The Visa Struggle Is Real
Staying on the trail is mostly a question of mental and physical fitness for the hikers who have a permanent residence in the United States. And by permanent I mean something more established than your tent or hammock. For us Europeans, as well as all other non-American hikers, it’s also a question of our non-immigrant status in the eyes of the Homeland Security.
Visa Process in the Good Ol’ Days
Hikers who wish to stay in the United States more than three months need a tourist visa. This normally allows one to stay six months in one visit, but longer stays have been granted as well. The process starts with an application at the US Department of State’s website. Essential part of the application is to prove that you have reasons to return to your home country. In addition to explaining that you haven’t committed a genocide or other crimes of that nature.
After filling the never ending application and paying the fee you are required to have an interview at your local US embassy. In a normal situation – like when I applied for my visa before hiking the Appalachian Trail – there was roughly a two week wait to get an appointment at the US embassy of Finland. No appointment, no business inside the gates of the embassy.
Along Came COVID19
The global pandemic hit the international travel hard. The United States was no exception. The country closed its doors from tourists at the beginning of the pandemic. During 1,5 years the citizens of European Union countries were not allowed to travel to US. At least not for any pleasure cruise.
In November 2021 the EU citizens were finally allowed to enter the US – vaccinated and tested. This news was greeted with joy within aspiring thru-hikers. If only that would have been as simple as buying the plane tickets and waving your loved ones goodbye.
In the beginning of the pandemic all the visa interviews were cancelled. Once they were started again in November 2021, the wait list had exploded. Many hikers got their appointments for the summer 2022, which was obviously too late for the hiking season. Some were able to reschedule the interviews and got new appointments for January, February or March. Just in time to get the travel documents.
Yesterday the Facebook group of Nordic PCT hikers started to fill with distressed messages. Swedes had received information from the US embassy in Stockholm that their appointments were cancelled. Some tried to move their application to Denmark. Even Austria was discussed. Wherever there would be an embassy that would still organise interviews.
Today same happened in the Finnish long distance hiker group. A fellow Trek blogger echoed the news from the UK and New Zealand. All interviews were cancelled. The reason was “an unforeseen emergency situation”. No one knows for sure what that means. Speculations gravitate towards the powder keg situation in Ukraine. Some hikers have voiced their concerns whether even the visa holders will be allowed to enter the country. Though this kind of decisions haven’t been officially made.
The Ripple Effect
The cancellations might not only affect the class of 2022 anymore. Now that at least the US embassy of Finland has its next appointments available in September, the class of 2023 should prepare for the struggle. Abundance of travellers are still waiting to get their visas and the line keeps on growing.
If you are considering a long distance hike in the US in 2023, you should act now. Even if your plans are for 2024, it might be wise to start to monitor the situation. No one wants to give up the life changing adventure because of the missing travel documents.
Disclaimer: Information about most recent travel restrictions to the United States are available at the CDC and the US Customs and Border Protection websites. The most accurate information about the schedule of visa interviews should be searched from the website of your local US embassy.
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