Next week, I should be going to the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose -- my fourth such trip, so I've worked out what to do by now. However, the rules have changed. It used to be that the jobbing journo popping over to the US could get by on a visa waiver, which is a bit of paper you fill in on the plane going over that lets them know who you are and where you're staying. That's always been a little dodgy, as the waiver says you can't do it as a representative of the foreign media, but nobody cared. Now, some people do care, and there are increasing tales of hapless hacks repatriated at the border for lack of a proper journalist I visa. No wishing to offend our transatlantic cousins, I've applied for one, and today is my Embassy Interview. At 8 a.m. "Allow four hours" they say. What on earth do they want to ask me?
It's taken a while to get this far. Having heard contradictory stories of what you must do to get an I visa -- some say you can do it by post, others say you have to present yourself in person -- I phone up the £1.30/min visa hotline. The person at the other end isn't sure either, and asks around the office. Eventually, she finds out that yes, you have to turn up for interview. The fact that the journo opposite me did it by post a month ago cuts no ice.
So I just fill in the forms online? No, you can fill in some of the forms online, but the embassy has to send me a payment slip. You can't just pay at the embassy, you have to get a special paying-in slip from the embassy first, take it to a Barclay's Bank, pay in cash, get it stamped and then present it with your application. There are, of course, contradictory instructions about filling in the forms depending on where you look online, and the forms are stupendously impossible (one question asks, "have you been to the US before, if so when?" and leaves about a square inch. Another asks for "all countries visited in the past ten years" and leaves even less space). I particularly like the one about my tribal or clan name. McHack? Al Fatso? Also, the photograph required is just like a passport photo, but slightly bigger -- you can't use the normal photo booths (and the machine at the embassy is always broken). The whole thing is apparently set up to dissuade people from even thinking of applying. Hah. We'll see.
Much faffing later, and I'm at the embassy at 8 a.m., together with a hundred other people standing outside in the light September rain under the amused gaze of policemen cradling enormous machine guns. We all have 8 a.m. interviews: what this means in practice is that they start processing us at 8 a.m. and, some three or four hours later, they'll get around to finishing the last one. On the way in, we have to show our mobile phones and prove they can't take pictures. The reason for this is clear once you're inside -- forget terrorism, the place is a crime against interior design. Huge cruciform pillars finished in the sort of shiny pale brass plate that cheap motels use for "classy" light fittings stand amid rows of uncomfortable plastic seats. Along one wall are a row of counters, like the King's Cross ticket office. You shuffle in, present your papers, have them scanned for obvious errors, are issued with a number and go and sit down. When your number comes up at another window, off you go. It's like buying a toaster at Argos, only more chaotic.
My interview, when it comes, takes thirty seconds. "What's ZDNet?" I'm asked. "Web site." I say. "Ah." Pause. "OK."
That's it? "That's it. You've got your visa". Only I haven't -- one more piece of delight is that you have to provide your own Special Delivery envelope, and they put the passport in the post. I'm due to be flying out to San Jose on Sunday. "When will you send me my passport, then?" "Friday. That's when we put it in the post."
Do the Post Office do Special Deliverys on a Saturday? Later, I ask them. "We only guarantee next-day deliveries on working days. "And Saturday is a working day? "No." "What is it, then?" "A grey area. We might deliver it."
So -- will I go to San Jose? I find out on Saturday.
Blaine's Diary, Day 5
Looked out of tube A. Drank in crowd. Tube B or not tube B? Is that even a question?