TL;DR: renewing your E3 visa in Canada is possible, but there’s a bit of a quirk that means rolling the dice. This an outline of how I did it in Vancouver in late June 2015.
Almost four years ago I wrote a long and detailed blog post going through the process of obtaining a visa to live and work in the United States known as an E3 visa. Still restricted to just Australian passport holders, the E3 visa class allows people with a university degree and a job offer in a role that utilizes their qualifications – and because there’s 10,500 visas available a year, and less than half of that number were granted in 2014, it is pretty much a sure thing if you’re eligible, the employer doesn’t screw up the (pretty simple) Labor Condition Approval (LCA) and you convince the consular officer you’re a professional (have a degree) and the company and role is the real deal.
One of the few downsides of this visa (which compared to the misery American’s put other professionals through with the H1B visa is nothing at all) is that it is only good for two years – if you change employers or the two year period comes up, you need to get a renewal visa, known as an E3R (the R being for renewal). There’s no limit on the number of times it can be renewed, but each one is a pain.
Practically, the E3R is the same as getting an E3 visa for the first time – you need a new LCA, you need a new DS-160 (the visa application), and of course a new appointment with the consulate to hopefully get them to approve your visa; it is practically lower risk than your first time through (as with all bureaucrats, State Department officials find it easier to approve something someone else has already taken the chance on approving first – stick with the herd, don’t get fired), but still means running the gauntlet. Oh, and of course, the renewal has to happen at a US consulate, ie, not in America*.
The challenge, of course, with your E3R is that you have to leave the US, and since you’ve already got an E3 visa you’ve probably got a place to live (and thus rent or a mortgage to pay) in the US, a job that will miss you more (since the first E3 happens before you start work, so they don’t miss you yet) and probably a bunch of other stuff (friends, commitments, a girlfriend/boyfriend/dog/cat/Tinder-hookup) that will miss the fact you’re out of the country for a while. So, getting it done with as little cost, time and hassle as possible is a priority.
This means it is a lot more desirable to get your E3 visa renewed a little closer to “home” than flying almost half way around the planet – twice – to get your visa renewed in Sydney, Melbourne or Perth. My friend Lee published an awesome post about how to get it done in Mexico City, but I decided I’d try my luck getting it renewed in Vancouver, Canada.
The LCA application process/system hasn’t changed since my first post about getting the LCA in late 2011. To help further, the LCA website shows you a list of all of the previous applications you’ve submitted, so if your role has hardly changed and your employer hasn’t changed, you can download your old application in PDF format and speed the process up with a copy and paste.
Note: the 2 year term for your visa commences the date your LCA is granted. Note that you now can’t book your visa appointment until after you receive your LCA, so it is a balancing act to get the LCA request in with enough time before you want to travel so you can get it early enough to get the appointment time you need but not too soon that you burn months of valuable E3 validity.
The DS-160 application has been enhanced significantly since my first blog post, and is vastly improved. It is probably one of the most impressive online government application forms I’ve ever used, and is completely different to every other experience you’ll have with US government.
The DS-160 application is an application built on top of Force.com, and uses a lot of smarts and logic to get you a completed application without any confusion or grief – note though that as soon as you tell it you’re doing an E3 visa, it will want your LCA confirmation number (hence needing to do that first), and you can’t get an appointment without a DS-160.
One critical piece of advice: make sure you make a note of your Application ID from the first screen after you choose to commence a new application. If your browser crashes (as mine did) you’ll need it, and when you’re tracking the visa approval after your appointment you’ll need it too.
The Appointment Process
Booking an appointment is also pretty easy, but there were a few wrinkles that caused me a lot of grief – hopefully these tips will save you the same pain.
The State Department does a pretty good job of showing folks how long the wait for a visa appointment is at this website. When I was looking into getting my visa renewed in early June, the waiting time was 8 days for Non-Immigrant Visas (the type you want for an E3). At the time of writing, it at 17 days.
Since my visa wasn’t expiring for over a month (early July), I thought, awesome, this will work a treat! I went and booked my flights from SFO to Vancouver (the strangely coded YVR) for late June (flying in on Thursday, appointment on Friday morning, spending the weekend being a tourist and flying back early the next week) and thought, right, this will work out well. But, the most important piece of information I didn’t know is that the visa waiting times the State Department disclose don’t apply to people coming from a third country to renew their visa.
