Students and Tourists Affected by New Visa Rules and Procedures

Various rules for obtaining student and tourist visas have changed or been added in the years since September 11, 2001. In addition, various changes to visa procedures in general will affect tourists and students.

New Post 9/11 Security Measures

Since September 11, 2001, Congress and the immigration authorities have introduced various security measures:

  • If you're applying for a tourist visa or student visa, don't be surprised if you receive more intense questioning than usual. U.S. laws already required consulates to check every applicant for a record of criminal or terrorist acts -- but now they are being even more diligent in following these procedures and are forwarding suspicious cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
  • Immigrants traveling inside the United States should carry their USCIS identity documents at all times. Immigration inspectors may ask immigrants for passports, and/or visa paperwork on airline flights between U.S. cities and inspectors are making use of little-noticed provisions in the law that require nonresidents to carry their green cards or visas and I-94 cards with them wherever they go.
  • The laws regarding treatment of immigrant terrorists have been amended. The new laws expand the definition of "terrorist" and give the U.S. Attorney General the right to immediately expel from the United States anyone with suspected terrorist links. It also includes mandatory detention of suspected terrorists.

Special Registration for Certain Visitors to the U.S.

Another of the U.S. government's many post-9/11 security measures has imposed extra monitoring on certain people coming to the United States on nonimmigrant (temporary) visas. You probably won't know before you get here whether you'll be subject to this additional monitoring; the government is trying to keep its criteria secret.

If the border officer decides that you fall under the new registration rules, you will have to do all of the following:

  • Be fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed about your plans for your stay upon entering the U.S.
  • Send written notification to the immigration authorities on Form AR-11SR (available at www.uscis.gov) if you change your address, your employer, or your school (this doesn't apply to people who stay in the U.S. for fewer than 30 days).
  • Leave the U.S. only through a designated port of departure (there are currently well over 100 such designated ports).
  • Meet in person with an immigration officer at your port of departure on the day you leave.

You will be given a packet of information more fully explaining these requirements when you enter the United States.

Changes to Student Visa Procedures

The most significant change to the student visa application process affects would-be students who are already in the United States on another type of visa. These students will need to obtain approval from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly known as the INS) before starting school. Before, foreign students could submit applications for student status but begin school before receiving the USCIS's okay. Under the new rule, USCIS promises to issue its approvals (or denials) within approximately 30 days -- in return for which it requires applicants to wait for its decision before starting school.

Another major change for international students is the setup of the SEVIS system, a database into which the schools will enter information on students, which USCIS can then access via the Internet.

In theory, students should hardly notice this change, except that it puts them under pressure to inform their foreign student officers quickly of any changes in their address, student status, or other relevant information. In practice, the system has caused frustration, as information doesn't always get entered into the system accurately.

In addition, international students are being closely monitored. When a school issues an I-20 to a student, it will be required to notify the U.S. consulate in the student's home country. When that consulate approves the student's visa, it will be required to notify the USCIS. During the student's time at school, the school will have to keep the USCIS up to date on the student's status and whereabouts through a database called SEVIS.

To finance this database, international students now must pay $100 in addition to the usual visa fees. The information and documents that schools are required to make available to USCIS include each international student's:

  • name, date and place of birth, country of citizenship
  • current address
  • visa classification, date of visa issuance or classification granted
  • in-school status (full-time or part-time)
  • date when studies began
  • degree program and field of study
  • whether the student has been certified for practical training, and the dates of such certification
  • date that studies were terminated, and the reason, if known
  • written application for admission, transcripts or other course records, proof of financial responsibility, and other documents that the school evaluated in admitting the student
  • number of credits completed per semester
  • photocopy of Form I-20ID, and
  • record of any academic disciplinary actions due to criminal convictions.

Changes to Photo Requirements

The State Department has announced new requirements regarding the photos that must be submitted along with any application for a nonimmigrant visa (such as a student or tourist visa). The main difference is that the photos must be passport-style (showing a full frontal view of the applicant's face). Also, it must be bigger than before -- two inches square, with your head measuring between 1 inch and 1 3/8 inches. In addition, the State Department emphasizes that they want to see the applicant's full head, including hair and, if possible, ears. Head coverings and hats are only acceptable when due to the person's religious beliefs, and even then may not cover any portion of the applicant's face.

Photocopies of photographs will not be accepted. Digitally reproduced photos must be of high qualify, with no visible pixels or dot patterns. For more information on passport photo requirements, go to the State Department's website at http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/info/info_1287.html.

