Relocation from Vietnam to the US with a cat

Here is a summary of how my wife relocated from Vietnam to Omaha, Nebraska with a cat. If you are looking to do something similar, this may be useful to you.

H4 Visa

As spouse of an H1B holder, my wife is eligible for an H4 visa. The State Department currently allows issuance of multiple visa types without an interview by the end of 2022, provided that all the requirements are met. My wife’s case fell into that category and there was no required interview. That was awesome because if she had had one, it would have pushed her arrival to much much later this year or even next year.

We submitted everything that was asked and, on top of that, materials to show that our marriage is true and genuine, such as pre-wedding photos, wedding photos, wedding invites and receipts. I’d recommend that the primary H1B holder should share with spouse a letter to prove their employment, the latest paystubs, all the tax returns while in the US and a copy of I797. Better be careful than sorry. Once you get denied, mail-in visa applications will likely not be available to you again.

About three weeks after we sent our application, the status of my wife’s visa application was “Administrative Processing”. If you have applied for an American visa, you know this is a hugely annoying feature of that process. The term “Administrative Processing” can mean anything. It can mean that your application is approved and your visa will soon be issued. Or it can mean that they need more evidence and will reach out shortly. Worse, it can also mean that you are out of luck and will hear of your denial in a day or two. Without any clarification, and usually there is not, applicants have no choice but to wait in fear and anxiety. That’s what we did. But luckily, the best case scenario happened to us and my wife got her visa.

Unfortunately, the visa is just permission to approach the border. Whether you gain admission is entirely up to the Customs and Border agents. My wife carried all the documents she used to apply for the visa, plus my most up-to-date paystubs. The agent that she met asked to see only my i797, but I would not be surprised if others asked for different materials. Only after she passed the Customs check did I breathe a sigh of relief.

Book a flight for the cat

There are multiple airlines that fly from Vietnam to the US. Even though they all allow pets, they have different policies as to where the pets will stay and what the fees will be. Vietnam Airlines, for instance, allows pets on cabin for a fee of $400 as long as 1/ the carrier has to be sturdy; 2/ the combined weight of the carrier and the cat cannot exceed 6kgs; 3/ the carrier cannot exceed their dimension limitations. Airlines such as ANA or Cathay only fly pets in the cargo at around $300 per animal.

If your trip involves more than one airline, you are obligated to contact all airlines individually regarding your pet and pay fees accordingly. Some, if not all, operators impose a quota on the number of pets on an aircraft. Availability is on a first-come-first-serve basis. Customers won’t know such availability at the time of booking as airline staff won’t process any request for pets without a confirmation or booking number. Luckily, most airlines have a policy of free cancellation within 24 hours of booking. Take advantage of it, contact your airline promptly and act accordingly.

Knowing that the pet fee on international flights is much higher than that on domestic flights and striving to avoid dealing with more than one airline, we booked a direct flight from Vietnam to the US and chose Southwest Airlines for domestic trips. At the moment, Vietnam Airlines is the only carrier with direct connection from Ho Chi Minh City to San Francisco. There are a couple of things you may want to know before flying with this carrier, though. First of all, those flying with pets will be seated on the last row so that other passengers won’t be disturbed. Second, either the pilot or the lead flight attendant will decide at the check-in counter, at their discretion, whether a cat can sit in cabin or in cargo. Honestly, who loves that kind of uncertainty?

The flights with Southwest were more straightforward. Once we had the booking confirmation, we called them to reserve space for our cat, but the official check-in could only happen at the counter before the flight. Southwest mandates that a pet must stay in its carrier at all times during flight and the carrier must fit in the space under the seat. Our pet’s carrier was allowed in the cabin but deemed oversized. One of the attendants had a spare Southwest-branded and approved carrier for which he could have charged me $95. But the good man didn’t and I am very thankful for his generosity.

After about 30 exhausting hours of transportation and anxiety, our little family got home. Our cat puked a lot during landing and take-off, and the poor boy was completely worn out. Hence, when traveling with pets, I’d suggest that you minimize the number of flights as much as possible.

Preparation for pets before migrating to the US

It’s very important to check the health regulations concerning the importation of pets into the US. Different rules apply to different animals. Here is what the CDC has to say, as of this writing, about the importation of cats

A general certificate of health is not required by CDC for entry of pet cats into the United States, although some airlines or states may require them. However, pet cats are subject to inspection at ports of entry and may be denied entry into the United States if they have evidence of an infectious disease that can be transmitted to humans. If a cat appears to be ill, further examination by a licensed veterinarian at the owner’s expense might be required at the port of entry.

Cats are not required to have proof of rabies vaccination for importation into the United States. However, some states require vaccination of cats for rabies, so it is a good idea to check with state and local health authorities at your final destination.

Because there are no complex requirements by the CDC, our preparation for our cat included essential vaccinations, a microchip and all the related documents. We also bought a cat harness so that he would not run away when he had to leave the carrier upon security check. There was also an absorbent pad to make the cat more comfortable in the carrier as well as for hygiene purposes. What I wish we had done is to tape the carrier’s handle with a piece of cloth. The immigration line at SFO was long and there was no luggage cart. My wife couldn’t carry the 6-kg carrier for a long time. Her hand got all red and a bit swollen because the carrier handle was uncomfortably small. Therefore, do yourself a favor by increasing the contact area between the handle and your hand with a piece of cloth. You’ll need it!

Relocation to another country is stressful enough. Doing it with your beloved pet complicates everything even more. I hope that our story shared above will be helpful to someone looking to do the same thing.