Given its proximity to the United States, US consular offices in Canada are a popular place for non-Canadians to visit to get their visas issued/renewed. To give the Canadian’s a chance at getting appointments in a timely manner, the appointment system treats non-Canadian residents very differently – but I didn’t find this out until I’d booked flights and made arrangements!
When it comes to booking your appointment, the first thing to do is go to canada.usvisa-info.com – at the time of writing, this will redirect you to a website that looks like the image below. Fairly obviously, you click “Apply” if you haven’t already gotten into the Canadian’s visa appointment system (your email address is unique to this system).
The first page is a static page which aims to route your request properly. I ticked the box saying I was a non-Canadian citizen residing in the US – it doesn’t really matter though, because these first questions are just to try and route you to the right answer.
The system then warns you that Third Country Nationals (TCNs) might have to wait longer and that a visa might not be granted by the US.
Once you’ve passed this point, you need to enter a couple of details and choose a password, as well as accepting the standard terms and completing a captcha. Easy enough. Then comes the fun part – filling in the specific details for your application (DS-160, visa class and more).
It is the last radio button on this form that makes all of the difference. If you tell them you’re traveling from another country to apply for the visa in Canada, your appointment time will stretch out – in my case, from 8 days to 8 months!
Given I had to renew my visa by early July, and it was currently early June, and I’d only returned a couple of weeks earlier from my quarterly trip back to Australia and didn’t fancy spending $2000 on flights (northern hemisphere summer is high-season for most airlines), I figured I’d roll the dice and tell them I was not traveling from another country – I ticked no and booked my appointment for June 27th.
The last confusing piece in the process is choosing where you want to get your passport and the visa mailed to if it is approved. The drop-down list of places is suburb/city names, which probably make sense to someone in Canada, but since I’d never visited before I required a bunch of Google Maps searching to find out what the heck each one was (since there was no “Vancouver” option). The closest location to downtown Vancouver is Burnaby, BC.
After completing the form and paying the fees (which include the courier fees for Loomis Express, a subsidiary of DHL), all I had to do was wait and stress about the fact I’d claimed to be based in Canada when in fact I’d flown in the day before my appointment.
Entry into Canada
Flying into Vancouver was easy (and really pretty), but I do have one word of advice when you get to Customs/Border/Passport control. When they ask what brings you to Canada, do not tell them you’re there to get your US Visa renewed. This is a very bad idea – basically, the Customs lady took 10-15 mins of going through all my visa paperwork to form her own opinion on whether I’d get a visa from the US guys or not, and there was a very real possibility she could have denied me entry and told me to head back to the US.
This is because, from a Canadian perspective, if the US said no to my visa renewal, I was now going to be Canada’s problem. So, tell them you’re taking a few days off to explore their beautiful city/country for a holiday – you’re a tourist, plain and simple. They’ll then stamp your passport (under the Visa Waiver program, Aussie don’t need a visa and you can stay for 90 days in Canada) and you’re good to go.
One other small point about Vancouver – they’ve got one of the neatest metro systems in the world. It is called Skytrain (much of the track is elevated) and since the mid 1980’s this thing has run super reliably because none of the trains have any drivers! Very very awesome, and super convenient to use when getting from the Airport to the City, and then from the City out to Burnaby when you go to pick up your passport.
Attending the Appointment
Because I booked my appointment 20+ days out (when the wait time was just 8 days) I got a very early appointment – 7:30am. In addition to your Passport, your DS-160 cover page, your LCA and your employment letter of offer (and potentially your degree, but I didn’t bring mine), you’ll need to bring two passport sized photos. I didn’t see this in the instructions for Vancouver’s appointment, and thus I joined a line of folks at a photo place across the road who didn’t realize it either.
Additionally, do not bring anything bigger than a lunch-box – the storage lockers they use are only suitable for small purses, phones, etc. I had to leave my smartwatch downstairs too – if you bring a bag (I bought my laptop bag) you’ll need to go to one of the cafes across the street and pay them $5 to stick in the corner for you (they make no promises as to its safety – all care, no responsibility).
When you check in and hand over your switched off phone, etc, you’ll queue up outside (this must be really unpleasant in winter – it does have a roof though to keep the rain off) and you then get bought through in group of half a dozen or so to be metal-detector scanned, etc.
After you get through the metal detector, you join Line A where an officer who’s sitting behind a counter (as opposed to glass) goes through your paperwork and makes sure you’ve got everything you need.
