Guest blog by Pioneer Joseph Harrison, a British guy living and teaching in China with an exotic taste in travel! He describes his experience getting a US tourist visa after his tour to the DPRK meant he couldn’t use the ESTA. Read more in his blog Desperately Seeking Adventure.
No ESTA? Yes, as of Tuesday 6 August 2019, the US government announced that anyone who has been to North Korea since March 2011 would no longer qualify for the ESTA Visa Waiver Program, adding it to a list that also includes Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. I had travel plans for December 2019 to visit the USA, and had travelled to the DPRK in February.
I was in disbelief – I knew the visa process was lengthy for the United States as I had previously worked in the country during 2011 and 2012. I had heard of people being repatriated/deported from the US after they had applied for ESTAs regardless of whether they had visited the DPRK. I live in China and would be taking the risk that, after a 13-hour flight from Beijing, I would be refused entry and repatriated to the UK rather than China.
Risking it with an ESTA was therefore not an option for me. Remembering the steps from my work visa application, I applied for the B-2 Visitor Visa. Making my appointment at the U.S. embassy in Beijing was easy enough; fast forward to that morning, I had passed through the first two stages and approached the visa application window, ready to speak to a representative. Handing over my passport and application forms, I waited to be told they would need to get permission to process my visa due to my status as a non-Chinese national applying in China.
After what seemed like a lifetime, I was told that I could have my visa processed without any further issues. The guy asked why I needed a visitor visa as a British citizen – I candidly told him that I had visited the DPRK.
I knew honesty was the right policy, and he looked dumbfounded, but I wasn’t going to apologise for having exotic travel tastes!
Had I incurred driving convictions in Mexico? I do not think so! I also proclaimed that I had worked at the ‘happiest place in the world’ – as a former employee of the Walt Disney World Company, I certainly didn’t have any DUIs!
Landing at Newark Liberty International Airport on 14th December 2019, I was a bit nervous. I had worked there during my university placement for Britain’s alternative flag carrier as a passenger services agent. I started feeling a little sick on my way to customs, and after failing the automated customs check I was ushered towards an officer’s station. Visibly worried due to my concerns over the North Korea visit, I immediately came clean, telling the officer why I had a visa.
After a few seconds of silence, the officer asked me a series of excited questions regarding my visit to the DPRK. Had I been to the DMZ? What was Pyongyang really like? How did it feel to have visited the DPRK?
When he finished with his questions, I nervously asked him if I was good to go. He replied in the affirmative, stamped my passport, and wished me pleasant travels.
So there you have it: it may be a little inconvenient to get a US visa as opposed to simply using the ESTA, but it’s worth it to enjoy freedom of travel around the world!