Matthew Norman: American bureaucracy, Liz Hurley and me

If the signatories to the Declaration of Independence were to float down, I think they'd be pretty bemused

With Independence Day upon us once again, I was reflecting on this stirring prose yesterday morning shortly before 8am while queuing outside the American embassy in Grosvenor Square for an appointment to request a visa.

Life didn't feel too brilliant with the rain cascading down on to an uncovered, hungover head, while the notion of liberty looked a shade compromised by all the machine gun-toting coppers and roadblocks ringing that monumentally hideous building. As for the pursuit of happiness, that quarry looked certain to escape. Still, I thought, let's not be too snotty about the equality thing. Say what you will about queuing in a downpour for a few hours' unbridled merriment with bureaucrats, at least we were all in the same soggy boat. Even the wealthy Russian gentleman in front of me, who made a terse call on his mobile and two minutes later took delivery of a brolly from a chauffeur in a Jag, was suffering with the rest of us bedraggled saddos.

And then a slender woman in lime-green trousers approached the checkpoint. The security officer hurriedly unlocked the chains on the door to the concrete hut between street and embassy. The woman swept through the hut and beyond towards the building, and emerged some 10 minutes later, while the rest of us were negotiating the metal detector. If all people are created equal (and, as with the USS Enterprise's mission statement amended after the original Star Trek, it's probably time to boldly go unisex on that one) some are evidently created more equal than others. In this case, to be precise, Elizabeth Hurley.

To claim an ague of shock at Liz's preferential treatment would be stretching it, but I was a little miffed. For the previous three days, my life had been devoted to speaking with embassy representatives, in London and a Glasgow call centre, to determine if I needed a visa at all; and if so, how to go about the delicious task of acquiring one.

After many calls to the call centre, each charged at a bargain £1.30 per minute from a landline (more from certain mobile networks), it was determined that a visa – specifically, for media folk, an (I) visa – was required. It's a common, and perhaps convenient, misconception that a waiver form will do. In fact, however innocuous the purpose of one's visit – a travel piece, for instance, or in my case to play in, and write about, a poker tournament – the visa-less will, if rumbled by US immigration, be interrogated in a cell and escorted on to the first flight back to Blighty. It happens from time to time, and it strikes me as an experience worth avoiding.

But how to get that visa? Suffice it to say that I have bought a house with less bother. For the electronic form DS-156, to be filled in online and then printed out, I have only affection. Although three pages long and tending toward the fiddly (among so much else, it requests precise dates of all previous visits to the US), there is something soothing about the monotonous task of completing 156.

Its brother DS-157, Supplemental Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form, is less easy to love. Question 4, "Clan or Tribe Name (If Applicable)", is the closest the whole tortuous process comes to spitting it out (Are you a cousin of Osama Bin Laden?). Then it takes a turn for the excruciating. If you think remembering every country you've entered in the last decade is easy, try finding the addresses and phone numbers of every educational establishment you ever attended.

"By the way," said Neil in Glasgow during another tenner's-worth of pleading for a quick appointment (originally, 8 August was the first available slot), "when you go, take a bank and mortgage statement." "This time you must be kidding. Tell me you're kidding, Neil, please." "I'm not kidding. It's not obligatory, but it's a great way to let them know that you intend to come back to Britain." "Splendid. And the exact specifications of the specimen jar for the semen sample? Hello? Neil, are you there? Hello?"

The exact size of the required colour photo, meanwhile, is 51mm by 51mm. Anything infinitesimally different, and all the hours of form-filling and chatting with call centres might be wasted. "They are very fussy, the Americans," said Adriana in the photo shop, 45 minutes into her heroic quest to produce an acceptable snap (Mario Testino takes less trouble with a Vogue cover). "Very, very fussy. Now where did I put my ruler?" And so – clutching passport, DS-156 and DS-157, bank and mortgage statements, and a boss's letter regarding purpose of trip and length of contract – there I stood in the Grosvenor Square rain, staring at a faintly menacing injunction not to sit on the road blocks, as Ms Hurley elegantly sidestepped an embassy queue of the kind unseen in London since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Once inside the building, there was, needless to say, something missing. So it was straight back out again to the nearest Barclays (waiting inside until bank opening time is not permitted) to pay the visa application fee of £60 and get the receipt. But that, barring two brief interviews with friendly embassy staff spread over two hours in an enormous waiting room, and the fingerprinting of left and right index fingers, was that. Almost. All it needs now is for the passport to be processed and returned by courier (£9.50). There is even "a fighting chance", as the senior interviewer explained, that it will arrive in time for my flight on Tuesday.

Worse things happen at sea, of course, or rather at airports. A friend with British and American dual nationality was sent home from Heathrow recently when an airline employee heard her American accent and refused to let her fly to the States on her British passport. Then again – and there is an enticingly arbitrary flavour to all this – a dual-nationality colleague flying back to Heathrow on his British passport was upgraded because the check-in guy had a family connection with his home town in Pennsylvania.

I have nothing but gratitude for Neil, Barbara, Susan and Derek in the Glasgow call centre, for the visa staff, and above all for the exquisitely patient Diana in the press office, for their unbending courtesy. But you do wonder where, in this richly Byzantine process, post-9/11 paranoia stops and imperial strutting begins.

If the signatories to the Declaration of Independence happened to float down to Grosvenor Square today for a pre-4th July inspection, I think they'd be pretty bemused by what they saw.

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