This was the big risk in my case – my appointment was clearly for someone who had not traveled from a third country to get this appointment, and he was asking everyone their legal status in Canada. When my turn came, and he asked me my status in Canada, I said “I’m here under the 90 day Visa Waiver Program”. My hunch/hope was that this legitimate legal basis for being in Canada would satisfy the requirement (even if it was a bit sneaky). I didn’t offer anything further – no “I flew in yesterday”. I think he asked where I was staying to try and establish legitimacy, and the fact I’m a bit of a maps/geo nut helped because I said “Oh, I’m based in Yaletown” (a local district, highly recommended by the by) which also helped him decide I was in Canada legally and thus wave me through.
A girl who was in the queue downstairs around the same time as I was from Europe and she’d left her work permit card in her bag (downstairs, back out through security, and across the road), so she had to go down and get it out and come back before the Line A guy would let her go to the next stage. I think it was the Line A guy who gave me my “number” from a ticket machine like you get at the DMV/RTA – this number was my number for the rest of the appointment process.
The Line A guy took my passport and DS-160 wrapper form and passed it back to some folks behind some serious looking glass in a control room type thing, and told me to go to Line B (right next to Line A). The people in their control room did whatever they did (perhaps a desk-review of the passport, etc?) for what probably took 20 minutes or so (they spent more time in mine than anyone else’s, which was a source of concern), and then they call your number (roughly in the order that you were in) and then you take it down the back of the room to Window C (where a guy does the biometric fingerprint capture).
Since the E3 requires a consular interview, you then queue up again and wait to go upstairs (can’t remember which floor, but it was a fair way up in the elevator) and then you wait up there for your turn to go to the window and have someone ask you questions about your work, employer, education, role and the rest to determine if they’ll grant your visa.
In my case, the interview went pretty smoothly and the guy told me my visa was approved, but there was one problem – the State Department’s global system for granting visas had been offline for over two weeks, and they had a pretty insane backlog. He couldn’t tell me when the visa would be printed and put in my passport because their computer systems in Vancouver hadn’t yet been “cleared” to do their job at that point (Friday the 27th).
So, while the return date wasn’t known (and that was a worry), I felt super relieved the guy in Line A let me go through even though I’d ticked the box saying I wasn’t traveling from a third country to get my US visa in Canada, and the guy upstairs said my visa application was approved!
Tracking your passport
From the appointment onwards you track progress using the same canada.usvisa-info.com website you used to book your appointment – by entering your email address and the password you chose in that step, you’re able to track where you are at in the processing process.
While your visa is being processed (before it is released to the couriers), the blue Canadian visa-info website will actually direct you to track progress using a different system which is tied to the original DS-160 application system. This system uses the DS-160 Application ID you got right back at the start of your DS-160 process to tell you where you’re up to.
Once the visa is “Issued” the canada.usvisa-info.com website will show you the tracking number for Loomis and you can focus tracking your passport.
In my case, the backup in visas because of the tech problems meant I was expecting to be waiting a few days longer than usual to get my passport back. However, at one point I checked the DS-160 website (Monday night) and saw my status had changed to Administrative Processing. When this happens, it usually means you’re facing a delay of weeks (the website says it normally gets resolved inside 60 days!!!) – and obviously, as I’m sitting there in Canada without a passport I was pretty panicked about this state of affairs! The good news is it only sat in the Administrative Processing state for a day, and then by Tuesday night its status had changed to Issued. Phew!!!
When the visa is issued and delivered to the courier (Loomis Express) the canada.usvisa-info.com website will give you a tracking number, which you can then track with Loomis directly. In my case, it didn’t quite work this way – July 1st is Canada Day, and in addition to most businesses being closed, the Loomis website decided to take the day off too – from 7am until 11pm (my first and last checks that Wednesday) the website timed out with a 500 error and I couldn’t track my passport at all.
The good news was that come Thursday morning, 6 calendar days and 3 business days since my interview, my passport was showing up in Loomis’ systems as being at their Burnaby address and ready for pickup.
Picking up your passport from Burnaby
Returning to trusty Google Maps, I saw that the Loomis location Burnaby wasn’t too far from Lake City Way skytrain station. I headed down to the Granville skytrain station, bought a 2-zone ticket (they’re good for 90 mins or so) and rode the 30 mins or so out to Lake City Way station. Given these trains have no drivers, if you’re lucky you can get the front seat – pretty cool view and way to ride a metro!
