E-3 Visa Renewal without Travel via I-129

I’m the US right now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns/shutdowns across most of the economy. One of my friends and colleagues happened to have his E-3 visa expiring next week, and so the usual options of a visa dash started closing down pretty fast. Canada closed their borders on March 16th, and while Australia will have you back (if you can get there), the Consulates have limited their operations from March 17th which basically means unless you have a mail-in application, you’re going to be waiting a long time to get your visa approved. Even if you got your passport back via a mail-in renewal, the chances of making it back into the US this side of June is pretty questionable. 

There is, however, some good news: you can apply for your visa on-shore and as long as your employer sends in your application before your visa expires, you’ve got an immediate extension of up to 240 days where you can continue legally working in the US.

This approach is normally a lot less attractive because it takes a lot longer – at the time of writing, the Vermont Processing Center was taking 3.5-5 months. Compared to a quick trip to Vancouver, Toronto, Mexico City or back to Australia where you can get in and out in around 1 week, this slow process was pretty unattractive. However, with COVID-19 in full swing, flights suspended, consulates basically closed and borders closed, the I-129 route (and being stuck in the US while they adjudicate your case) is actually not such a bad thing.

The I-129 Form

The I-129 Form is not a new concept – it has been around a long time. Most folks doing E-3 initial visas or renewals, however, don’t know about it or choose to do it because it is a lot slower.

You can download the I-129 form from the USCIS here. They also provide really quite clear and helpful advice on completing the application (ie, what boxes to tick for what you need to do) in their I-129 Instructions PDF.

The way it works is that you get your LCA (which could be also difficult in these times) and send in the Petition (the employer is the petitioner) to the Vermont processing center (at the time of writing). The form and the additional materials come to about 60 pages, but the good news is that E-3 visas (once again) get off pretty lightly – most of the higher cost and additional paperwork is for H1-B and some other visas.

The instructions PDF at the time of writing said the following information would be required along with the I-129 form:

For all classifications, if a beneficiary is seeking a change of status or extension of stay, evidence of maintenance of status must be included with the new petition. If the beneficiary is employed in the United States, the petitioner may submit copies of the beneficiary’s last 2 pay stubs, Form W-2, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) transcripts of the beneficiary’s federal individual income tax return for the three most recent tax years, and other relevant evidence.

Principles of Extension

From an employment perspective, as I understand it there are two things someone on an E-3 visa needs to remain legal in the US – permission to be in the US, and permission to work in the US.

Permission to be in the US (the I-94)

Whenever we cross the border into the US, the guy/girl behind the counter at CPB (in between asking about our work and taking our fingerprints) is creating a new I-94 for us. The I-94 is the document that gives us permission to be in the US. Per the USCIS FAQ on extending your stay:

“..the admissons (sic) stamp in your travel document or the I-94/I-94W shows how long you are permitted to remain in the United States, but your nonimmigrant visa (if a visa was issued) does not. A visa only shows when and how many times you may seek admission to the United States from abroad based on the classification noted on your visa.” (emphasis added)

As long as your passport is valid and you apply before your I-94 expires, you’re generally able to apply to extend your stay from within the US.

When it comes to our I-94s, I honestly don’t know why they give us 2 years from date of arrival – I’ve seen I-94 dates extend beyond the expiry of a passport, and except for showing up the date our visa is granted, it also means the I-94 expires after our visa. Considering how inflexible/crazy the whole system is, it is pretty strange to me that they do it. I’ve also heard that it isn’t guaranteed that your I-94 will go for 2 years from the date of entry, so it might be laziness by CPB officers who just know the visa is a 2 year visa and so set the expiry of the I-94 to be that long. If it is laziness, that’s great, because having an I-94 expiring in the future is critical to being able to do the extension via I-129 process.

Permission to work in the US (the E-3 visa)

Since this is about extending your visa, this is where the focus of the application/process is. I still have a few questions at the time of writing about how this all works, but given the alternatives right now are close to nil, I figured this was posting about (was going to wait until the process completed, but COVID-19 has a lot of people unable to travel so having something out there is better than nothing).

