There is a soaring global demand for the US visa. Millions of people try to enter the USA every year for a range of reasons, including immigration, studies, work, business, tourism, and diplomatic tours. A large number of applicants are accepted each year, but an even larger number are denied a visa for a number of reasons like noncompliance with instruction, visa number limitations, and more. But it appears that the large visa denial isn’t discouraging prospective travellers as the number of people aspiring to visit America continue to increase over the years. You should never be discouraged as America welcomes millions of visitors and immigrants each year. If you have good reasons for visiting or moving to the US, you may just proceed to apply.
Unfortunately, the visa application process for the US can be a real nightmare. The American immigration system is so advanced and organized that pretty much everything about travelling to the US has been covered – whether you are going for temporary or permanent residence. While this is a great feature as it clarifies and distinguishes incomers according to purpose, it also results in information overload, which leaves most applicants confused. This article aims to rectify any misconceptions by providing a clear blueprint of the application process for different visa types.
The article does not attempt to give a step-by-step guide on each visa type. The sheer amount of official information on the internet makes any conclusive and detailed guide impossible in a 4000-word article. We will only explain an overview and provide valuable links for further readings. Pay attention to the recommended links as they point you to more detailed instructions provided by the US Department of State – instructions that are too much for even a 1000-word eBook.
Do not be intimidated by the prospect of wadding through a great deal of content during the application process. From the links and information provided in this article, it shouldn’t take long to find the right visa type for you and how to go about it. So sit back and relax, because this is going to be a massive read for you.
Table of Contents
Before You Apply for a Visa
First and foremost, you got to be in agreement with yourself regarding your purpose of visiting the United Ghettos of America (This is how Ja Rule described it in his track: eMerica). Because not having a clear-cut reason for obtaining your visa is a recipe for rejection – and trust me, the US government rejects visa applications in the millions every year.
Your purpose for travelling to the US must fall under one of two broad categories: it is either you are going as an immigrant or a nonimmigrant. An immigrant intends to make America his home country or at least one of his home countries for life. A nonimmigrant is only a temporary visitor with a purpose. We will explore these two broad categories of visa hunters, starting with the IMMIGRANTS.
The Immigrant Visa
With all the hyperbole about Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies, America is a very open country to immigrants. The US admitted a total of 1.18 million “legal” immigrants in 2016 alone. Pew Research puts the number of illegal immigrants at a staggering 10.5 million in 2017, representing some 3.2% of the country’s population. How these immigrants entered the US is anyone’s guess, but it shows that the American border is pretty porous. There are lots of ways to enter the US illegally, but that is not the focus of this article. We will stick to legal means for now.
For a foreign national to be eligible for a US immigrant visa, he or she must be sponsored by the following people, with some exceptions:
- A US citizen relative (Your relative who is a citizen of the US)
- A US lawful permanent resident (a permanent resident of the US, like a wife or husband)
- A prospective employer (Someone or a company you are going to work for in the US)
Your sponsor will begin the immigration process by filing an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on your behalf (if you are a family member). Or your sponsor can file an I-140 petition for Alien Worker with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
The whole process is divided into the following steps:
- Sponsor files a petition with UCAIS
- Begin National Visa Center (NVC) Procession after approval by UCAIS.
- CEAC (Consular Electronic Application Center) Processing
- Choosing an Agent
- Payment of Fees
- Collection and Submission of Documents and Forms to the NVC
- Submission of Visa Application Form
- Collection of Financial Documents
- Collection of Supporting Document
- Submission of Documents to the NVC
- Preparing for an Interview
- Attending the Interview
- After the Interview
Your sponsor will do only the first step of filing a petition. They will be required to provide some documents, fill forms and answer some questions. The success of their application depends on the number of visas available and their ability to convince the authorities. Some visa categories like for employees have a finite yearly allocation. If the number of immigrants to be admitted in a particular visa class is reached, you will be placed on a waiting list. And each year, people are drawn from the waiting list even as new applications keep piling up. That is why American visas can take up to two years to acquire for immigrants.
So do not expect to enter the US the same year your sponsor forwards a petition. It means you will be considered on a first-come first-serve basis. The availability of an immigrant visa then depends on the date your petition was filed. This is known as your priority date.
