In many ways, this spring went by under the star of anticipation for me. In the beginning of 2019, I learned that I had been selected to participate in an academic summer program, sponsored by the US Department of State. However before the final confirmation, I had to go through quite a background check. This whole process — since the first congratulations from the US Embassy until I finally crossed the border in Boston — took around half a year. Half a year when I inevitably had to ask myself: is this where I come to regret my travels to Iran?
See, there’s a good share of countries in the world who’s relations with each other are tense, to say the least. Sadly political relations have a very direct influence to tourism as well. And while Estonians can travel to the United States visa-free, then sadly I am not eligible for the visa waiver program — more specifically, it’s the Iranian visa that makes my travels to the US slightly more difficult. I have to wait 5 years after my last visit to one of the „forbidden countries“, before I can apply for ESTA again. So far, the only way to visited the States is to apply for an actual visa, which is quite costly. Since it has been barely a year since my last visit to Iran, I started to worry about the bureaucratic process quite a bit. Furthermore, I was anxious about the political relations between Iran and US, as they had rapidly gotten even colder earlier this year, culminating with an air strike against Iran, which Trump had already approved and the called off……
So essentially I’ve been tiptoeing around during this whole year, worrying that my summer plans could blow up at any given moment and that’s only thanks to my own previous decisions. Fortunately it turned out quite quickly, that my ineligibility to ESTA would not become a problem, as the SUSI summer program required a student visa anyway. Filling my visa application online I was surprised to see that there were no questions concerning Iran or the rest of the forbidden countries, as opposed to ESTA application. I was even more surprised when I showed up for my visa interview, the offical browsed through my passport with a big smile on his face, asked where I was staying in the States and… that was it! 90 seconds and no questions concerning Iran! There were no setbacks in other consular matters either, as the visa was ready in 2 days.
Holding my passport with a brand new US visa I almost started to believe that maybe my entry will be granted after all and I could enter the United States of America barely a year after visiting Iran. It took only 5 months to make me believe in that!
My flights kept me somewhat alert as well. When I tried to board my Amsterdam-Boston flight, the identification system rang a warning alert and I was denied boarding at first. Luckily after answering some additional questions, this situation found a quick solution and I didn’t have to change my travel plans after all. My last spike of adrenaline hit when I disembarked my flight in Boston and had to show my passport and invitation letter to the official. As I had heard numerous scary stories of cancelled visas and deported tourists, I was mentally ready to get back on the plane. Furthermore, as all of my family members had previously been to the States several times and they had repeatedly mentioned the troublesome questionings on the borders, I had prepared for the worst. In reality, the gentleman simply smiled to me, stamped my passport and told me to have a nice stay. There I was — officially allowed to enter the United States!
In hindsight I have been thinking whether the immigration hassle is really as bad as it seems or maybe entering the US or other countries after traveling in the Middle East is really not that difficult. In reality I do have to be very aware that I’m enormously privileged — a blonde (well, according to global standards :)) female European, the „right“ kind of an immigrant and in this scenario, a state-funded scholar… Just last year, I walked straight through Israeli immigration without batting an eye, no questions asked;whereas my bearded partner got questioned for several hours, despite the fact that our passports contained exactly the same visas. Thus I will have to write off my consular luck as pure privilege and can only hope that potential consular problems will not prevent people from discovering the lesser known paths in the world.