In my initial rough plan for the trip, I’d estimated that the trip would take 5 to 6 months, which meant that I would need to apply for a 6 month B2 tourist visa.
Now that I was a freebird, I started to investigate this visa a little more. All the official US sites I visited, such as the US Department of State and the London US Embassy, seem to suggest that it is entirely possible for me to get a B2 visa if I wish to stay longer than the visa-free 90 days from the Visa Waiver Program. However, I came across the America Expat Forum for expats living in America. This forum had previously had a lot of discussion on tourist visas which cast real doubt on whether I would be granted a visa.
My take on the consensus on the forum was that unless you were over retirement age you would not be granted a 6 month B2 visa if you were eligible under the Visa Waiver Program. There were quite a few reports of people being refused a visa, but I could find none of a visa being granted. I can sort of understand the rational for this “policy”, but it does lead to a bit of a double standard. Most Americans have only 10 days or so annual leave entitlement from their employment, whereas 20+ days is the norm in Europe (I had 35 days when I worked in France). Long holidays in the US are uncommon, so the implicit assumption is that anyone wanting to stay for more than 90 days must want/need to work there – unless they are retired. I know I am in a very fortunate financial position, but I can’t be the only person who wants to take a mid-career break and legitimately travel the US for more than 3 months without wanting or needing to work. The double standard is that the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) now appears to be a bit of a handicap for a longer stay. I’d assume that the countries in the VWP are the “friendliest” with the US, and I imagine that at least some of the applicants from non-VWP countries are granted B2 visas under retirement age, which kind of implies that some of the citizens of “less friendly” countries can stay longer than citizens of the “friendlier” countries. That don’t seem right somehow.
I must confess, I didn’t put the B2 visa application process to the test. I was quite free to apply for the visa, and if it was refused to try to enter the US under the VWP, but there is a downside to having a visa rejected. Apparently, to enter the US you must declare if you have had any previous visa applications refused. Now call me a skeptic, but I’d bet that a refused visa declared on your ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) application is going to flag you up for a second look – and could well increase the risk of being refused entry to the US. This is a risk I didn’t want to take.
When you enter the US, you will have a little chat with the nice officer from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Even with an ESTA authorisation (or a visa for that matter), entry to the US is at the sole discretion of the individual CBP officer. If the CBP officer doesn’t like the cut of your gib, then you may be sent straight back to where you came from on the next available flight. If that flight isn’t until the next day, you may have to spend the night in goal. All the money you have spent on flights and accommodation will be wasted.
Now I don’t believe that refused entry is that common for most people from the UK wishing to visit the US – but most of those are only visiting for a few weeks and the Americans are very suspicious of people coming and trying to work in their country. No one I know personally has been refused entry, but it certainly does happen. And under the VWP, there is no appeal – the CBP officers decision is final. For a long trip like mine, with all the up front cost, increasing the risk of refused entry was not something I was prepared to do.
Without a B2 visa, my trip was limited to 90 days. There was no way I could visit all of the Lower 48 in 90 days, well not if I wanted to stop and see anything as I went and even then it would be hard riding all the way. This gave me a problem.
For a few minutes, I thought I had solved the problem. My trip was certainly going to be taking me close to both the Canadian and Mexican borders at times. All I would have to do is pop over the border for a day or two, and reset my 90 days in the US when I crossed back. This solution is so easy and obvious that a little condition has been added to the 90 day entitlement. You need to leave the North American continent within 90 days, not just the United States. Bang went that idea.
Hmm, a re-plan was required.