Visas, Permits and Paperwork for the Pacific Crest Trail

Applying for a permits, and getting the relevant paperwork and a Visa is highly important if you wish to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Unfortunately, my Visa was declined in 2016 so I won’t be attempting the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017 but I am hoping to do this hike in 2018. I’m writing this in a rather dramatic way so that hopefully you’ll research lots and your Visa won’t be declined like mine was.

Visa, Permits and Paperwork for English people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

 

  • The official PCTA permit page is worth reading a couple of times ~ “We are only issuing permits for 2017. If you’re wanting to hike in 2018, we’ll make announcements at a later date. We do not have any 2018 details yet.”
  • Mount Whitney ~ “There is no fee, nor any additional permits needed”
  • California campfire permit must be obtained at the start of the year and is effective until the 31st of December of the year it was acquired in ~ I’ll apply for one of these in January 2018
  • Complete the entry into Canada permit application form ~ This requires a scan of your passport, drivers license and Visa. You should fill out the document, print it, sign it, scan it and then send it

You might want to consider hiking Mount Whitney as you’ll be in that locale, and it doesn’t cost any extra which is nice.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association have made most of the paperwork process pretty painless. I cannot thank them enough for this. Here in England, we get charged a lot for most things. Excluding any costs associated with food, gear, injury, bribing bears, etc. hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is incredibly cheap. When I’m allowed a US Visa and have stepped foot on the Pacific Crest Trail, I am going to donate some money towards the Pacific Crest Trail Association. I’m generally wary of how philanthropic charities really are, but The Pacific Crest Trail Association are an awesome bunch.

Applying for a US Visa

The Visa application process is a necessity if you wish to do a through-hike and I believe it might aid you in terms of finding sponsorship as you can show your dedication towards hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

  • nonimmigrant visa will allow you to stay in the country for six months at a time. This is a bore if you do not live near the US Embassy in London. The Visa can be used for up to ten years and it can be used for multiple visits within that ten year period, assuming the person that interviews you hasn’t decided on issuing you with a “B visa”, if that’s the case, you’ll be given a six month single entry Visa.
  • A DS-160 form must be completed
  • After you have filled in the DS-160 form, you will have to complete the second stage but this doesn’t have to be filled in there and then
    • The second stage involves setting up a drop off location for your passport with the Visa in it
  • After paying for the Visa, you can pay a further £18 to have the passport delivered to your home address
  • At the time of writing, the visa costs about £135 but this will fluctuate depending on the GBP to USD ratio

The DS-160 form takes quite a while to fill out; it asks silly questions like “do you plan on blowing up America?”, “have you ever engaged in a sexual activity with a prostitute?”, “do you plan to be a prostitute?” as if the majority of criminals are either terrorists or prostitutes. Fair enough, I get why they ask these questions, I think, but do terrorists really answer with something like “yes, I’m applying to be blown, do some blowing or to blow up your country”? Questions like this make it easy to skip over bits or not read the form properly. Take your time and get it right as you will regret it otherwise.

Purpose of Trip to the U.S

If I was an alien with an extraordinary ability, I think I’d use it to avoid this process. My god. Why isn’t there a simple, “I like America and I want to walk a bit”? I don’t know who I should thank for Visa’s being overly complicated these days.

Once you’ve spent a while on this drivel, it gets far worse. It’s all pretty smooth–time consuming but still smooth–up until you’ve parted with your cash; moreover, you aren’t entitled to a refund! If you can’t make any of the appointment slots available, then you’re screwed. The latest you can select from, on any day at all, is 10:30am! I didn’t see them mention this until I had parted with my cash. You should be at the embassy by 10:00am, and if you’re several hours away from London like I am, you’ll be wishing there was more US Embassy’s in the country.

I selected the best appointment time available, (10:30am) but it’s still atrocious. Prior to the interview(s), I was obviously thoroughly excited to spend 8 hours travelling to talk to different people for a combined total of a whopping 20 minutes. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend taking a camera (more on that later) but there’s plenty to do in London otherwise, so you can make a day of it.

