If you are looking at planning a trip to the USA all by yourself from India, then you have come to the right place. Well before we start, let me assure you that it is a humongous task and I am writing this article from personal experience. But with the right set of tools, it can be done. So here are few of the things you need to be aware of:
1. Visa Process (Experience of B1/B2 Visa):
Unlike other countries, the US visa system is comparatively a little more complicated. For starters, one of the few countries where you will have to go in person for the interview process.
In my case I have a business/ personal visa (B1/B2) which is valid for 10 years. I had taken this visa around 1.5 years back but was not able to make it then. So what is the process of obtaining a visa to the US? Let me give you some insights on the same:
· Log in to the below site. It will give you all details about the procedure to follow and documents required to obtain an US visa.
· Once you are aware about the type of non-immigrant visa you require, fill the online DS-1600 application form and submit it.
You can find more guidelines about how to fill the online form here.
- -Once this form is submitted, you will have to fill the visa fees using one of the modes of payment listed here . I chose the NEFT option and I was given an account number specific to my application. Once you add this payee and transfer the required amount to this account, you will get the confirmation mail within 48 hours. Please note that the next steps to process your visa will only be enabled after they confirm the receipt of your payment.
- Schedule an appointment using this link: While filling the details in the online application form, you are required to enter the consulate where you will appear for the interview. Once the links are enabled, schedule an appointment. You are required to schedule two appointments, one for document verification/ biometric systems while another one is required for the actual interview process. You are required to complete the first one before you can schedule the interview appointment. It is preferable to choose both during the morning sessions since the wait time is considerably reduced. We chose Chennai since this was the closest for us from Bangalore. Usually there is a wait time of 2-3 weeks to schedule your interview. There are few exceptions for this rule though.
Things to remember on the appointment day:
- Please do not carry anything other than your required documents and some cash on both days. Mobile phones and bags are strictly not allowed and there is no place to store these items. Many people were forced to leave it under the supervision of the security guards.
- Please ensure that you enter all details as per your passport records. I made an error while entering my place of birth details (I put it as Thrippunithura instead of Cochin). At the gate only, they sent me to a nearby computer center where I was able to reapply by correcting my above details. But please note, that this was allowed since it was a minor error. Some people were sent back for not having the required details.
- Once you enter the biometric center, you are taken in batches to get your fingerprint scanned and photograph taken. Ladies, please note that you have to tie your hair and it is recommended to take a rubber band along with you.
- Once these formalities are completed, you are to return only the next day for the interview process. We had an early morning appointment and we ensured that we were there way ahead of time. Please note that there is a long wait time and multiple queues. Ensure that you have had proper food and rest before the interview day.
- Once the officials arrive, the first officer verifies that all your documents are in order and allocates you to your designated interview officer and you are given a reference number.
- Again in batches, you are sent to the interview section. You can see multiple counters and you can find your designated counter from the multiple screens around this section.
- Follow the queue and go to the counter only when you are called.
- Every person cannot be granted a visa and you should not panic if the person in front of you does not get approved. Visa interviewers are trained to read a person and you should tell only the truth while answering the questions. In my case, the interview process was fairly simple and he asked me just a couple of questions. Please note that I am an avid traveler and hence my passport is filled with numerous visas. He was quite impressed by this and he just asked me couple of questions regarding my last trip. This may not be the case with everyone else. I was told right then that it was approved and he asked me to go to the document delivery section.
- This is the section where you will pay an amount (around Rs 200) to get your passport delivered to your preferred address. We filled the form and went back to our hotel.
- Your passport should come within 4-5 working days. Only when your passport arrives, you may know the duration of the validity of the visa and the type of visa that was approved for you.
2. Booking the Tickets:
Now you have the visa, so what next? In my case, I booked the tickets almost after 1.5 years. There are many sites available for this but the one I used was Skyscanner. This site is useful since it compares prices among 20 odd providers and gives you a holistic view of which one to choose. Few things to take into consideration when booking tickets to the US:
- We all tend to look for the cheapest flights. But when you are flying to the US, look at the various options available.
