Monday, April 22, 2013

The guide to Naturalization…final piece.

The final piece in the naturalization process comes after passing the naturalization ceremony and getting the citizenship certificate. Now’s the time to get your passport, so you can travel the world as an American.

On the naturalization day, one of the things you get is a passport application form, but you can get those online too. In fact, I recommend filling the form online here:

This is better, because the system has you go through the form fields on-screen, and then generates a PDF for you with everything printed, so there’s no risk of your application getting denied because of your chicken-scratch. It also makes sure you don’t miss any field. Stuff you need for the application includes:

1. Your full details…duh
2. Full name, maiden-name, and birth date of both your parents.
3. One passport-sized photo (2”x2”)
4. Your naturalization certificate
5. Payment.

The passport has 3 costs associated with it:
1. Passport book (which is what most people have, and is what you need to travel to Europe and most of the rest of the world. This costs $110.
2. Passport card, which is useful for travelling to Canada and the likes. This costs another $30
3. Execution fee. This is $25

Let’s say you opt for a passport book only – that will set you back $135 (110+25), but note that you need to pay the fees separately. The execution fee is for the body that takes your application (like your local courthouse) and the rest is for the department of state. Checks are accepted almost universally for this, and some places accept cash, but most don’t take credit cards. I strongly advise bringing ALL three payment options in exact change with you, and bring your whole checkbook, not just pre-written checks. The last thing you want is to wait half an hour in line only to find you miss-wrote the number or payee name and have to come again.

Officially, it takes “6-8 weeks” to get the passport, but unofficially, it’s a lot faster. In my case, the passport came in the mail 13 days after I filed the forms…less than two weeks. However, since you’re actually *stuck* in the US until your passport arrives, you might want to file your request with expedited service, which is an extra $60. With this, the processing is almost instant, and the passport is delivered to you in 2-3 days.

Another thing to consider at this point is name changing. In the previous guide I mentioned that you can have your name changed, if you want, as part of filing the N-400, but in some cases, that doesn’t work. In my case, for example, it was denied because the USCIS office in Seattle doesn’t have a judge, which is required to sign the paperwork and approve the name change. Instead, I filed for a name change in my local courthouse, which is also where I filed for the passport. It’s important to do the name change BEFORE getting the passport, because if you did it the other way around, you’ll have to get a new passport with the new name…and pay the passport fees all over again.

Changing your name is simple and easy – you just fill a form with all the details, and pay the fee, which is $130. The court clerk feed the data into the computer and verifies it with you (to make sure there are no spellers) and submits it to the judge for approval. Depending on the size and schedule of the court, it might take a few hours until they get the judge to sign – sometimes overnight if you came in late in the day. When you come back, you receive a document that certifies the change. This is VERY important, so keep it well protected. You can also purchase additional copies at $5 apiece. When you file for a passport (typically as soon as you get the document…), you will submit it with your application to show that you changed your name from what appears in the naturalization certificate.

When you submit the passport application, the clerk will collect the fees and paperwork, and will take your naturalization certificate as well. This is required to prove your citizenship, and it will be returned to you in the post shortly after the passport itself arrives. It might be a good idea to scan the certificate beforehand – I Xeroxed mine so I’d have something to show friends and family while waiting for my passport. Such a copy is also good if you want to frame and hang it. Why not simply frame the original? Well…remember that it’s a very expensive document. If something happens to the certificate, it costs over $350 to get a new one, so I’d advise storing it in a bank vault, or at least in a fireproof safe. Hanging it on the wall is not very safe – from theft through moisture damage to fire…

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Naturalization interview and exam

My wife and I have had our naturalization interview and exam today (April 8th 2013), and as promised, here are my notes:

Upon arrival at the USCIS office, a quick note in reply to a question raised by a reader: The parking at the USCIS parking lot costs $7, and they accept cash only. It’s not a lot, considering the hundreds of dollars you have put into the naturalization process, but worth knowing. Unfortunately, there are no other parking lots anywhere within walking distance. Also, there are no return privileges, so if you leave the lot to grab a lunch, like we did between the naturalization interview and the ceremony…be ready to pay again.