According to the US state department, most immigrants receive visas in the family or employment-based categories. greater emphasis will focus on these categories as such. Petitions can be filed both within and outside the USA. But there is a limited number of countries with a UCAIS office. Follow the link to see if your country is included.
Immigrant Visa Eligibility
To be eligible of an immigrant visa, every applicant must be sponsored by:
- A U.S citizen to whom they are a:
- Son or daughter
- Brother or sister
- A green-card holder to whom they are:
- A spouse
- An unmarried son or daughter
- A U.S employer for certain skilled workers who will be hired into permanent jobs. In some specialized skills, an applicant is lawfully allowed to sponsor themselves. To learn more about the employment categories, you may study this official page.
- A U.S citizen for a foreign fiancé to be married in the US or for the adoption of an orphan
You may learn more about family categories on this page.
After Your Petition is Approved
You are advised not to proceed with the immigrant visa application process until your petition has been approved by the USCIS. As soon as your petition is approved, USCIS will forward it to the Department of State’s National Visa Center for further assessment. It is left for the NVC to mark your petition as “current” or likely to become current within the next year. Should it go current or likely to be, NVC will initiate the immigrant visa pre-processing – an exercise which involves the collection of visa fees, forms, and documents from sponsors and immigrants alike. They will ideally contact you for all the requirements and provide further instructions on how to proceed. So you want to keep an eye on your email and/or phone for any updates from the NVC.
Begin the National Visa Center (NVC) Processing
NVC will send you an email directing you to this page after receiving your petition from USCIS. There will be instructions for you to follow through steps 1 – 6 to complete the pre-procession of your immigration visa application. These are mandatory steps prior to any visa interview schedule by NVC at any US embassy or Consulate abroad. It means if you can’t comply with the 6 steps, there will be no interview, and hence, no visa.
Throughout the application, interview, and collection process, NVC may send you emails regarding the status of the application or if you are required to take certain actions. You can add, update, or change your contact information at any time by contacting NVC on 1-603-334-0700 or using the online inquiry form. Each time you talk to NVC, you will be asked your case number, petitioner’s full name, and the beneficiary’s full name and date of birth. So have them handy before you call.
Now let’s explore the six steps you must take before being granted a visa interview.
Step 1: Choose an Agent
Your first step is to choose an agent. This agent will receive information and instructions for NVC about your application. You can be your own agent or pick someone else. An agent can be your petitioner, a family member, friend, attorney, immigration professional, or other people your trust. It is possible to have an agent that represents you and the petitioner in the petition process with USCIS. But this process must be formal. The agent must be legally selected to represent you for visa processing. To choose an agent, simply fill the Choice of Address and Agent (DS-261) form at the Consular Electronic Application Center. NVC processes DS-261 forms within days, up to three weeks. Do not proceed with the next step until you hear from NVC.
Step 2: Pay Fees
After choosing an agent, you need to pay two types of processing fees, namely:
- Immigrant Visa Application Processing Fee
- Affidavit of Support Fee
Both fees are to be paid online at the Immigration Visa Invoice Payment Center. You will need a bank routing number and a checking or savings account number by a U.S bank. Routing and checking savings account number can be obtained online by opening an account with some U.S banks even if you are not a U.S resident. Companies like Payoneer and others offer such services.
In addition to the aforementioned, you will also need your NVC Case Number and Invoice ID Number. These are located on the NVC Welcome Letter you received by mail or email. Once you receive this information from NVC, log into the Immigrant Visa Invoice Payment Center and pay your fees. The fees cannot be paid simultaneously. The system will ask you to pay individually.
It can take up to one week for fee payments to process via NVC. You are advised to wait for confirmation on the status of payment before proceeding with the next step.
It appears that there is a visa fee waiver for some people. you can apply for the Provisional Unlawful Waiver. This is possible after you submit proof of payment of your IV application fee alongside your provisional waiver form I-601A application to USCIS. Upon paying the IV application fee online, you need to print your payment confirmation at the Consular Electronic Application Center. For more information on fee waiver, visit the Provisional Waiver page.
Step 3: Submit Visa Application Form
Having gone through step 1 (choosing an agent), step 2 (Paying fees), you will be required to submit a visa application form alongside some documents to the National Visa Center (NVC). Each qualified family member immigrating with you must complete the Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration (Form DS-260) via the CEAC. Here is a sample you can use for guidance.
Submitting the DS-260 Form does not mean you have formally executed a visa application. Your application can only be formally made after you have been interviewed by a U.S consular officer.