Changed Your Address? The Immigration Authorities Want to Know Right Away

In 2002, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now know as the USCIS) started to enforce little-known provisions of the immigration law that make it a crime for immigrants not to submit immediate notifications whenever they change their address. The potential punishments include fines, imprisonment, or deportation.

Here's how to protect yourself: First, figure out whether the law applies to you. It covers all foreign nationals who've been in the United States for more than 30 days, including those with:

  • nonimmigrant status (a temporary visa or permission to be in the United States, including a student visa, visitor visa, asylum or refugee status, and more), with the exception of those with an "A" or "G" visa
  • green cards (lawful permanent or conditional residence), and
  • no status (undocumented or illegal aliens).

The easiest way to notify USCIS is online, at https://egov.uscis.gov/crisgwi/go?action=coa. It's also a good method in that you'll get confirmation that your notification was received. The other way is to mail in Form AR-11, by going to the Immigration Forms section of www.uscis.gov, downloading it, and following the instructions. Be sure to make a copy for your records.

Form AR-11 itself is fairly self-explanatory. If you don't have an A-number (a number the USCIS assigns to people who've applied for green cards or have been in removal proceedings), either ignore this question or supply your I-94 number. The question about your "last address" refers only to your last address in the United States, not overseas. The address you supply should be where you actually live, not a P.O. Box or work address.

If you have any applications on file that are waiting for a USCIS decision -- for example, you've applied for a work permit -- you need to file the change of address form at whichever USCIS office is handling your application.

The time window for filing your change of address is only ten days from the date of your move. What if more than ten days have already passed and you've only just discovered your responsibility? Most attorneys advise that you fill out the form now, to show the USCIS you made an attempt to comply and to assure that it has your current address.

Full Middle Name Now Required in All Immigration Forms

For security reasons, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly known as the INS) now asks everyone submitting applications to write in their full middle name -- not just their middle initial. USCIS would like you to do this even if the form you're filling out only asks for your middle initial. If you forget, your application won't be denied, but you will get a letter asking for your full middle name, which is guaranteed to slow down the USCIS's final decision on your application.

Young Men Applying for Tourist or Student Visas Must File Extra Form

Responding to concerns about the involvement of young men in terrorist acts in the United States, the State Department in 2002 instituted stricter visa requirements for males. All 16- to 45-year-old male applicants for "nonimmigrant" (temporary) visas now have to submit Form DS-157 in addition to the usual application materials. This will affect mainly those applying for student and tourist visas. To get a copy of the new form, go to the State Department's website at www.state.gov. Click on "Visas," then click "Visa Application Forms" and look for Form DS-157.

This new form will be mandatory for young men from all countries in the world, not just for men from countries suspected of terrorist links. However, men from Middle Eastern countries are facing longer waits for visas than other applicants.

Revised Forms Required for Many Immigration Applications

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly called the INS) and the U.S. State Department regularly revise the forms used for immigration applications--and you'll usually need to use the new versions. In addition, there are some new forms:

  • Form DS-158, Contact Information and Work History for Nonimmigrant Visa Applicant. This form is now required of all applicants for F, M, or J student visas. It collects family and employment information.
  • Form DS-157, Supplemental Nonimmigrant Visa Application. This form is now required of all male applicants for nonimmigrant visas who are between the ages of 16 and 45, regardless of which country they are from. It is designed to bring out information regarding potential terrorist tendencies.

And there's one form you no longer need to send yourself: Form I-538, the certification by your designated school official (DSO) that must accompany applications requesting a school transfer, reinstatement of status, or various work permits. The new SEVIS computer system allows your DSO, in most cases, to transmit his or her certification directly to USCIS, without using the Form I-538. Your school may nevertheless ask you to fill out your portion of the form, for its files.

Copies of new USCIS forms (indicated by the initial letter "I") can be obtained from your local USCIS office or by calling USCIS at 800-870-3676. You can also access the latest USCIS forms online at www.uscis.gov (click on "Immigration Forms," and scroll down until you find the appropriate form).

Copies of new State Department forms (indicated by the initial letters "DS") can be obtained from your local consulate.

Visa Waiver Entrants Will Need Machine-Readable Passports

If you're planning to visit the United States using a visa waiver rather than an actual visa, you may need to get a new passport first. All visa waiver entrants must now present passports containing machine-readable biographic information and a digital photograph.

Unfortunately, not all countries whose citizens are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program have the technology to provide this type of passport yet. If your country doesn't create such passports, contact your local U.S. embassy and apply for a tourist visa.