After an immigrant petition (Form I-130) has been approved by USCIS on your behalf, 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 visa interview.
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 ensure that your file is complete and your fees are paid before it transfers 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 often take six to eight weeks after approval of the I-130, and possibly even longer in some cases. When NVC receives your case, it will send you a notification, typically via email.
If you’re a “preference relative” (on a waiting list), that delay won’t affect you much. You already 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 six to 12 months before your priority date is expected to be current 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 must be made online through the Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC). Once you get the welcome letter, you’re ready to start applying.
If you want to choose someone to receive communications from the NVC about your case, the first thing to 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 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 application are online, it also makes sense to enroll in email notifications.
After you submit the DS-261, there might be a slight delay before the CEAC system allows you to proceed to the next step, which is to pay the $120 affidavit of support fee (2021 figure), if necessary, and the visa application fee ($325 for family; 2021 figure). (Check on the latest State Department fees.)
Check CEAC to see whether it will allow you to pay the fees—click Fee Payment, and then log in using your case number. The NVC requires that you pay fees online, using a U.S. bank checking account number and routing number. Once you've logged in, click “Pay Now” under each fee type. Since you must pay two different types of fees (the application fees and the affidavit of support fees), this will require two separate transactions.
If any family members who are included on the I-130 petition are immigrating with you, a separate visa application fee will be required for each. However, there is only one affidavit of support fee per petition, regardless of the number of family members.
After paying the fees, you will need to wait for NVC to process them, which typically takes up to one week. When the payments have been processed, you will be able to access and submit Form DS-260, the online immigrant visa application. Check out detailed instructions for how to do so.
It might be helpful to print a sample form before you begin, so that you can gather all the needed information before you fill out the electronic form. Each applicant needs to prepare a separate DS-260.
When your DS-260 is complete, you will receive a confirmation page. You will need to print this page and take it with you to the consular interview.
The NVC takes care of initial document intake for your case. It wants to make sure you’ve got the documentary proof the U.S. consulate will need, so that no time gets wasted later.
After you’ve submitted the DS-260 and received confirmation, you electronically submit scanned copies of all the required supporting documents to the NVC (unless you received specific alternative mailing instructions.
NVC also has a helpful tutorial on how to upload documents to CEAC. Among other things, you will need to submit an affidavit of support with financial evidence, to indicate that the U.S. petitioner will support the immigrant financially and has the resources to do so at a level above the U.S. poverty line.
Even if the petitioner has enough income to promise such support, revised DOS regulations (in 2020) require the immigrant to prove that he or she isn't likely to become a "public charge" (need government assistance.) In light of this, applicants now must be prepared to submit a Form DS-5540, the "Public Charge Questionnaire." It's available from the DOS forms website.
Depending on your answers to the questions, you might also need to attach copies of documents, such as proof of health insurance and IRS tax transcripts if you've paid U.S. taxes. If NVC did not instruct you to upload this form to your file, you should still bring a copy to the interview, as the consular officer might request the form or might ask you questions relating to the information on this form.
There are also specific requirements particular to the consulate where you will be interviewing, so review those as well.Each consulate has a checklist containing country specific instructions.
The NVC should send all the scanned documents it has, including the affidavit of support, to the consulate, but you will need to bring the originals to the interview.
It frequently takes the NVC at least two months to review your documents. You can check the State Department’s NVC Processing Timeframes webpage for current processing times.
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. It often takes up to eight weeks to receive a response.
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 try calling the NVC at 603-334-0700 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 is satisfied that you have submitted the necessary documentation and 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, see the DOS page called Prepare for the Interview. Each consulate has specific instructions on how to obtain your medical exam.
The consulate might also require you to register for courier service to receive your approved visa. All this information is contained in the country-specific checklists. Each consulate will also have specific rules about what time to arrive and who is permitted to accompany you to the interview. See The Day of Your Consular Interview for more on what to expect on that day.