An important note here is that for an E-3 visa extension/renewal/modification, it is ideally the (new) employer who is petitioning USCIS on behalf of the employee (the FAQ at for Temporary Nonimmigrant Workers calls out E-3 as one of the visas that someone can submit their own I-129 for).

The easiest method (and only one I’ve tried) is the extension of same role for same employer, and I’ve read conflicting information about whether this approach works for changing employers – H1-B and H2-A statuses are specifically allowed to change employers while the I-129 is being processed, but E-3 might get caught in the rule “The employee cannot begin working for the new employer until USCIS approves the petition.” (see this FAQ under “Changing Employers” heading)

For the extension of a visa for the same employer (from this FAQ):

To extend the period for which a nonimmigrant employee was admitted, an employer must file a new Form I-129 petition for the employee. Generally, the employee may continue working for the same employer for up to 240 days or until USCIS makes a decision on the petition, whichever is sooner.

If you’re the employer, you need to submit a new I-9 (asserting you’ve checked the validity of the visa/work rights of an employee), and since you can’t eyeball a visa that isn’t yet in their passport, you should:

write “240-Day Ext.” and the date he or she submitted the Form I-129 petition to USCIS in the margin of Form I-9 next to Section 2

Special Note if you have dependents:

While the employer files the I-129 for your E-3 visa, you need to file a single I-539 Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status for all of your dependents and get them processed at the same time. From the same FAQ above:

If your employer files a Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, to extend your stay and your spouse or unmarried children under age 21 also want to extend their stay, they need to file (paper based or e-file electronically) using Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status. They can all be included on one I-539. It is best to file the I-129 and I-539 together so that they can be adjudicated about the same time. Remember, though, that they are separate applications. Therefore, you and your family members (and your employer) must follow the instructions and attach all supporting documents with each application, even when filing the forms together.

What I haven’t been able to determine is what happens when USCIS actually comes back and says “sure, you’re approved to extend stay”. The visa in the passport is still showing a date that has expired, so you won’t want to come back across a border without getting a new visa in your passport – I don’t know if you can then apply for a fresh visa on-shore or if you’re basically going to be looking at your next international trip also incorporating some time on a visa-run.

How to get useful feedback on your business idea

A startup mailing list I’m on recently had a customer-development survey link posted to it for an idea I thought was absolutely terrible. It is another “buy food from an app and have it delivered to you” product, but in this case they take inputs from you about your food preferences, dietary issues, etc and a personal chef puts together a menu for you, cooks the food and delivers it themselves.

I didn’t think it was a terrible idea as a consumer – but as a business it is pretty much doomed. This is due to:

  • High customer acquisition cost (especially in mobile today) and a small addressable market who’ll actually pay (a lot more) money for more healthy, convenient food (as opposed to those who say they will).
  • High churn. Having used a number of these product before, the reality it that you get to the end of a busy week where you ate out once or had something after work you didn’t expect and then you look at those expensive leftovers in the fridge at the end of the week and cancel. If you go on vacation/holiday for a week, you cancel and you don’t come back.
  • Horrible unit economics. Even if you find people affordably and they stick around more than for any other service who’ve tried this, your main variable input cost is labor which has to be geographically proximate to your high income buyer, so that won’t be cheap. Your other key input is food, which is perishable and the personal menu thing eliminates economies of scale in procurement and production.

Like most of the other app-driven food businesses I’ve seen raise money and fail here in San Francisco, it seems like a great business to make a small fortune with – as long as you start with a big fortune!

It got me thinking though: how in the hell did this nice, smart guy think it made sense to build this business?

I could be wrong, but my hunch is the cause lies in how he validated his initial business idea. The process is usually:

  1. The entrepreneur has an idea they think is awesome. Sometimes it comes as a result of trying too hard and for too long to think of something (so the relief of being done is a payoff enough in your mind). Smart people have lots of shit ideas – that’s normal unfortunately.
  2. The entrepreneur pitches this idea to their friends and family as their idea. Your friends and family like you a lot, so they’re very disincentivized to say something that will hurt you. This, combined with the “everyone get a trophy” view of life (reward for trying!) means you get reinforcing feedback from most. Those who have critical feedback will tell you in a way that is non-specific so they don’t make you feel like an idiot.
  3. The entrepreneur gets encouragement and validation and moves forward. The journey they embark on soaks up their savings and a decade of their life, often on a shit idea they fell in love with and in no small part because the people who care the most about the entrepreneur didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

The solution to this problem is to reverse Step #2.