I took my own photograph for the application and my cousin was kind enough to provide me with her contact details (she lives in America.) I did not use her address as a place of residence–contact form only. The US Embassy does have a photo booth but I didn’t use it.

Getting to the US Embassy

I did not sleep the night before I was due to leave, and I stayed in bed with my eyes wide open. I got out of bed at about 3am to get ready, and my coach departed at 5:20am.

The coach was lovely; after about ten minutes had passed, I realised that sitting there was comparable to laying in a pool of ice. The heating wasn’t functional but the fan was, and I enjoyed a few hours of shivering. I’m not used to public transport, and I sold my car to make a bit of extra cash for the hike, plus I thought it would force me to walk on the days I don’t want to. For those that’re more used to public transport, you’ve probably had the heating break down already. I’ve heard it’s quite common.

I struggled not to vomit on the coach, and I’m not sure if that’s a symptom with being extremely cold or if it was anxiety; I experienced something similar when I nearly drowned in the sea (I was cold then too.) Not to worry, there’s a bunch of toilets at the station when you arrive in London–they’ll charge you 30p not to make a mess in a public area. It’s definitely a “welcome to London” sign when you’re charged to go to the toilet. If you’ve read this far, you probably think of me as a downer Dave. I’m really not, I’m just bitter because my Visa was declined! Haha.

Walking across London, if you’re unfamiliar, is a bit complicated but I’m sure you’ll manage :). The US Embassy is large but it’s not that easy to find. I suggest getting a map or using a GPS device; I made a tracklog on my Garmin watch as I am a nerd. I asked various people for directions; none of which were English but one of them had a map on her, and she was really kind. I do believe that if you don’t have GPS facilities or a map and you rely solely on strangers, you won’t be able to find the US Embassy. I asked enough strangers to know that they will generally point you in the wrong direction. It took about 40 minutes to get to the US Embassy.

US Embassy Arrival

I arrived at about 9:55am.

I spoke to a guard and told him I had a Visa appointment; he pointed me towards two queues. I joined the shorter queue on the left and explained I had brought two Visa confirmation forms as I had made a mistake on one. The kind woman explained it wasn’t a problem, she marked one of the visa confirmation forms and told me to join the second queue–the one on the right.

I had done everything they asked, was on time, brought relevant evidence to support my case and I believed this was the first major step towards hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017.

The interview and where it all went wrong

The second queue took about 30 minutes to go through. I was checked again and joined a third, smaller queue which took me towards a glass room with a metal detector and some workmen. I handed in my belt, wallet and personal belongings. I walked through a metal detector and from there I was handed back my belongings and told not to put them on until I got inside the building. I considered bringing my camera but I am glad I didn’t–they treat your stuff rather poorly because they’re in a hurry. It’s a shame, because that part of London has beautiful architecture.

Do you know why I wear a belt? Because I need to. There’s this mini walk of shame leading up to the main building, and it was difficult juggling all my items up the steps while trying to hold my jeans up and avoid showing everyone my boxers.

After the mini walk of shame, it became quite obvious they want to get through as many people in a short space of time as possible. At 10:28am (my memory is weird; don’t ask…), the receptionist gave me a ticket number (“N 408”) and I joined another queue. This one was in a room full of many, many chairs and some worker bees behind windows. I finished getting dressed and waited a while. The signs in the room state how important it is to turn off your phone, and the main screen gives you a WiFi password for your phone they encourage you to use, I guess.

I spoke to a guy behind “Window 8”, he was friendly and asked why I want a visa. I stated I’m hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. He said “oh, the Pacific Crest Trail?” and I said, “oh you’ve heard of it? Cool!” and he replied with “yes, I’ve read a book about it.” I wanted to ask him if it was called “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, but we were in a hurry. He said I had not stated what school I went to, and I discussed that with him. During this process, my fingerprints were also scanned. I had actually put down the school I went to, so I don’t know what happened there.

