The US embassy in Manila is like going to the DMV but more stressful.
The main reason I am gave it a three star review on Google is simply because of lack of useful information available (i.e. the website needs a lot of work).
To be fair, the Embassy itself is niceish in the fact that it is a lot cleaner and nicer that other buildings you might go to in that area; it is just like a government building you would expect to go to in America. That being said, the whole process could be greatly improved with being just a bit more transparent for the people going in. In this light, I will try to give a detailed review of my experience:
I am an American male (early 30s) married to a Filipino (also early 30s). We recently had a baby boy and needed to go to the embassy to interview for the CRBA (Consular Report of Birth Abroad) and apply for my son's passport.
I went to embassy's website many times to get information about the whole process and I found very little useful information. The information I did find was often contradictory with other pages on the website or outdated. I feel if the website was updated with more useful information the whole process of doing things in the embassy would be greatly improved.
Apparently a few year back you could apply online. I wish that were still the case, but it is not. Everything (at least for CRBA) must be mailed in. On the website I read on one page to mail all the documents. On another page on the website I read to mail in the checklist. I decided to mail everything I thought would be useful (photocopies of everything). Impressively, two days after the embassy received the mail package, they sent an email with a scheduled interview for a week from the time the email was sent. The email was actually quite useful as it included the checklist and highlighted some things that I neglected to send in the first place (because I didn't actually know if I needed to send it or not).
Getting to the Embassy:
The airport and Victory Bus terminal (Pasay) are both fairly close to the embassy. It took us about 20 minutes to get from the bus terminal to our hotel right near the embassy and about 40 minutes to get back to the bus terminal from the hotel. Manila traffic is almost always congested so I would recommend at least 1 hour to get from the bus terminal or airport to get to the embassy. One hour is probably not the safest bet though... realistically if you don't live near Manila, spending the night in a hotel is the only way to assure that you can make it to the embassy on time.
There are plenty of hotels (nice and not nice) near the embassy so you can quite easily book a hotel within walking distance of the hotel. You can take a taxi to the embassy or you can walk. We walked. As far as I can tell, there is only one way to walk to the embassy and that is by taking a pedestrian overpass right near Sta Monica St. If you plan on walking, I would suggest that you book a hotel near that street. Once you cross the pedestrian overpass, you will immediately be near the entrance to the embassy (if you look on Google Maps, it is the US New Annex Building). You can tell you are in the right place because you will almost definitely see a line/crowd of Filipinos waiting for their visa interview.
Getting inside the embassy:
If you are a Filipino, you will see other Filipinos line up outside. There are signs posted for you scheduled arrival time. There will be an officer directing people and you will get to stand in line.... for a long time.... to go to more lines.
If you are America, it is a lot easier but not as straightforward to figure out. Basically, you will need to walk up to the front of the line, find an officer and explain that you are American and they will direct you where you need to go. You will have to do this a few times as there are few signs that indicate where Americans should go.
Line #2 - Security (What to bring/what not to bring):
Once you make it past the first line, you will go to a small building where they do a security check. I did some reading beforehand and concluded that we could not bring any electronics, so we left them in the hotel. Turns out that you can bring a cell phone/electronics, but they will just hold them in a bin in the security building for you to pick up on your way out. I am glad we didn't have the hassle of having to do that but if I were to do it again, I probably would have brought my cell phone just in case I needed it right outside the embassy.
Other than electronics, I didn't notice anything that you could not bring in. I did see one guy who had cigarettes that he had to leave in the bin with his cell phone. I am pretty sure that no food or drinks are allowed.... Our baby is breastfeeding but I am not sure if he would have been allowed food or not. You can buy some food once you get past security. Mostly snack stuff. I saw people bring in strollers and quite a bit of baby stuff.
If you are Filipino I don't know if they would allow you to put a cell phone in a bin or not (probably too many cell phones). It might be better to leave them with someone you trust outside or leave them in the hotel.
Line #3 - Getting inside the embassy and getting your number:
After the security building you will walk outside on a covered walkway. There is a pavilion area of sorts where there are seats if you need to sit and wait and things you can buy like snacks. I also saw a photo booth in case you need to take passport pictures. We went straight to a line that was going inside the building. Once we got inside the building we stated what we were there for and they gave us a number. In our case they ran out of numbers or something weird like that and they gave us a piece of paper with a hand written number on it. They pointed us in the right direction of where we should go. (I also found it comical at this point that they had a video describing how to get to the embassy.... a bit too late for that don't you think?).