You’re still going to have ideas, and you’ll be emotionally invested and too close to them so you need external input.

You’re still going to pitch friends and family and folks you know because they’re the only ones who’ll listen to you long enough to hear you out.

But instead of telling them about your idea, you tell them about “this startup” you recently met with and you’re thinking of investing in them.

Then tell them about the idea of “this startup”, and for extra seriousness tell them you’re thinking of investing the money you’ve saved for a house downpayment (or mortgaging a house you already own).

Then you’ll get real feedback on whether what you’re doing makes any sense to them as a buyer (and they’ll extrapolating to include their own friends, experiences, colleagues, etc). They’ll tell you what they really think. Many people will tell you you’re insane to invest money in a way that has risk (see Loss Aversion for more on this), and you should politely park the financial advice feedback. What you’re looking for is objections or insights into the problem that you’re trying to solve (through the fiction of “this startup”). Welcome all the objections, and understand them, because if the people you’ve asked are your target market, you’ll be facing anyway, often unseen and unheard, in that target market. This negative feedback helps you to get ahead of them.

This is probably the most important thing an early stage startup founder can do, but also realize you can’t do it 3x times a week. Save this for the ideas that you really really think have legs, cause you can only do it once a month at the most, but seek out negative feedback bias – the positive stuff is much more commonly the path to ruin.

Stopping Autoplay Videos on News Websites with Adblock Plus

Like many Aussie and Kiwi ex-pats I know, checking in on the news in the old country is both a habit and an escape, but the constant attempts by the old print media to “reinvent” themselves as broadcast/video media had lead to an irritating and increasingly prevalent feature on news articles – the Autoplay video.

autoplay-facebook

For the many folks out there already using an AdBlocker, here’s how you can add a couple of custom rules you can add to AdBlock Plus to stop these videos from running.

  1. Click on AdBlock and choose “Options”.
  2. In the top menu bar, click on “Customize”.
  3. In the lower part, click on the “Edit” button next to the “Manually edit your filters” heading.

When you’re there, add the following two lines to the list of filters to block:

http://ffxapm-a.akamaihd.net/*videoId=
newsvidwsj.news.com.au
brightcove$domain=nzherald.co.nz

The first one will block videos from running on smh.com.au, theage.com.au and (probably AFR) as the videos themselves come down from Fairfax’s account with Akamai, a content delivery network. Note that it is just blocking requests with videoId= in them – so other stuff coming from Fairfax’s Akamai account will still work.

glorious-video-player-error

The second one will block videos on websites powered by News Limited (such as news.com.au, and if you’re one of *those* people, dailytelegraph.com.au). It means hard-blocking the video server used by news.com.au.

glorious-video-player-error-news.com.au

The third one blocks anything with Brightcove (the name of the vendor that provides the video tech) in the title on the New Zealand Herald – since the NZ Herald is still using Shockwave, you basically need to stop the Brightcove player from loading it all rather than blocking the content you don’t want to autoplay.

glorious-video-player-error-nzherald.co.nz

I’m well aware that this isn’t the most elegant solution – having a way to set the JS preference/cookie to respect the “Never Play” and have it work even when you’re using Incognito mode would be much nicer – but this gets the job done pretty quickly using an extension used by millions.

Hope this helps other people avoid this irritation, especially when you’re reading the news at your desk at work and you don’t want some shittly produced video screaming out of your computer speakers.

Oh, and if you’ve got your own examples to add for your fav news websites, please add them in the comments!

Watching ABC’s iView from outside Australia without a VPN

As an Aussie expat, it is a shame that all the awesome stuff on ABC’s iView site is locked away. Aside from wanting to keep across what’s going on back in Australia, there’s truly world-class content produced regularly for 4Corners, Foreign Correspondent and stacks of great documentaries too.

The good news is that it is actually really easy and inexpensive to get this content where-ever you are in the world using a service called Unotelly and either your web browser or a copy of their Android app.

