Permit season is over! And what’s next besides getting all the gear sorted? Insurance, plane tickets, your resupply strategy and oh yeah, for all of us overseas hikers that little piece of paper that allows you into the country. I figured I’d add a practical post to this blog roll – how to get the visa required to visit the US for the time it’ll take to thru-hike the PCT!
I remember preparing myself for my application and interview and devouring the few PCT-specific blogs I could find. There weren’t too many outlining the exact details that had me a nervous wreck, so during my interview at the embassy I wrote down exactly what happened, anticipating writing a post like this. Maybe reading this will cull your anxiety a little about the whole process. Just to highlight, I live in London and went to the US embassy here, but I hold an EU (Dutch) passport. I’ll describe my experience and timeline with the embassy in London below.
The visa you’ll be applying for is the non-immigrant visitor B-2 visa, which is usually combined as a B-1/B-2 visa. The B-1 is to enter the country for medical procedures, and the B-2 is basically an extended tourist visa. It also has some other purposes but they’re not relevant to us so let’s leave it at that. Most nationalities would be able to enter the US under the 90 day ESTA scheme, but the B-1/B-2 allows you 6 months entry (to clarify – not 180 days but 6 months, confirmed by the date stamps in my passport) and the visa is generally valid for 10 years (hello all other US long distance trails!) Do beware that if you apply for the B-2 visa and get denied, you will no longer be able to travel into the US under an ESTA. You’d basically have to keep on applying for the B-2 until you do get it.
So, 6 months for the next 10 years – it makes sense that they’re taking this visa quite seriously. Ultimately, the US is mostly concerned with ensuring you leave the country after you’re done with your visit, and won’t try to live and work there. When you make your case for the visa, you’ll essentially have to convince them of three things: 1, that you’ll really be hiking the PCT, 2, that you have the means to do so, and 3, that you’ll really leave the country when you’re done. How are you going to prove this? By turning your apartment upside down and providing (most of) the following documents:
1, Prove that you’ll really be hiking the PCT:
PCT permit, map, book, all your research and resupply strategy. Proof that you’ve done other hikes before.
2, Prove that you have the means to do so:
Bank statements showing at least $1000+ for each month you’ll be out there for.
Red flags: Have enough money to cover your stay, but don’t have too much money – it will make you appear likely for overstay as you can support yourself.
3, Prove that you’ll really leave the country when you’re done:
By proving strong ties to the UK – a partner and/or children, a mortgage, work contract or employer letter saying that you will commence work upon your return.
Red flags: Having close family in the US will be held against you. If you don’t have proof of a job to get back to, having transferable skills could be another issue. I considered buying a return flight ahead of time so I could show I intended to return to the UK, but the US visa website advised against doing this, so I figured it was probably best to wait for the visa first.
A few years ago I met someone who got denied and when I started researching for my own application, I understood why he had a bad case, even though he really intended to just hike the PCT. Unfortunately, applying for this visa means you’ll be dealing with immigration stereotypes. In his case, he was from Taiwan, worked on the beach that paid under the table, and had a sister who lived in the US and was married to an American. From an immigration point of view, he had no job to go back to and it wouldn’t be implausible that he’d want to settle in the US, and be near his sister’s family. He had proof of previous hikes he’d done, but apparently it wasn’t enough to convince them.
When it was my turn to start the process, I was not in a bad position. I had an EU passport, I was able to prove that I was hiking the PCT by bringing my permit and showing my blogs about previous hikes, and I printed out bank statements to show that I had enough money in the bank to pay for my time spent in the US. But I was also worried. I couldn’t prove that I had strong ties to the UK. I’d been doing contract work because I knew that I’d be leaving for the PCT again, so I had no job to go back to. I also didn’t have a mortgage or even a rental agreement, or a partner to return to. I was just going to have to look trustworthy and convince them with, well, words.
Filling Out The DS-160 Form
It all begins by going online and filling out the DS-160 form, which takes a while. It asks you all the standard bureaucratic questions and everything else you could possibly think of, including all the times (and dates) you’ve been to the US before and any family you might have living out there. It’s long-winded but it’s not rocket science. You can save the different sections as you go along, so you can go and find all your old passports for travel dates, text your parents for their middle names and anything else you wouldn’t have on hand.
