Becoming an Alien

It’s been nearly a year since Mark and I decided to relocate to the US. That’s right – in less than a year, we went from happily living in London to applying for (and receiving) a permanent resident visa, selling our home, quitting our jobs, spending several weeks travelling, finding an apartment and settling in. Amazing just how much you can do in 12 months, eh? Before the details of the experience become a distant memory (who knows what’ll happen in the next 12 months), I wanted to document the process.

Mark and I had some distinct advantages in our visa application – specifically we were already married (and had been for more than 2 years; if you’ve been married for less than 2 years, the visa is provisional and you have to apply to have those provisions lifted after 2 years of wedded bliss), we lived together in the UK (which had a US Embassy), and we had relatively substantial savings/assets.

After talking about moving to the US ‘some day in the future’, our discussions became more serious after a Microsoft conference last year, when Mark’s childhood dream of working for M$ resurfaced. The particular team he was interested in didn’t have an international relocation budget, so we started talking about relocating to the US on our own. Once we were here, we could reconsider potential opportunities with Microsoft as a ‘domestic relocation’. While discussing the possible move, I found visajourney.com – a forum and information repository for people around the world trying to immigrate to the US. Government processes aren’t exactly notorious for being streamlined, and the guides on VJ were extremely helpful. With the ‘research’ phase done, we decided to start the application on November 29th, and sent the first documentation package to the US Embassy in London on November 30th.

When you want to bring a relative to the US, the sponsor (me) first submits a “Petition for Alien Relative”, known as an I-130. This petition confirms the ‘relative’ (Mark) is, in fact, eligible to be sponsored for a relative visa. For most relatives, once the I-130 is approved, you are assigned a number and join a queue of other “alien relatives”. When your number is up, the relative can apply for a visa. The number of alien relative visas issued each year is limited, so relatives are sometimes forced to wait until the following year to apply. Thankfully, visa limits don’t apply to spouses, so once we received a “Notice of Approval” (NOA2), Mark could apply for his visa immediately.

Our application process was different than people in other countries, because I (the petitioner) lived with my ‘relative’ in a country that had a US Embassy. When a petitioner is either in the US or a country that doesn’t host an Embassy, their application is sent to the Chicago Lock Box for processing. Because so many applications are processed this way, the wait times are much longer. Being in the UK, our timeline was several months shorter than typical applicants.

Along with the I-130 form, we included:

– A cover letter outlining our address, the nature of our package (“I-130 Original Submission”) and the contents listed in order.

– A copy of the submission checklist from the Embassy website to show we had all the relevant paperwork.

– Payment of the $420 filing fee (we filled out a credit card processing form, but you can also pay by US check or money order).

– A copy of my birth certificate to prove my US citizenship.

– My UK passport to show I was a lawful resident in the UK, and therefore eligible to apply through the Embassy rather than the USCIS Chicago Lock Box.

– A copy of my Deed of Change of Name to substantiate my legal name, since I took a non-traditional name change route (I added my maiden name to my middle name, so I could maintain my maiden name somehow and we’d still be Mr and Mrs Lastname. I consider it the Having-My-Cake-and-Eating-it-Too name change).

– Copies of our marriage certificate and the divorce decree from my first marriage to prove we were legally married.

– Biographic information forms (Form G-325A) and passport photos for each of us.

– A self addressed stamped envelope for them to send us confirmation of the package’s receipt, known as a “Notice of Acceptance” or NOA1.

Despite having mailed our I-130 (to the Embassy literally down the road) at the end of November, the Embassy didn’t process its receipt until December 12th. We were on holiday for much of December, so thankfully weren’t sitting around waiting for the NOA. When we did return home, we were surprised at the delay, but happy to know our petition was received and awaiting processing. The UK embassy website publishes processing updates, so we could keep tabs on their progress and didn’t expect our petition to be processed until February or March (looking at the site now, I’m a little miffed that they’re only working on a 3 week backlog! Lucky October 2012 applicants!)