Unotelly

Unotelly is an awesome and inexpensive service (can be as cheap as US$3/month) which uses some trickery around DNS (which is like the internet’s phone directory) to trick the ABC servers into thinking you’re in Australia when you’re not.

Unlike a VPN (which requires you to designate a destination and puts a bunch more stuff between you and the stream you’re trying to watch), the Unotelly service just tricks the providers at the point of authentication/connection, and then the actual stream (which you want to be fast) comes down without anything between the server and you watching the video.

After signing up for an account (which you can trial for free for 8 days) and getting the service set up (they have a handy wizard and how-to guides for many services), you simply use the “Dynamo” config screen and scroll down to find the reference to ABC iView. Check the “Australia” radio button, and then head on over to iview.abc.net.au and start watching.

unotelly-abc-iview

Note: if you’ve previously been to iView and gotten the “Sorry, you can’t watch this from outside Australia” message, you might need to clear your cookies or use an incognito/private window to get past the fact they’ve previously blocked your browser.

Watching iView on Android

If you’ve got an Android device, you can also get iView going on your phone, which then also allows you to use your Chromecast to watch iView programs on your big TV screen.

While anyone who’s in Australia can install ABC iView from the Play Store, if you’re outside Australia you’ll be told the app isn’t compatible with any of your devices. This isn’t actually true – it is a policy choice by the ABC, and has nothing to do with compatibility.

Thankfully, the folks over UKTVApps.com have provided the installer files for ABC iView (and SBS On Demand) you to download and install manually on Android. I downloaded and installed the iView app and because my phone is using my home WiFi (which is configured to use Unotelly for DNS now) I just had to fine up the app once installed and start watching!

Watching NBA without Blackouts or a VPN (and much more!)

As a big fan of the NBA (and particularly my adopted home town team, the Golden State Warriors) I was pretty excited to get into this year’s season. While previous seasons have been aided by borrowing the Comcast credentials from a friend and streaming games via the CSN Bay Area channel (laptop to HDMI to TV), the friend in question has now moved away and cancelled their account, and I was stuck trying to work out the best way to watch games. After a bunch of trial and error, I think this is the best way for cord cutters to stream the NBA without being jammed with an extra $400 a year in cable fees.

The awesome NBA League Pass – and its massive flaw

The League Pass service from the NBA is awesome. You can choose to buy a season-long package for a single team or the whole NBA, and you can stream games from lots of different devices – pretty much perfect.

Except for its massive flaw.

I don’t have a lot of spare time, so I tend to just watch the games of the team I follow: the Warriors. Buying a team-pass for $120 comes out to a bit under $20/month (given the length of the regular season), which seems like a fair deal.

As you’d expect, the team play half their games at home, and half their games away through the season. Unfortunately, though, the club (or the NBA?) has done a deal where Comcast (the monopoly Cable TV provider in San Francisco and most of the Bay Area) is the only provider allowed to show games in the San Francisco Bay Area, via their CSN Bay Area channel. This means, after buying the NBA League Pass, 50% of the games I want to watch aren’t available to me – the League Pass service applies a blackout.

I called Comcast (because the NBA League Pass can be provided through your cable provider too) to see whether buying it through them would unlock the blackout, but unfortunately it doesn’t; buying through the cable company is just a reseller billing thing with all the same restrictions. The only way to get all of the games would be to upgrade by package costs by 50% to get the one channel I need, at a cost of around $400 per year. This is only 50% more than buying League Pass, but like most people forced to buy from a monopoly, I’ll do almost anything I can to avoid giving that pack of arseholes any more money on principle alone.

Overcoming the Blackout without a VPN

Now, like any techie out there knows, the strongest solution to this problem is the same solution to ham-fisted online censorship or security/privacy overreach by bone-headed sovereign governments – a VPN.

The effect of a VPN is to take your internet connection here in, say, San Francisco, and tunnel or connect to another country. When your data pops out of that other location, you’ll look like you’re actually in that location, so if you want to get around things like these League Pass blackouts you can use a VPN to appear to be somewhere else.