At the end you need to upload a picture for which you’ll have to go to your local photo specialist, like Snappy Snaps. It needs to conform to US visa requirements, which is different from the standard UK passport pictures you can take in those cheap booths. The website has a link to the requirements and no, you can’t upload a picture you took with your phone, even if the website appears to accept it. Go to your local photographers, as you’ll have to take a printed spare with you to the interview anyways.
Booking The Interview
When you’re done with the document you need to pay the application fee and check the schedule to book an appointment online. You’ll probably have to wait a week or so, during which you can make yourself suitably nervous. Word is that it’s best to go for the early appointments, or you might end up waiting for hours, so I booked mine for 9AM, on an early Monday in January. Btw, it doesn’t mean that your personal appointment is at 9AM, but you’re put in a large 9AM group.
Getting Your Documents Together
These are the documents I put together. First are the ones that the website tells you to bring:
- DS-160 confirmation page
- Appointment confirmation and instruction page
- Passport picture
Then the documents that support my application, and prove my plan to hike the PCT:
- Bank statements
- Letter from savings account – my savings account doesn’t do statements, so I went into a HSBC and got a signed letter stating the balance
- Work contract – to show I was currently employed. This contract only lasted until I’d leave for the PCT so it was probably useless, but at least it showed I was employable in the UK. I also considered bringing my CV, but in the end I didn’t
- PCT Permit
- PCT Schedule – I’d created a long spreadsheet that outlined my schedule for the entire hike, including supermarkets, days to the next resupply, water sources etc
- Map of PCT – for illustration purposes in case they hadn’t heard of the trail
- Instagram screenshots – to show I’ve done more hikes
- Website printouts from several blog posts – to show a selection of posts about previous long distance hikes
These are documents I didn’t have, but that you should really bring if you can, as they show your ties to the UK:
- Mortgage agreement
- Proof of marital status or civil partnership
- Work contract / Employer letter that states your sabbatical and intended return or job offer
I found myself approaching the new London embassy on an early Monday morning, and this is what happened:
- I arrived at 8:30 for my 9:00 appointment
- Checked in with my passport and DS-160 and queued up outside
- Went through security screening
- Queued up again to get into the main building – showed DS-160 and appointment confirmation at reception
- Entered what I like to call the Space Ship – pretty much the best waiting room I’ve ever seen. I’d been given a number and waited at the far end of the room. There were no interview rooms or seats – everything happened at a long, long row of windows, as though you’re booking a train ticket. I found it a little unnerving and distracting. Then I got called to a window myself
- Show time: The clerk first took my finger prints
- He took my DS-160, passport and picture and put them together in a plastic sheet
- Asked why I was applying for a visa instead of getting an ESTA, and I explained I was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which would take about 5 months. (He didn’t appear to know it)
- Returned the plastic sheet with my documents
- I’m assuming the first clerk was there to make sure you were actually there for the right reasons and had the proper documents, and I was told to go to the opposite end of the Space Ship, erm waiting room, and wait for my number to be called again
- I walked to the other end and staked out the clerks behind the windows, watching how they interacted with the applicants, and to my relief I got one of the people that seemed the nicest!
- Show time, part 2: This was the real interview, and it started with finger prints again, this time only the left hand
- I was asked again why I wasn’t travelling on the ESTA, and explained the PCT would take longer. Then he started asking the important questions:
- Have you done any other trails in the past – I gave the names of all the trails I’d done, and he got bored halfway through
- Are you going alone – Yes
- What are your plans after you finish hiking the PCT – I’ll return to London to work
- What type of work do you do – Interior designer
- Where do you work – Gave name of studio I was working for
- How long have you worked for them – I only started working there three weeks before Christmas, which made for an awkward moment, so I continued and said I was working short contracts because I knew I’d be leaving for the PCT soon, and that I’d worked at this particular studio twice before. That seemed to remedy the awkwardness a little
- He asked what my yearly salary was
- Asked how long I’d been living in the UK for
- And told me my visa was approved!
- Before he let me go he imparted some final wisdom on me – he told me the PCT wasn’t necessarily safe, and to be careful. He also reminded me that CBP (Customs & Border Protection) may still not give me 6 months, despite the visa. He told me to never overstay a visa and to stay out of the US long enough to show I’m not working there. If my movement suggests otherwise, I would be deported
- Out by 10:15
Surprisingly enough, they never asked to see any of the documents I’d brought with me! But do bring all of those – because a lot of people do need to show all that. They kept my passport, and the next day I already got a message that it had been dispatched to the pick-up point.