Once you get past security number 2 and get your number, you go to an area with many chairs to wait to go to your window (basically like the DMV). We walked around a bit aimlessly and confused because our hand written number was nothing like the numbers on the booths so we had no idea where to go. Fortunately, as we were walking around in our stupor, our names were called to go up to a window.
While this was fantastic timing, I don't really know what would have happened if we were one minute later. We got to the embassy about 15 minutes before our appointment time. Hopefully, if we were not there they would have called the next couple with a baby then called us later.
When we were called up, we were met by a Filipino lady on the other side of the booth. She had us give her all of our paperwork. Immediately she asked me if I had the receipt for the payment and I just told her I didn't know how or where to pay. She directed me (holding the baby) to another booth where I could pay while my wife stayed there. I waited in line for about 10 minutes to pay. I told the lady what I needed to pay for but I think she had everything on file already because she asked the baby's name, then was able to tell me the price to pay for everything. I paid using my Discover card. I think any major credit card, or USD or pesos would work.
When I went to meet back up with my wife, she was filling out some paper work that she was directed to fill out. Before that, the Filipino lady looked over the paperwork we handed her then asked my wife a few questions like what she did for work.
In between interview #1 and #2 we were directed to go pay for a courier fee to ship the passport then wait in the seating area. So we went and waited in yet another line to pay the fee then we sat down and waited for our next interview. I think during this period is when the American interviewer was reviewing all of our paperwork. We waited for about 40 minutes then were called in for interview #2.
This was a small booth room with chairs we could actually sit down in. There was an American male probably just slightly older than me who greeted us with a smile. During this interview he had us raise our right hands and swear that the information we were giving was truthful. He then proceeded to talk quite causally about the paperwork we had and he asked us questions about how we met, where I grew up, where I went to school etc. This was by far the highlight of the whole process and the interviewer was very kind and made us feel very relaxed (despite having a crying baby). The questions he asked seemed to be a mix of random questions to get to know us and questions that would verify what we had written and handed him on paper.
The whole interview was probably not much more than five minutes and at the end he said everything looked good and we could expect our baby's passport in about 6 -8 weeks.
We were very happy and left after that. I bought a celebratory Mr Doughnut on the way out.
The building itself had great AC and was quite comfortable inside. I saw at least one computer with a printer that looked like could be used for printing out certain things, but I am not entirely sure. I didn't see any drinking fountains but I am pretty sure there probably were some. I saw people dressed very nice, and people dressed very.... American (t-shirt, shorts, socks with sandals, etc....). Most everyone there was kind and helpful.
We left our hotel around 8:00 am and arrived back at the hotel around 10:30 am. We probably set some sort of speed record. I don't think you should expect to be done that fast.
This is a crazy long post and you should be commended if you have read this far. In summation, I would like to give some tips that will hopefully be useful:
- It would be best to spend the night in a hotel, especially if your appointment time is in the morning. Much better to do that then risk being late because of traffic and having to reschedule. That being said, I am pretty sure if you are late, you will still get in. I think the appointment times are mostly just so everyone does not show up all at once.
- Get a hotel near the pedestrian walkway at the intersection of Roxas boulevard and Sta Monica St. if you plan on walking.
- Dress nice but comfortable. Manila is hot and if you are Filipino you will probably be waiting outside for a significant amount of time.
- Travel light. It might be OK to have a cell phone but I probably would not bring anything that is not essential.
- Err on the side of too much paper work rather than not enough. For our case, we had to prove our relationship before getting married; I thought if anything came up we could just show pictures or emails on the computer or something like that but you can only show paper that you can slip on the other side of the booth. We brought random stuff that seemed a bit silly, like goofy Valentines I made for my wife, but the interviewer commented that we had great paperwork and he liked the valentines.
- Plan on spending 3 - 4 hours at least to get everything done. If you are Filipino it might be more like 5 - 6.
- Have plenty of cash and at couple good credit cards just to be safe.