Unfortunately, there’s a few issues with VPNs, mainly around hassle and performance. The ability to tunnel is cool conceptually, but when you’re trying to stream a real time game in high quality video, having to have all that data go via another country to get into the tunnel (as well as the overhead in encrypting/decrypting it) isn’t ideal. Additionally, most VPN implementations are “all or nothing” affairs, where every bit of traffic going out from your network goes into the tunnel. (Note: while it is possible to define just some traffic to use the VPN via routing tables, the idea of having to keep track of all of the NBA League Pass server addresses to make sure I’m routing the traffic right is more hassle than I’m prepared to put up with).

So, ideally, I was looking to overcome the backout without needing to implement a full VPN if I could help it.

The great news is there is a solution out there, and it can actually save you money too!

Unotelly – overcoming geoblocking/blackouts without a VPN

Unotelly is an inexpensive online service designed specifically to help regular people get around the headaches of this sort of geo-bullshit with a minimum of effort. The way is works is that you update the DNS settings of your device (usually you do this at the router – the thing which connects you to the internet) so that the act of going to a website like watch.nba.com gets tweaked and fools the NBA servers into thinking you’re somewhere else in the world.

The folks at Unotelly have put together a handy guide, and the good news is that it really works well! Basically, once you’ve got the Unotelly service active, you turn on the “South Africa” option in the Dynamo section of their control panel, and then you can go to the NBA League Pass website and sign up for an account.

When you’re signing up to league pass you’ll need to have a postal code for South Africa when getting your account – I used a part of Cape Town (postcode 8001) and it worked fine. It also allowed me to change the billing address on my credit card to be my address here in the US, and while the signup on the NBA site was frankly slow and clunky, it did work in the end.

With Unotelly, I’ve now got the ability to fire up a game in my Chrome browser and then hit the Chromecast option and have it stream in super high quality to my TV. Because I’m not using a VPN, the delivery of the video stream does not go via South Africa – this is just used for the account sign in and auth piece, which means I can watch my Warriors games without any blackout restrictions at all.

Oh, and the saving money bit? Because of the end of the commodities boom and the incompetence/corruption of Jacob Zuma’s government in South Africa, their currency has plummeted around 25% this year. This, combined with the NBA’s choices about what each country can afford to pay means the price of a single-team league pass right now (middle of the season) is less than US$60! So, with 4 months to go I’m spending $15/month with the NBA and $3.50 a month for Unotelly to watch any Warriors game without blackouts.

And there’s more!!!

The great thing about the Unotelly service is that your subscription with it unlocks more than just NBA League Pass – check out my other post on how you can also stream free content from ABC’s iView app (normally restricted just to Australians) using the same Unotelly account.

Advice for folks “putting my feelers out to find opportunities” in SF/Silicon Valley

From time to time someone will email (or be introduced via email) who’s exploring career opportunities in San Francisco or Silicon Valley. Here’s a variation of an email I recently wrote to answer this question – hopefully by putting this somewhere Google can find it I can help more people who are wondering how to have a look at the epicenter of the tech boom for themselves.

To start with, pick a conference or event that is here in a field you’re into and come. Plan to spend 2 weeks or so – aim for an AirBNB or some other form of non-hotel short term rental.

Do a lot of networking upfront – LinkedIn is very well used here.

The main conferences will have plenty of opportunities for Meetups – using Meetup.com and Eventbrite is the best way to find them; they’re often free and sponsors often pay for the hospitality/drinks so they’re great on multiple levels.

Make sure you time your run between the start of September and the middle of November, or then between February and the middle of June. These are the main conference and business seasons – the “holidays” (which is the last 6 weeks of the year from before Thanksgiving until January) and the summer break up these two seasons, and everything you’re looking for – networking, connections, insights – slows down a lot.

The other comment to make is that the Bay area is absolutely inundated with folks – from great schools with great resumes and networks – who want to get into opportunities in the tech space coming out of business schools etc. For 20 years all these folks went to New York and tried their hand at consulting or investment banking or something else that pays smart people very well.

This decade so far, the Bay Area is the new “New York” where smart people come to make their mark, even if they aren’t naturally tech folks or with tech skills – lots of smart folks want in even if they don’t quite know what it is they want into (or have any specific skills or backgrounds to help them stand out other than being smart and going to good schools etc).