Entering The USA
A few months later I was on the plane to Los Angeles. When you get to this point there’s just last hurdle. You’ll hit some screens before you reach immigration – you select the right button that says what type of visa you’re coming in on. Make sure to hit the B-2 button, or you may end up on a 90 day visa and not even realise it (this happens – Speedy and I got off the same flight and she seemed to have hit the wrong option. When we went to pick up her luggage we checked our dates and she had a completely different one from mine. It took a while to realise she’d just got 90 days, and she was going to ignore it until I was like, SPEEDY THESE DATES ARE NO JOKE, YOU CAN’T IGNORE THIS. GO BACK UPSTAIRS AND GET IT SORTED. And she did.)
Anyways, my immigration officer was very stoic and somewhat terrifying because of this, and he had never heard of the PCT. Just because you have the B-2 visa, doesn’t mean that you have the right to the full 6 months. If they don’t believe your story, you could get less or just 90 days, or you could still be denied entry altogether. So it’s up to you to state your case once again. I explained why I needed 6 months and not just 90 days and said I was hiking a trail that would take at least 5 months. I had all the documents that I’d brought to the initial interview once again, and I’d booked a return flight. This isn’t mandatory when you come in on a B-2 visa, but it does help to show you will be leaving the country again. He didn’t ask to see any proof though, and stamped me for 6 months in the future – my arrival date was March 21, and I was stamped for September 20. This was also the date for which I had booked my return flight so I was happy to learn it really isn’t 180 days, but 6 months. I was ready for the PCT.
Extending The B-2 Visa
2019 proved a difficult year to hike the PCT. There was a crazy snow pack and late spring snow storms, which made completing the trail difficult, especially for early starters like myself. Throughout the hike a lot of people left the trail as they feared they wouldn’t be able to finish before their visas ran out, or before they had to go back to university or work. I was desperate to try and finish but waiting for the snow to melt was creeping into my visa allowance.
To keep my options open, I looked into extending the B-2 visa. I found out it’s possible, but it seemed to require another interview (and if you were rejected you’d have to leave the country immediately). It came with a fee of $370, plus a possible bio-metric fee of $85. So I decided to get back to the trail and keep up the pace instead.
Crossing Into Canada & Back Again
I ended up flipflopping, and arrived at the Canadian border after hiking 1550 miles. I had my Canada Entry Permit (which you can apply for once you’ve got your US visa) and walked into Manning Park, from where I hitchhiked into Vancouver. A few days later I boarded the Greyhound to get back to Portland, to hike the remaining sections and finish the PCT.
Now, Canada doesn’t count as ‘a country leaving the US’. This means that if you go into Canada, the clock on your US visa keeps ticking, and you can’t do a visa run by crossing the border. Your 6 month visa (or ESTA for that matter) won’t refresh when you come back into the US. So when I had to get off the Greyhound to go through border control again, I just candidly told the officer I was returning to the PCT because I still had a lot to walk, and how difficult had been because of the snow. I told him I had booked a flight on the last day of my visa, and that if I kept a pace, I should just about be okay to make it. He just kept saying, ‘That’s a huge undertaking,’ and out of nowhere, offered to stamp my passport for another 6 months, so I could definitely finish the trail. I was completely taken aback. I told him I didn’t even know that was a possibility and he said it’s completely up to the discretion of the officer, and that someone else may not have given me such an offer. All I had to do was pay $7 for the stamp, and off I went. Now I was definitely going to finish the PCT.
I was very lucky, but I would absolutely not use this as a strategy to try and extend your stay in the US. The likelihood of getting an officer who cares about your sob story is small. In my case, he could probably tell I was just being very honest about my hopes to finish the trail, and that I wasn’t trying to blag another 6 months off him. In the end, I didn’t even need the extra time – I finished just early enough to catch my original flight out.
Leaving The USA
Just one last thing because it confused me when I left the country after almost 6 months on the PCT – the USA no longer does exit stamps upon departure – but that doesn’t mean they don’t know exactly when you leave…