Everything was going so well

My passport, and the Visa confirmation page were put into a transparent plastic folder and I was told to he was done. I said “have I been approved?” and I was so, so happy. He said “no” and I had to have an interview; I was pointed in roughly the right direction of a final queue leading up to an interview.

The woman I spoke to was instantly dismissive of me. I’m not very good at judging people but I got a very bad vibe from her. She requested I place my hand on the fingerprint scanner and she said my fingerprint wasn’t recognised. I wonder if it was because I was so cold from earlier? I really don’t know. It wasn’t helping my case. Nonetheless, she could have been a bit more friendly.

She said to me, “I see you’ve applied for an ESTA before and failed.” When she said this, it made no sense to me for multiple reasons. I hadn’t even heard of an ESTA, let alone applied for one; and I hadn’t even visited the site before 19/11/2016 (my Visa interview was 18/11/2016.) I should have instantly requested to speak with her manager but I didn’t.

I was applying for a Visa, not an ESTA and this added to my confusion. I did not say all this to her–it would seem argumentative. I simply clarified that I had not applied for an ESTA before. She later hinted at the idea I’d applied for a Visa and failed–that too is rubbish. I haven’t stepped in the US Embassy prior to having my interview 18/11/2016. My current passport is pretty new; I got it purely for the Pacific Crest Trail (I have been to other European countries but I have not left Europe.) I was left wondering, “is there a black mark by my name where someone has applied for an ESTA in my name? Was a clerical error made? Did I waste £135 + travel expenses, because someone made a clerical error?”

She asked about my work situation, I replied “I don’t currently work. I am training for the Pacific Crest Trail.” She asked how much money I have and I responded, of which she replied by saying “how do you have that much”, I said “savings” and her response was “so you have worked before?” I have and I explained my previous job to her and whatnot, but I could have won the lottery. I’m not after a green card. I don’t want to live in America permanently. I didn’t say that; I was very polite and answered her questions appropriately.

She asked how far I have hiked before and I said “20 miles in a day”, she said and “how long was that for?”, I said “a day hike.” I mean, usually “in a day” implies a 24 hour period; America has different timezones but there’s still 24 hours in a day right? If she said “how many miles have you hiked in a month” or “what’s the longest hiking vacation you’ve had?” I would have given a different response, but my brain is a bit weird. I gave her a literal response and I realised it was stupid afterwards but there was no going back. She did not care for an explanation, she just wanted to tick boxes.

She said I wasn’t “dedicated enough”, I have “no skills” and “don’t have enough ties to England”, and I have been declined. She said I had not done much hiking before, and I explained I had photographs with me of hikes I’d been on. She brought up money, and I stated my family have money. Then she said money isn’t a problem. I was thinking, so why bring it up then?

Explaining I had photographs and a driving license (of which I’ve had for 10+ years) on me meant nothing to her. I wasn’t allowed to show them nor an email regarding the Pacific Crest Trail. She would not look at ANY evidence.

I believed she must have made a clerical error, but when I requested to speak with her manager afterwards, the manager said similar things and I didn’t challenge the point about an ESTA being declined.

England is a financially safer country to live in, plus my immediate family live here. I don’t agree with their claims. They didn’t ask about my family, and none of them seemed interested. I’m coming straight back to England once I’ve hiked the Pacific Crest Trail; assuming I’ll ever be allowed to hike it.

Working full time would obviously make it so much easier to train for something physical, especially if you’re stuck doing an office job or some such.

I was truly disgusted and really sad. I wasted money on the travel, plus the Visa. She said “we are concerned you might want to migrate here.” Why would I apply for a non-immigrant Visa? Why wouldn’t I have just applied for an ESTA? What kind of crap scam is that? I don’t understand. Is that seriously how illegal immigrants become legal? Hey guys, I’m gonna hike 2650+ miles; here’s evidence I take photographs, I’ve spoken about this subject ad nauseam, and here’s some receipts for the equipment I bought but it’s all an elaborate scam!