I’m just telling you this to set expectations that an email or intro from someone who is “exploring opportunities” isn’t going to get you far – this place is insanely competitive, but if you say “I’m an engineer who helped define the MPEG standard for variable bandwidth video streaming in 10 years ago with a focus on low-power decompression and I’m looking for a new project in the VR space” you’ll get much more of a hearing.

Americans (at least on the west coast) are also very polite, will rarely tell you no (partly because they want to have the option to re-engage if it turns out you do have something special to offer) and a lot of the non-operators in the industry (VCs, lawyers, advisers, marketing people etc) make their money harnessing smart ideas from smart people (operators) so they rarely turn down a chance to chat with someone just in case they’re the next big thing. So, keep that in mind as you evaluate the connections you form (and whether they’ll progress from a genuinely polite conversation and a promise to ‘keep in touch’) while you’re here.

Best of luck – this place isn’t easy, but then being the commercial center of the industry that’s reshaping the world probably shouldn’t be easy anyway 😉

Geoff

Why Uber (and Lyft) Win (over taxis): Public support 500x more than cabs

Got an email from Change.org inviting me to sign two competing petitions. One of them is to ban “illegal” Uber in one state of Australia, and the other is to change the rules to allow Uber in another state.

taxi-vs-uber-petitions

On face value, the numbers are pretty clearly running in Uber’s direction (at time of writing).

So, on this basis people are 4:1 in favour of Uber – which is why in pretty much all democracies the rules are changing to support what people want over the interests of a cartel.

Then I had a look at how long these petitions have been published and promoted. The Taxi protecting petition has been running for 8 months, but the Uber supporting petition has been running for 2 days.

This means, in time adjusted terms, the ratio of support for Uber vs Taxis is around 500:1 (i.e, the average number of signatures in the taxi-protection camp is 7.3 per day, but Uber-support is seeing 3354 per day).

Obviously these are two change.org petitions so these statistics are not in any way mathematically rigorous and the people who sign change.org petitions tend to be younger and more tech savvy, but 500:1 is a massive tilt – enough to tell you why any country where the citizens expect their governments to not run a protection racket at the expense of the populous Uber (and Lyft etc) win.

Avoiding chavs/bogans/white-trash while on vacation in Majorca

Port de SollerThis summer my fiancee and I took a vacation to Europe, and we decided to go to Majorca (also spelled Mallorca) for our “relax by the Med” part of our trip.

One of the hardest things to work out what was how to avoid the hordes of chavs (also known as bogans or white trash) who I’d heard take cheap flights from all over the UK to Majorca. Having been stuck in the past in hotels with the loud, obnoxious and proudly ignorant folks (we’ve got plenty of them in Australia too, where they ruin Bali) I was hoping to find a review or some advice on how to avoid them.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much luck – the tourist industry in Majorca needs their money as much as anyone else’s, and the only reviews in Tripadvisor forums were clearly clever and funny spoofs – so no use there 😦

Thankfully, we took a chance on Port de Soller, figuring it would be further from the airport in Palma and chavs are as lazy as they are ignorant (unless there’s an all you can drink inclusion in the package deal, in which case they’ll go anywhere).

Turns out we got lucky – Port de Soller was a great choice, a super lovely place on the coast with amazing mountains around it and a really nice feel. It had a great cross-section of visitors, including couples, young families, grown up families and elderly folks too. Everyone was friendly and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending the place if you’re looking for a truly beautiful part of Majorca without hordes of chavs, bogans or white trash.

E3 Visa Renewal in Vancouver

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.

LCA Application

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.

DS-160 Application

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

You line up outside to get checked in. Would be cold in Winter!!!

You line up outside to get checked in. Would be cold in Winter!!!

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

Recommended Timing

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.

Conclusions

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!

Saying Thanks

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.

Asking for Help

A few people have been contacting me directly asking for comment, advice, a call to discuss their specific circumstances, etc. I’d love to help, but I’m not going to, and even if I wasn’t working 100 hour weeks, I wouldn’t answer your personal, specific issues. This post exists solely as a journal of a personal experience. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m in no position to give specific advice. You are, however, most welcome to tap the accumulated personal experiences of the thousands of other folks who’ve gone through their own journey by entering a comment below with your questions, feedback or personal experience for others to benefit from. But please don’t waste your time and mine asking me directly for advice.