After an immigrant visa petition (Form I-130) has been approved by USCIS on your behalf, or you have won the diversity visa lottery, what’s next? You probably know that you will need to attend an interview at a U.S. consulate in your home country (assuming you’re not in the U.S. and eligible to use the procedure known as “adjustment of status.”) But how does that interview get arranged, exactly?
This article will review the steps leading up to your interview.
Role of the National Visa Center
Although you’ve probably been dealing with either U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the Department of State (DOS) up to now, an important intermediary office known as the National Visa Center (NVC) will be your primary contact for a while.
The NVC’s main role is to transfer your case to the U.S. consulate. A lot has to happen, however, before the NVC can do that.
First, USCIS has to send your file to the NVC. That can take six to eight weeks after approval of your I-130 in some cases, and possibly even longer.
If you’re a “preference relative,” that delay won’t affect you too much. You have to wait until your priority date is current and a visa becomes available before NVC can do anything anyway. (This could take several years.) The NVC will advise you when that date arrives by sending you a welcome letter.
If you’re an “immediate relative” or a visa is otherwise immediately available to you, the NVC will send your welcome letter shortly after it gets your file from USCIS.
The welcome letter contains fee invoices (described below), your case number, and the invoice number—you’ll need these numbers to apply for your visa, so make a note of them.
Your application is done online through the Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC). Once you get the welcome letter, you’re ready to start applying.
Choose an Agent
If you want to choose an agent to receive communications from the NVC about your case, the first thing you should do is go to the CEAC website and click DS-261, Online Choice of Address and Agent. Log in using the case number and invoice number that the NVC sent you, and select “Applicant” from the drop-down menu where it says “I am the.”
The DS-261 is a fairly simple form, but keep in mind that by choosing an agent, you are essentially deciding where and how all the important notices from the U.S. government will be sent—to your overseas address or to your U.S. petitioner or via email.
If mail service from the U.S. has been at all unreliable where you live, or if you might be moving before your visa interview, it’s safest to choose the petitioner (in the U.S.) as your agent or to indicate that you’d rather be contacted by email. Since the majority of the steps you need to take on your visa petition are online, it also makes sense to enroll in email notifications.
Pay Processing Fees
After you submit the DS-261, there may be a slight delay before the CEAC system allows you to proceed to the next step, which is to pay the affidavit of support fee ($120 as of 2015), if necessary, and the visa application fee ($325 as of 2015, $330 for diversity lottery winner applicants). Check CEAC to see if it will allow you to pay the fees—click Fee Payment, and then log in as described above.
If any family members who are included on the visa petition are immigrating with you, a separate filing fee will be required for each one. However, all family members can be included on the one filing fee for the affidavit of support.
The NVC prefers that you pay the fees online, by entering a U.S. bank checking account number and routing number. That’s also the best way to ensure that your fees get credited to your account, and that there aren’t any delays due to fee payment processing.
However, if you don’t have a checking account, you will need to pay by mail using a cashier’s check or money order, payable to “U.S. Department of State.” (You can’t mail a personal check.) You can use one cashier’s check or money order to pay both fees. Write your NVC case number on the memo line of the cashier’s check or money order. Send it with the fee invoice(s) you received from the NVC to NVC Fee Processing Center, P.O. Box 790136, St. Louis, MO 63179-0136.
If CEAC is broken and won’t allow you to pay fees online—which happens occasionally—it might be best to wait a while to see if it gets fixed. Mailing fee payments causes a significant delay in your case processing, and should be done only as a last resort.
Prepare Form DS-260 Online
After paying your fees, you will need to submit DS-260, the online immigrant visa application, also on the CEAC website. The DS-260 application can be submitted only online. There may be a few days’ delay between the time you submit your fees and when CEAC will allow you to access the form.
Go to CEAC and click DS-260, Online Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application. Log in as described above.
The form consists of quite a few pages that ask you a number of questions. There will be biographical questions, such as all names used, all addresses where you have lived, work and educational history, and family member information. You will also be asked questions to determine your admissibility to the United States. The system will not let you go to the next page if you left some important information blank. If this happens, look for the error message and red arrow pointing out where you need to supply missing information.
You need to complete this form in English using English characters only, so have someone ready to help you if you aren’t confident in your English ability.
It is important to save your work, preferably after you complete each page, because the system will “time out” and lose all your work (since the last save) if you let it sit idle too long. Look for the save button at the bottom of each page.
If you can’t finish the DS-260 all in one sitting (it’s pretty long!), don’t worry. You can save your DS-260 and come back to it later if you need to. It will disappear after 30 days if you don’t do anything with it, though. Fortunately CEAC allows you to save your application data to your computer and upload it back into the system later, so you should do that if you have to leave your application for a while. That’s a good precaution even if you think you’ll be back within 30 days.
Before you can electronically sign and submit the DS-260, the system will make you review all your answers. Take advantage of this opportunity, because submitting erroneous or incomplete answers on the DS-260 can hurt your chances of getting a visa.
After you submit the DS-260, print out the confirmation page in order to bring it to your interview. Although you are not required to do so, it doesn’t hurt to also print out a copy of the entire form, so that you can refer to it when needed. You can log into CEAC anytime to print these pages, if you don’t do it right away.
Send Documents to the NVC
The NVC takes care of initial document intake for your case. It wants to make sure you’ve got the documentary proof the consulate will need, so no time gets wasted later.
After you’ve submitted the DS-260, you submit documents to the NVC either by email or by postal mail, depending on which consulate will be interviewing you. The State Department’s helpful immigrant visa processing website will tell you which method applies to you.
The NVC should have sent you another notice after it received your fees, instructing you how to proceed, with a “Document Cover Sheet” that serves as a checklist. When submitting documents by mail, you must include the Document Cover Sheet.
The State Department’s immigrant visa processing website is also extremely helpful in explaining what documents you should send and how to obtain them. Among other things, you will need to submit an original affidavit of support with financial evidence. There may be special requirements particular to the consulate where you will be interviewing, so review those as well.
All foreign-language documents must be translated.
Generally you are sending copies of your documents to the NVC (with the exception of the affidavit of support); you will bring originals to your interview at the consulate. The NVC should send all the documents it has, including the affidavit of support, to the consulate, but it may be wise to have the person who signed the affidavit of support send another original to you, in case the consulate doesn’t have the one that was sent to the NVC.
It frequently takes the NVC a month, and often a lot longer, to review your documents.
How to Contact the NVC If Something Goes Wrong
If your case seems to be stuck or is taking way too long, or you just don’t know what to do next, you should contact the NVC by its online request form, called Ask NVC!
In recent years it has proven nearly impossible to reach the NVC by phone. If this situation changes or if you have remarkable persistence, you can call the NVC at 603-334-0070 on weekdays from 7:00 a.m. to midnight, Eastern Standard Time. (Calling in the early morning or late night increases your chances of getting through.)
After the NVC: Your Interview
After the NVC is satisfied that you have submitted the necessary documentation and have paid all your fees, it will schedule an interview date and transfer your visa file to the appropriate U.S. consulate or embassy.
Before your interview, you will need to attend a medical examination with an authorized physician. To find one in your country, go to the State Department website described above and click “Prepare for the Interview.” See The Day of Your Consular Interview for what to expect on that day.