After the necessary forms and documents have been collected, and when your priority date is current (if applicable), the NVC will schedule your interview at the appropriate U.S. Embassy or Consulate. The NVC will then transfer your case file to the U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Note that you will still need your NVC Case Number, Beneficiary ID Number, and Invoice ID Number from your NVC Welcome Letter, to access CEAC. After submitting Form DS-260 online, you must print the confirmation page and bring it to your interview. You can print this from CEAC any time after you complete your DS-260 application.
Step 4: Collect Financial Documents
After submission of the visa application (DS-260), if financial sponsorship is required for your visa type, NVC will instruct the petitioner to collect documents showing the petitioner’s ability to support you financially in the United States. You and the petitioner will submit these documents to NVC in Step 6.
Petitioners and any joint or co-sponsors are required to submit an Affidavit of Support form (Form I-864) and evidence of their income. Form I-864 is legally required and legally enforceable for most family-based and some employment-based immigrants. The form shows that as an intending immigrant, you have adequate means of financial support and are not likely to become a public charge. The affidavit of support is a legal contract between the sponsor(s) of an immigrant visa applicant and the U.S. government. The sponsor must be willing and able to financially support the intending immigrant as outlined by law and regulations (see INA 213A and 8 CFR 213a).
By signing “Form I-864”, your petitioner (including co-sponsor(s) and joint sponsor(s)) are agreeing to use their resources to support you and any dependents, if it becomes necessary. If you or your dependents immigrating with you receive any of the designated federal, state or local means-tested public benefits, you should expect the agency providing the benefit to request repayment from your sponsor(s). That agency can take legal action against any of your sponsors if the cost of the benefits provided is not repaid. Please see Form I-864P for more information on means-tested public benefits. Refer also to the May 2019 Presidential Memorandum titled: Enforcing the Legal Responsibilities of Sponsors of Aliens.
Generally, the following intending immigrants need an Affidavit of Support:
- Applicants for family-based immigrant visas, including certain orphans.
- Applicants for employment-based immigrant visas where a relative filed the immigrant visa petition or has a five percent or greater ownership interest in the business that filed the petition.
You can learn more about the Affidavit of Support and who needs them HERE.
Step 5: Collect Supporting Documents
After you collect your financial forms and supporting financial evidence, you and each family member immigrating with you to the United States should collect the civil documents that are required to support your visa application. You need to:
- Gather the documents that apply to you using the information below.
- Send a photocopy of all required civil and financial documents to NVC. IMPORTANT: DO NOT SEND ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (see submission instructions in Step 6).
- Bring the original documents (or certified copies) plus a photocopy to your visa interview at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
All documents not written in English, or in the official language of the country in which you are applying for a visa, must be accompanied by certified translations. The translation must include a statement signed by the translator stating that:
- The translation is accurate, and
- The translator is competent to translate.
Your civil documents must be issued by an appropriate authority in your country. Use the Document Finder tool below to learn about the requirements for each country.
Then review each category of civil documents listed below, and obtain any that apply to you or your immigrating family members. You will submit photocopies of these documents to NVC in Step 6.
Please go to U.S. Visa: Reciprocity and Civil Documents by Country and select the country that issued your civil document.
Important Notice on Missing Documents: If a required document is unavailable per the country-specific guidelines in the Document Finder tool, you do not need to submit them to NVC. However, if you cannot obtain a required document for another reason, you must submit a detailed written explanation to NVC when you submit your other documents. The consular officer will then determine at the time of the visa interview whether you must obtain the missing document before a visa can be issued. As a general rule, any document that is listed as “available” on the Document Finder tool must be reviewed by a consular officer. Failure to obtain all required documents will delay your case.
Method 1: Upload documents online using CEAC required
There are three ways to submit documents to NVC. The method you use depends on where you are interviewing and the letter you received from NVC. Look at your NVC case number, the letter you received from NVC, and match it to the method below to find out how to submit your documents to NVC.
If you have received a letter from the National Visa Center (NVC) saying “You May Begin Online Processing” (See sample letter below), scan and electronically save your financial forms and evidence, civil documents, and translations, then upload these documents to your CEAC account online. (CEAC is the Consular Electronic Application Center where you also pay fees and complete the Form DS-260 visa application.) Instructions and more information are on our Managing Your IV Case Online page. Please note this method is required for visa applicants who received this letter from NVC.
