If you're applying for a nonimmigrant visa to enter the United States—such as a B visitor visa, an F student visa, an H-1B work visa, or some other—you probably realize that the U.S. consulate to which you submit your application has the power to say "No." Regardless of the fact that you qualify for the visa on paper, and have made your plans, been accepted by a school, gotten a job offer, or whatever, the decision is still a subjective one—and it can be influenced by which country you are coming from.
In some cases, the consulate might simply have observed a trend, such as high numbers of people from your country entering the U.S. as tourists or other nonimmigrants and then never returning or misusing tourist visas to seek temporary employment. The consulate might have information that there is an economic downturn in your country or recent political unrest. In such a situation, it might give extra scrutiny to people applying for tourist visas, especially first-time applicants and applicants applying outside their home country.
In other cases, consular officers might have developed more specific knowledge about your country and its culture and use that to determine whether or not you are likely to respect the visa.
For example, in some countries, farmers might not be able to show a large bank balance, but the consular officer knows from experience that in that particular culture, farmers typically make a good living and return home after visiting relatives in the United States. In another culture, farmers might be facing new government regulations that significantly reduced their income. So, some farmers might have difficulty obtaining a visa in that country at that time.
Although the U.S. government is still working to develop an airtight tracking system for monitoring who leaves the country on time after entering on a nonimmigrant visa, it regularly keeps an eye on the numbers that it does obtain.
If, for instance, a high number of people from a certain country are arrested in the U.S., or submit applications to adjust status (get a green card) after entering as tourists, you can bet this information will be relayed back to the consulates that approved the visas.
The U.S. government sometimes also conducts investigations of particular categories of visa applicants. For example, past government reports found high levels of document fraud among Chinese applicants for L-1 visas, and numerous instances of fake employers charging fees to help Indian applicants obtain H-1B visas. The consulates in question no doubt adjusted their practices accordingly.
Additionally, each consulate conducts studies on various cross-sections of visa applicants to see which categories of applicants overstay or abuse visas. These studies can also work in an applicant's favor. For example, the consulate might find out that tourist visa recipients in your country over the age of 60 have a 98% return rate. With this information, consular officers might feel more confident in granting visas to older applicants, even if the applicant does not have a particularly strong financial situation.
If you are applying for a tourist visa in a country with high rates of unemployment, a low minimum wage, and high rates of visa overstays, the consular officer will want to see that you have a steady employment history, a salary and savings that indicate that you have sufficient funds for leisure travel, and strong social ties to your country. Logically, the farther along you are in life, the more likely you will be able to show these things.
Talk to friends who have recently obtained U.S. visas, to find out what types of questions they were asked. This will help you prepare. But don't pay too much attention to rumors about what to say or not to say, as these often turn out to be untrue and can even hurt your chances of getting the visa.
For example, in one country the people who helped applicants fill out forms told applicants to never admit to having family in the United States, and instead to say you are visiting a friend or Disney World. Unfortunately, many applicants have been refused visas because, rather than admit that the purpose of the trip was to visit family, the applicants would make up a story that was not true or was inconsistent with prior applications.
Consular officers have access to information regarding your prior U.S. travel records, immigration records, and criminal history, and can verify the validity of the supporting documents you submit. If you have applied for a visa before, the consular officer also has access to those records.
Above all, consular officers are looking for consistency and honesty. Even if an applicant has a good financial situation, if a consular officer finds inconsistencies between a prior application and the current one, or knows that the applicant is not being honest about the length of prior trips to the U.S., the officer might refuse the visa.
You'll have only a few minutes in which to convince the consular officer that you deserve the visa, so start by preparing your documents carefully and mentally reviewing the main points that you want to make.
Don't rehearse a speech. The officer wants to talk to a responsive human being, not a preprogrammed robot. You will be less believable if you appear to have memorized something and not be in a true dialogue with the visa officer.
If things are going badly; for example, the officer is acting displeased or obsessively focusing on one area of your application; it's okay to politely speak up and bring information to the officer's attention that the officer might have overlooked. If the issue is whether you'll return home after your stay, you might also ask the officer what further evidence he or she will accept or how you can improve your situation to qualify in the future.