At one point, we experienced a moment of panic when we realized the checklist we used (from the UK Embassy website) was different to the USCIS checklist, which required “evidence of a relationship” with the I-130 (emails, cards, photos, boarding passes to show you travel together, etc). I went into meltdown mode and had a sinking feeling that our application was going to be rejected. I wasn’t sure if I should send the evidence separately before they processed our application, or if it would just be rejected. In a fit of anxiety, I called the Embassy’s £1.23/min helpline to ask. After a few minutes on hold, I was told it “should be fine” – especially as I included the checklist we used, which didn’t list “evidence of a relationship”. In the back of my mind, I still worried, but my £10 phone call helped quell most of my concerns.

On March 12, exactly 3 months after our I-130 was officially ‘received’, our petition was approved! The website hadn’t been updated for a few days, so we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived home one night to see our NOA2! The letter  indicated Mark would receive separate instructions on how to apply for his spouse’s visa within 3 weeks. Thanks to the Embassy’s website and VisaJourney, we had already gathered most documentation for the visa and interview, including 3 year’s worth of my IRS tax transcripts (and thank goodness I requested that early, because it took about 2 months!)

At this point, we had visited Colorado to confirm our desire to live there (heh – best laid plans…) and were getting pretty eager for the move. My employment contract stipulated a 3-month notice period (yep, that’s right all you US 2-week-notice people: three. long. months.). From other members on VisaJourney, I expected the visa application, processing and interview to take 3-6 months, and didn’t want to delay our move once we had the visa in hand because of my notice period. I decided to inform my employer about our plans to relocate, so they could plan well in advance. I also asked if they would consider shortening my notice period, and allow me to notify them within a month of my projected leave date. Initially they seemed amenable, but ultimately decided they wanted the full 3 monts. Boo.

When we received the instructions for Mark’s visa application on March 22, we had everything ready, including a copy of Mark’s police record (or lack thereof) and having scheduled his physical exam (by the one and only approved physician in the UK; I feel sorry for the folks elsewhere in the UK who have to travel to London for both the physical and the interview), and we sent our the “Notice of Readiness” (DS-2001) the next day (March 23). This package simply included:

– Another cover letter outlining the nature of the package and its contents

– The DS-2001 form

– The visa application (DS-230)

– A list of all visits Mark ever made to the US, including the location and duration of the trip and what sort of visa he was travelling on

With the visa application submitted, I started stalking VisaJourney timelines to see how quickly applications were processed and interviews scheduled. It looked like it would take about 1 month for the processing and another month before the interview, so we expected to have the visa in hand within about 3 months. With that in mind, we listed our flat for sale. Much to our delight, it sold within days (though the sale process still took several months), and I resigned, starting my 3 month countdown to unemployment.

By mid-April, I was feeling impatient (who, me?) after seeing another couple in the same situation who already received their interview notice having sent their DS-2001 just a week before us. When I called (this time a free number in the US), USCIS told me they mailed our letter the previous day and that Mark’s interview was scheduled for May 22nd. WOO HOO!!!!! The timing was perfect, because Mark had a work trip to the US in early May; if his interview was before then, he would no longer be eligible to travel on the Visa Waiver Program and would either have to enter the US ‘officially’ (ie validating his visa and becoming a resident) or apply for a visitor visa. We also had other trips planned, which required his passport, and didn’t want the interview to fall too close to them, because if he was approved, they’d hold on to his passport for a week or so for processing. May 22 was perfectly after our visit to Switzerland and his work trip to DC, but still well before our Mexico vacation in mid-June.

With a month until the interview, we started reviewing our documentation constantly, ensuring the originals were ready to go and that we had 2 full sets of copies – the Embassy doesn’t have the time to make copies on the spot, so you’re required to bring your own. Of course, being  my father’s daughter, brought two copies – just in case. Our interview package contained:

– A copy of the visa application (DS-230)

– Mark’s passport (original)

– Mark’s birth certificate (original)

– My birth certificate and name change deed poll (originals)

– Our marriage certificate and my divorce decree (originals)

– Police certificate showing a Mark’s clear legal record

– Passport photographs of Mark

– Evidence of Support (I-865 showing we had sufficient assets to support ourselves for at least 3 years so Mark wouldn’t become a burden on the state – this included evidence of assets and 3 years worth of my IRS tax transcripts)

– Mark’s vaccination records (his medical exam results and evidence of the tetanus booster they gave him had been sent directly to the Embassy by the doctor)

