depart Australia for the US.
Note, you MUST book at the consulate that covers the state you reside in (Sydney consulate looks after people in NSW, QLD and Norfolk Island; the Melbourne consulate looks after VIC, NT, SA and TAS, and the Perth consulate looks after people in WA. If you live in a state that doesn’t have a consulate you have to travel to the consulate that covers your state to do the visa interview in person.)
2. When you book an appointment in, you pay a small fee online (at the time of writing, $AUD14), and are issued with a PIN and a link to the online form you need to fill out to apply for a Visa.
The PIN allows you to change the appointment time to another time, which is why you need to first apply for an appointment even if it is too late, so that the consulate can change the appointment to an earlier one.
3. Start completing the required forms and acquiring supporting documentation/photographs straight away, as sometimes the consulate can see journalists at very short notice, and if you don’t have your documentation ready, we can’t process your visa application.
4. After you have made the booking online, send an email explaining why you need an appointment sooner to email@example.com (Sydney consulate), firstname.lastname@example.org (Melbourne consulate) or email@example.com (Perth consulate). Be sure to include plenty of ways to contact you such as mobile number, email, phone numbers you can be reached on in business hours and in the evening.
Q: So how much does an I-Visa cost?
There are four costs:
- The $14 initial online booking fee
- a non refundable “US non-immigrant visa fee” which you pay at Australia Post. It costs the on-the-day-AUD-equivalent of $US131 (at the time of writing, equivalent to $196.50) — make sure you hang on to the Australia Post receipt because you cannot get it reissued if you lose it. Also, if you are planning to get this receipt reimbursed by an employer, be sure to photocopy it before your interview at the consulate, as the consulate retains the receipt as proof of payment.
- The third fee is paid at the time of the visa interview — it is an ‘issuance fee’ which changes according to the Australian-US exchange rate. People can be surprised by the cost of it, but we are mandated by the US congress to recoup our costs. Currently the US Consulate in Australia website lists it as being $157.50.
- You also need to purchase a Platinum Express Post envelope at a post office ($11.90 at the time of writing) to send the passport back in, as the consulate has administrative processing that must take place and cannot issue visas immediately. Take this post-paid envelope with you to the visa interview at the consulate.
Check the issuance fees on the day of your visa interview at this page:
Bank cheque or money order made out to US Consulate General is the best way to pay the issuance fee (cash in Australian or US currency is also accepted at the Sydney consulate only.)
[Dan Warne] all up, the I-Visa is going to cost you about $379.90 plus taxis and the cost of getting the very specific-sized passport photos done.
Q: Anything I need to know about filling out the forms?
[This answer provided by Dan Warne from personal experience..!]
The US government has recently made the process of filling out the Visa application form a web-based electronic system. You can access it here: https://ceac.state.gov/genniv/). While this might sound like a good idea, they seem to have taken the opportunity to make the form massively longer and more complex. Be prepared to have your parents’ date of birth details ready, full personal details of any relative in the US, exact dates of your previous trips to the US, and so on. Also be prepared for some very direct questions about your intentions in coming to the United States (like: do you intend to commit genocide while on your trip?)
You also have to scan in your photo for this form — and the requirements are incredibly specific. It must be no smaller than 600×600 pixels, and no larger than 1200×1200 pixels, saved as JPEG and no larger than 120KB in size. You can read the full photo guide here, but the info is actually incorrect, saying that the file can be up to 240KB, while the application form actually only accepts files up to 120KB.)
The website says this form takes 75 minutes to fill in, which I thought must be a conservative estimate for people who type slowly, but no – it’s probably about right. It also has about 20 lengthy sections, each with its own page.
Unfortunately the system behind this form also appears to be incredibly buggy and regularly times out and returns .NET errors, so make sure you DO take advantage of the “save” button at the end of each page, and then the subsequent “save to disk” option.)
The form also appears to have a particular bug in it – when you select the I-Visa option at the start, it asks you at the end for details of your employer in the US for your temporary work visa. Obviously, this is not relevant for an I-Visa, since you must be working for a foreign employer and you are specifically prohibited from working for any US companies. However, the form validates the data you enter here (such as the address of the US company) so, you’ll have to fill in some valid yet dummy information that will make clear to the clerk at the consulate that it is not relevant. For example, in my application, I put in the details of Intel USA who was inviting me to the US to cover their conference – but pointed this out to the consulate representative during the interview.
Once you have completed the form, you get a confirmation page with a barcode. Print this immediately and do not do anything else in your browser. If you print it, but your printer doesn’t work for some reason (as mine didn’t) you will NOT be able to go back to this page and get the barcode again.
I will now return you to the regular programming… the Q&A with the consular representative.
Q: Do I have to come in for an interview for an I-Visa?
A: Yes, every single person, whether applying for a new visa, or a renewal of an existing one, has to come in for a full visa interview. (There are some exceptions but they do not apply to most people: see this page).
Q: I have an I-Visa already — do I have to go through the whole process again to renew it?
A: Yes, you have to go through the process again. You cannot renew US visas — you have to apply for a new one. Again… there are some exceptions but they do not apply to most people: see this page.
Q: I lost my passport with my I-Visa in it; can I get it reissued?
A: No, you must go through the visa application process again.
Q: My passport expired, but the I-Visa itself hasn’t, do I need to apply for the Visa again?
A: No: you can carry the old passport with the new passport and the I-Visa is still valid until its expiry date even if the passport it is in has expired. The consulate cannot reissue a new visa for the new passport — if you want that, you have to apply for a new I-Visa.
Q: What are the limitations on working in the US with an I-Visa?
A: An I-Visa is only for a temporary reporting trip to the US. To work for a US news organisation you would need a work visa such as an H1B or E3 – this can be determined during an interview at the Consulate.
Q: If I work as a journalist but am going to the US in a purely leisure travel capacity, do they still need to apply for an I-Visa?
Q: Would I be breaching my visa rules if I wrote a story while I was over there, or about my travels after I got back?
A: An I-Visa is required if the trip is in any way related to journalism – whether the story is written during or after the stay in the US.
Q: If I worked as a journalist in the past but am no longer actively working as a journalist, do I still need to get an I-Visa to visit the US?
A: No. If the individual is not going to be working as a journalist while in the US – whether they were or still are a journalist – they do not need an I-Visa.
Q: If I am a journalist with an I-Visa but want to bring a photographer, cameraman or other support type staffer, do they need to apply for I-Visas too?
A: Yes. And if you are travelling with family members (including a partner) they have to apply for an I-Visa too.
—— End of interview ——
If you are still not clear on all of that, there is a cheesy government video with smiling consular representatives, 80s stock music and an abundance of US flags that explains the whole process.
Windows media format:
IF ALL ELSE FAILS…
Alison Barnard is the PR at the Sydney US Consulate who can help with journos who’ve hit a roadblock in the system (or, in fact, any enquiry about the friendly US government.)
Media Liaison / Public Affairs Section
Consulate General, United States of America
Direct: +61 2 9373 9225
Mobile: +61 413 338 399