If you do this, the main thing to know is that you have to get off the Skytrain at Commercial-Broadway station, walk along a passenger walkway back towards the city for 5-10 mins, and then board a train on another line in the direction back to downtown (Waterfront station) to get to Lake City Way station the fastest. The reason for this is that the trains leaving the city travel in one direction around a loop, finishing near Commercial-Broadway – the Lake City Way station, though is near the top of the loop, so by changing trains and direction, you save 20 mins of extra travel time by cutting out the largest part of the loop.
When you get out at Lake City Way station, you’ll want to walk up the road called “Lake City Way” for half a mile or so and turn right onto “Express Street”. Note that you’re probably one of the few people who go to Loomis Express on foot – the road, pictured below, isn’t at all pedestrian friendly, with no footpath and a lot of trucks going back and forth. But with no Uber or Lyft in Vancouver at the time of writing, I figured it was better to take on this challenge than support the taxi cartels.
The reason for the passport photos (that I didn’t bring originally) at the appointment is made a bit clearer when you pick up your passport – inside the package at Loomis Express is one of your passport photos so the courier guy can check it really is you.
So, a little before 11am on Thursday July 2nd, I had my passport and new visa!
The recommended timing for doing the Vancouver visa renewal (if you decide to) is as follows:
- Week 1 – apply for your LCA. Note that the date the LCA is granted is the date that your new visa expires, so don’t get your LCA until you’re ready to then go onto getting your DS-160 (which you need to then book your appointment).
- Week 2 – get your DS-160, and book for your appointment. Your LCA should only take a week to get approved (if you’ve done it right) and the DS-160 is just a process (no review/approval required there) so you should be able to get your DS-160 and appointment the day you get your LCA back.
- Week 4 – attend appointment. Assuming an appointment delay of 10 business days, you’re probably going to be waiting until into Week 4 to get your appointment.
- Week 5 – passport and visa returned. The Consulate says that it should take 3 business days for your visa to be approved and issued which tallies with my experience. If Canada day hadn’t occurred I would have had my passport back on Wednesday after a Friday appointment. If you have an appointment on Monday, you should have your visa back in your hand on Thursday.
In conclusion, it is very doable to get your E3 visa renewed in Vancouver (and since a renewal is functionally no different to getting one for the first time, new visas should also work fine). However, the fact you have to lie on the appointment application form to get an appointment in a reasonable time means that doing so is pretty risky; I think I got pretty lucky with the Line A guy waving me through after I told him my legal basis for being in Canada was the Visa Waiver program. If the Line A guy doesn’t let you through you’ll end up being turned around and you’ll need to book a flight to Australia (or Mexico City) and apply to an appointment there to get your visa processed (with no refund for the Vancouver appointment you got turned away from).
The other factor to consider properly around the process is costs. My two reasons for choosing Vancouver over Sydney were time and cost. The flights to Australia take a day each way, and the cost at $2000 or so is a lot more steep than $350 return to Vancouver from SFO.
However, if you can stay with family or friends when you’re in Australia, you’re avoiding the costs of hotels or AirBNB accommodation in Vancouver. I ended up paying around $1300 for accommodation (Thursday to Thursday), which makes the price difference pretty small ($1900 for flights and accommodation), and because of the Canada Day and backlog delays I had to do a change of date on my return flight which had costs as well making the Sydney vs Vancouver cost difference all but disappear.
While I definitely came out ahead on time (and being on the same timezone as my US team when we were announcing our fundraising round was really beneficial), in my case the benefits of Vancouver were positive but not as overwhelmingly as I thought that’d be. If I was paying Sydney hotel prices though (more than Vancouver prices) the Vancouver option would be a long way ahead on the cost side of things.
Hope this helps other folks who are running the gauntlet – would love to hear people’s own experiences in the comments below too!
I’ve had a bunch of people email me and ask how they can say thanks for the advice. If you’d like to say thanks and you don’t already have an account with Uber or Lyft, feel free to say thanks by using my invite code (below) and you’ll be helping me out with extra credit and getting some credit to start with yourself too:
- Uber: 9xybb
- Lyft: GEOFF304
* There is one exception to this, which is where you nominate to have your visa assessed and approved on-shore with USCIS – the downside of this is that it is like a really long visa interview which leaves you unable to leave and re-enter the United States while it is being determined, a process which I’m told takes something like 6 months.