The security check was similar to before, though this time; I didn’t bring my Leatherman so things were smoother. After going through the metal detector, we waited in line for a clerk to check our admission paper (form I-979C) and our ID as well. Afterwards, we were sent upstairs to wait for our turn, where they have about 100 chairs in the waiting room. At the time of our arrival, there were about 20 people before is. It’s unclear to me what the call-in order is, because we got in before several of the people who already sat there, and they called us in about 10 minutes before our original appointment time, so clearly, they call people in by check-in order. I can only guess that some of those that were sitting in the waiting room were after the interview and were simply waiting for the oath ceremony. It appears there are approximately 10 officers conducting the interviews, and a new person was being called in every 3-4 minutes or so. An office comes out of the interview area, which is behind a closed door, and calls a last-name. I was called in first, and my wife (who was originally summoned for the same time of 11:05) about 10 minutes later.

Upon being called in, you enter the USCIS officer’s office. My interviewer was Katherine, and it appears that the office where the interview is conducted is her own private office (I hear that some other offices have dedicated interview rooms). During the interview you are asked to raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth during this process (this is NOT the oath or pledge of allegiance…just an oath to not lie to the officer about your details and data). The officer goes through various parts of the N-400 form you filled. For example, they verify your name, address, phone numbers, social security number, dates of trips outside the country and more (If you don’t remember your SSN by heart, that’s OK – you can bring your Social Security card with you, or just quote the last 4 digits of it, if you remember those).

I have actually taken a trip outside the US after filing the N-400, so I mentioned this to the officer and explained why I needed to take it (family matters). It was not a big hassle and I wasn’t asked for much detail, so if you’re contemplating taking a trip while waiting for your interview, no need to abstain from taking them…as long as you note the dates and that the day-count doesn’t hurt your total time out in the US parameter (*).

During the interview, the officer chats with you about various things, and small-talk is acceptable, as well as light humor. For example, my wife was asked whether she practiced prostitution, to which she responded sarcastically with “look at me…do I look like I could make money in that?” (Referring to her physique not being super-model material…). The joke was well received. I, on the other hand, mentioned some of my experiences with the Mensa organization, as well as my part-time career as a writer and as a comedian. The officer was clearly impressed by my experiences and commented on it positively.

The officer went with me over the various yes/no questions from the form, such as “have you ever served in the US armed forces”, “do you understand the full oath of allegiance to the united states” and other questions that are on part 10 of the N-400 form (pages 6-9). Finally, I was asked to print my name and sign the bottom of the form (the part I was asked NOT to sign originally when filing the application).

At this point, the test is given. First, the officer asks you to read a sentence from the page. Mine was “Who can vote”. Then, you are asked to write a sentence read to you. Mine was the answer “Citizens can vote”. The officer then asks you the 10 questions. The officer told me that she rotated the questions on a weekly basis, and every officer has his own questions. I didn’t make any mistakes, and since you need only 6 correct answers to pass, the test was stopped after I answered 6 questions correctly.

At this point, the officer prints and gives you a form with the conclusion (that you passed, or failed), in addition to a paper-slip with the time and date of your oath ceremony. The officer also gives you back your I-797C form, your passport, ID and green card. The entire process took less than 15 minutes, although it took a bit longer for my wife – about 25 minutes. One thing that did NOT go well was that I originally wanted to change my name with this (it’s part of the N-400 form), but Katherine informed me that they cannot actually do that. They say this requires a judge to approve, so they can only do it as part of the larger operation held around Independence Day (**). They suggested that we can either postpone the oath, perform the name change and then complete the oath at a later time or vice versa (complete everything, and then change the name later on, which is what we did). I originally brought an extra passport photo, as well as copies of my documents, but I wasn’t asked for any of that. My wife, though, was asked for the extra photo, because they accidentally damaged her original photo. Lastly, we were asked to sign a document affirming we won’t do anything bad from now till my ceremony (like get married to someone else…  )

The Ceremony starts at 1:05PM, so we had almost 2 hours of waiting, and we went out to get lunch. There’s a diner called Randy, about 1 mile north, close to the Boeing factory, and it’s very affordable.