I really think the woman simply disliked me, and her manager was trying to back her up. I know that ties are important and I should have researched more, had a wife, some children, etc. but I stand by this statement nonetheless.

I know what my intentions are, so if she believes otherwise, it’s a mistake.

A delightful end

I was kind of shook up because I’ve put my heart and soul into this trip. I left the building devastated and said where do I exit? The guy in the metal detection room said “the door on the right.” I began to open it and he raised his voice. Ok, he meant the door on my left. If you can’t tell your left from your right, I do worry about what good you are as a security guard.

When I walked back to the coach station, some guy stopped me and wanted to take my money. You can see a stop in my pace on the second tracklog I made with my GPS watch. It was such an excellent day. I wasn’t in the mood for some guy to mug me, so I told him to reproduce with himself (expletives might have been used) using barbed wire.

The biggest thing that really disappoints me is how the woman interviewed me; she wasn’t interested and wasn’t very kind. She didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Despite my whining and an immense dislike for the woman I spoke to, I do believe I made mistakes and I must try establish what they were.

I also believe they likely have to refuse people to keep the statistics on track; I’m guessing 30% get rejected but I haven’t researched it too thoroughly. Perhaps I am too cynical. Like I said, I do believe I made mistakes. Perhaps if I had spoken to a different woman the result would be different, perhaps it was a mixture of mistakes. I have no idea, and I hate not knowing.

Everyone (including my family but excluding my doctor) has told me that I wouldn’t be able to hike this; it’s dangerous, etc. Yet the one person who really matters, hasn’t said that to himself (me.) When I look at many people who have failed at things they are passionate about, quite often it was because they didn’t believe in themselves enough.

My plan of action for now

I have a few ideas floating around in my head. Hopefully I can apply for a Visa a second time and it will be approved. My budget has already been eaten into by the fact the Great British Pound has dropped in value so much relative to the United States Dollar.

It is easy for us to research the hike, watch multiple YouTube videos from previous through-hikers and obsess over the right equipment to buy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I am not the only one who did not research the interview enough. Perhaps a clerical error was made. Perhaps the woman hated me. I cannot be 100% certain.

I would really like to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, not just because I have my heart set on the hike or to better myself as a person but to also better my photography skills.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

On 21/11/2016 I contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection. I asked them for information regarding a alleged ESTA application, and they replied extremely quickly, 11/21/2016 08:52 AM:

Dear Mr. Name Redacted,

Thank you for contacting the Compliments and Complaints Branch (CCB) with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) regarding your visa denial by the U.S. Consulate.

I am sorry to learn about your negative experience with the U.S. Consulate, but unfortunately, we have no authority over them and as such, we are unable to over turn any decision made by the Consular Officer.

I have reviewed ESTA and we found no application on file for you. I encourage you to contact the U.S. Consulate for further assistance regarding your Visa denial.

Again, thank you.
Compliments and Complaints Branch

Unfortunately, the U.S Consulate seems rather difficult to contact. If anyone’s read all this, I appreciate any help I can get.

U.S Customs and Border Protection have sent another email:

The email provided to you is the documentation showing we found no ESTA on file for you.  Unfortunately, if you have ever been denied a U.S. Visa recently, it is likely any ESTA you do apply for will be denied.

Needless to say, I am not very lucky.

To be honest, I was extremely disappointed about the whole VISA ordeal and I read an email that was a bit upsetting. It was a follow up post on another blog I follow

I took a bank statement with me but didn’t have to show this or any other evidence of housing or a job. I wasn’t working at the time so I wasn’t coming back to a job at the time and this didn’t seem to be a problem. I did take with me a guidebook to the PCT and my journal with all my research and scribbles and plans for resupply etc but also didn’t have to show this. I hope all goes well with your visa application, Happy Trails!

This makes my case seem even more unfair. On 16/01/2017 I then applied for an ESTA. Within 12 hours, it was declined because my VISA was declined.

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