Method 2: Email Processing required
If your NVC case number begins with one of the following prefixes: AKD, AMM, BGH, DMS, and GZO.
Scan and save your financial forms and evidence, supporting civil documents, and translations as a PDF file. Then send them to NVCelectronic@state.gov as attachments to an email. Please type your case number in the subject line of the email. You can attach multiple PDFs to a single email, but each PDF can be no more than 5 MB (megabytes) in size. If you have more than one case number, use a different email message for each case. For more information, review our Document Scanning FAQs.
Method 3: Mail processing
If none of the above methods applies to your case, you can mail the following documents to the NVC address below.
Document Cover Sheet included in your NVC Welcome Letter, financial forms and supporting documents, photocopies of civil documents as well as any required translations.
IMPORTANT: Please send photocopies only. DO NOT SEND ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.
This is the Mailing address:
National Visa Center
31 Rochester Ave. Suite 100
Portsmouth, NH 03801-2914
You are advised to mail all of these items together in one package. If you are sending documents for more than one case number, do mail each case number’s documents in a separate envelope.
If your Document Cover Sheet is missing, you can print a new one online. Go to ceac.state.gov and click on “Fee Payment” under the “Immigrant” category. You will be asked to enter your NVC case number and Invoice ID number. After doing so, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the “Print Document Cover Sheet” button. You can also choose to email yourself a copy of your document cover sheet for printing at a later time.
NVC cannot accept documents saved on any form of electronic media, including CDs and memory cards. If you send any electronic media to NVC, we will return it to you unopened.
After you have paid the necessary fees and submitted the required immigrant visa application, Affidavit of Support, and supporting documents to the National Visa Center (NVC), they will review your file for completeness. Once your case becomes qualified for an interview, NVC will work with the appropriate U.S. Embassy or Consulate to schedule an appointment for you.
The U.S. Embassy or Consulate General tells NVC what dates they are holding interviews, and NVC fills these appointments in a first-in, first-out manner. However, before applicants in a numerically limited (preference) visa category can receive an appointment, their priority date must also be current. You can track your priority date using the Visa Bulletin at this official link. NVC schedules appointments one month in advance, but we cannot predict when an interview appointment will be available.
An interview appointment letter is sent to you (the applicant), as well as your petitioner (sponsor), and your agent/attorney (if applicable) to notify you and them of the date, time, and location of the interview once the embassy has an appointment available. There may be a wait of several months for an interview date to become available.
If you cannot appear at your scheduled interview, contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate as soon as possible. If you do not contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate within one year of receiving your interview appointment letter, your case may be terminated and your immigrant visa petition cancelled, and any fees paid will not be refunded.
The right student visa for you depends on the course and school you will attend. There are two types of student visa: The M or F visa. See details in the table below.
|To enter the United States to attend:||You need the following visa category:|
|University or college||F|
|Private elementary school|
|Another academic institution, including a language training program|
|Vocational or other recognized nonacademic institution, other than a language training program||M|
students cannot use a Visitor Visa or the Visa Waiver Program for any studies in the U.S except for recreational study (non-credit) as part of a tour.
For short periods of recreational study, a Visitor (B) visa may be appropriate
A visitor (B) visa permits enrollment in a short recreational course of study, which is not for credit toward a degree or academic certificate.
Study leading to a U.S. conferred degree or certificate is never permitted on a visitor (B) visa, even if it is for a short duration. For example, a student in a distance learning program that requires a period of time on the institution’s U.S. campus must obtain a student (F or M) visa prior to entering the United States.
Student Acceptance at a SEVP Approved School
The first step is to apply to a SEVP-approved school in the United States. After the SEVP-approved school accepts your enrollment, you will be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee. The SEVP-approved school will issue you a Form I-20. After you receive the Form I-20 and register in SEVIS, you may apply at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a student (F or M) visa. You must present the Form I-20 to the consular officer when you attend your visa interview.
If your spouse and/or children intend to live with you in the United States while you study, they must also enrol in SEVIS, obtain individual Form I-20s from the SEVP-approved school, and apply for a visa (but they do not pay the SEVIS fee).
Visit the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) website to learn more about SEVIS and the SEVIS I-901 Fee.