Before the ceremony, everyone waits at the same place as before, and this time, the floor was full. There were 80 new citizens, and about 30-40 relatives and friends who came to witness the event. When the time came, the officers sent us all downstairs to form 3 lines. One line for visitors, and 2 lines for the actual citizens to check-in. The USCIS officers asked for the slip we got from the officer earlier, checked us against a list, and also took our Green-cards. Each person was assigned a personal seat inside and given an envelope with several papers and documents. This included a text of the national anthem, the pledge, the oath, a passport request form, a greeting from the President of the USA, a holder for the naturalization certificate and a checklist of everything.

Inside the ceremony hall, an officer provided a briefing about the proceedings, including several warnings about NOT damaging the naturalization certificate that we are about to receive, as replacing it costs a LOT of money ($345, which are a lot of teriyaki bowls, as he described it…his words, not mine). We were also reminded to check the certificate we got, to make sure it was all accurate, because if there are mistakes, they can correct them freely on the spot…but if we went home and found an error, it would cost as a new certificate (again, that’s $345…so you might consider storing that piece of paper in a safe!). This was followed by a quick video montage with music, saying the oath of allegiance while standing (with right-hand raised), a music-video of a country song about the USA, singing the national anthem, a short recorded speech by the President and reciting the pledge of allegiance.

Finally, the called each of us personally to walk on-stage and get his naturalization certificate, with a handshake from the officer. During this part, a lot of people had their picture taken by friends and family (I placed my phone on a groove on one of the beams, and videotaped us getting the certificate). They also gave us a voter registration card. Once that was done, there was another little speech by the officer of the USCIS, and we went about our ways. The entire ceremony, including everything, was about 90 minutes.

* This is one of the rules of naturalization – you have to spend at least half the period that’s the basis for your naturalization inside the US. In our case, since we applied after being green-card holders for 5 years, we needed to make sure our total time outside the US was no more than 2.5 years.

** During Independence Day, there’s a major naturalization ceremony, typically with thousands of participants, and a lot of people prefer to go through naturalization around that time and be a part of that event. That event is held in Seattle, close to the Space Needle, and during it there are some extra services, like the ability to change a person’s name.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Surface Tension

When I’m on my exercise bike, nothing passes the time like watching a movie or a TV show. My Surface RT 10” tablet by Microsoft (given to me for free as a Microsoft employee) is a great device for this…if you set it up correctly.
Watching movies on the surface is built-in, so you can simply double-tap a movie file to play it with the built in Xbox media player. However, it’s a fairly limited player, and navigating the file explorer interface can be cumbersome on the small screen.

The first thing I needed to make the experience better is a way to view my files. The best app I found for this was “my explorer”. This is a file explorer for the “modern” interface, with large icons and the ability to save your favorite folders. For me, this is over the network to my main file server.

Once I defined my folders, I needed a good player, and for me, the ability to seek comfortably is critical, because skipping over commercials or jumping back a few seconds to catch a word you missed needs to be easy. Every player has a scroll-bar to navigate, but it’s not granular enough for even a 45 minute TV show. You slide your finger a bit, and you find yourself way too far. With PC-based software like XBMC, you can assign a button to jump 30 seconds back or forth, but most tablet players do not. One that does have a brilliant design is “PressPlay video”. Besides being able to associate to video files in the Modern UI (so it will play movies directly when tapped in My Explorer (many other players require you to use the File/Open interface, which is slow and cumbersome), it has a micro-seek function. With Micro-seek, you swipe up or down the screen, which skips forward or backward between 1 second and a full minute (depending on how much you swipe). This is extremely accurate and efficient. Want to skip back 10 seconds? Simply drag from top to bottom about 20% of the screen, and you’re there.

Another feature it has is the ability to playback at faster or slower speeds. This is handy if there’s something you NEED to watch, but it’s not particularly enjoyable. Playing a training video at X2 speed saves a lot of time, but still exposes you to the entire content.

Happy watching!