– Payment ($230 paid by credit card on the day, plus £20 or so for the courier to deliver his passport and paperwork if he was approved)

We had another moment of panic literally the DAY before the 8 am interview, when I re-read the I-865 instructions and realized we needed a full year’s worth of bank statements AND they had to be ‘official’ statements from the bank. The statements I’d printed from online banking wouldn’t suffice. Our bank was online-only, so there were no branches to go into and ask for statements; getting official documentation within 16 hours was literally going to be impossible. Originally we didn’t plan to use the flat as an ‘asset’ for the I-865. Doing so would require an appraisal/valuation. However, since we’d sold the flat and it was under contract, we could simply bring in the offer letter to prove its value. We also had to bring a copy of the land registry to show we owned the property and that there were no liens against it, but that could easily be done online. PHEW.

The day of the interview, it felt like everything that could go wrong did. The tube was delayed, the Embassy hadn’t added me to the ‘list’ (getting in there is a bit like getting in a club – you have to be on the list) to accompany him, the application barcode printer was broken, the first window we got called to was 13… You aren’t allowed any electronics (including phones and headphones) inside the building  so a pharmacy down the block has made a business out of holding your goods while you’re inside. While Mark queued up to check in, I dropped off our stuff, and the pharmacy employee told me magnetic work were banned, too, so I had to run back to retrieve Mark’s and turn it in.

The interview went well – our paperwork was in order, our fee was paid and Mark was approved. The only point I felt anxious was when the interviewer accidentally called me by my middle name and then joked that Marie must be Mark’s *other* wife. Haha, oh how funny and lighthearted… but no really I am his only wife (I just assume it’s worth covering my bases, since joking with customs officials isn’t usually a good idea).

In less than an hour, we were approved and he was allowed to move to the US! Woohoo!! I was so relieved and happy all at once. My head hurt from smiling so much, like it had the day after Mark proposed nearly 4 years earlier. We collected our belongings from the pharmacy, had a coffee in Starbucks and sent an email to our family. We were done by 9, but booked the entire morning off work. We spent the remaining hours hanging out together, wandering around Marylebone, browsing in Selfridges, eating froyo at Pinkberry and then lunch at Guerilla Burger (one of our favorite London eateries, and yes, we did have dessert first). I could barely contain my excitement when I went to work that afternoon! Six working weeks left, our house was sold and now we had a visa. Check, check and check!!

That night, we also went to happy hour at B@1 – one of our favorite cocktail bars – for celebratory drinks. We felt like King and Queen of the World, thoroughly enjoyed our moment of celebration, and then walked home along the river slightly buzzed. It was a long, but wonderful day.

With everything in place, Mark prepared to resign. He planned to finish work on July 3rd with me (making us ‘free’ for 4th of July), and would give them 5 1/2 weeks notice rather than his obligatory 4. Meeting with his boss, he learned they wanted to keep him and they asked if he’d be open to working for them here in the US. There was some back and forth and a fair bit of admin and waiting, but eventually the details worked themselves out. We were set to move to San Diego, where he’d resume work on August 15th. Less than 9 months after we decided to move, he’d be starting his starting his ‘new’ job with his old company in a new country.

Honestly, I can’t believe it’s not even been a year yet, but it’s been one of the most incredible, exciting, unforgettable years of our life. We decided to take on our biggest change so far. We sold our first home – the place we first lived together, where defined so much of our relationship and that we’d made our own. We traveled a lot (New Zealand, Colorado, Vegas, Nice, Geneva, Munich, Prague, Krakow, New York, Boston). We bought a car (and Mark started driving ‘again’ for the first time in years). We moved into a new home – the first time we’d moved simultaneously, since Mark already lived in the London flat before he met me. Now, we are thoroughly enjoying our new life. There are still adjustments to be made (like developing our social circle in this new city), but we are really enjoying our life, our home and particularly the state of our relationship. Mark is also totally in love with his commute – which is 25 minutes by foot – and his job – where he has wonderful, motivated and inspiring colleagues and he is challenging and developing himself. We are living in our happy place.

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One comment

  1. […] to fall more in love, build the life we want and be each other’s cheerleaders. Just one year ago, we decided to take a leap into the unknown and move almost halfway across the world. Despite the uncertainty that decision brought (particularly when we first expected to move without […]

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