Visit the Department of State Education-USA website to learn about educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate study, and an overview of the application process. You can also visit the DHS Study in the States school search page to search for SEVP-certified schools.
How to Apply
There are several steps to apply for a visa. The order of these steps and how you complete them may vary by U.S. Embassy or Consulate. You should consult the instructions on the embassy or consulate website in your country.
Complete the Online Visa Application
- Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160 – Learn more about completing the DS-160. You must: 1) complete the online visa application, and 2) print the application form confirmation page to bring to your interview.
- Photo –You will upload your photo while completing the online Form DS-160. Your photo must be in the format explained in the Photograph Requirements.
Schedule an Interview
Interviews are generally required for visa applicants with certain limited exceptions below. Consular officers may require an interview of any visa applicant.
|If you are age:||Then an interview is:|
|13 and younger||Generally not required|
|14 – 79||Required (some exceptions for renewals)|
|80 and older||Generally not required|
You should schedule an appointment for your visa interview at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country where you live. You may schedule your interview at another U.S. Embassy or Consulate, but be aware that it may be more difficult to qualify for a visa outside of the country where you live.
Wait times for interview appointments vary by location, season, and visa category, so you should apply for your visa early. Review the interview wait time for the location where you will apply:
New Students – Student (F and M) visas for new students can be issued up to 120 days in advance of the start date for a course of study. However, you will not be allowed to enter the United States on your student visa for more than 30 days before the start date.
Continuing Students – Student (F and M) visas for continuing students may be issued at any time, as long as the student is currently enrolled at a SEVP-approved school or institution and in SEVIS. Continuing students may enter the United States at any time before classes start.
Prepare for Your Interview
- Fees – Pay the non-refundable visa application fee, if you are required to pay it before your interview. If your visa is approved, you may also pay a visa issuance fee, if applicable to your nationality. Fee information is provided below:
You will also be required to pay an insurance fee according to your country. See this page for more details. Review the instructions available on the website of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate where you will apply to learn more about fee payment.
Gather Required Documentation
Gather and prepare the following required documents before your visa interview:
- Passport valid for travel to the United States – Your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond your period of stay in the United States (unless exempt by country-specific agreements). Each individual who needs a visa must submit a separate application, including any family members listed in your passport.
- Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160 confirmation page.
- Application fee payment receipt, if you are required to pay before your interview.
- Photo – You will upload your photo while completing the online Form DS-160. If the photo upload fails, you must bring one printed photo in the format explained in the Photograph Requirements.
- Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students, Form I-20 or Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status for Vocational Students, Form I-20 – Your school will send you a Form I-20 once they have entered your information in the SEVIS database. You and your school official must sign the Form I-20. All students must be registered in the Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS). Your spouse and/or minor children, if they intend live in the United States with you, will each receive an individual Form I-20.
Additional Documentation May Be Required
A consular officer will interview you to determine your qualifications for a student visa, and may request additional documents, such as evidence of:
- Your academic preparation, such as:
- Transcripts, diplomas, degrees, or certificates from schools you attended; and
- Standardized test scores required by your U.S. school;
- Your intent to depart the United States upon completion of the course of study; and
- How you will pay all educational, living and travel costs.
Attend Your Visa Interview
A consular officer will interview you to determine whether you are qualified to receive a student visa. You must establish that you meet the requirements under U.S. law to receive a visa.
Ink-free, digital fingerprint scans are taken as part of the application process. They are usually taken during your interview, but this varies based on location.
After your visa interview, the consular officer may determine that your application requires further administrative processing. The consular officer will inform you if this is required.
After the visa is approved, you may need to pay a visa issuance fee (if applicable to your nationality), and make arrangements for the return of the passport and visa to you. Review the visa processing times to learn more.
In conclusion, we earlier noted that this guide does not cover all visa types for the application process. The information provided here is intended to get you familiar with the visa application process for the most popular visas. Links provided in the article will often lead to other links until you find every bit of information you need for all visa types. For example, we did not cover the green-card program here, which is a visa program to grant free immigration visa to about 50,000 people worldwide each year. You can learn all about this program following the links in this article.
With current changes in international politics, it is not possible to guarantee that information presented here will always be valid – especially with the unpredictable Donald Trump occupying the white house. With rumours of him mulling over further dramatic changes in US immigration policy, some people angling for a US immigration visa may be in for a surprising and annoying bad news.