Tips for the U.S. Visa Application Process

The most important tips on how to successfully navigate the immigration bureaucracy.

With a few exceptions, citizens from other foreign countries wishing to come to the U.S. for either a temporary or a permanent stay must complete a visa application and be approved for a visa first. Those coming for a permanent stay receive an "immigrant visa" (or, if they adjust status in the U.S., at least a visa number); those who plan to stay in the U.S. temporarily receive a "nonimmigrant visa."

In any case, the application process can be demanding, paperwork-intensive, and in some cases lengthy. Here are some tips to help you through it.

Tip 1: Understand the Eligibility Rules and Restrictions Before Applying

U.S. immigration rules are meant not only to let people in, but to keep others out. The eligibility rules for each type of visa or green card are extremely narrow, and if you fail to prove that you fit within them, you will be rejected.

Let's say, for example, that you wanted to apply for a student visa. But, being short on cash, you are hoping to study part-time and work part-time. Applying in this case would be a waste of time, because the terms of the F-1 student visa include that you study full-time, and have the financial means to support yourself without working in the United States.

Tip 2: Figure Out Which Family Members Are Eligible to Accompany the Main Applicant

In some cases, close family members can accompany the primary applicant to an immigrant or nonimmigrant visa, as so-called "derivatives," by completing only a minimum of paperwork. For example, in the immigrant visa context, the unmarried children, under age 21, of an immigrating spouse of a lawful permanent resident can be included in the parent's application by simply naming them on Form I-130 (though each will have to fill out separate followup paperwork).

And many nonimmigrant visas have special subcategories for spouses and unmarried children under age 21.

However, you should not count on parents, siblings, or more extended relatives of the primary visa applicant being able to piggyback on the main application. And if a child marries or turns 21 during the visa application process, he or she may lose the opportunity to be a derivative. For more information, see "Derivative Immigration Status For Family Members of Immigrating Aliens."

Tip 3: Start the Process Well in Advance of When You Need the Visa

The U.S. immigration system is a huge bureaucracy, and it tends to move slowly. This is particularly true in the realm of immigrant visas, where just getting the initial visa petition approved can take several months -- and that's usually before the immigrant can submit his or her own, separate application for a green card. What's more, certain categories of applicants face years-long waits for a visa to become available.

So, for instance, if you were the brother of a U.S. citizen and thought, "Well, I'm not ready to go to the U.S. now, but maybe someday I'll apply," you would be making a big mistake. Because of annual limits on these visas and excessive demand, there is a long waiting list in this category. A better bet would be to have the U.S. citizen file a visa petition (Form I-130) on your behalf now, and then, after the approximately 20 years go by that you're on the waiting list, decide whether you actually want to go forward with the green card application.

Every visa has its own typical processing time, and not all are subject to annual limits and long waits, so do your research or speak to an immigration lawyer before making your plans.

Tip 4: Work Closely With the Petition Sponsor

Many visa applicants must rely on a family member or employer to start the process of sponsoring them. The sponsor will be in charge of preparing, signing, and submitting an initial visa petition, in order to get the go-ahread for the immigrant to submit a green card application.

However, the visa applicant should take a good look at the application him- or herself, and figure out what items of personal information need to be supplied to the sponsor. The applicant should keep in close contact with the sponsor to make sure it has received all the needed information and documents.

Tip 5: Don't Mess With the U.S. Immigration Authorities

Attempting to get around the immigration laws, tell lies in order to qualify for a visa, or cover up relevant information can quickly lead to visa denials and permanent bad marks on your immigration record. The safest way to get a visa is to understand the law, obey it, and if you worry that you must tell a lie in order to qualify for something, consult with an immigration attorney to see if there is a better way to proceed.

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