- There are flights that come for cheap but you may take up to 55 hours to complete your journey one way. I always choose comfort and convenience in addition to the price.
- Also if you prefer to not change too many flights, look at options where you have only one transit stop. I definitely prefer this.
- Since I booked my tickets almost 3 months back, I got pretty good rates for my flight tickets. I chose Chicago since I have family there and the rest of the itinerary was yet to be planned.
- I had few other criteria while booking the tickets and finally ended up choosing Emirates. I know that the second leg of the journey will be longer but hopefully I will be able to manage this.
3. Planning the itinerary:
Never underestimate the size of the US. There are lots of places to visit and it is very difficult to choose the places you want to see, the places you can afford to miss and the places you have to miss since you do not have enough time. I think this stage is what drained the life out of me. I am spending most of the time in US with friends and family and scheduling the dates between all of them was kind of hectic. But after multiple phone calls, FB messaging and whatsapp messages, everything is hopefully done. It took a while before the schedule was finally in place. Again due to various reasons, some places had to be skipped.
4. Booking tickets within the US:
Now that you have a fair idea of the places you want to go to and the days you will be there, it is time to think about how to go from point A to point B. In my case, I checked with friends and family and found out that Orbitz and Expedia were the best bets when it came to booking flight tickets. It is better to book them in advance since the rates do go up just like in India. I wanted to take the train as well which I booked using the Amtrak . I am planning to go and hire a car there and details about the same will be published on subsequent blog posts.
5. Booking Accommodation:
I have been fairly lucky that I have people staying in many of the places I plan to visit. But even then I had to spend countless hours researching the hotels/ Airbnb’s I intend to stay. I spent hours digging up research on TripAdvisor . TripAdvisor has plenty of data available if you have the time and patience to do the research. I booked my hotel using Hotels.com after doing extensive research on TripAdvisor. I am even trying out Airbnb, which is a unique concept and is used by hundreds of travelers around the World.
6. Finding ‘Things to do’ and places to visit:
For the most part, I am leaving this to figuring out when I land in each city. I have again done extensive research by reading through various blogs, TripAdvisor reviews and Lonely Planet guides. After going through them, I did realize that some of them had to be pre-planned and I decided to do this with the help of another great website Viator. Also make sure that you read up on the ‘Do’s and Don’ts of every place you plan to visit. You get amazing recommendations from your fellow travelers if you know the right place to look.
Create your own customised itinerary using Google Maps. You can export it to your phone and then use it offline anytime you want to check your pinned map.
7. Travel Insurance:
This is what many people tend to forget or ignore when planning their trips. I cannot stress the importance of this. Maybe Mridula's blog will give you a different perspective when it comes to Travel Insurance. This was one of the easiest things I did though. I went online and searched for ‘Travel insurance’. Various sites popped up but I decided to go with ICICI Lombard. It is just 3 steps and it hardly takes 5 – 10 minutes of your time. Also it is cheaper compared to what people usually think.
8. Compartmentalize your Work and Travel Plans:
I know it is difficult planning a vacation when you have a 10-8 job. In my case I ended up spending 70-80 hours per week at office and the rest of the time researching for my trip. By the end of the last week I ended up falling sick. First thing to remember is that people at office can survive without you for the next 3 weeks. In my case I realized it too late.
9. Managing your expenses:
One of the most important things when it comes to, when planning any trip is how to manage expenses when you are outside India. In addition to forex, one of the things that I frequently use is a ‘Travel Card’. I have tried both SBI and Federal bank. They are quite hassle free and convenient to use.
10. Taking printouts:
Unfortunately we still live in an era where paper tickets have more value than an E-ticket. Don’t forget to keep a copy of the same with you.
11. Packing and Shopping for your trip:
I am a last minute packer. Since I travel so often, I can pack most of the times within 15 minutes for a domestic trip and 2 hours tops for an overseas trip. That said, I am yet to start packing with just under a day to go for the trip. Shopping is almost done. I find Bhushaval's blog quite helpful when it comes to preparing a packing list.
So that are the list of things I can think of at this time.