Consular Processing (How to Apply for Immigrant Visa)

Consular processing

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Consular processing is the process of applying for an immigrant visa in the U.S. Embassy or Consulate outside the U.S.

In this article we will focus on obtaining immigrant visas outside the U.S. for family-based applicants.

Every U.S. Embassy or Consulate has a website, so we recommend checking the processing time and other details for the U.S. Embassy/Consulate located in your home country. 

Each U.S. Embassy/Consulate is part of the U.S. Department of State (DOS), which has centralized parts of the immigrant visa application process. 

Foreign nationals applying for permanent residency in the U.S. (“green card”) can generally choose between:

  • Immigrant visa processing with the Department of State (DOS) outside of the United States (“consular processing”), or
  • Adjusting status with USCIS from within the U.S.

If an applicant does not possess a valid U.S. visa (for example, tourist or student visa), the only option available is the consular processing.

For applicants physically present in the U.S. who entered on a valid visa, an Adjustment of Status is available.

Below we will provide an overview of Consular Processing.

Step 1 – Initial Petitions

For all family-based applications, the process begins with filing Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative with USCIS. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) must first approve the underlying petition.

After the petition is approved by USCIS, the application is forwarded to the National Visa Center for immigrant visa application processing.

Petitioners should indicate that their beneficiary will choose the consular processing on Form I-130.

Step 2 – NVC Processing

Once an underlying immigration petition is approved (for example, Form I-130), USCIS will transfer a petition to the National Visa Center (NVC).

Important: if an applicant is in a category where the visa number is not immediately available, applicants may wait months, possibly years or even decades, for NVC to start processing the case.

You can check if the visa number is available for your category in the most recent Visa Bulletin.

NVC will send applicants a welcome letter called the “Notice of Registration as an Intending Immigrant” by mail and email.

In the welcome letter you will find your NVC case ID and invoice number, and link to the online CEAC portal.

Entering your NVC case ID and invoice number will allow you to login into your online CEAC account.

There, you will need to:

Form DS-260 Online Visa Application

Once all government fees are paid, applicants can start filling out the Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration (DS-260). 

Form DS-260 collects the following information: 

  • Applicant’s biographical information, including previous travel to the United States
  • Work, education and training history
  • Address history
  • Information on derivative family members
  • Marital history
  • Information about the petitioner
  • Health history
  • immigration and criminal background, and 
  • Social Security Number information.

Once Form DS-260 is completed, the applicant should print out the confirmation page and be prepared to present it at the U.S. Embassy interview.

After receiving the forms and documents described above, NVC will start reviewing your application.

NVC processing time during the COVID-19 pandemic is 3-4 months on average.

You can check the current NVC processing time here.

NVC will need to approve the immigrant visa application (Form DS-260) and supporting documents before scheduling an immigrant visa interview in the U.S. Embassy/Consulate.

Once the application is approved, NVC will send an email saying that the case is “documentarily qualified”.

What Does “Documentarily Qualified” Mean?

Once the beneficiary’s application is “documentarily qualified,” an appointment at a U.S. Embassy can be scheduled. 

For applications filed with NVC, the term “documentarily qualified” means that:

Consular Processing Fees

For consular processing applicants, there are two fees that must be paid:

  • Immigrant Visa Application Processing Fee ($325)
  • Affidavit of Support Fee ($120) for the following two categories of applicants:
  • Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (spouses, unmarried children under age 21, and parents of U.S. citizens age 21 and older);
  • Family-based preference immigrants (unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, spouses and unmarried sons and daughters of permanent resident aliens, married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens age 21 and older).

Government fees must be paid via the CEAC website from a U.S. bank checking or savings account by providing the bank routing number and a checking or savings account number. 

Credit cards are not accepted.

It generally takes about 3-4 business days for NVC to clear the government fee payments.

NVC Application Deadline

It is important to keep your NVC case active.

An NVC application will be closed if the applicant:

  • Did not make an application within one year of receiving the welcome letter. 
  • Applicant doesn’t appear for the final visa application interview and fails to take further action on the case within one year of the scheduled interview.

An application, however, may be reinstated if the applicant establishes within two years following the date of the welcome letter receipt that the failure to apply was due to circumstances beyond the applicant’s control.

Step 3 – Interview at a U.S. Embassy

The NVC manages the process of interview scheduling at U.S. Embassies and Consulates. 

Interviews are scheduled in chronological order of the documentarily qualified applicants and based on the appointment capacity of a U.S. Embassy/Consulate.

All immigrant visa applicants must be interviewed by a consular officer. 

The consular officer will ensure that all required documentation has been provided, and that the applicant is eligible for an immigrant visa.

Applicants will have their fingerprints taken on the interview day at a U.S. Embassy.

If a spouse and qualified unmarried children are immigrating with the principal applicant, they must attend the interview together. 

If the spouse and/or qualified unmarried children will immigrate at a later date they contact the U.S. Embassy to schedule separate interviews.

How to Prepare for the Interview

After the NVC process is complete, immigrant visa applicants will need to prepare for the interview. 

One important requirement is the medical examination completion. 

Each applicant must schedule a medical appointment with an authorized panel physician in the country where the interview will take place. 

The examination must be completed before the interview. 

Requirements vary from country to country, and the U.S. Embassy website in your home country should provide specific medical examination instructions. 

Once the medical examination is completed, the panel physician will either send the medical exam results directly to the U.S. Embassy or provide the applicant a sealed envelope.

Applicant will need to bring the sealed envelope to the visa interview.

Consular Interview Checklist of Documents

Immigrant visa applicants should bring the following documents to the interview:

  • Appointment letter provided by the NVC;
  • Passports, which must unexpired and valid for six months beyond the intended date of entry into the United States;
  • Two identical color photograph(s) for each applicant meeting the requirements
  • DS-260 confirmation page.

Each U.S. Embassy has its own checklist of required documents applicants. You can find it here.

Original documents brought to the interview will be returned to the applicant.

Photocopies may be kept by the consular officer.

What Happens After the Interview

If the visa is approved, the applicant will be informed and told when the passport and the issued visa will be provided. 

The visa will be placed on a page in the passport. If there are any errors on the visa you should report it to the embassy for correction.

Applicants must pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee after receiving the visa and before entering the United States. 

The current fee is $220 and it must be paid online.

The applicant must enter the United States no later than the visa validity date. 

Immigrant visas are typically valid for up to six months from the date of issuance unless a medical examination expires sooner. 

The principal applicant must enter before or at the same time as derivative family members.

If the visa is refused, the consular officer must inform the applicant why the visa was refused and inform if any relief is available.

When the applicant arrives in the United States on an immigrant visa, the applicant is admitted into the United States as a lawful permanent resident. 

USCIS will mail the applicant the green card after arrival if the immigrant fee is paid.

Related links:

How to Fill Out Form DS-260

Affidavit of Support Checklist

Civil Documents Checklist